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The tricks of writing

Don Rogers

Jim Murray, the all-time greatest sports columnist, was talking about his favorite game. “You know, golf isn’t a talent. It’s a trick,” he said. “Just like writing a column.”I don’t play golf, a magic beyond my maturity. But I know a little about the trickiness in column writing. Actually, all writing. This tidbit came from friends a couple of weeks ago in a small book sampling Murray’s wit. The next came in a phone call last week from another friend. Read William F. Buckley. And please stop using the word “I,” he said. Sheesh. Over the weekend, completing this trinity of insight, an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution led a workshop on writing. It ain’t art. Anyone can do it, he said. The key is to go short. Prefer short words and short sentences to long ones. And use the most powerful key on your keyboard, the period, much more often. Behold the power of the period.In truth, there is only one rule about writing. That is, there are no rules, only conventions. Pity the English major who thought otherwise. Ours is a dynamic language, ever changing. At one time novels broke the mold, as did newspapers, and now Web sites. Already well-intended “experts” are trying to make rules for proper Web sites. Making rules is human. We crave organization, and punishment for mavericks even in such trifles as expression. But creativity demands cranks to carry it out, and a few of us are only too happy to oblige. This is the wellspring for geniuses and criminals. You know, we just might need both for the human species to progress. And oh how dull life would be without our rule breakers.Writing is craft, not art. Everyone can do it, and learn to do it well. You can’t go wrong following the conventions. They’ve been shaped by history into a groove. Get in line and you’ll be fine. Besides, more people will read your work and maybe even understand what you are trying to say.This is tough news for Writers, the artistes of my trade, the prima donnas for whom words are notes, stories are songs, and a long, in-depth piece is a symphony. Trim a note and the masterpiece is broken. How dare their art be trammeled with pedestrian advice to walk the path!This is where Murray comes in. His sword was humor, and he was the samurai of cutting his subjects to size this way. He pierced armor with a quip, gutted with a hilarious side swipe, dissected hard truth in the body of sports, that epitome of “reality shows,” with a joke. For the most part, he scored with readers by following the conventions. Write short. Avoid “I.” Don’t get all highfalutin’ about what writing really is. Especially newspaper column writing. Please.But even Murray couldn’t entirely escape the “I,” especially when it came to golf. That was personal, the trickiest of all writing. I understand my friend’s caution against employing the dreaded I. With “I,” the writer becomes the narrator who invites readers to see through his eyes and experience his inner life as well as the action. It can add depth. It can also be incredibly banal. The tilt is more to the latter, no doubt. Think Christmas letters.Still, many of today’s great columnists go this way. Nearly half the columns in newspapers and news magazines start with “I.” Dave Berry, Molly Ivins, George Will, even Thomas Friedman. I, I, I. Looks like a new path is wearing into the wilderness, for better or for worse. And so we acolytes, we wannabes, we follow. It helps to be called on it, though, to know the rule we are breaking and the hazards of this cliff.I violate all the rules, I know, I know. I look at writing as a gift, even if one that remains still wrapped in a box I can never quite open. I don’t want to hear that it’s no more mysterious or difficult to learn than driving a car. On Mondays, my columns tend to be personal and lean hard on “I.” Colleagues, friends and even family laugh at my penchant for “big” words. So what if they spring naturally, that I haven’t looked in a thesaurus in years, that they seem to fit what I’m trying to say? The rule is if the reader stops, I’m done. Next page. I would do well to actually buy that.I tell you all this because it matters to your writing, too. Whether a letter, an essay, an e-mail, a memo, a how-to guide, a novel – this is wisdom. The trick is to believe the rules are real and quite simple, to go short, and to steer clear of “I” just as much as you can.Good luck.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com Vail, Colorado


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