The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 30, 2014

Blankenship ponders the efforts and craft of writing

By John Blankenship
Columnist

— Last week’s column on two memorable interviews sparked some discussion and questions from readers that proved quite interesting. I appreciate it when I get e-mails and queries from readers because it lets me know that I am reaching my intended audience.

Some readers asked if I could share other memorable characters from by career. Perhaps we can do that in the future.

One reader, a language arts teacher, asked me to explain where I get my ideas; she also wanted to know if I had any secrets when it came to writing in general.

The truth is that I don’t have any secrets. There are no existing writing secrets, as far as I know, other than being able to write clear, concise sentences. And the best ideas are the result of the same slow process. Writers rarely have many new ideas of their own. They get their inspiration from doing reading and research. What we need now are more people who can do something good with the ideas we already have.

Another thing, ideas tend to develop from our own personal, political, economic, religious and philosophical perspectives. They evolve from experiences we have had in the past or they come from someone we were exposed to.

Of course, I’m talking about column ideas for the Op-Ed page or feature stories with accompanying photographs, which are what I think I do best, using words and pictures to tell a story. There are a number of young writers on The Register-Herald staff who could out-write me on news stories any day of the week.

When I was in college, an English professor who attended Oxford once told me that it isn’t how much time you spend writing; rather, it’s how much time you spend thinking about your subject before you actually begin the task of writing. I think that’s generally true.

And as the famed American author/journalist Peter Elbow once declared: good writing is good thinking. That’s what I told my students when I taught writing.

After all, it’s hard to write something that’s worth reading if you don’t have something worthwhile to say. If you have an interesting topic with relevant facts, readers generally will stick with you even if the article is poorly written.

On the other hand, if you pick a boring topic, people are not going to put forth the effort required to read your piece all the way through, even though it’s written in a stellar style. Or as somebody else once told me, “The easiest thing in the world to do is stop reading.”

So, in reality, I guess nobody can teach another person HOW to write. Writing is a craft (or an art if you prefer) you have to learn by doing. I’ve been doing it professionally for 50 years and I learn something new every day.

Some people have a talent for writing; others do not. Believe me when I say it helps to have talent to start with. The more talent you have, and the more enthusiastic you are about sharpening your craft, the better your chances for improving your communication skills overall, just as in any other field of endeavor.

I’ve had many students who were much more artistically talented than I ever was. Their writing style seemed to develop naturally. They were already gifted writers before I ever saw them.

And I probably learned more from them than they did from me. Several have gone on to embrace writing careers that dwarfed my own efforts in the field.

As for my educational experience, I had only two teachers in public schools that helped me develop a fundamental approach to writing.

One was Anita Vermillion, my 9th grade English teacher. She and I both shared a love of poetry, and she took an interest in helping me learn how to speak and write clearly. In other words, she demonstrated faith in me.

The other was my high school journalism teacher, Marietta Cook, who later went on to become a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee. She taught me to be accountable, not just in journalism, but in life.

What more could an aspiring writer ask for?

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a freelance columnist for The Register-Herald.

E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net