© Ugur Akinci
Charles Euchner, the author or editor of nine books, is the owner and operator of The Writing Code. Euchner’s latest book The Writing Code: Everyone’s Guide to Writing Almost Anything builds on his experience in colleges and universities — at institutions such as Yale, Harvard, Holy Cross, and Northeastern — and offers a sure-fire system to improve writing for high school and college students, journalists and academics, and corporate and nonprofit professionals.
(1) What is the top culprit in your judgement that holds people back from writing at their best?
Because of an outdated approach to writing — both in school and at work — too many of us have lost our greatest asset as writers. I am referring to our love of storytelling and our natural ability to engage others with stories. We humans are a storytelling species. It’s what sets us apart from other species. Other species eat, drink, find shelter, reproduce, even use language and tools. But we humans alone tell stories. And we do it our whole lives. But formal educational processes don’t take advantage of this. Kids’ activities in school revolve around storytelling in the early grades. But by middle school, teachers adopt a more “serious” attitude. They demand more abstract thinking, with categories and evidence and five-paragraph essays. Even our social studies books lose sight of the basic fact that history is a series of engagements of people, with all the action and mystery of a great detective novel. And so kids get turned off to reading and writing and seek out stories elsewhere — in movies, TV, video games, music, and gossip and flirting. To write well, you need to engage in storytelling. Of course, it’s also important to develop explanations and arguments, to look for patterns and test theories. But when you tell stories, everything becomes easier.
Yes and no. The core skills of writing are the same in all fields. You need to say who or what acts, and how, and to what effect. That basic template applies for all writing. It applies in a Hemingway story or a great movie like “Casablanca” or an opera like “Don Giovanni.” It also applies to an analysis of sales and marketing strategies, a study of safety systems at a nuclear plant, or an argument about what causes economic cycles. The biggest difference is that the characters in creative works tend to be people and the characters in scientific works tend to be categories, and stories are about one-and-only events while technical writing is about patterns of behavior involving many samples. But the basic core is the same. We need to understand what causes what. What caused Michael Corleone top embrace the family’s business in organized crime? What caused the increase in cases of autism over the last couple of decades? What causes a computer to be buggy? What causes the booms and busts of an economy.
Lots of times, people mistake the surface appearance of a thing for its essence. That happens with writing. We see scientists used technical vocabulary and we assume that the core skills differ for technical and creative writing. But really, the technical terminology is just that — terminology. Understanding the lightening-speed transmission of chemical signals in the brain is no different, really, than understanding how a character’s behavior in a story. It’s just that the terms we use are different.
(3) What is the “Writing Code”? Is it a formula to write well or something else?
The Writing Code is a systematic way of thinking about how people write and read — really, how people communicate. And it begins with our brain, which is the software system for everything we do. When we understand how the brain works — what the brain “wants” and what it doesn’t “want” — we can understand the challenges of writing. We understand how to manage the process of writing — how to gather information, sort it, organize it, and express it, line by line. We understand what words get a rise out of people and what lines bore people. We understand when people get bored and when they get engaged and when they get confused. We also understand out own frailties. For example, brain research shows that we can only do one thing at a time. But all too often, writers try to do five or ten things at a time. Naturally, they crash, like an overloaded computer. So we show how to break down tasks, one by one, and do things in a good sequence. It’s all very natural. But you have to be shown first.
(4) Writing for an increasingly international audience means writing in a simpler style with simpler words. Wouldn’t that hamper artistic creativity? What’s your advice?
Absolutely not. Simple is good. I like to quote Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Even some of the most creative and emotional pieces of writing, when you break them down, are quite simple. I sometimes show a video of Martin Luther King‘s famous “Mountaintop” speech, which is as soaring and emotional and complex as most writing. Then we look at the text line by line and discover that King uses nothing but simple words and short sentences. The power comes form the ideas and images he conjures up, his audience’s engagement in the speech, how the simple words evoke larger ideas and experiences, and so on. We also look at a passage from John McPhee‘s work The Curve of Binding Energy, about nuclear proliferation. McPhee is describing a highly technical process, with all manner of technical terms. But he dies it by using simple ideas, not overwhelming the reader with an avalanche of insider’s jargon. When he uses technical terms, he does’t throw too much at you too soon. And he defines the terms in simple ways, with reference to things you can understand. To describe the density of uranium, he tells us that 132 pounds would be the size of a football.
(5) What do you offer in your in-class writing seminars that a student cannot get from another source?
The most important thing we do is start with storytelling. Even if you’re a hard-nosed business person or a technical writer for a pharmaceutical company, we need to understand storytelling before we do anything else. I started doing this for pragmatic reasons. I was working with a room of more than 100 corporate people and the computer projector would;t work and people were getting antsy. I had to get their attention right away or I would lose them for good. So I started talking about stories. Instantly, I had everyone with me. I thought, “Wow, talk about a party trick.” Only later did I discover that the basic structure of a story is the same as the basic structure of even the most abstract idea. So storytelling packs a powerful 1-2 punch. First you get people’s attention and enthusiasm. Then you show them the structure of all communication. And so learning everything — even the most dry, abstract concepts of grammar and punctuation and analysis — becomes easier.
(6) What is the best book you’ve ever read on writing well?
Hard to say. No book offers a complete guide to writing in all fields. That’s what I try to do in The Writing Code (available on Amazon). I used to worship at the altar of Strunk and White and The Elements of Style, but it’s not a really guide to writing. It’s a checklist of potential problems. It’s also outdated, written for a time when writers were a breed apart. These days, we’re all writers. When I was in college I wrote an awful paper and my professor had me read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and the first half of that is quite good. Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools is good, but does’t offer a complete strategy, and many of his tools are about the writer’s like rather than practical techniques. I once read a collection of passages from Hemingway. And I love reading the Paris Review interviews with the master writers of the last several generations, which are all now available online.
(7) What are the three authors that shaped you as a writer and why?
Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood is a virtual clinic in storytelling, analysis, sentence and paragraph construction, if you break it apart and ask a lot of questions about what he does. Most people love that book because it shows Capote’s mastery as a researcher. He reconstructed this awful murder of a Kansas family by a couple of drifters and makes it read like a novel. How he got all that information, how he built the story, is a marvel. But to me In Cold Blood is a true work of art not just because of the content but also because of Capote’s near-perfect technical mastery. So as far as understanding the architecture of writing, it’s hard to top that.
I also really like the narrative nonfiction of John McPhee. Because he writes for The New Yorker, McPhee has the opportunity to take one thing at a time. You never get the sense that he’s in a rush. Too many writers try to pack too much information into small spaces. But McPhee just takes one thing at a time. And that’s the only way to write. This world is really just a collection of different things — people, events, processes of nature, ideas — and you can’t understand any complex concept unless you get a handle on the smaller ideas that are part of the complex concept. He understands also that readers need vivid scenes, but they also need a break from action. So he is a master of what I call yo-yoing — moving back and forth from scene to summary.
Let’s keep this list contemporary. I also like Elizabeth Gilbert. She understands sentences and paragraphs and scenes and summaries as well as anyone. I love using her story “Lucky JJim” to teach the structure of storytelling. Her book The Last American Man is also very good. She won her fame and fortune with Eat Pray Love, which is good, but she honed her craft long before that came out. Some day I’d like to talk shop with her. She clearly relishes the careful construction of a story, sentence by sentence, paragraphs by paragraph, section by section.
(8) What’s the most important thing happening in the world of letters these days?
Technology has completely transformed the literary landscape. Never before in history have so many people written. Partly it’s because we have to write. Bureaucracy in government and corporations means that we’re always writing memos and reports and emails. But something bigger is happening. With social media, ebooks, and DIY publishing, anyone who wants can write, get published, and find and audience. And that’s very powerful. At the end of the day, people want other people to notice them. Until now, only a small elite could hope to find an audience. Editors and publishers were strict gatekeepers. They decided who could get their ideas published. Now anyone can do it. It makes writing exciting again. I am amazed at how much people write on Facebook and in emails. I have friends who see a movie and then send out an email and then all their friends and family are debating that movie all kinds of related ideas. The same thing happens with posts on Facebook and comments on web sites from nytimes.com to scientificamerican.com. Lots of people who would have never have considered writing a book are doing so now. I’m coaching a technical guy at Microsoft who wants to write a family story. A generation ago, he might have collected family papers and scrapbooks but not have considered writing a book. But he knows he can write a book and sell it as an ebook and then, who knows, it might make it big. But he knows he can share it, so it’s worth making the effort. Multiply that case by millions and you have a writing revolution that is changing everything. It’s very exciting — scary for old-timers, but exciting for most of us.