I have written over 2,000 comments for the New York Times. My comment on the Times’ 2012 State of the Union editorial received the highest number of recommendations by Times readers. My comment on the Muslim Cultural Center in Manhattan was also a top readers’ pick. I write comments on op-eds, history, philosophy, cultural theory, economics, politics, education, media, race, regions, sports. Here’s a peek at my techniques.
I write without knowing what I will say, although I actually hear the opening sentence. It’s a rush of words. Each comment begins with a rhythm and a sentence. That sentence determines what follows. But I never know what it will be or where it will go.
That unknown puts its own power in my writing. It forces me to stay out of the way. That way brings out the best in the words. It opens up creative variety and leads to new insights and discoveries!
I avoid argumentation, I don’t want to vent or reason; I’m a story teller, a history teller. I love the thrill of insight. The daring found in truth, the danger of its rescue. The head (ideas, analysis), heart (human condition), and hands (sharing, preserving work, family) are the source of my stories.
There are ten composition forms, my comments usually are one of four four are my favorites: narrative, comparison, how to’s, and classification; lesser so analogy, cause and effect. These craft forms are my strength. (Yours will be different.)
The real work of comment writing is the sentence! Sentences map the sound; they snare the ideas; they are the paths and voices for stories. I write loose, balanced, and periodic sentences. I like long strings! It’s an easy way to provide wide examples and support. I think Basie and Route 66! The sentence is the kick. It winds through ideas and history’s footprints. I write in many voices (at times a view is so silly all you have to do to deflate it is repeat it in a different voice); sometimes my main voice and the background have an interplay that is confusing! <— (Hear my choir!) <–(see my confusion!)
I read Frank Yerby when I was young and he loved endless, looping descriptive phrases. I use them for over-the-top lists of details and overflowing evidence of my main ideas and to visualize the action. (James Baldwin used them for interior dialogue.)
Here’s a recent complex sentence that is also periodic (the entire comment, on Ed DeMarco blocking mortagage bailouts, was the readers fifth pick):
I’m sure we can explain why we want economic recovery to you, DeMarco, George Bush, Henry Paulsen, and anyone else who bailed out the banks (and didn’t ask how we felt!) and now are self-indignantly concerned about blocking the real engine of the recovery, of job creation, economic growth, careers for youth and the liberty of expanded prosperity–the working families of America–who have been sold a bill of goods by an industry driven by an abysmal lack of principle (illegally robo-signing documents, financing and lending money on applications in violation of every industry standard, approving loans without verifying incomes, seeking out the most gullible, uninformed, and vunerable among us!) and who are left holding the bag–while others reaped the profits in bonuses, huge salaries, fees, commissions, and vanished after sending the economy into an implosion and creating the bubble values that are the source of all the bad paper DeMarco wants to “protect.” Please.
I don’t recommend this! Out of context, it’s even hard for me to read. Print is too difficult to orchestrate like music–but I like layering ideas, as baroque composers layered musical themes; it’s natural to me. (Most of my readers have learned to jump over the parentheses for the main idea and see inside the parentheses for the variations and examples.) Besides, the Times only allows 1,500 spaces, the equivalent of a single double spaced page, the shortest space limit of any of the major news media. Two years ago, the Times was the top and allowed 5,000 spaces.
I do not use opinionated words. (Do you? Why?) No name calling, few adjectives. Instead, I search for “story” words, sturdy words that surprise and bring sun. When I look for words, I take into account their history, their funny sides and moments of outrage, their associations. I share not mine, but their insight, humor, and anger in print. Words network the imagination. This sentence, from a friend’s blog, guides me: “I return to language for the compass of its beauty.”
We overlook the power inside of words. Good writers pray to unlock that power.
Where do I find words with the right charge?
I steal! I can break down your sentence structure quicker than an auto thief teamed with a chop shop. I can absorb your pace and sound. Your clarity and brilliance! That includes your parallels, series, complex clauses, subjects, objects and verbs. sentences have endless designs, and I appropriate their best elements. I have favorite conventions: lists, parenthesis, (the perlo exclamation!). Sentences dress up ideas; great structure makes them shine.
My comment writing combines speed, thoroughness, authority, discovery, seriousness, and humor. My model is perlo: an African-American rice dish loaded with local bounty, filled by tradition with grace and life, and shared by all. Writing, for me, is a community act, a street greeting, a hug and smile.
The best comments tie in experiences and lead to a conclusion. And to a mirror.
I don’t want you to agree; I want you to decide.