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May 26 / King Kaufman

Bethlehem Shoals: I got beat up in freshman writing, and it helped

Bethlehem ShoalsBethlehem Shoals was a founder and the driving force behind the thinking—and maybe slightly twisted—person’s NBA site FreeDarko, which recently ceased operation.

You can get a pretty good idea of the site’s tone from the two books it published, “FreeDarko Presents: The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats, and Stars in Today’s Game” in 2008 and ” FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History” last year.

As the FreeDarko writer known as Brickowski put it, the site spent its six-year life “using the NBA as a prism from which to view race, culture, politics, and almost everything else that really matters.”

Shoals has written about the NBA for many other outlets, including The Nation, Slate, Sports Illustrated, and McSweeney’s. He’s blogging about the playoffs for GQ.

You can also find him on Twitter and Tumblr.

I asked Shoals for his best advice on writing:

Everything I learned about writing, I learned by getting the s**t kicked out of me. And after that, I still wasn’t very good.

I went to a small, pricey liberal arts school for undergrad. Everybody had to take a freshman writing course; these varied depending on the professor.

I originally signed up for a section taught by a post-colonial English prof. It was no fun, and after two days, I convinced her that I needed to switch out. I doubt she believed that I knew everything about literary theory already, but she was certainly offended enough to turn me loose.

A friend of mine had suggested an elegantly grouchy anthropology professor who was sick of students not being able to write. So in his late-60s, he decided to start teaching them himself.

He hailed from the Midwest, went to Oxford or Cambridge, and was a world-class expert on the Congo. He was affectionate, but an utter, arrogant prick. And he had every right to be. It suited him, and made him into a great teacher.

I don’t really remember much about our readings, lectures or discussions, other than him making fun of us, and often the writers, a lot.

The real heart of the course was the breakout tutorials, where twice a week, he would meet with us in groups of three or four. We took turns having our latest papers projected onto the wall, where they would be ridiculed, line-edited and just generally torn to shreds by the all-too-eager (and always well-meaning) instructor.

We were allowed to pipe up in our defense, but usually that just made things worse. What we could not do, though, was get away with a non-answer when he asked us to justify a word-choice, or clarify a passage.

This ritual was excruciating and humiliating and regularly made people cry. I have no idea if it did anyone else any good, but it taught me that, in theory, writers can’t get away with anything.

There is no such thing as an unimportant word, or a sentence that will just take care of itself. I’ve never been much for close-reading; these lessons in close-writing have stuck with me—as trauma, perhaps, but they’re always with me.

In what today might seem like a total anachronism, I did a lot of writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer right after college. I started at a weekly, where things were rarely edited, unless someone who hated your writing got a hold of it. It was like the web, all over again, before its time.

When I hit the big time and found myself doing most of my freelancing for a Knight-Ridder operation, I also discovered the phone-edit. It was like freshman writing all over again.

My main editor took the time (or maybe I demanded it) to work with me. She sometimes spent five minutes explaining to me why a sentence sucked, then piecing together a stronger version on the spot.

I always wondered if she had something better to do; these days, this kind of attention (and on the other side of the editorial equation, free time) is almost unimaginable. But I was lucky enough to catch the tail-end of that era.

That was four years after freshman writing; it’s been nine years since then. I still make mistakes, coast and half-ass it all the time.

I know, though, that I have a conscience. I’m not shameless, or OK with sounding stupid. Sometimes it takes an edit, or two, for me to really find that part of me. Sometimes I don’t have time for that.

But at least I know how good writing gets done, even if I don’t always live up to that standard myself.

The meat of Shoals’ advice is the same as the best advice I ever got: Make every word count.