What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
It’s tempting to think that good writing just calls for us to stitch together the fine tips and techniques we find in newsletters like yours. The tips and techniques are awesome, but they are no substitute for thinking deeply about a piece of writing. What’s the story about? What’s the theme? What’s the focus? What’s missing? Am I being intellectually honest? What am I really trying to say? Doesn’t matter whether it’s a piece of fiction, a column, or a longform newsfeature: The deeper the thinking, the more original and compelling the writing. This takes patience, which I don’t have much of these days. So I find that I have to be savagely intentional about not cutting intellectual corners. But, in the end, that’s the only way to find my way to clarity and meaning.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
I’m going to cheat and give you two surprises: One is that cynicism kills creativity. When I was younger, I equated cynicism (which I think of skepticism poisoned by hopelessness) with sophistication. But the best writers cultivate a sense of wonder that only grows with age. It’s not that they are Pollyannas. It’s just that they see the world at odd angles, are generous and openhearted, and are always asking impertinent questions. They’ve trained themselves to be surprised. And as a result, their work gleams with beautiful simplicity and insight. The other is that writing doesn’t get any easier. After 30-plus years of writing professionally, I can’t get over how much I still have to learn. It’s like a marriage: attention must be paid. And I haven’t always paid attention to my writing. Growth is humbling—and more than a little painful sometimes. Which is why I’ve finally accepted that writers need community—virtually or in person, informal or formal. Because meaningful growth almost always occurs in community.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Gosh, this one is tough. None leaps to mind. If anything, I’d say I’m an owl. I always think of owls as being the best observers and listeners in the animal kingdom (I have no idea if that’s true), and I think that’s the writer’s first duty: to take in the world as it is and then transport readers to that world. As the late James J. Kilpatrick said in The Writer’s Art: “We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently….” He said that’s the only path to original, precise language and images. And I agree.
What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
I got a lot of good advice over the years, but two thoughts come to mind. The first was from Roy Peter Clark, who taught me that how we order words can enhance or dilute their impact. I think about this all the time, particularly given how impatient readers are today. Their attention always feels brittle, tenuous. And so, beyond insights and clarity, I feel like I can tug them along with language that’s precise and compelling—especially at the end of a sentence or paragraph. And I often think of something John McPhee says: Writing is selection. I find this oddly liberating, especially if I’m writing a long piece. McPhee’s advice frees me to just lay everything on the screen before I go back and slash away, and reorder, whole sections. Don’t get me wrong. Selection is hard. Sometimes really hard. But it’s also fun, even exhilarating, especially when it yields writing that’s both clean and muscular.
For most of the past decade, Stephen Buckley has taught journalism, communications, and leadership in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, the United States and Asia. He began his career with The Washington Post, where he spent 12 years as a local reporter and international correspondent, based in Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro. He later worked at the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), where he was a national reporter, managing editor and digital publisher before turning to teaching. Stephen served as the Dean of Faculty at the Poynter Institute and has conducted workshops at numerous writing conferences. Stephen won the International Reporting Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1999 for his coverage of Africa, and in 2002, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors named him the state’s best reporter. He served as a Pulitzer Prizes juror four times. In 2015, he joined the faculty of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi where he served as an associate dean in charge of professional and executive programs. He is now a media consultant based in Nairobi.