Throwback Thursday: Earning the fungus on your shower shoes

One of my favorite early posts involves a Filak-ism I grabbed from the baseball movie “Bull Durham,” where Kevin Costner is explaining to Tim Robbins that things are different in the majors than they are for him now in the minor leagues.The line about “earning the fungus on your shower shoes” is a good one to remember. It’s also important to remember that just because you earned the right to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD do that thing.The reason more seasoned writers get the leeway they do in terms of breaking with style, writing in something other than third person, skipping the occasional attribution and other things that will cause your grade to suffer is because they can rationalize their choices appropriately.

When an editor asks, “Why did you do this?” the experienced writer comes up with a pretty explanation for that decision. When I ask “Why did you do this?” to my beginning students, they tend to stare at me like a dog trying to do a calculus equation.

If you have a “why” answer and it’s a good one, you’re half way to earning the fungus on your shower shoes. To understand more about this, enjoy the original post below…

The 1988 movie “Bull Durham” features Tim Robbins as an up-and-coming phenom pitcher and Kevin Costner as a weathered, veteran catcher on a minor-league baseball team. Costner has been brought to this tiny outpost in Durham, North Carolina to teach Robbins how to become a major leaguer. This involves more than which pitches to throw or how to control his fastball. Life lessons are peppered throughout the movie, including this bit of wisdom:

In other words, when you make it to the pros, you can do things that you can’t do when you’re still learning the craft. Once you figure out how everything should work according to the rules, then you can start breaking them if you have a reason to do so.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing for various media outlets. One of the biggest complaints beginning writers have is that they have to attribute everything, write in the inverted pyramid, use descriptors sparingly and stick to a bunch of really strict rules. Meanwhile, when they read ESPN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed or a dozen other publications, they see everyone out there breaking the rules. In some cases, the writers shouldn’t be breaking those rules and thus they end up in trouble for not nailing things down, attributing and telling the story in a more formal manner.

However, when writers do break rules and it works, it is because they know what the rules are. In the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing book, award-winning journalist Tony Rehagen makes this point clearly:

Another aspect of writing like this is to understand that rules exist for the benefit of the writers, he said. Even though he knows he has more freedom as a writer, he said he doesn’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of doing so.

“Well, first of all, you sort of have to earn the right to break a rule,” he said. “If you want to lead with a quote, it had better be a damn good quote. If you want to bury the nut or (gasp) not have a nut graf at all, you had better have complete command of your story and have structured the hell out of it. That takes skill that even veterans don’t possess on every piece.”

To break a rule, you have to know what the rule is, have a reason for breaking it and break it in a way that improves your overall story. That’s something excellent writers like Rehagen earn over years of improving on success and learning from failure.

Start with the basics and master them before you start looking for other ways to do things.

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.



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