Getting: The most critical part of great writing
Getting always has been much more important than writing. Would-be authors struggle to arrange the words beautifully and harmonically.
Big deal. What is important are the facts words convey. That’s why newspaper writing is so formulaic. The idea is to get the facts out there rapidly in the clearest fashion. Subject, verb, object, and keep it tight.
Those obsessed with the style of writing should heed the negative example of Flaubert, who took five years to construct, reconstruct and construct again “Madame Bovary” and seven years to produce yet another novel. Was there nothing useful to do otherwise in mid-19th century France?
Getting is the core of writing, not arranging words. But getting is really hard. That’s why television today is so filled with opinions. Opinions are cheap. Obtaining hard facts can be very expensive.
Getting does not always mean calling up Joe Biden for an interview, although that is one approach. Getting could mean hours spent in researching scientific reports. The miracle of the internet allows writers to go one step further and actually contact the authors of these reports to see if there have been new developments or new theories. At best, a peer-reviewed research article takes months to see the light of publication day.
Typically research articles designate a corresponding author and provide email addresses. There is no excuse for an author to leave questions unanswered by avoiding human contact.
That also is true with historical articles. Dare one proclaim him or herself an expert on ancient Rome without the ability to read and write Latin or Greek? Without these language skills a writer is condemned to accept as truth what someone else has said about the topic.
There are experts in every field. A writer’s job is to ferret them out, find their information and make contact. Seldom will someone reject a request that begins with “Can you help me with this . . . .”
In international journalism there is a concept called parachute reporting. First World reporters infrequently use real parachutes, but the characterization sticks. Some leading television figure leaves New York, Washington or Los Angeles and in eight hours is before a camera reporting on the current situation in Burkina Faso or some other obscure wide spot in the international world. All the reporter knows is what someone locally said, which then is conveyed to the television audience as a personal observation.
One curious situation developed with some networks during the Cold War. A handful of First World news outlets had reporters in the Soviet Union, which closely controlled their activities. One network Moscow bureau chief (who did not speak Russian) admitted that what he delivered to the U.S. audience while standing in Red Square with the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background had been written that morning by a producer in New York. That is the opposite of getting.
Certainly some authors see constructing pretty sentences as an end in itself. Others see writing as a meal ticket. Each to their own. Greatness in writing requires the ability to disclose or reinforce a truth. That truth may be a societal imperfection or a political one. An example would be uncovering governmental corruption or ineptitude. In that category are found Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Cochrane (Nellie Bly), Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair and even the great English poet and author John Donne.
Song writing has emerged in the last century as another vehicle to reveal truth.
Too much of writing today follows the example of the Moscow bureau chief, a slavish report of what someone else says, latching on to a trendy theme. That can be seen in the many climate crisis articles here and elsewhere. The same glaciers and the Arctic ice cap have been collapsing and melting for nearly 100 years. If only the writers had done some independent research. Another useful tool is common sense.
Deep thought and solid research, including aggressive interviews, make great writing if the author follows the facts to the best available truth. Put more bluntly, one might say the purpose of writing is to rip the scabs off the festering sores of society and expose the wounds to the healing light of day.