I take the craft of writing seriously. Whether it’s books, articles, or this blog, my goal is to communicate in a voice that brings clarity to the story that I’m trying to tell. If I do it right, my reader will have a useful thought they might not have had otherwise, or simply a sense that the few minutes reading my writing was worth their time.
Honing that writer’s voice is a lifelong challenge. Most often with writing, you’ve got too much in your head and you’ve put too much on paper. Writing is more about cutting words out than it is about adding more to the page. It helps to have a colleague to discuss the work with; you hope to find a writing friend who can spot your point when it is still muddled on the page. You’ve lucked out when that person takes as much pleasure in honing the message, and selecting words, and crafting sentences as you do.
I have a writing buddy, and we’ve been helping each other with our various projects for the last fifteen years. I’ve really lucked out, because not only is she a superlative writer, but the topics that she has devoted her life to are the same ones that enthrall me. Over the years, we’ve had countless conversations over tea. We’ve gone away for writing retreat weekends, where we hole up in our hotel rooms and come out to meet for meals and more conversation.
Sometimes we go shoe shopping, or go to museums. But through it all we discuss what the story is and the right voice to convey it in.
My writing buddy is Karen Pryor. Because of her writing skill, and the publication of her book, Don't Shoot the Dog: The Art of Teaching and Training, the world discovered positive reinforcement training. She’s written many other books, scientific papers, and magazine articles. For a full bibliography, see her website. You’d think that with that body of work, that she could retire from writing, and put her full attention to her other interests (she’s currently into ballroom dancing.) But the stories and the writing still engage Karen. Currently, she’s working on recounting her work in the 1970s when she studied dolphin behavior in the open ocean (to inform the fishing industry in better ways of doing things.) This story is fifty years old, and yet it is hugely relevant to today’s world.
When Karen first showed me this piece, it was more a straightforward retelling of that important scientific work. But as my role as her writing buddy, I saw some themes that were there, that she took for granted, because it’s simply how she sees the world. I marked up the draft.
We discussed the edits. Karen saw the story within the story. She rewrote the piece. We discussed it. She added and edited until the story was fully hers. I got at least as much from helping Karen as she did from me. I came away from this process with more clarity for some pieces that I’m working on. Once again, I got to see Karen’s writing process. It’s masterful and as always, I feel fortunate to learn from her.
In my next post, I’ll share what Karen wrote.