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Some good words for writers

Posted on 2006.01.09 at 23:51
Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: Orinoco Flow - Enya
I’m going to let someone else do the talking today. That someone is Neil Steinberg, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. In his column today, he talked about his friend Lee Bey, who used to be the architecture writer for the Sun-Times and is now the director of governmental affairs at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the legendary Chicago architecture firm. Neil wanted to talk about what a good writer Lee is, and the following really struck me as a good lesson for all of us who set fingers to our keyboards in the hope of creating something worth reading. Mr. Steinberg, you have the floor:

Last week, Lee sent me something that really set off the alarms. He is writing his first book -- Paper Skyline: The Chicago That Never Was, a look at unbuilt buildings -- and he asked me to read the first chapter and give him my honest reaction.

Only he didn't say that -- didn't say "give me your honest reaction," which is what you or I or most people would write. What Lee Bey wrote was: “Read it like you hate me.”

I immediately rushed to Google. “Read it like you hate me” drew a big fat zero hits (“big fat zero,” another cliche, drew 54,800). Ditto on the Nexis database of all the newspapers in the country going back 15 years.


Not only is “Read it like you hate me” original, but it conveys the exact right sentiment for somebody trying to write well. Most writers say they want frank criticism when in fact what they want is praise.

“Read it like you hate me” machetes through that, grabs you by the collar and says, “I really, really want your true opinion, the criticisms you would lovingly tote up reading the work of somebody you loathed.” But in six words.

People who hate you -- trust me on this -- parse the smallest errors of grammar. They point out tiny logic flaws. They don't sit back and applaud like seals.

It's Lee's phrase, but I'm proud to be the person who tosses it into the electronic soup. It's perfect. I don't think the thought can be reduced by another letter, never mind another word. Five hundred years from now, on a domed city on Mars, one engineer will brush his fingertips across the forehead of another, transferring a document by micro-field bubble diffusion osmosis. “My report on valve seal integrity for next week's meeting,” he'll say, tentatively.

“Read it like you hate me.”

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