I remember as if it were yesterday. It is seared in my aging memory. It was the beginning of my writing and my speaking in churches. Ironically, it began with Jesus. I was asking a Spiritualist friend what the Spiritualists thought about Jesus. Oh, she said, we believe he was a great master, a great healer, a medium, but we don't think he was divine.
I objected strongly saying, but all of us are divine. My friend chuckled saying, I guess that includes poor Jesus. Then she added seriously, that's why you should be speaking in church. Later she made a phone call; the Spiritualists in nearby Lily Dale contacted me and, although I didn't know it at the time, I was off and running. It was the beginning of a new preaching and writing ministry.
That talk led to an occasional clergy column in the local paper and invitations to speak to the Unitarian Universalists, to the Presbyterians, to other Spiritualist Churches. Then the clergy column expanded into a regular column twice a month. I was a columnist, but I had lots to learn as a writer.
Little by little, column by column, I learned to write more effectively. I learned that the active voice is stronger than the passive: (Whitney sang the national anthem. Not, the anthem was sung by Whitney). That common Anglo-Saxon words (sweat) are better than the more sophisticated Latin ones (perspire). That the beginning and end of the sentence have more impact than what's in-between. But here is some of the advice from great writers that helped me most. I wish I could say I always followed it, but I haven't.
F. Scott Fitzgerald warns writers, "Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke."
The American novelist Elmore Leonard tells us: "My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip."
And that master of writing William Strunk Junior, author of "The Elements of Style. "Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines, and a machine no unnecessary parts."
Isn't that what Robert Southey, an English poet of the 19th century, said more poetically? "It is with words as with sunbeams - the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn."
Closer to our own time Ernest Hemingway told us, "It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics."
And there is the choice of words. Mark Twain once famously said, "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."
Jean Paul Sartre tells us "Words are loaded pistols." The writer who uses a great many words to express her meaning does not have her reader target clearly in mind. She is not using her words precisely and in the end she will miss her mark.
And then when to finish? With great insight William Faulkner said, "A piece of writing is never finished, it is just abandoned." Or as the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood wrote, "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word."
Let me end with wisdom from William Zinsser, author of "On Writing Well." "There's not much to be said about the period, except that most writers don't reach it soon enough," and "Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual - it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain."
That's what I learned about writing. It helped me; I hope it has helped my readers.
Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O'Rourke lives in Cassadaga. His column appears on the second and fourth Thursday each month. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His new book, "The Living Spirit" is a collection of previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website www.danielcorourke.com/