Since late last week, I’ve been spending a huge amount of time working on a writing project that was due this past Tuesday.
It’s the first time I’ve been commissioned to write something for publication. Naturally, I wanted to make as good an impression as possible, so I promptly missed my deadline and turned in a piece that is slightly – and I have to emphasize the word “slightly” – longer than the specs called for. I will be able to share some more details later, but my article will be published in a magazine that is targeted towards Leafs fans and written by bloggers and fans who follow the team passionately. Heavy involvement of bloggers basically guarantees that the target audience skews younger.
Here’s how I make myself laugh sometimes. I actually engaged in a thought process that took several hours, no word of a lie, in which I decided that it was important to write a catchy opening paragraph in an effort to draw the reader in to the piece; I carefully analyzed the expected demographic of my audience (see above) and came to the conclusion that some smart modern humour would fit the bill. I then set out to write the joke around which the introduction to the piece revolves.
Somehow, a paragraph that started out referring to Adam Lambert (of American Idol fame) ended up being about Dagwood Bumstead. The truth of the matter is that I have absolutely no explanation as to how and why this happened. Modern humour? Dagwood? Seriously, anyone who makes it past that opening paragraph will be required to mentally picture me driving twenty miles an hour too slow in the left lane with my right blinker on, wearing a ridiculous hat and rushing to get home so I can shake my cane at the neighbourhood kids to get off my lawn.
All I can say is: sometimes you end up with what you were shooting for; sometimes, not so much.
Writing is such a fascinating process for me. When I finally got past the introduction, I stalled out about 1/3 of the way in to the piece. Try as I might, I couldn’t write a transition from the initial survey of the topic to the more in-depth analysis because I was having difficulty believing the conclusions that I was attempting to draw; something didn’t ring true about the assignment the way I had initially conceived it. I wasn’t able to write a single worthwhile sentence for several hours. With the deadline approaching, I found myself really worrying about whether I was going to be able to come up with enough material to reach the agreed-upon length for the piece.
When I realized the source of the difficulty I was experiencing – lack of conviction in the basic premise – I decided I had to back up and change the approach. It was like turning on the tap; suddenly, words were pouring out of me and I basically just typed out a first draft of about four thousand words in three solid sessions of almost stream of consciousness writing.
Next came the tough part: trying to take the basic ideas (which I think are pretty good, if I do say so myself) and try to mold them into a polished form. In the second draft, I sought logical clarity and a sense of flow. I cut large sections from the piece, but added back almost as much as I cut by adding emphasis to certain facets of the reasoning in this, that, or the other passage. By the end of the second draft, I still had more than 3900 words in a 3400 word piece – plus footnotes.
The last seven hours of writing were all spent carefully wading through the piece word by word, scrupulously searching for unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. I re-thought each paragraph and attempted to combine thoughts where appropriate to save space. I spent a great deal of time poring over the whole piece looking for superfluous qualifying language and found that I have a horrible habit of almost unconsciously (I’m doing it again!) inserting this weakening verbiage in my sentences. It makes them less forceful, wreaks havoc with the rhythm of the prose and greatly reduces the impact of what I have to say. I think I culled about 300 words of this kind of language out of the piece – 300 words that were just lazing about the page and getting in the way. Who knew?
It is really true that it takes longer to make it shorter. I am convinced, though, that it is time well spent. By the end of the process, I felt that my sentences were much more direct and the writing had a presence to it that I don’t ordinarily achieve. Interesting.
Anyway, I “finished” it (by which I may mean “got so sick of reading, re-reading and polishing it that I stuck it in an email and mashed the send button”) and went off to lunch. The moment I sat down and took a bite of my sandwich, I of course had at least three ideas occur to me – three things that I was certain I had completely overlooked, to the complete and fatal detriment of my piece. I found myself sitting there wishing for 400 more words and six more hours.
I was mentally toting up the time spent on this project. The writing, re-writing and editing took about 36 hours. It’s difficult to say exactly how much time I spent researching the topic, because I generally spend a lot of time reading about hockey and the Maple Leafs, and it’s a little difficult to demarcate exactly which reading was “targeted” towards the topic and which reading was just part of my daily informational treasure hunts. If I were forced to guess, I would conservatively estimate at least another ten hours of dedicated reading was put into the assignment.
The thing is, I loved it. Don’t get me wrong, I was panicking something fierce when I was struggling to produce any material. Spouse will tell you that I wasn’t very good company over the last few days, often lost in thought, wondering and worrying about when the logjam would break. In the end, though, to watch the piece take shape; to try my hardest to say something original or at least interesting about the topic, and to feel that – at times – I succeeded, it’s a wonderful thing. I very much enjoyed participating in this project, and I have renewed admiration for columnists like Bill Simmons, who seem able to consistently generate entertaining quality material several times a week.
One last observation arising out of this project – and this would probably NOT qualify as one of those “original” thoughts – the rise of the Internet has profoundly changed the way information is generated. First, if not for this here blog thingy, it is highly unlikely I”d be spending as much time as I now do writing about anything, much less the Maple Leafs. I also suspect that, if it were not for the folks over at Pension Plan Puppets putting up with my occasional rantings, I wouldn’t have been asked to participate in this project. On top of that, the Internet allows a guy like me to sit in a bedroom in my house and – with a little dedication and facility with Google News’ advanced archive search (love that feature!) – to really put some meat on the bones of his thoughts by researching unbelievably arcane issues: at which end of Maple Leaf Gardens did the giant picture of Queen Elizabeth hang before being removed by Harold Ballard to make way for additional seating? What was the average NHL player’s salary in 2003-2004? Did any of the 2003-2004 Washington Capitals have no trade clauses in their contracts?
Finally, with my piece all but complete (except for one final read-through for typos), I emailed the document to myself at work. Walking in to the office, I booted up my work computer and called the piece up on to the screen. When my final review was finished, I inserted it in an email and realized that I hadn’t brought the editor’s email address with me. I had no idea how the hell I was going to get the submission to him on time. Not to worry. In a few minutes, I had contacted two of my fellow contributors via Twitter, and had the necessary particulars. A few minutes after that, I had an email back from the editor, who had finished reviewing the article I had completed less than an hour before. After another few minutes, he and I were reviewing – via email – the images he had licenced from Getty images to appear with the article only minutes before. As we traded emails over the course of the late morning, he was inserting the piece I had written in to his own software and formatting it as we spoke for publication.
I remember when I was a kid, using an old screen and stencil printing press that my family had in the basement to mass produce a “newspaper” I had written. The paper – a broadsheet, if memory serves – was sold up and down my block to unsuspecting grownups too slow to formulate a cogent excuse for not surrendering a nickel for the privilege of being apprised of recent events concerning my dog and juvenile bicyclists. If only my seven-year old self could see me now!