It’s a banner year for wildflowers in the hills east of Albuquerque. Anyone who’s local knows about that easily accessible park at the base of the big mountain. From downtown you go east and then get off on that exit and then left and then right and then you park. I know what you’re thinking: I’m gonna put Google Maps and Mapquest out of business if I keep on with all this giving-directions stuff.
Anyway, it’s a great public space in the high desert. You can scramble up the boulders and ponder the mountain’s angle of repose, or follow the trail to the right, up a broad vale and then onto a high meadow, and then keep going, if you wish, to the mountaintop. Me, I turned around eventually, heeding the call of the laptop and the tyrannical dictate of the hotel checkout time. But it was a good morning, and made me want to go back next year, should spring rains induce a similarly flamboyant show of desert flowers. I’ll be monitoring the New Mexican precip; surely there’s an app for that.
At the workshop, the topic of hobbies came up. That sentence is the kind of passive-voice thing that I allegedly abjure, though in this case it has been used to obscure the fact that I was the one who brought it up, and that this was just another example of me finding a way to talk about myself. Mistakes were made. Grammar was employed as a cloaking device.
But onward: I couldn’t readily think of any hobbies that I have other than the hobby of making long lists of hobbies that I will someday pursue. Does cooking count? Puttering around my yard and pulling some weeds and growing maybe a dozen tomatoes? Sitting on my porch and reading and sometimes typing and occasionally having a wee dram of a beverage? No — that’s just hanging out. That’s just “down time.” That’s just what I do when I’ve hit the off switch on my main activity, which is typing.
The closest thing I have to a hobby is hiking, since I tramp up and down the Potomac a lot. But you know my problem in this regard: footwear. I often “hike” in sneakers (running shoes), and a “hike” by definition requires boots. On this we all agree. Like in ABQ, I was in my sneakers, and if pressed with a cactus to my head would confess that I was really just out for a walk.
And you cannot tell me that walking is a hobby. That’s like saying eating is a hobby, or breathing is a hobby, or sleeping is a hobby. Something can’t be a hobby when it’s simply what your body has been designed by millions of years of evolution to do. When the first amphibian crawled from the primordial sea and attempted to colonize the land, it did not claim that walking was its hobby.
I do actually like the idea of turning sleeping into a hobby. Start with a subscription to Sleeper’s World magazine. Aren’t there entire stores dedicated to sleeping, above and beyond the usual suspects like Mattress Discounters? Seriously, that’s a hobby at which I could excel. You should see me fall asleep! Curtain comes down — and I’m out. I could fall asleep on a train platform. I could fall asleep on the gun rack of a pickup. I have a gift for attaining unconsciousness.
But there I go, bragging again.
Here, just fyi, is a condensed version of the writing tips I was talking about last week at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop:
- Get it right
- Be fair.
- Revise. (All good writing requires rewriting. Just don’t forget to hit the “done” button eventually.)
- Tell a story. Have characters, some mystery, be going somewhere. Remember that the end is as important as the beginning. Don’t jump around in time and space.
- Use telling details. (Roy Peter Clark: “Get the name of the dog.”)
- Write in a way that sounds natural when you read it aloud. Employ the vernacular.
- Cut your copy; leaner is always better.
- Read a lot. The best writers are good readers. Study how the other folks work their magic.
- Reporting can solve a lot of problems — it’s a universal solvent for writer’s block. Swim into the deeper water.
- Write when you write best. If you’re stuck, go for a walk. Do some serious thinking. The problem with your story may not involve structure, the lede, the kicker, the nut graph, etc.: You just need to think it through.
- Write for the reader, not for your sources. Don’t try to impress the scientists. 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 fewer characters. You don’t have to quote everyone you interviewed.
- Use quotes sparingly, particularly when you can make an observation yourself.
- Don’t overuse adjectives and adverbs; lean on verbs and nouns.
- Convey science as a search. Let the process of science be part of your narrative. Include things that you would tell your friends but would never make it into a science journal — the mood, the setting, the dynamic, the details of the field work.
- Develop relationships with editors (and readers) you can trust.
- Make a printout and read it over before you publish.
- Enjoy writing!