Thoughts on Writing

“I know how their wicked little minds operate”

“I know how their wicked little minds operate”

When a cat owner posted a photo of her cluttered, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on Twitter and challenged her followers to find her cat among her books and knick-knacks, an interesting pattern emerged: those who had never lived with cats found it hard to locate the animal, while cat parents, already familiar with where this species like to hide – “I know how their wicked little minds operate,” noted one – could spot the kitty almost all at once.

I’m often asked “what books should I read if I want to write better?” Actually, the question should be “how should I read if I want to write better?” One way of responding to the second question is “you need to know how the wicked minds of writers operate”: any writer worth her salt will be good at hiding the tricks that make her writing work; so, in order to identify the tricks (so that we can apply them to our own writings), we need to keep an eye out for them while reading good prose, the way – when told to find the cat – we psychologically prepare ourselves for its presence while scanning the assortment of objects among which it is hidden.

A couple of examples should demonstrate what I mean. Survey the following text crafted by the two-time Pulitzer winner Jon Franklin, and ask yourself: how does he glide from describing teenagers to describing an old man so effortlessly?

“Outside, poor teenagers traverse the alley on the way to nowhere, casting occasional glances at the old man’s rowhouse.

For a lifetime Wilk Peters traveled the world in search of its people and its wisdom, and he brought his knowledge back to black universities to share with the students there – but the children who pass in the alley know nothing of that.”

Even though the teenagers’ loitering in the lane and the old man’s globe-trotting aren’t related, by putting emphasis on how both involve movement, Franklin can lull his reader into linking the two and therefore advance his narrative flowingly.

Another illustration. Below is a model essay I wrote for my writing students. Nowhere do I use transitional words like “firstly” and “to conclude.” Yet my piece has a clear beginning and ending. Can you spot the gimmicks I’ve deployed to achieve this effect?

Pork and corn meatloaf that resembled a brick of matter extracted from a can of expired dog food. Porridge that looked – and tasted – like vomit. Fried porkchop with the color and texture of soft stool. Even the plastic spoon that came with the meal was crooked. These are some of the foodstuffs the Hong Kong government expected people under mandatory quarantine to stomach. A third-world airliner would have served better fare.

Lamentably, substandard food at the quarantine camps may be the least of Hong Kong people’s worries. The government’s lack of regard for its people is felt in the nitty-gritty of its COVID-fighting measures. Rules are imposed on a whim instead of on sound scientific grounds: locking down a whole building overnight when only one resident has tested positive for COVID; allowing only four diners per table and disregarding the disastrous impact this rule will have on the bottom line of the restaurant business; spending an obscene amount of taxpayer money on masks derided for their resemblance to underwear (their effectiveness in blocking out the virus was also in doubt).

Last year, Bloomberg News, taken back by the utter incompetence of the Lam administration’s virus-fighting measures, proceeded to brand Hong Kong as a failed state. If our city continues to deteriorate at the pace it has over the past two years – remember the tear gas, rubber bullets, lies, and now, disgusting meal provisions and more lies –  my guess is the former British colony will achieve third-world status in no time.

My conclusion’s sense of completion is largely due to the way my very last phrase (“my guess is Hong Kong will achieve third-world status in no time”) “echoes” the last line in my introduction (“A third-world airliner would have served better fare”). Another technique worth noting: in my second paragraph, I’m able to present my points in an orderly manner without using “firstly,” secondly,” thanks to a strategic use of colon and semicolons.

If Hong Kong adults find it hard to detect a writer’s behind-the-scenes maneuverings, it may be because the many reading-and-comprehension exams they sat in their schooldays have conditioned their minds to focusing only on content when reading a text. If they want to learn how to write well from writers, however, they need to refresh their understanding of what constitutes “reading.” Once they get used to being on the lookout for writing tricks, they’ll discover they can catch sight of them with the same ease cat owners have in finding the kitty in the clutter.

Categories: Thoughts on Writing

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