The Art of Writing

by Marnie Macauley November 28, 2018


Writing letter to a friend. Selective focus and shallow depth of field.

Shalom, San Diegans: For our arts issue, after having covered questions from budding stars and passionate painters in this great mag, I thought and thought, then bolted upright. I write. I consult with writers, both pro and wannabes. Writing is an “art” – right? So why not write about – writing.

The thing that separates the “art” of writing from other mediums is this: Most everybody can write something, certainly in San Diego. And most everybody has a story, an anecdote, or a plot they’ve been chewing on that would be perfect for Meryl Streep – when their story goes viral. The line between pro and amateur blur with some strange consequences.

I learned it early. I’d be at a party. Someone would ask what I do. Here were the reactions.

“You wrote a soap?? Advice?? Humor?? You were nominated for an Emmy??  WOW. Can I take your picture? Wait, let me get my family!”

“You wrote that trash?” Or, “I know all about it. My cousin sold insurance to ‘All My Children.’’’

“My daughter’s a freshman at NYU Film School. She got an ‘A’ on her: ‘The Three Stooges: A Retrospective.’ She’d be great at that! Can you recommend her?”

What or who then is a writer? We don’t deserve either awe or belittlement. It’s not like G-d forbid losing a child and surviving, or even falling in love (and he loves you back).

It’s a job. Yet, in fairness, we writers aren’t quite like people who live a “If it’s Monday it must be meatloaf” life. Most of us pros possess a mixture of some talent, skill, quirk, risk-taking and yes, passion. More, we are a wildly determined group, even if we’re forced to find creative uses for kosher Spam.

Given the propensity for people to put pen to paper, especially with the millions of ops on the Net, here are some tips I’ve learned painfully through the years.



If you’re writing for your own pleasure or to journal your issues, enjoy! If you want to make it a career, read on.

Get a clue about what you want to say. You have a million ideas. Choose one – the one you know something about. Make it the one that touches you. You’re a Boomer sitcom nut. You remember “I Married Joan” and can sing all the words to “Gilligan’s Island.” You want to write the Ultimate Boomer TV Book.

Research! Has it been done – 35 times? How did these books do? How is your idea different?  A new twist might work, for example: “The Honeymooners: How Alice Broke the Glass Ceiling.” Are there enough fans out there who care and will buy?

Shorten! The major mistake newbies make is overwriting. When I wrote my third script for “As the World Turns” I concocted the longest, cleverest metaphor for a character named Margo. Hemingway would be envious. I got a call at 6 a.m. on a Sunday from my head writer, the legendary Doug Marland. Here was the convo: Doug: “Get your script. Turn to Act 2, Scene 3, Margo. (I did.) You do know our viewers are ironing while they’re watching us. By the time they figure out what the heck Margo’s saying, we’ll be into ‘Guiding Light!’ Knock it off!” I never did that again. Lead your reader, but let them do the work of imagining. Which brings us to …

Know who you’re writing for. don’t fall so in love with your words – which may only be understood in the Pluto Gazette. If you want to go pro, read and study your venue. Each site, paper and magazine has a “style” and “tone.” They also have “rules” about length, grammar, etc. As my late husband, a senior New York Times editor, once told me: “You’re a writer if you sell. Period.”

Know what the editors want and give it to them. You’re a writer – for hire. Resist knocking them out with your “originality” that break their rules and gives them migraines (at least until they adore you).

Find your voice – without cliché. A pro writer has a voice. Even when staying between the publications’ lines, you need a distinct way of using, choosing and putting words together.

Study! I chose writers I admired and kept a journal of words and phrases that got to me and weren’t clichés. NEVER WRITE CLICHES! They work on samplers, not in print. It’s better to say what you mean directly than to write: “It is what it is” (which means nothing). I kicked off my own “versions” of these phrases and words – all in a notebook (which tells you how old I am). A little imitation at the start is fine – without plagiarizing.

The day will come when you won’t look at the notebook. You’ve melded your talent with the skill of your silent mentors. That’s your voice. (It took me a year). It will grow to a roar.

Get organized! I love editors! Many writers don’t, believing their work is too “precious” to be improved upon. Having been married to one and working with over 100 editors who were marvelous – except five (which definitely does NOT include our terrific editor here) I’ve seen what good editing can do. The thing is they need something that’s “editable!”

Make sense. Simple? No. Many newbies just “throw things in” as it comes to them. Unless you’re writing for “The Stream of Consciousness Daily,” don’t assume your reader (or editor) knows what you’re talking about if you get too cute or fail to describe what you mean. Make sure your paragraphs follow logically and you’ve made good transitions between them when necessary. End on an interesting note.

Checkers: Facts, spelling, grammar! Even in fiction, errors of fact, time, logic, or in spelling and grammar will wind up in the shredder (or on a dart board). I’m a rabid checker, but one mistake can…well, allow me to illustrate: In one of my books I was quoting the noted Jewish writer-curmudgeon Calvin Trillin. I have a hearing problem. Now, picture it. While writing the book, I was leaving my bedroom, heading to my home office when I heard a news broadcast about Trilling “dead.” I was sad but hurried to change my book copy to “the late Calvin Trilling.” Imagine my shock when the book was published, and scores of readers yelled, “He’s alive!” What I had heard was the end of a story about his wife’s death.  My moronic assumption wasn’t in an article. No. A book! I called him at home. What can you say? “Mr. Trilling … I’m (whomever) and I wrote a book…and I killed you.” Upon explaining, there was a painful silence after which this super-mensch said: “I’ve been called worse.” I love that man. But you get the point.

Get serious! Writing is serious business. That means:

Write something daily.

Being persistent! While writing for television I was told: “Many decent writers can do a script. One. Can you do it over and over? Determination is all.”

Thicken your hide re: criticism.

Finally, if you need me for more, I’m available. After all, you’re only a writing teacher “if you sell. Period.”


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