The Secret to Great Writing

I can still visualize him though I haven’t seen him in over 30 years. A head of hair, still full but thinning, impossibly white and shiny. His shoulders sloped enough to age him but twinkly blue eyes subtracted time. Translucent skin and rosy cheeks and predictably dull cardigan.

Flat tiesAnd then those ties; he made them himself. Pastels or florals and his signature design: sewn straight across the bottom instead of diamonding to the end like a normal tie. Which fits, because “normal” isn’t a word I would have use to describe Mr. I’ve-long-ago-forgotten-his-name. It’s easier to sew them that way, he explained. He was no slave to fashion but his style had a distinctive Je nest sais quoi about it.

He was my freshman honor’s English class professor and he taught me something I’ve never forgotten: written well, you can transform the ordinary and mundane to extraordinary and spectacular.

I know this to be true because three decades later I can still hear him reading the paper he used as an example: “How To Make a Perfect Coke”


The assignment had been a “How-to” paper, and either I wrote about how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or another classmate did; it’s the only other title I remember.

Leaning back in the chair behind his desk, Mr. Homemade Tie begins to school us in great writing by reading. He fills the space with dramatic pause lingering on the words he most savors. His eyes loll back in his head at his favorite parts. He’s memorized that blasted paper, and by the end of it his lips are smacking at the mere suggestion of a perfect Coke.

The entire class was thirsty.

We heard ice cubes plinking into glass and the tab stabbing open a can. We saw an amber stream pouring three inches above the glass, stopping precisely 3/4 of an inch below the rim. Our fingertips and palms were cold and wet. We smelled anticipation and tasted perfection. 

We learned great writing harnesses our senses, yes, but reaches even further, into heart and marrow.  The best writing compels us to  f e e l  something special and magical and memorable. About anything. About everything.

Great writing sets up residence within us. It populates our thoughts long after we’ve read or heard the words. 

The last instructions were something about waiting a minute or two before drinking, to assure the beverage was properly chilled. I’ll be damned if every time I’ve poured a soft drink since then I’ve hesitated as long as I could before sipping to avoid sub-standard quality.

A lesson remembered and the extraordinary ordinary….

That is the power of great writing, but maybe even more so, the power of great teaching.



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