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, 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.

Elementary Romance

Before I say more about how play deepens my relationship with language and writing, let me backtrack a bit. Up to now, I’ve framed my discussion of writing in romantic terms, casting language itself—particularly written language—as the object of a writer’s romantic intentions. But I haven’t described that romantic object. I mean, if I’m going to pursue someone romantically, it helps to know something of that person’s identity, at least superficially. What is writing? What are its elements?

Writing students often stumble over this problem. A student enters a class confident that she understands clearly what “writing” involves. She doesn’t realize that her concept differs wildly from her teacher’s and just as widely from those of her fellow students. So the teacher uses the word “writing” and each time activates a chain of associations and values unique to each student. I experienced the same problem in my MFA creative writing program. Each program participant brought his own idea of what “fiction” or “story” meant to the discussion of his classmates’ work—as did the professor—so that we spent much of our time talking past one another, imagining that we were using the same language, not realizing that it amounted to very different vocabularies and sets of values. No wonder discussions frequently degenerated into confusion and contention, spoken or unspoken.

But the trouble isn’t limited to students. Ask a different writer or writing teacher to name the essential elements of writing, and you’re bound to get some variation in answers. Some will emphasize style or voice; some will take apart the writing process; another group might focus on theme or content or message; some will head first to genres of writing (fiction, essay, poem, memoir, etc.); others will find the essence in conventions or mechanics or rules; and there will be those who most value emotion or expressiveness or genuineness of feeling.

So for clarity’s sake, let me offer my answer to the question, “What do I talk about when I talk about writing?” Simply this: A written text generates an experience that the reader undergoes while she reads. And the writer’s ability to influence that experience boils down to her use of four elements: the words she chooses, the syntax she uses to relate the words to one another, the larger organization of the text, and the content or subject matter of the writing. Take away any of these and a written text ceases to be a written text. It may become something else, and that something else may have interest or value, but it’s not writing.

An individual writer’s style or voice amounts to the way he or she combines—either unconsciously or deliberately—those elements. A genre means nothing more than a standardized, recognizable pattern for how they’re combined. Conventions are simply expectations for how they will be combined. And any sense the reader has of “knowing” the writer (aside from knowledge gained outside the text), any emotion the reader feels, or the reader’s sense of trust (or distrust) comes from the combination of those four elements.

When I play or shape or engage in any of the interactions with language that I discussed here, these are the elements I am playing or shaping of engaging with. And what I’m exploring here is how I can know and accept the unique characteristics and tendencies of each of these elements to creating experiences that matter to readers.