What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Just get it on the damn page. Once you spit some stuff out, you can mess around with it and improve it. An editor can advise you (sometimes a mixed blessing, I admit). Other folks can read it and help make the work better. If it’s all in your head, where of course it’s perfect, and you therefore delete every sentence you write because it’s imperfect, then you can’t make it better and nobody else can help you. It’s a recipe for paralysis. Start writing.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That I still take pleasure in it. It has been, no lie, 50 years that I’ve been a reporter and writer. I can’t claim to have loved every story or every minute, but I still take satisfaction in producing a decent sentence, a well-wrought column or an essay that says what I want it to say. Maybe I’ll get tired of this work when I’m 80, but maybe not.
What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Let me turn this around (since one consequence of being at this for 50 years is, who remembers what someone told me back when?) and share a bit of what I advise my journalism students: a) Strong, active verbs. (It’s not incorrect to say, “He was a cab driver.” It’s just better to say, “He drove a cab.”) b) No sludge. (Sludge: using more words than necessary to convey your meaning. You don’t have to point out, “She held a microphone in her hand.” How else would she hold it? If she were gripping it with her toes, you would have said so.)c) Avoid groaners like “journey” (unless describing treks across the tundra), “dream” (unless referring to visions during sleep) and “passion” (reserve for actual sex).
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Oh god, I don’t know. Maybe a mule. Not glam, not fast, kind of inflexible but gets there eventually.
Paula Span is an alumna of the alternative press and the Washington Post and has freelanced for a raft of newspapers and magazines. The author of “When the Time Comes,” a book on eldercare, she now writes the New Old Age (https://www.nytimes.com/column/the-new-old-age ) and the Generation Grandparent (https://www.nytimes.com/column/generation-grandparent ) columns for the New York Times . She has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 1999.