8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: About Drafting

I would enter the doors of the newsroom greeted by the jangle or bleat of telephones, the click of typewriter (eventually computer) keys, the voices of reporters talking to sources on the phones or gossiping with one another or trading insults, the shouts of editors checking on the status of stories in progress. Through the noise, I would make my way to my desk, turn on my typewriter or log into my computer, place my notes in front of me, and begin drafting my story.

That moment invariably excited and terrified me the most because it involved the most mystery, even more than the unknown of gathering information. By the time I began to draft, I knew I had something. I also knew, though, that I would only discover its true outlines in these moments. A story I thought was great might crumble in the writing of it; a mediocre story might suddenly take on new life; I might find that I’d done too much reporting, or far too little. All of this the words and sentences would tell me as they emerged from the blank surface of the page or screen, when the draft takes it first physical form, moving from the conceptual to the concrete.

It may sound obvious that you can’t write well without actually, well, writing, but like many of my students, I have at times worked hard to avoid drafting. Sometimes I’ve outlined and planned ad nauseum; sometimes I’ve obsessively gathered information; sometimes for days, weeks, even months, I’ve gone over in my head what I thought a piece should look like and sound like and say; other times I’ve just daydreamed about who I’d like to cast for the film version of my novel, or I’d concoct imaginary interview responses for my imaginary book tour. Anything to keep from simply putting my rear in a chair and letting the words and sentences out.

Like so many students and would-be writers, I’ve sometimes thought of drafting as a chore to get through. But my writing works best when I treat drafting as its own event in the process of creating a text. It’s not the recording of ideas or the tedious playing out of a predetermined plan. Without sounding too mystical—oh what the hell, I’ll sound mystical—during drafting, language steps forward and asserts itself. Echoes and allusions and rhythms fall onto the page; some of them work and some don’t, but in what appears I get my first sense of what might be possible.

In the ruthlessness of its deadlines, newspaper writing forced me into that realization on a daily basis. I couldn’t avoid it; I couldn’t hide. And the exercise of turning language loose on subject after subject made me a more trusting, more confident, and better writer. Who needs a daily word count target when you have a city editor breathing down your neck at 5 o’clock every weekday evening?

In a telling scene in the film All the President’s Men, the late, great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (played by the late, great actor Jason Robards) reads through an early Watergate story as Woodward and Bernstein anxiously look on. To their dismay, he takes out a red pen and begins crossing out large chunks of their story’s main assertions. He responds to their objections by saying simply, “You haven’t got it. You haven’t got the story.” And though they are disappointed, they recognize that he is right. They aren’t yet ready to write the story they would like to write, to say what they think they want to say.

For me, that scene represents the hard truth of drafting and of what the draft tells me. The words and sentences on the page—not the concepts in my head—determine whether a piece of writing works, whether it creates the experience for the reader that I want it to create. The drafting is where I find the text.

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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.

 

Where I’m writing to

I have no idea. No, that isn’t quite right: I have no consistent idea. Sometimes I think I’m writing to my wife or to my children, either now or in the future. Or to my parents or siblings or ancestors in the past. Sometimes I entertain myself with thinking of writing to a massive audience of readers, either now or in the future—preferably while I’m still alive. Sometimes I think I’m writing to one of the many versions of myself, but they disagree so that no matter which version I make happy I leave at least a half dozen others frustrated or angry or heartbroken.

Mostly, though, when it works, I think I write to a sensation. It feels like my legs at the end of a speedwork session on a track or a treadmill, when I’ve run hard, then rested a bit, then run hard, then rested a bit, on and on like that for four or six or eight repetitions. And each time the rest part ends and the hard bit is about to begin again, a twinge of fear grips me about whether I’ll be able to stand the hard bit, but I start running hard anyway. Each time the twinge and then the pushing through it. And when I finish the last one, my legs weak and my lungs struggling for breath again and my skin looking like I’ve stepped from a shower and the lenses of my glasses flecked with sweat and dried sweat, and I want to leap in fatigued satisfaction.

When the writing works, the words hit the page or I tweak them this way or that, and seeing them in the daylight I almost gasp in a fear that says, “Shit, did you really just do that?” and then I know that I had to put it exactly that way and that it never would have occurred to me before I put it that way that that was exactly how it should be said.

I’m writing to the payoff of uncertainty. Writing for a payoff isn’t hard; I spend most of my time trying to get the payoff (or possible payoff) out of my head. Writing to uncertainty is hard, but most of the time I don’t have any choice because certainty isn’t really what I’m after; most of the time, I reside in uncertainty uncomfortably but by choice. And most of the time, uncertainty doesn’t pay off, or it does but I don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like what I wanted.

Every once in a while, though, uncertainty does pay off in a way so visceral and explosive and absolutely true that even I can’t miss it. And a good bit of the payoff comes from the surprise, the discovery of something that I didn’t realize I possessed—and that perhaps I don’t possess but that language, or the circuit between language and me, does. You see? That’s what I mean: the payoff of uncertainty. I never knew that phrase until now, but it’s been waiting for me in that place. The place I’m writing to.