The official number one rule of writing

Published 7:41 pm Thursday, January 4, 2018

To begin 2018, I thought we should set down some ground rules for writing.

The first rule is that there are no rules. That has been the case since we wrote our first column way back in 1997.

But you should know that when you sit down to write a column, you don’t exactly “sit down and write.” Good luck to anybody who tries that.

No, as you walk along during the week, a little column will bump into you unexpectedly, and you’ll say, “Oh, excuse me” and never think another thing about it — not until Old-Man Deadline pulls up into your driveway and honks the horn.

It is then — left without a choice — that you grab your pen and paper and go to work. (We say “pen” metaphorically, of course, because few writers actually use one.) We grab that “pen” hurriedly because we know, before long, the old fella will be “sitting” on the horn — and that’s not a metaphor.

With your very first stroke, you remember, again, that there are no rules. But, if there were, the number one rule would be not to write what’s on your mind.

Instead, write what you live. A man ought to live a little before he writes.

Readers generally don’t care too much about what the writer thinks. Mostly, they want to know what they are.

You understand.

The problem in this brand-new world of social media is people have free rein to go around unleashing what they “think.” That can be a dangerous thing, because the pen is still mightier than the sword. We really don’t need everybody and their cousin swinging a sword carelessly all-day long.

We’d better leave that little editorial there and press on to our point. I have found that editors — from Ms. Andrea Lovejoy all the way to Mr. Daniel Evans — normally want two things. They want you to get to a point (they prefer a good one), and they like for you to do it sooner than later, sprinkling in as much brevity as you can.

Of course, fortunately, since there are no rules, it is impossible for us to break either one of those. When you hear the horn, though, the first thing you hope is that by then a column has bumped into you during the week, as happened to us while we were downtown this week.

It came in the person of an old teacher friend, Becky Strickland, along with her daughter — a very sweet former student — Tori. We enjoyed a nice two-minute interview — as we have all done a thousand times — then went our way, the moment fading like a rainbow. Of course, I did not recognize the column, even though it nearly knocked me over.

But social media does have its merits. The next day I received a message from Ms. Strickland, which was not surprising since she is one of the most positive, engaging people I know.

Remembering our motivational writings from years ago, she sent me two email addresses and asked if I would send any encouraging writings I do. Perhaps the reason she is so positive is because she looks to go to positive places. I smiled at the note.

She reminded me that, maybe, this old pen still makes a difference — just as she made a difference herself this week. I smiled, too, because she reminded us of what could easily be the first rule of writing:

The most important thing in column-writing is you. The key is always the reader, the one who opens the paper with interest, searching for something encouraging, searching not what you think but for what you are.

Yes, you are the most important element in writing. I think we’ll officially make that rule number one.

Steven Ray Bowen is a former Granger who lives and writes in Red Oak, Texas.