Good writing reflects clear thinking – Jill Orr

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By Jill Orr

One of the most useful things I learned in Journalism School, I learned in the first fifteen minutes of my first class on the first day. The two Deans of the J-school stood at the bottom of a large lecture hall and tag-teamed a speech about the art and science of Journalism. I remember that one of the Deans was a lady with short red hair who wore a pantsuit. I remember I didn’t see her again until graduation. And I remember that she began her portion of the lecture with the simple truism, “Good writing reflects clear thinking.”

Over the years, I have referred back to this sentence more than any other piece of writing advice I received since. It has become my mantra. These words force me to focus and tighten my work. They eliminate pages of unnecessary qualifiers and distracting tangents. They crystallize tedious, rambling diversions into concise, readable information. Good writing reflects clear thinking. I hear the Dean’s voice in my head — picture her in her beige pants suit pacing back and forth on the floor of lecture hall like a smartly dressed caged tiger – full of pent up insight and knowledge.

But this advice applies to more than just Journalism. As I wrote my first novel, this dictum served as my talisman, sitting on my shoulder, strong and true in its own little metaphorical pantsuit. It reminds me that good writing is more than just stringing words together in a pleasing way. The words have to say something. They can’t simply be page-candy, there only to sound pretty. Even the most beautifully written prose must earn its keep by informing, enlightening, or advancing the story.

Here is how this all works in action: I write something. I read it over. If I decide it sucks (which I do almost always on the first pass), I repeat my mantra. Good writing reflects clear thinking. I re-read what I wrote. More often than not, the problem is not with the words themselves. The problem is I didn’t know what I wanted to say. It wasn’t clear to me – so how could it possibly be clear on the page? The words never stood a chance. I focus. I ask myself what I am trying to say in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter. And if I am lucky enough to come up with an answer, the words follow, lining up like obedient soldiers to do their duty to ink, paper, and story. The writing becomes strong, sometimes even good, and we move on to the next battle.

Good writing reflects clear thinking. My arrogant 18-year-old self heard that advice and thought, no duh. But fortunately my subconscious knew better. It stored that little nugget until I was ready to understand that no amount of clever word play will make up for a writer’s ambivalence of purpose. And that ninety-nine percent of the time, the problem with your writing has nothing to do with the words and everything to do with the thoughts that are — or are not — behind them.

Jill Orr is a writer living in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and two children. Jill’s debut novel The Good Byline is the first in the Riley Ellison mysteries and will be published in April 2017 by Prospect Park Books.

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