8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Engaging Play

One of my first jobs on the college newspaper at Kansas—The University Daily Kansan—was copyediting. As students in Dr. John Bremner’s editing class, each of us had to do a set number of shifts during the semester. I had written before, all kinds of writing for years, since I elementary school; but I had never edited writing—either mine or anyone else’s—as meticulously as I learned to edit in that class and on that desk.

Don Munday served as copy desk chief. He was an advanced undergraduate in his early 20s, but looked ageless. While he sat in the slot of the U-shaped desk, we were arrayed around him on the outside edge, making our editing marks on sheets of newsprint onto which reporters had typed their stories. Don was droll and very smart, and he had on his desk, facing us, a small statue of the Big Boy, a pudgy figure in checkerboard overalls whose image adorned the JB’s Big Boy restaurants that operated in Kansas at the time, and to whom Don bore an uncanny resemblance.

Day slid into shadow during each shift, the next door newsroom’s typing and buzz growing quieter until it ended altogether as evening progressed. Mainly I remember the fun of bathing our hands in words. I’ve never particularly enjoyed crossword puzzles or Scrabble, but decades later I still miss the challenge of wedging music and sense into a difficult headline space.

We formatted each page of our newspaper six columns across, and when it was time to write a headline Don would give us the count—the amount of space we had to fit the headline into: between one and six columns wide, between one and three lines of text, and the size of the print (the larger the print size the fewer words that would fit per line). The smaller the print size and the more columns of width and lines of depth, the more words would fit into the headline and the easier it was to write. One column headlines were the most difficult.

Early on, I learned that to compose a good head I had to read the entire story, distill its essence in my mind, and begin to play with words. Brevity mattered, but so did sound and sense. What began with something like “University Registrar encourages students to sign up for classes early” had to be whittled down: “Registrar urges early registration.” I discovered the value of play without noticing it. I’d try one word then another, searching for synonyms, trying this verb then that, excising adjectives, collapsing nouns into smaller and smaller words. I started to hear the emotional tone beyond strict meaning that each word carries. We editors played with poems, really, composing our kind of haiku. We’d practice with puns, seeing how far we could go before it became too much, too stylized, to obscure.

A few years later, I copyedited in my first professional newspaper job, and experienced one of my most productive periods of creative writing. Knocking off work at midnight or 1 a.m., still energized, in my basement apartment I’d stand by a tall chest of drawers tapping on the typewriter placed atop it, my mind roiling with the language I had kneaded and massaged for the previous eight hours. In play I’d pry my mind open, breaking and remaking the rules it’s impossible to learn any other way. I came to trust the truth of language to push past the limits others have erected to fence out the innovative. I found that surprise resides in play. Language’s musical echoes get buried in everyday exchanges but uncover themselves in play’s silly sideways illumination, in the infrared or ultraviolet glow just outside the spectrum of normal light.

So I bend words, phrases, sentences, ideas into myriad effects, just to see what happens. Just to see how it sounds this way or that, to see where the emphasis falls when I slide the word left or right, when I slip in the punctuation that punches or for fun flip a different switch. So much of writing is necessarily purposeful and directed, but play is my source, tapping into the deep wells within language and within me from which my writing flows. I freewrite; I brainstorm; I make word clusters; I concept map. I don’t expect the product of this play to see daylight; that isn’t its function. But through it I ready myself for serious writing business.

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