- I learned how to read poetry. (I had a great professor who taught me this, and it’s enriched my whole life.)
- I learned the basics of ballroom dancing.
- I learned that storing tomatoes and bananas near each other makes both ripen more quickly. True. Try it. (Or try separating them if they’re already as ripe as you want them.)
But one of the most important things I learned — especially for me, a journalism major — was an important tip to tighten up my writing. Here it is, free of charge, saving you the cost of four years at a Big 10 university: Get rid of the extraneous warmup text at the beginning.
“Don’t you see? This is all just warmup.”
The same professor who taught me to read poetry also taught me this. He handed back one of my papers with a lot of glowing comments about the points I had made, but with a big red X through the first 4-6 paragraphs. That’s a lot of text, 4-6 paragraphs. Think about it. But what my professor wrote next those paragraphs was brilliant: “Don’t you see? This is all just warmup.”
He was right. Following that section was the true “lead” of what I had written. Starting there, I made a point, made it well, included examples and analysis to back it up, and then signed off. Fairly clean. As crisp as I could possibly write as a college student. Very little fat.
It’s an editing lesson I’ve learned well. If I have something I need or want to write — not a letter to a friend but a blog post, a newspaper/magazine article, an essay — I sit down and start writing (although I’ve been known to stare at a blank screen for three hours), but I don’t worry too much about polishing my prose. That comes later. When I’m finished with the whole piece, I re-read from the beginning… and sometimes start slashing. I’ve become self-aware enough that I sometimes manage to start off well, but often I still cut out a paragraph or more at the start.
Want an example?
Look at the beginning of this recent post, where I told about giving up swearing on a dare. The post originally started with another paragraph preceding what’s there now:
“I have a little story to tell. It’s short, and I promise there’s a point.”
Don’t you see? That’s just warmup.
Take a look around the web, and you’ll see more examples. I think one of the reasons people do this is because of the writing formula many people are taught for essays and public speaking: “Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Say what you said.”
I have a better idea. Just say what you have to say. Please.