I stood in front of 150 reading and writing teachers on Friday trying to describe the writing process. On a chart pad I drew a familiar model, one I’ve discussed countless times since I learned it from writing coach Donald Murray more than 30 years ago.
In common language, you find an idea; gather evidence; discover a focus; choose your best stuff; arrange it in a sequence; write a draft; make it better.
“What do you mean by focus?” a teacher asked.
“Does anyone have today’s newspaper?”
I turned to the sports section of the Tampa Bay Times and there, without a byline, was a story about an amazing round of golf in the British Open by American golfer Phil Mickelson. I had read it that morning over my Cheerios. It turned out to be a truncated version of a longer piece on the Open by Sam Borden of The New York Times.
Here’s the long version, but I suggest you not read it until I’ve framed it for you:
The dateline was TROON, Scotland. Here was the lead:
“It was in.”
Shall we stipulate that this stands as one of the shortest leads in the history of The New York Times? Or any paper? Just three words, three syllables, seven letters in all.
Tom Wolfe once argued that the short sentence carries the force of gospel truth. So I believe the writer: “It was in.” Here’s more:
It was in off the putter. It was in 10 feet from the hole, It was in 5 feet from the hole. It was in as it approached the lip. It was in. Phil Mickelson had never been more sure of anything.
He had prowled this putt, stalked this putt, talked to his caddie about this putt and, just before he settled over it, imagined this putt that would track perfectly toward the cup and give him a place in golf history as the first player to shoot 62 in a major tournament.
It was in. And so Mickelson began to walk forward, as players often do, while his 16-footer on the 18th hole at Royal Troon on Thursday rolled toward the hole. He felt the adrenaline surge. He felt joy and pride and bliss. He felt the glow of sporting immortality wash over him. It was in.
Then it wasn’t.
“I want to cry,” Mickelson said.
Now is a good time to read the rest of the story: A definition and description of a “lip out,” when a golf ball slides around the edge of the cup and then out; another quote of disbelief from Mickelson’s playing partner Ernie Els; a melancholy reflection on how a historical golf score was lost and how the aging golfer may never have another shot at it again.
This was a golf tournament, after all, and the writer finally moved from the missed shot to a roundup of other tourney highlights. But as I read this story to the teachers aloud, I could hear from their “a-ha’s” and see in their body language that they recognized in this story that effect that so many of us strive for: focus.
So what does focus look like?
— It looks like one thing, not many.
— It looks like all the evidence supports that one thing.
— It looks like that one thing is so important that it is worth repeating.
— At its best, it looks like one very small thing — one putt — that, for whatever reason, carries a disproportionately large meaning.