Mixing it up in your writing . . . like Pedro Martinez

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Will Harrison cites Pedro Martinez, the once dominant Red Sox (and eventually, Mets) pitcher as an influence on his writing.

No, Pedro is not a great writer. But he was a great pitcher. The reason: when he was at the top of his game, no batter knew what pitch was coming next. It could be devastating swooping curve, a screaming eye-level fastball, or a waste pitch that looked appetizing until it swerved, unhittable, out of the strike zone.

If your reader can anticipate what’s next, your writing becomes predictable, and therefore, less entertaining and less likely to keep the reader’s interest. Just like Pedro, you can’t fall into a pattern or you become far less effective.

Here’s how Harrison makes the connection in his article, “My Unlikely Writing Teacher.”

Inevitably, my viewing habit [of watching Pedro’s past baseball games] came to influence my own work. “This is what writing feels like lately,” I wrote in my journal. “It’s all about pitch sequencing, about sentence variation. You have to move the reader through the paragraph. Fastball, curveball, changeup. Normal sentence, long sentence, short sentence. Straight declarative sentence, periodic sentence, sentence fragment. Keep them on their toes, keep throwing the ball past them.” I’m always thinking about the role that rhythm and movement play in my own prose and in the prose of my favorite writers; I love the way that language can leap from my mind and then to my fingers, much like a curveball arcing out of the hand of an All-Star pitcher. I studied Martinez, first as a baseball player and then, eventually, as an artist — I close-read him as you would a Modernist author. I came to learn that he is an excellent writing instructor, as wild as that sounds. His signature games are a master class in how to shift registers, how to strategize, how to create forms and patterns and leitmotifs. From Martinez, you can learn how to perform on the page.

Use all your tools

Like Pedro, you need to mix it up. And like Pedro, you need to learn all the tools you could have at your disposal — and get good at all of them.

Sentence length. Paragraph length. Rhetorical questions. Headings. Bullets, numbered lists, quotes, statistics, analogies, metaphors. Semicolons, colons, dashes, periods, ellipses, parentheses, and rarely — oh so rarely — exclamation points.





Assonance and alliteration.

Humor. Puns. Yes, puns.

Hear the words. Understand the rhythm. Get into it . . . and then just when the reader is comfortable, break it.

Pitchers watch Pedro. You should read Gladwell, Asimov, Tom Wolfe, Daniel Pink, Mary Roach, and whoever else titillates your fancy. If you read something and enjoy it, ask “How did they do that? Could I do that?”

Clever, fancy writing draws attention to itself. That’s not the point. Pedro wasn’t strutting around like a peacock out there, pointing at his own head every time he notched a strikeout.

Writers that use all the tools available, applying each as appropriate to the moment and what came before, draw attention to the meaning of what they write.

That is a job well done. Whether it’s a book or a research report or an email, you can do that.

And you can always get better with coaching and practice. You don’t think Pedro just stepped out there and was instantly great, do you?

Your readers deserve it. Your content deserves it. You deserve it.

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  1. Interesting analogy. I’d also put actors like Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Jason Leigh in this bucket. Ditto for bands like Radiohead and, to some extent, Rush with Signals. Certain bands and actors essentially turn out the same material. It’s courageous to zig when everyone elses expects you to zag.

  2. Some things cannot be coached – you have to figure them out on your own. Because there IS no canon, no conventional wisdom, no model to follow.

    Sports are a bad example – much improvement there is refinement of well-studied protocols and methods. Getting a coach can take you higher on many of the obvious fronts.

    And there is the final indignity: you would be perfect for something except for one major problem – like having entirely the wrong body type would affect a ballerina who had the fire, the technique, and the work ethic – but not the NECESSARY physical gifts.