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Updated: Jun 10, 2020

THE DISCERNING WRITER, the writer who respects his audience and his craft will consider execution with the same weight, or gravity, he does content. If an author has genuine command of a topic (content), and if he takes the time to craft it well (execution) he will earn both my respect and my attention. If, however, the writing is poorly executed, if it reads woefully like a first draft, if the content fails to persuade, or if it limps from page to page, I will direct that same attention elsewhere. It depends on appetite, of course, but it is the writers who charm as well as they inform that we come back to again and again. And again.

Real nobility in a text lies in a cooperation, a harmony between content and execution.

Years ago, I read a biography of one of my favorite literary heroes. It was written by a well-known author with a reputation for literary biography. I will not mention the title of the book or the name of the author. I will say that I have not read anything of his since. Why? As well-researched and well-ordered as his content might have been, so little care was taken in the writing, it just asked too much of me as a reader. The disappointment was thorough. It made me work too hard for my reward, had there actually been any reward. The writer's task is to inspire the reader, not exhaust them.

He made jokes that didn't work. Where he attempted to be clever he was most often sterile, or offensively dull. He repeated himself with annoying regularity. He made hard opinions that not only made you feel uncomfortable, he offered little, if any, commentary to justify his claim. The reader was forced to take his word for it. This is not only unattractive in a text, it is reckless and irresponsible—which reminds me; he also used excessive alliteration. Please think twice before using this particular rhetorical device. Alliteration never sounds as clever as you might think. Most often it makes a silly music. It exposes the lazy writer and the dull ear. I'm not suggesting that you never use alliteration, just exercise caution and perhaps taste in your application.

This particular author had reasonably good content, or at least the promise of reasonably good content, but however strong that content might have been it could not carry the book on its own. I am not sure if his editor was asleep or distracted, but he should have been flogged to let this kind of performance slip by. Out of curiosity, and to make sure I was not being unfair, I read the reviews. I was not alone in my aggravation. Sadly, the reviews were consistent.

On the other hand, there have been times I had little clue what an author was actually saying, but there was such velvet and honey in the voice, the movement in the lines was so fluid and rapturous, the portraiture so vivid, I could not help but enjoy the ride. To be lost never felt so good. But I was lost. Once the stupor passed I just felt cheated.

As the above examples show, it is not difficult even for a published author to lose or misprize the balance between content and execution. Had author #1 put as much time into the writing as he did so conspicuously with the scholarship, the scales might have tipped more generously in his direction. But he did not. If author #2 had thought more about clarity and less about arranging the flowers or dazzling us with his lyrical heft, I might have asked for more. But he did not.

Effective wordcraft is about negotiating information and charm, about finding a healthy balance, a kind of justice between the two. Pace, rhythm, meter, dynamics, harmony, color, shading, volume, these may sound like musical conventions but they are elements of the well executed text. If you have no sense of these, or a poor sense of these, then practice—learn, study, put your ear to the page, and practice. If language is slippery, and it is, if it is elusive, and it is, it is also magnificent. It will demand your full attention and will throw you if you're not careful. Like riding a thoroughbred, a creature with high spirits, exceptional wordcraft reflects a cooperation between two living things. Now there's metaphor you can trust.

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