Wednesday, May 24, 2006

You Gotta Think! You Gotta Dig!

Blog #4

You want to be a professional writer?

You must think.

You must use your senses.

You must search for details.

You must know structure.

Just as you can’t just sit at a piano and ramble your fingers haphazardly over the keys and expect your audience to roar approval of your great concerto, you can’t sit at a word processor, randomly pour out your soul and expect editors to buy and publish what you write.

As performance takes practice, practice, practice so it is with writing.

I have 72 lessons on my website ( that deal with structure. Good writing comes more quickly when your article follows a structure.

Will you use Cycle? Alternating action and reflection? Problem and solution? Frame and flashback?

When you know what you are doing, where you are going and how you will get there, the writing task becomes easy.

Once you have your structure, you must choose your subject and go for details. Use your senses to find them. Look closely. Listen . Really listen. Ask questions. Ask and ask and ask. Find out everything. Use a recorder and make sure it is not on pause.

Realize that editors can turn to recognized authorities for their articles. Why would they want one from you and me?

Because we have the time to do the necessary research. Editors don’t. The publishing regimen keeps their hours full. And not every scientist can write.

You and I need to know where to go to find information. We need to know how to interview, how to use our library reference room, how to file information so it is available when we need it, how to keep our office picked up so we have room to work.

Given all this, we’ve got to think, strategize, and recognize what interests readers.

Cathy Free, who wrote “Diving Buddy” on page 32 of the May Reader’s Digest, piled detail on detail. Her first sentence tells where Larry Cummins, her character, worked in Kaneohe, Hawaii.
Her second sentence tells the date, January 14, and the fact that all he wanted getting off from work were some snacks and drinks from the fridge on his nearby sailboat and to drive across town to play poker with friends.

Her third sentence tells that the 37-year-old Navy aircraft mechanic was walking across the marina boardwalk “shortly after 5 p.m.” when a man from the Waikiki Yacht Club lounge tells him a white Cadillac had hit Larry’s pickup. Virtually every word is a significant item worth knowing.

As Larry walks to the Club lounge to report the incident, he learns from a boating friend that a lady from a highrise called in to report seeing a white car drive off the pier into the water.
Larry stares at the murky water and sees books and papers scattered everywhere. “But when he noticed bubbles, he stooped down to take a closer look and caught a glimpse of something white below the surface.”

See what the writer is doing in her chronological retelling of the event. She’s probed into his thoughts and actions as he confronts a tragedy.

Cathy then switches to the attempts of the victims to escape. Alena called 911 on her cell phone. “The water’s coming in. I don’t want to drown! Hurry!”

Larry dives down. “Although the Ala Wai was the temperature of bath water, under the surface, it was darker than a cave,” Cathy writes.

See? She’s asked for everything she needs to make this an article that commands our interest.
How did you hear about the accident? What did you think when you saw the bubbles? What made you decide to dive in. What was it like? Where did you go when you got down there? How did you get the door to open? What did you feel as you groped inside?

Larry dives down four times before he can get a door open and Alena out. The next time he finds her grandfather who died en route to the hospital.

“Alena, a Girl Scout who hopes one day to become an attorney like her granddad, says she’ll be forever grateful to the lanky sailor who saved her life.” In that one sentence near the end we learn even more about the people involved.

Cathy Free ties the article end to the beginning with more details and a reminder:
“Cummins has two children of his own, Daniel, 14, and Pearl, 8. ‘I’d like to think somebody would do the same for me,’ he says. ‘I believe I was meant to be at that yacht club at that moment, on that day. All I was after was some stuff for a poker game. What are the odds?”

Read that article for yourself and let it be a textbook to show you the kinds of details you should look for when you retell what has happened.

We’ll be studying Reader’s Digest in detail month by month. Subscribe and come with me. (I get nothing for this commercial). It’s a good text, and I’m a teacher.

Professor Dick Bohrer


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