On The Process of Writing: When a Robot Writes the News

by Beacon Editor & Publisher Beth Young

Beth Young
Beth Young

When I was young and I would write I got a lucky break.

Young people really don’t have a deep well of material, but I would wake up, all hours of the night, with a pressure on the back of my temples and the knowledge that a piece of writing was about to fall out of my head.

Pen to paper, or hands on keys, without fail a finished piece of poetry would quickly fill the page. 

People who read these pieces liked them, and I was surprised. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know where these works came from and I had dubious faith that I had in fact authored them.

These nighttime epiphanies continued throughout my 20s, as I made my avocation into a vocation. 

At some point I stopped receiving these finished sleep-pieces. 

I tell people I don’t write poetry anymore because I’m too busy writing the news, but that’s not true. It’s a piece of a different me, an idealistic child, who believed there was something to gain by sharing their heart with the world. 

These days I’m greedy with my heart. I share it with the few people I hold most dear. Writing is for reaching strangers. You can’t give strangers your heart if you want to fully love the people who are closest to you.

I’m embarrassed when I tell people I never have writer’s block. It’s usually one of the first questions people ask when I tell them I’m a writer, so I guess writer’s block means a lot to a lot of people.

Give me five minutes in a quiet place and I will get together an opening sentence. I’ll call it a lead, because that’s how journalists differentiate their writing from fiction. If I’m lucky I can get together a nut graf in that five minutes too. A nut graf is a paragraph that tells you all you need to know about the background of a story, and you’ve gotta do it in no more than three sentences or your reader is gonna be gone. If I can get a lead and a nut graf together in that five minutes, I know I’ve got it made. 

I’m lucky. Journalism is a craft, not an art. My journalism degree is a masters of science. It doesn’t contain my heart. But when I can put a little bit of my heart in it, it comes alive and I don’t stop that from happening. One of the biggest mistakes journalists make is to think they can’t be humans. Robots can write news stories, but no one wants to read the stories they write.

Clarity is important. I use short sentences. I put the subject before the verb and the object after. I beg the muse to give me active verbs. One of the biggest changes I make as an editor is to edit passive verbs out of stories other people send me. We should all be doers.

I often feel like Hemingway is sitting on my shoulder. He’s a rat. He won’t let me write flowery language. He’s journalist-Beth’s best friend. People have to be able to follow your story, and it needs to have a point.

I write for many hours every day without stop. This annoys people around me who like to do things like eat lunch. 

I convince myself to eat lunch by remembering when Anderson Cooper interviewed Anthony Bourdain and Bourdain lectured him on how you can’t understand people until you understand how they eat. It was the kind of advice a human would give a robot on how to act human. I choke back tears every time I think about that interview because there are no good robot journalists. When you eat you have no choice but to quit being a writing machine and begin to feel. Feeling too much didn’t really help Anthony Bourdain in the end but at least he wasn’t crazy from starvation. That’s the worst kind of crazy.

The only advice I remember from journalism school is “you’ve gotta eat on your beat.” So I try to break for lunch but it bothers me a lot that it breaks the flow. I’m learning to let that go.

After a break, I’ll read back over what I’ve written. I never remember what I wrote, so it’s fun to read it for the first time. 

Sometimes I say “what the hell is she talking about?” and I rip out whole paragraphs and start over. I don’t know how people did this before computers. If the writing’s not too bad, I just tweak a few words and post what I’ve written. That’s enough editing for the internet. If something is going to make it to print, I read it again, or have anyone who isn’t me read it. It helps if the reader isn’t a writer. Writers usually tell you how they would write it. Readers just tell you what isn’t clear. No one should tell you how to write, but everyone should tell you when you aren’t being clear.

It’s very important to me to not be emotionally attached to what I write. It’s the only way to live through criticism. There are a lot of very good writers who no one will ever read because they are afraid to share their work with the world. Fear is terrible. 

If you write something bad, it’s ok. You still have a pen and a paper and tomorrow to try again. The news is just the first draft of history. The chips are never done falling and you will never get it completely right.

There will be something new to write about every day. I never doubt this, and that’s how I keep going.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

2 thoughts on “On The Process of Writing: When a Robot Writes the News

  • January 20, 2019 at 10:32 am
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    Such a beautiful piece to read on such a gorgeous day, with permission to stay indoors until the Super Wolf Moon knocks me out of bed. But, alas, how blue to not be out east when the moon is red. For Beth, a split infinitive; for Corky, a pun. To you both, a semicolon to cherish.

    Reply
  • January 20, 2019 at 11:45 am
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    Hey, wait! That’s not a pun. Let’s try, “If it’s stuffy in Die Leucchturm. o-pun the door.”

    Reply

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