Time Magazine presents

"How I Write: A Conversation with
William Zinsser and Jesse Birnbaum
on Writing Humor"

(approx. 17' 30")

The interview with Contributing Editor Jesse Birnbaum opens with a discussion about the humorous aspects of his articles (you have a reprint of "The Perils of Being a Lefty," from the April 15, 1991 issue of Time). Birnbaum believes the most important element in any journalistic writing is the lead and frequently finds himself devoting more time to the opening of his story than to the rest of the article. He suggest writing poetry - which requires succinctness, the use of metaphors, and unique ways of thinking - as a way to improve one's writing abilities. Finally, he advocates "stepping away" from a piece of writing as a way of overcoming writer's block.

Note: Let's not be too frustrated with Birnbaum's constant use of the male gender when referring - as he speaks - to writers and readers; he's from a previous generation where that was quite acceptable. Please also note this is not an error he makes in his writing.

How to decide what to write for a publication such as Time? Find something interesting, then have fun with it. Birnbaum says he begins his writing assignments with a lead that gets him running, then reshapes the piece to keep it interesting to write - and thus read. "Things have to occur to you," he maintains. He cites the example of the VCR Plus mechanism his son gave him, saying that after being befuddled with its programming, "now I can think of forty funny things to write about ... but if (my boss had instructed me to write a piece on the VCR Plus), I don't think I could have."

You do have to have an idea to communicate, then - through trial and error - find the best way to say it. Once you have all your "raw material" together, you must find the lead, a way of "entrapping the reader; getting the reader to want to pay attention after the second sentence. Sometimes writing the lead takes more time than writing the rest of the story." You may need to throw many leads away to get to the best one.

If Birnbaum gets to the "justification" of a piece - telling readers why they should continue reading - and finds he's having difficulty, he believes the problem is often in the lead. "The lead is the roadmap for the rest of the story.... But if that lead - in the first place - was the wrong map, that is what caused you to run in that jam in the third paragraph. So my ... experience is that if I go back and recast that lead totally, go to a totally different idea, I'm likely to get over that hump in the third paragraph."

Read your work aloud! This clearly helps avoid redundancies and clichés.

When writing cover stories, the late Paul O'Neil, a famous Time writer known for his style, would write the stories after carefully going over his huge piles of research materials twice. He would then write the cover story without going back to the primary materials, maintaining the stuff he remembered was the good stuff anyway. The details you don't remember may not be worth reporting. Another cover writer was so good at making transitions between and within paragraphs he could compose a story based solely on his hundreds of 3 x 5 notecards after placing them in what he considered to be the right order.

Birnbaum has personally found outlines to be "of minimal help." Instead he relies on his notes and underlinings of the primary materials, paying a great deal of attention to transitions as he composes. "Get your lead written, know what you want to say, and let every sentence call forth the next idea." (This is what we would call "transitions within paragraphs.")

Again, transitions between paragraphs are quite important as well. "One ought to look back at the last sentence, or maybe the penultimate sentence, of the previous paragraph, get a thought from that paragraph and evoke the idea or even a key word from that thing.... I think more thought about what was said in the preceding two sentences ... in terms of thematic material, can help you find a way of finding a transition into your next subject, or the next scene, as it were." (An interesting notion, as readers do "see" your essay as images of a story in their heads if your piece is well written.)

"Finally, as you go toward the end, I've found a good way of organizing a good story is, when possible, to evoke in your last paragraph (or sentence) a thought that was made in your lead. (It) comes full cycle; gives you a sense of unity." (We've called this technique "bookends.")

While none of us want to fail, we should not be afraid to take "desperate chances"; risk some ego, that is, with our writing. Read everything, practice always. Write for the     wastebasket, if necessary. Try writing poetry; it requires succintness and metaphor. "It's a helpful thing to learn to write economically."

"The bad moments are many." Leads are the toughest. As mentioned previously, a good four-sentence lead may take more time to write than the rest of the piece. "But it's the key to making the rest of the story work, as we know."

When utterly stuck on a transition, on how to move forward with your writing (due to fatigue, say), Birnbaum finds going to sleep and waiting for the answer to appear in the shower to be helpful. Let the piece marinade; it will come. (Obviously, this requires keeping up with due dates for assignments. You've no time for such a "marinade" if the piece is due in hours.)

Does it get easier? No. But certain techniques can help you get through the rough spots. Clearly, long cover pieces are tougher to write than short ones. However, every writing experience helps those which follow; things can fall into place. "But every story is a new story, every opportunity is a new opportunity. You fail less often ... through sheer experience.... I would pay to do it, but don't tell the boss."