How one S.C. agency expert's severe weather alerts improve my writing 

Typing Up a Storm

From my desk I have the teeniest glimpse of Charleston Harbor, which means I'm a storm watcher, especially during hurricane season. I peer up from my computer as moody fronts roll in. I'm a sucker for late summer thunderheads that loiter like petulant teens. I love the sunny days too, when the water turns to shimmering tinfoil, so blinding I have to draw the curtain. But when the tropics start percolating and named storms threaten to wreak havoc with my deadlines, not to mention my poor roof, that's when the literary tempest pays off. All thanks to the writing lessons tucked into Severe Weather Alerts sent from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and their laureate of looming storms, their Whitman of weather, Mark Malsick.

Malsick is not a writer by trade, far from it. He's a geologist and meteorologist who spent years briefing fighter pilots on weather patterns aboard a Naval aircraft carrier, and now works with SCDNR — the go-to bureaucracy for hunting and fishing licenses, not exactly where you'd cast a line for literary excellence. But Malsick's storm alert prose does everything I want mine to do—it informs and delights, it's full of small surprises and fresh turns of phrase that gust in and make your hair whoosh. I'm far from his only fan — some 25,000 people in two hemispheres subscribe to Malsick's bulletins, compared to the 100 internal departments and agencies that comprised his distribution list when he began in 2005.

Note: To sign up to receive Malsick's storm updates, visit the DNR website.

Malsick's bulletins advise state agencies about impending weather, helping senior officials coordinate responses and make informed decisions about everything from resource allocation to full-fledged evacuations. He culls National Weather Service data and consolidates various predictive models to craft on-scene advice and recommendations to the state Emergency Management Division. Serious stuff, and potentially seriously dry jargon.

But he enlivens what could be dreary prose by treating weather like the character it is — fickle, occasionally strong-minded, full of personality. Likewise he gives setting its due; calm tropics become an "underwhelming thermodynamic ennui over the North Atlantic, Caribbean and GoMex ... pummeled by boredom." Regarding indecisive Dorian, which appeared to be churning toward Florida at this writing, he warned my fellow South Carolinians, "however there Bucko, we ain't out of the woods just yet. The intensification forecast is all over the map for this small storm. Bag of Badgers and broken glass." Anyone can report projected wind speeds and rainfall; he paints a lively Picture of Dorian Gray Skies, badgers included.

Having lived here on the vulnerable coast for 25 years, I pay attention when a new DNR weather alert comes out, and not just for a heads up on when to go fetch water and batteries. I get to stock up on good writing tips too. Such as:

Cut the fluff: Malsick gets to the point. He's got a limited word count to convey important information. No burying ledes here, no wordy wind-up. His prose is decisive, streamlined and punchy. When a wacky nor'easter last April dumped snow on our daffodils, his opening line read: "Snow. April. South Carolina. Really."

Let words play: Malsick must have been the kid on the playground nonplussed by lightning. He's fearlessly playful with language and delightfully irreverent, despite subject matter that includes potentially catastrophic events. A cloudy forecast becomes "A mid-Atlantic gaggleplex of clouds pummeled by wind shear and poor choices." His style isn't ornamental, it's purposeful—"Humor gets people to read and pay attention," he says. It also lightens the anxiety that storm watching can induce—nice use of the power of language.

Choose Category 5 Verbs: Weather is all about action, and Malsick stirs it up with gale-force verbs and descriptions. "Yesterday's upper level trough and surface low pressure continue to lumber eastwards crossing over the state today. Expect tater-tot sized hail." And this: "Aforementioned upper level trough opens and weakens by 8 p.m. throttling today's stormage. Curiously, after 8 p.m., the sun exits stage west also reducing stormanation." He gets it: verbs matter. No room for tired adjectives in his hurricane preparedness kit.

Downpour of Voice: Rather than settling for bland and drizzly, Malsick's missives sizzle with attitude. He has earned trust as a reliable narrator (never shortchanging the science), so has leeway to infuse his voice. To wit: "Post-Tropical Cyclone Leslie is corralled over the Northern Atlantic. Leslie makes looping whifferdills over the open ocean for the next 7-10 days, menacing mariners and not much else with hurricane force winds. Curiously, according to National Hurricane Center, not a hurricane. Discuss." Discuss indeed.

Here's hoping no hurricanes wallop our shores anytime soon. But should we have to evacuate, I'm packing my stash of DNR email bulletins. We may lose power, but my prose will be charged up, thanks to weather tracking. Malsick understands that we're all at the whim of atmospheric conditions, and we're at the whim of language too. By writing with equal parts intention and imagination, we can turn the blasé into a sunburst. Cloudy with a chance of creativity — I'll take it.

Stephanie Hunt is a Charleston, South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor, and contributing editor-at-large for Charleston Magazine. She's a former senior editor and columnist for Literary Mama, and her work has been published in The Washington Post, Veranda, Coastal Living, Communication Arts, and numerous other outlets. See more at stephaniehuntwrites.com and follow @stephhuntwrites.


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