Part of my job producing web content is to write blurbs on new pop music releases. It's discouraging how quickly you run out of fresh adjectives and verbs to describe pop tunes, most of which will be forgotten by the time the next Grammys roll around.
Tonight, driving back from the airport, I was listening to the BBC World News and was reminded how vivid the language of good sports reporting can be. Coincidentally, I've been reading David Haberstams Summer of '49, his account of the bitter pennant race between a fading Yankee team and the perennially hopeful Red Sox. The reporting is inspired, and the writing fresh. This got me thinking about the best writing teacher I even had—Tim Cohane, the former sports editor of Look magazine. At the end of my sophomore year I enrolled for the summer at Boston University to take journalism and photojournalism classes—neither of which were offered at Ivy League school I'd been attending. By some extraordinary stroke of fortune, I was assigned to the last newswriting class ever taught by Cohane, who retired at the end of that summer. On the first day he said he'd be teaching newswriting, not reporting, and he invited people who wanted a trendier, high-level approach to the trade to step across the hall to the other section, led by a shaggy-maned Carl Bernstein wannabe from the Boston Globe. Many did. I stayed and received the best writing training imaginable. "Blood, sweat, and rewrite!" Cohane would bellow, turning from the blackboard to rap an accompaniment to his words on the desk. He wasn't joking. I wrote six drafts of one three-page story before he would accept it.
A web search for Tim Cohane reveals that several of his books are still in print. And it turned up two recent recollections of that BU newswriting course by other students he had inspired. I saved every handout he gave us that year, and all the writing exercises, vowing that some day I will offer that same class and be as unconcerned as he was by the number of students who turn their backs on basic training.
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