Time to Say Goodbye to 2016, and to Some Bad Writing Habits, Too
In 2016, my favorite high school teacher, Nick Ferentinos, lost his battle with lung cancer. Nick was a teacher who selected the best and brightest students to participate in his journalism program. We thought we knew how to write until our first paper came back with more red ink than we’d ever seen on a page.
Though I hadn’t seen Nick in 25 years, I’d heard him in my head regularly, whenever I started to break one of his many rules. In journalism class, he’d tell us, “You can only break the rules once you know them.” Each day, he implored, cajoled, and castigated us until we internalized the knowledge he held so dear. Whether the lessons were about small points of grammar or large philosophical discussions, Nick delivered them with unrelenting passion. Here are a few pearls of wisdom I carry with me.
- If you feel compelled to use the word “very,” choose a better adjective. Instead of “very hungry,” use famished, ravenous, or starving. Instead of “very tired;” say exhausted, wasted, spent, or bone-weary.
- There’s never a good reason to use “in order to.” Just say “to”–the rest is superfluous.
- Express yourself with powerful verbs; and the corollary: “There is” is a horribly weak subject/verb combination.
- You have more than a number, not over a number. Can you climb over the number 100? No. But you can have more than 100.
- You can almost always cut a little more and your writing will be a little better. Distill your story to its essence.
- Pay attention to spelling, especially names.
- Talk to everyone who has a piece of the story. Reserve judgment. Keep digging.
- Tell the real story; this is not always the obvious one.
Thank you, Nick, for teaching me to write and to dig for the truth no matter how deeply its buried. With your teachings firmly embedded, I just published my first book, Perseverance and Passion: The People Who Shaped Health Care in Ukiah, California (available at Mendocino Book Company and the Ukiah Valley Medical Center gift shop). I will always be grateful for your brutal honesty and your loving compassion.