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Andy Rooney  On Writing


Well, when I have a newspaper column, I have 800 words, and that's it, they don't want anymore. I mean, they have allotted me a space in the paper, so that's when you stop. But having boundaries for writing is very important. There was a great musician, Tchaikovsky, and he wrote, in his youth, he wrote a lot, and he continued to write a lot, words on the paper, and he said that as a young man, he would sit down at his typewriter and had the world to write about and could write nothing. And he said, "I turned to music, and all I had was the notes on the scale. And within that boundary, I could go to work and do something." He said that writing words, the world was too open to me, and I just could not put down anything. So it is necessary to be contained. People say, you know my 60 Minutes pieces are three minutes or less, and at least I know what I have to do. I don't have half an hour, I don't have an hour. I have boundaries. And it's important for a writer to have boundaries when he sets out to do something. Limitations.


Well, as I said, no one speaks as he writes and no one writes as he speaks. When I'm writing for television, I am writing as I speak, or close to the way I speak. And when I write a column for a newspaper, I do not write exactly the same way. But close. I think if anybody has to decide which way to edge toward, I would advise any young writer to put down on paper his words or her words closer to the manner in which he or she speaks than the way he would have, she would have, traditionally written. In other words, I think there's too much formality in a lot of writing. The problem with informality is it gets too big and discursive.


I know quite a bit about language, but I tend to be a little bit sloppy about my grammatical constructions and that sort of thing. But I think that it's important, I have a lot of books on grammar behind me, and it's fun. I like to browse through them and look. There's so many constructions that are interesting that you, that don't occur to you. I was thinking yesterday about the word prejudice for instance. We use the word prejudice so quickly and easily. Someone said to me a few days ago, "I'm prejudiced against the Turks. I don't like them. I spent a year in Istanbul, and I'm just prejudiced against Turks." Well, he wasn't prejudiced. I mean, that's not prejudice. We are using the word wrong. I mean it's not proper to say if you know the Turks that you are prejudiced. Prejudice suggests judging before you know them. He had an opinion. He was opinionated, that's what he was. He was not prejudiced. If I know about a group of people and don't like them, that's an opinion. If I say I don't like them before I know them, that's prejudice. But there are imprecise things like that we do with the word. And then I get a lot of second grade, retired English teachers who are proud of knowing who from whom or not to end sentences with prepositions or I got one letter yesterday from someone complaining that I had used the word dumb when I meant stupid. Well, grammatically proper, dumb, which most of us know means speechless, unable to speak. But I don't think you call someone "deaf and dumb" anymore, because the word has acquired another meaning. It means stupid. And I used the word dumb in the sense of stupid because this is casual, colloquial talk, and I would not, it would not occur to me to call somebody who could neither hear nor speak "deaf and dumb" because the word dumb has a meaning to it now that it did not formally have when we used it in relation to people who could not speak. So, you get people who write, who write me, picking me up on small grammatical points. I don't use the subjunctive much. I say if I was to use the subjunctive all the time it would sound phony. I do not say, "If I were to use the subjunctive it would sound phony." Now that's wrong, but I just don't care for the subjunctive, it always sounds artificial to me.


Well, technical jargon, we did a piece, Bob and some sociologists, years ago. Sociologists [laughs] are the worst for jargon. And I think it's because they really don't have much expertise in anything. And to keep you out of their area of expertise, they use these words that are special to their own group. And they have their own meaning to them. And you don't know what the meaning is. You're not dumb, they have just decided these words mean something that they would not mean to an ordinary person. So the sociologists, by so doing, create their own little world.

Doctors and lawyers are notorious for this and they exclude people from their area of expertise with language alone, quite often.


No, I have never been much for adjectives. One problem, one danger I find I am susceptible to, and I guess The New Yorker did it, years ago, to me, there's a tendency to use too many of the "hedging" little words, the ones, the words that take the absoluteness out of a sentence. I say "almost," or "perhaps," or "probably," or, "always," or "very," or, instead of saying, "definitely this is black" I will say "this is very close to being black" or "this feels somehow," I mean, feel is a word that no longer has any tactical sense in the way we use it. What do I mean? Feeling, feel does not, you don't have to touch anything to feel it, the way I use the word feel and the way a great many people use the word feel now, it has nothing to do with touching. And there are a great many words like that, that I probably use too much. I take out "probably." There are too many words like that. I'll take out the "too many." There are words like that I use too much. Now my tendency would have been to say, "I, probably too often, I use some words like that, that maybe I shouldn't use." Where I should go directly at it and say, "I use too many words." Period.

I meant to say, "Feel has no tactile sense" in what I said.


I do write in the first person a lot, and I think it's a mistake not to. I think it's false not to. Someone was saying to me just this morning that he heard the ABC correspondent who interviewed, who asked a question of President Clinton yesterday on the, after the appointment of the Supreme Court judge. And he asked a question, Britt Hume asked a question of the president, and the president was pretty sore. And later, in putting the piece together, Britt Hume, who did the piece, said, "A reporter asked the president a question." He did not use the first person. Journalists classically do not use the first person. I very often find it false. I read a piece in the Times, some months ago, when a reporter for the Times went to a White House party, a very important party, it was not a White House party, it was a party thrown for President Clinton in Washington by a rich person. And he had been a guest at the party. And he told the story third person. And that was wrong. He was there, and should have said he was there, and should have used I in that story, but the Times doesn't use I and it is often artificial. When you see what they do, and you know that he was the reporter, and the person refers in the story to "a reporter" or "the reporter" or "someone asked him," no, it's false not to use the first person sometimes. And as an essayist, it's absolutely crucial. And anyway, when I use the first person, I am usually not thinking I, I am thinking you. I think people associate themselves with me when I use the word I. I do not use one, one does not use one, if one is a grown-up writer in America these days. So to that extent, I am nervous about it sometimes. I very often take some Is out, I, I, it is quite possible to overdo it, but it's false never to use I.

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