If I could afford the side trip, I would enjoy teaching what I have learned about writing over the past 53 years to those who have a burning desire to fill blank sheets of paper.
Unfortunately, teaching is a luxury I simply cannot indulge. My work time, such as it is, must be set aside for projects that not only generate income but allow me to set my own schedules. Besides, there are those who have much more to offer about teaching writing than I. There is one issue, however, that is worth considering within the limitations of this space that might be useful to authors and journalists, including the experienced and the aspiring.
As a long-time member of the Dog Writers’ Association of America and the Cat Writers’ Association, I have noticed that a major conflict for many is the gap between being a dog or cat expert (breeder, exhibitor) and being something more than an amateur writer. Please do not misunderstand; there is nothing pejorative about the word amateur, which in Latin means for the love of it. I must confess, my identity has always been that of a writer first and a pet expert second. Perhaps it’s because I have been writing since I was a freshman in high school, because I am among the lucky ones to actually have earned a living at it, or because I have written in just about every medium. To be honest, becoming a pet expert crept up on me unexpectedly and happened quite by chance, which is ancient history and the subject of another article.
I sometimes look at the work of those who know so much about their subject but yet have limited writing skills with which to impart this wonderful knowledge and information or do not exercise good writing judgment. At times, the writing is torturous and on occasion even comical. The effort, however, is always heroic. To paraphrase Bette Davis, writing is not for sissies. (She was referring to old age.) It is hard work, sometimes grueling, sometimes brutal, and fraught with insecurity. This has always been my experience, even with my most successful work, some of which has endured for decades. The expenditure of mental energy and concentration can and should be exhausting, yet satisfying and pleasurable over the long haul.
Okay, at the risk of sounding condescending, allow me to say this. For good dog and cat writing, of course you must know your subject and write about it with clarity. Then there is the idea of having something useful to say about your subject, a respectable point of view. Writing is a lot like teaching, entertaining, informing and when possible, uplifting for the mind and the spirit of the reader. The trick, however, is developing the skills and tools that not only convey what you have to say, but convey it accurately and precisely. To be sure, I am speaking only of nonfiction. Fiction writing is in the realm of the imagination where the writer sets the rules. Even there, you must have a working grasp of the language because it is all that is mutual, connecting you to the reader. You must learn to love the language, respect its importance and its proper use; otherwise, you will drown in a paper sea of ambiguity, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Here are examples of what I am talking about.
Ambiguous and incomplete: When bathing your cat use a screen to prevent him from slipping.
Specific and useful: When bathing your cat lean a window screen against the side of the sink allowing him to dig his claws into it and keep his balance as you wet him down. This will prevent him from slipping and make the bath safer and more pleasant.
I have no doubt that many of you can improve on these examples, but you get the idea. More words are used in the second example but offer much more specificity and a heck of a lot more help to the reader. In this kind of writing, the needs of the reader come first. It is not about the writer.
We can all continue our education when it comes to good grammar (which goes for me as well) and learn to sculpt each sentence so that they are not awkward and clumsy to read. In much of my work I have spent long periods of time getting one sentence right… and still failed. Thank God for the computer which has made rewriting less odious than when I used to write on an old manual typewriter. And thank God for good line editors and copyeditors who have on more than one occasion spared me the embarrassment of poor usage.
Writing is a profession, and it requires a multi-layered set of skills in addition to your knowledge and information about your subject, in addition to your ability to communicate with articulation, in addition to your ability to inform, in addition to your ability to hold your reader’s interest. At once, the wonderful part of writing and the damnable part of it is its permanence. When you get it wrong, it really can come back at you at some inconvenient time and bite you on the rear end. Trust me on this; I have had times when I couldn’t sit for weeks and more than my face was red. Writing is like jumping out of a plane praying your chute opens. Nevertheless, be bold and write on.
Mordecai Siegal is the author of 31 books about dogs and cats. His most recent book is “”The Good Life. Your Dog’s First Year (Simon & Schuster)”” and the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition, of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What do I Do?”” He is also the President Emeritus of the Dog Writers’ Association of America.