Be a writer: Just put your fingers on the keyboard and go

[Filed from MARC train on way to BWI...will clean it up when I get a chance...and may add a bunch of material now that I've dug up my old teaching notes.]

An occupational hazard of growing older is the tendency to be oracular. My brain is crammed with wisdom! Surely there’s an audience for this profound material.

“I hear a lecture coming on,” my youngest daughter often says, edging her way from the room.

You become an experienced person, mature, tenured, and suddenly your statements become pronouncements, and your pronouncements become commandments. Lately it’s been hard for me to go through an entire day, or even a conversation with the cashier in the drive-thru lane at Taco Bell, without offering life advice or some kind of tutorial. It’s conceivable that my frequent use of the word “verily” comes off as pretentious. There is a tendency to self-cite: “As I noted in this space last year…” I can’t help it: I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Took the shuttle bus from the Visitor’s Center; bought a scented candle in the gift shop, and had the pecan log at Stuckey’s.)

[SNL skit idea: "Doubtful Moses." He's as bombastic as ever, but stage whispers his second thoughts. "Let my people go! Or is that over the top?" "Thou shalt not kill. Though of course there might be extenuating circumstances of a nature not easily foreseen at this juncture." "Do these stone tablets make me look pretentious?"]

Now then… I’m helping out this week with a science writing workshop, and I need to figure out what sage advice I might possibly offer the participants. I’m not entirely sure that “science writing” is any different from any other kind of writing.  You’re still trying to tell a story. Stories tend to have certain characteristics that have proved timeless, and the narrative structure of a story continues to be the way we make sense of the world. The data matters; details are essential. But unless you can frame those things within the structure of a story, it’s not really journalism. It’s … I dunno. Reference material?

I have a short list of tried-and-true maxims, principles, rules, etc., of journalism, which are all pretty obvious, but I’ll share them  anew.

Get it right.

Be fair.

Revise. (All good writing requires rewriting. Just don’t forget to hit the “done” button eventually.)

Make a printout and read it over before you publish.

Write in a way that sounds natural when you read it aloud.

Cut your copy; leaner is always better. (No human being is capable of writing a paragraph that would not benefit from a subsequent elision here and there. You might need to add something as well. But a little verbal flab is endemic to a first draft, and you need to be merciless and unsentimental as you pare your copy.)

Write when you write best — morning, noon, night. If you’re stuck, go for a walk.

Read a lot. The best writers are good readers. Study how the other folks work their magic.

Remember that reporting can solve a lot of problems — it’s a universal solvent for writer’s block. Maybe you just need to make another phone call. Swim into the deeper water. If you’re still stuck, do some serious thinking. The problem with your story may not involve technique, craft, structure, the lede, the kicker, the nut graph, etc.: You just need to think it through a bit more.

Here’s a rule that is particular true for science writers: Write for the reader, not for your sources. Don’t try to impress the scientists, just try to connect with the ordinary people out there who don’t have degrees in, say, astrophysics. This means you have to put aside a lot of the material that’s in your notebook. Let that be background for your story, but don’t feel obligated to transfer it into your copy. Don’t feel obligated to be comprehensive. Don’t write as if, at the end, you’re going to hit everyone with a pop quiz.

Use quotes sparingly, particularly when you can make an observation yourself.

Don’t jump around in time and space; when possible keep the action in the same place, with the same characters, with the narrative unfolding chronologically.

Here’s an example I always use when teaching journalism: a piece David Finkel wrote from Macedonia in 1999, typing in a field and transmitting by satellite phone. He just wrote what he saw. He had his eyes open. Yes, there’s a lot of craft in the piece (as you’d expect from a Pulitzer winner and MacArthur genius grant awardee), but in essence this is nothing more than eyewitness testimony:

It’s spring in Macedonia, time to plant. A 34-year-old man named Baki Bardhi is on his tractor. The rain has stopped; the sun is up. A good day to be a farmer, this Monday. But Bardhi is heading past his fields, out of the village of Blace and down a steep hillside toward the Macedonia-Kosovo border.

The refugees can’t be seen, not yet. First come the colors of this part of Macedonia: the pastel greens of the trees, the white blossoms on the flowering plums, the browns of the mountainsides. There is a steady wind, and the pleasant scent it carries is of the Epenec River, swollen by the melting snows. But as Bardhi gets closer, the smell changes. It becomes the smell of humans who have nowhere to bathe, nowhere to go to the bathroom, no clothes other than those they have been wearing for almost a week. The colors change, too. The browns become faces and mud. The greens become the uniforms of armed soldiers. The white becomes the masks the soldiers are wearing over their mouths and noses.

There are estimated to be 70,000 refugees of Kosovo here, maybe more, corralled between the border to the north, the river to the west, the armed soldiers to the south, and, to the east, a road lined with buses that at some point will carry them somewhere else. Somewhere else is where the refugee camps are being built, where the transport planes wait at the airport, where plans are being drawn up by relief agencies and governments. Somewhere else, in other words, is not here, where the refugees are stuck in a valley of mud. The numbers keep growing. The conditions keep worsening. The day’s rumor is typhus. Or perhaps it’s only dysentery. Or maybe it’s exhaustion, but every few minutes brings another mud-caked refugee on a mud-caked stretcher out of the masses to a makeshift hospital on the far side of the road.

“A catastrophe,” Baki Bardhi says, watching. No one has anything to drink. No one has anything to eat.

So Baki Bardhi has come to help feed them.

And it goes on from there.

In a similar genre is the piece by David Von Drehle, then of the Miami Herald, written after surviving the eye of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. He just told the story, chronologically, of what it was like to be there:

It`s noon Thursday at Folly Beach, a stretch of sand raised a few inches above the surrounding tidal marsh and sprinkled with undistinguished bungalows and weathered seafood shacks.

It`s gray, lightly sprinkling. Not unusual for a September afternoon. But big breakers are sending foam over the sea wall and the houses are deserted. The town has the eerie feeling of an unnaturally empty place-like a dusty street in a dime Western just before the bad guys arrive.

Hurricane Hugo is 12 hours away.

Tension grows through the afternoon. Every little gust of air, every spit of rain, every new shade of gray cloud, is searched for meaning. With each new breeze, people speed their pace, tighten their jaws.

The streets empty. Traffic jams the roads out of town. Forecasters said gale-force winds might arrive by 3 p.m., but at 5, the palms and elms and oaks are still swaying gently.

At 5:30, visibility drops suddenly. The famous sights from the harbor`s edge- like Ft. Moultrie, of Revolutionary War fame, and Ft. Sumter, where the Civil War began-vanish in the fog.

Then rain comes, warm and straight and thick. The gale arrives next, driving the warm rain ahead of it. A statue honoring the Confederate war dead, a bronze nude brandishing a broadsword, confronts the storm wearing nothing but a fig leaf.

So, as the lads from Liverpool said: Tell me what you see.

Being a writer is simple, as I noted in this space last year:

A writer is just someone who writes. You don’t need a credential or a fancy resume. You don’t need a lot of special training. You don’t need connections. Just put your hands on the keyboard and start typing. And don’t stop.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · April 30