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Dave Barry  On Writing


Well, in column writing, especially in humor column writing, it'd probably be a serious mistake to give the summary lead. It's kind of like saying, "I want you to take my wife away from me," sort of ignoring the setup to get to the punch line. So I do write hard-hitting summary leads for my column, but they almost never have anything to do with the rest of the column.

Yeah, the inverted pyramid. You want to put all your least important facts somewhere in the pyramid. I can't remember. I write more, not so much a pyramid. I mean, if you gotta give it a geometric shape, it'd be more like, I write a rhombus. And I say that only because I have no real idea what a rhombus is. But I think that's probably one of the shapes that I'm writing in.

But it's hard to think of an ending. The beginning is really hard, and the ending is always really hard, and the middle part is also very hard. It's just hard, hard, hard. Kids, don't go into this. No, the end has to be, you know, you want to have some clue that it was the end, and ideally, if it's a humor column, it should be funny at the end, too. You can't just say, like, editorial writers I deeply envy because they can always end with "...and somebody should do something about this." Not us, we're busy writing editorials. But in humor, you really, theoretically, you have what we call, professionally and technically, a "punch line," should come near the end there somewhere. So everyone goes, "Ha! Now it's over."


Oh, no, I am an obsessive rewriter. I don't even remember how I used to write without a computer because I have to change everything so often. But I write every sentence dozens of times and that's literally true. I would change, just change, change, change, change every little word, keep changing, then as soon as I finished a paragraph, go back, read it all over again, and probably change again, and then do the next paragraph, go back and do it. I am an obsessive rewriter. If they ever had one of those programs that shows all the different versions of a document, mine would be in the thousands for almost every column I write. It's supposed to look the opposite of that. It's supposed to look like it just came out, and you were probably drinking when you did it, in five minutes. But for me it's hour after hour after hour of staring at the screen and just changing, changing, changing.


Hard to believe that anybody at the AP Style would be boring. I worked at the AP for six months. I was the "Word Army." I always argued that any AP person could die in the middle of a story and any other AP person could come up and without having seen what had been written up to that letter, finish the story and you would never know! I loved working for the AP.


You know the rule seems to keep changing. I always thought the rule was if it was zero through nine you spell it out, and above that you use the numbers, but they're always changing it. I think that's one of the functions of newspapers that they change their stylebooks every four or five days just to make sure no one ever gets it. But that's exactly the kind of thing that you can get obsessed about, and really will just destroy your ability to write stories. If you really want to worry about stuff like that, and I want to distinguish between knowing the style technicalities and knowing grammar. Knowing grammar is really important. Understand how the language works. That's helpful and useful. And making grammatical errors is pretty much unforgivable. Knowing how to abbreviate "Third U.S. District Court" correctly, although it's gotta be done right, at some point, that's not as important in my line. I don't care. 'Cause it's gonna change from paper to paper and from wire service to wire service, and they're all arbitrary, those decisions I think there's sometimes too much of an obsession with that as if it were writing, and it's not. It has nothing to do with learning how to tell a story, or how to present information so readers will actually want to read what you write. Again something it seems they struggle not to do sometimes in journalism. "Today we begin an 18-part series on..." Whack! All over your readership area, people flipping their pages fast, those who have not fallen asleep face down in their oatmeal are turning the pages as fast as they can. No one's gonna read it. No one's ever gonna get to the end of it. I used to suggest that instead of actually putting an 18-part series, 18 is probably a little bit of an exaggeration, but not too much, sometimes. Instead of putting those things in a newspaper, we just mail them straight to the Pulitzer Prize committee, for whom they're really intended, and spare the readers and the trees.


Don't be boring. When nothing else that we try to do in journalism will work, if people don't read it. I just wish every journalist who ever wrote anything started with the assumption that he wasn't gonna keep people all the way through that unless he really worked hard to keep their interest. And I think we're so busy worrying about how to abbreviate this, and where to put the nut graph, and where to put the this, and all these rules and so, readers don't know any of that. What readers know is that they could also watch television, or go outside, or just put the paper down. So it's really important to keep them reading you. And I think that should be the most important rule. I mean that and tell the truth. Which I think is obviously what we try to do. Not me, but journalists do. Tell the truth, but you're not gonna tell it to people who aren't reading it.

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