Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Rex on English and Writing

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

A Bit About My Writing Background

I have been writing for publication for more than 25 years. Before I started, I received numerous technical publications each month. However, few articles in each issue interested me and for those that did few authors went far enough in their treatment. [Years later, when I became an editor, I discovered that there are lots of writers who have something to say, there are lots of writers who can deliver on time, and there are lots of writers who understand the mechanics of good writing. Unfortunately, finding a writer with all three of these skills is very difficult and, consequently, all but the highbrow or best-known monthly publications have trouble getting more than a couple of really good pieces per issue.]

After some time, I found myself saying, "A lot of this is crap! I could do at least as good a job as most of these authors." Well, talk is cheap and so it became "put up or shut up" time! To be sure, I was handicapped by the fact that I'd failed English the last two years of high school and I thought that grammar was the person married to grandpa but hey, this was America where anything was possible, right?

For many years, one of the main commodities I have dispensed, and for which I've charged handsomely, is common sense. [Frankly, the word is a misnomer; common sense doesn't seem to be very common at all.] So, when I sat down to write a letter to the editor of a magazine for which I thought I'd like to write, I knew that if I said something like, "Hey, I'd like to write for your publication, but I don't have any qualifications whatsoever, and I have no idea what I'd write about.", the chances of getting any reply, let alone a favorable one, were slim to none. Instead, I sent him a business proposition. I pointed out some topics that I thought would be of interest to his readers, and about which I just happened to have more than a passing interest and knowledge. I mentioned that I was prepared to invest in the hardware and software needed to write and that although I had never written for publication I was a quick and enthusiastic learner.

Within several weeks, I had an offer to try out for the first IBM PC-related publication, Softalk. I was asked to write a review of a program primarily to provide a sample of my writing and to see if I could deliver on time and to a certain article length. Once I managed that the editor agreed to a 3-month trial series on the relatively new computer programming language C [the topic that launched my very successful independent consulting, teaching, and writing careers], called The C Spot. Before the three months ended, I had sold a modified version of the series to a non-competing publication and my writing career was launched. [Softalk went out of business within a year or so, but the other publication had me writing a monthly column for more than 12 years. Thank you very much Linda.]

Eventually, I went on to write hundreds of columns and features, and half a dozen technical books (one of which was translated to Japanese and Russian). I started and edited a quarterly publication and later started, edited, and published another quarterly. At one time, although I was writing three different columns each month and one each quarter, writing was still a small part of my business. All my writing was technical in nature and consisted primarily of 3,000-word articles. The one exception was a weekly newspaper column on home/small business computing. Each week, I had to introduce a topic, say something useful about it, and conclude it, all in 600 words without being able to rely on readers having read any previous installments. That was the hardest writing I ever did and it paid the least! [If you are curious to learn more about my technical writing, see www.ProgrammingClassroom.com, which now sells copies of much of my intellectual property, and www.rexjaeschke.com/writing.html.]

With all that writing behind me, you'd think I might know something about writing. I do now but it came relatively late in the process. After all, that's what editors are for right? They're there to "whip into shape" the text that writers submit. Of course, make their job too big or too difficult and you'll be out of a job.

English was My First "Foreign" Language

Regarding my appreciation of writing and literature, I consider that I had a very poor start so it was not surprising that I didn't enjoy it let alone understand it. [Even now, I joke with my son Scott an avid Shakespeare fan. He says Shakespeare wrote only 11 tragedies while I say that all 39 of his plays were tragedies!] Most of my elementary education took place in rural Australian schools with 25 children in seven grades being taught simultaneously in one room by one teacher. Looking back, I'm surprised I learned anything and I'm truly amazed at how academically capable I turned out to be. Growing up, the only books in our house were a 10-volume British encyclopedia; a small atlas; some WWII, Disney, and Phantom comics; and some western novels. No one in the family had a library card, that's for sure!

Of course, by the time I got to that big-town high school of 500 students in 5 grades and 16 different classrooms I was assumed to have some rudimentary appreciation of the written and spoken word. Which, I expect I did not. [I find it amusing to compare that with my son's high school, which had 1,600 students in 4 grades and his wasn't an especially large school.] That combined with my finishing Year 12 high school a week before I turned 16—with the corresponding lack of maturity—meant I was not well grounded in things literary. I can say with great certainly that at 15 years of age having to read, understand, and write intelligently about my Year 12 novel, Jude the Obscure, by Tomas Hardy, was "Mission Impossible". After years of therapy, I no longer wish Hardy to die a miserable and cruel death every week, once a month would be just fine!

I do recall, however, that from the earliest days I had a small library of books. I received them from school or Sunday school and I still have most titles to this day. In my much-abridged version of the Dewey Decimal System, each book was numbered, starting at 1; very original! I confess quite readily that I am a non-recovering bookaholic.

My linguistic epiphany came when I started foreign language lessons in my mid-30's. For years, I'd dabbled with a Berlitz course in German—"Der, die, oder das, das ist die Frage. Was ist die Antwort?"—but I still hadn't finished the introductory tape after 10 years! As I was travelling to international destinations and Spanish seemed to be one of the easiest languages to learn I decided to take a formal class in that at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C. [Georgetown is run by the Jesuits, a Catholic brotherhood that is well versed in languages. They offered non-credit courses in more than 60 languages, each course running for 10 weeks for three hours each Saturday morning.] The textbook was great and in English but before I could understand the Spanish grammar rules I needed to learn what they were for English, and so began my long journey into grammar. Later came a 10-week introductory German course, followed by a 10-week intermediate Spanish course and after that a lot of self-paced learning of Spanish, German, and to a lesser extent spoken Japanese.

The next major event of a literary nature occurred when my wife, Jenny, went back to university to get her Aussie teaching qualifications upgraded so that she could teach in the state of Virginia. She had to take an English class and she chose to do it on a compressed schedule—eight days over four consecutive weekends—at a local Community College. Not having taken university-level English either, I decided to tag along. As it happened, the theme was essays. For me it was a whole new form of writing and as well as liking to read essays I found I was pretty good at writing them. After that, I "discovered" audio essayists who read their works on National Public Radio and video essayists who are featured occasionally on the Lehrer Newshour TV program.

So, some 15 years into writing for publication I learned about English grammar, punctuation, and the process of writing. And I now know that grammar was not in fact married to grandpa; they just lived together "without the benefit of clergy" [thanks much Tish for introducing me to that ever so genteel phrase] and practiced conjugation.