Chip’s Writing Lessons #100


In this issue:

Writers Speak | Kim van Alkemade on what a fiction reader chooses

Interview | Four Questions with Samira Shackle

Writing to Savor | “How an arts reporter unraveled a controversial and opaque family art dynasty” by Rachel Corbett, Nieman Storyboard


“If a reader chooses fiction, that reader is choosing story over fact, character over information, plot over events.”

-Kim van Alkemade

INTERVIEW | Getting the Words Down: Four Questions with Samira Shackle

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, author and editor based in London, specializing in long-form reported features. She is a regular contributor to the Guardian Long Read, among other publications.

Her reporting won a One World Media award in 2023, and a Foreign Press Association award in 2021. She was a finalist for freelancer of the year at the 2023 Society of Editors Awards. Her first book, Karachi Vice, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Her Substack newsletter can be found at

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

Just start writing. Once you have something down on paper, even if it’s terrible (and some of my very rough drafts – seen only by myself – are truly terrible) then you have something to work from, to sculpt and to craft. That’s not to say that it’s not important to digest your material and think about what to say before you write – of course, that’s a crucial part of the process, too, and I usually write some kind of plan before embarking on a draft. But I find that it’s only in the process of actually getting words down on a page that I can start to figure out the logical puzzle of how precisely to sequence different pieces of information in the most compelling way.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Actually being able to make a living from writing. Before I could read or write, I used to staple pieces of paper together, fill them with squiggles, and tell my parents that I’d written a book. My desire to write ran deep. I’ve been a freelance journalist for over a decade now, and while it’s certainly not the most lucrative or secure career path, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do something I find so fulfilling.

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

Given what I said about the importance of just starting to write, I’m going to say a potter. I’m thinking of someone whacking a huge, shapeless lump of clay onto a pottery wheel and slowly sculpting it into a vase, a pot, a bowl, or something with a recognizable and attractive shape. I often think of my first stage of writing as “whacking it all down on the page,” throwing down a shapeless lump and then crafting it into something with a coherent narrative that people want to keep reading.

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

To think not just about conveying the facts, but about the characters, scenes and specific details that will bring it alive to the reader.

WRITING TO SAVOR | “How an arts reporter unraveled a controversial and opaque family art dynasty by Rachel Corbett,” Nieman Storyboard, Jan. 24, 2024

In this annotation of her 2023 New York Times Magazine story, “The Inheritance Case That Could Unravel an Art Dynasty,” Rachel Corbett answers questions about how she made sense of how greed toppled an art dynasty, overcoming the obstacles of a foreign language, recalcitrant sources and an avalanche of notes.

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