Sunday, March 7, 2010

Writing 101: Professor Neil Peart

The following is a quest post from Phil Simon, his web site is located in the Finding Your Way listings.

My favorite band is Rush. Always has been. As a kid, it was the music that attracted me, but as I grew older and presumably wiser, I was able to move beyond. I could understand lyricist Neil Peart’s visceral and profound lyrics.

They began to speak volumes to me.

Nicknamed “The Professor”, Neil has written books, penning four incredible texts about traveling, loss, and music. As I began writing books and blogging myself, I developed an entirely new appreciation for Peart’s genius that affects my writing to this very day.

In this post, I share some of Neil’s writing tips that can help scribes of all levels.

1) Get it down before it gets away.

This is perhaps my most important rule of thumb, whether writing books, blog posts, or emails. Too often in my early “career”, I found myself striving for perfection from the minute that I typed a word on a screen or page. (Yes, I am old enough to have actually used a typewriter back in the day.)

2) Forget writing well. Just write, before it gets away.

Centuries ago, Voltaire expressed the same sentiment: “The better is the enemy of the good.” While different people have different writing styles, I find it best to build now and polish later. Often I force myself to finish a page, paragraph, or even a thought when I am sure that I can do better. Much better.

Why do I force myself to accept mediocrity temporarily? Because the value of seeing it on the screen exceeds the value of having it in my head – where it could easily be lost and never again be found.

3) Listen to Picasso

After the release of his fourth book Roadshow: Landscape With Drums, I listened to an interview with Neil by original MTV VJ Mark Goodman. (Yes, I’m dating myself again.)

Neil was speaking about his writing style and quoted Pablo Picasso:

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

This is a very powerful sentiment and one worth remembering. Expecting the material to just magically flow once we sit down to write is typically an exercise in futility. I can think of many moments while writing my first book when I had a great idea while I was at the gym—i.e., nowhere near a computer.

Rather than continue my running and hope to remember it later, I would do the following:

• Stop
• Take pen to paper
• Jot down the note
• Diligently go to work upon returning home.

Jerry Seinfeld does the same thing when writing his standup material. Some may remember an episode of the eponymous show in which he thinks of a hysterical joke in the middle of the night and then writes it down. Upon waking up, he can’t remember what he wrote and promptly enlists George, Elaine, and Kramer to decipher his text.

Hopefully, you write notes neater than Jerry does. Whether it’s a notebook, BlackBerry, or some other mechanism, make sure to capture your thoughts as soon as they happen. Remember that you don’t know when they will hit you, so be prepared.

4) Don’t be afraid of the fifty-cent word.

Listen to Rush songs and you’ll find words or phrases not frequently used in everyday conversation. Hey, it’s a cerebral band. Some of my favorite Rush songs include words such as “stratospheric”, “parallax”, and “subdivided”.

Is this showing off or using big words just for the sake of doing so? Hardly. An avid reader, Neil writes each word with a distinct purpose.

Trust me. You don’t write a song about the dawn of the nuclear age without brevity, clarity, and a sense of mission.

I’ve read different opinions on the matter that run the gamut, especially with respect to blogging. On one hand, some believe that you should never talk down to your audience. Of course, if you only write with a grade school vocabulary, then what does that say about your audience? On the other hand, why rely exclusively on polysyllabic words when simplicity will suffice?

I try to strike a middle ground when I write. Clearly, using words like “desiderate” rather than “want” seems to be a bit excessive and unnecessary. But I’m a big believer in nailing a sentence with a true gem of a word, much like Dennis Miller does (or George Carlin did) during their standup routines.

5) The Take-Away Message

I’ll be the first to admit that what works for one doesn’t work for all. If you don’t heed the advice in this post, I’ll get over it. Really. I work as a consultant, so I’m used to being ignored, blamed, crucified, and worse.

But if you do listen, if you do take a few minutes out of your day and think about what Picasso, Neil Peart, Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, and Dennis Miller have said and done, your writing should improve. And isn’t that part of why you read this in the first place?

Am I off base? What do you think?

When he’s not listening to Rush absorbing intelligence or networking like an S.O.B and blinding people with his great writing, Phil Simon goes around sticking technology right where it belongs – in the workplace.

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