As a historian of alternative spiritual movements, I strive to understand the careers of people who lived by unusual -- and often misunderstood -- ideas. I analyze individuals, from occultists to positive-thinkers, whose inner lights, depending on one's perspective, can appear eccentric, brilliant or some mixture of the two. Navigating this bumpy intellectual terrain requires a balance of respect and critical judgment.
In finding my own voice as a historical writer, I benefited years ago from an exercise that I am convinced can help anyone to write -- and express a point of view -- more clearly and convincingly.
The simple, rigorous and revelatory exercise came to me from an accomplished essayist and social critic. First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire -- perhaps an essay, article or review -- but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.
In the action of copying the piece by hand -- not typing on a computer or tablet -- you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.
One piece that I have personally used in this exercise was a complex, yet straightforward, obituary of the controversial writer and documentarian Heinrich Harrer, written by New York Times reporter Douglas Martin.
Harrer, who died in 2006, was a complicated and disturbing figure. As a friend of the Dalai Lama's and the author of the 1953 memoir Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer helped open the Western world to a realization of Tibet's culture -- and its endangerment under Chinese domination. Several years before Harrer's death, however, it came to light that the Austrian mountaineer had enlisted in the Nazi storm troopers in 1933 -- when they were still illegal in Austria -- and five years later he joined Hitler's SS. Harrer insisted that he committed no atrocities and wore his Nazi uniform only once, on his wedding day. Harrer's conflicting roles -- as storm trooper and the chronicler of a threatened culture -- formed a haunting contradiction
The obituary writer Martin handled the matter with grace and effectiveness. He crafted one of the finest opening sentences I know in any recent journalistic profile:
Heinrich Harrer, a swashbuckling explorer who told of his magical life of conquering the world's highest peaks and tutoring the young Dalai Lama when Tibet seemed as exotic as Mars, only to have news of his Nazi past mar his final years, died Jan 7 in Friesach, Austria.
In hand copying Martin's piece, I could see the writer's persistent diplomacy of tone -- not one histrionic or overemphasized word -- and his use of simple yet dramatic imagery ("exotic as Mars"). Martin threw a full light on the byways and frictions of Harrer's career.
There is brilliance in a good writer's choices that no exercise can ever fully get at. But writing, like musical composition, can be dissected so that its connective joints and choices are seen. In that vein, I used this exercise to pick apart a piece of sports writing about the All-Star pitcher Barry Zito, whose highly individualistic training program included spiritual and motivational exercises (topics of great personal interest to me). The New York Times article, "A Pitcher Outside the Curve" by Jack Curry, displayed the freedom of the writer's choices. Curry eschewed a linear framework and leaped freely from topic to topic, though always with appropriate transitions and conjoining thoughts. The writer trusted his associative instincts.
Hand copying the Curry article gave me a sense of how to structure a piece according to my personal affinities and priorities. In fact, a profile I wrote about Zito in 2003, shortly after discovering the Curry piece, reinvigorated my own passion for writing -- and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).
My most recent use of this exercise involved a very different kind of writing. I recopied an advertisement from 1965 in which, the legendary ad man, David Ogilvy expounded on the virtues of Reader's Digest. Ogilvy perfected a form of copy-writing that is little-seen today: full-page, essay-length ads. These broadsides, sometimes bylined and more often not, were a familiar sight in the glossy magazines of the 1960s and '70s, arguing the merits of Volkswagen Beetles, Hathaway Shirts, Guinness Stout -- and, in Ogilvy's hands, Reader's Digest. As one of the pioneers of the format, Ogilvy insisted on two qualities at the back of such ads: 1) research-driven, factual information about the product, and 2) consistent truth-telling by the copy writer. Ogilvy excelled on both counts. He was a master of honorable persuasion.
Ogilvy's essay on Reader's Digest is found today in his book, Ogilvy on Advertising. Among other strengths, the essay shows how to support your claims with an acknowledgement of the opposing side's legitimacy (this should be done as more than mere lip service) and with calmly stated specifics. A typical passage goes:
Some highbrows may look down their noses at The Digest, charging it with superficiality and over-simplification. There is a modicum of justice in this charge; you can learn more about the Congo if you read about it in Foreign Affairs Quarterly, and you can learn more about Abraham Lincoln in Carl Sandburg's books about him. But have you time?
I believe Ogilvy's writing should be studied today by anyone engaged in any form of written communication, whether artistic or advertising-oriented -- and the two forms overlap more often than commonly thought. For example, any author or editor who writes flap copy for a book (as I do in my work as editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin) is producing ad copy, little different from Ogilvy's essays. The same holds true for anyone who writes a fund-raising appeal, a grant proposal or an invitation to a public event.
Finally, the overall aim of this writing exercise is not to be imitative. It is to strengthen your own voice and methods. By seeing the manner in which good writers chart their own way through a topic you will recognize certain things that you are already doing -- and that you may need to improve -- and other things that you're not doing. Determining how an effective writer puts his work together -- by actually taking apart and reassembling that work -- can open you to a new world of possibilities.