7 ways to write a "kick-ass" column, via Sally Jenkins
Check out her lead: "Ryan Lochte is the dumbest bell that ever rang."
As I read and then re-read her column, I realized that I had placed it in an important and influential sub-genre of journalistic opinion and persuasion designated by old-timers as "kick-ass."
This essay, which I would describe as brain-twitch rather than kick-ass, answers these questions:
- What makes a column "kick-ass?"
- What are the essential elements of such a column?
- How does Jenkins fulfill those?
I learned the term "kick-ass" after writing my first — and only — column for ESPN. Here is a taste:
University of Florida head football coach Urban Meyer has proved himself to be a bully and a hypocrite. His threats against an Orlando Sentinel reporter, Jeremy Fowler, on Wednesday confirm the coach's emotional instability, a sign that he may have been allowed to return way too early from his medical leave of absence."
The feedback from veteran sportswriters, such as John Schulian and Dave Kindred, was enthusiastic, and more than one used the term "kick-ass" as an adjective of praise.
A kick-ass column is not a hatchet job. It is not an ideological rant, like the ones we’ve seen in current political discourse. It is not a string of irrational insults. It is not a snark-infested pool of invective. These may be fun to read at times, but they are not persuasive.
A kick-ass column often will contain these elements:
- A short laser blast of a lead that captures the tone and message of the piece
In our day, journalism produces two kinds of leads: the often cluttered news lead or the too ambitious narrative lead. Fading as an element of craft is the super-short lead, the one that we use violent language to describe, the one that grabs you by the throat, stabs you in the back or punches you in the solar plexus.
Old-school. In 1953, John Justin Smith of the Chicago Daily News sparked a crusade against slumlords with this lead:
In Chicago in the 20th Century, the 10 Lee kids had bread for lunch.
Bread and what? Bread and nothing…just bread.
"That’s right, just bread. There’s nothing else," said one of the kids.
Jenkins’ topic is not so weighty, but inspires its own form of outrage:
The 32-year-old swimmer is so landlocked in juvenility that he pulled an all-nighter with guys young enough to call him uncle. His story to NBC’s Billy ‘what-are-you-wearing’ Bush had the quality of a kid exaggerating the size of a fish, and notice how he was the hero of every detail. That was always the most dubious, implausible part.
- A critical diction — that is, a set of language choices — that ups the ante
A kick-ass column can have moments of nuance, but those slight variations in tone do not define it. Word choice must amplify that torch of a lead.
Here, Jenkins uses the language of swimming and the sea. Lochte is "landlocked in juvenility," a man whose story is like "a kid exaggerating the size of a fish." The words juvenility and kid introduce other words of immaturity: "obnoxious American 'bro'," "entitled young drunks," and "odious punk behavior." I think of this disciplined use of language imagery as creating a kind of undertow that drags you into the writer’s argument.
- A body of evidence that supports the line of attack
A column is not kick-ass if it does not prove its point. It depends upon a body of evidence, a kind of non-legal indictment. This comes in at least two forms: a set of facts derived from responsible sources, or an abbreviated narrative that invites readers to look at what happened and draw judgments about the players.
Early on, Jenkins notes: "You can see the bathroom door appear to burst out of its wooden frame on the security video…." And later: "In his shifting public accounts, Lochte never mentioned that busted-up bathroom. Now put yourself in the shoes of the overrun and pride-stung local police when they saw that video of the Americans returning to the Athletes' Village a little after 6 a.m. so cheerfully buzzed, with Lochte blithely twirling his credential on a chain and all of them still in possession of their cellphones and watches."
This is showing that supports the telling.
- Movement up and down the ladder of language from the concrete and specific, to the abstract and general
John Updike once wrote a kick-ass column about the creation of the pop-top beer opener that began like this:
"This is an era of gratuitous inventions and negative improvements. Consider the beer can."
That is a useful example of S.I. Hayakawa’s famous semantic model "the ladder of abstraction." Updike begins pretty high on the ladder to offer us an idea. He jumps down to give us an example we can see.
Sometimes abstractions take the form of character adjectives. "Is there anything worse, in any country," writes Jenkins, "than a bunch of entitled young drunks who break the furniture and pee on a wall? There is no translator need for that one, no cultural norm that excuses it."
That movement is from an abstraction (entitlement) to concrete examples (pee on a wall) back up to the level of ideas (cultural norms).
- Gold coins, rewards for the reader placed strategically throughout the column
A gold coin, defined by my pal Don Fry, is any element in a story that rewards the reader’s attention. It can be a startling fact, a telling anecdote, a turn of phrase. Too often, editors move them up, making a story top-heavy, the toxic waste dripping to the bottom. Placed strategically throughout a story or column, a gold coin reminds readers why they entered the story and offers incentive to keep going.
A lead should be a gold coin, and "dumbest bell" plays nicely off of the word "dummy," meaning stupid, and the muscle-bound connotations of "dumbbell."
These snippets feel like gold coins:
"He must have thought Ryan Lochte’s pee was gold dust."
"This is a guy who apparently lied to his own mother."
"The main quality Lochte has shown in all of this…is obliviousness. First he tweeted about his hair, which he had dyed a silvery-white before the Games." (Another example of moving from top to bottom of ladder.)
- At least one element that feels like a bridge too far, a word or sentence that produces nervous laughter
Some readers did not like this sentence from Jenkins, the only moment I see where she uses the first person: "If I had been working at that Brazilian gas station, I might have pulled a gun on them, too." The column would have worked without it. It is clearly a joke, but there is a understandable sensitivity these days (in the U.S. and Brazil) to gun violence, especially as it involves law enforcement.
My defense of Jenkins is only that she was raised in Texas by that Quick Draw McGraw of the column quip, Dan Jenkins, an octogenarian who still live-blogs golf tournaments via Twitter. I think I would rather have a writer who goes one sentence too far, than the one who never quite goes far enough.
- A kicker as a parting shot
You can’t cut a kick-ass column from the bottom. If you do, you may kill the kicker, that final thought that locks the box, screeches the trumpet, high-kicks off the stage. Here is Jenkins:
Then on Thursday morning, even as Conger and Bentz were in a police station and authorities were mulling potential charges, he posted an idiotic video of himself. It was a distortion-lensed, cartoonish video of him babbling at his friend and fellow American swimmer Elizabeth Beisel. Lochte eventually deleted it. Which was too bad because it was a perfect portrait of a halfwit.
I might have been tempted to end it there, but I finished eighth in my heat, while Jenkins gets the gold:
"Lochte’s done as a public figure, of course. Which is probably the most effective form of justice for someone who apparently so craves attention. Oblivion is what he deserves."
I’ve written that the short sentence has the ring of gospel truth, which makes it a good choice for the first sentence of this kick-ass column (nine words) and the last (five words).