October 26, 2019

What makes “good” writing? A great hook, for one.

“Because the hook brings you back, I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
“The hook, on that you can rely….”

Blues Traveler, “Hook” (1994)

In appellate practice, one of the big challenges is just plain getting the court’s attention.  It can be as much about rhetoric as law.  You want to be able to write something that fires the imagination–“firing the imagination,” admittedly being a rather relative term when you’re talking about the admissibility of evidence or the sufficiency of expert reports.  But the techniques of just-plain-good writers are something we try to employ in my field, mostly because they work.  Or, at least, we hope they do.

I’ve often said that sports writers are some of my favorite writers to read.  It’s not because what they write about is necessarily compelling on its own but because the way they write about it has to be compelling.  The sports writer is trying to create drama from something that has happened over and over, in past–a batter hits a home run or a running back takes a hand-off for a touchdown; a power forward grabs a rebound or a sprinter outpaces everyone else to the finish line.  The circumstances are mundane, so the delivery is just about everything.

This line of thought brought up an ESPN program I used to watch religiously (seriously, every Sunday morning) called The Sports Reporters.  It was in the mold of much of what is on ESPN these days–a round-table discussion among sports journalists–but the quality of journalists and writers tended to be very good.  There was no Skip Bayless arguing that a team won the NBA Championship because LeBron James “wanted it more” or Stephen A. Smith arguing whatever it is that he argues about.  Instead, there was grouchy-old-man Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, the diminutive and combative Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, and the thoughtful and staid Bill Rhoden of the New York Times.  It was substantive stuff and wonderfully expressed.

One of the Sports Reporters regulars was Mitch Albom, a writer for the Detroit Free Press, though probably best known among the Oprah set as the author of “Tuesdays With Morrie.”  Albom’s penchant for sentimentality aside, he came up with some brilliant prose that he delivered in the program’s final segment, referred to as “Parting Shots.”  One of my favorites was a piece on Rasheed Wallace, a now-retired power forward for the Detroit Pistons and a tremendously volatile (and quotable—”Ball Don’t Lie” is pretty much his intellectual property) personality both on and off the court.  Albom described Wallace thusly in a memorable episode from April of 2008:

If you think you’ve got dependency issues, consider the Pistons and Rasheed Wallace.  Rasheed is a conundrum, wrapped in a riddle, with a slice of crazy on the side.  On the one hand, he clowns around in a pre-game dance and jokingly inserts himself into the 76ers pre-game huddle then misses a crucial last shot.  On the other hand, he’s the Pistons’ best player.  Game after game, he’s their most dependable shot and their best defender. Except when he isn’t.  He’s a “go to” guy.  Except when he isn’t. And tonight, with the Pistons’ post-season essentially on the line, the Pistons must once again pray they get the “right” Rasheed. His personality is one of the reasons the Pistons get the “faucet” reputation—turn on, turn off—but the truth is he comes through most of the time.  Except when he doesn’t. Wallace is in the next-to-the-last year of his contract, the perfect trade time, but, if he leads Detroit out of this Philly funk, could you really part with him? Unless, of course, he doesn’t.  And you wonder why Detroit’s coach is named “Flip.”

Not everyone is so enamored of Albom as a sports writer (try googling “Mitch Albom Sucks” and you’ll get an eyeful), but, as a rhetorical device, Albom’s four-times going back to the well of “except when he….” is brilliant stuff.  It makes you laugh at first and, more importantly, makes his message stick in your mind.  It’s the hook that brings you back.  No lie.