When I taught college writing, I sometimes asked my students what they thought motivated writers to write. Journalists, the students generally agreed, wrote from a vague desire to “inform” a general audience. But every reporter worth a damn that I ever knew wanted more. We wanted to render compellingly what we saw and heard. We had mixed motives: ego and ambition, public service, a hope that we could goad readers into doing the right thing, or make them notice when the right thing wasn’t being done. We wanted people to read our stories, and we wanted what they read to matter.
Making my writing matter meant finding something I wanted to say in each story I covered. It meant determining what each story was going to be about, not in the sense of its subject matter, but in the sense of revealing what made that subject worth writing (and reading) about. It meant finding an “angle.”
During one summer internship, I was assigned the “Fourth of July” story. These are the kinds of stories that newspapers hire summer interns for. It saves editors having to compel a regular, fulltime reporter to work resentfully on a holiday writing the kind of story that newspapers feel obliged to run but that no one really wants to write and readers don’t necessarily want to read. Generally, nothing new or significant happens; Fourth of July is Fourth of July.
Grateful as I was for the internship, I didn’t want to do the story. It meant driving around to neighborhood picnics and barbecues and fireworks celebrations, conducting man (or woman) in the street interviews of ordinary people saying ordinary, less than scintillating things. But I had a story to write, column inches to fill, and a deadline to meet. I had no idea what to write about Independence Day, but that’s what the reporting was for. In short, I had enough parameters set for me to create a sense of urgency. The rest I had to come up with myself.
Eventually, my angle turned about to be the almost universal refrain among the people I interviewed—old and young, male and female, native born and immigrant—that Independence Day had less to do with remembering the source and history of our freedom and more to do with a holiday and fireworks shows.
Journalism taught me that writing without an intention is like shooting an arrow without any target. Somewhere in the process of producing a piece of writing—not necessarily at the beginning—I need to find a clear intention to give my work shape and cohesiveness.
The intention for a piece of writing can be discovered in a thousand ways: identifying the audience, creating a thesis, choosing a genre, constructing an outline, determining the vocabulary, deciding whether to write in first or second or third person, the length of the piece, its title, its subject, and a hundred other choices a writer eventually has to make. In much of the writing I’ve done, someone else (an editor, professor, publication, style guide) made some of these limiting decisions for me. But ultimately the writing didn’t work unless I created or discovered my own.
Some of my writing students demanded that I provide every intention. “What do you want?” they continually asked. In a thousand ways, I tried to say, “I want you to find, within the parameters of the assignment, something you really want to tell me. I want you to do your best to make me care about what you want to show me.” To most students, intention belonged to teachers, and they were handed out, never discovered by the writer. For a few students, intentions were irrelevant; only creativity mattered. And creativity meant releasing themselves on the page with no parameters, no rules, no need for any kind of coherence.
But setting the intention for a piece of writing is as necessary as putting words on the page, because it’s from that intention that the experience I want my reader to have comes to life. And it emerges from a dialogue between the constraints others impose on our writing and those we find for ourselves.