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.