Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Attention

In details there’s the truth.
Richard Ben Cramer

In all probability, nothing taught me more about paying attention than my time writing about the dead. So it’s fortunate that the newspaper writing for which I first was paid was an obituary. As a 19-year-old city desk clerk at the Eagle and Beacon in Wichita, Kansas, I daily transcribed obituary notices phoned in by funeral home directors.

For many outside journalism, obits (obituaries) evoke a mixture of the morbid and (perhaps for that reason) the comical. We all take the important dead—those famous and those related to us–seriously. But the idea of writing about the dead for a living, especially the ordinary deceased who have died in ordinary circumstances of ordinary diseases or age, often strikes people as somewhat bizarre.

And I felt the same way, until it became my job. At that point, anxiety initially replaced the humor. What if I misspelled a name or omitted a relative from the list of surviving family? What if I got an honorary title wrong or missed an important civic group to which the deceased belonged? Sometimes I overheard the periodic calls editors received from disgruntled family members; I didn’t want to be the cause of one of those calls. So attending to details meant first and foremost not screwing up.

Later I wrote obituaries involving more than the standard funeral home notice. Several papers where I worked had an informal habit of running a daily “long obit,” which we reporters referred to as “the death of the day” or “death du jour.” From the death notices we received, we chose someone once in the public eye—maybe in a peripheral way—but perhaps no longer so. Since I was an intern, reporting and writing the death of the day often fell to me.

Over time, writing obits became less about not getting it wrong and more about saying something true and essential about that person’s life. Once I wrote about a lawyer with a distinguished but behind-the-scenes career in the state attorney general’s office years earlier who had committed suicide in his 40s. I remembered talking with his former boss, the former attorney general himself, and the mixture of respect and grief I heard in his voice brought home that everyone, however unknown, has had someone somewhere who felt the same way about him or her. The level of the person’s fame didn’t determine the quality of the obituary; the level of the writer’s attention to details did.

Attention, then, had everything to do with creating an engaging experience for the reader. But to what, exactly, does the writer need to attend? Everything. Weaker writers, I discovered as a teacher, focused only on content and, to a lesser extent, organization. Beyond that, they simply tried to avoid mistakes. The stronger the student writer, however, the more the elements of writing to which she attended. As I improved as a writer, I had broadened my writing concerns in the same way.

The words I chose would shape the tone and impression the reader felt. Through them, I could engage the reader intellectually, emotionally, even morally. I could generate humor, irony, compassion, outrage. And of course, my words helped drive the rhythm and pace of the writing. I could speed the reading up or slow it down, set a musical or matter-of-fact tone.

Attending to sentence length and structure created, enhanced, or destroyed that crucial sense of “flow.” Students I taught often assumed that all sentences in journalistic writing are short and punchy, that they all read like a passage from a Hemingway short story (which are not, by the way, all constructed completely from short sentences either). Engaging writing of all kinds, however, is more likely to use a variety of sentence lengths and types. The trick is figuring how often to use what kind of sentence and at what moment.

That figuring begins with attending to language in general, especially written language. To succeed, I attended to the differences between the stories my editors chopped up and rearranged and the ones they left intact. I attended to how other, more successful writers used words, syntax, structure and content. I read more attentively the writing of students in my classes, of writers on the student newspaper, of professional journalists, of essayists and novelists, historians and scientists.

This may sound like the most tedious labor, but it has never felt that way. And that’s because the most important quality I look for in a writer is something we’re all born with but which we often let atrophy: curiosity. Good reporters, like all good writers, have a desire to understand. They look toward when others look away. They ask questions when others would rather not know. In my writing and teaching, I found that the simple act of consciously attending doesn’t just give us more information; it cultivates our curiosity. And that’s a mental muscle all writers—and the rest of us—need.

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Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: A Word About Process

There’s nothing revolutionary about saying, as I did in the previous post, that writing is a process. Many high school and college students can recite the old four-part, writing process box step they were taught: Prewrite (brainstorm, research, outline, figure out what you want to say); draft (get it down on the page, say it); revise (organize, clarify, polish); edit (proofread, correct, clean it up). Relatively simple and straightforward.

The hard part starts when you try to figure out how to perform each of these steps, and what to do when what you’re trying to do isn’t working, particularly when you aren’t quite sure what ‘”working” means. But you have a nagging feeling that what you’ve written doesn’t sound the way it’s supposed to, mainly because it doesn’t sound like anything is supposed to. But you’re doing the steps. At least you think you are.

Fortunately for me, rather than writing more of the English lit papers I produced in high school, in college I wrote news stories. And although the structure of a standard newspaper story can be quite formulaic, the process for writing that story both was and was not standard. Here let me pause to explain how I experienced the process in some detail, because this has informed everything related to my views about writing.

It begins when an editor assigns a story, tells you how long it should run, and gives you a deadline. Until that deadline arrives, or unless you run into a problem, you determine your own process for reporting and writing; and I have those seen those processes vary widely from writer to writer. That’s the non-standard part.

The standard part starts when you complete your story and turn it in. At that point, you enter into a dance with those who review your work. A desk editor reads it. She likes it, or doesn’t, or more often likes some aspects but not others. She tells you which parts generate which feelings in her. She peppers you with questions about why you made the reporting, word, organization, structural, and content choices you did. She may suggest different choices and return the story to you to ponder them; she may insist on different choices and return the story to you to incorporate them; or she may, if she is of a mind to and her deadline approaches, simply erase parts of what you wrote and type the different choices into your story. You may, of course, argue for your choices. You may win some or all of these arguments; you may lose some or all of them. If you want to work long as a journalist, you will thereafter know you must be prepared to at least explain your choices.

In any event, you arrive at some accommodation satisfactory to her (and, hopefully, you), and the story moves on. Depending on the importance of the story, another editor or editors higher on the food chain also may review it, generating new questions, new defenses, new alternatives, new accommodations. Or their dissatisfaction may reach such a level that they decide not to run the story at all.

But assuming they approve, your story then travels to the copy desk. Here, in addition to the kind of scrutiny previously applied, your story undergoes a line-by-line, word-by-word, punctuation-mark-by-punctuation-mark reexamination. Copy editors are the kind of people who argue over using the second serial comma before a conjunction (in the way baseball fans get into disputes about the designated hitter rule or jazz aficionados debate whether fusion was ever “really” jazz); they know which city names can appear in a story without the state or country name added (New York and Paris) and which cannot (Salinas, CA and Bhopal, India); they can recite the names of the current American president’s cabinet members and various heads of state around the world; and they read The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual to pass the time. These are the people who now have your work in their hands, and if you are smart, you learn to be grateful for that fact.

But copy editors also look for flaws—“holes”—that previous editors may have missed. If they discover significant holes, you will be called upon to fill them. If you can’t, the powers that be may yet decide not to run the story.

At this point a story undergoes the more mechanical processes of turning it into print (or these days, text for the screen). It’s formatted or coded, arranged on the page (screen), and proofed or previewed. Again, copy editors conduct this proofing, looking at the product as the reader will see it. They may catch additional errors of varying levels of severity, fixable or not. Even at this late date, because of holes or new information (or jitters on the part of the editors) a story can be pulled.

Accommodating your editors might mean something as simple as changing a few words, moving a paragraph to a slightly different spot, or adding a clarifying sentence. It might mean something as complex as returning to sources you’ve already consulted, re-interviewing people you’ve already spoken to, deleting entire sections, completely shifting the direction of the story, or scrapping virtually everything and starting over. Reworking the story can take a few seconds, or a few days, or longer. Or all of your work on a story can disappear down a rabbit hole from which it never returns.

In short, at any given moment in the process, anything and everything can be up from grabs.

Only years later did I realize that the demands of this writing situation changed me after a half dozen years. And perhaps it’s only now that I understand how much it matured my writing practice.

 

Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me, Part 2

We sat, about 20 or so of us, at our desks in a classroom high in Kansas University’s Flint Hall. A bank of windows offered a beautiful view of the Wakarusa River valley, but out attention was directed at our professor, Susanne Shaw, giving a mock news conference about a fictitious house fire. She provided a set of details, and we were free to ask questions to clarify or elaborate on what she had told us. Then we had the rest of the class time to type our stories (Yes type! On manual typewriters, no less!), which we turned in at the end of the hour.

I suspect that every journalist remembers vividly the first time his or her story went under an editor’s knife. For me, that happened in Prof. Shaw’s Reporting I class in early 1980.

At our next class meeting, she returned our stories crisscrossed with so much red ink that they resembled crime scene photos. And in a way, they were. Aside from the typos, sentence structure problems, and various inaccuracies, most of my frustration came from seeing the wide gulf between what I thought I had understood and conveyed, and what I had actually rendered on the page. In short, I had failed to create for the reader the drama and clarity I intended.

Often during my teaching, my students have made the same mistake. We’ve all had to learn that in writing what you mean to say or the experience you mean to create doesn’t matter. Only what you actually create does. Good writing doesn’t come from a great idea; it comes from a writer choosing the words, syntax, organizational structure, and content that compel the reader to keep reading.

In the quest to engage the reader, I have only those four tools—diction, syntax, structure, and content—at my disposal. But if I make the right choices about how to use those tools, they’re more than enough to meet the task. Journalism taught me that, in essence, composing is choosing. It’s not, though, a single creative act but a series of acts, demanding the interplay of sometimes contradictory skills: creating and critiquing, cutting and generating, playing and applying ruthless gravity. Which is another way of saying it’s a process that requires discipline.

Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me, Part 1

I graduated from high school 35 years ago as a strong enough writer to escape first-year college composition and get into journalism school, but I didn’t really understand how to write well. Six and a half years later, when I left fulltime journalism (reluctantly—but that’s a story for another time), I had become a much stronger writer, but not from magical inspiration or newfound talent. Journalism forced me to compose more and work harder, and it made my writing process more conscious and deliberate. In high school, I could turn out a decent paper on demand, but through journalism, I began to learn what writing was and how to work on it; I learned how to experiment and play with words and clauses and phrases and sentences; and I learned that mastering the process would change what my writing could do for readers and what it could do for me. In the decades that have followed, as I’ve written fiction and poetry, edited technical manuals, composed a doctoral dissertation and other academic pieces, and worked as a college-level teacher and administrator, journalism formed the foundation of whatever success I’ve had. It certainly isn’t the only place to learn these lessons, but the more I developed as a writing teacher and administrator, the more I recognized that I kept drawing from this source.

So here I present the first of the eight essentials lessons I learned:

In June 1983, I stepped off the train and into a steamy Philadelphia summer to work as an intern on the business copy editing desk of The Philadelphia Inquirer. On my first day at work, my brilliant and affable copy desk chief, Jim Moffatt, gave me a button a couple of inches in diameter that read in capital, multicolored letters, “ PYIRP.” I found out that this stood for “Put Yourself In the Reader’s Place.”

Moff reminded all of us on the copy desk that whatever the newspaper’s writers and columnists had in mind, those of us on the desk had one primary job: to stand in for the reader who would pick up the Inquirer at a newsstand or from her front stoop and make sure what she read was as accurate and understandable and engaging as we could make it.

From then on, I tried to practice what Moff preached, but decades passed before its significance sank in, and it took even longer before I consciously made it the core of how I define writing: To write is to create an experience—made of words, sentences, a structure, and content—that engages the reader.

Of course, written texts achieve (or attempt to achieve) all sorts of other aims. They persuade, entertain, energize, inspire, disturb, provoke. But if what I write doesn’t manage to elbow its way to the forefront of a reader’s attention, it won’t achieve anything else. I’ve found that this holds true even when I write exclusively for myself. The ideas, phrases, vignettes, descriptions, and other bits and pieces I (as writer) have put down in my journals and notebooks over the years were recorded so that I could re-experience them in a particular way later as a reader.

This became clearer to me years later when I taught writing to college students. I discovered that no matter how technically clean the writing, something often seemed missing from my students’ work, and I discovered it was this: They had no particular intentions for what they hoped to accomplish with their readers; in fact, they generally had no sense of the reader at all. Instead they fashioned packets of information with no purpose beyond generating the number of words the assignment required. But they failed to imagine the possible responses of actual human beings to what they might say or how they might say it.

At that point, I understood consciously what before then had only driven my work implicitly: The attempt to engage particular readers in particular ways for particular purposes had shaped my decisions, had helped me choose which words and which combinations and what details to include, and these had given my writing the coherence and direction that made it work.

And this backbone has structured my own writing, and my work with other writers, ever since.

Vehicle

“I’m your vehicle, baby, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go…”
“Vehicle”
The Ides of March

Chaos surrounds me these days.

Within my head, this is a more or less constant state of affairs. My thoughts and emotions regularly pursue one another in no clear pattern. But during the past month, they have found a counterpart in the material world: I have moved from a city in one state to another city in a neighboring state. Weeks of packing, arrangements with moving companies and loading companies and storage companies, financial arrangements, home purchasing arrangements, school arrangements. Each step depends on the ones preceding it, but we haven’t the time to wait for the outcome of the previous steps before we plot the next ones. Events fly forward. I not only face the unknown; I feel propelled headlong into it.

About a week ago–though it feels both more distant and more recent in time–boxes sat on the counters, on the floor, cardboard mouths gaping open, partially packed, crumpled newspaper and bubble wrap trailing from them like slobber from a slack-jawed fool. I felt myself from time to time on the verge of panic. Would I ever be finished before the movers arrived? What if I wasn’t? What would happen? I knew intellectually that in a month or two at most, the move would be over, and we would be settled in our new place, in a different home, in a new daily routine. But between the present and that imagined future, an impossible indeterminate fog–blank and all-enveloping–drew closer and closer to me.

Naturally, it reminded me of writing, specifically of the writing process.

Because I had packed the same way I write. I avoided it, thinking hopefully that everything would come together. And in the packing, as with my writing, a fear of chaos drove my avoidance. I looked at the boxes and the articles to be packed and knew that I should have pulled everything from the cabinets, made everything visible, much earlier. That would have told me how many boxes I needed, how much packing material, what needed to go where. But it would have meant plunging myself into the chaos whole hog. Instead, I had tried to nickle and dime my way into it hoping that I could keep from being overwhelmed. Sooner or later, though, everything has to come out, even if it’s going to go to Goodwill or into the trash. Sooner or later, all the drawers and cabinets and closets have to be laid bare.

The only way I’ve found to face that chaos is a robust writing process. Because chaos is the energy that powers my writing. However much its power frightens me, nothing happens without it. That chaos might manifest itself as an urge or impulse, as a vague idea about a character or a line of dialogue or an object or a moment in a story; it might appear as a persistent question or a seemingly irrelevant but nagging detail. But however it reveals itself, I have to allow this chaos in.

I also know, though, the power of that energy to consume me, to draw me into the morass of obsessive thinking, or rumination about my life, my identity, my mistakes. My process is the vehicle that directs that energy and transforms it into creative motion. It gives me courage to face what my chaos might tell me about myself, what truths it might reveal. And it gives me the means to find the transcendent writing and reading experience in that truth.