On writing more betterer
~ 02 June 2008 ~
Months ago I was returning by plane from a conference, and in want of something to read I slipped the in-flight magazine out of the seat pocket in front of me and flipped to the back of the magazine. I stumbled on a pair of movie reviews that purported to be all about the newly released Happy Feet, but in turn were almost entirely about textbook examples of great and poor writing.
The first review was written by The New York Times’ seasoned film critic A.O. Scott, filling in for Roger Ebert. The second was by Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper of the Ebert & Roeper show. The two reviews side by side couldn’t possibly contrast each other more appropriately, so much in fact that I tore the page from the magazine, stored it in my bag, and only yesterday did I find the yellowing page in a scattered pile of papers.
Here are the two reviews:
A.O. Scott (sitting in for Roger Ebert): Happy Feet is the new computer-animated spectacle directed by George Miller. Elijah Wood gives voice to an emperor penguin named Mumble, whose feet replicate the moves of the great tap dancer Savion Glover. The movements of the penguins in this move are beautifully rendered, as is their icy, watery habitat; there are some fine dance numbers and some thrilling action sequences. Happy Feet is an overstuffed stew of themes, plots, semiclever pop culture references, and familiar characters. And, I confess I’m a little worn out by all the cartoon pleas for interspecies understanding that we’ve been getting lately, but Happy Feet was made with enough skill and enough heart to get a thumbs up from me.
Roeper: I’m with you all the way on this one; I’d give it a mild thumbs up. I mean we see in this movie a lot of themes that we’ve seen in a million other animated movies about the kind of runt of the litter, from Nemo on down. In the last 15 minutes, they get into this whole man-vs.-nature thing. It’s rendered OK, but it comes out of nowhere. All of a sudden we’re seeing almost a different form of animation as well. I think kids will love it, because the penguins are cute. Also, I appreciate that at the beginning of the film they told us who some of the actors were.
Notice the contrast? A.O. Scott’s review flows well. The tone of his piece is engaging. I get his point. Roeper’s review, on the other hand, lacks any semblance of organization. It reads as if he just spit out terse remarks in response to a question about the movie. The last three sentences are totally disconnected, especially the concluding one. What’s that all about?
Great writing doesn’t typically come by chance. And in my mind, it’s an art anyone of any trade should strive to master — designers, marketers, developers, and yes, film critics.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in the instruction of great writing, but I’m certainly no stranger to the application of it. So if you were to ask me what my guiding principles for authoring have been up to this point in my career, it would probably take me a while to come up with a list (it did for the one below). It might resemble something like this:
- Lead with a question, story, or compelling one- / two-line summary
- Transition logically from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph
- Use a thesaurus along the way to add flavor and variety
- Write passionately throughout, keeping the reader (and yourself) engaged in the topic
- Be casual in tone once in a while to break things up
- Revise, revise, let it sit for a while, then revise again
- End memorably, succinctly, summarily, or all three
That’s it. No magic formula, just a few salient points. Of course, I’m making the practice of writing sound much simpler than it really is, but at the end of the day it isn’t an elaborate science. It just takes practice, good editing, and passion about the topic at hand.
“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. Go write a building — as articulately, thoughtfully, and beautifully as an architect would.
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