On Getting to the Point
Every summer I teach a journalism course at a university in Washington, D.C. The first rule I always tell students is: when writing, get to the point quickly. When I was starting out as a journalist many years ago an editor at the Washington Post told me the same thing. If you haven't gotten to the point by the third paragraph, he said, it's over.
Or as James Wolcott once put it: "Avoid preamble -- flip the on switch in the first sentence. Find a focal point for your nervous energy, assume a forward offensive stance, and drive to the finish line, even if it's only a five-hundred word slot: no matter how short the piece there has to be a sense of momentum and travel, rather than just allotted space being texted in."
To young writers who want to master this skill, I always say: avoid creative writing programs and read the hotel reviews on TripAdvisor. The popular online travel site acts like the best kind of unforgiving writing coach. You've done something you like and that is interesting, namely taken a trip and stayed in a hotel, so the content is fresh. And you only have a very limited amount of space to describe the experience. You can't waste too many lines, and you get extra points for being clever and engaging.
There are no preambles in TripAdvisor reviews -- or rather, if there are, they are the kind of foreshadowings that belong in the best pulp fiction: "OK, OK, I shouldn't have stayed here after reading the reviews. But it was late, I was tired, and I needed a place to stay." (This can't end well.)
That kind of forced brevity makes a writer's voice come out quickly, and some of the efforts on TripAdvisor are better than bestselling novels. There are basically three literary forms in the TripAdvisor review: Austenite, Salingerian, and Joycean.
The Austenite reviews are like Jane Austen's novels: straightforward, pleasant, polite, and a little dry. An example is this one, of the Hotel Drisco in San Francisco: "We recently discovered a wonderful boutique in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco that met our needs in every way. The Hotel Drisco has the ambiance of a private home and there is a cozy sitting room for catching up on the world news while sipping or tea and perhaps chatting with another hotel guest. Meanwhile our room was spacious and well appointed with pillow choices, comfy robes and all those amenities one cherishes after a long flight."
Perfectly nice piece. Directness, evocative phrasing, good detail.
The second TripAdvisor genre is Salingerian, after J.D. Salinger -- particularly his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Travel mishaps and unpleasant surprises at a hotel just lend themselves to sarcasm and fear; recall Holden Caulfield's ugly evening with a hooker in a New York hotel.
TripAdvisor's scribes excel at this genre. Take Austin R's review of New York's Dream Downtown: "If you like sleeping surrounded by the color of metal, then this is your place. This place is like a porn set in space or a gay brothel in a Woody Allen movie. Some idiot also got cute with the light switches which are impossible to figure out. Stay away unless you are 25 and work in the fashion industry."
Or this miniature pulp masterpiece by Eric T, who stayed in the A1 Inn Kansas City: "The room had a heavy stench of cigarettes, but that didn't bother me as much. Upon checking out the bed in search of an outlet, we found one. The EXPOSED outlet behind the bed literally bursted and shocked one of us. It could have easily been the start of a fire. We spoke with the manager and asked to switch rooms and explained what had happened. He began to get extremely agitated (and let me state that my friend remained quite calm throughout the situation) and started yelling at us....During the night, we also had run ins with some prostitutes and someone tried to buy my friend, which was weird. All in all, worst place I've ever experienced."
Finally, there is the Joycean TripAdvisor review: a piece that breaks new literary ground with stream of consciousness or flat-out strangeness. These are hard to find because most writers aren't those kind of risk takers. But Joycean TripAdvisor entrees can offer a kind of exhilaration that comes with crashing through literary guardrails.
The best of these I've seen is this review of the Alamo Motel in Ocean City, Maryland. I've kept the exact punctuation of the original; one doesn't alter Finnegan's Wake: "some creepy one armed guy rides around in a golf cart all day ,i guess too keep an eye on all the shady people who are staying there . the rooms are horrible an the water seems too have an iron problem an we had ants in our room the one armed guy seem to get angry when i asked for another room wich was worst then the first room an this dump was 165 a night ,i stayed one night left first thing in the morning what a dump"
Ah, how late it was, how late. And he got right to the point.