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Conviction, Creativity, and Courage

Posted on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 10:48 AM

Lessons from a lecture recently given at a conference for writers.

By Peter P. Jacobi

From the outset, you need conviction, creativity, and courage, for without them you are lost.


Belief in yourself, faith that you can accomplish what you are setting out to do, confidence that what you've chosen to write is a right fit, self-assurance that you are the appropriate person to tackle the project you've decided is next on your to-write list. Be convinced to go forward.


Imbue the work ahead with all the imagination at your command, all the inspiration, all the crafty ingenuity, all the innate inventiveness, all the talent you can muster, all the originality of thought you can collect from the depth and breadth of your artistic being. Be fully creative as you go forward.


Be audacious and brave and daring and lionhearted and resolute and tenacious and undaunted. Have the courage to go forward.

Time Is Precious

As you buttress yourself with conviction and employ creativity and move forward with courage, remember that all you do happens in time: the development of an idea, the gathering of information, the planning and structuring of your composition, the writing and editing and rewriting. It all happens in time, your time. And if and when that manuscript is published and falls into the hands of a reader, your handiwork enters that person's life and takes his or her time.

Time is a frisky thing, and furtive, and fleeting. Time is precious. Your time is precious. Your reader's time is precious. Wasting your own time is unfortunate, a crime done to yourself. Wasting someone else's time, that of your reader, is unpardonable. Of course, the reader may seek to avoid the crime, doable just by putting a stop to the reading, in which case more of your own time will have been wasted because with every reader who drops you, the effort you put into your story will be reduced in effectiveness.

We need, as writers, to use our own time judiciously. And we need to hope that our readers, because of our good work, will give of their time willingly. How, pray, does that happen?

Win, Hold, and Reward Your Reader

Your difficult and ongoing task is to accomplish three connected goals: Win your reader. Hold your reader. And reward your reader. Win through enticement, hold through entertainment, reward through enrichment.

Winning Your Reader

The reader comes to you seeking to fulfill an informational or emotional need. The need may be deep-seated and of import, consequential, or it may be just a casual search for momentary pleasure. One or the other, if what you have written comes across as artistically valid, verbally agile, and structurally sound, that reader's need, his or her expectation, will be met. You will have won your reader.

But easy that is not. You must make matters fall in line, four matters. You conquer with topic the idea, the concept you have generated in mind and heart: the topic has to be of interest, appealing, seductive. You conquer with substance, the material you have gathered, the information, the details: the substance has to be of interest, appealing, seductive. You conquer with approach, the way you develop the topic, the plan of attack, the chosen order, the inclusions and exclusions: the approach has to be of interest, appealing, seductive. You conquer with language,your prose, your style of expression, your use of words: the language has to be of interest, appealing, seductive.

Easy that is not. And to conquer, you must -- throughout this usually arduous process -- know your audience. Know for whom you are writing.

How important in all this is the word. Mark Twain argued: "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Cultural philosopher Jacques Barzun, in his perceptive book on writing, Simple & Direct, has this response for those who do not bother to fuss over a word. It is not enough, he says, "to pay attention to words only when you face the task of writing -- that is like playing the violin only on the night of the concert. You must attend to words when you read, when you speak, when others speak. Words must become ever present in your waking life, an incessant concern, like color and design if the graphic arts matter to you, or pitch and rhythm if it is music, or speed and form if it is athletics. Words, in short, must be there, not unseen and unheard."

Words: choose them carefully. And from words create your sentences. Henry David Thoreau addressed that task. He asked for "Sentences, which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old impression but make a new one, sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct: to frame these, that is the art of writing."

Not often heard counsel on first sentences comes from Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder. Hear and heed: "Writers are told that they must 'grab' or 'hook' or 'capture' the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader.... Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can't make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away. You don't expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once, with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion. There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning."

All this please consider in your effort to win the reader, task number one.

About the second task, hold the reader, and the third, reward the reader, next month in installment two.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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