Editing Principle 16: Write Like a Hack Sometimes

Lately I've worked with a couple of clients struggling through revisions on early drafts. Neither of them had trouble with the topic; they knew their stuff cold. Both had published books before. Both had a lot riding on the current project. One needed tenure. The other wanted to capture his conflicted feelings about humanitarian aid work after thirty-plus years of providing medical care to underserved communities in East Africa. No easy, breezy task in either case.

And in both cases, a tendency to super-saturate their pages with meaning was leading to big, chewy paragraphs bristling with ideas, all carefully nuanced, and mostly hard to follow. One found writing these paragraphs torture. She hated the process and doubted herself. The other client typed fast and wrote fluidly, even beautifully. This did not mean that his ambitious arguments were any easier to follow. I had read an earlier draft of his so knew the intellectual terrain he was covering well, and I still had trouble discerning what exactly he wanted to communicate here.

While trying and failing to help them both, I was reminded of a few months in 2009 when the editor for the New York Post's business section asked me to write some pieces for him (because he had not expected to like How to Be Useful but did). He soon regretted having asked me. When I sent him my draft for the first piece he replied with, "O.K. Nice try. Now I'm going to teach you to write like a hack." The assignment was a thematic book round-up, author interview hybrid article, and what I submitted was pretentious and overwrought, abd about 1000 words too long. My editor said I was "writing for the Post, for chrissakes," and to give myself and his readers a break. He'd show me how.

His formula was basically this: One idea = one paragraph. Not 3-4 ideas per paragraph with a clever allusion to an idea no. 5 that floats about five inches off the page but isn’t actually named or explicitly introduced.

I tried his method. It felt like unlearning but it worked.

So late last summer I tried explaining this to the client who was hating the process. We came up with a way to explain the one-idea-per-paragraph idea to those who really like their ambitious paragraphs, even when it's killing them. Here's the structure of a paragraph pre-hacked; it concerns a hypothetical rabbit's thoughts on vegetables:

Tomatoes are delicious and Rabbit likes them. They're so juicy that the juice drips down her weak chin but even that she doesn’t mind. The matted spots on her fur she wears as badges of courage and love of tomatoes. Broccoli, however, sticks in her craw. Eggplant she objects to on ideological grounds. Vegetables in general remind her of home, and she has mixed feelings about home.

How would a hack approach the same content?

By breaking it up and presenting the ideas/vegetables one at a time. First a paragraph on Rabbit's relationship to tomatoes. Next paragraph, broccoli. Take that one topic sentence on broccoli and riff on it. Next, eggplant, etc.

Each paragraph will be simpler than the pre-hacked version, and won't take us far, argument-wise. No going from drippy tomatoes to the vague suggestion of an unhappy rabbit childhood. But that simplicity can be liberating.

It can also be a solution for both clients' problems; the problem of hating the process, and also the problem of pouring out words so easily that you get carried away and don't realize that the ends of your paragraphs have little to do with the beginnings, and meanwhile the middles are doing their own thing.

For the first, it can treat writer's block borne from too much emotional, personal, and professional pressure on the outcome.

For the second, it's a tool for splitting the overly ambitious paragraph into parts that, taken together but laid out in sequence, communicate your overall narrative or overarching argument better. It asks you to examine each sentence and decide if it relates to the first sentence in the paragraph, and if, on the shallowest level, it does not, to cut that sentence and grant it its own paragraph. (Don't get too sophisticated here and tell yourself well, yes, they are related, because you see how blah blah blah. Instead, read more like a literal-minded fourth grader.)

I am still working on this model and looking for better examples. I'll update the post as I find them.

Megan Hustad