Monday, April 11, 2011

What I've learned about writing

I am not a writer. Not even close.

Telling you otherwise, would be an insult to those who actually know what they're doing and who write for a living everyday.

But, I've had this blog for over three years, and in over 1200 posts, I think there might be one or two things here that might pass for good writing.

(My friend Gus Moore has given me an opportunity to showcase some of my essays on his website. And that's allowed me reach more readers than I could ever hope for here.)

I should be an excellent writer.

In over 25 years as a professional photojournalist, I've worked with some great writers.

Each of them - whether they know it or not - has taught me something about the craft of writing.

Associated Press editor Will Lester once told me to write shorter sentences. "Use lots of periods," said Will. "Ernest Hemingway got very rich doing that."

AP writer Cathy Wilson schooled me on how to conduct a proper interview: "Once you've asked the question; shut up and let them answer. Don't interrupt."

I used to read AP writer Dan Sewell's breaking news stories and wonder what his secret was. (One of these days I'll tell you my favorite Dan Sewell story that involves an elevator ride at the old Orange Bowl with the late Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie.)

Miami Herald writer Ellie Brecher taught me that a skilled writer can turn any piece of crap story assignment into sparkling prose.

And in a state that some call boring and uninteresting, St. Petersburg Times reporter Jeff Klinkenberg showed me that Florida is really a never-ending source of material for good stories. His book, Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators, is proof of that. Jeff is Florida's best storyteller.

St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman showed me with his book, Manatee Insanity, that it's possible to turn a seemingly mundane subject - manatees - into an entirely readable and enjoyable book.

AP writer Tamara Lush taught me that writing can be fun and to never take myself too seriously.

But the writer who's had the most lasting influence on me is Rick Bragg.

After several decades as a reporter at some great newspapers, Rick now teaches writing at the University of Alabama.

I met Rick over 20 years ago when he was assigned by the St.Petersburg Times to cover Miami.

Rick has written over a half dozen books and has a loyal following of readers that would make any writer envious.

Needless to say, Rick has taught me a few things about writing.
I learned a lot just by watching him as we covered many stories.

One important lesson: It's sometimes best to stay in the backgrond and let the action play out before you. Become a fly on the wall.

But the most important lesson I learned from Rick is something he learned a long time ago from a Birmingham newspaper editor: "Show me, don’t tell me. Let me see what you see. Paint me a picture. Then, I’ll follow you anywhere, even past the jump."

Rick must have had that advice in the back of his mind when he was assigned to write a story about a wild bobcat that attacked a pet chicken named Mopsy near Clearwater in 1989. Bragg went out and came back with a couple of paragraphs that are still talked about over 20 years later:
Mopsy has looked into the face of death, and it is whiskered.

Mopsy is a pet chicken belonging to Wini Bauman.

Mrs. Bauman was on the porch of her Narnia Court home Wednesday morning when Mopsy came tearing around the corner of the house, feathers flying.

Hot on Mopsy’s tail feathers was a bobcat.

‘I couldn’t believe my eyes,’ Mrs. Bauman said. Mopsy made it to the house safely.
Fans of Rick's writing got some good news a few months ago when Southern Living magazine announced that Rick would be writing a monthly column. In the February issue Rick wrote about a dream menu made up of his favorite restaurant dishes he's enjoyed over the years. The dessert from a Miami restaurant made the list.

Today I received an autographed copy of the one of Rick's more recent books that was missing from my collection: The Prince of Frogtown.

I leafed through the book and then turned to the back of the dust jacket that contained quotes from different reviews of Rick's work.

I was drawn to one quote that appeared in an Atlanta newspaper: "Bragg tells about the South with such power and bone-naked love that he will make you cry."

Yes, he will.


  1. Thanks for including me, Mister!

  2. We are lucky to have YOU as a friend and fellow writer, Bill!!! xoxoxo

  3. You actually are a very good writer, something I've been aware of for a while. And thanks for this very interesting and nicely done column. (and thanks for the mention!)

  4. Oh, I think you can write. Best of all, you find stuff worth writing about.


Feel free to comment on anything you read here.

All comments must first be approved. Spam and spam links will not be tolerated or approved.