Updated: Nov 10
Don Ranly and colleagues wrote The Writing book in 1984. At that time, Ranly was a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. I was a freelance writer living in Arizona.
In the summer of that year he held a three day workshop in Minneapolis on how to write a good story. I headed up to attend the professor’s workshop.
“Bring your best story,” Professor Ranly said in the seminar invite. I packaged my story on the murder investigation of a Tempe, Arizona school girl, not certain it was my best.
Somewhere in the second day of the workshop my 800 word account was pasted on an overhead. All of it.
After some tepid comments from the small group, such as “that poor young girl” and a perfunctory “good story'', Ranly proceeded with his autopsy.
In his stately, professorial manner, he first applauded me for offering up my writing as the sacrificial lamb being the only one who did so. Then he began the slicing and dicing.
He explained the importance of a story’s lead as the hook. Mine was hardly a grabber, which given the subject, murder, mine should have been bolder.
He drew red lines showing a disjointness in how a fourth paragraph should have been the second, and how the last paragraph should have been the first. My verbs were too soft and slowed the pace.
One of the men in the group agreed, claiming the whole story seemed like it was written for an academic journal.
Ranly concluded, saying, “But, overall this was a tough topic to write about.”
At the end of the workshop, I purchased his paperback. And studied it on the plane ride home.
The 153 page book covered the basics of good writing. In its nine chapters, the inverted paragraph was dissected, along with techniques about writing an investigative and creative story. Chapter 9 was entitled, “Grammar: Write it Right.”
Deplaning back in Phoenix, I rushed to a news stand at the Sky Harbor Airport to see if The Arizona Business Gazette had run a story of mine in my absence. There, on the frontpage, was my By Line. Topic: The County Morgue.
From Murder to Morgue, I remember thinking. I immediately analyzed my lead. “Why didn’t I write about the smell of formaldehyde which jolts one when stepping into a room full of gurneys? That would have been gripping.
I’d carried Ranly’s book off the plane, folded like a handy football program. I kept it on my home desk, often referring to it. But over the years I lost track of it with moves and relocations. Its crumpled image, however, was indelibly imprinted in my mind.
In the years that followed there were many times I pined for the book and even searched high and low for it among my many classic novels, reference books, maps and family archives. But to no avail.
A while back I moved into an old historic neighborhood in my old college town, home of the University of Missouri. On a walk one day I slowed for my neighbor Jim, who was talking to a Mark Twain-looking figure. I did a double-take. It was Don Ranly.
Unabashedly, I introduced myself as a former seminar attendee. I told him The Writing Book had been a great tool for me. I was too ashamed to tell him I misplaced the book. But seeing him reinvigorated the image of the old book.
As serendipity would have it, several weeks ago, while sitting on an upholstered chair in my basement, staring at a bookcase my wife had organized, my eye caught a familiar sight. There, barely visible, dwarfed by two hardback volumes of the History of Northwest Missouri, its thin spine yielding its name, was Ranly’s The Writing Book.
I pulled it out, smelled it and whispered,“I found you, Kunta Kinte.” It had been almost thirty years since I’d touched the pages. Despite being stuffed upright between two obsolete history books, it immediately assumed its previous crumpled composure. Chapters' words were highlighted. My scribblings as a younger man bookmarked some highlights.
I turned to its epilogue. The first few words read, “Good writers are those that care and those that dare. They care about people, their readers, about their subject matter, about themselves. Effective writing isn’t easy. Few like to write. Many like having written.”
Finding the little book made losing it all those years ago worthwhile. I made a note to tell Ranly the next time I see him about my treasure find.