– Jim Stasiowski
My wife, Sharon, and I bought our new house in mid-2007, and if you’re shaking your head ruefully and saying, “Geez, you sure bought at the wrong time,”
You don’t think that we know we made a huge financial mistake? You don’t think that a skier, an instant before crashing into a tree, doesn’t think, “This was a bad idea”?
But we’re battling back. Instead of moping (well, I still mope, but Sharon stubbornly refuses to), we’re investing in the house. In the year we’ve lived here, we have spent money on sprucing up the yard, installing lights in the ceiling, adding a heater in the master bathroom, etc. Our latest investment was to put a door where there should have been one in the first place.
What does all of that have to do with writing?
Quite a lot, I discovered.
Now that we have gotten into the rhythm of improving our home, I don’t want to stop. It’s addictive. I look at the house and think, “What if we added this, what if we rearranged that, what if we enlarged something else?”
Writers think that way. They report, but they always think of what other sources they could have called. They write, but they torture themselves by wondering if this sentence has the right rhythm, if that phrase captures the mood, if the quotation really adds to the meaning.
And even when they finish a story, even after they send it to the editor, even after it appears in print, they suffer over it: “I could’ve done this, I should’ve done that, why didn’t that source call me back?”
The day we moved into this house, we loved it; but we can’t stop tinkering with it.
Tinkering, however, is not without risks.
I have done this, and I’ve seen others do it: You write a lead, and you like it. It has color, it promises drama, it delivers enough news to proclaim the story is serious, but not so much news that it exhausts readers. You look at it. It’s perfect …
… but …
… it’s not extremely perfect. It lacks this, needs a little of that, could benefit from something else. So the lead, which you once loved, becomes larger, longer, more complicated. There are more commas, always a bad sign.
When I edit, reporters often will say, “I’ll send you the story, but I’m waiting on a few more calls, so I might add something later.” And when those sources finally do call, the reporters always add, never subtract.
So, although the first, incomplete draft may have been tight and well-organized, the final version tends to get sloppy. Yes, it’s my responsibility as the editor to say, “This is too much, we don’t need all of this,” but the reporter’s philosophy is like the homeowner’s: “I have so much invested, I have to do more.”
Yeah. And I’m going to add a wing onto my one-story, three-bedroom rancher on the tiny lot.
When I look at many bloated stories, my own and those I am editing, I keep reminding myself of a pithy slogan I invented: This is stuff, not story.
Reporters gather stuff, but they become writers when they turn stuff into a story, that is, a coherent central conflict developed by the use of cohesive information, relevant description and insightful quotations.
Without knowing what your central conflict is, you cannot write a good lead sentence. Instead, you’ll do what many writers do: You’ll comb your notebook for your best stuff, then shove it into the first paragraph.
Leads don’t have to be short, but they should be under control. They should foreshadow the central conflict, not develop it.
About that quotation that came in 10 minutes before deadline: Are we using it because it helps develop the conflict, or are we using it simply because we have it?
Ninety percent of the time, that phone call the reporter has been waiting impatiently for turns out to be a dud, but in newsrooms, the value of stuff inflates in proportion to the difficulty required to get it.
I love this house, but I’m through tinkering with it. We’ve made it into what we really want. Adding anything more would be excessive, would solve problems that do not exist. I’m finished, done, it’s over.
So tomorrow, I start fixing up the garage.
THE FINAL WORD: I hit the jackpot. In my second-favorite used-book store, I found “Words on Words” by the John B. Bremner, a legendary journalism teacher.
At Bremner’s death in 1987, The New York Times’ obituary said he had “rigid standards for editing and expected others to meet them.” Perfect.
Here is one of those standards, from his book’s entry for “country”: “The ‘country’ is the territory of the ‘nation.’ ‘Country’ refers to geographical territory, homeland. ‘Nation’ refers to political entity, a community of people.”
Jim Stasiowski, the writing coach for the Dolan Media Co., welcomes your questions and comments. Call him at 775 354-2872, or write to: 2499 Ivory Ann Drive, Sparks, Nev. 89436.