How I learned to write

I recently read a blog post about someone who was having trouble figuring out how to write a 'good blog post', but really the author was stuck even getting started. Really, she wasn't having problems writing a *good* post, but with writing full-stop. It reminded of a lesson that I learned years ago while working at a small daily paper near where I grew up in New Hampshire.

I'll warn you though, if what I say really resonates with you, it'll be like taking the red pill. You'll no longer be able to just tap out a few quick sentences about anything, instead you'll be writing long screeds in emails, forums and comments before you know, and having people complain that they didn't read everything because there was just so much to digest.

You've been warned.

So back in college I decided I wanted to write for the school newspaper. I'm pretty sure at first I was thinking about majoring in psychology or something, but as soon as I joined the student newspaper I was hooked. I loved it instantly, and immediately decided I wanted to be a journalist. That doesn't mean I was a natural writer by any stretch. Writing up stories I was assigned was torturous at first - even though I enjoyed the reporting process, getting my words down on paper was a real challenge from day one.

After my second year of college, I convinced a small daily newspaper called the Conway Daily Sun to give me a job during the summer. They didn't really need anyone extra there, so what I did was fill in while regular staff members took vacations. For two weeks I worked in the advertising area, the next two weeks I'd help out in the press room, then I'd go back and do the classifieds, then I'd be in sales. It was a great way to learn all the bits of publishing a daily paper. Now and then, I had a chance to fill in for a reporter - I wasn't ready to do it full time, but I was given odd stories to write once in a while - like when Ms. New Hampshire came to the town to visit I'd go take some photos and do a write up. Fluff pieces like that.

One day, late in the afternoon, there was a car accident outside of town which stopped traffic for miles in each direction. The town is in the mountains and has only one road that passes through the valley - which is how it grew into a shopping area with outlet malls, etc. So an accident like that which blocks the one road through town is big news.

My editor (who was also the owner/publisher) called me over, handed me his expensive camera and hand-printed/laminated badge with PRESS printed in big letters at the top with the logo of the newspaper at the bottom, and told me to drive over to the accident (using the break-down lanes if I needed to) to get the story. He wanted me to talk to the officer in charge, take some pics and then get back as soon as possible and write up a short article. He'd save some space on the front page(!), but the presses were already running, so get going.

And I did exactly that. I zipped out to the accident, which was still blocking traffic, and found out what happened: A small pickup truck had pulled out from a driveway near a blind corner and got t-boned by a car which had just come around the bend. Both cars spun out into the middle of the road (which was lucky, given the size of the trees that lined the sides), but driver of the truck was pinned inside the vehicle, and had to be extracted by the fire department - who were in the process of doing so as I arrived. I took some pictures (and got into a little trouble by being sort of in the way about doing it - but no big deal), got the official details, then sped back to the office.

By this point it was starting to get late, so my editor grabbed the camera and told me to go write up the story while he went into the dark room to develop the film. It didn't have to be long - he had only saved a few inches of space, including room for the photo - so it really just needed to be two or three paragraphs. No problem, right? I'm going to be a Junior in college soon. How hard can this be?

I typed a sentence or two. Then I deleted them. Then I typed a couple more, but wasn't happy, so I tried to re-word them into a 'lead' which really didn't work. So I went to my notes and typed out the names of the people involved. After a short while, my editor came out of the dark room and asked me if I was done. I answered him with a blank stare and a quick shake of my head. (DEADLINE! PANIC! AAAHHH!!!!) He came over to see what I had written - which was essentially nothing - then turned my chair around away from the venerable Macintosh SE I was using and sat down across from me.

"OK, just talk to me. Just tell me what happened. How did the accident start?" he said.

Thinking that he was planning on just writing the article himself, I told him what I knew. I explained how the accident occurred, and what the police had said, and added in details I had written in my notes about where the people were from and how many different emergency vehicles there were, etc.

He looked at me, and after a long pause said, "OK. Type that. Don't change a word, just type out everything you just told me - exactly the way you told it to me. I'll be back in two minutes." And then he went off into the press room to attend a detail of some sort.

Just type it all out? That I could do.

At this point in my college career, I was able type well north of 100 words a minute - so before I forgot what I had said or how I said it, I spun my chair around and just banged it all out. When I was done a few minutes later I had at least four or five paragraphs that explained all the details from start to finish.

Mark (my editor) came back and then said, "OK, scoot over" and rolled over in his chair. He quickly scanned what I had written and then preceded to cut it into a story. He copied an important bit from the third paragraph into the first, reworded a couple sentences, cut out two other paragraphs completely and in no time had a nice short story which he saved. He then rolled over to his desk (which had the front page up and waiting in Quark XPress) copy/pasted the article into the layout, tweaked a bit to fit the space he had, added a "by Russell Beattie" byline, then hit the print button.

And just like that, I had my first front page article.

I'll never forget it. Both the moment, and the lesson it taught me. I felt the proverbial light bulb turn on inside my head. From that second, I've been able to write about anything, non-stop. If I can express it verbally, then I have zero problem putting it down in writing. The millions of words I've put into my personal blog and the ones you're reading now are a direct result of this experience. Some people talk about being "natural writers" - but I wasn't one of them . I had to have that epiphany, otherwise I'd be just as lost now as I was then. What's crazy is that by that point I had 12 years of school and two years of college, and yet it wasn't enough to learn this lesson somehow. I had been able to write well enough, but it was never "easy". After this, it became more than easy, it became natural - writing became no harder than talking.

Happily, I've been able to give my 11yo son this exact experience very early on - (so unlike myself, he won't go 14 years of schooling without it). He's heard the story of course - probably more than few times - but a year or so ago during a take-home writing assignment, when he was really stuck in front of a blank page, I finally had my chance. I turned his chair around and said, "Talk to me. Just tell me what happened. OK. Type that. Don't change a word." The lesson stuck. Admittedly, his page-long answers to a math and science questions can be a problem (I've had complaints from teachers), but in general I don't worry about his ability to get his thoughts down on the page any more.

The next step, of course, is learning how to write well. That's a lesson I don't feel particularly qualified to give. But what I will say, is that after you learn the first lesson of just getting your thoughts down on the page, you'll end up writing *a lot* more. Practice is really the only real way to improve at any activity, and so you'll eventually become a better writer as well. Though I'm sure there are millions of English majors who might argue that there's a bit more to it than that, I'd say that's pretty much the basics of it.

Now, go fill up those blank pages! Talk to me. Tell me what happened. Type that. Don't change a word.


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