If You Don't Wake Up Writing

I wake up writing. ``The doppelganger of authority'' was the phrase in thought shortly after three this morning when I awoke and, as I do on my writing day, headed into the office for a stint in the darkened newsroom.

I had recently become aware of an aura of institutional authority, as if a second persona were standing behind me. The persona distracts during communication. Institutional authority, which is bestowed, differs from moral authority, which is earned. Institutional authority is useless in writing. I had wanted to describe for a young staffer, who was floundering, the professional's life raft. Here is what I would say if he could hear. The professional is:

Self-operating: Seek minimal direction on story ideas, sourcing, scope of coverage. Need no reminders for trip requests, expense reports. At the same time, welcome input where needed.

Productive: Turn in eight to 10 news or analysis stories a month, or the equivalent in investigative or other projects.

Caring: Sense the needs of individuals, society. Respond with compassion, outrage. Work begins with motive, not process.

Exemplary: Consistently offer page 1 quality stories. Lead through writing. Offer idea-driven, not just event-driven stories. Stories are useful that frame thought on a topic.

Versatile: Consider the economic, cultural, governmental, environmental, and technological aspects of issues: Demonstrate ``the universal assignment.'' Master, in due course, the narrative, analytical, reportorial, column, and review forms of writing. Learn to do it all. But skip no steps.

Authoritative: Command the stage.

Expansive: Seek new venues, subjects, trends, and vehicles for explaining change; revisit locales, sources only as benchmarks.

Supportive: Back up colleagues, respond to a story over a weekend, contribute to joint projects that involve more than one bureau or writer.

Visionary: Look ahead at coverage and travel a week, a month, and as much as three-months or six-months out. Anticipate photo, graphic, side-bar potential for stories.

Sensitive: Develop an eye and ear for the concrete, the details, mannerisms that denote character.

Considerate: Think of the burden your copy may impose on editors. A test: If your copy were to be printed exactly as received, would you and the newspaper be embarrassed?

Confident: Never indulge in ``false bright'' style - exaggerated, punchy verbs and images - to compensate for weakness in reporting and ideas. A powerful thought is best expressed simply. When in doubt don't try too hard. Write clearly, directly, in sentences of easily discerned shape. Let your ideas find their market value. Let quotations speak for themselves. Know when to use colons and semi-colons, ellipses and dashes; punctuation saves words, provides vertebrae to sentences and paragraphs.

Distinctive: Achieve congruence between thinking and writing. Your internal and public voices should come together. Do not fight with yourself when writing. This should enable you to write readily. The only unique voice possible to you is your own voice.

Intuitive: Accept the leadings, warnings that present themselves. A maxim: ``It's not what you look for but what you find.''

Teachable: Learn each day anew how to write.

Selfless: The writer's odyssey is mankind's story, not his own. Ego, display impede; they are not true sources of energy.

Responsible: Seek correction, but rely on your own estimate of self-worth.

Active: Inquire, search, probe. Writing is something you do, not think about.

Paced: Great Monitor writers - Erwin Canham, Joe Harrison, Joe Harsch, Dick Strout - worked with an unvarying rhythm. Their reading, travel, and writing habits might have looked like routines, but they revealed a deep periodicity. The whole force of these writers' lives went into their work.


Impelled: If you don't wake up writing, try a different trade.

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