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The Writing Life

In the 7th grade I wanted to be an architect but it turns out math is involved. Who knew? My 8th grade English teacher talked me into working on the school newspaper and I was hooked. It seemed like easy lifting compared to architecture.

This quote from newspaper columnist Russell Baker sort of sums up how I felt about writing as a career:

"The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn't require any."

Baker and I, however, soon discovered that being an adequate writer is hard work, never mind being a great writer and doing it consistently. I thought that if I could speak the mother tongue that I could be a great writer. Wrong. But thank goodness Baker and I didn't know that when we decided what we would do with our lives.

Luckily, I had a head start on the writing life. My Dad was a good example. He read all the time for pleasure, and he often read to me. My teachers drummed the fundamentals of English into me. At the time, it seemed tedious, but I now appreciate their effort. Otherwise, I would not be doing something I love and getting paid for it. Because, you see, there will always be a need for words and wordsmiths, stories and storytellers.

You have probably not been as lucky as me. How many of you routinely diagrammed sentences in grammar school English class? How many of you were drilled on the parts of speech, or on verb conjugation?

How many of you learned reading and writing through whole language instead of phonics? That's like taking a 7-year-old who has never played basketball before and putting him in a game with the UNC Tar Heels and expecting the youngster to win the game.

How many of you play sports? What sports? How did you learn how to play?

You first learned the fundamentals. In basketball, you learn to dribble, pass and shoot. You work on it in the driveway. Then, you sign up for league play and take those skills into practice where the coach begins to explain the rules of the game. Next, you play and begin to improve your skills and your understanding of the game. You practice more. You watch great players to see what they do and you try to emulate them in practice and then in games. You push yourself by playing higher caliber opponents.

The same is true of writing. Vocabulary, sentence structure and punctuation are your skills. You move into the more advanced areas by learning about conjugating verbs and parts of speech. You learn the rules, and you begin to read the works of great writers to learn from them. And that is just the beginning.

Mark Twain says: "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."

How many of you love to read?

Hoover's Writing Rule #1: if you don't love to read recreationally, you will never be a good writer, much less a great one.

I read religiously as a child and still do. I have to read to stay abreast of my profession and to do research for articles I am writing, but I routinely read several books a month just for pleasure.

That recreational reading helps you see the world in a different way, or make connections you would not have made otherwise. This is helpful in developing story ideas that interest someone other than yourself.

Writing is both a very public and a very private occupation. No matter what type of writing you do, you must go out and experience life before you have anything worthwhile to write about. If you are a journalist, you must be able to walk right up and talk with people you often don't know, or who have been through a tragedy. Then, you figuratively go into solitary confinement while you write. Once written, your work is placed on display for anyone to see and criticize.

So, you must understand your audience because ultimately they decide the fate of you and your writing. Writers are often more educated than their audience, but you can't let the audience know that. You must write for them, in their vernacular so that your story gets through. This is particularly true in news writing. Keep opinions and bias on the sidelines.

In feature writing, the writer gets to intrude a little more, bringing his or her personality into the story. And in fiction, you get to make up your own world.

If you love to read and love to write, then I urge you to pursue your bliss. But just remember what science fiction writer Robert Heinlein said, "writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of - but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."

Harry Hoover is managing principal of Hoover ink PR. He has 26 years of experience in crafting and delivering bottom line messages that ensure success for serious businesses like Bank of Commerce, Brent Dees Financial Planning, Bray Law, Levolor, New World Mortgage, North Carolina Tourism, TeamHeidi, VELUX and Verbatim.

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