“With novels, it’s the first line that’s important. If I have that the novel comes easily. The first line determines the form of the whole novel. The first line sets the tone, the melody. If I hear the tone, the melody, then I have the book.”
Give credit where credit is due.
Plagiarism is theft, pure and simple, the purloining of another writer’s words.
No matter the excuse—sloppy note-taking, deadline pressure—the penalty can be harsh. Plagiarists often get fired, and even if they escape the ultimate death penalty, their career is tarnished, their story or book tainted. There’s an easy solution. Be honest about where you get your material. Don’t think everything you write has to be original. Writers stand on the shoulders of other writers.
Thomas Mallon, author of “Stolen Words”, an engaging history of plagiarism, says writers should follow a general rule: “If you think you should attribute it, then attribute it.”
The “Modern Love” column is one of the most popular New York Times features and a much sought-after credit for freelancers. Attaining that goal isn’t easy. Just one out of every 100 “viable essays:- “meaning essays that are reasonably well written and targeted to the column” are chosen for publication, says its editor Daniel Jones.
“Modern Love” is not just a writer’s prize. It’s the personal essay in its purest form, universal stories of “love, loss and redemption” told with uncommon skill and grace.
On Twitter, Facebook and Q&A, Jones has generously shared the requirements he’s established for serious consideration. Writer Laura Copeland has tracked these down and generously collected them in a Google Doc.
I was thrilled when I found this resource. I’m a huge fan of the personal essay, having published several over the years. I’ve taught it in numerous seminars, helping shepherd many into publications, and persuaded teachers to add the assignment to their curriculums. Jones’s observations and recommendations constitute a master class, rich with advice, much of it applicable no matter what form or genre you work in. It’s worth your attention but as it’s long, I’ll present a sampling here and recommend you read all of Jones’ good advice, linked below.
Remember why people read stories
“To find out what happens,” Jones says.
“Don’t underestimate the power of a reader’s curiosity, whether you’re writing a short story or a personal essay. Too often people give everything away at the start. In newspaper articles, you’re supposed to put all the important information at the top, right?”
Modern Love essays, like good fiction and narrative nonfiction, should unfold “a dramatic arc, with mystery and surprise. If the surprise in your story is the fact that your unlikely relationship led to marriage, don’t say in the first line: “I met my future wife at a cocktail party…”
Be generous with the reader…..but GRADUALLY.
In the many essays Jones reads every month, the same words, phrases “or stylistic tics” appear again. In other words, the worn-out use of cliches. They’re not just annoying, “they signal trouble with the writing to come.” Ever use any of these? Don’t if you want to avoid rejection.
- I’ll never forget
- I’ll always remember
- If I had to do it all over again
- A. Sentence. With. A. Period. After. Every. Word.
- I curled up in a fetal position
- I curled up with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s
If you’re prone to touting the power of your essay, “describing its plotline or listing your degrees and writing credits” in a cover lettter, don’t bother, Jones says. “I pay little attention to someone’s writing background when I read an essay. I don’t even have time to read a cover note that’s more than two sentences long…I judge a submission solely on the writing before me.” A perfectly suitable cover note will say nothing more than: “I wrote this essay with your column in mind. I hope you enjoy it.”
More than one at a time:
When I started freelancing in the 1970s, simultaneous submissions were frowned upon. The North American Review said it would never again consider a writer who sent a story to another publication. It was unfair. Writers could wait months for a reply only to get a rejection and have to start over. Considerate editors like Jones no longer have a problem with writers sending their essays to places other than the Times. With that in mind, I recently submitted a short story to a dozen publications.
But if you’re lucky enough to get accepted, let the other editors know immediately. There’a chance they’ll be impressed and look for your work in the future. One thing is certain, if you wait and waste their time they going to be “really annoyed.”
When the answer is No
Rejections hurt with any story, but hearing no about your personal essay has a special sting.”You may feel like it’d you being rejected,” says Jones, who’s been on the receiving end, too. What you may not know is that the editors are looking for a different mix, a fresh voice, a compelling angle, or heeding a suggestion to shift topics from their boss. As someone who once considered laminating his desk with rejection slips, I find his bottom line comforting: “There is no bar of quality to clear that then ensures publication in any particular column. Other factors will always be in play, and you can’t know what those are, so try not to let any one rejection paralyze you or even set you back.”
Jones recommends two books for those interested in mastering the personal essay::“The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative ”by Vivian Gornick and “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction” by Tracy Kidder and Kidder’s longtime editor, Richard Todd.
For models you can study, Jones has edited “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss and Redemption.”
You can read Copeland’s entire compilation here.
“Every morning between 9 and 12 I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper,” said the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, whose famous works include the novel “Wise Blood” and the story collection “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” “Many times I just sit for 3 hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: if an idea those come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it.”
There is only one way I know to get the writing down: be there.. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, or not feeling great (major illnesses and surgery excepting), writing gets done when the writer is in the chair. More than one of the writers I’ve interviewed recently for this publication have emphasized this. Award-winning mystery writer Bruce DeSilva said, “My years in journalism taught me that writing is a job—something you do whether or not you feel like it. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You just plant your ass in your chair and write.” It’s how he’s published five novels.
When Bryan Gruley pursues a nonfiction story in his day job as a feature writer for
Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, “doing the work means, for instance, looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story,” he told me. “As a novelist, doing the work is more about sitting at my laptop every morning and putting words to digital paper. Whether it’s 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a day, if I keep doing the work, I know I’ll eventually have enough in front of me that I can begin to see my way to the middle of a book and, finally, an end. I’ve heard writers say, “That story just wrote itself.” If only.” Gruley just published his third crime thriller.
Some days the words will come in a flood. On others, it’s like pulling teeth. While many writers establish a word count and refuse to get up from their desk until they hit it, I don’t think that’s necessary. There have been days where I look up and realize I have written 500-plus words. Stephen King’s word count is 2,000 words, but for me, those two pages are good enough, even though I realize I will have to revise them. Then there are the miserable ones where I have been lucky to eke out a few dozen. But as long as I haven’t missed a day, I am content. Writing every day, or whatever schedule you set, is a promise we make. In a previous life as a newspaper reporter, I had no choice. When deadline came, I couldn’t tell my editor, “Sorry, Boss, the well just ran dry today.”
In retirement, I have the luxury to put some of those demands aside. For the most part. My blog and newsletter need constant feeding. When I am writing as a contributor to Nieman Storyboard, which celebrates narrative writing, I have to produce a story, whether I am inspired or not. Nothing focuses the mind like a clock ticking toward deadline. You write and hope what you wrote hits the mark.
I usually circle the subject at first, convinced I have nothing to say. Then an idea for a lead comes to me. I write it down whether or not I think it’s any good. I need that opening to, in the words of John McPhee, “to shine a flashlight into the story down into the whole piece.”
After that, I start throwing paragraphs up on the screen. I lower my standards. I count the words. I hazard an ending. I let it sit for a day or two. Then I begin rewriting, a word here, a sentence there, shift paragraphs around, until it finally takes shape. It’s a process fraught with uncertainty. Each time I start, I fear this will be the time it won’t work. But it seems to, so I try to remind myself of that. “If you keep working,” sculptor Alexander Calder said, “inspirations will come.” I tell you this in hopes that it might bring you comfort when you face this self-doubt. If you keep at it, it will come.
“Writers are sedentary hunters,” said writing teacher Donald M. Murray. “We sit in our chairs, and like a hunter in a duck blind, must wait, sometimes in the cold, until our prey comes into sight.” Sitting in his chair every day, Murray produced more than a dozen books, and scores of When your prey comes into sight, are you there, ready for it?
“The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at the least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Either write or nothing…. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a: you don’t have to write. b: you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.
Avoid beginning a sentence with a dependent clause. They rob sentences of their energy and clarity. Not “While driving on Main Street yesterday, a tree fell on a motorist’s car, but “A tree fell on a motorist’s car as she was driving on Main Street yesterday.” Subject-verb-object is the engine of narrative.
One summer between college semesters, I spent a scary week standing on wooden scaffolding as part of a crew painting a triple-decker tenement house. I was relieved when the workday ended, and I could climb down from our perch 20-30 feet up in the air and regain the comfort of solid ground. The job done, we dismantled the scaffolding, packed the poles and platforms into our truck, and drove away, leaving a freshly-painted house, looking, if not brand-new, a lot better than it did before we began.
As a writer, I use scaffolding in my work as well.
I could have used it to begin this column. In fact, it’s how I started my first draft:
This is a story about stories that begin with the phrase “This is a story about…” That is, it’s a story about scaffolding.
Scaffolding is the “temporary framework of platforms and poles constructed to provide accommodation for workmen and their materials during the erection, repairing, or decoration of a building,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term.
In the writing trade, the poles and planks of scaffolding are words, phrases, and sentences that help the writer build. The difference between the folks in hard hats and those of us who bang on computer keys is that they dismantle their scaffolding while, all too often, we leave ours standing.
Writers — and our readers — would benefit if we took ours down, too.
This is a story about…
“This is a story about” is perhaps the most popular form of journalistic scaffolding.
In many cases, such as book reviews and marketing pitches, “This is a story about…” serves as a piece of necessary information. In news stories, however, it’s become the default lead, a quick, easy, and clichéd way to begin a story, as well as a favorite and flabby device to convey the story’s theme.
Stories need focus. We need to know what the story is about to effectively report, organize, draft and revise. But let readers decide what your story is about based on the evidence you’ve presented in ways that illustrate and buttress the theme.
If you believe your story is about corruption, for example, ask yourself what is the best example you have — the building inspector who lives in a waterfront mansion paid for with bribes from developers? — and then use that information to craft a lead that engages a reader’s interest.
Scaffolding is an essential part of the writing process. But as my former editor, Julie Moos, pointed out, “Just because it’s part of your writing process doesn’t mean it should be part of my reading process.”
Too many writers are reluctant to dismantle the scaffolding they needed to get started, to continue, to move from one point to another. Scaffolding helps us focus, organize, and assemble our ideas.
We put it up to get our stories down, but if we leave it there, we obscure the readers’ view with several varieties of pole and planks.
Questions. Here are three graphs in a deadline story I wrote about a rooftop drama when a police officer talked a would-be suicide out of killing himself:
The two men talked for nearly two hours as the sun began to fade.
What did they talk about?
“You know, little things, even the way he shined his shoes,” Lawton said. “Anything to keep his mind off jumping or shooting himself.”
I must have thought the question was necessary, and the desk let it stand, too. But I don’t think the reader needs it. A reader’s mind is equally equipped at furnishing scaffolding to make the bridge between thoughts. Give the reader more credit. Cut the middle graph and the story is five words shorter, and, I think, more dramatic.
The two men talked for nearly two hours as the sun began to fade.
“You know, little things, even the way he shined his shoes,” Lawton said. “Anything to keep his mind off jumping or shooting himself.”
Transitions. In the 1970s, the Wall Street Journal influenced a generation of newswriters with front page features that drew on a stable of transitional phrases — “Indeed,” “to be sure,” “what’s more,” “moreover” — to move a story along. They sound authoritative, the verbal equivalent of a supercilious nod. In most cases, they’re unnecessary. Take “indeed” — shorthand for “as a matter of fact.” It’s an adverb, the dictionary says, “often used interjectionally to express irony or disbelief or surprise.” In many cases, it’s used unnecessarily as well.
Parenthetical asides. In the first draft of this column, I used phrases such as “of course,” and “that is” to bridge my thoughts. I realize now that I was making these comments to the reader. “Scaffolding, of course,” is my way of saying “Hey, I know you know what scaffolding is, but I feel the need to present the definition for those who don’t.
Some scaffolds play a valuable role in published work. For example, the hourglass structure story form relies on a device called “the turn.” It’s the part of the story that follows the lead and signals the reader a chronological narrative is about to begin. Usually, the turn is a transitional phrase that contains attribution for the narrative that follows: “According to police, eyewitnesses described the event this way” or “the corruption cases unfolded this way, law enforcement sources say.”
Scaffolding is what we usually produce when we’re trying to get our fingers and brains moving. It’s part of the process of transforming ideas into language. But why not give our readers the benefit of some additional effort?
My first draft of this column produced a “This is a story about…” lead. Then, I recalled a piece of advice from Mitch Broder, a staff writer for Gannett Suburban Newspapers: “When something is the first thing that pops into your head, yours is probably not the first head it popped into.”
Reprinted from Poynter Online
“If you keep working, inspiration comes.”
Good writers are forever astonished at the obvious, like a toddler pointing everywhere and asking, “What’s that?” Bring a fresh perspective to your stories, giving them an excitement and energy that will captivate readers.
It was an all too familiar story. Another American factory closed down, the latest in a long line of declines in manufacturing battered by foreign competition and automation. This time it was the giant General Motors plant, the mainstay of Lordstown, Ohio. For Graig Graziosi, a reporter for The Vindicator in neighboring Youngstown, it was yet another example of what he calls the “hollowing of the American dream” in America’s Rust Belt.
Graziosi’s editor assigned him to cover the last days of GM Lordstown, little knowing as he worked the story that his employer, the Vindicator, was about to suffer the same fate. This past August, a few months after his story ran, the presses of the 150-year-old Vindicator ran for the last time, a victim of anemic circulation and vanishing advertising.
In a highly personal longform essay, “When My Newspaper Died,” Graziosi chronicles his last days there while deftly twinning the paper’s demise with the end of a sprawling factory that gave its workers a middle-class lifestyle and created vibrant communities teeming with activity and rich with history. Youngstown is Graziosi’s hometown, and his story powerfully captures “a cycle of death and exodus” he’s witnessed over the years.
I interviewed Graziosi, now a freelance writer in Washington D.C., about the story, which was co-published by The Delacorte Review and Columbia Journalism Review., for Nieman Storyboard, This excerpt is reprinted with permission.
We talked about his approach to reporting about others through the prism of others, the challenge of first person narrative and whether he has lost faith in the newspaper he loves.
Here are excerpts from our conversation.
You do a masterful job writing about others through the prism of your own story. How and why did you choose to approach the subject this way?
Thank you. As a journalist, I’m most at home telling other people’s stories, so I think I naturally trend toward writing about other people even when I’m writing about myself. When I think of my time out west, for example, I think about the other people I lived with and their experiences as crucial elements of my time there. I couldn’t divorce their stories from my own and still tell the truth about that time of my life. Likewise, I couldn’t tell the story of my final weeks at the Vindicator without talking about the workers at Lordstown that dominated my life just before it happened.
I also wanted people to relate to my story. You mentioned earlier that there’s a risk in a piece like this of it becoming self-indulgent. If I just wanted to write about myself, I have a journal. For something I’m creating for mass consumption, I want it to serve a greater purpose than simply a place for my thoughts to bounce around. I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, so I tried to use the stories of those who could sympathize with my situation to strengthen the piece and give it a more universal appeal.
After a career in a business where “I” can often be a dirty word, why did you decide to write a story in the first person? What were the challenges? The rewards?
The story was always going to be a personal essay, so the first person perspective was pretty much built in from the start. I find most of the ways reporters try to write around the first person to be clunky and distracting. “This reporter” is just a bizarre way to communicate.
I’m pretty hostile to the distaste for the first person that we have in our business. I understand why we don’t write general news reports in first person and I’ve participated in endless conversations about language and objectivity. But first person writing is gripping, and intimate, and if I’m going to put myself out there, I figure I should just go for it and really try to bring the readers into my world as I’ve lived it.
In terms of challenges, the only one that stuck out was pacing. It can get boring quickly if you just have graph after graph of a writer pontificating, so you have to find ways to break it up. That’s why we jump across time periods or will momentarily shift the focus away from me to the UAW workers, or the Lordstown mayor, or the Jamaican immigrant for a moment. It’s like a relief cut when you’re woodworking.
What was the difference and/or difficulty between writing about yourself versus about others?
Writing about yourself can be tough because it’s not always clear what information is worth including. Moments you think are relatively mundane can be mined for gold and moments that are very defining in your mind sometimes just don’t fit. If you ask me what about the last several months was more world-changing for me — beginning a relationship with my girlfriend or sitting in a diner in Lordstown for an hour and eating a grilled cheese sandwich — I think it’s obvious I’d say my relationship. Yet that only gets a brief mention in my story, while my visit to the diner is like five graphs long.
I think it’s easier to write about other people for the simple reason that you have more emotional distance from the events being described, and can use that distance to exercise editorial judgment over which parts are critical to the narrative.
I admire your use of metaphors and analogies. “It felt as though we’d gotten a call from the hospital alerting us that a terminally ill loved-one was nearing the end. We knew it was coming, but it didn’t make the news any easier to hear” and “My parents and I knew different cities. They knew Youngstown when it was alive and so mourned it in death. I knew only after it had been taxidermied and forgotten in the attic.” Compared to how you wrote for your newspaper, is this your natural style or did you feel you had more emotional access to your own story?
I try to be careful with metaphors because it’s obviously easy to mix them and muddle your meaning, but I do think they’re powerful tools for helping build emotional familiarity with a concept. When I was writing for the newspaper I only wrote like that on a few occasions. But I would absolutely say the style you see in the CJR piece is indicative of my style when I’m left to my own devices.
Any skill I have at metaphor I have to credit to the many hours I spent listening to sermons back when I was a very active church-goer. Pastors almost always utilize some parable to segue into their weekly message, so I had weekly exposure to good and some not-so-good examples of how to weave a personal story into a larger message. During those days I used to lead a Bible study and would often try to replicate that style. It influences my writing to this day.
You can read the entire story and interview here.