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.

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Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me, Part 1

I graduated from high school 35 years ago as a strong enough writer to escape first-year college composition and get into journalism school, but I didn’t really understand how to write well. Six and a half years later, when I left fulltime journalism (reluctantly—but that’s a story for another time), I had become a much stronger writer, but not from magical inspiration or newfound talent. Journalism forced me to compose more and work harder, and it made my writing process more conscious and deliberate. In high school, I could turn out a decent paper on demand, but through journalism, I began to learn what writing was and how to work on it; I learned how to experiment and play with words and clauses and phrases and sentences; and I learned that mastering the process would change what my writing could do for readers and what it could do for me. In the decades that have followed, as I’ve written fiction and poetry, edited technical manuals, composed a doctoral dissertation and other academic pieces, and worked as a college-level teacher and administrator, journalism formed the foundation of whatever success I’ve had. It certainly isn’t the only place to learn these lessons, but the more I developed as a writing teacher and administrator, the more I recognized that I kept drawing from this source.

So here I present the first of the eight essentials lessons I learned:

In June 1983, I stepped off the train and into a steamy Philadelphia summer to work as an intern on the business copy editing desk of The Philadelphia Inquirer. On my first day at work, my brilliant and affable copy desk chief, Jim Moffatt, gave me a button a couple of inches in diameter that read in capital, multicolored letters, “ PYIRP.” I found out that this stood for “Put Yourself In the Reader’s Place.”

Moff reminded all of us on the copy desk that whatever the newspaper’s writers and columnists had in mind, those of us on the desk had one primary job: to stand in for the reader who would pick up the Inquirer at a newsstand or from her front stoop and make sure what she read was as accurate and understandable and engaging as we could make it.

From then on, I tried to practice what Moff preached, but decades passed before its significance sank in, and it took even longer before I consciously made it the core of how I define writing: To write is to create an experience—made of words, sentences, a structure, and content—that engages the reader.

Of course, written texts achieve (or attempt to achieve) all sorts of other aims. They persuade, entertain, energize, inspire, disturb, provoke. But if what I write doesn’t manage to elbow its way to the forefront of a reader’s attention, it won’t achieve anything else. I’ve found that this holds true even when I write exclusively for myself. The ideas, phrases, vignettes, descriptions, and other bits and pieces I (as writer) have put down in my journals and notebooks over the years were recorded so that I could re-experience them in a particular way later as a reader.

This became clearer to me years later when I taught writing to college students. I discovered that no matter how technically clean the writing, something often seemed missing from my students’ work, and I discovered it was this: They had no particular intentions for what they hoped to accomplish with their readers; in fact, they generally had no sense of the reader at all. Instead they fashioned packets of information with no purpose beyond generating the number of words the assignment required. But they failed to imagine the possible responses of actual human beings to what they might say or how they might say it.

At that point, I understood consciously what before then had only driven my work implicitly: The attempt to engage particular readers in particular ways for particular purposes had shaped my decisions, had helped me choose which words and which combinations and what details to include, and these had given my writing the coherence and direction that made it work.

And this backbone has structured my own writing, and my work with other writers, ever since.

Where I’m writing from

This is my (until this point) secret: Almost every time I contemplate writing, I feel afraid. Thoughts of sitting down to write pass through my brain, and on what I can only describe as the muscular level, I find myself avoiding pen, paper, notebook, word processing program, typewriter, pencil, notecard, tape recorder (I once bought a voice-activated one in case I was driving and any ideas came to me), and any other implement or device for putting words next to one another. I don’t know how many other writers, or would-be writers, experience fear when they contemplate putting down words; mine took up residence with me and shows no signs of leaving.

Sometimes my fear takes the form of boredom; at other times it arrives in the guise of restlessness and jerky energy. My fear has presented itself as depression, lust, fatigue, indecision, a need to exercise, a need to clean or cook or read or look up long lost friends or watch episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent that I have seen so many times I know the plot as soon as I see who’s going to discover the body. My fear has demanded that I do more research, that I review the research I’ve done, that I give up because no research exists, that I organize the research I might do. It has asked that I prepare myself spiritually, meditate, pray, stretch, or read a portion of sacred text from a smorgasbord of religious traditions (and some secular ones). It has driven me to plan, to abandon all planning and wait for inspiration, and to give up the very idea that I might ever become a writer of any kind and embark on a career in customer service.

Now, here’s the part where I’m supposed to launch into the requisite attack on fear. Here’s where I tell you how I’ve overcome and triumphed in spite of fear’s tenaciousness, how I’ve learned to find a way out of the dark cloud or fog or some other metaphorical representation of obscurity and into the bright light of hope and courage and fearlessness so that I can now spin words endlessly from my lion’s heart. But that’s not my story.

Neither will I tell you how grateful I am for the presence of fear in my life. I’m not going to say (though I considered the idea) that fear has helped make me the writer that I am—though that may be true—and that since its part in my journey has been essential, I cannot celebrate my identity without celebrating the fear too. I won’t say that not because it isn’t true but because it isn’t what I really feel.

Here’s the truth: More often than not, fear has beaten me. More often than not, I’ve walked away from the page because my head was crowded with the possibilities of my failure—again—as a writer, because I could picture readers (partner, children, family, friends, former professors, former colleagues, other writers, agents, publishers, critics, scholars, intellectuals, bookstore and library patrons, people who speak languages besides English reading my work in translation) rejecting my weak, regurgitated ideas, my trite phrasing, my convoluted syntax (see above), my incoherent structure. More often than not, I’ve considered the possibility that my failing was inevitable and that furthermore when I failed, no one out there would even really care.

But here’s the good part: I’ve figured out that none of that really matters. The odds of my success or failure in writing making a substantial difference to anyone but me are quite low. Which means that I have nothing to prove, no one to win over, no one to disappoint. I have only myself and this discipline of writing that I have taken on for reasons which remain unclear to me. I have only this space to step into and explore, this universe of possibility to absolutely bugger up or absolutely knock out of the ballpark or—more likely—wander about in and clarify in some miniscule way meaningful only to myself. But that’s reason enough to try.

So rather than a foolproof method for understanding writing and guaranteeing success in whatever situation at whatever time, the romance with language that I discuss here should probably be read more like the diary of a would-be lover trying his damnedest to figure out what his relationship is actually about, how to maintain it, and why it’s worth the trouble. It’s my way of trying to accept the fear (and other neuroses), stay sane, and actually keep writing. Wish me luck.

The Joy and Folly of Motives

There are many reasons to write, and they’re almost all good. Revenge has its merits. Very satisfying if it works. To impress people who matter to you is another, especially if you know more about the subject you’re writing about than they do. It can warm you to hear them speak about you in glowing terms to others. That brings to mind respect or prestige as a motive. When you are treated as an expert about anything—profound or mundane—it’s difficult not to swell a bit. These days, you can’t beat fame as a reason to write. It has become a kind of currency, worth, in its own way, more than money. People and organizations and even governmental agencies will give money and objects and exposure to famous people, simply to bask in the reflected glow of their fame. A sort of secular benediction. Of course, there is power. And there is that old standby, sex.

I begrudge very little in people’s reasons for wanting to write or to write better. I have a problem with writing solely to harm others, though that can get dicey because even words written in innocence can do harm. Meanness would be a motive I am against. But try to talk about writing here in ways useful for any motive beyond malice. An investment broker writing a prospectus, I hope, can profit as much from learning to romance language as a short story writer or an academic or an attorney working on an appellate brief. Some motives, though, can lead to more trouble than others, and mine fall into this category.

To put it simply, I write because not writing leaves me feeling incomplete. In a way, I always write, even during the odd weeks or months when I avoid putting down words because of fear or life distractions or depression or whatever other malady offers itself. In my mind, I write all day long, every day. I work over ideas for novels that I’ve had in my head for more than a decade at least; I compose parts of poems, essays, letters, emails, plays. I consider characters, hear different narrative voices, think of sentences from speeches I’d like to deliver, and even wonder whether I could ever become proficient enough to write well in a foreign language (probably Spanish, but Arabic interest me too). Given my mental state, the only question becomes when and how to put this output down on the page.

The problem arises because this motive provides no objective measure of success. No amount of fame or compliments or money or customers or awards (not that I’ve had any of those things) proves that I’ve gotten it right. I spend my time trying to create an experience in words that not even I can really explain outside of the writing itself. This leaves me with few resources for telling others what I’m writing at any given time.

People who know that I write sometimes ask me what kind of writing I do, or what I’m working on. I’m convinced that no honest answer I give would make much sense to them. Recently, for example, I’ve been working on a novel in which the main character is a woman who experiences the death of her last surviving parent and begins to consider suicide. That is how I described it recently to someone at a party; that is the “plot.” But I’m as interested in creating a narrative voice that interests me, or pushing the limits of description, or seeing how much non-chronological presentation I can combine with chronological presentation, or playing with a first person plural (we) narration. I could go on. Eyes would glaze over if I did; believe me, I’ve seen it happen while I talk.

The effect on me as a writer is one of solitude. Imagine standing alone at night on a street corner, in a city where no one speaks your language, talking to yourself under a lamppost whose bulb has burned out. It mostly feels like that.

Here is the upside: I get to immerse myself in language. And, as I grow older, it helps to inoculate me against the fear of failing. I’m probably the only one who will know whether I’ve done what I set out to do, and even I will have doubts. The biggest gift has been this ongoing romance with language. I find whatever small insights I might have—and the act of sharing them—immensely satisfying. It gives a meaningful, challenging arc to the curve of my life, and when you get down to it, what more could a person ask for?