Published June 30, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott
Ten years ago today, I wrote my first Oceanwatch article. I wanted to call the column Seawatch, but editor, publisher and friend John Flanagan suggested Oceanwatch instead. “It’s not a sea you’re going to be writing about,” he said. “It’s the Pacific Ocean.”
That was the first of many guiding words John gave me over the years, but certainly not the last. After several months of Mondays, he said to me, “You can use the word ‘I’ in your column, you know. It’s permitted.”
“Yes. Columns can be personal,” he told me. “Try it.”
I was nervous. Most science writing is notorious for using dull passive verbs. “Examination of Portuguese man-of-war should be done with caution,” I wrote in that first column. Yuck. Today, thanks to John’s instruction about the use of active verbs, I would write, “You can safely touch the float, but not the tentacles, of a Portuguese man-of-war.”
Active voice was one thing, writing in the first person another. It took me nearly a year to get brave enough to say “I” in this column.
When it happened, it came naturally. I had spent a night watching a sea turtle lay a clutch of eggs. Writing about my feelings during that special moment seemed like the right thing to do.
My regular readers know that I haven’t shut up about my experiences since. During my frequent travels, I’m always on the alert for sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts about the ocean that are interesting enough to share.
A couple of years ago, I met a reader who rarely missed a column. “I feel like I know you quite well,” he said as we shook hands. “We’ve been on so many trips together.” It was a fine compliment.
However, readers recognizing me and knowing what I think is not always a positive experience.
I’m always perplexed by the apparent pleasure some people get in writing insulting, even hateful, letters when they disagree with me.
“How do you cope with it?” I asked John one day, who as publisher gets more than his share of nasty missives.
“It’s your job to write honestly,” he said. “And if people don’t like it, they have a right to say so.”
“But sometimes it makes my stomach hurt.”
“Stomachaches are part of the job.”
I didn’t know that when I started. Neither did I realize I would have to kill so many of my babies, a phrase I learned from Managing Editor Dave Shapiro.
Writers’ babies are those clever little phrases we think up that ruin an otherwise good piece of work. Deleting these over-the-top creations is crucial to good writing.
It sounds easy but, oh, is it hard. You work and work, cutting, pasting, searching the thesaurus. Then suddenly there it is, a punny little paragraph you’ll never conjure up again in a million years. It’s beautiful, witty and charming — but adds absolutely nothing to the story. With a sob, you press delete. There goes another kid.
My favorite and most useful moment in learning to write came when John volunteered to edit my first book. We gathered paper, pencils and erasers, then settled in the cockpit of my sailboat.
John would read silently for a while. “What are you trying to say here?” he would often ask, pointing to a sentence.
“Blah, blah, blah,” I would explain, and his pencil would go like crazy, recording my exact words. We used those words in the book.
Since then, whenever I’m stuck, I ask myself, “What are you trying to say here?” It always works.
I’ve learned a lot in the 10 years since I walked on shaky legs into the Star-Bulletin with my puny portfolio and crisp new degree in marine biology under my arm.
Thank you, John and Dave, for your patient teaching. And thank you, readers, for joining me on this grand journey of words.
I’m sure the next 10 years will be as much fun.
Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, www.starbulletin.com