Your pledge for 2006

Try creating a symbolic mathematical statement of where you want your game to go

In hundreds of newsrooms, reporters will be savoring the “evaluation” process this month and next. They’ll be graded on a largely irrelevant scale devised by human-relations mavens.

You can resent this, or you can laugh at it and start planning your own improvement program for 2006.

Your pledge for 2006

Your pledge for 2006

What do you want to get better at in ’06?

I know, the whole thing.

So here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to write an equation–your equation, based on your values–as a way of summarizing your goals and raising your standards. Think of it as a checklist that you can paste atop your computer as a reminder of what you promised yourself as ’05 ended.

Between now and the middle of December, noodle over the qualities that stand out in the best of your work–or the kind of work you wish you were doing. Limit it to between five and ten qualities.

Then, to show the relationship between the parts and the whole, draw it as a math equation, separating “substance” qualities from “style” qualities.

I’ll show you what I mean. Here’s mine.

First, definitions: “S” is success–the level I want to operate at. The more substance values that I want to concentrate on more in ’06 are a quicker focus (Q), better sequential logic (L), better detail (D) and deeper perspective (P).

That’s half the equation:

S = (Q + L + D + P)

Now I add the less important but still crucial “style” variables. While the substance variables are added together, the style variables are represented as multipliers: They can make a good story better, but they can’t rescue a story by themselves.

My style multipliers for ’06 include: more concentration on showing versus telling (expressed as a fraction, s/t, meaning I want the highest ratio); trying to write with a more authoritative voice (V); trying to do a better job of telling what I call the “emotional truth” of a story (E), which to me simply means better explaining how my characters truly feel, and using more paraphrasing and less of my sources’ boring quotes (another ratio, expressed as p/q).

Play with this any way you want. The trick, in my book, is to have an equation–a statement–that can governs every move I make. In my case:

S = (Q + L + D + P) x (s/t) x (V) x (E) x (p/q)

I’m sure there’s something mathematically flawed about that, but I’m forgiving myself in the spirit of saying: You’ve got to get better at this game if you’re going to survive. The people whose work you admire have managed, largely unconsciously, to figure out a way to look at their work–these kinds of qualities–holistically. Writing a personal skill equation is one way to try to match them.

If anybody likes this idea and wants to send me their personal equation–their interpretation of which values are most important to them–I’d be glad to reprint.

Happy Thanksgiving!