Master Class

I never took a writing course. There was a basic styles handbook in university, and I’m sure I had marginal feedback from various TAs who marked my papers (I thought they were my actual profs!). And I had learned something about striving and excellence from my Grade X Latin teacher. I bought books on language and was never far from a dictionary. (My ask for my 13thbirthday was for a dictionary, which thrilled my mother and left my father scratching his head; I still have that copy of the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary.) 

I learned to type in grade IX. I passed with a mark of 51. And I suppose I should be grateful for that as it makes for faster editing than if I was to produce only longhand drafts and beg some typist to render the final copy for me. I typed my own papers on my mother-in-law’s Smith Corona manual typewriter, just like the ones we used in Grade IX Typing Class. Later for my MBA thesis I commissioned a professional typist to do it for me. I can still type with more than two fingers but I never mastered the entire keyboard and all eight fingers. I’ve later discovered with modern computer keyboards the effort (finger strength) is less but the error rate is ten times higher. I’ve also discovered I must be mildly dyslexic, or at least I am right hand dominant and in that sense I tend to hit keys with my right hand before my left when the opposite was intended (e.g., form rather than from). This is cause for annoyance but also yet another opportunity for editing.

Necessity was the mother of improvement: I never practiced my writing for its own sake, I needed purposeful application. At first it was undergrad essays, later it was advanced papers and thesis in my MBA program. One of the greatest lessons in my early years was the power of research and subconscious creativity. For this I am grateful to Bertrand Russell: ‘Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared as if in a revelation.’ (Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory
(Simon and Schuster, New York, 1956), 210–214.)

I honed my craft when I graduated and joined Atomic Energy of Canada as a junior Human Resources Officer. I had already learned proper grammar and structure, but now I polished my professional writing in a stilted arrogant style. (I cringe now to recall it; I used to think myself clever, the latent lawyer in me never really went away). I learned the importance of writing powerful first drafts, longhand, and editing, editing, editing, on foolscap. In the days before word processing and personal computers, you didn’t dare ask your secretary to retype that memo or report.

But I also learned to write with a certain tact and diplomacy: why say directly what can be said obliquely; despite modern advice to the contrary, recognize the power of the passive voice; consider using subtle suggestion rather than outright instruction. This was especially important when you are a junior officer writng from Head Office and you’re telling a senior executive in the branches where they went wrong.

Though not fully appreciated at the time I am eternally grateful to my language mentor, the Director of Personnel in Head Office, Gerry Maxwell. Gerry was a chemist by training and it remains a mystery to me how he moved from chemistry at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories to Administration, or where he learned Labour Relations, or English writing for that matter. But what was plain was that he embodied the scientific culture of excellence and precision. He may have been two levels of rank above me at the time but he took it upon himself to guide me in my development as a better writer. Of course I resented it, but I took solace in the fact that he gave similar ‘guidance’ to everyone in the office, even my boss and other veteran personnel professionals. Writing, as any skill, is improved by feedback and suggestion. He practiced management by FEAR, and though he was not an intimidating soul, we all dreaded the Monday morning review of the previous week’s correspondence. Frequent Evaluation And Review is the key to improving any skill. In AECL Gerry had developed the ritual of collecting the file copies of all the correspondence of the previous week. In those days (waaay before photocopiers were invented) the original copy of the correspondence (letter or memorandum), was typed on letterhead bond paper and mailed to the addressee); copies of the original going to other parties was produced by the typist via carbon paper layers imprinted on white tissue-like paper (flimsy); a copy of the correspondence for the subject file was produced as a carbon copy (cc!) on green flimsy; and a reading file copy was kept in a binder (pink flimsy). It was this binder of pink flimsies that Gerry took home with him every weekend to review and then review with the originator each Monday morning. I think we all benefited from this weekly ritual. I know my skills were improved by these coaching sessions. In my own defense I need to report that I had a large dictionary in my office, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which I frequently referred to, either out of professional need or mere amusement, and I’m sure Gerry learned a thing or two from me too: the subtle difference between special and especial, effected rather than the pedestrian accomplished. The raised eyebrow was feedback enough for me.

It wasn’t till later that I developed my own narrative style, a conversational storytelling style with humour, quirky punctuation and surprise. But more on that in the next blog, or blogs.

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