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Jun 8 / King Kaufman

TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott on writing: Don’t be weird

Henry AbbottHenry Abbott is a premier example of a blogger made good. He founded the TrueHoop basketball blog in 2005, and a mere two years later sold it to ESPN, which turned it into the TrueHoop blog network, with Abbott a senior writer.

He’s the first person I’ve asked for their best advice about writing who has offered advice I’ve never heard before:

Don’t be weird.

That’s a line that my mother-in-law used with her Jack Russell when it would lick the couch. The dog’s name was Spot, and she’d see him doing that and command, “Spot, don’t be weird.” And he would lift his head, exposing a little damp spot of fabric.

The writing I love to read, and try to write, is not weird. My basic assumption is that the truth is messy as hell — a tangled web of relationships, evidence, half-truths and subtlety. If you’re in the business of describing this world to readers, do them the favor of not making it even weirder than it already is in how you tell it. In other words, tell it straight — any true story is weird enough without you helping it along.

Hunter S. Thompson

A counterpoint from Hunter S. Thompson: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

I recognize that’s not how Shakespeare did it.

The weird thing applies to gathering information, too. Overheard stuff, whispered stuff, too-good-to-be-true stuff … all that falls into the category of “tips.” Not “sources.” If you have a tip, something you got some weird way, take it to those directly involved and get the real story the unweird way. It’ll cost you several scoops and a headache here or there, but it will also prevent career-threatening embarrassment.

Make your brand about straightforwardness, and people will like to read, and they’ll like to deal with you in all aspects of the work.

It’s not the only way to get ahead, but it’s the only way that makes sense to me.

It’s not the only way that makes sense to me, and I can’t say I’ve always lived by it. I also can’t say I’ve been right not to live by it.

What do you think? Is playing it straight the best way to go? Have you been burned by being weird, journalistically speaking? Conversely, have you regretted playing it straight, thinking in hindsight you should have been a little weird?

Let us know in the comments.

Thompson photo: MDC Archives/Creative Commons

  • Jon Sainz

    He does have a point, an article written with simple words and simple structures does way more good than one with a lot of complicated structures and weird sentences mixed in.

  • Caleb

    It seems worth noting: “But don’t be afraid to try something new.” Writing can be like natural selection in that 99% of mutations are terminal, but that 1% success is what enables the craft evolve.

  • Caleb

    *to evolve. (for instance, leaving out prepositions is a terminal modification…)

  • King Kaufman

    I think I’ve generally lived by the rule that the weirder the story, the more straightforward the writing should be.

    I think this is the weirdest story I’ve ever been involved in, and while I did some slightly flamboyant things — writing in the second person about how the reader would react to the story once it became a movie — I tried to resist matching the story’s weirdness in my writing.

    And I think the most flamboyant thing I’ve written is probably this profile of Ernie Harwell.

    The flamboyance was in the organization of the piece — hanging Harwell’s story on the framework of a single baseball game. I still tried to make the writing itself crystal clear.

    There are certainly writers who break Abbott’s advice, as I hinted at by using that photo of Hunter S. Thompson. But it’s really the advanced class. You have to be really, really good to pull it off.

    My initial reaction to what Abbott said was, “well, not always …” but the more I think about it, the more I think that for most of us, including me, it’s great advice, and without having realized it, I’ve pretty much followed it.