I have a fair idea how I became an expert on bad writing.
My first full-time job as a grownup in 1976 paid me $3 an hour. Thanks to Woodward and Bernstein, journalists were heroic then, like astronauts and secret agents, so there were few jobs for new graduates like me.
I initially sent out inquiry letters to 50 or so mid-sized newspapers. Later, I drew a 100-mile ring around South Bend and drove to every newspaper office within that circle. The next circle I drew had a 200-mile radius.
So it was that I found myself accepting a $120 weekly salary in Hartford City, Indiana. My apartment on West Main Street cost me $100 a month and I spent several nights in a sleeping bag curled around a space heater when temperatures in my living room hovered around 40 degrees.
At the News-Times, I was one of two reporters. We covered any news we could find within Blackford County. On many days, I would write three or four stories from the police beat, city government, the courts and schools.
I covered the trial of Roger Drollinger, who killed four people on the other side of the state, and I wrote about the longtime city clerk when she was caught filching nickels and dimes from the city’s parking meters. But I also typed in wedding announcements and social notes. If you had a big cookout in your backyard, we actually would print the guest list.
From Hartford City, I moved to Fort Wayne and then to the South Bend Tribune. I never kept track, but it’s a reasonable guess that I wrote more 10,000 newspaper stories.
I say that with some confidence because I typed my name into the South Bend Tribune site on newspapers.com, and I found 12,912 pages. Some are duplicates, but there also are pages where I would have two or three stories counting as a single hit. And there were hundreds of stories I wrote that didn’t receive a byline.
I would have to be some kind of egomaniac to sort through all that.
The reason I got started on this topic was that someone reminded me of my days in the sports department. My job there mainly was as an editor, and I was bored with the stories I was reading.
It was a rare writer who gave me anything new. In most cases, they were reshuffling information in a fill-in-the-blank way. They were retyping names and data into awfully familiar clumps.
I knew I needed to get out from behind the desk to see if there was something different to write about. I came up with one idea. In February 1992, Michael Jordan’s No. 23 was the most popular uniform number, so I asked a bunch of elementary school basketball coaches how they decided which sixth-grader would get to wear it. That was fun.
A year later, I drove to Fort Wayne to interview Daimon Sweet, a Notre Dame star who was trying to catch on with the Fury in the Continental Basketball League. I watched a game there against a team from Wichita Falls and decided to experiment with it.
I invented some verbs. I had Fury players horking up poor shots and oofing passes out-of-bounds. I was really proud of myself for that.
But just before I submitted my story, I recalled one of the basic tenets of good writing: Write to express, not impress. I found myself guilty of showboating. I needed to tone it down. My compromise came to this: “Barry (the coach) will pound his plan into his players at halftime, then someone will chuck up an air ball and the Fury will be grabbing jerseys and woofing at the refs the rest of the way.”
I was acquitted, at least in my own eyes.
It’s hard to decide when writing is good because it’s a fine line. If you produce trite stories without nuance, some readers doze. Why read what they already know? Well, for some, it’s like singing “Old Rugged Cross” in church or watching old “Gunsmoke” reruns on TV. It’s like a brain-dead sort of comfort.
If you try to be different and include words that cause readers to pause or stumble, you’re taking the focus off your story and putting it on yourself. That’s not good.
And in either case, friends will say kind words that we mistake for genuine feedback.
I write a lot less these days. When I do, I’m often just stacking information in a softball league newsletter or a Facebook post about somewhere I’ve been. I can stretch a little for these Moor and More ramblings, and I accept an occasional assignment from Notre Dame Magazine.
A couple years ago, one of the magazine editors asked me to write about the U.S. Senior Open, which was being played at the university’s Warren Course. The angle I chose was to find a player who barely qualified and then failed because he tried a little too hard. The guy I chose was booted from the field after the second round.
Because I’m really clever, I had a parallel theme about myself as a writer. Just like the club pro, I wanted to be amazing. Instead of playing it smart and safe, scoring par after par, I may have dipped my literary shoulder and ended up with words deep in the weeds.
Evidence? Here is how I described the tall grass at the tournament: “At Warren, it is a wiry mess, a scalp of swirling quills, as if Satan himself had slept late and defiantly refused to comb his hair.”
There’s more. Here is a link to that story: Of Watson and Wells | Stories | Notre Dame Magazine | University of Notre Dame.
I’m a snob. I detest bad writing. Sometimes I make exceptions if it’s mine and if it’s spectacularly bad.