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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The Practice of Romancing Language: Habits of Courtship

For all our dreamy imaginings, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about destiny and desire and what is meant to be, both writing and romance are practical arts that find their life in action. And thank goodness for that, because it means that my attitudes and practices have much more to do with the course of my life than would otherwise be the case. But in both of these realms, magical thinking permeates our popular perceptions of what makes them work. Would-be writers try to think or inspire their way to good texts; would-be friends and partners wait for the right person to come along, someone who will understand them intuitively, like what they like, hate what they hate—someone who will somehow “click.”

In some times and some cultures, what we might call romance takes the form of courtship—actions that lay what that culture considers the proper groundwork for an good relationship. Of course, that proper groundwork varies from group to group. It mean demonstrating potential wealth; it could mean having a certain name or reputation. Sometimes it means having the right values or character. Of course, sometimes it’s also meant a way to control and repress whole groups of people, especially women. And for that, among other, reasons, the language of courtship seems to have been set aside in our own time and place.

But whatever we call it, I recognize that both writing and romance are ongoing relationships, not a single, discreet decision. Romance doesn’t end when people commit themselves to one another, and writing doesn’t end when a string of inspired words land on the page or computer screen. I have to feed my writing life with ongoing attitudes of openness and discipline, and those attitudes manifest themselves in deliberately chosen acts—what I like to think of as acts of courtship. My writing process has six of them:

I attend: In a relationship, we try to learn more about the other, and I approach writing in the same way. I attend to language by reading, listening, noting how people use words and how I and others respond to those uses. I also try to notice how I  use words, both when my writing succeeds and when it fails.

I interact: I interact whenever I’m drafting—putting down words that I hope to use in a piece. This may seem an obvious activity for a writer, but I’ve seen students try to think their way through their writing, focusing on ideas but refusing to put down words until the piece is “perfect” in their heads. But doing this only makes my drafting harder and my revision and my revision agonizing. Who wants to change what he’s taken that much time just to get down?

I set intentions: At some point in any relationship, I need to have “the talk.” Who are we to one another? What do we expect? Are we on the same page about what’s going on? Some people, and some writers, like to “go with the flow,” as do I. But I’ve never brought a piece to completion without making some conscious decisions explicitly defining my task. I rarely do it first, but I always do it.

I play: The most underrated act of courtship, especially when it comes to writing, play happens when I interact and experiment with language, not for some larger purpose or set outcome but just to see what emerges and for the pure pleasure of the sight and sound and sensation of it. Sometimes I use these bits of play; sometimes I discard them. But it reminds why I love writing, and that however much I think I know about language, it holds surprises for me.

I reconsider: Whatever intentions I have for a  piece of writing—for the content or diction or syntactic style or structure—I always take time to reconsider them once I’ve drafted. In any relationship, I need to think about how to improve it, about whether we’re going as we hoped we’d go and whether that’s bringing us satisfaction. I might abandon a piece as a result, or set it aside for a while. I might radically change the genre or subject or point of view. I might confirm the choices I made when I set my intentions. But whatever happens, reconsidering keeps me from charging blindly ahead just because I said I would, and it makes responding to obstacles less intimidating.

I shape: When I play in writing, I manipulate words and sentences and ideas and structures just to see what happens, not for any specific purpose or outcome. But when I shape my writing, I manipulate those same elements so that I can achieve the intentions I’ve set for myself. Often in the course of drafting, I drift off on tangents or put concepts or events in a confusing sequence. My sentences often get away from me and from what I want them to do. When I shape my writing, I try to align what I put on the page with my intentions so that I create the experience I aimed for.

So those are the writing habits I try to cultivate and maintain. I want to talk more in later posts about how I do that. What are your writing acts or habits?