Chip’s Writing Lessons #100

Newsletter

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

WRITERS SPEAK

“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 https://samirashackle.substack.com/

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.

Chip’s Writing Lessons #99

Newsletter

In this issue:

Writers Speak | Valeria Luiselli on control of time in fiction

Interview | Four Questions with Lauren Smiley

Craft Lesson | Be a diagnostician

WRITERS SPEAK

“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

INTERVIEW | FOUR QUESTIONS WITH LAUREN SMILEY

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. 

CRAFT LESSON | BECOME A DIAGNOSTICIAN

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.

LEARN FROM THE BEST

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. 

A WARNING SIGN

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.

Chip’s Writing Lessons #98

Newsletter

In this issue:

Writers Speak | Billy Wilder on structural flaws

Chronology Is Your Friend: Four Questions with Peter Perl

Craft Lesson Revisited | Tell Me an Article, Daddy

Writing to Savor | “How a Script Doctor Found His Own Voice” by Patrick Radden Keefe

WRITERS SPEAK

“If you have a problem in the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

— Billy Wilder

INTERVIEW | CHRONOLOGY IS YOUR FRIEND: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH PETER PERL

Peter Perl retired as Assistant Managing Editor of The Washington Post after a 33-year career as a reporter, editor and magazine writer.

He supervised personnel matters, career development, skills and management training, leadership coaching, and various other roles in the operation of the 600-person Post newsroom. Prior to joining Post newsroom management, he was an award-winning staff writer of The Washington Post Magazine. He also served as chair of The Post newsroom’s labor union and was elected to the governing Executive Council of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, representing 1,400 Post employees. Prior to The Post, he was a reporter at the Providence Journal-Bulletin and at Connecticut Magazine.
Perl is the recipient of more than 35 journalism awards from the Associated Press, the Newspaper Guild, the American Bar Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Education Writers Association, the AFL-CIO, and other organizations. He has taught journalism at Georgetown University in Washington and at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. His work has also appeared in Reader’s Digest, Columbia Journalism Review, Working Woman and other publications, and he has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and on MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams.

What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a writer?
First, be human. Then be a writer. Whether it’s profiling a famous person or interviewing a crime victim, I have learned that I must show up as a person, not a reporter/writer. It’s important not to adopt the persona of the question-asker/note-taker/or word processor. For me, I have learned that it must start with empathy: the sense that we all, as fellow humans, are struggling to figure out who we are, who we want to be, and what to do. The other person is not a “subject” of my story. She/he is someone whose life is intersecting with mine at some important moment and they have to know and feel that I understand their situation — or at least that I am genuinely trying to understand who they really are and what they are living through. That is when they will open up and really share their story.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
I have frequently been amazed that people will allow me into their lives with a degree of intimacy that I, personally, would never, ever extend to a stranger. Most of the time, I have been able to genuinely earn the trust of my subjects. I think it’s because of my approach of being a human first, and a writer second. Bob Woodward and I once had a discussion about how to get people to talk to you, and he said that he often puts himself in the position of a person who needs the other person’s help. He would tell the person that he does not understand a situation and he really needs their help. He said it often works because many people feel a genuine need to help others. Of course, this can come across as disingenuous, and people often know when you are bullshitting. But I have been successful at persuading people that I honestly am seeking “truth.” The challenge then is figuring out how to write the truth.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
A cop-turned-shrink. I’ve been a reporter, editor and magazine writer for more than 40 years  and, looking back, I see two primary, evolving identities. I grew up with a father who was a New York City private eye and a pretty suspicious, cynical guy. So my first writing identity was as a digger/investigator always trying to ferret out the real story, and often that meant exposing the wrongdoing and finding the bad guys. About 15 years into my career, I got tired of being a cop and gravitated toward using my investigative inclinations to try to understand and write about people, about what motivated them, and about the truth and lies that they told themselves. The latter part of my career ended up focusing on psychologically oriented profiles in which I often ended up in a role akin to a therapist.

What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors and writer colleagues, and
their best collective writing advice could be summed up as: Keep it simple, stupid. Under that heading, the specific pieces of advice that stuck with me are:
1) S-V-O; Subject-Verb-Object. Straight, simple, declarative sentences are your best starting point. You can always dress up your writing with fancy clauses and pretty, lyrical swirls, but start simple.
2) Chronology is your friend. The writer — and the reader — can get hopelessly lost when you are bouncing back and forth in time. Be as linear as possible and be very clear when you are moving forward or backward in time.
3) Tell What Happened. People love hearing stories and they want to know what happens next. So don’t use extraneous details and other distractions that will keep them from getting it.

CRAFT LESSON REVISITED | TELL ME AN ARTICLE, DADDY

Heading into the new year, I want to emphasize the importance of storytelling in journalism. This piece is taken from my book, 33 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Journalism.

Story.

 It’s a word that echoes in newsrooms every day.

“Great story today.”

“Where’s that story? You’re 30 minutes late!”

“Boss, I need another day/week/month to finish that story.”

 “How the heck did that story get on the front page?

And the old standby: “Story at 11.”

 We call them stories, but most of what appears in print, online, and broadcast are articles or reports, says writing teacher Jack Hart.

Here’s an example from The Guardian about the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine:

Fierce fighting broke out in Kyiv as Russian forces tried to push their way towards the city centre from multiple directions in the early hours of Saturday, and as the Ukrainian president, Volodomyr Zelenskiy, bluntly rejected a US offer to evacuate him from the country’s capital.

Articles present information about an accident, a public meeting, a speech, a contested presidential election, or even a war. They’re a convenient way to convey information in a clear, concise, accurate fashion told in a neutral voice.

 But please, let’s not confuse them with stories.

 A story features characters rather than sources and communicates experience through the five senses and a few others: place, time and, most of all, drama.

 It has a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention, a middle that keeps the reader engaged and an ending that lingers. Scenes peppered with dialogue and a distinct voice drive the action.

Here’s how Mitchell S. Jackson opened “Twelve Seconds and a Life,” his Runner’s World story about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, by three white men in 2020 while jogging through their suburban Georgia neighborhood.

Imagine young Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery, a junior varsity scatback turned undersized varsity linebacker on a practice field of the Brunswick High Pirates. The head coach has divided the squad into offense and defense and has his offense running the plays of their next opponent. The coach, as is his habit, has been taunting his defense. “Y’all ain’t ready,” he says. “You can’t stop us,” he says. “What y’all gone do?” The next play, Maud, all 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds of him, bursts between blockers and — BOOM! — lays a hit that makes the sound of cars crashing, that echoes across the field and into the stands, that just might reach the locker room.

Jackson’s story won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for feature writing. 

Journalists must be able to write articles and stories. Each has their own challenges. Articles compress events and focus on newsworthy elements. Narratives connect us with the universals of the human condition. They matter because they transport us to different worlds that reveal the personal and emotional realities behind the news.   

We need stories, nonfiction author Bill Buford wrote in a 1996 essay, because “they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle and end of our personal and collective trajectories … because it is impossible to live without them.”

Articles have their place, but late at night, your child will never say, “I can’t sleep. Tell me an article, Daddy!”

 No, they beg to be lulled into slumber by a story.

 Instead, in much of news writing, we provide few if any of these.

 Instead of settings, we give readers an address.

 Instead of characters, we give people stick figures: “Goldilocks, 7, of 5624 Sylvan Way.”

 Instead of suspense, we give away the ending at the beginning using the inverted pyramid, the form which presents newsworthy elements in descending order and peters out at the end. 

 The challenge for today’s journalists is to use literary techniques to write true stories that, as Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal, described it, reveal the “joys and costs of being human.”

 STORYTELLING TIPS

      • Newspapers are full of stories waiting to be told. Police briefs, classified ads, obituaries, the last two paragraphs of a city council story; all may hold the promise of a dramatic story. Mine your paper/broadcast/website for story ideas.

• Find the extraordinary in the ordinary stuff of life: graduations, reunions, burials, buying a car, putting Mom in a nursing home, or the day Dad comes to live with his children.

• Change your point of view. Write the city council story through the eyes of the Asian-American woman who asks for better police protection in her neighborhood. 

• Study examples of outstanding narrative nonfiction among Pulitzer Prize winners for feature writing, National Magazine Awards and Nieman Storyboard sites.

• Look for ways to drop storytelling features in your daily articles: a description, a scene, a snatch of dialogue.

WRITING TO SAVOR | “HOW A SCRIPT DOCTOR FOUND HIS OWN VOICE” BY PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE

Scott Frank spent a long career as a Hollywood scriptwriter, making up to $300,000 a week punching up troubled movie scripts. Among his credits: Saving Private Ryan and The Minority Report. Despite his success, in middle age he abandoned the lucrative gigs to write his own words and found a home in the streaming world that has overshadowed the movie industry, writing the international mega-hit The Queen’s Gambit. In this fascinating profile, Patrick Radden Keefe digs into Frank’s life and career at the same time, illuminating the world of scriptwriting. 

Nieman Storyboard, where I am a contributor, published its list of the top 10 most viewed posts of 2023. No. 3 on the list was the annotation I did with Lauren Smiley, who wrote “I Am The Operator: The Aftermath of a Self-driving Tragedy” for Wired magazine. It’s a compelling story, illuminated by Smiley’s commentary on her indefatigable reporting and writing process.

4 Questions with Mike Wilson

Interviews

Mike Wilson is the deputy editor of the New York Times feature “The Great Read,” which highlights narrative stories. Before joining the Times, he served as editor of the Dallas Morning News, where he transformed a traditional print newsroom into a digital-first news organization. Under his leadership, the News was a Pulitzer Prize finalist three times and won two national Edward R. Murrow Awards for feature writing.

Mike started his career at the Miami Herald, where he worked for 12 years as a writer and editor, ending with a stint on the writing staff of the Sunday magazine, Tropic. He then joined the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), where he was a writer, editor and, finally, managing editor. His enterprise writing staff at that paper won a Pulitzer for feature writing and was a finalist for four others. In 2013, he moved to ESPN in New York to become the founding managing editor of Nate Silver’s data journalism website, FiveThirtyEight.

He is the author of Right on the Edge of Crazy (1993), about American ski racers competing in the 1992 Olympics, and The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison (1997), about Oracle Corporation’s billionaire founder.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

Even though the editor is typically higher on the org chart than the writer, trust is far more important in the writer-editor relationship than power. Telling stories is a collaborative process. The writer and I need each other: I need the writer to do the difficult work of learning every detail of the story and writing it well. The writer needs me to provide support and encouragement and, importantly, to offer the kind of perspective that the writer, awash in details, may find it hard to maintain. When things go well, we come to appreciate and trust each other, and the edits we make are the ones we agree on. If I ever make a change in a story just because I’m the boss, something has broken down in the process.

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

I’m surprised by how much editing has tested me – and I think helped me grow – as a person, not just as a journalist. When I became an editor, I took on the responsibility for people’s stories, but also for their careers and sometimes their personal well-being. I’m constantly asking myself: How patient can I be? Can I adapt to each person’s way of working and thinking? How clearly and effectively can I say that a piece or work isn’t good enough, or that it’s great? The thing I like least about editing is that I don’t write much anymore. The thing I like best is that the work calls on me to be the best possible version of myself. (I fail at this regularly.)

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as an editorwhat would it be?

I’m a gymnastics coach. Think of writers as elite athletes attempting risky and difficult new skills. I push them, and I catch them.

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

The advice came from my friend Tom Shroder, who was my editor at the Miami Herald’Tropic magazine and later the editor of the Washington Post Magazine. Tom said editors should try to make the editing process as objective as possible for the writer. It’s never enough to say, “I didn’t like that line” or “We don’t need this paragraph.” Editors need to be prepared to explain why they’re making a change (and I would add, they need to be ready to be proved wrong). Whether editors are helping a writer conceptualize a story or putting the last touches on it before publication, they should be able to articulately explain their decisions. Tom was and is great at this.

Chip’s Writing Lessons #93

Interviews

In this issue:

Writers Speak: Simone de Beauvoir on the consequences of not writing

Four Questions with Christopher Blackwell

WRITERS SPEAK

A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes.

—Simone de Beauvoir

FOUR QUESTIONS WITH CHRISTOPHER BLACKWELL

Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington State. He co-founded Look 2 Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and actively works to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working towards publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Huff Post, and many other outlets. He is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents, a contributing editor at The Appeal, and works closely with the prison writing program Empowerment Avenue. You can follow him and be in touch on X (formerly known as Twitter) @chriswblackwell.

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

That my words have real-life power. They can educate and help people see the harm taking place in areas that are often left to the dark corners of our carceral system. However, they can also cause harm if not used in the right way. It is important to remember that when I write and speak for the body of incarcerated people, I don’t cause harm by doing so. My goal is to shed light on the system and the bad actors within it, not sell drama for a good story or use someone’s story without first asking them if they are willing to allow me to tell their story.

A couple of years ago, I was writing a piece about an outbreak of COVID at the prison where I lived. I told a story about the first prisoner who contracted the virus in our living unit, and because of the failure of the medical staff to do their job properly, they allowed this individual to spread the virus, ultimately infecting the majority of the population at our prison—hundreds of people got sick. And sadly, an elderly prisoner lost his life due to the spread of the virus.

Not long after the story came out, we were all back in our living units from our trip to solitary confinement—what the Department of Corrections claimed was “medical isolation,” but in reality was nothing more than a cold, uncomfortable, concrete box—and the prisoner approached me and asked why I’d used his story without talking to him first. I explained that I wanted to hold DOC medical staff responsible for their negligence in failing to do their job to keep the general population safe. With a frustrated look on his face, he said, “But now it sounds like it was my fault that man died. That because I was sick, I had a hand in him getting sick and losing his life.” He went on to say I should have asked him before I used him as a key role within my piece, even if I didn’t name him, which I didn’t. He continued by saying everyone knew who I was talking about, even his loved ones on the outside. 

I was crushed by the harm my writing had caused this person. I wanted to help my fellow prisoners, not harm them. And knowing that he was sitting there with this heavy guilt, feeling like that elderly man losing his life was on his hands. Knowing what I wrote only fed that guilt. I felt horrible. It was at this moment that I realized it doesn’t matter what your intention is, only the outcome.

During this time, I was new to journalism. I had failed a key role of our job in telling a story. I had caused harm to someone! And what was worse, I couldn’t fix it or recall the story—the damage had been done.

Since this happened, I have always made it a key point to consult anyone I use in my stories. It doesn’t matter if I name them or not. I make sure I think of all the effects my piece could have and that I am telling a story in the right way.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How far my writing has reached. I never expected to see my voice travel so far. When I hear from all the different people who read my words, it really is something special. I’ve spent over half of my life—25 years—incarcerated, and for the majority of that time, I have felt like our voices don’t matter, that people don’t care what is happening inside the prisons and institutions across the country. But I now know people do care. We just had to take the time to show them—to expose what happens in the shadows. Through sharing our stories—and humanizing the people behind these towering walls and razor wire fences—we will allow society to see that we must change this system. 

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

A man trying to free-climb Mount. Everest without any gear. I sometimes feel like what I’m doing—working to tear down the harms created through the carceral system—is an impossible task. That no matter what I or other incarcerated journalists do, we will never be able to dismantle the harm these systems produce. But I continue to climb by putting one foot in front of the other. I know with each step taken, I get one step closer to the summit.

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

I honestly don’t know if there is just one piece that outshines all the others. Each style of writing requires different skills, and each of the skills I’ve come to develop came from different writers/mentors.

Jamie taught me how to tell personal parts of my life through descriptive narratives that allow readers to feel and see what I saw as a young man struggling to survive a neighborhood filled with gangs, drugs and over-policing. She helped me develop the skills to vividly paint what a cold, dirty concrete cell looks like in a solitary confinement unit. 

But Jessica taught me how to investigate. She showed me how to dig for a story and how to find and obtain strong sources that bring a story to life. Really paint a harm taking place by shining a bright light on it. She taught me structure and countless other little journalist tricks related to the trade. She taught me how to be a legitimate reporter from a prison cell.

It was these pieces of advice from strong mentors along the way that allowed my writing to become what it is today. And I continue to learn from the talented writers who enter my life. 

So the best advice is to surround yourself with good writers and listen to what they have to teach. Find the people who are willing to invest in you and let them mold and shape you through the skills they’ve acquired over their careers. And most importantly, stay humble. This profession is ALL about relationships. Building long-lasting ones will allow a writer to stay relevant, and nothing is more important in the world of writing.

If I’m writing, I’ve failed: 4 Questions with Bill Duryea

Interviews

Bill Duryea is deputy editor for features at Politico magazine where he has worked since 2015. Over a 24-year career at the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times he worked as a police reporter, general assignment reporter for the Floridian newsfeatures section, national editor and editor of the enterprise team. Reporters he has worked with have won awards from the American Society of News Editors, National Headliner, Florida Society of News Editors, National Press Foundation and Society of Professional Journalists. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

If I’m writing, I’ve failed. That doesn’t mean I’ve never rewritten a sentence or even paragraphs. Deadlines and the limits of a writer’s raw abilities at a given moment sometimes demand I step in. But the most satisfying edits for me (and I hope for the writer, too) are the product of conversations during which our mutual goals for the piece become so aligned that my nagging questions, my suggested rephrasings and even my cuts make enough sense to the writer that they can execute the changes with complete faith that the piece is still theirs. When I find myself typing too much in a story, I always think: The time I’m spending now “fixing” something would have been much better spent days ago when a conversation would have addressed the issue before it became a problem.   

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

That editing stories about politics would reveal how much I still have to learn about journalism and what readers really crave. I never expected to end up at a website like Politico whose plugged-in readers reputedly had no time for long narratives. That wasn’t exactly true. Turns out they have plenty of time for a detail-rich profile (as any number of Michael Kruse pieces have proved). Of course, they want scoops and ammunition for their political battles but even the most harried Capitol Hill staffer cannot resist the time-slowing satisfactions of a well-constructed historical narrative. If you can make them relevant to the current moment, stories like that provide readers with a necessary respite from the barrage of brevity that assaults their inboxes every day. I wasn’t sure this was true when I arrived eight years ago, but I am now.

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

How about pool player? Most any shot on a pool table is makable if you can deliver the cue ball to the object ball at just the right angle and with just the right amount of force. When I talk to writers, especially ones who are new to me, or put notes in their copy, I want to impart a clear, respectful message that lands in such a way that they leave the interaction moving confidently in the right direction. Sometimes that note is delicate and the angle oblique (“Have you thought trying it like this …?” or “When I read this it made me think of X. Did you mean it that way?’’). Sometimes it’s more direct and forceful (“We need to change this because …”) But just as in pool, it’s the next shot and the shot after that that matters most, so I’m careful not to say something that hinders the writer’s ability to move forward.

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

The best piece of editing advice I ever got was actually a piece of writing advice. It came. not surprisingly, from a great writer who also happens to be the best editor I ever had. Mike Wilson helped me find my voice as a writer at the St. Pete (now Tampa Bay) Times by pushing me to find the larger meaning of my reporting. And then say it. Mike would take my workmanlike drafts and gently point out the places where I could “have a little fun.” “Maybe like this?” he’d say, as I sat just off his shoulder, watching him effortlessly riff a sentence or just a clause that enlivened my piece with humor or pathos. Mike was showing me the difference between relaying facts and telling a story. As an editor, I look for opportunities to do that Wilsonian thing for writers — to help them transcend their reporting and “have a little fun.” 

The Electrification Stage of Revision: 4 Questions with Mark Kramer

Interviews

Mark Kramer is a writer, professor, and leader in the international movement to bring narrative journalism into books, magazines, documentaries, broadcasts, podcasts, and news media. He teaches an independent master class for mid-career writers with longform projects. It explores the process from topic selection through to publication, and includes fieldwork, note-coding, structuring, drafting and revising, and covers sentence-craft, voice, pace, scene-and-character portrayal, and ethics.

Kramer started America’s leading narrative nonfiction writing conference at Boston University and continued it while writer-in-residence and founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Jounalism at Harvard University, and then when it returned to Boston University. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe and other papers, and in National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside, Best American Essays, The Nation, etc.

His books include Three Farms: Making Milk, Meat and Money from the American SoilInvasive Procedures: A Year in the World of Two Surgeons; and Travels with a Hungry Bear: A Journey to the Russian Heartland.  He’s co-edited two widely-adopted textbooks–Literary Journalism; and Telling True Stories: A Writers’ Guide to Narrative Nonfiction from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

Kramer was writer-in-residence and professor of journalism at BU for a decade, and writer-in-residence at Smith College for a decade before that. He’s also founded ongoing conferences in Amsterdam and Bergen, Norway, and shorter-lived conferences in Johannesburg, Lisbon, Rio and Paris. He’s finishing up a handbook for narrative journalists.

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

That we should be called ‘revisers’ rather than ‘writers.’ I spend perhaps one percent of my ‘writing time’ writing, in new territory, filling blank pages.  The rest is revising.  And almost all the enduring ‘creative’ stuff–the sentences and passages and juxtaposed scenes and ideas that still gleam when I reread them a few years later, happened while I was far into reworking text.  

That said, writing that first draft, and even the scarily-messy earliest revisions, are so awful compared to how good you want a piece to turn out, that we seem destined to cling to the illusion that we already know where we’re heading and the end is nigh.  What’s more true is that a piece’s true destination, where you want readers to journey toward, looms up like a mirage at sea, as we persist in revising.  And then when it does, we can really start pruning and shaping more exactly, and the destination and journey toward it will refine further. 

Smoothing the phrasing is just one aspect of revising.  When I strengthen and tune up sentences, I’m clearing the underbrush of half-formed, twice-said and superfluous words and ideas.  That’s when the curve of the reader’s consecutive experience of the piece’s scenes and argument and sequence of realizations emerges, a hospitable trail you’re clearing through the woods. “Narrative arc” is a misleading term.  It’s way too heavenly an aspiration for that practical period when you’re at your workbench knowing you ought to be constructing one.  “Narrative arc” sounds expert but is bewilderingly hard to anticipate.  How do you build a rainbow?  You need one for a good piece, but you get there by considering what practical craft steps build a good scene, animate a life-like character, tighten the next floppy sentence toward austerity.  I find it helps me to ask myself repeatedly, “What should the reader experience next?” and then to work on that.  If you think about how next to continue perfecting readers’ sense of ‘delightful and appropriate consecutiveness’ in their reading experience, you’ll revise effectively.  This is hard. 

Solid structure is what the reader needs next, and in narrative work, it doesn’t spring from an outline. Revising develops it, if you favor improving the reader’s sequential flow of immersive scenes with good characters, pointing progressively toward aspects of the topic at hand (and, occasionally, feathering in interjected ideas).  And of course, the reader’s experience also improves when you make the sentences you’ve drafted ever more simple, personable and elegant, until the reader is with you, a quiet, nearly invisible, host.’  ‘Curating the reader’s sequential experience’ is an effective summary mission statement for the many chores of revising.  And revising.  And revising.   

What should happen when the hospitably accompanied reader, after enjoying those efficiently purposeful scenes with their lifelike characters, arrives at that destination? Insight, as the elements of the narrative converge and finally drop the reader off there, is the reader’s reward.  In high school and college English classes, I puzzled over the term ‘theme’ that my teachers insisted writers had in mind, like the armature around which a sculptor forms clay.  The puzzling term ‘theme’ has misled many a talented writer to simplify a symphony into a monotone.  Destinations of good work are nuanced.  They preserve the humanness of situations intact, and don’t turn them into object lessons. And they succeed as the reader realizes things, not as the writer turns preachy and sums everything up.    

First draft is merely shoveling up clay from a seam in the bed of a creek and slapping it down on the work table.  Sculpting it after a first rough shaping, the work emerges, as they say, from removing what isn’t the sculpture until what’s left is, AND that’s mostly what writers do. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The electrification stage of revision. Clearly, it takes patience bordering on endurance to report and research and sculpt your way through that first draft.  Then comes the long revision period, revising the revision of your revision.  You’ve immersed in your scenes, gone beyond what a deadline reporter might gain just from interviewing.  You slowly, while drafting, comprehend the treasures hidden even from yourself in your field notes. Once you’ve nailed down and sharpened your selection and sequence of scenes, you’re getting there.   

Then, something happens that rewards what may feel is fussy tinkering with every joint between every whole lot of words! That something is what I’ve come to think of as ‘the electrification stage’ — it’s an analogy to when you frame and sheath and roof and sheetrock a house and the unfinished rooms are recognizable, in place.  In your work, the scenes are mostly in place, the characters too, and that trail leading the reader from experience to experience still has a few extra loop-de-loops, but you finally know how it works. It’s sequence from realization to realization maps in your mind.  You suddenly know how to put it into place.  It realizes in your mind. You suddenly can connect up the wiring you’ve installed in that house you’re building, and the lights go on.  You’re not done yet.  In fact, the illumination contains its own punishment–you can now see fussy little flaws and have to work far into the night, in the light you’ve created.  And you can finally finish eliminating what you’d once thought essential but now you can see it’s superfluous, perhaps essential for your next piece, but not for this one.  Voila: electrification draft.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer?

Please see above.  I’ve got a sailor in the fog and a path-clearer on a hiking trail, a hospitable host, and a carpenter building a house and briefly, a pilot doing those loop-de-loops.  I guess I write to find out what I am, metaphorically.  

What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?  

Actually, it’s a pair of  . . .advices. ‘!‘ and  ‘fix‘.  

those were the two marks that most often showed up in the drafts returned to me by my editor, friend and mentor, Dick Todd, late and much-missed editor at the Atlantic Monthly.  he’d write a minuscule check in the margin when he really, really liked something a whole lot–an idea or little interstitial joke, or even a metaphor. he was given to eloquent understatement, but so brilliantly exacting that those scant checkmarks made me feel safe and enough on the right track so that when he occasionally also inscribed the word ‘fix’ in the margins (also in tiny characters) I would realize some dumb misstep I’d made that would have remained invisible to me without his marks.  the “!” showed me–in my late 20s, when i was just figuring things out–that the grace of an editor’s approving “!” was powerful in helping a writer feel safe enough to write on–or revise on. and I !!!’d a lot while working with other writers’ copy. and the “fix” showed me how fine-grained and precise was the sort of revision that a text needed before it felt like it made excellent contact with readers.       

CRAFT LESSON: LISTENING TO YOUR VOICE: A SURVEY

Craft Lessons, Uncategorized

How happy are you with your writing voice?

When I interview writers for Chip’s Writing Lessons, they often bring up the subject of voice.

“A story, reported deeply and written with an authentic writer’s voice, has the power to move readers.”

-DeNeen L. Brown

“Even if I am the narrator, or the lead storyteller, every character has a story, every person in the room has a voice.”

-Valerie Boyd

“I think you can apply this to any artistic endeavor, not just writing. It’s a quote from the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk : ‘“A genius is the one most like himself.”
Not saying I’m a genius or anything, but this struck me as important when I read it, and to me it says something important about voice and integrity, and how that translates onto the page.”

-Sean Tanner

“If I began a short story or worked on a novel in the evening at home I drifted into trance states and couldn’t push through, couldn’t continue and finish. I had writer’s block before I became a writer. Nor was the quality of what I was writing even close to what I wanted it to be. I wrote Joycean or Faulknerian pastiches; when I tried to write in my own voice I overworked my sentences to the point of affectation. I was three hands clapping. I was too tight.’”

-Richard Rhodes

Voice deeply interests my friend Anne Janzer, a prolific author of several excellent books on writing (“Writing to Be Understood;” “The Writer’s Process,” “Get the Word Out” and “33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Business Emails.”)

Anne writes about the science and mystery of writing. Right now, she’s conducting research into that elusive idea of writing voice—including how easily we can shift it and how we feel about it.

Help her explore the topic by answering this short, six-question survey. 

Your responses will be private, and she’ll share the responses when the survey is done.

Taking this survey got me thinking about my own writing voice. It should be fascinating to see how a larger community of writers responds.

Link to survey: https://forms.gle/wVj8it3vwq2FAMZe9

Thanks.

PARK DOWNHILL: 4 QUESTIONS WITH LIZZIE JOHNSON

Interviews
Bill O’Leary/Washington Post

Lizzie Johnson is a reporter on The Washington Post’s local enterprise team and the author of “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire.” Previously, she was a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also worked at the Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the Omaha World-Herald and El Sol de San Telmo in Buenos Aires. She has BAs in journalism and political science from the University of Missouri at Columbia. Johnson is a three-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. The California News Publishers Association has recognized her for Best Writing, Best Profile, Best Enterprise and Best Feature. In 2021, she won first place for long-form feature writing in the Best of the West contest. She has appeared on “Longform Podcast,” “This American Life,” “Longreads Podcast” and “Climate One from the Commonwealth Club.” Her work has been featured by the Columbia Journalism Review, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Harvard University’s Nieman Storyboard. Johnson, who was raised in the Midwest, and her dog, Indie, currently call D.C. home.

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

So much of writing happens when you aren’t actually writing. I come up with my best ledes and kickers when I let myself take a break and do something else, like go for a run or weed my garden. Switching gears when I’m stuck jumpstarts my creativity. I’ll rush right back to my keyboard with a renewed sense of purpose. (Which is probably why I’ve gotten dirt jammed in the keys so many times.)

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The writing cannot stand without the reporting. It might seem like shaping the story is the longest part of the process, but I’ve found that it’s easiest if you invest in the information gathering — no matter how long it takes. Digging through archives, putting in public records requests, gathering documentation, like copies of text messages, emails, phone logs, staying with a story subject an hour longer than you anticipated. Writing scenes is much easier when you have plenty of information to choose from — and it’s impossible when you don’t have the reporting to hold the storytelling up.

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

A mechanic. If the engine’s not running, it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles the story has. As a writer, I’m constantly tinkering, trying to figure out what works, structure and tension-wise, knowing that, otherwise, people won’t read until the end.

What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Park downhill. I can’t remember who passed along this piece of advice — one of my former editors at The San Francisco Chronicle, who inherited it from someone else, I’d bet — but the sentiment has stayed with me. The idea is to stop while you’re ahead, to close up your laptop and end the work day when you have an idea of where you’re headed next. It makes picking things up the next morning that much easier. You’re excited and know what you want to write next — versus feeling stuck and staring blankly at your cursor for an hour, then deciding that you really should just go walk the dog, or wipe down the counters, or write that letter to your great-aunt or…. you get my gist.

BEWARE, WILD BEASTS: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH BERKLEY HUDSON

Interviews

Photo by Tom Rankin

Of himself, Berkley Hudson says:

Born, Columbus, Mississippi. My Daddy ran Main Street Service Station, “Don’t Cuss. Call Russ.” Three restrooms: Ladies, Gentleman, Colored. As a white boy, I learned to listen for stories when 4-County Power linemen pulled up for gas, with dead snakes hanging from back of their trucks. My mother’s family ran Sanitary Laundry & Dry Cleaners. (Clothes Dirty? Dial 630!). Left Mississippi after Ole Miss undergrad. Went straight to Columbia University journalism school. Worked 25 years as staff and freelance journalist, first at The Bulletin, Bend, Oregon; then, Providence Journal, and later, the Los Angeles Times. Late-bloomed media history & folklore PhD @UNC Chapel Hill. Long-time professor at Missouri School of Journalism where I edited Visual Communication Quarterly and chaired the Race Relations Committee in time of turmoil. Received National Endowment for Humanities grants to support four decades of research into photographs made in the Jim Crow-era of my hometown, also known as Possum Town. In 2022, UNC Press with Duke University’s Documentary Studies published my O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
To focus and set boundaries: whether it’s writing a scene with dialogue. Or describing the physicality of a person, place, animal or object. Or interleaving a tight summary of the news. Or knowing when to stop reporting, writing, and revising. As a journalist, I enjoyed a free-range chicken approach. I’m an omnivore. I go where I’m compelled to go. Or where an editor sends me. Even today, I can have focus problems. An addictive love of winding narratives, my own and others, is a blessing and curse. See James Agee’s letter to his mentor Father Flye: “Without guidance, balance, coordination, my ideas and impressions and desires, which are much larger than I can begin to get to paper, are loose in my brains like wild beasts of assorted sizes and ferocities, not devouring each other but in the process of tearing the zoo to parts.” To avoid such chaos, I’ve posed three questions since the 1980s: What’s the story? What’s the point? What’s the news? I ask myself that today, as when I worked with a writer named Chip Scanlan and our job was turning out, on deadline, cinematic and newsy narratives at the Providence Journal. In every situation, I stay alert to William Faulkner’s admonition about “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
Jane Yolen’s book “Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft” inspires me to say this: More than a half-century after my Mississippi days as a teen-aged editor of my high school newspaper, of laying out inky hot-type of words and pictures in metal trays, I remain delighted by the joy of writing. Yes, there are frustrations, troublesome situations and challenges. But I love that reporting, research, and writing allows me to discover the world around me, at once miraculous, scary, and sublime. As a journalist, with biologists, I uncover bears in snow dens in Maine or track endangered frogs in California’s San Gabriel Mountains. I hike Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mt. Katahdin in Maine. I investigate New England mobsters, write about the Ku Klux Klan, or listen deeply to stories of Hmong refugees who’ve lost relatives to “midnight death syndrome” in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
As a documentarian/archivist, I interview with my storyteller wife Milbre Burch, tellers in Hawaii or on the Navajo Reservation or in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As scholar, I write book chapters on magazine history and photography; encyclopedia entries about Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo and New Journalism, civil rights icon Medgar Evers and composer William Grant Still, and essays and book reviews. I continue to write because I must, must explore subjects that intrigue me, must tell others the stories I discover. Through writing, I can have the transcendent experience that Gabriel Garcia Marquez invokes:
“Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.”


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

Marathoner. In my case, Marathon Man. Since the 8th grade, I’ve considered myself a runner, albeit now a slower jogger than earlier. I’ve run marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks. About 5 years ago I adopted Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway’s approach: warm up, run, take short walk break, run some more, take another short walk break, and so on. That’s how I finished my marathon in Los Angeles, March 2022. That dovetails with lessons from Don Murray: “revision is a process,” and from poet William Stafford: “lower your standards until there is no felt threshold.” Revision follows drafting. In running, I trip on a root at night on a woodland trail when I’ve forgotten to wear my headlamp. On a hot day, I don’t carry enough water to drink and hit a sidewalk crack and fall, bloodying my forehead. Or I slip on a moss-covered rock near a stream. Elbows and knee get scraped and bruised. Another day, I go too many miles and fracture a foot bone. As with writing, I rest, recover, resume. It’s a process: reporting, researching, thinking, writing, revising, drafting, revising more, and resting.

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

Count words. As a teenager and college student, I counted words in my ledes. But Don Murray taught me more word count recipes. Yes, count words in first sentence, first paragraph, last paragraph, all paragraphs. Use your finger or pencil to touch each word. Slow down. Count words in scenes, dialogue, story chunks, to reveal proportionality of beginnings, middles and ends of sentences, sections. See the writing anew.
Word counts can measure daily activity, without particularly judging what you wrote on any given day: 750 words. 1,500 words. 20 words. Word counts reveal writing as a process, not product. How many words did you write today? Nulla dies sine linea. Never a day without a line.
Doesn’t matter if you wrote on a computer, typewriter, or used a pen, pencil, crayon to write on a restaurant napkin or legal pad. How many will you write tomorrow?
Connected with word counts, print out drafts. Write the counts on drafts in red, green, any bold color. Place pages on floor as a way to look at from above. Tape them onto walls, windows, or whiteboards. Use old-school TIME magazine approach with index cards or with a storyboard approach: paragraph by paragraph. (On the wall of Rowan Oak, his home, Faulkner painted in red the outline of his novel, A Fable.) Cut drafts into sections. Reorder paragraphs. Make
discoveries about structure, voice, focus, scene, beginning, middle and end. What’s missing? What needs to be trimmed? Expanded?