Dr. Mike Sweeney, one of my professors at Ohio University, died over the weekend. He was a great teacher, and he did three things that left an indelible mark on me:
1. He encouraged my over-the-top gonzo feature idea, which was to wander around The Plains Indian Mound Festival interviewing corndog vendors about the absence of any meaningful Native American history/iconography/context at the event. This set me down a long path of pitching weirdo angles on stories that I felt were somehow important to the local community.
2. He then insisted Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t a real journalist, which pissed me off to no end. But it was a statement (and he was not budging) that ultimately shook me to remove the blinders I’d been unwittingly wearing as a young gun in j-school. I still think Hunter S. Thompson was one of the greats, and I’m not budging.
3. He introduced me to Roy Peter Clark’s masterful “Writing Tools.” This was a class text, and it’s easily the best writing book I’ve read. One quick lesson that I see too many writers missing: Vary the lengths of your paragraphs.
There’s more to it than that, but if you vary the lengths of your paragraphs, you’ll find new energy on the page right away.
Energy on the page: I think that’s what Dr. Mike Sweeney was after.
After all, that’s how your writing can change other people’s lives.