Chip’s Writing Lessons #99


In this issue:

Writers Speak | Valeria Luiselli on control of time in fiction

Interview | Four Questions with Lauren Smiley

Craft Lesson | Be a diagnostician


“Nothing can fall into place in a novel if the author does not have control over its sense of time, be it linear or fractured.”

— Valeria Luiselli


Photo by Coleen Jose

Lauren Smiley, a self-described “boots on the ground tech reporter,” is a contributor at Wired. She has written human-centered stories about technology for The Atlantic and New York magazine. She was an investigative reporter for the “Broken Harts” true crime podcast and has worked on staff for Matter and SF Weekly.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 

To keep reading. We stand on the shoulders of giants and reading them keeps me striving, and, frankly, envious. While reading, I keep asking: Why is this working? How could I do this? (Consuming other types of storytelling — TV, movies, plays, is also helpful.) I sometimes read passages of favorite stories during the drafting process to jolt myself into trying to match that level of mastery. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

This is especially true for a features writer without a beat, but I’m consistently surprised that I start at zero on every story. My reporting and current draft don’t care about my last story. There’s very little resting on any tiny laurel. I watched the new Tom Wolfe documentary and perked up when he described writing as sheer agony and admitted that he was often filled with doubt that he’d ever write a good sentence again. On the positive side, the toil is part of why journalism is endlessly engaging. You might go broke, but you won’t get bored.  

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Let’s go with architect. Thinking of the endeavor as a science rather than art soothes me, reminding me this is in my control. So my building isn’t going to stand, let alone inspire anyone, if I don’t start with quality materials (i.e., reporting) and a blueprint (outline). Then I have to build each floor with solid craftsmanship and the hope that the result is more meaningful than a simple stack of bolts and glass.  

What is the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you? 

Figure out what your story is really, really about. A million writers have said this in different ways — for me, most recently, it was the great features writer Elizabeth Weil. Distill what the story is about into a short sentence or word. Aim to make the whole story excavate that theme — from the first sentence to word choices to structure. That’s when the story achieves lift-off from a series of nice sentences to something more meaningful, something that will stick with people, a piece with something to say. 

That, and read your draft aloud. I hate doing it so much, but it pays off. 


In his MasterClass, the playwright and scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin advises aspiring writers to “become a diagnostician.”

“Watch TV shows, plays and movies with the screenplay in your lap,” he says. (I’ve been hankering for a MasterClass subscription after they debuted in 2015, but the fee was beyond my budget. I was thrilled when MC offered a New Year’s deal of just $7 a month for every class. That means several hours of R.L. Stine, Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Judd Apatow, Judy Blume and several other very successful authors discussing their craft and offering tips.)

Sorkin reminded me of another approach to understanding how great writing is made. It’s called Modeling Lessons.

In the early 1800s, an English writer named Charles Caleb Colton published a book of aphorisms, including one still popular today: “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.” (“Form,” added later, rounds out the way we know it today.)

But for those of us trying to become better writers, imitation is more than flattery; it’s a powerful and time-honored way to master the craft. “Numerous writers — Somerset Maugham and Joan Didion come to mind — recall copying long passages verbatim from favorite writers, learning with every line,” says Stephen Koch in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.


Over the years, I’ve learned important lessons by copying out lines, passages, even entire stories, by other writers whose work I admire and would like to emulate.

Typing Wall Street Journal features taught me the anatomy of a “nut graf,” journalese for that section of context high up in a story that tells readers what a story is about and why they should read it.

You can discover your own voice by listening to other writers. One of the best ways to listen is by copying out their words.

This practice horrifies some respected writers and teachers; write your own darn stories, they say. But if we were visual artists, would anyone look askance at visiting a museum to try and copy the paintings to see how accomplished artists used color and shadow and contrast?

I’m not talking about plagiarism. Rather, modeling is copying stories to gain a more intimate understanding of the variety of decisions that writers make to organize material, select language and shape sentences. 


Now’s a good time for my one caveat about modeling lessons: Always copy the writer’s byline at the top of the story in case you get deluded and confuse someone else’s writing with your own.

Properly credited, I start typing. 

When something strikes me, I’ll start to record my observations:

Wow, notice how that long sentence is followed by a short, three-word one, stopping me in my tracks to pay attention. Varying sentence length is a good way to affect pace.

See how Carol McCabe’s leads follow a pattern? (“Cold rain spattered on the sand outside the gray house where Worthe Sutherland and his wife Channie P. Sutherland live.” “The Bicentennial tourists flowed through Paul Revere’s Mall.” “Three trailer trucks growled impatiently as a frail black buggy turned onto Route 340.”) Subject-Verb-Object. Concrete nouns, vivid active verbs. I’ve got to try that.

Every writer, including broadcast and online writers, can profit from copying successful stories in their medium. They’d do well to study how other elements figure in.

Pay attention to what the writer is doing and what effect it has on you, the reader. Most of all, writing is about impact, and writers need to learn how to make one, using all the tools at their disposal. 

“Do not fear imitation,” says Stephen Koch. “Nobody sensible pursues an imitative style as a long-term goal, but all accomplished writers know that the notion of pure originality is a childish fantasy. Up to a point, imitation is the path to discovery and essential to growth.”

In the end, you must use your own words to become the writer you want to be, but I’ve profited from learning how other writers used theirs. You can, too.

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