Tuesday, October 22, 2013

If you can't write, pick up the phone

Galbraith: Pick up the phone.
Here's a tactic that will get you going if you're in a rut and at the same time make your writing stronger.

Pick up the phone.

As a business writer at The Associated Press back in the Dark Ages, I found myself working on a series of articles about coffee prices with a fellow reporter who came up to New York from Washington, where he covered the CIA and other spooky things.

We were going to prove that there was a conspiracy to raise coffee prices. After several weeks of tramping around odd parts of Manhattan chasing down coffee brewers, who wouldn't tell us anything, my colleague allowed as how covering the top-secret CIA was a lot easier.

I digress. I was sitting at my typewriter one morning (I told you it was the Dark Ages) stuck on what to type next. My editor wandered by, took one glance, sized me up, and scolded, "You just can't pick up the phone, can you?"

His point: if you don't know where to go next, get some more information. If you can't write, report.

You can't write your way around a problem. You have to read more or ask someone to get around it. The payoff is that the more facts and data you get, the better your insight into the topic and the more precise and concrete your writing. Specific is always better than general. Real is better than theoretical.

I was reminded of this when I came across an article written in 1978 -- about the same time I discovered that coffee prices go up because of market forces, duh -- by the economist  John Kenneth Galbraith. He had been asked to teach college students about writing, and he was pondering what he might say.

Here's his version of "pick up the phone":
George Bernard Shaw once said that as he grew older, he became less and less interested in theory, more and more interested in information. The temptation in writing is just the reverse. Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization. I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I do not care much what they are. Richly evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it. My advice to all young writers is to stick to research and reporting with only a minimum of interpretation. And especially this is my advice to all older writers, particularly to columnists. As the feet give out, they seek to have the mind take their place.
It's good advice for young and old.

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