Scribbling, the worst way to write

About half of the problems I deal with as a writing coach happen in the ORGANIZING stage, mostly because many writers skip it altogether. They have no concept of organizing what they write.

In many journalism classes, students are still being taught to end the Gathering stage (which they call “reporting”) by asking, “What’s my lead?” No organizing at all, no questions about content, or what the piece is about. Just try to come up with that first sentence.

Perhaps half of all writers begin typing without thinking about content or form, in a process I call “Scribbling.” Here’s how they do it, in four steps:

1. What’s my lead?
2. Backing up the lead
3. What else have I got?
4. What have I left out?

The first step usually begins with the question, “What’s my lead?” or some equivalent. Writers have been taught that they need a perfect, terrific first sentence, or the reader won’t read them. They see the lead as a hook. But readers enter a package in this order: photo, headline, caption, text. In that fourth position, leads aren’t hooks.

So they try to come up with a perfect hook lead when they have no idea what they want to say or how. Obviously, that’s hard to do and often takes a lot of time and agony. (I once coached an investigative reporter who took a month to write her first sentence, an extreme form of “lead anxiety.”)

Finally, they type something on the screen that’s good enough to get them going, and then they polish it until it’s perfect. They start like this:

Have you noticed that wren in your bird feeder is bullying the other birds?
The wren in your bird feeder is a bully.

The wren, despite being the smallest North American bird, is a bully in your feeder.

They like that third version, so they shift to the second step, Backing up the Lead, trying to prove that the lead is true. They type their second sentence:

This smallest of North American birds (except for hummingbirds) makes up for his lack of size by aggressive behavior.

Now the lead is wrong, so they fix it:

The wren despite being the smallest North American bird is a bully in your feeder.

Then they have to revise their second sentence:

This smallest of North American birds (except for hummingbirds) makes up for his lack of size by aggressive behavior.

The lead’s still not perfect, so they fix it, again:

The wren is a bully bullies everybody else in your bird feeder.

Then they write the third sentence, still not knowing what they want to say or how, still backing up the lead, producing this sequence:

The wren bullies everybody else in your bird feeder.
This smallest of North American birds makes up for lack of size by aggressive behavior. Tail flicking up, he elbows his way in, pushing even larger birds aside.

Not bad, but wrens aren’t people and don’t have elbows, so they have to revise the new sentence:

Tail flicking up, he elbows his way in, pushing pushes even larger birds aside.

Now the first two sentences need revision, again:

The wren bullies everybody else all the other birds in your bird feeder.
This smallest of North American birds makes up for lack of his size by aggressive behavior

    sheer pushiness

.

And so on. This process is called “Down and Up.” Everything they write down makes something above it wrong or unsatisfactory or imperfect, and they must fix it before they can write the next sentence.

There are several assumptions here, all of them wrong:

1. You must write the piece in the order the readers will read it.
2. Everything must be perfect.
3. Anything not perfect must be fixed immediately.

They continue Down and Up throughout the rest of the draft, especially trying to keep the lead perfect. In a 25-sentence piece, they may rewrite the lead 25 times. And it gets worse, not better; denser, not clearer; longer, not shorter and punchier.

Stage three is “What else have I got?” They write this step the same way as the first two, but now there’s more text above that can become imperfect. Nevertheless, they trudge along, Down and Up, Down and Up, making the piece harder to read.

The final stage, “What have I left out,” happens when they’re tired, fed up, and running out of time. You can spot writers in this step because they’re flipping through their notes franticly, and swearing at themselves. “Dammit, how could you leave that out?!” So they type, “Male wrens may make as many as four nests, hoping to attract as many females as possible.” And then they stick that sentence in somewhere, and it causes problems above and below where they poke it, requiring not only Down and Up, but also Down and Down.

Then they turn the piece in, late and messy.

What’s wrong with Scribbling? Nothing. It does get a story written. But it’s the slowest and hardest way to do it, and the most damaging to confidence. It makes writers decide to apply to law school. And the resultant piece is heavy and dense, full of qualifiers, poorly written, and barely revised in the second half when they’re running out to steam.

You can write like that if you enjoy suffering, but there are easier ways. And the first is to organize your pieces. There are many ways to do that, and this blog explains most of them.

[Got any variant versions of Scribbling?]

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Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 2:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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