Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Every Word Counts

When I was in high school, I took all the standard English courses. In college, I took quite a few literature courses that involved reading great books and writing papers about them. And then I went to journalism school and learned a whole new kind of writing.

In traditional journalism, paragraphs are short and succinct. Quotations from experts cement the story together. The beginning is critical. It must grab the reader’s attention. But the ending doesn’t really matter too much. There’s a good chance it will get cut at page make up. And even if it doesn’t, most people never read that far. To this day, I still have trouble with endings.

Newspaper writing is about being fast and thorough, about getting both sides of a story. And above all else, it’s about being accurate. If we misspelled a person’s name or the name of an organization or company, we got an automatic F.

A few of the classes I took in grad school focused on feature writing. Features are the longer, more in-depth pieces that run in a newspaper’s Sunday magazine section and in most monthly publications. They take longer to research and write, and they may include some creative elements, such as a scene-setting introduction or occasional wordplay.

I loved writing features, and the instructor told me I had a good ear for language. She wasn’t the first person to say that. Teachers had told me that all through school, but I never really knew what they meant. I did ask a couple of times, but their explanations didn’t help much.

Finally, when I joined a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) critique group in 2001, I met a poet named Susan Richmond. She made the same comment, and I asked the same question.

But Susan’s answer wasn’t the same at all. What she did was remarkable. She took the time to deconstruct a piece of my writing and show me exactly what she meant.

Even though I was unconscious of it, my brain was often making very deliberate word choices. As a result, some sections of my prose were a bit lyrical.

A whole new world opened up to me as Susan explained that certain combinations of sounds and syllables are especially pleasing to the ear—it’s a matter of physics. Susan thought that if I paid more attention to word choice, my writing would become even more lyrical.

And so I did. And so it has.

Now, when I go to schools and talk to kids about writing. I tell them to pay close attention to the words and phrases they string together. The truth is every word counts.


Deborah Heiligman said...

Thank you for this, Melissa. My husband teaches in the J school at Columbia, and I know he tries to get his students to think about every word, too. It's not easy to inculcate in writers who are moving fast to report and meet deadlines, but it really matters. Your prose shows your care with every word. Thank you for that.

Karen Romano Young said...

This is fascinating. I would love to be able to give my writing such a dissection. I wonder what else poets could tell us journalism-types?