Understanding article writing a little better with Roger Ebert

ebert.jpg I constantly struggle with writing. For someone who claims to be a writer and spends a goodly chunk of his spare time performing the act of writing, I seem to constantly be wrestling with it. I’m not good at any of it yet, but I’m the worst at writing articles like these. Which is a big part of the reason why I choose to spend my writing time creating material for my blog.

I believe that writing a good article isn’t as hard as writing a good short story, but an article shares a great deal with a short story in terms of economy of words, organization of ideas, and the expression of said ideas. These are the current weak spots that I’m trying to build up, because if you can express your idea efficiently and clearly, you’ve got a solid foundation upon which to build. Once you master that, I think you’ll be able to write anything.

Can’t see the tree for the forests

Ironically, I spent a huge amount of time reading articles. Perhaps dozens a day written by writers of wildly varying degrees of expertise. And yet, I still don’t really understand what makes a good article.

I’ve been at this blog regularly for the better part of a year, writing 3 or 4 posts a week, and while I feel I’ve gotten more comfortable with the format, “comfortable” rarely translates to “good”. But I do feel like I’m ready to take things to the next level, and start looking to get better.

Progress has been made in my battle against my tendency toward “circular writing” or starting to write without a clear idea of what I want to say or how to say it. This problem may not always have shown up in the end result, but it certainly tacked on hours of time pecking away at the keyboard. It’s still an issue in other areas of my writing, but as far as settling down to pound out the next week’s posts, I waste far less time noodling and working out my idea in inefficient prose and multiple passes at paragraphs.

Up next, is craft.

Learning through example

One of the ways that I learn best is by looking at an example. As I said, I consume dozens of articles a day, but I often just scan them for content rather than view them as examples worthy of examination or emulation. Just as well. There’re a lot of good ideas that are badly expressed out there. My new goal is to find the good writers out there and examine their work. Pick it apart and see how they do what they do so well.

And the first writer of articles that I’ve begun to dissect is Roger Ebert. The man has been writing about film for decades and is one of the most respected names for film reviews. And he’s pretty smart. Writing film reviews is hard to do well without sounding self-important, like a kiss-up, or like a frustrated screenwriter.

His review of “Synecdoche, New York” caught my attention because of the way that he approached the subject matter. Charlie Kaufman is a challenging screenwriter. He’s written some amazing stuff, and he’s written stuff that strikes me as too arty and self-aware. “Synecdoche, New York” is Kaufman’s directorial debut and, while I haven’t seen it, sounds wacky as hell. Which means that it could be seen as so damn weird it’s drivel or so damn weird it’s brilliant.

Ebert’s handling of this review of the atypical film describes what the show is like (easier said than done). It warns off those who simply wouldn’t like it, while at the same time intriguing those who may just be open to seeing a show that might drift a little toward the challenging. This is a man who not only knows a lot about film but knows exactly how to write about it, too.

And I’m going to try to learn from his work.


Ebert’s review of “Synecdoche, New York”

Ebert’s page @ the Chicago Sun Times

Charlie Kaufman - Wikipedia