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When writing, these tips are invaluable

Monday, July 30, 2001

I've been a columnist for two decades (with a couple of years off for good behavior), and I am the writing coach at the Post-Gazette. So it should be obvious that I am an authority on writing.

Because many of you are interested in writing or are simply drawn to the glamour of journalism, I want to share some tips, offer some insights on how a professional goes about writing effectively and efficiently.

Writing requires intense focus, discipline and concentration. (Geez, what a nice day. What am I doing indoors?) When I write my column, I do it at home because there are fewer distractions, such as PG writers walking into my office looking for help or something to eat, not to mention all those e-mails and phone calls demanding immediate attention.

I'll take you through the writing process step by step, but first I'm going to need some coffee. Can't write without coffee ... Boy, that pot looks pretty grungy. I really should take a few minutes to clean it out. Maybe put a few things in the dishwasher while I'm at it . . .

All right, a word about organization. Some writers make a formal outline. Others jot down a list of points they want to cover. That reminds me: I should make a list of the stuff I have to do before I go on vacation. I'll just take a minute here while I think of it ...

OK, there are no rights and wrongs about the writing process; you have to figure out what works for you. For example, I'm not much of a planner, which might surprise you. I just like to plunge in with a loose notion of where I'm going ...

Wow, the keys on this keyboard feel a little sticky. I should clean them off so I don't get distracted. Hang on a sec. Gee, the computer screen could use a wipe, too. Let me get the glass cleaner ...

Now, if you have some sense of what you want to say first off, wonderful. Get it down. If you can't get started, just write something, anything, just to get going. Don't worry about grammar, spelling or punctuation at this point, and, by the way, aren't those grammar check programs on your computer more trouble than they're worth?

When you get going -- I wonder if the coffee's ready -- you want to focus single-mindedly on what ... Look at that. Right above the arrows on the keyboard it says "WARNING: Some experts believe that use of any keyboard may cause serious injury." (Tell me about it. Those readers can be rough.) "Consult statement on back of this keyboard."

I never noticed that before. Son of a gun. There on the back of the keyboard are nine tips for not getting injured by your keyboard. No. 1 says take frequent short pauses, at least three minutes' worth an hour to let your body rest. I guess that makes sense, but I hate to break my concentration, and three minutes sounds excessive. While I have the keyboard turned over, I might as well give it a good shake to get all the crumbs out so I get through this piece smoothly ...

Anyway, keep typing away. Don't worry about making a mess. You can always come back to refine and clean up, because the game is won or lost in the revision stage. To be a good writer, you've got to be able to tolerate messes ... Gosh, those Rose of Sharon bushes outfront sure do propagate like bunnies. The petal-pod bombs are dropping by the bushelfuls, causing a big mess on the driveway. I should take a minute to sweep them up. While I'm out here, I might as well cut back the bushes so I won't have to clean up everyday ...

As you focus, you never want to lose sight of the central idea of your piece. You want it to be the strand that pulls the reader through, the necklace off which everything hangs ... Oh, the coffee is ready. I wonder if I should be doing a few paragraphs on how central coffee is to the writing process and how ironic it is that a gallon of Starbuck's costs 10 times what a gallon of gas costs, but, instead of raising a big stink, people happily pay it and throw in a tip, too ...

Finally, keep in mind that, when you write, you are constantly shifting back and forth from being a writer to being a reader, from creating to getting critical distance on your work ... Is that the mail lady? I wonder if Bush sent me my tax rebate yet. I thought he said it would be here this week ...

So give it a try. And never forget: The best thing about writing is having written.


Peter Leo's column appears on the last Monday of the month. You can reach him at 412 263-1561 or pleo@post-gazette.com.

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