On writing

Yesterday I responded to a blog post by my friend Jason, who (prolific writer that he is) has responded in kind less than a day later. I don’t want to dismiss the lengthy post in which he makes some interesting observations, but I have thoughts about the last line:

Randolph says I’m a writer. 18,767 incomplete posts suggests otherwise.

Jason focuses a lot on metrics, which in some respects are interesting, and unhelpful in many others. In fact, he accepts that “we are ultimately unquantifiable”.

If writing was measured in articles successfully published, it’s not looking so good for this professional author, given the number of words I’ve discarded (easily over a million). While I readily acknowledge sleeping and drinking my way through most of the six months I spent in journalism school (sorry, mom), one piece of that brazenly debaucherous semester sticks with me 23 years later, from a class called News Writing.

Picture a typical triangle, pointy-side up. In writing the news, you want to present the key information of the news right at the beginning, and then as people read further down the column, provide more context. The idea is that you should be able to express (as a journalist) all of the news to your readers in the first paragraph.

(Aside: this is why news sites on the Internet frustrate me, because they pad the start of their pieces with noise words to avoid being summarised by a search engine, which forces you to click through to the article and be bombarded by irrelevant advertising.)

If our imaginary news writing triangle is split into three sections, the top of the triangle is the headline, which your editor writes. The middle section comprises the main points where your readers can glean all the pertinent bits (the “first paragraph”, if you like). The bottom part of the triangle is where you can spend more time adding context and providing more information that might be interesting (the “story”), which isn’t necessary for your readers to know what’s going on in the world.

As a journalist, your best writing is in the third section which nobody reads. Even the headline is written by an editor. If there are space constraints (newspapers more than the web these days, but it also affects other media like magazines), the good writing is likely to get cut. Journalism is measured in words. Your typical freelance writer will be asked for, and paid to write, 300 words for a piece. Sometimes if they’re lucky they’ll be asked to write 1,000 words. They will then write their story, find out that it’s double or three times the length, and start cutting it down to size. If they don’t, someone else will get the job.

At high school we were taught a technique of cutting extraneous words, called précis. The idea is to retain all the pertinent information and lose all the noise, the purple prose essay writers at school tend to add to make their essays longer. I appear to have a gift for this technique, and have been called upon by other writers in my years as a copy editor to help them be more succinct in their writing. The real challenge is in fiction, where I must keep their voice in the writing, while cutting between 50% and 80% of the words. It’s a proper skill.

So to Jason’s point, incomplete writing is not a useful metric to gauge ability. An editor of sufficient skill is able to cobble together even the most incoherent ramblings of a writer to produce a coherent story (much like film editors can salvage a poorly-conceived film shoot). What Jason might consider isn’t a count of words he has failed to use, because good writers don’t use 50% to 80% of the words they’ve written. Rather, he might consider his experience as an editor (of his own writing) to select only the best words, those words that actually make it into the “story”. That’s a separate, distinct, skilled job in itself, and I submit in closing that he’s a prolific writer and an editor.

P.S. I can’t keep responding like this. It’d be a lot easier if Jason enabled comments on his blog, but here we are.

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