Lessons about Writing from Three Dribbles and a Jump Shot

A Metaphor

Three dribbles, one jump shot. That’s all.

That’s all that it takes for me to know if someone can play basketball or not. I don’t even have to see if the ball goes in the hoop. It’s mostly irrelevant. How did he catch the ball? How did she dribble it? And what of the shooting form? Was it graceful? Did the technique exude good coaching? You can judge these things quickly.

I know this sounds arrogant; it’s just true.

What I am not saying is that I can know if someone could play (or did play) basketball at the college level. That’s more specific than curb appeal shows. But immediately, I can rule the possibility of college ball “in” or “out.” And I suspect real coaches of the game, those in the business (which I am not), only know this more, not less.

And I suspect this is true in writing.

A Case Study

The other day I was reading a book and came across an epigraph (a brief quotation at the start of a book or chapter to suggest theme), and I knew immediately: “This author can ball.”

The quote was originally from an essay in Time about birth control, specifically, the Pill. The quote reads:

The 1950s felt so safe and smug, the ’60s so raw and raucous, the revolution stacked one on top of another, in race relations, gender roles, generational conflict, the clash of the church and the state—so many values and vanities tossed on the bonfire… the pill became the Pill, the means by which women untied their aprons, scooped up the their ambitions and marched eagerly into the new age. (Nancy Gibbs, “The Pill at 50,” Time; quoted by Denny Burk, The Meaning of Sex, 138; ellipsis by Burk, emphasis mine)

It’s only 69 words, but it’s enough to know Nancy Gibbs can play the game.

Does her whole article cohere? Does her analysis remain fair and equitable, avoiding straw men? Does her prose adequately deal with the personal vestment and intimacy that comes with a topic like birth control? Does her… jump shot go in the hoop?

I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.

Here, we only have three dribbles and a jump shot, and our back is to the basket. But you can see it, can’t you? She can play.

Consider just two lines. First, “raw and raucous, the revolution stacked one on top of another, in race relations, gender roles.” The alliteration of the letter ‘r’ six times subliminally “stack” even as she makes the point that the ’60s stacked on the ’50s.

Second, look at the line “so many values and vanities tossed on the bonfire... Again, there is subtle alliteration of ‘v’, but notice the concreteness of the fire metaphor: it’s not just a fire, but a “bonfire” in all of its communal, rebellious, and wild connotations (i.e., the ’60s).

For fun, and to test my suspicions, I read the whole article. It’s almost 5,000 words. While knowing nothing of her broader career, I can confidently say that my suspicions were true: Nancy Gibbs can write.

And if I can see this, as a novice, I’m sure those in the business can as well, only better.

An Objection

But perhaps aspiring writers, like myself, may protest to the standard process(es) of publication – the pressure to impress with only a very small sample size.

The objection might go like this:

Query letters to publishers and agents are so short, and in such formulaic, expected structure. And then what of the proposal letter – don’t they need the whole novel, not just a few chapters, to see my awesomeness?

Shouldn’t they watch a whole game, or at least see me dribble around the court for a while, maybe show off some fancy ball handling? Look now – I’m a Harlem Globetrotter.

Nope. They are professionals.

Not perfectly of course – mistakes can happen – but professional agents, editors, and publishers probably know in just a few paragraphs whether a writer has game.

The takeaway for me is twofold.

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

We have to learn the game, and learn it well, before trying to play it on center court. We must work on mechanics, and know the basics of a chest pass. We have to play some pickup games. And every once in a while, sure, we can try a fancy crossover; it’s just practice. But for the most part, we must master the basics.

We must learn the rules for commas and colons. And learn when a semicolon is appropriate and when it’s just being pretentious. Learn how to use indirect quotes and direct quotes. Write some poems and a short story—or write two stories, or maybe twenty. And we need to find some good coaches too, people who can teach me things I do not know, people who can push us beyond my limits, people who can encourage when needed and critique carefully, seeing the typos and the logical fallacies. In other words, we need to practice, practice, practice.

2. Learn to Reverse Engineer

Here’s another takeaway for me: Read (broadly) those that do have game, and then learn to reverse engineer their product.

Reverse engineering is the process of disassembling something and analyzing its components. It means tearing apart something that works and figuring out why it worked in the first place. Steven Pinker, in his recent book on writing (The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century), writes:

The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reversing-engineering examples of good prose. (12)

Practically speaking, with respect to writing, reverse engineering would mean that when you and I find a striking paragraph, we should pause. Study it. Ask why we liked it so much and what it was doing to achieve its effect. We should disassemble some of it. We should ask if form matches function (e.g. stacking the letter ‘r’)? Or do the connotations of specific words match the overall point (e.g. bonfire)? In other words, start with the end product and go backwards.

If we do this, eventually, with lots of practice, when we shoot the ball it will be more likely to go in the hoop.