By: Vergel O. Santos
(The following is the first part of a two-part adaptation from a talk the writer gave recently to an audience of students and new practitioners of journalism.)
WRITING, according to Matthew (Arnold, that is), is having something to say and saying it as clearly as you can. From that, you can gather three only-too-logical presumptions: first, that all writing is not only communication but storytelling; second, that, therefore, its function is communication; and, third, that its primary virtue should be clarity (not style or grace or elegance, which are virtues acquired over time, or not acquired at all if one happens, as they say, to simply haven’t got it).
From that, in turn, you can break writing down into two basic elements: story and medium—language and structure. Without a story, you have nothing to tell; without a medium, you have nothing to tell with. Anyway, in all that, you should find much reasonable hope for yourself: Being basically craft, writing can be learned, and writers made.
It is precisely toward that end that we are making this effort, and what I will ask for now is that you sweep your minds clean of biases about writing—about what’s good writing and what’s bad—and that, when you raise any challenge, be open to every reasonable prospect of changing your minds.
For my part, I shall try to keep within the logic of the craft—how it rationally proceeds. Indeed, I believe there’s no more effective, if not decisive, ground for learning it.
The process. It seems that anyone who has taken up writing seriously—that is, as a living, if not as a life—never stops writing; he is at it even though it may not seem that he is.
As Burton Rascoe once said, “What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out the window.”
Well, no one would have married Tennessee Williams even if he had been suitably predisposed. “When I stop [writing],” he warned, “the rest of the day is posthumous. I’m only really alive when I’m working.”
Constancy is one advice any writer who has done well will give you. To be sure, they mean a whole lot more than for you to just keep at it, as in a drill. They mean for you to develop discipline, to devise some practical organized way of going about it, to arrange the process of writing in stages so that you will know exactly what to do, where to focus your energies, at each stage. You cannot, for instance, be setting the first words down before you are ready or be staring out the window thinking of the next piece to write before you’re done with the last one. Some writers are said to be capable of multi-focus and, like professional cooks, can produce a number of dishes simultaneously. But, again, that must be genius, to which you are best advised not to pretend. Moreover, writing is most definitely not cookery.
I myself had not been able to do as I now try to preach until rather late, and even now I sometimes still tend to just do it, applying more instinct than deliberation, more speed than tactical pace. It must be out of reflex anxiety carried over from my newspaper years: I explode off the starting block and run full-blast. It may be the thing to do in sprint journalism, which is what news is about, but not in middle- or long-distance journalism, which is what features are about.
I do not mean to downgrade news writing, but feature writing is a different sort of discipline. Features are akin to news only insofar as news inspires or occasions features—to expand on certain aspects of the news, say, by providing a larger context or a distinct perspective to it. Even then, you can see that a feature story is something else: it is expected to cover greater range and depth than news and therefore requires a more complex structure than an inverted pyramid or an hourglass to hold it together; naturally, it also takes more time to write and more words to tell and, all in all, a larger effort to pull off.
You, therefore, need to plan. (http://www.cmfr-phil.org/inmediasres/writing-is-communication/)
(Vergel O. Santos has been a journalist for over four decades. He worked as a senior editor of the Business Day, consulting editor of the Journal publications, and executive editor of The Manila Times and The Manila Chronicle. He has written four books, all on his profession, one, “The Newswriting Formula”, a university text. Mr. Santos is today a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, and Chairman of the Editorial Board of BusinessWorld, Philippines.)