By: Vergel O. Santos
“WHY ARE you sitting down to write?” asked Dr. Rudolf Flesch.
“Because, sir,” replied E. B. White, “it is more comfortable than standing up.”
A perfectly practical answer, although not to the point of Dr. Flesch’s question (there is, however, a side lesson that ought not to be missed here—clarity). The point is purpose: Why are you writing? What do you want to achieve?
Once you sit down to it, you realize that setting down your purpose is no simple matter. For one thing, you’re not writing only for yourself; you are bound by an inviolable, though unspoken, transaction with your subject and your reader.
While writing is a personal undertaking, it’s likely to fail if done as an exercise of ego. I say “likely” because there are writers able to pull it off. Anyway, since very little of that sort of genius goes around, it’s best to assume that you haven’t got genius and that you haven’t the right to write as you damn well please, that the story you have chosen to write and the manner in which you have chosen to write it are worthy of your subject and your reader.
You are writing not simply to get something out of your chest or your system, or to get down on paper what you just happen to fancy; you are writing, rather, to communicate something to someone. And that someone, to be sure, is not a character so familiar as anyone you might really know. In fact, you haven’t even met him. He is a market, a composite of characters reduced to certain common denominators, drawn up for you, by the marketers of the publishing house you are writing for. You therefore cannot know him enough, although the better you know him the more you are able to communicate to him effectively, the better your purpose is served. And if you cannot know exactly whom you are writing for, you should at least know exactly why—whether it is to offer a point of view or a perspective or to simply tell a story.
In fact, the editor Mitchell Ivers suggests you determine that even before you begin to write. “If you have trouble formulating your purpose,” he says, “your writing will probably show it. You will wander, and the reader will have trouble figuring out what it is you’re getting at.”
So, how do you formulate your purpose? Your subject itself will suggest it.
Indeed, your choice of subject is informed by some sense of purpose, which, once you have become set on your choice, you begin to refine and should be able to articulate. You may consider writing, say, about Mindanao because it’s topical. But that’s a mere reason, not a purpose, although you do have a general sense of it. You may finally decide to do it along the line “Land of endless promise, land of endless conflict” to provide the general reader a background and perspective on the current military campaign there and, consequently, a better understanding of it. Now, you have a purpose.
In turn, your purpose will direct your search of material and suggest a sense of form or structure within which it will be contained—the veritable world in which the people and things in your story will live for your reader. In it you can cast them in various ways, but unless you are able do so tidily, frugally, and sensibly, they have little hope of coming through—and true.
Outline – a ‘curiously clear preview’
All writing must proceed from what is variously called outline, plan, plot, design, and pre-arrangement, among other names. Vladimir Nabokov called it a “curiously clear preview” of what you intend to write. It is a phrase I can’t myself stop celebrating. It combines promise, decisiveness, and deliberation, qualities that reflect the seriousness of a writer’s sense of commitment to his transaction with his subject and his reader.
Essentially everything begins with a suggestion of a subject to write about and an angle (also peg, slant, point of view, or perspective) to it. Then it grows into an outline that provides you guidance and direction, which in turn make for economy of effort and efficiency. This outline should:
-articulate the purpose or point of your piece and focus your angle;
-list the basic questions that your piece should answer and the pictures and other materials to illustrate it;
-set the form or structure in which to put it; and
-set the approximate length (in number of words) it may require.
For a multi-angled or multi-dimensional piece, you may have to make an outline for the basic story and every story subsumed in it. At any rate, you don’t begin to collect your material until you have done your outlines.
Research your subject thoroughly before doing any interviews. As you go along, more questions are bound to arise and you may have not only to refine your outline, or outlines, but to revamp any of them altogether. It is your call. Leave no stone unturned, but keep the changes within reasonable limits. Remember you have a deadline to meet, and, believe me, if you don’t watch it, you can revise your outlines, indeed your piece itself, to death.
The proper diction
Finally set on what to write about, what for to write, and in what form to write, you then decide in what tone and level of language (diction) to write. Whatever you decide will show how you regard your reader. Here, again, is some advice from Mitchell Ivers:
Inappropriateness of tone is an avoidable error. In nonfiction, there are three most common inappropriate tones: excessive formality, out-of-place humor, and misdirected anger…. Writing with purpose is the best way to avoid an inappropriate tone.
Now, you may be ready but terrified to write. Take some comfort from Red Smith: “There is nothing to writing. You just sit at your typewriter and open a vein.”
Recalls his son Terence, also a journalist, “When I was growing up, it seemed to me that my father was always writing a column…. The column was his contract with life.”
Indeed, Red Smith wrote a column every day for most of his life, slowing to three a week only in his last years. In fact, he had last written only days before he died, at 76.
And he didn’t die of hemorrhage either; he died of cancer. (http://www.cmfr-phil.org/inmediasres/writing-where-to-begin/)
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.