Writing for the Trees

In this first installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author and blogger Jean Zimmerman shares ideas about

How Arborists Can Communicate With the World and Have Fun Doing it

Michelle Sutton wrote a great post recently about getting an article published as an arborist. Here are a few ideas to tag on to hers, based on my experience as an author and from running writing workshops for arborists. Good writing is a craft that you can learn, one which will help you with the business of your life — and the business of arboriculture.

Writing and arboriculture might seem to be two vastly different pursuits. One is abstract, you might think, while the other is concrete. With one, you’re getting your hands dirty, while for the other you rely on a sterile keyboard and a screen. However, communication is of vital importance in a world with so many ways to relate to each other, such a jumble of digital distractions and multiple demands on our time. Putting together an effective piece of writing is more valuable for arborists now than ever.

Good writing is clear thinking. Communication with peers and the chain of command in your company, with clients, with municipalities or nonprofits with whom you must deal, all benefit from decent prose.

Think you aren’t a writer? The fact is, most of us know how to write. You might write every day – when you text, for example – but I’m guessing you also write your fair share of work emails, reports or proposals.

What is the most immediate subject possible? It’s what you know. “Why do you think people need stories?” said Pulitzer Prize-winning Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz. “We are stories. Even our names are stories.”

A little writing exercise can help to get the juices flowing. Here is one: Write a few sentences about the first tree you remember seeing in your life. For me it would be the apple tree in my back yard. Describe it in detail, and your relationship to it. Or, alternatively, describe your favorite tree – not the species but a specific tree. Take five minutes and see what you come up with.

What about writing for work?

Former go-to communication tools might no longer be relevant. I knew a salesman at a tree company who was famous for getting a million dollar’s worth of contracts in his first year on the job, having never even been in the industry before. His name was Chuck. I asked Chuck what he gave to potential clients he pitched. A business card? A packet of materials about why the company is so great? Are you kidding? he said. Now that there’s texting I threw my cards away. I never need paper. So maybe Chuck knows best. (I’m still using business cards, just in case.)

I find texting to be central now, though. I recently texted someone with a work question. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got back a series of partial sentences, no capital letters, no periods. The person writing is 25. So there are different approaches to texting, perhaps depending on generation.

I personally think if you’re writing the CEO of your company you should probably use punctuation in a text. Or better yet, write an email. An email is more formal and needs to have complete sentences, short paragraphs, and consist of single page. If your spelling is not world class, you must run your document by someone better at it than you. Or use spellcheck. You must spell properly in any business document you produce. That is not open to debate.

One thing my 31-year-old daughter always criticizes in my emails is a lack of enthusiasm. You need more exclamation marks, she says. So I try to throw one in once in a while. It makes me sound like a better person!

Another exercise: Look at your phone, and turn one of the last texts you wrote into a story. Take five minutes and see what you come up with.

What about longer forms of writing – a report, say, or a proposal? I have written many of both. Do write an outline. Do borrow from your betters. Does your company have a template you can use? Is there some existing article or document you can imitate? (No crime in that!) Again, short paragraphs are always best. Use bullet points. Show your work to someone you respect before you send it off.

The first sentence of a proposal or a report is what we call in journalism the lede. The lede is the attention grabber The lede is followed by the nut graf. The nut graf contains everything in the document, all boiled down into two or three sentences. The reader will get your drift even if they don’t read any further.

What about grammar? A question is followed by a question mark. No, really, you probably learned all you need in grade school.

If you are determined to find out more about grammar, there is a famous book called The Elements of Style by E.B. White – yes, the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little – that can tell you everything. There is a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, a period at the end, and maybe some commas in there someplace. I obviously think it’s less important than your 10th grade English teacher did. That’s what copyeditors are for, if you ever come to write an article or a book. Otherwise, don’t let a fear of grammatical perfection hold you back.

If you’re going to remember one thing about writing, it should be clarity. Conciseness. Don’t use two words when one will do.

Something that scares people is writer’s block. Everyone has it sometimes. I know I do. One thing that can get you past writer’s block is practice, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect – or good anyway. In my case, a concentrated bout of research usually does the trick, loosens me up.

Everyone has times when they can’t write. Go out and kick some leaves. Watch a movie. Bake brownies. Think about anything but writing. Bowling. Pickleball. (Not the news, it’s too depressing.)

And don’t take your first draft too seriously. Somebody said there are no successful writers, there are only successful rewriters.

The fact is that writing is hard even for professionals. An expert on writing, William Zinsser, wrote, “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it’s hard.”

Let’s talk about the first person. The “I” voice. If practice makes perfect, then writing in your own voice, just what you want to write, can help limber you up. Keep a pad somewhat handy, by your bed, say, and jot down thoughts you might otherwise forget. Dreams. Angry letters you should never send off. Love letters you will never have the courage to send. Wacky ideas.

Then, if some topic strikes you as important – climate change, say, and its little known impacts for where you live – you can try your hand at an essay for the local newspaper or maybe even an opinion piece for a national paper, magazine or web site. Use those scribbled thoughts, enlarging and elaborating on them. Also, if you feel more ambitious, you can consider keeping a blog. I find that in my blog I can work out ideas for my enjoyment and that of my readers.

Another exercise: Write a paragraph about the first time you held someone’s hand.

I told my mother I was suggesting this and she said, “The first time you hold someone’s hand is when you’re a baby, and no one could remember that!“ True. You may have to use your imagination. Or perhaps jump ahead to the first time holding someone’s hand meant something to you. For example, in my case, it was holding that blond-haired boy’s hand at summer camp. You probably have had some experience like that. Again, no need to belabor the point, just take five minutes.

Or read a book for inspiration. There have been a lot of books recently about trees, and some of them have really impressed readers. The Overstory by Richard Powers is a novel but also is stuffed with material about trees. The Hidden Life of Trees, by a German forester, sometimes refers to trees as “guys” but has its own point of view, and is short into the bargain. Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard offers a fascinating back story. The author came from a Canadian logging family and went on to become a scientist with amazing theories about how trees grow.

You could go back a bit and delve into John Muir, one of America’s great environmentalists. If you like inspirational quotes, he is the man for you. Try My First Summer in the Sierras, published in 1911. Muir wrote, famously, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

These books would indicate that writing about what you know is a formula for success. Arboriculture offers a vast canvas of subject matter.

Whether it’s a scrawl on your yellow pad, a brilliant email to your boss or the next best seller, your writing can provide both fun and success. It can actually feel good to write.

If you ever would like another set of editorial eyes on something, feel free to give me a holler. Or if you’d like me to come in and give your people a writing workshop, I’m available for that too.

Writing is like dancing. The more you do it, the better you get. It’s also like riding a bike, in that once you learn, you have the skill for life. As folks used to almost say in the Sixties, write on!

Jean Zimmerman can be reached at [email protected]. Her blog at  https://jeanzimmerman.com/community/blogging covers trees, history and culture.