Jeff Passan’s advice to writers: Dazzle (astonish?) with verbs
I’ve been asking good writers for the best piece of writing advice they’ve ever heard or that they like to pass on. Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports’ lead baseball writer, is up today with a two-part answer:
Write with the right verbs and sweat the right details.
Passan’s a terrific reporter and writer who studied journalism at Syracuse and rose to national prominence as a national baseball columnist for the Kansas City Star, a newspaper that is to sportswriters what western Pennsylvania is for quarterbacks.
He’s also the co-author, with fellow excellent Yahoo writers Dan Wetzel and Josh Peter, of the book “Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series.”
I have two, the first of which I violate too much for my own comfort: Write with verbs and sweat the right details.
Strong action verbs serve as the backbone of almost every great sentence. They breathe life into words because they exemplify that time-tested mantra: Show me, don’t tell me.
Verbs paint pictures. They infuse a story with urgency. They deliver feelings. The idea of adjectives as the greatest source of description makes me laugh; one verb can jolt to life a sentence greater than a million adjectives.
It’s easy to sweat details; it’s not easy to sweat the right ones. The difference between a wonky snoozer and a compelling analysis, between a garbled and poignant feature, comes down to using your eyes, ears and, most important, brain.
The first two can help gather the details. The head filters them and helps delineate between extraneous and pertinent. That takes practice.
Somebody once told me that at the end of a story, I haven’t succeeded unless pages full of details not good enough to make the story remain. I still try to follow that by keeping track of the most minute things, for who’s to say that a minute, an hour or a day down the road they won’t suddenly be material to whatever I happen to be writing at that particular time.