There were two writing-related questions amongst the carnage of the last post, so let’s get into that. One commenter asked, why are there so few good writers in this field any more? The other asked, how can I be one of the good ones?
First question. There never were a lot of good writers in the outdoor field. I say this because if you have, say, 20 people writing on the staff of a magazine, only two or three will be first-rank. Real talent is always in short supply. There are exceptions. Field & Stream in the late 1970s, 80s, and into the 1990s, had probably a dozen writers who were truly great. But they got old and died.
The situation is much worse now because our educational system has deteriorated so far, and the people who emerge from college are largely illiterate including the English majors, or perhaps especially the English majors. Then there is texting, which is going to kill what is left of the language, and the electronic media, which offers a lazy man’s alternative to writing for a living, which requires a lot of discipline.
Now that I’m edging close to self-immolation, let’s look at how to be a good gun writer.
First, before you ever put a word on the computer screen, acquire lots of experience. If you start in your twenties, as I did, you will not know what the hell you’re talking about and people will pick up on it immediately. Peter Barrett, former executive editor of F&S, once told me that I didn’t write worth a damn until I was in my early 40s and had been at it nearly 20 years. He was right.
Second, learn how to write without wasting a single word. When I started doing the Rifles department, I had a word limit of 2,500. Now it’s usually around 750. Many writers of my generation never learned the art of concision and are now selling aluminum siding (and making a lot more money, by the by).
Learning to write professionally comes in roughly two stages. First, you have to learn to be precise, to get the words to mean exactly what you want them to. This is not taught in college as far as I can see. Second, you need to develop a style. When musicians want to do this, they copy other musicians, and then start experimenting until what they play sounds different. This is how writers should do it.
More important, it should be a style that people will pay to read. Jack O’Connor (highly educated, college English professor back when it meant something) and Elmer Keith (never finished high school, as far as I know; nearly illiterate) were as different as writers can be, but both succeeded in this strange business because both had distinctive styles that would cause people to pull money out of their pockets.
You must develop a personality that comes across in print, which is not the same thing as style. There must be a human being that readers can attach to the words. Jim Carmichel was about as good at this as anyone has ever been. Gene Hill was another, as was Ted Trueblood, as was Bob Brister.
As Richard III said, “Can I do all that and cannot get a crown? Tut, ‘twere it further off I’d pluck it down.”
This final thing to watch out for is repetition. I have the creepy feeling that I’ve written all this before. Maybe I have. If so, it’s time to slink away and sell aluminum siding. The money’s better anyway.