LEARNING TO WRITE NON-FICTION BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was taught how to write at an early age. In grammar school I was very anxious and would get paralyzed when I had to write anything. My mom sat me down and showed me how to structure any piece of writing. The classic, “Say what you’re going to say, say it and then say what you said.” In other words, introduction, development and conclusion.

Mom started me out by helping me write outlines for my writing. Once I had the basic ideas organized, I could expand on them on my own, with less anxiety. Mom would then edit my writing with me. That’s how I learned about style and sentence structure. Writing began to come easily to me.

By the time I was fifteen, I was helping Mom edit articles and books that my father, Abram Kardiner, was writing for psychiatric and anthropological publications. My dad was never a clear and concise writer. At this point, he was in his mid seventies and was even less focused and coherent than before.

Me at about 16

Dad tended to write in confusing stream of consciousness. Ideas just tumbled out in random order. He often buried the lead sentences explaining his premise, deep in the fourth or fifth paragraphs. He often went off on tangents for pages and pages, losing the thread of his thesis along the way. He had brilliant and innovative ideas. But you had to hunt for them and they weren’t always presented in the best way.

Mom and I would take his material and break it down into a detailed and sequential outline for him. Dad resisted us at every turn. He somehow felt that we were trying to get him to ‘write down’ to a more mass audience when he was aiming his writing at high level academics in his fields. We argued that all writing has to be comprehensible, regardless of the audience. He would grudgingly go along with us.

Mom and Dad during Dad’s prime writing years

We would go over the outline with him meticulously. He would take it and go off to do a rewrite. He would stick to the outline for a few paragraphs, if we were lucky. But then he would end up off on another rambling polemic. We never succeeded in improving his writing and he didn’t publish much after this point.

Many years later, I had another opportunity to help someone hone their writing skills. This time with better results. My first husband, Larry, was a brilliant litigation attorney. Part of his job was producing coherent and above all else, persuasive written arguments on behalf of his clients.

Larry had the same problems organizing his thoughts as my dad had. His arguments meandered, got muddled and lost emphasis and clarity. He was all over the place. This became a serious issue at work. It took him forever to get his writing done and he was never satisfied with the end product.

Larry as a young associate at a NYC law firm

One day I was home sick from my own legal job. Larry was struggling with a pro bono criminal brief and was frustrated. I told him to leave his draft with me for the day so I could work on it. This was before computers. I spent the day literally cutting and pasting his brief into a whole new document. I added a few connective sentences here and there, but all the necessary material was already there.

Larry was very impressed with the document that I came up with for him. He was surprised to see how I had created a totally different result simply by rearranging and consolidating his material. A light bulb went off in his head. Unlike my father, he ‘got it’.

Larry and me in his early years practicing law

His writing improved. He was also smart enough to study the writing of two very good legal writers in his law firm. One of them had been a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy in the 1960’s. The two men had very different styles and Larry forged his own style by adapting what he liked from both men.

Adam Walinsky – former RFK speechwriter and partner at Larry’s law firm

Larry became an excellent writer. One of the best in his law firm. In one major brief he wrote, he started each section with a relevant quote from Shakespeare. Brilliant! The judge in the case, who was a Harvard Law School graduate, was so blown away, he wrote Larry a letter. He told Larry that his was the best brief that the judge had ever read! Quite a compliment for Larry, and obliquely for me as his original writing tutor.

So I succeeded in teaching one person how to be a good writer. Or I at least set him on the path to becoming one. I was very proud of Larry and of my accomplishment. It meant a lot to me because of my struggles with my dad’s writing. I guess one out of two isn’t a bad record.

9 thoughts on “LEARNING TO WRITE NON-FICTION BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. Pretty much a description of what I did for a living for most of my life, though the “describe and repeat” is done much less these days, especially because so much is done online and everyone can link back to previous material. But basically, yup. What you describe is pretty much how it works. Non-fiction has to be organized and orderly … and preferably based on how the read will “use” the document. That’s how it works.

    I never wrote outlines, but instead I wrote Tables of Contents which functioned as an outline. I do not outline anything anymore. But of course, I don’t have to write thousand page books these days, either!

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      • Garry – Once I got over my anxiety about putting pen to paper, writing has been a natural process for me too. You had to write every day for your job. But didn’t you have to write scripts that you would deliver on camera? That’s more like writing dialogue, for the spoken word, rather than prose for readers to read. Different skills. When I started writing audio theater scripts with Tom, I had to learn how to write realistic, believable dialogue. That is a special talent and skill that is way different from writing prose. It took me a while to learn how to do it well.

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        • Garry had to learn to write in complete sentences. It took a couple of weeks until he remembered that. He could always write, even before TV. He was kind of well-known for being a good writer at a time when many reporters couldn’t write.

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    • I rarely outline a blog either. Only if there’s a chronology that I have to follow, or if I’m covering several points and I don’t want to leave anything out. But organization is key to any kind of writing. I would argue even fiction writing. You have to develop the plot in a sequential and clear progression. I have used outlines when I write audio plays with Tom. You have to get from A to B to C in a logical way for both storyline and character development.

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      • If I were writing a book, I’d have to plot it out and some writers are serious processors of their work. I keep a lot of stuff in my head, so as long as I have a few tags to remind me what I need to know, I’m (usually) okay. For short stuff? Nah. Anything less than a few chapters, it’s in my head. But longer than that, I need at the least, a clear idea where the story is going. Even if it isn’t a step-by-step. Fiction is a very different type of writing. VERY different. In non fiction, you have information that needs to be explained. It has to be made orderly and the order depends in part on who you are writing for — and how the purpose of the information will be used. If it’s a manual, it needs to follow — to some degree — the process of the software or hardware.

        A story isn’t information, though it may contain some information along the way. It’s concepts, ideas and characters, actions and dialogue. It’s mood and passage through time. It is a characters DEVELOPING as the story moves along. Information doesn’t develop … but characters do.

        Fiction writing isn’t just a different process — it’s a different head space.

        Stories change hugely as you write. Book characters — fiction characters — are funny that way. They don’t stay the way you intended and often seem to get their OWN ideas about where they are going. It’s an entirely different technique. Which is why this is about non-fiction writing rather than fiction writing.

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    • I would love to be able to publish a book, but unfortunately I don’t have any contacts with publishers. I tried to get a cookbook published to no avail and we tried to get a screenplay Tom and I wrote read by a literary agent. Not easy to do. You have to know the right people and we don’t. I have compiled my autobiographical and family story blogs into chronological order. This has created a sort of family history in blogs which I plan to copy and give to my kids and a few close friends. That will be my ‘book’. It’s around 250 pages already!

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