Jerome Wrong About Writing

November 23rd, 2008 by Bob Bly

It pains me to say it, but a nonfiction book author I greatly admire, the late John Jerome, said something in his book about writing, which I am now reading, that I believe is almost totally wrong.

In “The Writing Trade” (Penguin), Jerome said: “I’ve always felt that any piece of writing is about writing first, before it is about whatever the subject matter is supposed to be.”

I disagree. To me, the most important elements of nonfiction writing are, in this order:

1. The audience: Who is the reader? What do they want or need to know?

2. The topic: the product, lesson, idea, skill, subject matter, etc.

3. The content: are the facts there? accurate? in an order that makes sense? does it answer the reader’s questions and tell her what she wants to know?

4. The writing: is it clear, well organized, clean, well reasoned?

I agree with Michael Masterson, who says “Great writing is a good idea cleanly expressed.”

I always put my reader first. My subject second.

I don’t think MY type of nonfiction writing — how-to and marketing copy — is ever about the writing itself.

If I’ve done my job. The writing is essentially invisible. It doesn’t deflect the reader’s attention from the story or content to the writing itself.

I think a dwindling group of literate readers (me included) can still appreciate reading a genuine prose stylist.

But our demand, time, and attention span for “fine writing” is shrinking with each passing year.

So when you write, you should write for the reader.

And not to show off your eloquence or style to others — yes?

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55 responses about “Jerome Wrong About Writing”

  1. Fiona Fell - The Profit Maximsing Web Geek said:

    The reader is always first!

    For without the reader the writing, the language, the style, the passion all goes unread.

    I try to write for the reader, and not write for the sake of the ‘craft’, or for my 12th grade English teachers rules.

    I write to express an idea and with a purpose or position, but I do so to inform, educate, entertain or rebut the readers ideas.

    I say, write for the reader. Find your audience. Then share!

  2. dianacacy said:

    I agree completely.

    Only time I can think of coming close to thinking about the writing versus the reader is in writing a personal journal entry. But even when recapping the day’s events or feelings, there’s always a target in mind. Friend, God, Life, Myself, Muse, the cat (haha), whoever.

    Even in fiction writing, I’m always the storyteller targeting someone who wants to hear the story. I’ve attempted to free write without any focus, but it’s always manifested itself before a few sentences.

    I don’t think I can write without targeting the audience and the topic first.

  3. Lynne said:

    I agree with you, Bob.

    The whole point of writing, in the first place, is to connect with an audience.

    If you don’t know who you are writing for, you don’t know how to choose the best words to connect with them.

  4. Juho said:

    I think disagreement is only superficial in this case. Yes, all of these steps and elements are needed.

    But I also think Jerome’s definition of writing was probably a larger one than you give him credit for…

    To attack any topic, you need to know how to approach it as a writer first. Which seems to be your point as well.

  5. Bob Bly said:

    Juho: given the advantage of having read the entire book, I think what Jerome meant was that writing — which he called “making sentences for a living” — engaged him more than the topic he was writing about. He liked learning about health or whatever he was writing about, but what turned him on was creating clear, clean, crisp prose.

  6. Kristi Holl said:

    Without having read the book, it’s hard to know exactly what the author meant by that sentence. Since this is a nonfiction book author that you greatly admire, chances are that you took his statement not quite the way he intended.
    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid blog

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  8. Mark Nagurski said:

    Yes.

    Certainly the purpose of non-fiction writing is first and foremost to communicate an idea. The first step in that process is to make the idea clear.

    I like to think of it as getting the words out of the way.

    I do, however, think that writing style has an important part to play.

    Just to play devil’s advocate for a minute, you could liken writing style to a salesman – and it’s not always the best product or the most knowledgeable salesperson who wins out.

    Does the style suit the message? Does the style resonate with the reader or prospect? What image does the style portray?

    A writing style (or sales style) can immediately turn people off – regardless of the content – in which case the content becomes largely irrelevant. It can also engage and encourage you to go further into a topic you may not have considered previously.

    Of course, finding the right style in print – or sales – is largely down to knowing the audience you’re speaking to.

  9. Bob Bly said:

    Mark: I like your analogy of writing style as salesman. Your style reflects your personality. If readers like you, your personality, and your style, they are more likely to do what you want them to do, whether it’s read your novel or buy your vitamin supplement.

  10. Ken said:

    I agree that the reader/customer/guest/visitor should ALWAYS be first and foremost in the writer’s mind, although…
    there’s certainly something to be said for style as it pertains to the ‘rhythm’ of a piece of writing. By rhythm I mean the beat, or number of syllables in each sentence. I find that good writing has a beat to it and if you’re off by even one syllable it can throw off the effectiveness of the piece.
    Have you ever read something, fiction or non, where the subject was interesting, the writer was skilled, yet for some reason it just didn’t click? Keep an eye on that beat!

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  14. Robert said:

    Bob,

    If you don’t know your audience and you don’t write to that audience, then it matters not what you write – it will not resonate.

    The Michael Masterson quote is on target, also.

    Ken’s comment about rhythm is interesting; I’m gonna look into that…

  15. Simple Delights said:

    i also agree, you should always put your readers in your top priority.

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