The first step in becoming a better writer is to read good writing. Sounds basic but I’m often surprised by how often this is ignored by students, and others, who want to improve their writing. The excuse that ‘I don’t have time to read’ doesn’t make much sense for someone in our profession. Here’s a suggestion that should help develop your creative reading muscles: Every day, look for a piece of good writing that grabs your attention, and analyze why it works for you. It doesn’t matter where you find it, whether it’s a magazine or newspaper article, a speech, in fiction, a blog, a broadcast script. On Wednesday, with the saturation coverage of Ted Kennedy’s death, I found the eulogy he delivered after his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in June 1968:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
Ask yourself why this works so well. For me, it’s the use of strong, simple words that play off each other: “wrong” and “right”, “suffering” and “heal”, “war” and “stop.” I love the crispness of each thought, and the parallel construction of “saw” and “tried to” in each phrase. It’s little wonder that the speech is considered one of the greatest in the history of American rhetoric and still studied today.
I don’t expect students to reread that speech and immediately apply its strategy in their next story on a Queens community board. But if each day, we find writing that excites us, and we analyze why it does, we’ll develop a reading muscle that will help us strengthen our writing.