Beware of Finishing: 4 Questions with Kevin Sullivan

Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Kevin Sullivan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior correspondent and associate editor for The Washington Post. He was a Post foreign correspondent for 14 years, then served as chief foreign correspondent, deputy foreign editor, and Sunday and features editor. He has reported from more than 75 countries on six continents. Sullivan and his wife, Mary Jordan, were The Post’s co-bureau chiefs in Tokyo, Mexico City and London. They won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the Mexican criminal justice system. They, with four Post photographers, were finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for stories about difficulties facing women around the world. Sullivan, reporting from Saudi Arabia, was part of a Washington Post team that was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Sullivan and Jordan also won the George Polk Award in 1998 for coverage of the Asian financial crisis, as well as awards from the Overseas Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan and Jordan are co-authors of Trump on Trial in 2020 (updated and published in paperback as “Trump’s Trials” in 2021); “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland,” a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2015; and “The Prison Angel” in 2005. Sullivan and Jordan contributed a chapter to “Nine Irish Lives” in 2018. Sullivan also contributed a chapter to “Trump Revealed,” The Post’s 2016 biography of Donald Trump.

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

Beware of finishing. I love to finish things, the satisfaction of accomplishment. That’s fine when you’re mowing the lawn, but it’s dangerous when you’re writing. I’m too quick to call something good. Good enough. Done. Mary Jordan, my wife and writing partner, doesn’t ever consider a piece of writing complete. She fixes and fixes, then fixes the fixes, then starts again. She’s taught me to beware of the cheap charm of the finish line.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The lifelong satisfaction of it. I stumbled into journalism because I loved to write and didn’t know what else to do with that fact. Writing has taken me and my family around the planet and into the lives of amazing people.  And they still pay me to do it.

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

A card dealer. I love sitting down to write with a cup of coffee, notes, thoughts, a plan. Then I start flipping cards in my head, looking for the words. Sometimes I bust. Every so often I hit a royal flush. I love the serendipity.

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

Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut. No matter how much you love a phrase or sentence you wrote, or how hard you worked to land some key fact, remember that the piece may be sharper and more powerful without it. Simple and true.

Craft Lesson: Libel Pains

Craft Lessons

The very word strikes terror in the heart of every journalist.

Libelpublishing false statements that expose someone to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule in writing or pictures—can trigger a costly lawsuit or the possibility of a hefty payout to settle the case. Originally limited to newspapers, it now includes broadcast news on radio and television. Slander is another form of libel that involves oral communication.

In 2017, Disney, the parent company of ABC News, settled a $1.9 billion libel lawsuit by paying a South Dakota beef production company $177 million. At issue was a 2012 broadcast that described a type of meat filler used in ground beef as ammonia-treated “pink slime,” once used only in dog food, according to the broadcast story and news reports. Disney’s insurers, the beef company said, paid the remainder of the total undisclosed settlement. The company, which maintained the filler is 100% beef, said it lost millions in sales and had to lay off 700 workers.

While such cases get big headlines, the reality is that routine stories that are insufficiently checked are behind most libel actions.

The bar is higher for public officials, and public figures—those who hold no office but are widely known. They must prove that the news organization knew the statement was false and published it anyway, known as “actual malice.” 

Failure to prove that led a federal judge to dismiss former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s 2022 lawsuit against The New York Times over an editorial linking her political rhetoric to a mass shooting. The editor in charge acknowledged he moved “too fast,” but insisted he didn’t act out of malice, just carelessness. The paper immediately put out a correction.


To prove they have been libeled by a  news organization, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a person must demonstrate six things:

1.    Publication in a newspaper, broadcast, or website.

2.    Identification. The person doesn’t have to be named if their identity—a local coach, say—is clear.

3.    Defamation that exposes a person to hatred and ridicule or injures her business. (Libel suits are often called defamation actions.)

4.    False. Were the allegations false?  Even an altered or incorrect quote can be false.

5.    Fault. Did the publication know the story was false and defamatory and publish it anyway?

6.    Injury/ Harm. The heart of a libel action is that the person’s reputation suffered injury, stated in dollars.


Even winning a libel suit can be costly. 

In 2021, a federal court judge threw out a libel suit clearing Reveal, a nonprofit newsroom run by the Center for Investigative Reporting, from charges that it defamed Planet Aid, an international charity that received federal funds.                                                                                                                                                                 Reveals reports linked the charity to an alleged cult and questioned its spending.

While the judge’s decision is an unequivocal legal win for Reveal, it took more than four-and-a-half years and millions of dollars to get there,” wrote Reveal’s general counsel, D. Victoria Baranetsky, in an article about the case in Columbia Journalism Review.

Frank Greve, an investigative reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers and a former colleague, beat back a libel suit, but he still called the experience “20 months of acute professional anxiety.” In his case, truth, as it is generally, was the best defense against a libel action.

But that doesn’t cover everything, as I discovered when Frank shared the lessons he learned with me:

  1. The tougher the story, the more generous a reporter should be in allowing its target to have his or her say.
  2. Reporting findings is more useful to readers than reporting conclusions. Distinguishing between findings and conclusions is libel insurance.
  3. Check all numbers. Check them again. Then get someone else to check them.
  4. If the target won’t comment, send a letter with your questions well before you publish. Follow up with a phone call. It’s impressive evidence of a reporter’s intent to be fair.
  5. Do some reporting on your sources’ motives.
  6. Listen to your inner voice that asks incessantly: Is what I’m writing fair?

Making Surprises: 4 Questions with Mary Jordan

Mary Jordan writes about national political issues for The Washington Post. She spent 14 years abroad as a foreign correspondent and Washington Post co-bureau chief in Tokyo, Mexico City and London. She has written from more than 40 countries. She and her husband and Washington Post colleague, Kevin Sullivan, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their investigation of the Mexican justice system. Jordan has taught journalism at Georgetown University, and she spent a year studying at Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship and a year at Stanford University studying Spanish. She has been on-site covering many of the biggest stories of our time, including women’s rights in Pakistan and the 2016 presidential campaign. After the election, she spent months talking to the voters who elected Donald Trump. She and Sullivan have written two books together: “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland,” which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2015, and “The Prison Angel” in 2005. Jordan is also the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump,” published in 2020. She also contributed to “Trump Revealed,” a Washington Post staff biography of Donald Trump published in 2016; and “Nine Irish Lives,” publishing in March 2018. She was the founding editor and moderator of Washington Post Live, which organizes current affairs forums and debates. In 2016, The Washington Post honored Jordan with the Eugene Meyer Award for distinguished service, based on the principles of the paper’s legendary former owner: Tell the truth for the public good and always be fair.

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

Good writing is clear thinking. It’s jotting down what you have learned.  Great writing is clear thoughts set to music – words and phrases and sentences with rhythm.  

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That some people actually enjoy writing. I find it hard, even after all these years.  I do love having written. Writing to me is like exercising. I find doing sit-ups and going to hot yoga hellish but appreciate their importance and enjoy the feeling when class is over.     

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

 A surprise-maker. Because the last thing writing should be is boring.  

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

If you are writing a book , don’t end the day when you hit a roadblock. Wrap up when you are excited about where you are going and see the path ahead. That way you start the next day with momentum.

Craft Lesson: Cut-and-Paste Jobs

Craft Lessons

Plagiarism, the theft of another writer’s words and ideas, is one of journalism’s cardinal sins. Ryan Broderick learned that the hard way.

In 2020, he lost his job as senior reporter at the news website BuzzFeed after an investigation determined 11 of his articles had been plagiarized or incorrectly attributed to other sources, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“It is BuzzFeed News’ policy that nothing may be copied, pasted, and passed off as one’s own work, and that all quotes should be attributed,” Buzzfeed’s Editor-in-Chief Mark Schoofs wrote readers. “We regret that in these instances those standards were not met.”

Journalists had been stealing words before, but the cut-and-paste functions on word processors that emerged in the 1970s have made it a snap to lift another’s prose.

At a time when so much research is conducted on the internet, some journalists find the allure of purloined words hard to resist.

You’re researching a story on the internet and come across a well-crafted sentence or paragraph that fits your piece perfectly. It’s better than anything you have.


You’re tempted.

With a few keystrokes, you could easily lift the material and paste it into your story. You can change a few words around, thinking that the theft won’t be obvious. Or you come across a lively quote. This time, you pass it off as your own.

“Never plagiarize,” the Society of Professional Journalists’ Co of Ethics says flat out. Your news organization probably echoes the sentiment in its stylebook.

And remember, the same computer systems that embolden word theft can also be turned on the offender by searching databases f borrowed materials.

The common excuses plagiarists trot out—haste, sloppy no taking, deadline pressure—won’t always save you. Plagiarism can be the equivalent of a career death sentence.

The ethical choice, and one that will protect you from dire punishment: do your own original reporting. If you still want use another’s words directly, attribute them to the source, paraphrase them and include where the information came from.

There’s a simple solution, one that I lay out in my journalism textbook “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century “If you think you should attribute it, then attribute it,” says Thomas Mallon, author of “Stolen Words,” an engaging history of plagiarism.

“Manage your time wisely,” my book continues. “Plagiarism is a desperate act. Writers behind on a deadline, exhausted, anxious, may delude themselves into believing that what they’re doing is nothing more than a shortcut. Be honest about where you got your information.”

If Ryan Broderick had followed the rule, he’d still have his job.

Go. Do. See. Be Present: 4 Questions with Russell Working

Russell Working

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

Go. See. Do. Be present. Participate. Observe. Make your writing more than a desk job. Make it a journey of exploration: Teddy Roosevelt up the Amazon, Ernest Shackleton on the frozen Weddell Sea, Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream, Tanzania. Don’t just imagine, don’t rely on the internet; go find the scenes you are writing about and talk to the people who can give you insight into your characters. Investigate the worlds you want to bring to light, whether it’s a corner barbershop or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

If you are writing a murder mystery, do you know how your villain’s firearm works? Have you loaded a pistol or a revolver and shot it on the range? If you are putting a sermon in the mouth of a preacher, have you listened to one lately, read the Bible or the Quran, played an audiobook version of Father Mapple’s stemwinder in Moby-Dick?

I tried to get at some of these thoughts in “Zola’s Horse,” a lecture I delivered at Vermont College of Fine Arts, later repackaged as an essay for Numero Cinq.

Man-on-the-street interviews are a genre that gets you out in the community. Yet working for a series of small and medium papers, I grew tired of gathering quotes on local issues from semi-informed everyday Joes. So I made a point of looking for people doing something that would be fun to describe. Get quotes about the city council’s new budget from the guy jackhammering the sidewalk or the panhandler tossing peanuts to the pet spider monkey he keeps on a leash.

Dave Barry revealed a mastery of this art in his Pulitzer Prize-winning piece for The Miami Herald, “Can New York save itself?”

“As Chuck and I walk along 42nd Street, we see a person wearing an enormous frankfurter costume, handing out coupons good for discounts at Nathan’s Famous hot dog stands. His name is Victor Leise, age 19, of Queens, and he has held the position of giant frankfurter for four months. He says he didn’t have any connections or anything; he just put in an application and, boom, the job was his. Sheer luck. He says it’s OK work, although people call him “Frank” and sometimes sneak up and whack him on the back. Also there is not a lot of room for advancement. They have no hamburger costume.

“Can New York save itself ?” I ask him.

“If there are more cops on the streets, there could be a possibility,” he says, through his breathing hole.”

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Winning the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1986, when I was twenty-six, the youngest winner of that prize. (The book came out a year later.) I was a reporter for a smalltown newspaper in Oregon, and although I was getting encouraging letters from The Atlantic and The New Yorker, I had never published a short story anywhere. When John Leggett, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, phoned me with the good news, my heart was pounding so hard, I could barely gasp, “Really?”

He seemed to take this as a lack of enthusiasm, and said, “This is a very major award, you know.” I croaked, “I … I know.” He hung up, no doubt appalled at my ingratitude, unaware that I was now leaping about my apartment. Then immediately I told myself it couldn’t possibly be true. It was a prank! But who knew I had applied? Not my old college friends. Not my fellow reporters at the paper where I worked; I kept my fiction writing to myself, fearing they would consider it frivolous. My girlfriend had proofread the manuscript, but she wouldn’t be so cruel as to get somebody to punk me like this. The next morning I phoned the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the receptionist laughed at my doubts and assured me I really had won.

I told our managing editor that I had grabbed the award and would be having a book published. He said, “Type up a brief.” I had to admit I was lucky to get even this, there being far less interest in my little triumph than all those meth lab busts and forest fires and school tax base elections.

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

A knight errant in full armor on a bicycle (see Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Why? My wife sees me as a lonely warrior, battling dragons when I get up at 4 a.m. every day to write fiction. (It helps that I’m an insomniac.) But there’s a ridiculous aspect to the whole enterprise, both in the audacity of imagining the minds of very different people, and in the graphomania that keeps one toiling for years on end for a lower hourly pay than convicts earn stamping license plates.

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

I had just graduated from college as an English major when I somehow talked myself into a newspaper internship on the Longview (Washington) Daily Courier. After a week of repairing my hopelessly roundabout stories, my city editor, David Connelly, sat me down in the morgue and said he was going to teach me how to write a lede. He got out a copy of the Wall Street Journal and pointed to the feature in the center column on page one.

Do it like that, he said. Grab the reader’s attention with the opening line, then drop in a quote, then add a “nut graf” telling the reader why the story was important. Of course, this would be too formulaic for fiction, but something about it connected with me as a literary writer. Establish a conflict right away. Add dialogue. Tell us the stakes—why this matters, what’s at risk for the central characters, why we should read it. Starting out strong is all the more important in the age of smartphones and streaming video. We are at war for readers’ attention. Strike quickly.

This editor also influenced my thinking in my answer to your first question. When Washington state passed a law requiring mandatory jail sentences for drunken drivers, Connelly came to me and said, “How’d you like to go to jail?” He had concocted a scheme to slip me in undercover; only the warden would be aware who I was. Cowlitz County Jail wasn’t Rikers Island, but I was terrified. Nevertheless, I said, “Sure.” I would spend twenty-four hours in cells that included burglars, wife-beaters, meth addicts, and a murderer. I emerged unscathed, and no doubt in far less danger than I imagined, but it made for a thrilling immersion into a criminal world unknown to me as a young writer.

Just Get the Facts: Four Questions with Jeff Pearlman

Jeff Pearlman is the New York Times best-selling author of nine books and the host of the Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast. His weekly journalism substack can be found at

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

Nothing is as important as I used to believe. I used to live and die with every word, every paragraph, every comma and period—and if an editor dared mess with my copy, I’d prepare for battle. Over time, I’ve come to understand three things: A. I’m not nearly as good as I once thought I was. B. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as I thought it did. C. The stuff that infuriates you as a writer—the reader almost never notices. Like, “You’ve ruined this story by [doing X]!” is almost always nonsense. So having those realizations set me free. And, I hope, made me better at this job. I take myself far less seriously.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

My dream from boyhood was to become a Sports Illustrated writer. It was everything I wanted. The goal of all goals. Then I achieved it at a fairly young age (I got to the magazine at 24) and sorta kinda came to the surprising realization that chasing a dream is oftentimes more engrossing than the dream itself. I arrived at SI in 1996. I left in early 2003. I loved it—but after a while, it grew sort of stale and repetitive. The dream was 50 years of SI bliss. The surprising reality: It lasted a mere six years.

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

I’m the chef who never likes his own food. I just find it really hard to not see the warts. I’ll read something I wrote and find every single regret. A word I accidentally used twice. A sentence that sounded better in my mind than it does on the page. On and on. I try making a meal to be served at Per Se, but most of the time it feels like a soggy Whopper Junior.

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

My first job was as a features writer at The Tennessean in Nashville. I was 24, straight out of college—and I couldn’t do anything right. Mistake after mistake after mistake. I didn’t listen to people, didn’t seek advice. I was just a cocky fuck. My editor, Catherine Mayhew, sent me to the late-night police beat. “Don’t worry about writing funky ledes, don’t worry about impressing anyone. Just get the facts.” It changed my life.

Craft Lesson: Adjust Your Attitude

Craft Lessons

When I think of the hundreds of journalists I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it was their attitude that made them special.

Five decades of working with writers and editors have convinced me that attitude—a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior—matters more than talent. 

Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room.

Journalism is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding of structure, and facility with language, syntax, and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and above all, patience. 

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell cited research that found achieving mastery in any field requires 10,000 hours of work. There’s no doubt that becoming a good journalist takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. “Do the work,” no matter how tedious, is Bryan Gruley’s mantra when he wrote long features for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine and now as the author of thriller fiction.

Without the right attitude and the willingness to make that commitment, the chances of success are slim to none. 


David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, best-selling author and associate editor of The Washington Post. But what I remember best was what he had to say when I interviewed him after he won a $10,000 American Society of Newspaper Editors award for deadline reporting. 

His prize-winning 1996 story—about the return of government officials killed in a plane crash to Dover Air Force Base—was a stunning meditation on fate and loss reported and written in a matter of hours. 

The weather was cold and miserable. Maraniss wound up with pneumonia. But he covered the story like an eager intern. 


Maraniss often devoted months to investigations and series. But when news broke, he was one of the first to pitch in.

“Usually when there’s some kind of major event happening, I either volunteer to help out, or they ask me,” he told me. “Even if I’m doing a series, I say, ‘Look, if you guys need me, I’d be happy to do something.’ I try to be in a position to say yes…”

“So many reporters keep banging away at their editors and having frustrating confrontations about what they have to do or don’t have to do,” he said. “I’ve always found it much more effective to do what I want to do by doing some things for them. There’s a fair exchange.”

In a field where so much—success and rejection, for starters—is out of a journalist’s hands, attitude is one thing we can control. We can decide whether to offer help, as Maraniss did, to procrastinate or commit to one more revision or learn from others, rather than be consumed by jealousy about their achievements. 


  • Attitude makes the difference between giving up and sticking with a story.
  • Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft, burrowing into your story one more time to refine and polish it.
  • Attitude means fostering a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.

In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success.

It’s Not About Fixing the Copy: Four Questions with Alexandra Zayas


Alexandra Zayas is a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, running a team of reporters and overseeing senior editors of its global public health and visual storytelling teams. Since joining ProPublica in 2017, stories she edited have won two National Magazine Awards, two George Polk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. She worked at the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years, ultimately as the newspaper’s enterprise editor. As a reporter, her investigation into abuse at unlicensed religious children’s homes won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. She also teaches investigative journalism at Poynter.

Alexandra Zayas/Photo courtesy of The Poynter Institute

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

Editing isn’t about fixing the copy in front of you, it’s about squeezing the best possible version of the story out of the universe by helping the writer to see it and capture it. What that help looks like will vary between individuals and fluctuate for the same writer at different points in the process. A big part of the job is removing obstacles, especially those that are self-imposed. One writer may need help seeing the forest for the caveats. Another may need reminders to get inside subjects’ shoes and hearts. Editing is knowing when to stay out of their hair and when to give them a nudge, when to insist they keep pushing for the impossible and when to let them cut bait. It’s making sure they feel comfortable arguing with you and recognizing when they’re right — but also recognizing when, amid a nasty bout of 11th-hour second-guessing, the writer is just tired and hangry; then, you send them a sandwich. You can’t do this job without legitimately loving these people and living for their victories and growth.

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

How different editing is from reporting and writing. An editor is a trusted partner, a blind-spot detector, a high-stakes decision maker, a structural engineer. You do a lot more thinking about what you don’t see, what’s in the negative space: What Achilles’ heel might this premise have? The language is beautiful, but is the logic sound?

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

A writer once called me Spanx because of the way I compress flabby prose. I hope I’m also like a camera drone that helps you see above the weeds and a construction site boss who knows when the scaffolding can come down.

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

Sometimes, you won’t see the perfect path from day one. You might be paralyzed by fear when you open a draft and the next step isn’t obvious. Learn to slow down, talk through the problems with the writer, roll the ball forward and trust the process. (Hat tip to Adam Playford for this great advice, which he likely won’t remember giving.)

Craft Lesson: The Power of Omission

Craft Lessons

When a lookout on the Titanic sounded the alarm, “Iceberg right ahead,” on April 14, 1912, what he feared was not the jagged tops of ice that broke the surface of the North Atlantic, but the mountain beneath. That’s because only about one-tenth of an iceberg pierces the water’s surface.

The same principle—the theory of omission, or what Ernest Hemingway called ”the iceberg” theory—holds true in news writing. 

Effective journalists always gather more information than they need. By the time you’ve finished a 15-inch story or a 60-second broadcast package, you may have interviewed half a dozen people and pored over a stack of background materials, including sheaves of reports, press releases, statements, and internet research. 

Too often, we sink our stories with information we can’t bear to part with, even if it’s not relevant. “But I spent two hours interviewing the Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Non-Essential Information,” we wail. “I need four paragraphs to describe that room.”

When our editor says, “keep it short,” or the copy desk sends word to “trim by a third,” we moan. “I don’t know what to cut. It’s all great stuff.” 

Stephen Buckley, who shone as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, told me, “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story, so I overreport. Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”

“You can’t ever overdo it,” I replied. “You can’t overreport or research too much. But you can under think. You can under plan. You can under revise.”


What makes a powerful story is all the work that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many journalists fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that gives writing its greatest power: making every word count.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Writers write best with an overabundance of material, as my mentor, Don Murray taught me.

Alix Freedman always kept in mind her Wall Street Journal editor’s description of journalism’s essential challenge: “Distill a beer keg’s worth of information into a perfume bottle.”

That’s why the investigative reporter cataloged her reporting on a legal pad where she listed quotes, examples, statistics and themes she uncovered in her reporting.

Each got a grade. Only those marked “A” made it into print. Freedman’s aim was to “maximize impact,” to use “not just an example but a telling example,” she said. Not just a quote but “a quote on point.”

The power of a story comes from what’s not in it.

 It’s a paradox, one of many contradictions that lie in the journalist’s path.

But you ignore it at your peril.

The Pasta Machine: Four Questions with Frank Bruni


Frank Bruni has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including more than twenty-five years at The New York Times, the last ten of them as a nationally renowned op-ed columnist who appeared frequently as a television commentator. (His archive of columns, starting with the most recent, can be found here.) He was also a White House correspondent for the Times, its Rome bureau chief and, for five years, its chief restaurant critic. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Beauty of Dusk, which reached #5 on both the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction lists. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write his popular weekly newsletter for the Times (you can sign up here) and to produce occasional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 

That your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: “I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!” And then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume. 

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

I’m a pasta machine. I can pump out nothing edible unless I’ve put in lots of flour, eggs and water, by which I mean reporting, reading, thinking. I make only noodles – no rice – and only so many kinds of those. I can’t do David Remnick’s erudite agnolotti or David Sedaris’s inimitable farfalle. But my orecchiette aren’t bad. 

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

When you hit a wall, when you’re feeling blocked, step away from the computer. Take a run. Rub the dog’s belly. Read 50 pages of a novel. Watch a stupid situation comedy. Let your brain relax. Let it reboot. No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end. 

The Pasta Machine: Four Questions with Frank Bruni


Courtesy of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy

Frank Bruni has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including more than twenty-five years at The New York Times, the last ten of them as a nationally renowned op-ed columnist who appeared frequently as a television commentator. (His archive of columns, starting with the most recent, can be found here.) He was also a White House correspondent for the Times, its Rome bureau chief and, for five years, its chief restaurant critic. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Beauty of Dusk, which reached #5 on both the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction lists. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write his popular weekly newsletter for the Times (you can sign up here) and to produce occasional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 

That your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: “I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!” And then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume. 

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would iit be?

I’m a pasta machine. I can pump out nothing edible unless I’ve put in lots of flour, eggs and water, by which I mean reporting, reading, thinking. I make only noodles – no rice – and only so many kinds of those. I can’t do David Remnick’s erudite agnolotti or David Sedaris’s inimitable farfalle. But my orecchiette aren’t bad. 

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

When you hit a wall, when you’re feeling blocked, step away from the computer. Take a run. Rub the dog’s belly. Read 50 pages of a novel. Watch a stupid situation comedy. Let your brain relax. Let it reboot. No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end. 

Craft Lesson: Trust the Process

Craft Lessons

Growing up, I thought writers were magicians and I was screwed because I knew I wasn’t. 

Writing a news story as a cub reporter felt like hacking my way through a jungle. Panicked, sweaty, I flipped through my notes and flailed away at the keyboard, desperate to make deadline and convinced I wouldn’t. I kept my editors waiting, which frustrated them, but they got my copy eventually, flawed though it was, and it made it into the paper. It was a painful process without any clear direction behind it.

As the years passed, not much changed, until one day in 1981 when Donald M. Murray was hired as the writing coach at The Providence Journal-Bulletin, where I had gotten a job after journalism school. 

“Writing may be magical,” he told us at the first workshop, “but it’s not magic.”

I sat up straight and started scribbling in my notebook as he went on. “It’s a process, a rational series of decisions you make and steps you take, whatever the assignment, length or deadline,” said Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winner who taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire. 

That lesson was the most important element of my education as a writer. I didn’t have to be a magician after all.

By following the steps that produce effective writing, you can diagnose and solve your writing problems. Reporters and editors who share a common view and vocabulary become collaborators rather than adversaries.


 1. IDEA

Good journalists get assignments or come up with their own ideas. Editors expect enterprise and rely on reporters to see stories that others don’t.


Look for ideas in your newspaper and others. Look online, in social media and in discussion boards. Ask yourself, what would I want to read about? Ask people you meet what’s missing in your paper, in your broadcast or on your website.


Collect specific, accurate information. Not just who, what, when, where, and why, but how. What did it look like? What sounds echoed? What scents lingered in the air? Don’t be stingy with your reporting.


Look for revealing details. “In a good story,” says David Finkel of The Washington Post, “a paranoid schizophrenic doesn’t just hear imaginary voices, he hears them say, ‘Go kill a policeman.” Use the five senses in your reporting and a few other ingredients: place, people, time, drama.


 Confronted with a wealth of reporting, journalists can get lost in the weeds, as I did. Good stories contain a theme—best expressed in one word, like loss or corruption—that leaves a single, dominant impression. Everything in the story must support it.


What’s the news? What’s the point? What does my story say about life, about the world, about the times we live in? What is it really about— in a single word? Your answers point you forward, frame your story and tell your audience why it matters.


Generals wouldn’t go into battle without a plan. Builders wouldn’t lay a foundation without a blueprint in hand. Yet organizing information into coherent, appropriate structures is an overlooked activity for all too many journalists.


Make a list of the top five elements you want to include. Number them in order of importance. Structure your story accordingly. Or, organize to build dramatic tension. Identify the beginning, an introduction of a problem or challenge. Then establish the middle, where conflict increases. Finally, establish the ending, a climax and resolution to the conflict.


Discover by writing, learning what you know and need to know. Freewrite your first draft without your notes. Go back and fill in the blanks. 


Pulitzer Prize winner Lane DeGregory stashes her notes in her car before writing. “The story isn’t in your notebooks,” she says. “It’s in your head. And heart.“


Circle back to re-report, re-focus and reorganize. Good writers are never content. Find better details, a sharper focus, a beginning that captivates and an ending that leaves a lasting impression.

Role-play the reader. Does the lead make you want to keep reading? Does it take too long to learn what the story is about and why it’s important? What questions do you have about the story? Are they answered in the order you would logically ask them? Make a printout. Cut, move, add. Make the changes on your computer.

Trust the process. The magic will happen. 

Servant Authorship: Four Questions with Anne Janzer

Anne Janzer

Anne Janzer is the author of multiple award-winning books on writing, including “ˆThe Writer’s Process and “Writing to Be Understood.” She is fascinated by human behavior and cognitive science, and uses that lens to figure out how we can communicate more effectively through writing. As a nonfiction writing coach and developmental editor, she works with authors to get their best work into the world.

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

My single most important writing lesson has been learning to trust my process. It’s taken many years (and writing a book on the subject) to truly internalize this lesson.

My personal writing process evolved over years of freelance writing. Because I worked on a project basis, paid for results instead of time, optimizing the process made financial sense. I identified the steps that led to my most productive and successful projects. These included:

  • Diving into research as early as possible in a project
  • Using freewriting to explore what I already know and don’t yet understand
  • Practicing intentional incubation to get new insights 
  • Giving myself permission to write an imperfect first draft
  • Committing time and energy to revision

These steps deliver the best results, most consistently, in the shortest time.

But it’s taken me years to learn to trust that process. It’s always tempting to think that this time is different, that I can go faster by skipping a step. I nearly always regret it when I do.

Only after writing a book about the inner game of writing (“The Writer’s Process”) did I commit myself entirely to it. Even so, I sometimes find myself tempted to try a shortcut. But now I resist. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

When I was younger and dreaming of being a writer, I never envisioned my current path. I imagined myself working with publishers, publishing in magazines, going to bookstores, and being an “author.” 

Instead, I’m an indie author, which means I am also a boutique publisher, a project manager, a book marketer, and more. 

So, that’s been a surprise. The bigger surprise is how much fun I’m having! I love the challenge of operating in an industry that is in flux, looking for creative ways to reach readers, and helping other authors do the same. A couple of smaller presses have approached me about doing books, and I realized that I don’t want to give up the control. I’m having too much fun.

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

Writing, for me, is like baking bread, so I suppose I am a baker. 

I follow a general recipe, but don’t have complete control over the results. Unseen processes contribute to the final result, like the yeast in a healthy sourdough starter. 

My job is to gather the ingredients, work them into shape, and then set up the right environment. For example, while bread dough is rising, we keep it away from the cold to protect the delicate yeast. Similarly, when a first draft is coming into being, we need to keep it safe from the cold judgment of the inner critic. At some point it will be ready for hard critical work, like dough being pounded and reshaped. And we must know when to put it in the oven of revision, and when to pull it out. 

The better you get at managing these steps, the greater your success rate. Yet it still, sometimes, feels a bit like magic. 

And it’s messy. (I’m not a neat baker.)

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

Late in my senior year of college, after four years as an English literature major, I enrolled in a journalism class. I had some time in my schedule and figured that it would be fun and easy. After all, I was good at cranking out term papers and literary analysis, so how hard could it be? 

[Cue maniacal laughter.]

The teacher (whose name I have tragically misplaced) kept bouncing my drafts back to me for another pass. He challenged me to pare everything down, to cut to the essentials. Without remembering the exact words, this is what he taught me:

The reader may not get past the first paragraph. Tell them what they need to know—clearly and quickly.


For someone steeped in academic writing with its captive audience, the idea that someone wouldn’t even bother to read my words was a shock. It felt like someone pulled the rug out from under my writing desk, scattering pens and papers everywhere. It changed everything.

The reader didn’t owe me their attention! I had to earn it, to make their effort worthwhile.

Even though I didn’t go into journalism, that insight has stuck with me, growing more relevant with every passing year. It applies to nearly every kind of writing I’ve done: business writing, technical writing, marketing copy, and nonfiction books. 

This piece of advice eventually matured into my philosophy of servant authorship. It’s inspired by the servant leadership concept, in which a leader serves the team and the community. As authors, shouldn’t we adopt the same goal of serving our readers?

Whether I’m working with my own projects or other writers, I begin with two simple questions: who am I serving with this work, and what do I hope it does for them? This philosophy streamlines and simplifies everything, from deciding what to write and how to approach it to navigating publishing and promotion. Better yet, it de-stresses the writing process by keeping my focus squarely on the reader rather than on myself and my writing ability. It’s not about me at all. It’s about the reader.


Craft Lessons

In school, I hated numbers and loved words.  My verbal skills propelled me into journalism where math didn’t matter. 

Or so I thought.

When city officials raised property taxes, I needed to calculate a percentage rate on deadline. A press release, which reported statistics behind a new study, needed critical analysis to ensure they supported the findings. A person’s age or phone number for a festival had to be reported accurately.

Numbers in news stories—stock prices, inflation rates, city budgets, dates, ages, and addresses—abound. But all too often, careless or unskilled reporters and editors let inaccurate ones make their way into the news, says investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, who cataloged common mistakes: 

  • Millions confused with billions and trillions. 
  • Misplaced decimals. 
  • Assuming statistics in official announcements are correct when they “are often rich with math errors.”


There’s no room for illiterates in a newsroom, but innumerates—those uncomfortable with fundamental notions of numbers and chance—are everywhere. 

Fear of calculating can stop you dead in your tracks when you’re faced with the daily stream of figures that cross your desk or fill your inbox.

Math leaves some journalists feeling terrified, meaning they’ll accept figures from a source or a press release without trying to verify them. 

Getting numbers wrong about diseases or accidents can leave readers frightened without reason by journalistic hyperbole and open to fraudulent schemes. 

Journalism is crowded with math-phobes who told their professors, “If I wanted to do math, I wouldn’t have majored in journalism.” The result is a cascade of botched numbers and numerical errors that rank among the most common mistakes made by journalists, according to Craig Silverman, whose book Regret the Error, uses corrections to document the causes and effects of journalistic mistakes.

Two examples:

  • “How to… improve your swimming,” a story in the British newspaper The Guardian had this advice: find a pool “heated” to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The correction that followed noted that that temperature was below freezing. What they meant to say was 28 Celsius (82F).
  • The Wall Street Journal issued a correction for a recipe for a Bloody Mary mix after it transposed the amount of vodka and tomato juice, calling for 12 ounces of juice and 36 ounces of booze.

Readers and viewers notice when your numbers don’t add up. 

 Scott R. Maier, a University of Oregon journalism professor, surveyed 1,000 sources cited in math-related stories that appeared in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer.  They counted “an average of two stories with numerical errors in each newspaper edition,” according to his study published in the Newspaper Research Journal.“ What appears to be lacking,” Maier wrote, “is a willingness to question numbers that don’t make sense.”


Numerical errors come in three major categories, says Silverman: 

1.    Miscalculations or interpretations made by a reporter.

2.    A typographical error that misplaces a decimal point, adds a zero, or garbles  a phone number or date.

3.    Figures provided by a third party and passed on by the media without proper vetting.


Words, not data, make a story. Put your verbal skills to work at conveying data without putting people to sleep. 

  •  Comparison shop. Put a figure in context by comparing it to something else that people can grasp. “To store a gigabyte’s worth of data just 20 years ago required a refrigerator-sized machine weighing 500 pounds,” IBM says on its website. “Today, that same gigabyte’s worth of data resides comfortably on a disk smaller than a coin.” Sue Horner, an expert in using numbers, led me to this comparison.
  • Round off and substitute. Economists and financial experts need exact numbers. Readers don’t. If 33 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes had alcohol in their blood, it would be clearer if you say, “one in three drivers had been drinking.”


  1. You don’t have to be a math whiz to succeed and serve up accurate stories for your audience. Often simple arithmetic, a calculator, and close attention to detail can prevent the most common mistakes. You can find math resources online.
  2. Don’t be afraid to run your numbers by your source before you publish for accuracy, not censoring. Or to challenge them, if necessary. 
  3. Find a math-savvy colleague or friend to review your figures before you submit your story.
  4. Keep crib sheets—formulas for how to determine percentages, rates, etc.—close at hand as you work with numbers.
  5. Go back to school, using online resources designed to teach journalists how to do math.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming book, “33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Journalism.” Follow me on my Amazon Author Page to find out when it’s available. Thanks.

Telling Untold Stories: Four Questions with Yukari Iwatani Kane

Yukari Iwatani Kane

Yukari Iwatani Kane is a founder and executive director of Prison Journalism Project. She is an author, educator and veteran journalist with 20 years of experience. She was a staff writer and foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, and her book Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs (Harpers Business) was a best-seller, translated into seven languages. Yukari has taught journalism fundamentals, investigative reporting and the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University and was previously a lecturer at University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. At San Quentin News, where she still serves as an advisor, she developed a curriculum and reader for prison journalism. She is a member of Institute for Nonprofit News’ Emerging Leaders Council and is a 2021-2022 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow.

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

I remember listening to an NPR program several years ago where two writers were debating whether writing can be taught. I know it can be taught because I used to be a terrible writer. But I’ve also learned that it’s hard work, it’s a messy process, and it always will be.

I’m a better reporter than a writer. I’m good at research, I have a keen eye for observation, and I can get people to open up. I’m also pretty good at coming up with story ideas. But put me in front of a computer to write my story, and I crumble. I might spend hours agonizing over one sentence, sometimes even one word. And even though I care deeply about my writing, my first draft is so bad it makes me want to cry.

Over the years though, I’ve learned that almost every writer I admire goes through a similar process. It helps to have talent for sure, but every gem of a story you come across that you might wish you’d written is the result of lots of blood, sweat and tears — and probably the help of a good editor.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I became a journalist because I wanted to tell stories about people and communities that wouldn’t be seen or heard otherwise, and I used to think that would be something that I needed to do myself. But 20 years into my career, I’m realizing that I can also make a difference as an editor.

About five years ago, I started teaching journalism at San Quentin State Prison in California. Every time I went in, I would come across amazing stories, but none of them were mine to tell. I couldn’t do them justice as an outsider. That led to my current work at Prison Journalism Project teaching incarcerated writers the craft of journalism and writing, working with them to develop their story ideas and editing their stories, so they resonate with readers outside.

I never thought of myself as an editor, but I really enjoy it.

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

I wanted to come up with a clever metaphor, but the truth is that I think of myself as a psychologist. I like to step inside my sources and the characters in my stories and imagine what it might be like to be them and try to see and understand the world from their perspective. In my research, I look for information and background that gives me insight into who the person is. That leads me to people in their lives that might be able to shed light in an interesting way. I am always observing and assessing people and situations, looking for clues as to who they are. Before I can write about someone, I need to feel like I understand them.

Nothing gives me more satisfaction than identifying the one feature or item that best defines a person. When I was reporting on a factory girl in China, I noticed she had braces. That said more to me about her ambitions and dreams than anything she could say.

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

The biggest influence on my writing has been Tom French, who was my writing coach when I wrote “Haunted Empire.” He taught me many things, but there were two lessons in particular that profoundly changed the way I write.

The first is to think of my pen (or keyboard) like a video camera when I’m telling a story. I zoom in on aspects of a scene, and I pan out to describe the overall picture, but I never jump back and forth because I don’t want to give the reader whiplash. When I write, I think cinematically. This allows me to get my sequencing right without getting too technical about it.  

The second is this: Readers are always looking for an excuse to quit reading. That means the last word of every sentence needs to be powerful enough to compel someone to read the next sentence. The last sentence of every paragraph has to be powerful enough to compel them to read the next paragraph, and the last paragraph of every chapter has to compel them to read the next chapter.

Tell Me an Article, Daddy

Craft Lessons


 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.”

 “Sheesh, how the heck did that story get on the front page? (This always refers to another journalist’s work.) 

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 Feb. 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.

 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 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 narrative 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 Ahmad Arbery, a Black man, by three white men in 2020 while jogging through their suburban Georgia neigbhorhhod.

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. It’s a feat that teenage Maud also intends as a message to his coaches, his teammates, and all else that ain’t hitherto hipped: Don’t test my heart. Some of those teammates smash their fist to their mouth and oooh. Others slap one another’s pads and point. An assistant coach winces and runs to the aid of the tackled teammate. And the head coach, well, he trumpets his whistle. “Why’d you hit him like that?” he hollers. “Save that for Friday. Let’s see you do that on Friday.”

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. Stories 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.  

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 write stories, as Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal, described it, that reveal the “joys and costs of being human.”


         •      Newspapers are full of stories waiting to be told. Police briefs, classified ads, obituaries, the last two paragraphs of a city council brief; all may hold the promise of a dramatic story. Mine your paper 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 council story through the eyes of the Asian-American who asks for better police protection in his neighborhood.         

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

Threads of Literary Citizenship: Four Questions with Elaine Monaghan

Elaine Monaghan

Elaine Monaghan grew up in Scotland and joined Reuters’ graduate journalism training program in London in 1993. Reuters posted her to Moscow, Kyiv, Dublin and Washington, where she followed Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell for three years. She decided that moving countries every two years was a bad parenting choice and became a Washington correspondent for The (London) Times, where she also penned a column, Abroad in America. She later co-authored a memoir with CIA officer Tyler Drumheller, a behind-the-scenes look at how the Bush Administration misled the public to justify invading Iraq. Monaghan covered foreign policy for Congressional Quarterly and wrote for CQ Weekly magazine. She has blogged for Microsoft UK about the election that produced President Obama, lived in Poland for three years while her husband served as an ambassador, and worked for a progressive, strategic communications firm where her main client was Amnesty International USA. In 2014, Monaghan joined the faculty of The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington. As a professor of practice, she teaches courses in data, ethics, reporting and writing, and serves as coordinator for the school’s news reporting and editing concentration. She is a correspondent for News-Decoder, a not-for-profit news service and forum for young people, and co-education lead at the Observatory on Social Media.

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

I’ve loved reading and creating written words since I was a child. Fifteen years as a foreign correspondent, and a decade otherwise occupied in the trenchers of journalism taught me that writing takes real labor. I might have churned stories out in minutes, but it felt like it was happening in slow motion. I sweated over every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and still lose sleep over that intro that wasn’t quite right.  In my 50s, I have turned my attention to creative nonfiction, memoir and autofiction. I still sweat over every word, though now I have the luxury of time and life experience, and now I often put it back on the shelf because I think it needs to mature for at least another couple of years. Does that make me a lesser writer than when I was a journalist being read by large audiences every single day? Not at all. I think I’m a much better writer now. 

The main lesson I’ve learned as a writer is that life is not a popularity contest. Put another way, if you are committed to telling stories with words on a page, and to improving your craft no matter who is watching, you are a writer. If people read you, that’s a bonus. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

In late 2019, after five years teaching writing and reporting at The Media School at Indiana University, I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program at Mississippi University for Women, determined to make space for a writing life. I was participating in my first writing workshop when the pandemic hit. I got sick and wrote about it. That’s how I had what I consider to be my first creative piece published in 40 years.

The most surprising thing about my writing life, though, is not that I had a 40-year gap in it that was filled with writing. It’s that choosing a writing life is not really about writing at all. It’s about friendship. It’s about the people I think of as my writing family, which includes my actual family both here in the US and back in my homeland, Scotland, the friends around the world I talk to in person, by phone, WhatsApp or Zoom, people I trust enough to look at my writing – to look at me, even if we’ve never met in person, which is often the case – and to care enough to tell me what works and what doesn’t. 

The most surprising thing about my writing life, then, is that it has taught me more than any other experience what true friendship looks like, and a big part of it is service, which I see in the idea of literary citizenship.. Literary citizenship threads through my life, in friendship, teaching, learning and good neighborliness.

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


I mean it as a noun and a verb. When I am writing, GReat! I am like the squirrels in my back yard running furiously up and down trees and sending acorns clattering across the roof. Sometimes they just stop and stare. Perhaps they’ve just had a brilliant idea about where to get their next stash of acorns, or maybe they’re puzzling over which tree to go to next. Sometimes they lose their grip on the acorns and they go flying. Sometimes they eat them on the spot.

Sometimes squirrels squirrel and hide their acorns in exactly the right place in the earth so they can find them later.

Some acorns get eaten right away and some don’t. The ones that get used up right away germinate fast or are damaged. The ones that get squirreled away are hardier and less imperfect. 

As I look for inspiration for stories now, it’s those hardier acorns that I go back to turn into stories with a longer shelf life. Much to my surprise, that process is immensely satisfying, even when my memories are imperfect, because when turned into fiction or autofiction, some of those hardy acorns are pretty okay.

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

I could trot out all kinds of things I remember from my Reuters training from the unforgettably brilliant George Short, RIP. Here are two.

  • When you don’t know what to write, just say what happened. (Recipe for lead-writing block on deadline. Saved me every time.)
  • Lie, cheat and steal. (In a nutshell: Pretend you want one thing from an interview when really, you want that and something else; borrow and take brilliant structures and story ideas and make them your own.)

But George would also have told me to be kind and show respect to my fellow human, and no doubt did, though I don’t remember now and it would have probably sailed over my ambitious, 25-year-old head. 

Data Journalism: Making Numbers Pop

Craft Lessons, Uncategorized

Mention the word data and many journalists look like a deer caught in the headlights. We’re word people, we say. Data is for geeks. 

That attitude denies your audience information in computer databases that reveal hidden secrets and compelling stories. It can cheat you of the chance to do the most exciting and important work in your career. 

“Data journalism matters because we live, increasingly, in a data-driven world,” Casey Frechette, who teaches and researches data journalism at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, told me. “The digitization of society means the emergence of limitless troves of information about how businesses operate; how citizens lead their lives; how governments run. In this sea of data, it’s easy to find ourselves adrift. Data journalists help us make sense of it all.”


  1. Acquire. The Washington Post used newly released tract level census data for an interactive database that shows, by typing in your address, how the racial makeup of your neighborhood has changed since 1990. 
  2. Query. The data journalist probes the stockpile of information, looking for story ideas in spreadsheets or to confirm key facts from traditional sources, like an interview with a public official. 
  3. Analyze. Using basic math and at times advanced statistics, data journalists find averages, establish ratios and crunch percentages. Sophisticated calculations can  establish correlations between two variables, such as tenant evictions and rising rents. 
  4. Visualize. “It’s vital.” Frechette says, “to enable people to understand what data means. That’s where visualization comes in, turning statistics into interactive maps and visual worlds.” 

Wall Street Journal reporters Joel Eastwood and Erik Hinton achieved that with an algorithm to compile lyrics from the Broadway musical hit Hamilton that enabled them to show how Lin-Manuel Miranda tapped rap and hip hop’s imperfect, internal rhymes to make musical history. It’s very cool.


Behind every statistic is a human being. Data journalists who don’t find them fail to connect their findings with their audiences. 

Numbers numb, according to psychologist Paul Slovic, who co-authored a 2015 study “The More Who Die, the Less We Care.” It concluded that “as numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action.”  

About 700 women die in America every year from pregnancy or delivery complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, making it the nation with the highest level of maternal mortality in the developed world. 

But how to illustrate the problem when most of these deaths are kept hidden by authorities? 

ProPublica and NPR reporters solved it by creating their own dataset of victims by scouring public posts on Twitter and Facebook and the crowdfunding sites, GoFundMe and YouCaring, and then using obituaries and public records to verify the women’s basic information. Working with student journalists from New York University, they reached out to family members.

“Lost Mothers,” the series they produced, features a gallery of 134 women who died giving birth in 2016 and 16 feature obituaries. It’s a heartbreaking example of how data journalists succeed by putting a human face on the numbers their computers churn out.

Keep Sending Things Out: Four Questions with Patrick Holloway

Interviews, Uncategorized

Patrick Holloway

 Patrick Holloway is a writer of stories and poems. He is the recent winner of the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award. He won second place in The Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and was the winner of HeadStuff Poem of the Year. He’s been published by Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, Carve, Overland, The Irish Times, The Moth, Southword, among others. His story ‘Counting Stairs’ was highly commended for the Manchester Fiction Prize. He has been shortlisted for numerous other prizes including: Bath Short Story Prize, Moth Poetry Prize, Moth Short Story Prize, Bath Flash Fiction Prize, Dermot Healy Poetry Prize, Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award (for both fiction and poetry) and the Alpine Fellowship for Fiction.

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

To keep sending things out. I remember when I first started, a rejection meant the writing wasn’t good, so I’d stop sending that specific poem or story out. With time I realized the importance of researching where I was sending my work. Also, being kind to myself in terms of my writing. Being tough with what was on the page but by no means taking away its worth. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

How difficult it can be. How, especially when you are not a full-time writer, you have to sacrifice other things in order to write. That can be challenging on relationships and on yourself. Difficult in terms of the craft, in terms of being disciplined and dedicated. Difficult in terms of rejections and self-doubt. Littered among the difficulties though are the joys of writing well, of surprising myself by winning some writing awards and seeing my words among those of brilliant writers I admire.

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

It’d have to be tennis-related — my other passion. Especially writing a novel now, I see it like watching a 5 set grand slam final. There are so many ebbs and flows, lots of layers, lots of backstory, tension, rivalry and conflict. The points themselves are the sentences, some are hard and fast, others full of finesse. Games are chapters. I suppose the win is getting a publisher. 

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

I think a huge shift in how I saw writing and my relationship to it came when I was in the U.S and I had a class with Karen. E. Bender. She told me after to think about doing an MFA. It suddenly made writing something altogether different, gave it stature. Also, I suppose, it gave me the belief I didn’t know I was lacking. 

Words Matter: Four Questions with Steve Padilla

Steve Padilla

Steve Padilla is editor of Column One, the showcase for storytelling at the Los Angeles Times. Padilla joined the Times in 1987 as a night-shift police reporter but soon moved on to editing. He has edited a wide variety of subjects—including politics, international news and religion—and helped guide the Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverage of a botched bank robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. He serves as a writing coach and devotes his Twitter feed (@StevePadilla2) to writing technique. Before the Times, he was a reporter for the San Diego Union and editor of Hispanic Link Weekly Report, a national newsletter on Latino affairs. He earned his B.A. in print journalism and history from the University of Southern California.

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

The biggest lesson came early in my editing career—while serving as editor of the Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California. That’s when I discovered what I call the megaphone effect. When you’re the boss, your words are amplified, both good and bad, especially the bad.

I was chatting with another editor about a story padded with a bunch of unnecessary material and said something like “it was filled with all sorts of extra crap.” The editor looked horrified and earnestly told me I shouldn’t say a fellow student’s story was crap. I tried to tell her that’s not what I meant at all—that I didn’t mean the story was crap. I was just using that word for “stuff.” Too late. The damage was done. As I look back now, I’m grateful that lesson came so early in my editing career because it saved me from unfortunate experiences in professional settings. This doesn’t mean withholding criticism or sugar-coating everything, but ever since that day in the Daily Trojan newsroom, I’ve remembered how words matter, especially if you’re the boss.

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

There have been plenty of unpleasant surprises in my editing career, but I want to share a good one: that the writers who supposedly resist editing actually will embrace it. But this attitude shift comes with an “if.” If the editing is specific, useful and backed by solid reasoning, even the grumpiest of writers will embrace it. (Well, many of them.) Part of the issue is presentation. For example, if I find the perfect opening for a story tucked away in the 25th paragraph, I never say, “You buried the lead.” I’ll say, “This is so good we have to move it up.” I’ve never had anyone complain about that.

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

May I share two metaphors—one that fits my day-to-day duties and one that expresses my ideal? The first is coach, and not a writing coach. Like a football or basketball coach, I’m standing on the sidelines, guiding, training, cheering, encouraging, sometimes disapproving. The other image is orchestra conductor. That’s my favorite relationship with a writer. I just stand in front of the orchestra and wave my hands around, but the players make the actual music.  Both coach and conductor relate to an inspiring comment about editing I learned reading “Max Perkins, Editor of Genius,” A. Scott Berg’s masterful biography of the editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among others. Perkins said an editor “releases energy.” Not creates, not controls. Perkins said releases. That’s the goal.

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

 The best advice I ever got concerning wordcraft—management is another issue–came from the late and legendary writing coach Jim Hayes. He said, “Put the best stuff at the end of the sentence.” Jim showed me how he could improve a sentence not by adding or deleting words, but by rearranging their order. I’m not shy about snipping or adding words. Sometimes that’s necessary. But I’ve found that if a sentence can end with gusto, that helps story organization, keeps the sentences bouncing and flings the reader into the next sentence. It’s such a simple idea but I’d never had anyone express it so simply. That was the other lesson from Jim: to offering writing guidance in clear, sentence-level terms.

Now a disclaimer, at least for journalistic writing: Yes, some sentences must end with “according to documents,” or “police said Thursday,” but the words just before those should be powerful, interesting or important. I’ve found that much of my coaching emphasizes word order and that the payoffs are almost immediate. And there’s another value to rearranging words, versus overhauling a whole sentence: it stills sounds like the writer, only better.

Craft Lesson: Knocking on Doors

Craft Lessons

Let me begin with an epiphany. In 1973, I was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, studying for a master’s degree. One day in the middle of a lecture, my professor, Melvin Mencher, casually said, ”If you’re going to be a reporter, you have to be counterphobic,” and moved on. 

My hand shot up. “What does counterphobic mean?”

“You have to do,” he said, “what you fear.”

Mr. Mencher didn’t know it, but he had struck a nerve.

Before I went to grad school, my journalistic experience consisted of only a year on a very small newspaper in Connecticut, where I grew up. I had a big problem interviewing people, whether they were hostile police officers who wanted nothing to do with the media, or perfect strangers I had to talk to for a story whether it was at a Town Council meeting or for a feature. Knocking on doors was especially tough. Frankly, I was really scared. Scared of rejection, of doors slammed in my face, of angry shouts of, “Beat It!” Even physical violence. (I had an active imagination.)

After that day in class, doing what you fear became a sort of mantra for me that guided my career for the next two decades as a reporter and beyond as a writer, author, publisher, and writing coach. The fear—of harsh rejection and failure—has never gone away. Honestly, I had the jitters this morning hoping my visit with this class today wouldn’t suck. 

In 1994, I left the newsroom for the classroom to teach at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida. One of my responsibilities was running a six-week reporting and writing program for recent college graduates. I soon realized that many of my students were afraid of the same things I had been as a reporter. So, I assigned them to head out onto the streets and interview five strangers. They had to get their name, address, age, and a comment on a current story. I could see the fear in their eyes, but to their credit, they did what they were told. 

When they came back, I had them answer three questions, 1. What did they learn from the experience? 2. What surprised them about it? 3. What did they need to learn next? 

Their answers were terrific. Here’s a sample. “​​I was surprised the most by the fact that I was able to get over my fears of doing the actual reporting. No matter how the writing of the story turned out, in my mind it was secondary to the fact that I knocked on all 18 doors on 56th Avenue S. I felt a little bit like an encyclopedia salesman, but I got over the nausea in the pit of my stomach by the fourth or fifth house.” That student, Steve Myers, went on to a sterling journalism career, leading investigations at  USA Today and a month ago, moving to ProPublica, the outstanding nonprofit investigative reporting group.

Many writers, working ones as well as students, experience the same fears, not only about interviewing strangers, but the entire writing process, from coming up with story ideas, pitching their editors, getting enough information, writing and revising the story, and being edited. 

But I noticed something different when I spent a year as a visiting professor at my alma mater, Columbia Journalism School, in 2009-10. More than a few of my reporting students were more comfortable surfing the Web for information, happier in front of a computer than going outside. To be a reporter. I told them, you have to talk with people, whether they’re experts or ordinary folks caught up in the news, whether it’s on the phone or the best route, in person. I love the internet, but it’s no substitute for coming face to face with a human being where they can look you in the eye and decide whether to open up. That’s the way you get great quotes and compelling details. 

“Basic reporting is not about looking things up on the Internet,’ says Carl Bernstein, who with his partner Bob Woodward at The Washington Post. helped drive President Richard M. Nixon from The White House in 1974 after uncovering his entanglement in the Watergate scandal.

 “What we need to be doing now is knocking on doors, getting out into the communities we cover,  persistence, perpetual engagement with the story, not taking no for answers,” he said in a recent podcast about his new memoir, “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom.” “Not going to easy places  like people in their offices where there are other people around and they’re liable to tell you a tale that isn’t true, but knocking on people’s door at  night like we did on Watergate.” (Learn more about their shoe-leather reporting methods in their book about reporting the Watergate story, “All the President’s Men,” later made into a classic movie.

When I would interview someone in their home, I always asked for a tour. No one ever objected. I got one when I was interviewing the widow of a man who smoked all his life and died of lung cancer as part of a series on tobacco injury litigation. She took me into her bedroom. I was scanning the room for a detail I could use. There was a small photo of him stuck into the mirror, but that wasn’t enough.  Suddenly Marie DeMilio said, “You know, at night, I sprinkle his aftershave on my pillow, just so I can feel close to him.” I had my ending and a moment I believe would never have happened if I wasn’t counterphobic and gone to her home. Certainly not something I could get on my computer. 

Journalism demands courage and that’s one of the aspects that makes it such an honorable profession. You can always tell safe stories, and there are safe stories all over the paper and all over the broadcasts. Think of a tightrope. Every day, walk across it. Who’s the one person you’re afraid to call? Where is the one place in town you’ve never been because you’re afraid to go there? It may be a poor neighborhood or the top floor of a bank. Ask yourself every day, “Have I taken a risk?”

Be honest: Are you spending too much time at your desk instead of being out in the community or the area covered by your beat? If you’re not on deadline, get out of the office right now.

People want to know how I cope with fear.

I take deep breaths, sucking in as much air as I can into my lungs, and slowly let it out. That relaxes me. I take a hot shower. I prepare, or over-prepare. I’ll record my fear in my journal and then make a point of check-in back, only to learn everything turned out okay. Some reporters drink chamomile tea to soothe their nerves

I remind myself that it’s always gone well before and of something my wife has told me for 40 years when I’ve been anxious. It’s going to be fine. She’s never been wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t face fear anymore.

Assertiveness reflects a belief in yourself and your role as a journalist in a democracy. You have the right to knock on doors, to ask questions, to approach someone for an interview, to request information. The flip side, of course, means that the person you’re asking has the right to say no. Assertiveness also demands empathy. You have to understand that you wield power as a journalist. Your press pass will get you places the general public can’t go. As a reporter, I’ve watched doctors try to impregnate a woman through in-vitro fertilization, sailed on a freighter, followed police on a drug bust and a seven-year-old blind boy through his day. 

What may surprise you is knowing that many people are terrified of journalists. Although it may be hard to believe, most people will be more afraid of you and the power you wield as a reporter than you are of them.

Consider what J. C. McKinnon, a burly, stern-faced St. Petersburg police officer, told my reporting students at Poynter:

“I carry a can of pepper spray, a Glock pistol and 51 rounds of ammunition. But you’ve got something that can destroy me: a pen and a notepad.”

When writer’s block—again, fear of failure—surfaces, my counterphobia attacks it with freewriting, letting my fingers race across the keyboard, never stopping to correct spelling or punctuation or even gibberish. Soon, something magic emerges: a coherent thought, a story idea, or an insight that I can follow and revise until it makes sense and grows into a story. It never fails.

Whether it’s talking to strangers or facing a blank screen, don’t be afraid. Or, rather, be afraid, but do it anyway. 

(Adapted from a Jan. 13, 2022 talk to introduction to reporting and writing students at Duke University taught by Stephen Buckley.)

Don’t Lose Heart: Four Questions with Madeleine D’Arcy

Madeleine D’Arcy/Photo by Claire O’Rorke

Madeleine D’Arcy is a fiction writer based in Cork City, Ireland. Her second book, “Liberty Terrace,” a linked short story collection, was published in Oct. 2021. Her début short story collection, “Waiting for the Bullet” (Doire Press, 2014) won the Edge Hill Readers’ Choice Prize 2015 (UK).In 2010 she received the Hennessy Literary Award for First Fiction and the Hennessy New Irish Writer Award.Her work has been published in several anthologies and her short fiction has been listed in a variety of competitions, most recently the Craft International Short Story Award 2020 (US) and the An Post Irish Short Story of the Year 2021. She has also completed a novel. Since January 2017, she has co-curated Fiction at the Friary, a free monthly fiction event in Cork City, with fellow-writer Danielle McLaughlin.

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

Talent is not enough. You also need patience and diligence. My advice to emerging writers is to take your time, learn your craft, read a lot, try to make your own work as good as it can possibly be – and don’t send it out until you’re sure it’s ready.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

In 2010, I won the Hennessy Award for Emerging Fiction and the Hennessy New Writer of the Year Award on the same night, with my first ever published short story. It was a surreal experience. I was absolutely shocked. To be honest, I was a bit drunk as well, because free cocktails were provided at the event and my reasoning was that I might as well enjoy the night and party on, since there was no way I was going to win.

Another big surprise was to win the Edge Hill Reader’s Choice Prize for my first short story collection, Waiting For The Bullet (Doire Press, 2014).

I never expect anything. It is probably best to have low expectations. A writer’s life will also involve fallow years, when life puts obstacles in your way. All you can do is persevere. The good times will always come around again if you don’t lose heart .

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

I figure I might be a bee. I buzz quietly around my own little patch of the world, taking an interest in what’s happening and quietly going about my own business. I am small and hard-working. It would be easy to underestimate me or ignore me, and I have had to deal with all kinds of drones and several obnoxious queen bees in my time, but I’m learning not to be such a push-over. Most importantly, in the end, after a lot of hard work, I manage to produce some fine honey.

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

I once did a workshop with the late, great Canadian writer, Alastair MacLeod (1936-2014). His novel, “No Great Mischief,” won the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award). He was a truly wonderful man, both funny and wise. He said “The best writing is specific in its setting, but universal in its theme.” I think that sums up
good writing perfectly.

CRAFT LESSONS: Ten Favorites

Craft Lessons

More than two years ago, I began posting essays devoted to the craft of writing. To kick off 2022, I offer this tidy collection of craft lessons that I think best suit the needs of all writers, no matter the genre or length, or deadline. May your writing go well in the new year.

  1. Why I Write, and Why You Should, Too.
  2. Tune Out USuck FM and Free Yourself to Write.
  3. Do the Writing Only You Can Do.
  4. Eight Steps to Better Interviewing.
  5. Finding Any Story’s Heart with Five Questions and 70 seconds.
  6. Five Ways to Build Memorable Characters.
  7. Braiding Your Narrative to Tell a Complete Story.
  8. Writing with Your Nose
  9.  Best Writing Advice: A Roundup.
  10. Gulp. And Go.

Holiday wishes and holiday books



Happy New Year! May 2022 bring safety, good health, and lots of reading and writing.

After a week’s holiday, I’m looking forward to starting the New Year by sharing new Four Questions with… interviews, Craft Lessons, Readings to Savor, and much more. Tomorrow’s interview is with award-winning New Yorker staff writer and author Paige Williams who discovers the universal by tracking the granular.

I hope the holidays brought you the best writer’s gift: books.
For Christmas, I got Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed novel “Crossroads.” I’m looking forward to diving in.

Please consider two writing advice books that I just published.  Both are available on Amazon in paperback and ebook editions through my author page or the direct links below.

Writers on Writing: Inside the lives of 55 distinguished writers and editors.  It’s an anthology of interviews drawn from two years of reaching out for Chip’s Writing Lessons to best-selling authors Susan Orlean and David Finkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Lane DeGregory, John Branch, Diana K. Sugg and Thomas French, acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Bruce DeSilva, powerhouse narrative editor Jan Winburn and 46 others that you first met here. 55 writers. Hundreds of Writing Insights. 111 journal writing prompts make it an interactive writing workshop.

“By asking four questions to 55 of our finest writers and editors, Chip Scanlan has hosted one of the greatest writing conferences you will ever attend.” – Roy Peter Clark, author of “Writing Tools”, “The Glamour of Grammar,” “Murder your Darlings.” 

“A marvelous book for writers, people who have a passion for writing, or simply, who want to become writers. Yet what strikes me about this book is that it is not just for writers only.” – The Blogging Owl 

Writers on Writing: The Journal” is a companion or standalone volume with 55 coaching tips, 55 inspirational quotes, like the ones you find here in the “Writers Speak” feature, and the 111 writing prompts drawn from the first book, along with three blank pages after each chapter. Here’s the place to start your day with reactions, stories, dreams. 


In this piece for Poynter Online, Roy Peter Clark wrote a tribute to writers who write about their writing and included the foreword to my first book, along with his Four Questions interview. 

And ICYMI, here’s my story behind the self-publishing journey that produced these two books and also provides a wealth of information for anyone considering that route to bring their books before the public.

My New Year’s resolutions for 2022: Never a day without a line. Publish more. Visit my local independent bookstore, Tombolo Books, in St. Petersburg, Fl. Support the independent bookstore in your community.

What are yours?


Please spread the word to sign up for Chip’s Writing Lessons.

Interested in personal coaching? Reach out to me at

Browse the newsletter archive. To find earlier issues, scroll to the end of the archive page, where you will find arrows that help you toggle back and forth between them.

Question? Comment? Suggestion? Email me at or send a reply to this newsletter.

May the writing go well, and may you be well.

Nulla dies sine linea / Never a day without a line

Black Lives Matter

Status update on my new book


4 Questions. 55 writers and editors. Hundreds of writing insights. 111 journal writing prompts.

That’s the formula behind my new book, “Writers on Writing: Inside the lives of 55 distinguished writers” available for sale on in paperback and Kindle editions. It’s the ideal holiday gift to yourself or for the writers, editors, and readers in your life, and after the festivities end.

Great news! Right now, it’s the #1 New Release in the Journalism, Writing and Reference categories on Amazon.

Its collection of interviews with 55 of our finest practitioners working today in journalism, fiction, and poetry delivers a panoply of insight, inspiration, and advice, which makes it an evergreen book, always there to give you a jolt of inspiration.

Contributors include best-selling authors such as Susan Orlean and Dan Barry; multiple Pulitzer Prize winners Lane DeGregory, Tom Hallman Jr., and Thomas French; award-winning mystery writer Bruce DeSilva; editor Jan Winburn, who has shepherded a long list of award-winning narrative nonfiction, including a Pulitzer Prize; acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, and Becky Blanton, a global TED Talk speaker and prolific ghostwriter.

You’re probably familiar with some of those names as the book is drawn from the “Four Questions with… interview series that poses the same four questions to subjects:

  1. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer/editor?
  2. What has been the biggest surprise of your writing/editing life?
  3. If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer/editor, what would it be and why?
  4. What’s the best piece of writing/editing advice anyone every gave you?

Their answers are as diverse as they are, inspiring, instructive, and entertaining.

By asking four questions to 55 of our finest writers and editors, Chip Scanlan has hosted one of the greatest writing conferences you will ever attend,” Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at The Poynter Institute and author of “Writing Tools,” wrote in the book’s foreword. “The answers from a rich variety reveal the complexity of the craft, with wide doors all of us can pass through on our way to growing as writers.”

And COMING THIS WEEK,” the second in the “Writers on Writing” series, “The Journal,” which includes 55 coaching tips, 55 inspirational quotes, 111 journal writing prompts, and blank pages to record your observations, thoughts, and feelings about your writing process.

I hope you’ll consider buying my books, which have been a labor of love and dedication to writers and their needs ever since I became director of writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at The Poynter Institute where I taught for 15 years.

Should you like to know more about the process behind the self-publishing adventure that produced these works, I point you to “Behind the Books,” a blog post on my website,, which features articles and two podcasts I appeared on.

I wish you and yours the happiest of holidays. Your support over the last two years, since I launched this blog, has been one of the best and most enriching experiences of my life. Thank you, dear readers.

May your writing and editing go well.

Warning: May Keep You Up All Night


A lot of great news and I’ve been remiss in not sharing it with you all. I’ve just published a new book, “Writers on Writing: Inside the lives of 55 distinguished writers and editors.” Available on as a paperback and Kindle version, it’s a collection drawn from the “Four Questions with… interviews that appeared in this online space over the past two years. The book also contains 111 writing prompts you can respond to in your journal. (Every writer should have one).

In a few days, that gap will be filled with “Writers on Writing: The Journal,” which comes with 55 inspirational quotes, 55 coaching tips and the 111 journal writing prompts, along with 3-4 blank pages you can use to record your thoughts, observations, story ideas, poems, stories; the sky’s the limit.

Having been dissatisfied with the marketing and promotion of my first three books, I decided to leap into the world of self-publishing with these books. And what a trip it’s been. You can read about my adventures—here and here— and walk away with a solid grasp of what self-publishing entails. 

In his foreword, Roy Peter Clark, author of “Writing Tools” and “Murder Your Darlings,” offered fulsome praise for “Writers on Writing”:  “By asking four questions to 55 of our finest writers and editors, Chip Scanlan has hosted one of the greatest writing conferences you will ever attend.” 

But as someone who stayed up late as a child, “sneak reading” with a flashlight under my bed covers, I was most heartened by a reader complaint on my Facebook page: “Chip, I got my book Monday and I’m a little bit mad at you because I stayed up way too late reading it! You did a great job.” Oh well, I’ll just have to take it on the chin.:)  

As a self-publisher, I have to wear many hats. So I’m going to don my publicist hat for a moment to suggest that the two books are ideal holiday gifts for you and the writers and readers in your family and among your friends. They’re instructive, entertaining and inspiring. Writing teachers, at all levels, will find them useful to engage their students in the process of writing. Writing groups would find grist for lively discussions. Amazon is shipping them at a rapid pace, sometimes the very next day, Perhaps they should come with a warning on the cover: May keep you up all night reading.                                  

Happy Holidays,


Craft Lesson: Keeping a Writing Workshop’s Spirit Alive

Craft Lessons

Over the years, I’ve attended dozens of writing workshops. I’ve taught at some, while at others, I sat in the audience, scribbling furiously as craft tips tumbled from the lips of accomplished writers and editors.

I’d come home, pockets crammed with business cards, piles of handouts, scraps of paper with jotted emails and reading lists, a notebook bulging with quotes and a contact high from a day or weekend surrounded by inspirational talk about my craft.

Invariably, however, the excitement would wither and I’d forget the great lessons I learned. 

The other day, I came across a column I wrote for Poynter Online after a National Writer’s Workshop in Hartford in 2003. Until the early aughts, Poynter teamed up with newspapers around the country to stage these weekend-long gatherings that brought writers and speakers together to share crucial lessons about writing and editing. Reading over the piece, I realized that keeping track of a speaker’s central message could keep alive the spirit of those heady two days. Here are ten lessons that stuck:

1. Identify an ambition. For Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down” and other best-selling narrative nonfiction, the secret of success lies in his habit of thinking big and doing stories that scare him. Try his method and pick a story “you’re not sure you can do.”

2. Figure out what your editor wants. “Editors are looking for ways to say yes,” said Debra Dickerson, who told the story of her rise from sharecropper’s daughter to best-selling writer. One easy way: ask your editor what she wants from you.

3. Put a snatch of dialogue in your next story. “Dialogue makes you feel like you’re actually there,” said literary journalist Walt Harrington. Start listening — and writing down — what people say to each other, whether it’s two council members battling over a proposal or two kids talking about their favorite Harry Potter “Bertie Bott” jelly beans. You can do the same with physical description, a scene, or any of the other elements of storytelling.

4. Dig out your copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lynn Franklin advised writers to do what scientists do: “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Harper Lee’s classic tale of racism in a southern town is full of lessons about how to write about characters and place; John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” can teach you how to foreshadow and William Faulkner’s short story “The Barn Burning” is rich with lessons about symbolism, rhythm and pace.

5. Think like a storyteller. Ask the kinds of questions that Lisa Pollak, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer for the Baltimore Sun, poses to herself:

• Who in this story has something at stake?

• Who is most affected?

• Who is nobody paying attention to?

• What about this story moves me? (Pollak’s favorite)

6. Get in the game. More than one writer this past weekend asked “How do I break in … on a magazine, writing creative nonfiction, the job market, writing a risky personal story?” There’s only one way, and that’s to take the first step — submit a story or a pitch — and not be deterred when you get rejected. Rejection is part of the writing life, and may not have anything to do with your story; your piece may really not meet a publication’s needs at this time. One Hartford speaker, small press publisher and novelist Ira Wood, counseled against heeding criticisms in rejection letters: consider rewriting only if you see a definite trend in editors’ responses. So write that pitch, finish that story even if you worry no one else will care or pick a subject that interests you and start reporting.

7. Become a document freak. That’s what helped Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Kiernan, who teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, share the award for explanatory journalism with her colleagues while at the Chicago Tribune. Follow the paper trail–court records, police reports, transcripts–and then mine them for the details that are a storyteller’s gold.

8. Stop introducing the person with the camera as “my photographer.” R-E-S-P-E-C-T for your newsroom’s other craft disciplines, said Poynter’s visual journalism leader Kenny Irby, is the key to better collaboration and news storytelling.

9. Pick a perennial. Want to take a stab at the kind of riveting storytelling that Oregonian Pulitzer winner Tom Hallman Jr. talked about? Lower the risk by volunteering for one of those assignments journalists grudgingly have to write about every year (post-Thanksgiving shopping day, the day-after Christmas stampede to return presents, the circus comes to town, etc.) and use the occasion to try a narrative — a story that follows a store manager, or a bored husband, a circus first-timer. (Make sure you file a sidebar with the obligatory numbers, Chamber of Commerce quotes, etc.).

10. Before you write, ask The Washington Post’s David Von Drehle’s four focusing questions.

  • What’s the point?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Why is this story being told?
  • What does it say about life, the world, the times we live in?

Add one more: What is my story about in a single word? When you’re done, you’ll have a theme for your story and will likely have the first draft of a nut graf that sums it up for your reader.

The next time you have the good fortune to attend a writing workshop, take good notes. After the bloom fades, the lessons that captivated you but that you may have lost track of are there again for the picking.

Let Others Speak: Four Questions with Valerie Boyd

Valerie Boyd/Photo by Jason Thrasher

Valerie Boyd is a professor of journalism and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Georgia, where she founded and directs the low-residency MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction. She is author of the critically acclaimed Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, which was hailed by Alice Walker as “magnificent” and “extraordinary”; by The Boston Globe as “elegant and exhilarating”; and by The Denver Post as “a rich, rich read.” Formerly arts editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Valerie has written articles, essays and reviews for The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Bon Appetit, Creative Nonfiction, The Oxford American, Essence and Atlanta Magazine, among other publications. She is currently senior consulting editor for The Bitter Southerner magazine. Valerie has spent the past several years curating and editing a collection of the personal journals of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker” will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2022. Valerie’s edited collection, “Bigger Than Bravery: Black Writers on the Pandemic, Shutdown and Uprising of 2020,” also will be published in 2022.

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

The most important lesson I’ve learned as a storyteller—as both a writer and an editor—is to be quiet enough to let others speak. Even if I am the narrator, or the lead storyteller, every character has a story, every person in the room has a voice—and every story deserves space to unfurl, every voice deserves a listener. My job is to listen, to amplify, to synthesize, to distill. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise of my writing life has been my development as an editor and a teacher of writing, alongside being a writer myself. Writing is often a solitary pursuit, and one stereotype of the writer is that of an isolated, anti-social hermit. A genius perhaps, but still a lonely hermit. Yet I revel in my connections with others and I deeply value collaboration and community. So I have pleasantly surprised myself by fashioning a writing-adjacent career that allows me to preserve my precious solitude as a writer while also calling forth community. In this way, I can be selfish with my writing time and simultaneously generous with my offerings to others as an editor and teacher. For me, this is so gratifying. In 2015, writer/filmmaker/world-changer Ava DuVernay tweeted something that became instantly quotable T-shirt material, and it certainly resonated with me: “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.”

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

I think of myself as a producer. Whether I’m working as a writer or editor, my role is to bring all the cooperative components together to produce an amazing, moving, memorable show.

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

The best piece of writing advice I ever received was also wonderful life advice. I was about to go on my first book tour, and the novelist Tina McElroy Ansa advised: “Always eat breakfast.” A book tour, like a life, can be so unpredictable, she suggested. Who knew if you’d have time to eat along the way? So feed yourself—whatever that may mean for you—before you rush headlong into the day. That advice has resonated with me through huge challenges in my life: If I can just feed myself, first thing, I’ll make it through whatever the day brings.

Craft Lesson: The Transformation of Documentation

Craft Lessons

When I started reporting for a tiny daily newspaper in 1972, a notepad, pen, manual typewriter, camera and a landline telephone were the only tools I had to collect information for my stories.

Those analog days are long gone. Today, a panoply of new information sources and outlets cram the reporter’s toolbox as well as prosecutors. We saw it with the prosecutions of the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrectionists whose own videos, text messages and emails were used to confirm their guilt.

We see it regularly in stories where journalists, especially during the COVID 19 lockdown, had to use their ingenuity to report stories from their homes.

To illustrate a family riven by a mother who bought into post-2020 Presidential election and QAnon conspiracies, Washington Post reporter Jose A. Del Real, unable to travel, relied not just on traditional phoners, he “also mined digital communications, sifting through hundreds of anguished Facebook posts, emails and text messages the siblings exchanged with each other and with their defensive mother,” I wrote in a Nieman Storyboard annotation of the piece. “Del Real uses them to build an escalating series of scenes, giving his story a revealing, epistolary quality, reminiscent of 19th-century letters between families and friends.” 

Jason Fagone, a narrative writer with the San Francisco Chronicle, went a step further. In “The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I.,” he spliced his three-part series with eerie conversations, generated by a web robot powered by a supercharged artificial intelligence program, between a man grieving the death of his fiancee and her A.I. chatbot.

Mitchell S. Jackson won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for his story in Runner’s World about the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery who was killed running while black in a Georgia suburb. Jackson, a novelist, created a vivid reconstruction by culling a New York Times visual investigation of smartphone videos of the murder taken by one of the three white men accused of murdering Arbery.

Of course, journalists have been mining public databases for decades and continue to use these digital warehouses to buttress shocking investigations. (I used one in the late 1980s to expose the dearth of arson convictions in Rhode Island when I worked for the Providence Journal-Bulletin.)

But social media, smartphones and the lightning speed of the Internet often outpaces such time and labor-intensive projects now.

This new brand of journalism signals an important warning to today’s journalists. If you’re not constantly moving beyond traditional information sources and searching for innovative new ones, you’re cheating your audience of journalism that reflects a landmark transformation of documentation that has revolutionized storytelling. And you’ll be left behind.

An Act of Generosity: Four Questions with Bronwen Dickey

Photo by Rebecca Necessary

Bronwen Dickey is the author of Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) and a contributing editor at The Oxford American. Her essays and reporting have also appeared in Esquire, POLITICO Magazine, Newsweek, Outside, Men’s Journal, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Times Book ReviewThe Los Angeles Times, SlateGarden & GunPopular Mechanics, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Artist’s Residency Fellowship, a Hearst Editorial Excellence Award in reporting, a Lowell Thomas Award in travel journalism, and in 2017 she was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in feature writing. She lives in North Carolina, where she teaches journalism at Duke University.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

When I was in college, I thought the point of writing was to impress people with all the big words I knew and all the fancy things I could do on the page. I was always grasping for others’ approval, as though the Big Arrow of Life were pointed in one direction: Toward me. I wanted to be a Writer more than I wanted to write, and that made me miserable. 
That’s one of the reasons I prefer to speak about the craft in terms of “skill,” not “talent.” Skill is something you can learn and perfect if you care enough to put in the effort, whereas talent feels slippery and mysterious. The same goes for “work” vs. “inspiration.” If I waited to write until I was “inspired,” I’d never type a single word. But work? That I can show up for, again and again. 
Over time, I’ve come to understand that nonfiction storytelling is not a performing art. It’s not about praise or acclaim or literary pyrotechnics. If you think about it that way, you will always feel like a failure. The best writing is not about the writer. It’s an act of generosity. It’s a humble and imperfect gift one person offers another, a way of saying to a bunch of strangers you will probably never meet, “I went out exploring and I learned something incredible. Do you have a second? I’d love to share it with you.” That’s the greatest lesson. That the Big Arrow points the other way. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That the work never gets easier. Never, ever, ever. The more you do it, the more possibilities you see in front of you, and that can make you crazy. You just have to show up and plow your acre the best you can.
As I tell my students, every story is a house, but every story doesn’t have to be Versailles or the Taj Mahal. It can be a cozy one-room cabin.  Your job, as the architect of the house, is to 1) make sure the roof doesn’t cave in and 2) make it comfortable enough that a stranger might want to spend some time there. That’s it! 

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

I’m a dependable, non-judgmental tour guide through the rocky—and occasionally perilous—territory of the subject. 

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

“You have to love it. Because if you don’t, the people who love it will kick your ass.” — Chris Jones

“Write what you want to say. The questioning, the changing, the editing…that all comes later.” — my dad

Craft Lesson: Write Around the Margins

Craft Lessons

Finding time to write is a constant challenge in most writer’s lives. Except for the fortunate few whose bestsellers keep them afloat, most of us search—and often—fail to find free moments for dreaming of ideas, structuring, composing, and revising the stories that are closest to our souls.

As an inveterate listener of The New York Times Book Review podcast, I was heartened the other day to read the Review’s editor, Pamela Paul, touch on the subject in a recent interview.

“I don’t get to write during the day because my day job is overseeing book coverage…and editing,” she said. “That means writing is squeezed into the margins of my days.” Along with motherhood, hers is a full life, so it’s interesting to see what borders exist that enable her to find time to write books. She’s published several, the most recent being, “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.”

“Pre-COVID,” Paul said, “I did most of my writing on the train to work. Initially, I persuaded myself that I would only need to work one-way. That delusion was quickly dispelled by reality, and when I’m writing a book, it generally takes up much of the weekends as well.”

Paul also writes essays or short pieces for her paper and those are written “in a fury of inspiration. It spills out quickly and prevents me from sleeping.”

But what if you commute by car, are already kept up at night by your baby’s squalling, or simply need a good night’s rest to function during the day? What if much of the weekend is taken up by chores, family time, dates, etc? Where can other margins be found? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Set the alarm an hour early to write while the rest of the house is asleep.
  • Pass on lunch with colleagues to eat at your desk and use the rest of the time to work on your novel, short story or essay. 
  • Carve an hour or two for yourself on the weekend, which leaves the rest of the 48 hours to accomplish everything you couldn’t do during the week. 
  • Write in short bursts. It’s amazing how many words you can type in 15 minutes if you lower your standards and remarkable to see how quickly you can generate a rough draft ready for revision.
  • Finally, take a hard look at how you spend your days. How many hours do TV sports consume? Scrolling through Instagram and TikTok?  How much time spent binge-watching “Squid Game” could you devote to writing?

If you’re too wiped out at the end of the day—I get that—at least try putting down your phone and take your draft—either on your laptop or better still, a printout—to the couch or your favorite chair and start marking it up. This sort of task switching, I’ve found, is energizing. Afterward, I can’t wait to make the changes. 

Just as margins exist on all sides of the page, so do borders of time in our lives. The smart writer looks for—and takes advantage—of them.

Say Yes to Things: Four Questions with Kelley Benham French

Kelley Benham French

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

That writing is an extension of your lived experience, and no number of all-nighters at the computer or overtime shifts in the newsroom will bring maturity, wisdom, empathy or perspective to your work. It’s hard to describe something you’ve never felt. It’s hard to truly listen unless you’re willing to be changed. The writers I admire have rich and messy lives. So, say yes to things. Say yes to walking instead of driving, to loving something you are bound to lose, to spending time with someone lonely, to booking the cheap ticket at the last second, to doing whatever the thing is you would do were you not afraid.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I’m still doing it. Like everyone, I started out sure I’d fail or be forced into PR by poverty. I am a serious introvert, and I wasn’t sure I could do the reporting, honestly. But it turns out that introversion is just one more tool. I’ve had an amazing time doing work I cared about for people I admired. I met the smartest, quirkiest, fiercest, most loyal people and married one of them. I’ve made plenty of money. I have always felt good about this thing that I devoted my professional life to. It’s an honorable and important thing.

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

I’m Chicken Little. I worry a lot, and fret and brood and pace and sulk, and then while I’m painting the garage or trimming the dog’s toenails, I’ll get a piece of an idea, then another piece, and another. So when I’m writing, it always looks like I’m not writing, and I always feel like I’m going to die or get fired. I don’t sit down at a keyboard until I have to, but by then, it all just comes out of me and it’s fine. This really annoys my husband, by the way.

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

Two cheers for understatement – Mike Wilson

Kelley Benham French is senior editor for narrative and special projects at USA TODAY and a professor of practice in journalism at Indiana University. She spent a decade at the Tampa Bay Times, where she was a 2013 Pulitzer finalist. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with her three daughters and her husband, the writer Thomas French.

Craft Lesson: Persuading kids to talk

Craft Lessons

Any reporter who has tried to interview young children knows how laconic and reluctant they often can be. Even open-ended questions designed to initiate conversations are answered with “Yes”, “No,” “I don’t know,” or worse, silence. But there’s hope.

For nearly a decade, John Woodrow Cox, an enterprise reporter for The Washingon Post, has perfected the art of persuading children to share their experience and thoughts about a fraught subject—their devastating experiences with gun violence as victims and witnesses to mass shootings and those traumatized even by a single death. In 2018, Cox was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a portfolio of his stories on the topic. He is the author of “Childen Under Fire: An American Crisis,” a new, disturbing, but must-read book for gun owners and parents. In a recent interview, he shared his techniques with me.

The first time you meet a kid they tend to go one direction or the other; either they desperately want your attention and want to talk to you and will say anything or they don’t want to talk at all. They’re very shy and standoffish and pretty closed up,” Cox told me.

“I talk to them like an adult. I explain who I am and what I’m doing and why,  that I work for a newspaper and I’m here to tell their story if that’s okay with them.”

Cox often likes to talk to kids “in the spaces where they’re most comfortable, which is frequently in their rooms because they want to show you their toys and the things they like the most. I’ve always used things like making sure my eye level is not higher than theirs. I don’t want tobe above them physically, I don’t want them to think I’m an authority figure because I’m not. And I want them to know that they can always stop talking about something if they don’t want to talk about it.

Repetition is another key technique, he said. The more he shows up, the more relaxed the children become. That’s his approach to reporting: “always show up and keep showing up…because good things happen in the reporting process when you’re there, and you’re there again and again and again.”

Cox recognizes that reporters believe children will be recalcitrant subjects, but he’s found the opposite. “Ultimately, kids love attention, like any of us. If you’re sincere, and genuine in your interest, they can sense that and they’re often willing to open up, even about the hardest things they’ve been through.”



Thomas French with his daughters Brookie and Greysi

Thomas French teaches journalism at Indiana University. For nearly three decades before, French worked as a narrative project reporter at the St. Petersburg Times/Tampa Bay Times, specializing in serialized storytelling. Angels & Demons, a story about the murders of a mother and her two teen daughters while visiting Florida, earned him a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1998. French is also the author of four nonfiction books. Most recently, he and his wife Kelley co-authored Juniper, a book about the premature birth of their oldest daughter.

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

I’ve learned so many things over the years. I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest things about being a journalist is that it asks you to keep learning something new all the time, every day. I guess the single most important lesson has been the realization that meaning lies everywhere around us and within us. 
One time I asked a subject of mine – a self-taught scholar of many disciplines — what she liked to read for her own enjoyment. Her 12-year-old son, listening to the interview, blurted out, “She reads puppy books.” I asked what a puppy book was, and the boy grabbed a worn and dog-eared romance novel off the shelf — The Golden Barbarian, with the cover showing a young maiden melting in the arms of the aforementioned savage —- and said, “You know, they fall in love, they get married, they have puppies.” Then he handed me the book with a knowing grin and said, “Check out page 192.”
I loved that this brilliant woman’s 12-year-old son knew where the dirty parts were in her romance novels. It was one of those details so beautiful that I knew right away it would end up in my final draft. But it wasn’t until much further down the road, after this woman ended her marriage and decided to raise their five children on their own — all because she was sure that there was another man waiting for her, a man better suited for her — that I realized I had missed the meaning of this woman’s devotion to her puppy books. She was lonely. She did not believe that the man beside her understood her or truly knew her or was right for her. She wanted to find someone who would love her the way she deserved, and by God, she found him not long afterwards and married him and moved with him and the kids to a big house in France.
The mystery of who this woman was and what she truly wanted had been in front of me the whole time, hidden inside The Golden Barbarian. And I had missed it. I had overlooked all of these big things waiting inside this little detail.
It was just another reminder, one of hundreds over the years, that I need to pay attention to everything and look for the meaning hidden right in front of me.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

 Okay, so I read this passage once in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso’s astonishing retelling and reframing of Greek mythology. It was an insight the writer had about the multiple versions of each myth and all the heroes and gods and goddesses.
“Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths,” Calasso wrote. “But in each of these lives and deaths all the others are present, and we can hear their echo.” 
Those lines hit me like a thunderbolt. I was about 35 at the time, and I knew that in those few decades I had already lived several lives and had already died and been reborn several times. And if that was true of me, then it had to be true of all of us, not just mythical figures, but the human beings whose stories I was trying to chronicle. And when all of this washed through me, I realized I had a lot more digging to do in my reporting. Because up until then, I hadn’t recognized the multiplicity of each person’s experiences. I hadn’t seen it, because I hadn’t known to look for it, and once I did learn it, my reporting instantly went deeper.

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

Wow. On my better days, I guess I’d compare myself to someone who digs, a miner maybe. Anne Hull once scribbled me a note on a piece of scrap paper and gave me some advice that I’ve held onto tightly ever since. I hope she’ll forgive me for sharing it: Don’t turn back. Understatement. Insight. The scalpel. Tool into the past without misty eyes but with the compass and charts of an explorer. Tunnel there . . . As the boys in Princeton, W.V. say: Get dirty, brother.

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

 I’ve been extremely lucky in my writing life to have learned from so many great journalists. The best advice I ever received — and I received it from many — is the same advice I give myself every time on deadline and the advice I give every writer I work with, whether they’re doing a quick daily or burrowing inside a massive book.
“Keep going.”

Craft Lesson: Devote yourself to outlining

Craft Lessons

There are many ways to find the order that is right for your story. 

Make a list of what you want to say.

What piece of information should be at the beginning?

What piece of information should be at the end?

What belongs in the middle?

Ask the questions the reader will ask and put them in the order they will be asked.

Assign values to quotations.

Then there is the outline , the writer’s tool that summarizes the main points or important details before you write your story. It’s a map, a guide.

I’m not talking about the type, festooned with Roman numerals, that your teachers demanded during your school days. Yucck! But when the story, especially, is narrative nonfiction, an outline allows the writer to pull back from the mass of notes, interview transcripts, scenes, quotes, statistics, observations and other material collected during the reporting phrase.

If your interest is fiction, before you write a novel or short story, the outline lays out the important scenes before the drafting begins.

Whichever method you choose, ordering is a crucial part of the writing process.

I recently encountered an extreme method of outlining from a writer who describes herself as a “devoted outliner at the start.” Lizzie Presser is a reporter for ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization. I Interviewed her about her story, “The Black American Amputation Epidemic,” one of two pieces that won the 2021 National Magazine Award for public interest,

I asked Presser to unpack her writing process as part of an annotation for Nieman Storyboard, which celebrates the art and craft of narrative nonfiction. The resulting conversation amounted to a master class for anyone interested in that challenging but immensely rewarding form and the art and craft of the outline. 

For this story,” Presser told me, “I printed out hundreds of pages of interviews and transcribed scenes and tried to read through them within 24 hours so the material was fresh in my mind. I usually outline on a computer, but in this case, there was so much that I wanted to use that I started cutting up paragraphs and quotes and details and laying them out on the floor. This is the most difficult and the most exciting part of the process for me. I’m trying to craft a narrative with suspense at the same time as I’m trying to construct a logical argument. Once I’d laid out my outline on the floor, I left it there for weeks as I tried to write through it. I would move pieces around on the floor to see how changes would play.”

Granted such efforts demand time — in Presser’s case, she spent a total of two months to report and write her story–that may be beyond the reach of many writers. Still, there’s no reason why you can’t try a limited approach for a daily story or a takeout due in a week. Whatever your deadline, Presser’s approach to outlining longform stories is inspirational and instructive.

More importantly, it contains lessons of value to those who practice as well those who aspire to model such excellence. Even if you lack the resources Presser had, there are nuggets of methodology that you can still apply to your next story.

At the very least, you can devote yourself to outlining, choosing which approaches to take that best suit the time and reporting you have collected. Even on deadline, outlining can map a story that enables readers to understand its meaning and message through a coherent structure. 

Turn on the Valve: Four Questions with Sean Tanner

Sean Tanner

Sean Tanner is a rising star in the Irish literary scene. His work has appeared in The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, The Lonely Crowd, The Holly Bough, The Forge Literary Magazine, and The Moth Magazine among others. In 2017 he won the Hennessy New Irish writing award for first fiction, and in 2018 he received the John McGahern award for literature. In 2021 he was awarded a full literature bursary (scholarship) from the Arts Council of Ireland.

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

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. What there is though, is a reluctance to write poorly. I think sometimes you just have to turn on the valve and clear the crap out of the pipes before you can get the good stuff. Once I realized this, the whole thing became a lot easier for me. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

All of it I guess. Any kind of success I’ve had has been a surprise to me. Every time I get an acceptance, I am surprised and elated. I remember my first big acceptance, I genuinely thought it was a prank. I thought it was some cruel friend having a laugh at my childish ambitions. I googled the email I got the acceptance letter from and everything. This is not uncommon either from I hear. How much success will it take to convince me I am a capable writer? A lot, probably.

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

I guess I’d be like the intrusive drunk who has no respect for your personal space, the one who leans in too close and breathes whiskey fumes in your face while whispering some illicit confession, hoisting an unwanted confidence upon you, as you listen appalled, and embarrassed.

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

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.

CRAFT LESSON: Braiding your narrative to tell a complete story

Craft Lessons

More and more, as I read and closely study excellent narrative nonfiction, I’m struck by how many talented writers rely on braided structures, moving smoothly between two or more storylines.

 Another term for this approach is digressive narrative. This is a stylistic device that writers employ to provide background information, describe the motivations of its characters and heighten suspense. They’re detours, sometimes quick, other times lengthy, from the primary story arc.

I became aware of it after binge-watching Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” This must-see network political series, which ran for seven seasons between 1999  and 2006, dramatized the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff.

Sorkin uses the tool throughout the series, but its power is especially evident and instructive in the first two episodes of the second season. In a Feb. 2020 essay for Nieman Storyboard, I focused on one telling example: the attempted assassination of President Bartlett and the severe wounding of his deputy chief of staff. The plot digresses to follow the creation of an upstart campaign that launched an obscure New England governor into the White House. (The story features links to the episodes on YouTube along with the scripts for the two-parter. I also showed how novelists use digression, using J. D. Salinger’s classic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

I also found, producing annotations for Storyboard, how many narrative nonfiction writers also digress from their primary story arc, braiding multiple storylines to tell a complete story.

Here are two examples of braided narrative nonfiction worth studying. 

The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I. ” by Jason Fagone of The San Francisco Chronicle. The story tracks the situation of a grieving man who decided to try a unique Artificial Intelligence program to have a “conversation” with his dead ex-fiancee. “Jessica” is transformed into a chatbot that responds to prompts. Fagone braids the couple’s backstory, and a programmer’s quest to program video games that generate emotions, along with a remarkably accessible guide to the world of A.I. and its possibilities and potential pitfalls.

Her Time,” by Katie Engelhart, published in the California Sunday Magazine, tells the extraordinary story of an Oregon woman’s underground journey to die on her own terms before dementia left her unable to take the needed action when she was ready. Engelhart braids that with the history of the right-to-die movement and the contentious debate about whether patients with dementia should be allowed the legal right to die, with assistance, before they are deemed incompetent.

Not everyone, as I wrote, is a fan of the device. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn. Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon & Schuster editor who died in 2020 at 87 after a storied career bringing best-sellers to print, wasn’t a believer, either. She was known, according to a 2004 profile, for “unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when — especially when — they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”

I think you can overdose on digressions, as you can on any writing technique. But used judiciously and with skill, they can engage readers who may welcome these temporary departures from the main plot. They’re certainly worth examining. You can start with The West Wing’s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or “The Jessica Simulation” and then experiment with your own stories.


Ellen Gabler

Ellen Gabler is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. Since joining The Times in 2017, she has covered health and medical issues in addition to reporting on sexual harassment. Ms. Gabler previously worked at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a reporter and deputy investigations editor.

At The Times in 2018, Ms. Gabler was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of sexual harassment and misconduct. She has also received the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in National Reporting and shared with colleagues the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, Scripps Howard, Gerald Loeb, and National Headliner awards, among others. 

A native of Eau Claire, Wis. Ms.Gabler has a bachelor of business administration from Emory University and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She began her career at the Stillwater Gazette, in Stillwater, Minn. and has worked at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

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

To not be a wimp about it. Writing well is hard. It takes planning, dedication, re-writing, thinking about your reader, and listening to those who edit/read your work. I’m often stunned by the amount of drafts I go through on some of my most important stories. The re-reading, re-writing and re-thinking of ledes, sections, endings, transitions and everything else can be exhausting and maddening. But, that is often what it takes to pull together a really strong piece.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise ties in with the biggest lesson. I’m surprised that writing can still be pretty challenging, despite the fact that I’ve been a reporter for nearly 20 years. But the good thing is, now I KNOW it is challenging, and remember that I just need to power through. And every story is different. Some come easier than others. I’ve also learned to enjoy the process more, and think of it like I’m training for an athletic event. I swam competitively through college, and we spent years practicing our starts, turns, finishes — really fine-tuning every part of a race. Writing is the same. The training never really ends, and every time you do it, it is going to be kind of hard. So you have to accept that and jump on in.

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

To me, writing is a lot like building a snow fort AND putting together a puzzle. To build a snow fort, you need enough snow. To write a story, you need enough “stuff” or reporting to build the story. Often times when I’m having trouble writing, it is because I don’t have enough “stuff.” Getting all the snow to build your fort can be a pain. The same is true with reporting. But, you need to do the hard work of getting all of the “stuff” before you can write.

As for the puzzle part, that’s pretty self-explanatory. Even though it is ALSO often a pain, I do love the part of writing where you get to take all of your reporting and make it fit together. I like being surprised by how it turns out, and really delight in the little moments when you find the right transition or perfect place to put a quote.

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

To remember that you are telling a story, not writing a research paper. I think a lot of times as investigative reporters, we can be boring. Your story doesn’t matter if no one reads it, and so it is really important to try to write in a compelling and approachable way.

Although to be honest, there isn’t just ONE best piece of writing advice. I have gathered up little pieces of advice over the years from listening to other reporters talk about their work, and simply from reading. The more you read, the more you notice what works and what doesn’t work. Then you can apply it to your own stories. 


Craft Lessons

“Adding whipped cream to millions of Starbucks Corp. drinks emits 50 times as much greenhouse gas as the company’s private jet.” – Eric Pfanner, Bloomberg News

If you’re going to use numbers to make a point, be sure you’re helping make those numbers make sense. Here are five ways to do it:

1. Do the math, and give numbers context

“Over a period of between 40 and 70 days, a lake formed, growing to more than 0.5 cubic kilometres in volume – as much water as it would take to fill the Houston Astrodome more than 400 times.” – Andrew Findlay in Canadian Geographic

Researcher Jake Hofman says perspective helps people recall unfamiliar numbers, estimate numbers they hadn’t seen before, and detect errors in “potentially manipulated numbers.” Instead of saying “Americans own almost 300 million firearms,” for example, he suggests, “To put this into perspective, 300 million firearms is about 1 firearm for every person in the United States.”

2. Make a large number understandable by comparing it to something known

“The travel and hospitality sector lost almost $4.7 trillion in 2020 – as much as if all 7.9 billion people in the world threw $595 straight into a garbage bin.” – Ann Handley

“To store a gigabyte’s worth of data just 20 years ago required a refrigerator-sized machine weighing 500 pounds. Today, that same gigabyte’s worth of data resides comfortably on a disk smaller than a coin.” – IBM

3. Make a small number or size understandable by comparing it to something known

“Above all, atoms are tiny – very tiny indeed. Half a million of them lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair.” – Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

“A tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird no heavier than a ballpoint pen, makes an epic journey each year.” – Kenn Kaufman, via ScienceNews

4. Show significance without actual numbers

“[The alligator gar is] a toothy giant that can grow longer than a horse and heavier than a refrigerator.” – Tammy Webber in the Toronto Star

“A new calculation shows that if space is an ocean, we’ve barely dipped in a toe. The volume of observable space combed so far for E.T. is comparable to searching the volume of a large hot tub for evidence of fish in Earth’s oceans.” – Lisa Grossman, ScienceNews

5. Make time relatable

“[Sir Richard Branson’s] round trip, from New Mexico to the stars and back, will last about 90 minutes, or roughly what it takes to drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls.” – Vinay Menon in the Toronto Star

No matter how well you’re able to help readers understand numbers, try to use as few as will get the job done. “Never clot a bunch of numbers in a single paragraph; or worse, three paragraphs,” says Roy Peter Clark. “Readers don’t learn that way.”

Sue Horner loves being the “go-to” writer for small communications teams who need writing that has warmth and personality. A full-time freelance writer, she launched Get It Write in 1991 and has used her experience as a corporate communicator to help companies connect with their employees.  She is particularly known for turning complicated, dense information into readable and understandable content for feature articles, newsletters, profiles and more. Clients appreciate Sue’s ability to find the human angle in any story, capture the essence of a discussion and provide a fresh perspective on a routine subject.

Beautiful Language is Contagious: Four Questions with Nicola Twilley

Nicola Twilley/Photo by Jenny GG

Nicola Twilley is co-host of the award-winning Gastropod podcast and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her first book, “Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine,” was co-authored with Geoff Manaugh and published by MCD, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in July 2021. She is currently writing a book on the topic of refrigeration for Penguin Press.

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

I’ll give you the lesson I have learned and learned again, but still fail to apply far too frequently: write your notes and thoughts down as soon as possible. Sometimes when I’m reporting, especially when my schedule is packed and I’m tired, I get lazy and let my smartphone do the work, figuring I’ll just take some photos, record the conversation, and go through it all later. Then, at the end of the day, I collapse instead of jotting notes and mentally reviewing what I experienced. But, while I believe in photographing and transcribing everything (no better way to relive the interview and capture the nuances of voice, as well as details I might have missed in the moment), looking at photographs and transcripts later just doesn’t yield all the same richness that bubbles up when you sit down at the end of a long day of interviews and let your mind tell you what was important.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I can write! I grew up thinking that, if I was good enough to be a real writer, I would already know — the way athletes know whether they’re good enough to be professional by university or before. I thought it was a matter of innate talent, and that, if I had that kind of talent, someone would definitely have mentioned it at some point. I didn’t know any writers, so I had no real-world point of comparison, either. It wasn’t until my husband started a successful writing career that I realized that, if he could do it, maybe I could too. (He also believed I could, which helped!)

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

I’m a combination detectorist and carpenter. The reporting part is all about finding nuggets — you can develop a sense of where they might be and how to extract them, the way detectorists find buried treasure. The writing is carpentry — I can’t start writing till I have my first sentence, but then it’s a relatively straightforward matter of joining everything together so it forms a pleasing structure, and planing it down to try to get rid of anything extraneous. A slow, careful, craft-ful assembly process.

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

To write my notes and thoughts down as soon as possible! (See answer 1; this came from Michael Pollan, and, whenever I have the discipline to follow it, I am grateful.) My favorite piece of writing advice to give to others is to read good writing. I firmly believe that beautiful language is contagious. That, and use the right dictionary.

Craft Lesson: How to Cope with Emotional Interviews

Craft Lessons

Like countless others, my heart went out to the victims and families and friends of those who lived and died in the shocking June 24 collapse of the Champlain Tower South condominium in Surfside, Fla. I also had in mind the reporters who descended on the scene and faced the painful task of interviewing survivors and the loved ones of those dead or still missing. 

In my two decades as a newspaper reporter, I became well-acquainted with that aspect of the job. At one point, if you’d asked me about my beat, I’d have replied, “Death.” 

More times than I can count, I was dispatched to write about those left behind after the unthinkable happened: a child killed by a school bus, the high school friends of a classmate killed during a failed 1980 rescue mission to rescue the American hostages held captive by Iranian revolutionaries, the bride-to-be caught in a crossfire between police and a desperate parolee. My father had died when I was ten, and that often proved an effective way to show empathy for people I imposed on at one of the worst moments of their lives. Death binds. 

When I was teaching at The Poynter Institute, a reporter once emailed to ask about the appropriate response when a subject breaks down and begins to cry during an interview, a common occurrence.

“I’m not a very touchy-feely person,” the reporter said, “so I feel as though it would come across as fake or forced if I were to make myself give the subject a hug or touch their hand or something similar to that. But I feel so heartless simply continuing the interview while they dab at tears.

“Most often, these subjects are essentially strangers whom I have engaged in an emotional interview, so I feel as though I would be crossing some sort of line by moving closer to them or touching them or crying with them as though we were close friends.”

For help, I touched base with Joe Hight, then managing editor of The Oklahoman and no stranger to covering trauma in the news. 

As a reporter and editor, he covered the first mass post office shooting in 1986 in Edmond, Okla., the 1995 domestic terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the aftermath of killer tornadoes. 

He was also president of the executive committee of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s “a global network that brings together journalists, educators and health professionals to improve media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy, as well as the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism.”

As reporters increasingly face emotional interviews after what seems like an unending cycle of mass shootings, wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophic weather events, Joe’s advice remains timely. 

“You are not the only journalist who has struggled or will struggle when interviewing people who become emotional during an interview,’” he counseled.

“Certain interview questions may prompt an emotional response, especially if the subject is remembering a loved one who died tragically. It’s your response afterward that is important.

“Most people don’t need a hug from a stranger, and all of them don’t need a fake or forced response. They need someone who’s compassionate and human.”

I wish that Joe’s wise advice had been available to me as I sat with friends and family who were grieving a loss. I’m grateful, though, that it may offer help for reporters who find themselves, as they inevitably will, in that situation someday. His tips:

First of all, don’t stop the interview because someone cries and you feel uncomfortable. If you do, you might deprive the person from expressing natural and proper emotions.

Simply express again how sorry that you are about the situation or loss and then be especially sensitive to the subject from that point on. Put down your notebook and ask whether there’s anything that you can do to help, such as getting a tissue or a glass of water. (You might even want to bring tissue yourself if you think the interview could become emotional.)

When the subject becomes somewhat composed again, ask softly “Are you okay?” and then “Do you want to continue the interview?” If the answer is yes, politely express that you’re taking notes again and ask the next question in a soft tone. Then be patient and listen.

At the end of the interview, thank the subject for talking to you “during these difficult times.” Then ask if you can call later to check on facts or quotations, and possibly on information that may have been missed.

If the person sobs uncontrollably or cannot respond further, it’s then that you should consider discontinuing the interview until a later time. Before leaving, ask whether the subject wants you to contact someone or needs anything else. Then ask whether it’s okay to call or return at a certain time. A simple nod may be the reply.

Finally, if you are troubled by what happened during the interview, be sure to talk to someone who’s a sensitive and trusted listener so you can debrief from the emotions that you absorbed yourself.


Horrible Messy Drafts: Four Questions with Lois Kapila


Lois Kapila is the editor and a reporter at the Dublin Inquirer, an independent reader-funded newspaper in Dublin, Ireland. She has worked at The Statesman newspaper in Kolkata, India, and freelanced for anywhere that will publish her. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Journalism and European Journalist of the Year. 

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

To not be afraid to think. It sounds stupid but for a long time I think I was scared to think, as if by asking questions about what I’d been told or engaging too deeply with what I was reporting on, would be biased in some way.

It took me a while to get past that, to realize it was okay to not just be a scribe, and to clock that following a fair, journalistic process—and thinking a lot and asking plenty of questions along the way to all kinds of people—was the most important thing that helps you get as close to the truth of something as possible. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I’m doing it. I still can’t get over the fact that I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to meet, and listen to, and talk to, so many people. I hope I always stay surprised. I dread the day when I take that for granted.   

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

Can I be a mapmaker? Trying to chart out the world so we can see where we stand and where we’re headed or could go—although, I’m thinking ideally more here-be-monsters than AA road map.

Or maybe a glassblower, training for years and years to craft something simple and clear. (I guess that’s also turning hot air into something beautiful, hmmm…)

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

Write drafts. Horrible messy drafts. And start them straight away and don’t get hung up on how ugly they are. That, of course, is one of the many things I’ve learnt from you by the way, Chip.

Like pretty much everybody reporting and writing these days, I’m so pressed for time and if I don’t start writing as soon as I start reporting, I don’t have the breathing space to revise and cut and rearrange and spot gaps.



Story by Mitchell S. Jackson and a Nieman Storyboard annotation

12 minutes and a Life,” a Runner’s World story by Mitchell S. Jackson, recounts the short life and lynching of Ahmaud Arbrery, who died in 2020 running while black in Brunswick, Ga. Last month, the piece won a Pulitzer and a National Magazine Award for feature writing. Earlier this week, Nieman Storyboard published an annotation of Jackson’s prize-winning story, the product of a long interview I had with the writer. In just three weeks of non-stop work, Jackson reported and wrote the story, which was published four months after three white men ambushed Arbery. It’s an object lesson in narrative magazine journalism; one that combines traditional journalism, forensic presentation, and Black English to tell the story. We talked about the culture and evolution of language, braided structure, and why Jackson put himself in the narrative.

The annotation offers extraordinary insight into how an innovative writer and scholar works and thinks in ways that expand the possibilities of narrative nonfiction. One of which is that a 6,000 word masterpiece doesn’t always require a year to produce. I learned a ton: about reporting, writing, linguistics, diction, Black culture, and story structure from our conversation. I think you will, too.

P.S. After our conversation, I devoured Jackson’s debut novel, “The Residue Years,” and a memoir, “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family.” They are both raw, gutsy and acutely personal portrayals of the blight of poverty, crack addiction and dealing and the world of pimping out women for prostitution amid the small Black population in Portland, Ore. I can’t recommend them more enthusiastically.

Guest Craft Lesson: What postcards can teach writers by Jacqui Banaszynski

Craft Lessons

Postcards have always held a special place in my life. If I were a collector, postcards would be high on my list. Not for the initial image, but for the act of sending and receiving, and the magic of storytelling involved in that action.

When I send students off into the world or reporters on assignment, the one thing I ask is that they send me a postcard. I’m always delighted when one follows through. I love seeing the images they choose, being introduced to their handwriting (a rare thing these days) and being enchanted by the mini-story they’ve chosen to tell me.

Because that’s another huge value of postcards. They are the perfect venue for practicing the craft ~ and purpose ~ of storytelling.

For years, when I traveled, I would send at least one postcard a day. I’d usually write at day’s end, perhaps at a bistro over a glass of wine, or maybe mid-afternoon over a coffee. My goal was not to say “Hey! I’m at the Parthenon!” But to instead share a moment or scene or experience from that day. To tell a story.

The ritual of putting pen to paper caused me to slow down and reflect on my day. To enter that mental/emotional story space that writers occupy.

Knowing I would write reminded me to report ~ to pay closer attention to the world as I moved through it. It caused me to be on alert to the little dramas that played out around me ~ to note the particular blue of the African dusk, the disorientation that came from staring at the stars in the southern hemisphere, how a table of Romanians kept guard over their too-drunk friend. (And yes, to find a post office and a stamp.)

Knowing the writing space was limited ~ maybe a 2×2 inch square ~ took the pressure off. The blank page/screen can seem endless and intimidating. A 2×2-inch postcard square? Hardly.

The reality of that space limit helped me focus. Verbs had to be active. Descriptions spare. Detours eliminated.

Writing on paper instead of the computer meant I had to accept my first draft and then let it go. No do-overs. (In daily news parlance, hit the SEND button!)

Knowing I would be writing to someone I cared about me made me care about what I wrote. It became an investment in a personal connection. I wanted them to see what I saw, to feel some of what I felt, to wonder a bit at my wonderment.

And that means I had to draw on the craft tools that writers employ to create story magic: scene, description, action, metaphor, dialog, sensory detail, tension, emotion.

All in a 2×2-inch square.

I carried this practice forward to classes and workshops. I once had students write a postcard a day for a month. Another time I had workshop writers pick someone they wanted to thank ~ maybe an inspiring teacher or the editor who gave them a chance or the brother who paid their rent one desperate month in college (Thank you, Jeff.) ~ and send that person a postcard. Capture their relationship and gratitude in a 2×2-inch square.

Of late I have transferred some of this practice to Facebook. When I’m overseas, I make it a mission to post a true story each day ~ what I think of as a nano-narrative. It still teaches me what, as writers, we all need to learn, relearn and practice:

  • Pay attention to the world around you. Slow down. Open yourself to experience. See with your eyes, your mind and your heart.
  • Find the center of a story. Develop a moment, a character, a scene, an experience.
  • Choose words that are vivid and precise, evocative and metaphorical.
  • Lower your standards and learn the value of Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Draft.” Quit thinking at some point and write.
  • Write ~ deeply and personally ~ to someone you care about. Then learn to care about everyone who might read your writing.

Here are two of my nano-narratives from trips as evidence of all of the above. They are far from perfect. Just little stories.

Romanian Retrospective 14 (10.15.2012) Breakfast in Socodor, far western Transylvania. This was served the morning after a huge welcome dinner the night before. All made at Simina Mistreanu’s mother’s village farm or that of the neighbors. The tomatoes were picked that morning, served with the dew still on them and sweet as apples. Cheese and bread were delivered fresh by neighbors. Large plate of fat-back served with enthusiasm, but I said my health insurance would be cancelled if I indulged.

CHINA DISPATCH 9 (July 11, 2009) ~ I was prayed awake by chanting. Drifted over to the Daci Monastery next to the hotel, paid 3 yuan (45 cents) and entered an oasis of peace. Hundreds of women had shed shoes and purses, donned brown robes from a common laundry basket, and wound round and round the temple through a maze of prayer cushions, chanting in a low, meditative melody as an elderly monk rang a small brass bell to keep time.

Stepping into the Unknown: Four Questions with John D. Sutter

John Sutter/Photo by Edythe McNamee

John D. Sutter is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Salt Lake City. His work has won the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, the IRE Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, the Peabody Award and has received two EMMY nominations — one for new approaches to documentary and the other for environmental reporting. With support from the National Geographic Society, MIT and others, he is directing “BASELINE,” a pioneering documentary series that aims to tell the story of the climate crisis beyond a lifetime. At CNN, where Sutter was a senior investigative reporter, producer and columnist, he created and directed several award-winning projects, including “Two Degrees,” “Vanishing” and “Change the List.” He currently is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and is a former Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He also is a visiting instructor at The Poynter Institute.

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

I’ve learned to call people back, to follow up, to visit a second and third or fourth time. When I first started writing I unknowingly (and now, embarrassingly) operated in a sort of Story Vacuum mode. I’d swoop in, gather up the story … and then leave. I didn’t follow up often. I didn’t have time to. Or thought that. It was always on to the next thing — right away. I’ve learned that a) I don’t like being the Story Vacuum guy. It feels wrong. And b) you find far better, truer stories — stories you didn’t know are there — when you spend time with people. When your interactions are more reciprocal, more like a relationship, less extractive. This is part of the sentiment behind the documentary I’m working on now (called BASELINE), which is following four communities between now and the year 2050. That’s … an extreme case. But I’ve learned that following-up more consistently can be a quick-and-easy thing to add to your writing practice. It’s kind, it’s human, and it helps us get closer to hidden truths. Or that’s my hope.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That it’s not over. I got laid off from a newspaper in 2008, not long after I was out of college, and I thought I needed to find another line of work. I applied to other lines of work. The truth is that my writing life needed to morph and change from there — away from a just-print mindset and toward podcasts and film and multimedia production. It’s surprised me that all of these very different-seeming things are really just extensions of a core writing practice. 

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

Diver! I was a springboard diver when I was younger/fitter (once upon a time, a video clip of me diving, horribly, was the top YouTube hit for “painful belly flop”!) and I think a lot about that leap-of-faith moment that occurs when you start walking down the diving board. Not when you jump. Before that. When you decide to start walking. That act of stepping into the unknown feels a lot like the start of the writing journey for me. I want it to be practiced — it usually doesn’t end in a belly flop, hopefully — but I don’t want to know how things will turn out. That’s the fun. It’s always moderately terrifying. You always learn something.

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

Jan Winburn edited my stories at CNN for the better part of a decade, and one of the many things I love about her is that she always answers the phone when you’re the field. Like, always. I called her once from a drought story in the Texas Panhandle. It hadn’t rained there what seemed like forever, and I was going to spend the day with a rancher who was giving up on the business and selling his herd. And then, that morning, it started raining. Not a lot. But enough that the guy decided to hold out hope and keep the cattle. The human part of me was like: Cattle! Rain! Generational business continues! Yay! The CNN-just-flew-me-out-here-to-tell-a-drought-story part of me was like: *#@!. So at some point I went to the car and called Jan, kinda flipping out about how Mother Nature had decided to rain on my drought story. She was calm, per always, and delivered the simplest and best possible advice: Write the rain story.


Craft Lesson: Time is on our side

Craft Lessons

“When do you write?” asks a writer friend who juggles family, a demanding university teaching job, and studying in an MFA program. 

Implicit in the question, I believe, is another, more pressing one: “How do you find time to write?”

That’s a question I’ve often been asked, not because I’m the most productive writer in the world.

I am not.

But the question misses the mark. It’s not about finding time to write, but making it. 

For inspiration, I turn for inspiration to busy people who have made time to pursue writing dreams that may lie outside their day jobs or family lives.

Best-selling author Scott Turow also had a demanding day job — as a federal prosecutor in Chicago — when he wrote the first 120 pages of his first novel, “Presumed Innocent.”

“I used to write on the morning commuter train,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “It was sometimes no more than a paragraph a day, but it kept the candle burning.”

Anne Tyler sat down to write her early novels in her Baltimore home after her children went to school.

In the 19th century, Anthony Trollope wrote novels in the morning before he set off to work from the English countryside to his job as a postal official in London. His discipline was astounding.

“I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing, and on Friday I began another,” Trollope wrote in 1880. “Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books even though they be not published, I think I can be happy.”

Many years ago, influenced by Scott Turow’s commuter approach, I adopted it on my morning Metro ride from suburban Maryland to the National Press Building in Washington, D.C. The early ’90s was the busiest time in my life. I had a consuming job as a Washington correspondent, and at home, my wife Kathy and I had a toddler and infant twins. I suggested Kathy and I wear tee-shirts emblazoned with the title of the Warren Zevon song, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”

Instead of trying to make up zzzzz’s on the subway, however, I was able over a period of several weeks to draft and revise a short story about a Mom forced to take over as coach of her daughter’s Little League team. “Calling the Shots” was published, after a year of waiting, in 1998 in Elysian Fields Quarterly, a literary baseball journal.

These days, as a freelancer and retiree, of course I have much more flexibility. I check the news, listen to The New York Times podcast “The Daily,” and then write several times during the day, juggling assignments, drafting content for my newsletter, hanging out with three precious grandchildren, dog walking and working on fiction and memoir.

By the evening, I’m usually too tired for anything but YouTubeTV. That was the case years ago in Washington, too. I never had the energy to look at the short story that captured my attention that morning.

Still, brief daily sessions of 15-30 minutes, as Turrow proved, demonstrates the value taking advantage of every free moment to wite. 

Writing regularly, even if only a single paragraph at a time, develops critical mass over time.

So what are ways to make time to write?

  • Use the mass-transit or another incremental approach. You don’t climb a mountain with one step, but with many.
  • Decide what matters — watching, for the tenth time, the “Soup Nazi” Seinfeld episode, or taking the half-hour to write.

I’ve always loved this quote on the subject from essayist Annie Dillard (who wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”). “You can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, ‘I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.’ “

  • Exercise. Even a brisk 15-minute walk can pay off with relaxation-producing endorphins and an energy boost.  
  • Lower your expectations. Large blocks of time you dream of can prove useless if you agonize over the quality of what you’re producing. Every time you realize your fingers are poised over the keyboard, start banging away. It’s called freewriting and is best done in timed bursts, anywhere from a few minutes to, my preference, a screenfull. 
  • Manage your time, as I wrote in the most recent “Chip’s Writing Lessons.”. Examine your schedule, daily, weekly, even monthly, for pockets of time and energy. Be mindful of your circadian rhythms, those times of the day when you have the most energy.
  • Wake up 15 minutes earlier. Take a bite out of lunch.

At the beginning, quantity, not quality, rules. What sounds counter-intuitive — to  write well, I must first write badly — reflects the reality that the writer, especially at first, is not the best judge of the material.

Writing is a process of discovery. You need something to revise, however awful you think it is. Writing can’t take its final shape until you have enough distance, psychic or temporal, to see the holes, the flaws, unanswered questions and flabbiness that can be stripped away with a writer’s helpful friend: the “delete” key.

Finally, I take heart from the words of Robert B. Parker, the late master of detective fiction.

“There is no one right way. Each of us finds a way that works for him. But there is a wrong way. The wrong way is to finish your writing day with no more words on paper than when you began. Writers write.”

Willing to Go Deep: Four Questions with Norma Watkins


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Norma Watkins

Norma Watkins grew up in Mississippi and came of age during the civil rights struggles. Her award-winning memoirs, “The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure” and “That Woman from Mississippi” describe the anguish of being a liberal in that troubled time. She studied writing under Eudora Welty and is professor emerita at Miami Dade College, where she held an endowed chair. Her upcoming novel, In Common, follows two women who sacrifice talent, spirit, and wellbeing for love. She lives in northern California with her woodworker husband. 

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

Perseverance is the most important lesson I’ve learned as a writer. Perseverance and its sister, patience. I work for years on a book. The one I’m doing a final revision on now began in 2010. I tell myself it doesn’t matter how long I take to get it right, or better, though I am impressed by people who can turn out one a year, and death may catch up with me.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I love feedback. I belong to a small writing group and their observations continue to surprise me. We’ve met long enough to be frank with one another. Compliments are nice, but constructive criticism is better. I’ve found, to my surprise, that I assume too much from the reader. I see a scene so clearly in my head; I see the characters as they speak, but frequently neglect to describe what they do physically. Thinking: Can’t the reader tell by what they’re saying? Evidently not.

What metaphor would best describe you as a writer?

During the pandemic, I let my hair go white, which is amazingly liberating. As a writer, I am a white heron, observing patiently, and willing to go deep for tasty morsels.

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

John Dufresne once said: You get three exclamation points in a lifetime (Meaning, your words should express the emotion, not punctuation). I haven’t used an exclamation point since.   

Craft Lesson: The Thief of Time

Craft Lessons

Over the years, I’ve met many writers with countless ideas for stories, magazine articles, novels and screenplays. Some have succeeded in finishing (and even publishing) their work, but many never survived the exhilarating flash of inspiration that launches a piece of writing. Oh, they’d begin with great hope, with a single line, or a few paragraphs or pages. But stuck in a quicksand of doubt, they couldn’t go on. Doubt, that crushing emotion, overtook them. Writer’s block ensued. Nevertheless, they resolved to go on. Tomorrow, they promised. Over the weekend when I had free time. During the vacation that was coming up. Time after time, they did what many people have done since the beginning of time. They put it off.

The Romans, an Empire that had its beginnings before the birth of Christ, had a word for this failing of the human spirit: procrastinatus. Pro meaning “forward” and “crastinus” signifying “of tomorrow,” a linguistic origin transformed over centuries into the English procrastinate, “the act of intentionally putting off something that should be done,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It took an English poet, Edward Young to capture its essence. “Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled,” he wrote in Night Thoughts,” a series of poems composed between 1742 and 1745, during the dark hours of night, when the anguish over abandoned dreams is greatest.

“Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience,” the writer James Surowiecki has observed. Of course, it’s not just writing that procrastination defeats. It’s the garage cleaning you’ve been meaning to put off, the mud-caked car that needs washing, the tax forms due in April, any number of tasks that nibble away, but still remain untouched. For writers, though, procrastination is the enemy of progress, the stomach-churning agony of being unable to move on and finish a story, no matter how exciting the idea, relentless the deadline, or disappointing the failure to act.

Over a career of five decades, I too became an expert at one of the most common of human failings, an ancient flaw that lies behind mountains of abandoned dreams, a towering torment of the half-finished, the half-done. Procrastination has been a companion at some point on nearly every writing journey I ever embarked on.

There are infinite ways to procrastinate: pace, video games, disappear into the black hole of social media, binge-watch, even tackle distasteful household chores. For me, one of the most successful approaches is to research. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the topic I’ve spent a lot of time studying—the craft of writing—is the one that’s kept me from doing the writing I should do.

Challenging as procrastination is, years of experience in my own work and helping other writers with theirs has taught me not to surrender to despair. Delay can be defeated.

The first step is to acknowledge that everyone procrastinates. All of us face tasks we’d rather avoid, whether it’s conducting that first interview, writing that first line, responding to an email, or just doing the dishes. Recognizing this reality means you must be ever vigilant for the telltale signs of resistance. For me, it’s the simple act of hesitation, realizing that my fingers are hovering over the keyboard, paralyzed.

In this case, my solution, one reached after years of procrastination, is to lower, nay abandon, my standards and type as fast as I can, thinking with my fingers, and trying to drown out the voice of doubt that clamors to be heard with the clatter of keys. What I wrote was immaterial. “I want to write a short story about a man struggling with dementia but I have no idea how to start,” or “Damn, my post on procrastination is due tomorrow morning..”

This freewriting, I’ve discovered is more than just throat-clearing; very soon, miraculously, prose begins to emerge. I begin to describe a man is in his 70s, as his memory problems progressed from losing his keys, misplacing his wallet, and forgetting names to the terror of getting lost while walking his dog in what had been his familiar neighborhood. Not great, I tell myself, but it’s a start and it kicks me into gear and over many sessions, I draft and revise “Jacaranda.” I’ve reached the point of submission to literary journals, although of course, I’m procrastinating about that.

But wait. Besides, lowering your standards and freewriting , here are some other valuable techniques, their value bolstered by users’ comments.

1. Know tomorrow’s task today.

This is the technique that made my friend and mentor, Don Murray, one of the most productive writers I ever knew. Perhaps, he mused, the subconscious takes over when you assign yourself a task the night before.

“What surprised me is how much I feel better knowing that I know what I will be doing tomorrow. I’m the type of person who needs to write down everything or I’ll forget it. I find it reassuring and calming. It puts me in control and gives me a sense of order. I’m not as scatter-brained trying to remember everything at once.”
–Jane Kim

2. Follow productivity expert David Allen’s two-minute rule: If you think a task will take you two minutes or less, do it now.

“What surprised me was how much I could get done in tiny chunks–maybe it wasn’t so much the sheer amount of work as finding mental space to tackle it.”
–Ellen Sung

3. Eliminate piles. Instead of letting paper stack up on your desk, either put it in folders or toss it.

“I learned that it is a lot quicker to find things when you don’t have to shuffle through 50 pages of other unrelated issues. I learned that filing is a good thing to combat the urge to pile things up. I had to do something with the papers, and filing was a good physical way of keeping from falling back into the bad habit.”
–Preston Smith

 So let’s not tarry any longer. Don’t put it off. Gulp and go. Right now.


Be Present: Four Questions with Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean is the author of eight books, including “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup”; “My Kind of Place”; “Saturday Night”; and “Lazy Little Loafers.” In 1999, she published “The Orchid Thief,” a narrative about orchid poachers in Florida, which was made into the Academy Award-winning film, “Adaptation” starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. Her book, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” a New York Times Notable book, won the Ohioana Book Award and the Richard Wall Memorial Award. In 2018, she published “The Library Book,” about the arson fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. It won the California Book Award, the Marfield Prize, the USC Library Scripters Nonfiction Award, and the Maxine Cushing Gray Award. It was also longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2018.

Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has also contributed to Vogue, Rolling Stone, Outside, and Esquire. She has written about taxidermy, fashion, umbrellas, origami, dogs, chickens, and a wide range of other subjects. She was a 2003 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. She is currently adapting “The Library Book” for television. She lives with her husband and son in Los Angeles.

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

I’ve learned to be present — to really focus on the moment, absorb it and appreciate it. This applies both to writing and to life in general. We spend a lot of time as writers troubling over the right tape recorder and the right writing software and that sort of thing, when the quality of your attention is really all that matters. Being a writer requires being a “super-observer” and noticing more than other people might observe. The rest will just fall into place. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How entrepreneurial you have to be! I never thought of myself as a small business owner, but that’s exactly what I am. That’s not a very romantic or artistic notion but it’s reality, and the better you are at running your business, the more you’ll be able to devote yourself to the more artistic aspect of your work. 

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

I’m a widget-maker. The widgets I make happen to be sentences, and I run a little factory that churns them out at a steady pace. 

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

Many years ago, my first great editor told me to look at my work as having three distinct parts: reporting, thinking, and writing. They have to be done in that order; you can’t write until you’ve done your reporting and then — the crucial step that’s often overlooked — you have to think about what you’ve learned and what you’re trying to say about it. Only then can you put pen to paper. Writing is the end result of the other two steps. It’s the best advice I’ve ever been given, and I think about it all the time. 

Craft Lesson: Time Management for Writers

Craft Lessons

From 1972 to 1994, I was a newspaper reporter. Those two decades established patterns and work habits that often make it immensely difficult to control my writing life. Desperately trying, and often blowing deadlines made me a captive of the ticking clock.

I persist in trying to gain control of my time, my stories, and myself. Of course, I recognize that this is a laughable notion.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. That desire to exercise control — over gravity, the weather, people, our lives — is one of the hallmarks of Homo sapiens. Writing, like any creative endeavor, is a desperate attempt to wrest control, to impose order on chaos, to stop time, to play God if you will.

Time management is one of the most important self-improvement techniques, but one least utilized by journalists. Writers too often feel enslaved by the clock, and the calendar, when, in reality, they can seize control of their time.

Complete this sentence:

If I managed my time, my stories, and myself better, I would be ______________________.

What did you write? “Less stressed,” “Getting better evaluations,” “Happier with my stories,” “Covering my beat more effectively”? How about “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize,” “Happier,” or as one participant at a workshop cried out,“Married.”

There’s no right answer, just the articulation of dreams all of us have, dreams that can be achieved if we can use time as an ally. Here are some practical approaches that can help.

Build a “mountain of stairs.”

Think of your next story, whether it’s a daily, project, short story or book, as a “mountain with stairs — a set of smaller steps leading to the top,” advises Eviatar Zerubavel in his inspiring and practical guide, “The Clockwork Muse.”

Break it down into its components: A story consists of reporting and research, focusing, planning, drafting, revising, editing. Assign time estimates to each step. Then keep track of the actual time for those steps.

It will take you time and experience to be able to estimate accurately. Invariably, the tasks that we think take a long time can be accomplished more quickly, while those that we think are a snap take more time than we thought. Develop a more accurate gauge of your time.

Writers on deadline feel under the gun, but they don’t realize the power they have. After all, what can an editor do between the assignment and the delivery of the story except worry and pester? Talk about powerless!

Set your own internal deadlines. As a Washington correspondent working under often insanely tight deadlines, I realized the chances of making a factual error were high, so I set my own deadline. If the editor wanted my story at 5 p.m., I hit the print button at 4:45 and spent the time double-checking names, titles, quotes, facts, and figures. When I hit the send button, I felt confident in the story’s accuracy, saving myself those middle-of-the-night horrors: “His middle initial was C!”

Work in brief daily sessions.

This is the key to productivity, says psychologist Robert Boice, who found that productive writers don’t chain themselves to their keyboards all day long. Instead, many follow the pattern of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon: “Keep a regular schedule, and write at the same time every day for the same amount of time.” Regularity, not overwork, is the key to productivity.

What most writers, especially journalists, do is binge. They procrastinate for hours, building up a steam of guilt, anger, and rage that ultimately leads to indifference: “I don’t care how bad it is, I’ve only got 30 minutes left.”

Then, once they’re writing, they are afraid to stop. They write in a fury until deadline or just after, irritating their editors and ensuring that their copy will be hastily edited. They think that they’re preserving their flawless prose. Unfortunately, they’ve robbed their readers of a fresh eye that might notice a confusing sentence or important information buried deep in the story. And when it’s all done, they’re exhausted, stressed out, and ready for a drink.

“Time is in the air you breathe,” said Peter Davison, the late poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. “The writer who fills many shelves does not breathe more eagerly than the crabbed sufferer from writer’s block, but the two differ in the ways they use their oxygen.”

Don’t leave all the writing until the end of the day. Write an early draft to find out what you already know and need to know. Take time to focus and plan. Try writing through the entire story, hit the print button, and mark up the printout. Input the changes. On daily stories, work in 15- to 30-minute drafting sessions, then edit and revise. For projects, write before all the reporting is done. Write in sections. The key is to avoid bingeing.

Make friends with a clock.

A timepiece is a way to control the procedure even if you can’t control the material. For a long time, my preferred technology was a now vintage, I believe, Radio Shack Talking Timer, which counted down, up, and signaled time’s up with a series of beeps ranging from a car horn to a teakettle. These days I just set my alarms with my Amazon Alexa when blocked because, while I can’t control how well I write, one thing I can do is write quickly. Invariably, within the first two minutes I leap whatever hurdle my psyche has erected. I think that’s because fear and doubt build a mountain that we think we have to climb over when, in reality, it’s just a threshold. Free writing creates a threshold between the state of paralysis and the state of grace.

People confuse time management with an anal-retentive obsession with the ticking clock. In reality, time management demands infinite patience.

“Writing is a craft that takes many years to develop,” Sue Grafton, the best-selling mystery author, said in The Writer. “The publishing world is full of talented, hardworking writers who’ve struggled for years to learn the necessary skills. I counsel any writer to focus on the job at hand — learning to write well — trusting that when the time comes, the Universe will step in and make the rest possible. Writing isn’t about the destination — writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else.”

None of us can guarantee that our stories will be brilliant. But we can control our time and when we do that we greatly improve our chances of achieving our dreams of success.

Run Your Own Race: Four Questions with Brendan O’Meara

Brendan O’Meara

Brendan O’Meara is the host/founder/producer of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, now in its ninth year, where he talks to people about the art and craft of telling true stories. He also produces Casualty of Words, a daily micropodcast for people in a hurry. He is an award-winning features writer, newspaper opinion page editor (until he will inevitably get laid off), founder of podcast maker Exit 3 Media, and author Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. He’s wrapping up a memoir on his father and baseball called The Tools of Ignorance. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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

I don’t think it can be understated that, One, there is no unilateral path through this morass and Two, knowing that, run your own race, embrace your own path, celebrate your path.

I got myself into a lot of “trouble” by thinking there was a singular path to writing fame and prestige and notoriety. It led me down a toxic path of jealousy, envy, bitterness, and resentment that was compounded by the insidious rise of social media. “That person is doing what I want to do and here I am selling running shoes, writing slideshows (Winners and Losers from the Daytona 500 for $50) and he’s got a 3,000-word profile in Outside and he’s my age or younger and what the hell am I doing wrong and I bet he isn’t writing these terrible slideshows or stacking produce at Whole Foods and certainly Wright Thompson or Susan Orlean never had to do this. So if I was really ANY good at this, then why am I landscaping and doing reporting calls on my lunch break? Surely my heroes and peers weren’t doing this, right?

When my first book came out, the book deal came as a result of fitting a woman for shoes who knew an editor at the press who published the book.

Another job I had, doing calls on lunch breaks, won an award for this piece. basically while dirty from cleaning up hedges all day in Jersey City.

What you realize, often after a long, long, long time is that you can’t know someone’s privilege or the lucky break or the sheer titanic and singular focus others might possess. Or, more likely, they are doing unglamorous work to pay the bills (ghost writing, content marketing, maybe a day job at Trader Joe’s) and they don’t post that on Instagram. All you see is the veneer of non-stop winning.

By stopping with the comparison game, and celebrating other people’s work as much or more than your own, you’ll find your time will come and someone else will look at you and think, “It looks like they’ve been there the entire time.” 

There are more 10 and 15-year overnight success stories out there than you realize. In a culture that values precocity and youth above the grind and experience, run your own race and avoid 30-Under-30 lists like COVID.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

This might be a controversial statement but I’ll say it anyway as a double major in college and someone who earned an MFA in 2008: college doesn’t matter. A body of work matters

Any job I have ever gotten was based on life experience and the body of work I amassed by showing up every day, drip by drip. Here, I made this.

I’m mentoring an 18-year-old high school grad. She’s very bright, is not enrolled in college, and by happenstance our paths crossed (she emailed a bunch of newspaper editors here in Eugene and I was the only one who responded to her). I’m working with her to build a body of work she can show clients or potential employers or editors because when you pitch an editor a feature, they never, never, never ask you where you went to school. They ask for your clips and whether you can deliver on what you’re promising. 

College has a purpose, but make no mistake: unless you’re studying to cut open human bodies, higher education has more in common with high school only with more drinking. Why accrue the debt if you can just do the work?

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

I write about horse racing quite a bit and there are horses who are plodders, who are slow out of the gate, trail the field, conserve energy, save ground, and do most of their damage (See Zenyata… “This! Is! Un! Be! Lievable!)–if they do any damage at all–late in the race. They let the “rabbits” and “speed balls” set blistering paces on the front end, wait for them to tire, then surge from the back of the herd. This echoes one of my favorite quotes from the run of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast when I first spoke with Pulitzer Prize finalist Elizabeth Rush, “I’m just a mule. I just show up every day and climb very, very slowly up that mountain.”

I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer, one who has been frustrated by the precocious around me (which makes me bloom even later since I waste too much of time worrying about things outside of my control) and a culture that puts a premium on the precocious at the expense of those with more experience, those who need more time to hit their stride, or those who don’t reach exit velocity until they’re in their 40s or even 50s. Maybe older. 

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

“Don’t get writerly on me, Brendan.”

In the memoir I’m wrapping up, “The Tools of Ignorance: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball,” I’d have what I thought were nice painterly flourishes or pyrotechnic language befitting of a David Foster Wallace wannabe. [Note to wannabes of any ilk: There’s already a [FILL IN THE BLANK]. We need [YOUR NAME HERE]. 

Prose doesn’t have to be lyrical or pretty to be artful. My editor telling me “Don’t get writerly” was saying me this: Surrender to the story. Tell the story straight. Get out of the way. Let the story be a warm bath you can sink into  (Dammit! See?! I’m getting writerly!).

When you lock into the story, do your best to get out of its way and let it do the heavy lifting. The truth and relatability of the story will carry the reader. 

There are stylists out there, but odds are you’re not Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis or Wes Anderson. Do your best to fade into the background so the reader almost has no idea how they got from page 1 to page 324. 

Feel like a fraud? Join the club.

Craft Lessons
Photo by Niklas Kickl on Unsplash

The other day, a writer friend, brilliant, creative and multiple award-winning, complained about the impossible. She said she often felt like an imposter.

I didn’t have to ask how that could be. You’re not alone, I told her. I’m uncomfortably aware of the syndrome, having suffered from it basically every time I start a new piece of writing–“This is the day,” a voice in my head declares with conviction, “they found out you’re a fake.”–and encountering it more times than I can count in five decades as a writer, and more than a quarter-century teaching and coaching writers.

Even so, I was taken aback when I decided to research the topic and was shocked, and strangely, comforted, when I learned that feeling like a fraud was common among high-performing and highly successful people. It was time, I decided to revisit and flesh out the topic, which I initially posted when this newsletter was in its infancy. If you’ve ever felt like an imposter, I hope it helps. 

“I have a crisis around every single story I write  — that I’ve lost an ability, that I’m just flailing this time.”

That’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner talking.

She’s a writer whose angst might surprise you. Before she joined The New York Times Magazine as a staff writer, Columbia Journalism Review “called her one of the nation’s most successful freelance writers,” including simultaneous gigs at the Times Magazine and GQ. Oh, and she’s also the author of a best-selling debut novel, “Fleishman Is In Trouble.”

So how could someone this successful feel this way?

Psychologists have a name for this affliction: imposter, or fraud, syndrome. In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term to “describe an experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities.”

The paradox of imposter syndrome is that it often targets high achieving success stories. Writers like Brodesser-Akner and Neil Gaiman, astronauts (Neil Armstrong), actors (Tom Hanks), and First Ladies (Michelle Obama).

It may be hard to feel sorry for them. When’s the last time you set foot on the moon? Walked the red carpet? Lived in the White House. Stop whining.

But consider this: every time they succeed, they’re terrified whether they can do it again and if not, will be exposed to the world as the frauds they’re convinced they are.

“There comes a point when you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me.'”


Sound familiar?

It should because imposters don’t have to be mega-stars. Imposter syndrome targets everyone from the neophyte struggling with their first stories, to the consummate pro with credits to die for.

I think of it as the “Who am I?” syndrome that pesters all of us \with doubts about our worth or abilities.

If Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.


“Who are you to think you can write a novel or a narrative series or a screenplay,” the inner critic hisses. “You’ve never written one. You never went to journalism school or have an MFA in Creative Writing. Just who the hell do you think you are, you charlatan?”

Right about then, your fingers stop typing.

Here’s the thing, though.

Learning that wildly successful people often feel like great pretenders can be very liberating. If they can feel this way sometimes, maybe, I tell myself, I’m not such a loser after all.

All of us at one point or another — every day perhaps, every story, every draft or revision — may face that moment that we’re convinced we are a failure and today is the day “they” (whoever “they” are) will find out. 

To succeed, you have to push back against the cries of ‘imposter” that ring in your head when you start a story, or face the fifth revision. They can drown out creativity, stifle optimism and stop a promising project in its tracks.

Years ago, I had an idea for a book. I did a lot of work on it, but eventually, I lost faith in it and myself. You’ll never get it done, I told myself. And even if you do no publisher will want it. So I quit. Years later, all I feel is regret. That’s the curse of imposter syndrome.

“I have written 11 books but each time I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'”


If that’s the penalty, what’s the reprieve? What can a successful “imposter” teach those of us who may not cash the same paychecks but have the same creative dreams and the same emotional misgivings?

What works for Taffy Brodesser-Akner is something she acknowledged to her New York Times interviewer “will sound nuts.”

“When I was in film school in the 90s, we talked a lot about the hero on his (always his) journey, in the face of adversity. I learned how to write a very fatuous script about what a person does in moments of great stress. I think if you look at every single moment of adversity or self-doubt in your life and imagine yourself as the hero of a 90s movie — a thriller, a rom-com, a satire, whatever — it’s easy to answer the question: What does the hero do next? You figure that out and do it. It always amounts to the same thing, which is to rise up and do the hard thing anyway.”

I wish I had that mantra sounding in my head when I hit a wall on that book project. But it’s never too late. Even if you do feel like a fraud sometimes, that advice may be just what you need to combat imposter syndrome.

So join the flock of frauds out there (Pssst. Most of us feel this way sometimes) and prove yourself wrong. 

Standing behind the mask of every imposter is a hero.

CRAFT QUERY: How do you “rise up and do the hard thing anyway?”

May the writing go well.

Photograph by Niklas Kikl courtesy of

Don’t Wait Until You’re Not Afraid: Four Questions with Lonnae O’Neal


Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer for ESPN/The Undefeated, specializing in the intersection of race, sports and culture. In 2018, she was a top five winner in the Associated Press Sports Editors contest. She was a two-time 2019 National Association of Black Journalist’s Salute to Excellence Award winner for projects and general reporting. Prior to joining the Undefeated, she was a Washington Post reporter and columnist for two decades, during which her recognition included the 2016 first-place winner of the Society for Features Journalism award for excellence in commentary. In 2000, O’Neal won the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism award for distinguished work in the coverage of race and ethnicity in America. That same year, her feature story “White Girl” was the subject of a special broadcast of ABC’s “Nightline.” She is author of I’m Every Woman, Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work.”Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.

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

Humility. I’m always clear that there’s so much I don’t know about the subjects I’m writing about and about the writing process itself. Being mindful of that allows me to stay open to the lesson, to the parable, to the source, to the quote that you’re going to miss if you think you’ve heard everything, or that you know so much. It keeps you present all the way through to the end of the interview, when somebody finally trusts you enough to give you a nugget, or send you a document. It allows you to see and hear poetry in details people often take for granted. Finally, it can make you obsess about being accurate, contextual, brave, because people don’t have to trust you with their stories.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

As a young writer, I was so afraid, I couldn’t bring myself to start a story with my name, my byline. I came to realize there was something to that. That it was an old newspaper convention that you don’t file with a byline, it’s something given to you. I used to think the more I wrote, the easier it would get, but that has not been the case.

I’ve written just about every kind of story there is, often on deadline, and while that’s given me a skill set, those butterflies, that first shiver when I get an assignment, or when I finally sit down to write it, has never left me. I’ve just learned how to write anyway. It’s helpful in that I can tell students, don’t wait until you’re not afraid. That’s not the signal you’re looking for. That’s not the permission you seek. Instead, acknowledge the fear, breathe through it, phone a friend, set a timer, come up with a routine that takes you through what the great Washington Post writer, Henry Allen, used to call the Stations of the Cross. And then, if you’re lucky enough to have a little time before you file, sometimes even time to just read what you wrote, you can find all these places where you get to soar. And if you’re very lucky, that can make all the suffering worth it. Ar least until the next time!

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

I think I’m a singer. Sometimes I get these notes in my head and I reach for them. Or perhaps it is an arrangement that finds me whispering into a voice recorder at 4 in the morning, or scribbling sentences on napkins. Once, or twice, or three times, when I hit my highest notes, it can feel like I’m talking to God. But mostly, I just feel like I have this thing in me that I have got to sing out, even if nobody is listening. I used to say even if nobody is paying me, but of course that was when I was young, and just made of emotion.

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

I’ve never forgotten when the great Donna Britt told me — that writing is a sustained application of ass to chair. Beyond that, my favorite piece of advice is to read. Read constantly, read everything, share what you’ve read when something speaks to you. It will you give you metaphors, it will help you connect dots, it will help you fall truly, madly, irrevocably in love with words. Also, one more thing, the incomparable Jabari Asim, a former Post colleague and now director of the MFA program at Emerson College, introduced me to “The Little Man at Chehaw Station.” He used the Ralph Ellison essay to remind me that there is always a critic, someone who knows more than you, on any subject you write about, and you must do enough research to gain authority (and the knowing, if not respect, of this little man) at whatever level you are writing. He folded the lengthy disquisition about standards, and quality and the duty of the artist into convenient shorthand. “Chehaw!” Jabari sometimes urges me. It’s a reminder to never ever simply coast on pretty words. To always go deeper.

Bookbag: Exorcising the fear of writing


You want to write. You want others to read your words, praise and publish them. You imagine yourself sitting in a chair, effortlessly churning out copy. You dream of submitting your work. And yet you can’t. You’re paralyzed.

You’re not alone. The world is full of writers who can’t summon the courage to start or to finish a story. For years, I was one of these, and on many days, I still am. The dreams of a novel and a memoir, a dramatic TV series, lie dormant, haunting me. An unfinished story that I thought had promise sat in my hard drive, unfinished. All it would take is opening the file and start typing. And yet I put it off. 

At times like this, I turn to Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, whose book, “How to Write: Advice and Reflections,” is an inspiring guide through the emotional minefields of the writing craft. I recently revisited the book, culling the most persuasive elements of his case about fear.

Before a career that would spawn several books, including one that recounts the making of the atomic bomb that won him the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, fear blocked Rhodes every step of the way. 

“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,” he writes, “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.’”

Sound familiar? 

“You may not suffer from such a condition,” he goes on, “but many people who want to write have difficulties getting started similar to mine. I know because I notice their response in the audience when I lecture about writing and mention fear: they look relieved.

The affliction starts early.

“Most of us were punished for telling stories when we were children,” Rhodes says, “which inhibited verbal invention with a flinch of shame. We learned in school that the rules of language are rigid and the standards of literature insurmountably high. So we storied away effortlessly among ourselves but went blank when the teacher asked us to open our notebooks and write. Unless you’re a paragon of self-confidence, such conditioning has its effect on you. Nor does society encourage the buoyant hypnotic state where the creative imagination floats.”

“Fear,” Rhodes continues, “stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do?”

The only solution, he writes, is to ‘write your way beyond your fear.” And the only prescription, oft told, is “to plant your ass in the chair.” 

Fortunately, Rhodes goes beyond that bromide to offer additional advice. 

“When the fear is upon you,” he says, “write for yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write as long you do it regularly. Set aside an hour or a half hour daily or as often as you can. If you don’t think you have time, keep a record of how you spend the quarter hours of your day and see where you can borrow (most people spend most of their time outside of working hours watching television).”

Here are two others tips Rhodes offers to battle anxiety and promote productivity:

“Steal an hour from sleep on alternate early mornings if there’s no other choice.”

“Use writing equipment you’re comfortable with—a pencil, a pen, a typewriter, a computer.”

And if even initial efforts inspire fear, Rhodes advises blocked writers to move into a “comfortable frame: write in a letter to a person you trust and file the letter (or mail it, if you prefer).” He reminds us that Tom Wolfe wrote his first Esquire piece as a letter to his editor. Rhodes suspects that Wolfe, a pioneer of nonfiction narrative who was a newspaper reporter at the time, chose the approach “because the pomp of writing a magazine piece was inhibiting.” The editor did one cut: he removed the salutation and published the piece.

There is much in Rhodes’ book to admire and learn from, from his suggestions to keeping a writing journal to advice on the business of writing, along with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at his journey from a fear-ridden hopeful to a hugely successful and productive writer. But there’s one piece of counsel that has stuck with me. Reproduced in large type and laminated in a single page, it rested on my writing desk for years where its wisdom prodded me to bust through writer’s block many times. It’s worth the price of the book alone. 

“If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another.”

It may be the wisest piece of writing advice I’ve encountered. After re-reading Rhodes’ book, it inspired me to finish that short story, and while I’ve yet to find anyone willing to publish it, I’m proud of the way it pushed back the fear of failure. I trust it can help you on those days when fear stands in your way.

The Importance of Restraint: Four Questions with Kim Cross

Kim Cross

Kim Cross is the author of “What Stands in a Storm,” a narrative nonfiction account of the biggest tornado outbreak on record. A full-time freelance writer, she has bylines in Outside, Bicycling, Nieman Storyboard, and other magazines. When she’s not writing, she’s mountain biking, fly fishing, or exploring some glorious place without phone reception in Idaho. Her nonfiction narrative, “Noel + Leon, a True Story from the Middle of Somewhere” won the Gold Lowell Thomas Award for foreign travel reporting from the Society of American Travel Writers, was named as one of the Best of 2020 in the Sunday Longread and was included in David Brooks’ annual Sidney Awards. Her most recent piece, “My Month of Doing 100 Wheeliea Day,” appeared in Outside.

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

That “no” doesn’t always mean “no.” Sometimes it just means “Not right now.” 

I’ve come to realize that so much of landing a pitch has to do with timing: what’s going on in the news and the world; what the editors have on their lineup; the gestation of a story that’s still unfolding in real life. I wrote a true crime book proposal that almost sold in 2014 (the deal fell through). I was disappointed, but didn’t throw it out entirely, because my gut said the timing wasn’t right. Today, the market is way different for true crime is very different, so I’m reconsidering that story. 

I’ve found that sometimes a story can’t be rushed. It almost feels like it has a will of its own, and no matter the writer’s agenda or skill, it can’t be written until the story is ready. I know this sounds a little woo-woo, but my instincts on this have almost always been right. I have pulled eight-year-old story ideas out of a folder named “Rejected” and sold them when the time and venue and fit was just right. I guess the hard part is knowing which ideas are worth resurrecting and which should stay in the “rejected” folder. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That my non-writing life would intersect with my writing life in such unexpected and integral ways. J-school instilled the belief that it was unprofessional or even narcissistic for writers to put themselves in the story. But some of my most successful stories—not only in terms of professional recognition but responses from readers who related—have been personal essays. When an essay about fishing with my late father was selected for Best American Sports Writing, I was flabbergasted: I didn’t know fishing was a sport, and had never considered sports writing, despite being a competitive athlete since the age of 9. This also opened the door to a niche that had never even occurred to me, and made me realize an expertise I never even knew I had. Now I write quite a lot about bicycling and fishing—two passions that don’t feel like work to me!

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

One of the first things that came to mind is a home-builder. Everyone does it differently, but for me, a narrative starts with a blueprint: a plan for the story structure. And, as with building a house, the plan often evolves as the product starts to take shape. After I lay the foundation and frame the walls (ie complete the rough draft) I do a walk-through to see if the rooms are in the right place. If not, this is the time to tear down walls, move windows, and decide you don’t need that extra room. Only then do I start fleshing out the story, hanging drywall and mudding over the seams (which can be an exquisitely frustrating process). Last comes round after round of polishing: adding trim and paint colors (which sometimes change). Those last rounds of finishing touches—word precision, activating verbs, tightening prose, tinkering with cadence and flow—are when the magic happens. 

For me, narrative structure—the sequence of scene, summary, and exposition—is the foundation of a successful story. When a house is well designed, a stranger can walk in and, without help, figure out where to find the bathroom or the kitchen. Likewise, a story should keep the reader feeling effortlessly oriented. 

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

Mike Wilson, whom I consider my Jedi Master, taught me the importance of restraint. Particularly when writing emotional stories, where there’s a risk of being maudlin or cliche. The bigger the emotion, the smaller you need to write. My personal measure of success for most stories is whether it makes a reader feel something, so I try to stir up a universal emotion through details so concrete and singular that they’re the antithesis of cliche. Instead of describing the emotion, try, as Hemingway advised, to write “the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion.” 

Craft Lesson: Getting it Right: A Passion for Accuracy

Craft Lessons

Have you ever been on the receiving end of journalism: the subject of, or even just a mention in, a news story? Perhaps it was about a friend or relative. Or an obituary of a family member. Did they get it right? Ask readers, reporters, and editors this question and you’ll hear a catalog of misspelled names, mangled quotes, factual errors. My father’s obit misspelled my sister’s name.

Surveys have shown that the public expects the news media to be accurate, even though people are less confident than they used to be that news organizations get the facts right. That’s why accuracy must be a mindset, a passion for accuracy.

Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect, but journalists and other writers must take great care to get it right. Otherwise, they lose their greatest asset: credibility.
Accuracy is the goal; fact-checking is the process.

After tracking errors in The Oregonian of Portland, editors concluded that the three most frequent sources of error are:

  • Working from memory.
  • Making assumptions.
  • Dealing with second-hand sources.

    The way to achieve accuracy is to develop a system and adhere to it religiously, former Oregonian editor Michele McLellan found in her research. One of my favorite resources remains “44 Tips for Greater Accuracy,” created by Frank E. Fee. Jr., the former Knight Professor of Editing at Ohio University. Aimed at copy editors, Fee’s tips are an invaluable checklist for writers as well. For me, the most important one is “Never assume anything,” followed by “Don’t be too busy or too proud to check a fact.”

    If you’re having an accuracy problem, pay attention to three fault lines as you go about your job: 

    DURING THE REPORTING, take the extra seconds to read back the spelling of the source’s name. Ask for the person’s age. If you ask for birthdate and year, you’ll always have the information needed to update it. Some writers ask sources to write down their names in their reporter’s notebook.

    DURING THE WRITING, consult your documentary sources — notebook, printed materials, audio recording and transcripts. If you don’t want to interrupt the writing flow, make sure to put a mark reminding you to double-check it later. “CK” for “check” is the standard proofreader’s mark. “CQ” is shorthand for “this has been checked for accuracy;” it is often used with unusual spellings, facts and figures. It alerts copy editors that you’ve done your job. Of course, they should double-check nonetheless.

    AFTER THE WRITING, assemble all your source materials — notebooks, interview transcripts, tapes, books, studies, photographs — everything you’ve used to report and write your story. Then go over every single word in the story and compare it to the original source. (That’s the approach that Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative writer Tom French took. At the St. Petersburg Times, where we worked together, I watched in awe how, despite the length of his serial narratives, he put a check mark over every word to show that he’d linked it to a source. Sure it’s time-consuming, but you can sleep a little easier and increase your chances of dodging a libel suit. Even on daily stories with very tight deadIines, you can manage your time—setting a deadline fifteen minutes before the story is due—to make one printout just for names and titles, another for quotes, a third for other factual details. An eminently helpful aid, as I wrote in an earlier post, is your computer’s text-to-speech ability to read your story aloud. Reading while listening usually flags flaws that eluded you.

    Don’t be afraid to call your sources back and double-check. If you’re describing a financial transaction, a medical procedure or how a sewer bond works, there’s nothing wrong with calling an expert and asking her to listen to what you’ve written. Your obligation is to be clear and accurate.

    Listen to the voice in your head. Whenever I made a mistake in a story, I could always go back to a moment where it happened. It was almost as if a tiny bell was ringing a faint warning that I ignored. Usually, it was an assumption I made or a question I failed to address. There is a moment of truth in writing where you can take either the accurate path or the inaccurate one.

    I was obsessive about it, but in 22 years as a reporter, I wrote stories that had corrections appended only about a half-dozen times. That doesn’t mean all my other stories were error-free; they just went unnoticed, I imagine.

    Errors are the bane of journalists. As a rookie reporter, I used to keep my corrections in my top desk drawer; I wanted their presence to haunt me. Reporters who start their careers working for small-town papers, as I did, learn an unforgettable lesson about accuracy when they make a mistake in an obituary and hear from the deceased’s survivors.

    Some magazines employ fact-checkers. They verify facts names, titles, ages, addresses and quotations in the story. Other writers I know rely on friends and family to keep them out of trouble. (Thanks, Casey and Jeff!) Despite our best efforts, some mistakes have slipped through the cracks. I don’t think a story or a book without some mistakes exists. A case in point: “In This Issue” of Chip’s Writing Lessons #49 had two formatting errors: the wrong headline for the tip of the week and a headline for a “Writing to Savor” that didn’t appear later in the newsletter. I regret any confusion this caused. I try to remember that Appalachian quilt makers put mistakes in their work because, they say, the devil loves perfection. But the careful, responsible writer always tries hard to get it right, even if they don’t always succeed.

Stories Are the Way We Connect: Four Questions with Glenn Stout

Glenn Stout

Glenn Stout began freelancing in 1986 and became a full-time writer in 1993. The only Series Editor of The Best American Sports Writing over its 30-year existence, he is the author, editor or ghostwriter of 100 books. His titles include Young Woman and the Sea; How Gertrude Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Changed the World, now in development as a motion picture for Disney+, and, most recently, Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America’s Original Gangster Couple. A citizen of the U.S. and Canada, he grew up in Ohio, studied poetry at Bard College, and worked as a librarian at the Boston Public Library before turning to writing. He now lives in Vermont where he writes and serves as consultant and freelance editor on book proposals, manuscripts and longform features.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

To learn how I write, not just word by word, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, but also to learn the process that works for me both before and after the words first go on the page. I think when we begin to write we often sabotage ourselves through comparison with others. We all want to write like writers we admire, but discover we don’t sound that way. Then we learn that writer “A” hews to a strict schedule and writes a thousand words a day… and some days we write and some days we don’t. We learn that writer “B” meticulously takes notes on index cards… while we scrawl in notebooks and create vast piles of pages of reporting. We learn writer “C” creates grand sculptural dioramas of every story in advance of writing it… while we an outline that could fit on the palm of our hand. It’s easy to look at our own words and methods and feel diminished, lesser than. But instead of beating ourselves up by comparison, better instead to learn to recognize those first few snippets that sound like ourselves and build from that, and find the methods that best work for ourselves. Not that we don’t learn from others; we do, but the lesson is that while there is no single best way to write, there are many ways, and each of us has to discover the way that best works for us.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Realizing that stories are the way be connect with others, that they are the basis of communication and connection. For a long time I don’t think I was aware of this, but when I began working with other writers it suddenly became clear and I finally understood why I do what I do.

You may meet a stranger and exchange small talk, but at some point you start sharing stories with one another, and when you do that you begin to find a part of yourself in the story of another. That is how we connect, and why we connect, and that’s why we do this. Because, let’s face it, none of this, really, makes sense in terms of making a living. Writing can be isolating, it doesn’t always pay well, if at all, and most of what we do only speaks to a limited audience. It’s hard to make a living this way. If you look at it logically, there are thousands of reasons not to be a writer. Yet people do it all the time. And I think the reason for that is because we’re put on the planet to connect with others, and the only way we know how to do that is through the stories we share.

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

I always say I’m a laborer. When I was younger I was fortunate enough to work several years in construction, first as laborer, then form carpenter and foreman, working in concrete and steel. That experience taught me as much about writing as any workshop or conference I’ve ever attended. I learned that you can begin with a complete empty slate, a roughly graded empty lot, but that by dint of labor, showing up each day, staying at it, focusing on the job right in front of you, that six months or a year later, well goddamn, there’s a building. And then you can do it again. It’s the same way writing a story, or a book. You stay in the chair long enough, do the next task, and there it is. Writing is done in increments, one after the other. The result can be art, but the execution is mostly labor and effort, and that, in the end is all you can control. If you show up every day…

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

Listen to written words spoken aloud. My early background in writing was almost entirely in the writing and study of poetry, and I learned that sound is just about everything, that it is the sound of the words, as much as what they mean, that distinguishes writing. I believe that a work can be accurate and correct in every way, but if it lacks sound and rhythm and pace, I don’t think it sticks in our brains, the impact is blunted. Then we don’t occupy the work, it remains at arms’ length and we don’t experience and inhabit the story, and I think that is the goal: to be immersed in a story so that when it ends we are somehow changed in way large or small. I think sound is the key to that experience, where no part of the work pushes us away, or disrupts the experience. I’m not saying we read aloud always, but that by reading aloud we learn to hear, and by learning to hear we can also learn to write so others listen and hear us.


Craft Lessons

Chip’s Writing Lessons celebrates its 50th issue today. To mark it, I’ve rounded up answers to a question I posed to writers and editors in their ‘Four Questions With” interviews: “What’s the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?” Here’s what ten of them had to share.

“At first, everybody a reporter talks to is likely to put up a front — some people suck up, others are mean and try to run you off, still others are fearful about the whole process. It’s hard for your first interactions to be authentic. But not many people can put up a front forever. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see the real person.”
Tommy Tomlinson

“Boil your story down to a sentence. If you can’t do that, your story is likely to ramble and lose its theme. If possible, boil the story down to a word. Write the sentence or word on a Post-It note and keep it visible until you’re done with the story. That always helps me stay on point.”
Rosalind Bentley

“Often in long narratives I think of two rules for the opening:

  1. The reader should have an almost immediate sense of why this is important (somewhere between the second graph and the sixth).
  2. The reader should care about your characters before things happen to them and before they do things.” – Mark Johnson

“Resist the urge to start correcting the small stuff on your first pass through a manuscript. Instead, you should read the entire piece through thoughtfully, thinking hard about structure, theme, tone, and the other large questions that are far more important to reader impact than the easy copy-editing and polish corrections that can distract you on a first pass through a piece.”  
Jack Hart

“Lary Bloom, who I worked for at Northeast Magazine at the Hartford Courant, once said to me: “Don’t be the editor of the greatest unpublished work.” What that meant was take a risk to like something, to champion it and polish it and then publish it. You’ll never face criticism for the manuscripts you turn down; no one will see them. As an editor, you have to open yourself to scrutiny for what you choose to publish, and then stand behind it. That’s your job!”
Jan Winburn

“Report, report, report, to earn the right to take charge, to make choices, to run a rope from post to post, stretched taut, taking and using what serves the story and moves it forward, from beginning to middle to end, while unsentimentally leaving behind what does not.”
Michael Kruse

“When I was covering the Iraq war and felt overwhelmed, my editor, the great Jan Winburn, told me: “Just write what you see in front of you.” It was her version of E.B. White’s advice: “Don’t write about man. Write about a man.”
Moni Basu

“The advice that has stayed with me the most wasn’t specifically about editing— in terms of handling copy — but about managing people and it came from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Maria Carrillo

“I think the best advice I ever got about writing was from Gene Roberts, who used to say that every good story should be brimming with “color, quotes and anecdotes.” As I recall, one of Gene’s first editors at the Goldsboro (NC) News-Argus was blind, and he demanded that Gene’s stories make him see.
Bill Marimow

“Many years ago, I took a writing workshop at my local YMCA with Sonia Pilcer. Sonia assigned weekly prompts and, on the first day, wrote on the blackboard: WRITE. WRITE STUPID. WRITE UGLY. WRITE. Along with Sonia’s advice, the number of stories required in week-long intensives led by terrific teachers like Nancy Zafris and Pam Painter (who sometimes demanded two stories a night), dispelled the notion that you must produce something good every time. I still find it nerve-wracking to be among a new group of writers, especially writing to prompts. What will they think? But I cling to that initial advice. Writing is a craft you get better at by doing, even doing badly.”
Nancy Ludmerer

You Have to Sit in the Chair: Four Questions with Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist and feature writer for The Washington Post. She was previously a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. She has been named the nation’s top sports columnist by the Associated Press sports editors four times and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. In 2013, she earned a first-place AP award for “Do No Harm,” an investigative series, co-written with Rick Maese, on medical care in the National Football League. She won the 2021 Red Smith Award for “major contributions to sports journalism,” the same prize her late father, sportswriter Dan Jenkins, won in 2013. Jenkins is the author of 12 books, four of which were New York Times bestsellers, most recently the No.1 “Sum It Up” with legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt. She is also the author of “The Real All Americans,” the historical account of how the Carlisle Indian School took on the Ivy League powers in college football at the turn of the century and won. Her work has been featured in Smithsonian, GQ and Sports Illustrated. A native of Texas, Jenkins graduated from Stanford and lives in Sag Harbor, New York.

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

That there is no such thing as writing without discipline and structure. Inspiration is almost a mirage. It’s not that it doesn’t exist; it does. But if it’s not married to method, regimen, it’s useless, it’s just a scrap of paper floating on a breeze, flying away from you. What makes something conveyable is the regular work. You have to sit in the chair for at least two to four hours for something worthwhile to happen. And it’s a stunning thing: if you will do that, if you’re willing to sit there fearfully but faithfully in front of a blank white screen and just try for a few hours, then you will produce a page or a few pages that are fixable, improvable, until they become coherent. 

       But then you have to revise. And then revise again. The difference between a first draft and a second draft is about a 35 percent improvement. And the difference between the second draft and the third draft is another 35 percent of improvement. So, if you’re doing the basic math, 70 percent of what happens comes after the initial inspiration. Those revisions are like eating day-old oatmeal. Frequently when I read over my first draft I feel like crying. Sometimes I do cry – because I’m a cat-in-yarn incompetent who can’t organize a simple sentence. But at the end of the second draft, I’ve at least untangled the string. And after the third, I’m not happy but I’m not mortified. And I know that I at least worked at it, so I can hold my head up over that. 

       And then, a lot of times, it’s published and other people tell me they like it, and I re-read it, and I think, “Well that was pretty good. I’m pretty proud of that because I know how I worked at it.” I have one strength and one strength only as a writer: I work at it. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The things that come out of my head. That’s the biggest surprise of all. 

I am stunned at the words that come unlooked for. I mean stuff just appears – and you don’t have any freaking idea why or how. It writes you. That’s why you have to sit in the chair for four hours. Because you don’t know what will happen, when the invisible thing that really holds the pen or hits the keys starts moving. I have used words I didn’t know I knew.  

I’m also surprised at how everlastingly scary it is, to sit there and court incompetence and to take chances with words. You’re almost never punished for taking those chances. That’s surprising. If you take the chance – and revise with discipline – then the chance will reward you with quality. I read something once that the songwriter Paul Simon said. He said, I’m paraphrasing, there’s a point where you’re stopped and scared, and you have to tell yourself, what are you so scared of, and move past it. And then the good things come.  

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

I am a prisoner breaking rocks with a shovel. Like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, saying, “Yeah Boss,” while I chop at the ground.

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

Two pieces. One was from my Dad. “Don’t ever let a thing out of your hands until it’s as good as you can make it,” he said. He meant within the confines of a deadline, of course. But he also meant, you do your best every time out, don’t you ever mail it in. 

And then there was Tony Kornheiser’s advice to me as a young writer at The Washington Post. “You’re only as smart as the people you talk to,” he said. Which also stuck. You have to seek out smart people and you have to listen, and you have to store up all the information, as well as the thoughts and words, that come from that. 

Craft Lesson: Writing with Your Nose

Craft Lessons

A nose for news. In journalism, the phrase means the ability to sniff out the newsworthy from the trivial. Good reporters have one. Give them a whiff of corruption and they’ll root it out like a pig diving for truffles. Narrative writers can ferret out the conflict in an event or situation that makes for compelling prose.

Write with the senses, editors and writing teachers demand. And most of us do that, providing our readers with vivid images and resonant sounds.  

But hunt high and low in stories for a sense of smell and some days you feel like a bloodhound who’s lost the scent. Tastes abound, but smells, the scents that get the salivary juices running, are often absent. But look hard enough, and they seem to be found in the best writing.

“Smell,” wrote the blind and deaf writer Helen Keller, “is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”

Pick a smell and it will take you back to times past, remembered places. I need only catch a whiff of patchouli oil and it’s the ’60s again. Another scent catapults me back to my father’s wake when I was 10 years old. Bouquets of lilies and roses and sprays of mums and daisies surrounded his coffin, but the cloying, overripe scent of carnations summons that memory with its churning blend of grief, fear, and shock.

“Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” a sensory-rich journey. “Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

“Mention a smell,” says novelist fantasy and horror story writer,” Rayne Hall, “and the scene comes to life. Mention two or three, and the reader is pulled into the scene as if it were real.”

Bob Kerr, former Providence Journal columnist and a Vietnam veteran, said that jungle war is captured for him in the confluence of two smells generated by the malodorous duty that required soldiers to dispose of latrine contents with fire: “diesel fuel and burning shitters.”

No one has written more powerfully about the senses than Ackerman, whose book catalogs the potency of sensory data. “Nothing is more memorable than a smell,” she says. Or as evocative. 

All of us have a lengthy catalog of smells that make us remember and feel. So why are we so reluctant to employ them in our writing? 

Ackerman makes the case that the problem is in our head, in the connections that link our sense of smell with the parts of the brain where language forms. She calls smell “the mute sense, the one without words.”

Try describing a smell to someone who’s never smelled it, she says, and you’ll see how our olfactory precision quickly diffuses. 

“The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak,” compared with those “between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.”

“When we see something we can describe it in gushing detail, in a cascade of images … But who can map the features of a smell?”

Emily Grosvenor is a journalist and essayist who has written extensively about scents in fiction (the nostrils of novelists and short story writers seem more sensitive than most journalists). She has an inspiring online collection of examples that she calls the “Best Smelly Writing.” In fact, she won the the Perfumed Plume Awards for Fragrance Journalism. (There really is one.)

She also produced an olfactory exegisis of Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train,” that is a guide for writers in search of acutely described smells that will inspire writers who want to employ that sense.

There is another novelist I’ve studied who writes powerfully with his nose: Richard Price, the novelist (“Clockers” and “Freedomland“) and screenwriter (“The Color of Money” and “Sea of Love.”)

The novels of Price reek, in the very best sense of the word. 

A close look at the way he uses the sense of smell in his novel, “Samaritan,” reveals a taxonomy of olfactory usage that any writer, of whatever genre or form, can profit from. (The italicized passages are from the novel.)


“Straightening up, he was struck with a humid waft of boiled hot dogs and some kind of furry bean-based soup that threw him right back into tenth grade.” 

For French novelist Marcel Proust, taste was the bridge between present and past, captured in the legendary scene in “Remembrance of Things Past” when the act of dipping a madeleine, a small shell-shaped pastry, into a cup of lime-flower tea, enables the narrator to relive a moment from his past. In the gritty world of Price’s urban New Jersey wasteland, the smell of cafeteria food is an equally powerful time transporter.


Price repeatedly uses smells to evoke a sense of place:

“Outdoors again, she inhaled a low-tied stench, funky but evocative, coming off the conjunction of river and bay.”

“The lobby of his old building, as he’d expected, seemed smaller to him but the smell caught him off guard: a claustrophic stankiness — urine, old bacon grease.”

“A greasy aroma drifted down from the third-floor food court — spare ribs and Cinnabons…”


Writers regularly use visual cues to distinguish one character from another. Price uses scents the same way, marking his characters with distinctive smells, like the tracks of a woman’s perfume and the effect it has on the hero. 

“Danielle then embraced Ray. She was sporting some kind of vanilla-musk body spray, the scent so dense that it made him dizzy.”

“Wearing dry-cleaned jeans and a white T-shirt under a red bolero jacket, she gingerly wandered about, lightly touching things, her perfume, that vanilla musk, laying down a heavy sweetish track wherever she went.”


Make cookies, real estate agents advise home sellers who know the smell evokes a homey atmosphere. (Or just sprinkle a few drops of vanilla on a hot lightbulb to get the same effect.) Price evokes mood with descriptions of odors.

“It was cold, the city-borne breeze damp and acrid, still damp with dread after all this time.”

“This time around, the hospital smelled like terror; a pervasively astringent reek that set up house between Ray’s eyes and made the two-month-old ‘Entertainment Weekly’ spread-eagled between his fists flutter as if caught in a gentle breeze.”

“Each day,” Ackerman writes, “we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems.”

“Unlike the other senses,” Ackerman explains, “smell needs no interpreter.”

But the twinned reflex of breathing described by scientists and the work of Richard Price suggests ways writers can use smell to convey information, memory, and emotion in their stories.

1. Breathe In. 

“Over time, smell has become the least necessary of our senses,” Ackerman says, quoting Helen Keller’s name for it: “the fallen angel.”

Our antiseptic age seems designed to rob us of smells or confuse our nose with synthetic concoctions that mask noxious chemicals with the aromas of the orchard. 

Cultivate your sense of smell by using it as much as you can. 

2. Name that smell.

Diane Ackerman says, “We can detect over 10,000 different odors, so many, in fact, that our memories would fail us if we tried to jot down everything they represent.”

During workshops I’ve asked writers and editors to help me develop a catalog of smells. Here’s a sampling: 

  • New wood
  • Lilacs
  • Horse manure
  • Dried seaweed
  • Stogies
  • After summer rain
  • Coffee with cream
  • Sea air

3. Describe the smell.

Modifiers can heighten a smell’s impact. Price regularly uses them in his olfactory details.

“The air smelled of sea funk and overturned earth; the only thing Ray loved about living in Little Venice, the raw and heady scent made him think of new beginnings, of second and third chances to get things right.”

Price also describes the nature of odors, a technique that adds to the muscularity of his prose.

“Then, reentering the apartment from the terrace, she gave the living room a fresh look. Minus the caustic reek of mothballs … the place had the same vaguely geriatric un-lived-in feel as Mrs. Kuben’s digs next door…”

Nerese found herself walking into a living room adrift in malt liquor fumes, her son and three of his high school buddies playing at being players, sprawled on the couch, throwing back forties and clutching their nuts, a porno video playing on the TV.

Simile and metaphor, the workhorses of poetry, can help convey a smell’s power to a reader. 

3. Find the Source.

Don’t just inhale the world. Identify and describe the smell and the memory or feeling it evokes.

Reading Richard Price and then noticing how few writers, myself included, take as full advantage of their sense of smell as he does, has made me more alert to the power of this sense. 

It also reminded me that a scent can provide a story’s most haunting moment. Decades ago, I wrote a story called “The Death of a Smoker” as part of a series on early efforts to sue tobacco companies for smoking-related illnesses and deaths. The smoker’s widow was showing me around the home she had shared with her husband before lung cancer killed him. In her bedroom, she paused and told me something that I used to end the piece.

“It feels like one big nightmare,” she says. “Maybe I will wake up, and he will be in bed with me. But I know it’s not going to be so. Would you believe it? I take his aftershave lotion and spray it on his pillow just so I can smell him. Just the smell of it makes me feel like he’s with me.”

Revision Is Your Friend: Four Questions with Rosalind Bentley

Rosalind Bentley

A native of Florida’s panhandle, Rosalind Bentley is a Features/Enterprise writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution focusing on culture, arts and sometimes food. A graduate of Florida A&M University, she received her MFA in narrative non-fiction from the University of Georgia. She has covered a variety of stories over the years from the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first Black president, for which she won first place in editorial writing from the National Women’s Political Caucus, to the important role of Black women who fed the civil rights movement. A two-time James Beard Award finalist, her AJC profile of U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey was anthologized in Best American Newspaper Narratives 2012. While in Minnesota, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a special project on race relations. Also, during her time on the tundra, she learned what’s called hot-dish in the upper Midwest is actually a version of a proper Southern casserole.

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

It’s a tie between “Read, read, read,” and revision is your friend. You have to read the great writers and you have to read the not-so-great ones to learn what’s good and what’s not. This can be tricky because a well-turned phrase can seduce you into believing a piece is better than it is. But over time, you’ll develop a more discerning palate. The lessons from the great writers will find their way into your work: short declarative sentences; end a sentence on a strong word; avoid adverbs.

Revision helps you get there, as does reading your work aloud, but you have to know when to stop. At some point you’ve got to turn the story in.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

It doesn’t get easier. You stare at the screen. You decide you are, in fact, an imposter. You panic. And then you get on with it.

That said, if I’m really struggling with a piece, in all likelihood I haven’t done enough reporting. Solid reporting is necessary to write with confidence. So, I go back and ask more questions, or I do more research. The stage fright comes when I put too much pressure on myself to make a story “special.” (Imposter alert!) It’s at that point that I pace around the kitchen, make a cup of tea, then go back to the keyboard and write the piece as though I’m telling the story to a friend.

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

Oooowee. Let’s see. I’m a kid about to jump into a round of double-dutch. I watch the rhythm of the turning ropes, probably too long, then in I jump. My feet pump and pump and pump, until I stumble. I step to the side, watch the ropes turn again, pick up the rhythm, then leap. I do this over and over until I feel I can leave the game not with a stumble, but with a backflip where I clear the ropes and land on my feet. 

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

Boil your story down to a sentence. If you can’t do that, your story is likely to ramble and lose its theme. If possible, boil the story down to a word. Write the sentence or word on a Post-It note and keep it visible until you’re done with the story. That always helps me stay on point. 

Craft Lesson: Under My Feet: Why Writers Should Walk

Craft Lessons

I rise before dawn and dress in the dark, so as not to wake my dog. This is my time. I dress for the weather, step outside and begin my morning walk. A while ago, I slipped on a rain-slicked sidewalk and banged my big toe. It wasn’t broken, but seven days went by before I could walk without pain. I felt like an addict in search of a fix.

Healed now, I power walk for an hour through my tree-shrouded neighborhood, swinging my arms high, as the sidewalks under my feet pass in a blur. Some mornings I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but the best times are when I shut off everything but my mind. As the house, gardens and yards on either side disappear in a blur, I think about stories, those I’m working on, dream about writing or are stuck on. As the sun begins to rise, sentences sometimes take new shape. Puzzling leads tease their way to fluency. 

During the day, more leisurely walks also furnish opportunities for inspiration as my dog Leo leads me along the alleys that crisscross our neighborhood. Only when I feel a sharp tug on his leash do I realize I’ve been lost in thought; ruminating about pedestrian seeds that someday may germinate a story or help with a bedeviling rewrite. 

Walks, many writers have found through the centuries, are fertile drivers of the imagination, summoning forth the stories they want to finish, ones they want to start or to reconnoiter through all of their senses, collecting plots, details and characters as they move through the world.

“Walking, like reading and writing,” says columnist Danny Heitman, “is an unending source of surprise.”

James Joyce was an inveterate walker, roaming the streets of Dublin to map out where Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom went about their lives in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.”

Virginia Woolf, the English novelist, loved tramping through the Cornish countryside and the Bloomsbury section of London where her literary circle gathered.

Charles Dickens’ legendary long walks—fact-finding missions to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of gritty 19th century London—usually measured 12 miles a day in two-and-a-half hours, his biographer Peter Ackroyd reports.

“Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing,” science writer Ferris Jabr says in “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” in The New Yorker

He quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s journal: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

Methinks he was right. 

Science reveals, Jabr says, that changes in our body chemistry explain why walking triggers our imagination. Our heart pumps faster when we walk, sending blood and oxygen not only to our muscles, but all our organs, including the brain. 

Among the many health benefits, walking improves our memory and attention, studies show, protecting the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped brain organ critical to remembering. 

Regular walks elevate “levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them,” Jabr says. Even mild exertion, like my walks with Leo, studies show, helps with memory and attention.

Since walking doesn’t require much conscious attention, our mind “is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre,” Jabr says. “This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.” 

That was true for Virginia Woolf. In “Moments of Being,” a collection of posthumously published autobiographical essays, Woolf recalled a special journey: One day, “walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, “To the Lighthouse,” in a great, apparently involuntary rush,” an epiphany cited by Rebecca Solnit in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.”

In “Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking,”  Duncan Mishnull has collected 36 testimonies to the literary inspiration that walking provokes. 

“In a 1975 reminiscence about New York,” Michael LaPointe wrote in an Atlantic review of the book, “the novelist and essayist Edward Hoagland recalls how he stalked the streets of his hometown, first “to smell the yeasty redolence of the Nabisco factory” and then “to West Twelfth Street to sniff the police stables.”

The author was inhaling the raw stuff that would fuel creativity: “I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be.”

LaPointe also gives a satisfying summary of the salutary benefits of perambulation from “Walking: One Step at a Time,” by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge (North, South, and Mount Everest) on foot, as well as underground journeys through the New York City sewer system. 

Kagge, who cultivates “inner silence” along the way, says he appreciates “a healthy stretch of [the] legs, a kick of endorphins,” his thoughts “bubbling between my ears, new solutions to questions that have been plaguing me.”

For writers who spend hours sunk into their chairs staring at a screen with an imagination deficit, a good walk, whether fast or slow, may be the best exercise to kick those endorphins into action and get your creative juices flowing. 

In a society dependent on cars for transportation and treadmills for exercise, a walk—long or short — gives writers the chance to stretch their imagination. The next time you’re wrestling with a story, or even a single paragraph, pull on your sneakers and go for one. 

No Magic, Only Hard Work: Four Questions with Nancy Ludmerer

Nancy Ludmerer doing the crossword with Sandy

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

Over the past year or more I have shifted from writing mostly flash fiction to longer works. During this time, I have worked with a wonderful fiction writer and writing coach, Karen Bender. When I show Karen a story, she often asks me a series of questions. Why am I telling the story? What’s important to me about it?  Where does it come from? What’s at stake for the characters? Sometimes I can’t answer these questions at the time. Sometimes it takes weeks or months to get to an answer. There is no magic, only hard work. But when I finally get there, the story will begin to come to life.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I.B. Singer described art as escape: “a means of forgetting the human disaster for a while.” In the past I’ve escaped through reading, but not writing, which always seemed too hard and deliberate to be a way of forgetting anything. Recently, though, in the midst of the pandemic, my husband and I had to say good-bye to our beloved cat Sandy. The guilt and regret I experienced afterwards was worst at night, when I couldn’t fall asleep, or when I woke up at 3 a.m., heart pounding. I found that if I focused on the short story I was drafting, writing new scenes in my head, it helped. This is different from my usual writing process, in which I sit down to write with a purpose or plan, whether working on a scene, starting a new one, deepening a character, etc. Writing fiction is generally not an escape for me (I’d probably take a walk or a nap to escape from the writing!) so I was surprised and gratified to discover it could be.

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

How about an egg?  Specifically, a double-yolker: when a chicken releases two yolks into the same shell. Sometimes the hen is a young, inexperienced egg-producer; sometimes she’s near the end of her reproductive life; I feel like both at times. Then there’s the doubling in my writing: dual story lines, doppelgangers, and twins. I’ve been fascinated since childhood with doubling. My favorite classic was The Prince and the Pauper; my favorite movies and TV shows featured twins or identical cousins; my most-loved doggerel poem was Henry S. Leigh’s The Twins, which my dad and I would recite together until dissolving in laughter at the final verse: “And when I died the neighbors came and buried brother John.” I have a yet-to-be-published chapbook (essays and flash fictions) called Some Things Happen Twice. The effect of this metaphor on my writing (and life) is double-edged: it can foster indecision and regret, but is also about trying doubly-hard to get things right. 

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

Many years ago, I took a writing workshop at my local YMCA with Sonia Pilcer. Sonia assigned weekly prompts and, on the first day, wrote on the blackboard: WRITE. WRITE STUPID. WRITE UGLY. WRITE. Along with Sonia’s advice, the number of stories required in week-long intensives led by terrific teachers like Nancy Zafris and Pam Painter (who sometimes demanded two stories a night), dispelled the notion that you must produce something good every time. I still find it nerve-wracking to be among a new group of writers, especially writing to prompts. What will they think? But I cling to that initial advice. Writing is a craft you get better at by doing, even doing badly.

Nancy Ludmerer has fiction in Kenyon Review, Carve (where her story “A Simple Case” was the fiction winner of Carve’s 2019 Prose & Poetry Contest), Electric Literature, the Saturday Evening Post, Litro, and other places. Her flash fiction has been reprinted in Best Small Fictions, translated into Spanish, and read aloud on NPR-affiliated radio. Most recently, her flash fiction received honorable mention in Gemini Magazine’s annual flash contest and first prize in Streetlight Magazine’s contest. Longer stories have won prizes from Masters Review and Pulp Literature and will appear in Spring 2021. Her short memoir “Kritios Boy” (Literal Latte) was cited as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2014. She practiced law for over 30 years before turning to writing full-time. She lives in NYC.


Craft Lessons

Scenes are the building blocks of powerful fiction, narrative nonfiction and screenplays. An effective scene stands on its own—a taut episode featuring characters, dialogue, description and tension that is one part of a mosaic that reveals the action and themes that make up the entire work. With them, you have an engine that drives your story. Without them, you’re stuck with writing that is nothing more than a lifeless encounter between characters. 

By way of definition, a scene is a single dramatized event, uninterrupted by summary and a change in setting. 

Many writers have trouble writing scenes. As a young writer, I found that much of my fiction and was told in summary rather than dramatic narrative. “Telling a story,” I found, took much less effort than “showing” and my stories suffered as a result. It wasn’t until I learned how to write scenes that my stories began to be published. 

Of course, summary narrative has its place, to describe characters and bridge passages of time, except in scriptwriting, which relies exclusively on scenes, since scriptwriters generally don’t have access to those two tools (with the rare exception of voice-overs or a soliloquy.)

To write successful fiction, the writer must learn how to “intuitively or deliberately build their scenes,” says Albert Zuckerman, a book doctor who has shepherded two dozen novels onto best-seller lists and taught playwriting at Yale, and has important things to say on the subject.

“Somewhere in the first few lines or paragraphs (or carried over from an earlier scene) a question is subtly (or not so subtly) raised,” Zuckerman says “In Writing the Blockbuster Novel.” That question must be answered with a climactic moment. Zuckerman offers important advice to these writers. Take your manuscript and select two or three substantial scenes. Does anything in the text “raise a question that sets up suspense that is then dealt with or resolved in the scene’s climax.” If not, decide on what your climax should be, “write it, and then find a way to prepare for it.”

The same holds true for narrative nonfiction, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin writes in his essential handbook, “Writing for Story.” “In the realm of structural construction your concern will narrow to the practicalities…of scene-setting and building, pacing, action sequencing and the other techniques that will allow the reader to slide easily through your story,” Franklin says. 

Film can be an effective teaching tool for writers learning to craft powerful scenes in narrative nonfiction. Katie Engelhart is a documentary film producer who has written a powerful new book about assisted dying, “The inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die,” that focuses on people with terminal illnesses, mental anguish and dementia who want to end their own lives even though in many state’s it’s illegal. Barred by law, hospitals and hospice, some rely on sympathetic doctors and activists willing to help them make a peaceful final exit. 

“I think that working in film has helped me to see things in scenes, when I’m reporting — and then, later, to string those scenes together in a way that feels vivid and motivated,” she told me in a recent interview. “Other writers know how to do this instinctively, but I’m not sure I’m one of them. I needed to learn.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

A superb example of scenes in a film can be found in the screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” based on Mario Puzo’s novel; it’s a sequence of scenes that asks the question whether Michael Corleone will summon the courage to murder the family’s rival mobster, Virgil Sollozzo, and the corrupt police captain who broke Michael’s jaw after Don Corleone was ambushed in the street by Sollozzo’s thugs. In an earlier scene that foreshadows what’s to come, Michael arranges for a gun to be hidden in the bathroom of the restaurant where he and Sollozzo are to meet to discuss a truce. 

Later, on a moody dark night, Sollozzo picks him up outside for a ride to an Italian restaurant. In a brief moment of foreshadowing, Michael tells his father’s rival, “I’m going to straighten everything out tonight. I don’t want my father bothered anymore.” Sollozzo believes a truce is in the offing, but Corleone knows better. Then, in perhaps the film’s tensest scene, an obviously torn and frightened Michael excuses himself to the bathroom and returns with the gun. But facing the two men, he hesitates as he wrestles with the morality of what he is about to do before making up his mind. The story reaches its climax when he shoots them in the face, drops the gun and flees to a waiting car. You can watch the sequence of scenes here.

What People Are Willing to Share: Four Questions with Mark Johnson


Mark Johnson

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

The greatest lesson I’ve learned is that writing is an endlessly humbling enterprise. I didn’t go to journalism school, so I tried to learn journalism by reading the best stories I could find. Before the Internet, I wrote away to great writers to get copies of their best stories: David Finkel, Anne Hull, Wil Haygood, Paul Salopek, Tom French, John Camp, Jacqui Banaszynski, Barry Bearak, Hank Stuever, Dan Barry, G. Wayne Miller, and on and on. I still do this if I can’t get access to a great story. The first step was reading these stories and figuring out what the writers did and did not do to make their stories great (what you cut turns out to be hugely important). The second step was trying to do in my own work what these great writers were doing, which was very difficult. But the real lesson came in seeing that as my writing improved, so did everyone else’s. The bar got higher and higher. I widened the universe of writers I tried to learn from: J.M. Coetzee, E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Svetlana Alexievich (the great Belarusian journalist). As my writing has inched forward I’ve seen the horizon stretch farther and farther away, which is both exhilarating and humbling. That’s been the greatest lesson I’ve learned. You never really arrive at your destination.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I’m constantly surprised at how much people will share with you if you are willing to have a real conversation — in other words, to listen and share things about your life too (without making the interview about you). We all carry secrets. After a while the carrying becomes a heavy burden. People look for someone they can share the burden with, usually just someone who will listen for a few hours. They don’t expect a reporter to solve their problems. I think they want us to be intensely interested and empathetic. When we do those things, there seems no limit to what people are willing to share. Early in my career, I had a young woman tell me that she lost her virginity on the basement steps of her high school (her school was not pleased to learn this). Recently, I had a heart surgeon tell me the vivid recurring nightmare he has — he is in a cabin in the forest trying to perform heart surgery on his son on the kitchen table using ordinary silverware. As a side note, I always ask people about their dreams. It’s fascinating how our thoughts and experiences play out while we’re asleep.

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

I think what I’m trying to do is build a nest. I have to get this collection of odds and ends to fit together into something solid. I don’t want too many bits sticking out. I certainly don’t want the thing to collapse and take others down with it. In the end I hope to make something that is inviting, warm, comfortable to settle into. It may sound a bit strained as a metaphor, but it’s the best I can come up with.

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

The piece of advice I’ve gone back to again and again over the years has been one I received from G. Wayne Miller at The Providence Journal. Though a total superstar, Wayne was always very generous with me, looking over story drafts and offering advice. Once I was working on a story about a man who got shot in a bar. He was a regular at the bar and that night happened to be sitting in the stool where the owner usually sat. Earlier, the owner had tossed some young men from the bar who had made threats. The young men returned and fired shots from outside the bar through a window, hitting this guy who was sitting where the the owner usually sat. The wound paralyzed this man.
I thought the sheer horrible luck of the shooting would be enough to make the reader feel enormous sympathy for the victim. Wayne read my lede and said “The reader has to care about your main character BEFORE the character gets shot”. That probably seems like such an obvious thing. I embarrassed to say it had not been obvious to me at the time. The fix was relatively simple. I mentioned that the guy who got shot was a used car salesman and father of three who visited the bar most days after work. I should probably have said more. But at least the reader could see this man — a guy with a job and a family just relaxing at a bar, not having any reason to fear for his life. That little extra information helped to ensure readers would not switch off their empathy simply because the victim was drinking at a bar. So often in long narratives I think of two rules for the opening:

  1. The reader should have an almost immediate sense of why this is important (somewhere between the second graph and the sixth).
  2. The reader should care about your characters before things happen to them and before they do things.

Mark Johnson is a health and science reporter at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel where he has worked since 2000. Previously he worked in three bureaus at The Providence Journal Bulletin. In 2011, he was part of a team in Milwaukee that won The Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. On three other occasions he has been part of teams that were Pulitzer finalists. Before becoming a health/science reporter, he covered general assignment, driving to New York to cover the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks and flying to Houston to cover the space shuttle Columbia disaster. He is co-author of the book “One in A Billion: The Story Of Nic Volker And The Dawn Of Genomic Medicine.” He also played guitar in the Rockford, Il. punk band, The Bloody Stumps. He is married to writer/editor Mary-Liz Shaw. They have a son, Evan, who composes music — not punk.

Bookbag: “The Writer’s Book of Hope”


Let’s be honest, all writers hope for success, for publication, for riches and fame. But many days we drag ourselves into a chair, open a blank screen and forge our way through doubts and despair that keep us from writing. 

But there is hope for writers in “The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication” by Ralph Keyes.

Keyes is a master writing coach and indefatigable student of the craft who has written a collection of useful and inspiring books about the writing craft. For me, “The Writer’s Book of Hope,” is his most inspiring. My copy is littered with checkmarks signaling the passages and sentences that speak to me in its 190 pages.

Keyes draws on hundreds of real-world examples of writers writing, failing, getting up and trying again and ultimately succeeding. These anecdotes are the basis of hope that every writer can seize upon, especially at those moments when all seems lost.

“Frustration is the natural habitat of writers at every level,” Keyes says. “I’ve felt it… So does anyone who aspires to write.” He describes speaking at writing courses and conferences that sounds familiar, as I’ve done the same.

“Participants worry about lacking talent. Their submissions get rejected. Inspiration wanes. It all seems so futile. Why keep going?”

He reassures these fledgling writers with tales of other hopeless writers. . 

Did you know, he tells them, that Samuel Beckett’s first novel was rejected by forty-two publishers? Or that a dozen agents chose not to represent J. K. Rowling? Beatrix Potter had to self-publish “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” “These are good grounds for hope,” he says, “There are many more.” It’s striking. and comforting. how many successful writers wrestled with hopelessness as they struggled to write despite constant disappointment. Hope, that urgent desire for something good to happen, is the answer, even though it’s often in short supply.

” Hope is the essential ingredient, as crucial to a writer as similes and semicolons,” Keyes says.
“A simple nod of reassurance can keep us going when every nerve ending says, STOP! ENOUGH! I SURRENDER! We can write without a computer, typewriter, desk, pen, or even paper (some excellent writing has been done in prisons on matchbook covers and toilet tissue). The one thing we can’t write without is hope. Hope is to writers as oxygen is to scuba divers. No writer can survive without it.

Besides discipline, what writers, even the greatest, need is encouragement. For Saul Bellow, a Nobel laureate in literature, “every book is his first book,” his longtime agent Harriet Wasserman recalled. “And he is always the first time writer welcoming reinforcement.” 

Keyes describes a conversation with William Zinsser, author of the classic “On Writing Well.”. At work on his latest book, however, Zinsser confronted a manuscript returned by his longtime editor with several pages of suggested revisions. “Zinsser was taken aback,” Keyes recalls. “He searched in vain for any words of reassurance in his editor’s commentary. Did this man like the manuscript? That was the first question Zinsser put to his editor, followed by remonstration for not including any encouraging words in his critique. “Don’t think just because I’ve been doing this so long I don’t need encouragement,” said Zinsser. There’s a lesson there for every editor who may not understand how deeply writers crave a morsel of encouragement along with necessary calls for changes.

What’s the hardest part of being a writer? It’s not getting your commas in the right place, Keyes writes, “but getting your head in the right place. Where help is really needed is in the area of countering anxiety, frustration, and despair.”

That means doing the work and reading the stories of writers like you that are found in abundance in “The Writer’s Book of Hope.”

It’s replete with examples of desperation, not from aspiring writers, but successful ones like mystery writer Sue Grafton, short story master Alice Munro, who writes short stories compared to Anton Chekov despite constant despair, and even the 19th century master Gustave Flaubert, who endured daily torments that nonetheless produced “Madame Bovary.”

In Keyes’s book, hope comes from the inspiring examples he assembles of successful but often hopeless writers who, despite their fears, pushed onward, even if the day’s output was but a sentence, like novelist and essayist Gail Godwin.

“Simply staying there when more than anything else I want to get out of that room,” she says. “It sometimes means going up without hope and without energy and simply acknowledging my barrenness and lighting my incense and turning on my computer. And, at the end of two or three hours, and without hope and without energy, I find that I have indeed written some sentences that wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t gone up to write them.”

A crucial way to locate hope, Keyes says, is to avoid what he calls “discouragers.” These are the teachers and guidance counselors who throw cold water on an aspiring writers’s dreams. They’re the friends and strangers who ask “Yeah, but what do you really do?” or “Don’t quit your day job!” They are often the enviers who wish they had a creative passion. 

Instead, look for what Keyes labels “encouragers.” These include family, teachers, colleagues, mentors, agents, writers groups, editors, readers. Inspiring examples of these relationships abound in “The Writer’s Book of Hope.” “Finding the right encouragers at the right time,” Keyes concludes, “is one of the developing writer’s most important tasks.” Encouragers, whether it’s a spouse, brother or sister who tells you you’re a good writer or that you can finish your story or an editor or agent or gives you the tools to finish a project, these supporters help make you the writer you want to be. 

In five decades as a writer, I have been fortunate to have many encouragers who gave me hope: a supportive spouse, herself a talented writer and editor, siblings, editors and readers. It took time, but I also learned to avoid discouragers. I’m sure there are encouragers in your life. You may have to search for and locate them, often through trial and error. Along with writing and submitting your work despite your doubts, finding people who believe in you are the best ways to locate hope, that elusive ingredient that separates the would-bes from the writers who keep trying. 

“Hang in there,” Keyes urges. “You’d be surprised by how many successful writers were once discouraged ones.” 

You can be one of them. Don’t give up. I have hope in you.

Write what you see in front of you: Four Questions with Moni Basu

Moni Basu

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

I am still learning every day. So, can I list more than one important lesson? First: You can’t ever write what you don’t know. In other words, you have to report the hell out of a story in order to tell it well. Second: Good things come to all those who wait. We, as journalists, are programed to break news and often, we are not paragons of patience. But slowing down and giving your characters breathing space can yield gold. Third: I used to think I had to travel the world to tell a compelling story. But stories are everywhere. You just have to look in the right places.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I had hoped (foolishly) that writing would get much easier with age and experience. I was wrong and it was a rather unpleasant surprise. I thought this profession was like many others – that the more you do it the less daunting your job becomes. I have certainly become a better writer after 37 years in journalism but with that improvement, the bar has been set higher.

I still feel trepidation when trying to making sense of the story I just reported. I am terrified of not doing my characters justice. But perhaps fear is a good thing in that it keeps hubris at bay.

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

Fabulous question! I am a chef who gathers interesting ingredients to prepare a delicious dish but never follows a recipe.  

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

When I was covering the Iraq war and felt overwhelmed, my editor, the great Jan Winburn, told me: “Just write what you see in front of you.” It was her version of E.B. White’s advice: “Don’t write about man. Write about a man.”

Moni Basu is the Michael and Linda Connelly Lecturer in Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Florida. She prefers Prof B. Basu worked as a reporter and editor for 35 years before becoming a full-time professor. She still writes as a freelancer and her most recent work has been published in the Bitter Southerner and Flamingo magazine. She is also a distinguished professor of practice in the narrative nonfiction MFA program at the University of Georgia. She loves terrific storytelling. Her 2012 e-book, Chaplain Turner’s War (Agate Publishing) grew from a series of stories on an Army chaplain in Iraq. A platoon sergeant gave her the name “Evil Reporter Chick” and she was featured once as a war reporter in a Marvel comics series. Basu’s work has been recognized with national and international accolades, but she is most proud of her latest award: the 2020 University of Florida Teacher of the Year. Born in Kolkata, India, Basu grew up straddling two cultures, which explains her interest in exploring the complexities of race, ethnicity and identity. English is not her first language and she has never taken a class in journalism.

In praise of private records

Craft Lessons


Savvy writers know the value of public records—police reports, courthouse files, meeting transcripts and the myriad other documents generated by government agencies. Public records provide detail, authority, libel protection and the occasional smoking gun that often makes for powerful journalism and narrative nonfiction.

But there’s another, less obvious record type that smart writers use to add unforgettable ingredients to their stories.

You won’t find them in a government filing cabinet or database or discover them with a Freedom of Information request.

These are private records, the documentation that people create and keep about their own lives or others, the kind buried in a box in the attic, hanging on the refrigerator door or inside a photo album or yearbook.

This class of documentary evidence can strengthen your reporting and bring a new level of intimacy and depth to your stories, shedding light on a person’s character or a time in history. They don’t require a FOIA or hours toiling in a courthouse basement; by simply asking sources to hunt in their attics and basements and memory boxes, writers can locate records that reveal a character’s inner life and history.  

I’d never really thought about the distinction between public and private records until I heard Louise Kiernan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune, talk about their value at a writing conference years ago and and a later meeting with a group of my students. 

“Whenever you’re working on a story, you ought to be thinking about what documents can help you,” she advised these young reporters. To take advantage of public records, she says, “everyone should know how to search a court record and file a FOIA request.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is an ideal place to learn about these skills.

But don’t ignore the value of private records, said Kiernan, who now is editor of ProPublica Illinois, a nonprofit investigative project. 

 Among them: baby books, high school and college yearbooks, playbills for student productions, teacher evaluations, diaries, journals, letters, photos, and videos. She described how a Tribune colleague used teacher evaluations to profile a dying professor, the students’ comments opening windows into their teacher’s character. In a long-term project about postpartum depression Kiernan used excerpts from the journal of a woman who had committed suicide. 

After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, The Wall Street Journal used private records to reconstruct the last hours of five victims.

NEW YORK — The alarm on Moises Rivas’s nightstand went off at 5 a.m. on Sept. 11.

He had been up until 2 a.m., playing slow salsa on his guitar. He shut off the alarm, snuggled up to his wife, and fell back to sleep. It wasn’t until 6:30 that the 29-year-old cook raced out of the two-bedroom apartment, already late, and headed for work on the 106th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. 

It would be a busy day. A big corporate breakfast meeting was about to begin. Mr. Rivas wore baggy black bell-bottoms that morning, but he could change into his crisp white chef’s uniform when he arrived at the Windows on the World restaurant. 

His instructions for the day awaited him, taped to a stainless-steel pillar in the restaurant. “Moises,” said the handwritten note posted by the banquet chef the night before. “The menu for Tuesday: B.B.Q. short ribs, roast chicken legs, pasta with tomato sauce. NOTE: Please have the butcher to cut the pork chops. Cut the fish. Cut, Dice Carrot Onion Celery. Cubes of Potato for the Stew. Cook one box pasta. See you later and have a nice day.” 

How could the Journal writers know what that handwritten note said, since the Windows on the World restaurant vanished when the north tower collapsed? According to a sources note appended to the story’s end, the reporters based it on a “handwritten note to Mr. Rivas: reconstructed by Windows on the World banquet chef Ali Hizam from notes written to himself in his notebook.”

The reporters also used a store receipt to document the price of a pair of sneakers purchased by a survivor whose feet were sore from fleeing down 92 flights of stairs in heels. The note revealed that a private record bolstered the narrative detail. “Source: Shoe shopping: $43 price from Baldini credit-card receipt.”

In October 2019, a team of ProPublica Illinois journalists under Kiernan’s direction used an unusual private record in an investigative narrative that exposed the human impact of a clinical drug trial of children with bipolar disorder by a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Following an investigation by reporter Jodi S. Cohen of flawed clinical trials at UIC, Cohen, and engagement reporter Logan Jaffe, who managed a call-out to hear from families who participated in the study, obtained the online journal kept in late 2010-early 2011 by a woman named Aline*. In it, she records the disastrous side effects experienced by her 10-year-old son Wilson* (*middle names were used to protect their privacy) while participating in one of the UIC studies. Then, in an unusual, innovative move, one, Kiernan said, “that breaks the ‘rules’ in all the right ways,” they let the mother and son tell more than half the story. Together the reporters crafted a digressive structure that shifts from Cohen and Jaffe’s contextual narrative — based on the traditional tools of documents, interviews and research — to the private record of a family’s torment, what one colleague called “an emotional piece of evidence.” In addition to the mother’s journal, they also persuaded mother and son to reflect now on the devastating impact of Wilson’s treatment. These were used as real time annotations linked to Aline’s 8-year-old reflections and paired in a scrolling interactive presentation. The reporters and Kiernan unpacked their approach in a story I wrote for Nieman Storyboard. (The passage above first appeared there.)

I’ve used private records to report and write a memoir about my father, who died when I was 10 years old, particularly the impact of his father’s involvement in a government corruption scandal in 1932. 

Perhaps the most important was one of the documents included in a packet of materials his prep school’s alumni office provided. I described my findings in “The Only Honest Man,” an essay published in River Teeth, a journal of nonfiction narrative:

“There is another document that I have studied as carefully as my grandfather’s testimony. It is a single piece of paper, about the size of a 5 x 7-inch index card, divided into columns that are filled with typewritten figures. It is my father’s report card from the Canterbury School. It charts his academic career from his entrance in 1929 to his graduation on June 10, 1933.

“He was ranked 8th in a class of 17, far from the weakest student. Still, there seems little doubt that something happened to my father towards the end of high school. His freshman year, he earned middle and high Bs. By his junior year, his marks had nose-dived to a dispiriting collection of low Ds and just barely-Cs. There may have been other reasons, but I can’t help but notice that his poor performance in school dovetailed with the period that legions of New York City newspapers were painting his father as a Tammany Hall grafter.”


Begin by thinking about private records in your own life. If someone were to write a story about you, what might they learn from your yearbook, the letters or cards you’ve kept, your journal entries, photo albums, videotapes?

Ask sources for private records. Investigative reporters know to always ask for public records. Ask for private records as well: the yearbook, the photos, the letters that a source might have. Be alert to the possibility that private records might exist. 

As Louise Kiernan observed, “People record their lives in all sorts of ways and often what they write or is written about them is more true than what they tell you…what people make and keep for themselves.”

Editing with Your Voice: Four Questions with Marc Lacey

Marc Lacey

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

We all have a writing voice and I’ve done my job well not if I’ve imposed mine on a reporter but if I’ve preserved theirs while making the piece clearer and more compelling than when it was filed. Every piece of journalism we produce should transport the reader, take them on a journey, make clear that the dateline means something. I want detail. I want color. I was dialogue. Boilerplate writing bores.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

My most consequential editing is done with my voice, not my fingers. Giving good feedback at the start and precise recommendations on how to make a piece sing is as important, or even more important, than chopping the prose or moving the paragraphs myself. I was frankly amazed the first time I told a correspondent how to fix a story in a brief phone conversation and shortly thereafter saw it return transformed.

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

I’m a conductor. As national editor, I lead an orchestra, a world-class one, but one that requires every last member to play beautiful, pitch-perfect notes.

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

When I was a foreign correspondent in another time zone, I had an editor who would send me my edited stories by email. She always included the line “Let me know if I’ve done any harm.” I appreciated the humility, her acknowledgment that editors are not infallible. She was invoking a sort of Hippocratic Oath for editors about avoiding harm to the copy.

Marc Lacey is a longtime correspondent and editor for The New York Times. He has been based in Washington, Nairobi, Mexico City, Phoenix and New York. He is currently the National Editor.

Craft Lesson: Gulp. And Go.

Craft Lessons

Journalism demands courage.

Or as Melvin Mencher, the legendary Columbia J-school professor put it: If you’re going to be a reporter, you have to be counterphobic.

Counterphobia, defined in an online glossary of psychiatric terms: “Deliberately seeking out and exposing onself to, rather than avoiding, the object or situation that is consciously or unconsciously feared.”

One of the scariest parts of being a reporter is the challenge of approaching strangers. Beginners, and even some veterans, fear rejection, an angry reaction or worse. The fearful mind can create dark fantasies.

The same holds true for writers who fear starting, or finishing, a story, an essay or screenplay, anxious that it will reveal their incompetence. Journalists aren’t the only creative types that fear failure.

When I was teaching student journalists, the first assignment I gave was to head out to their beat and ask five people what news they considered important but had not appeared in their local paper. Many students admitted later they were afraid to do it, but the experience changed their minds.

“I was surprised the most by the fact that I was able to get over my fears of doing the actual reporting,” wrote one student, Steve Myers, now enterprise editor at USA Today. 

Whatever it is that scares you, be afraid, but do it anyway.

“No matter how the writing of the story turned out,” Myers said, “in my mind it was secondary to the fact that I knocked on all 18 doors on 56th Avenue S. I felt a little bit like an encyclopedia salesman, but I got over the nausea in the pit of my stomach by the fourth or fifth house.”

Even the most experienced journalists feel that fear.

“It would astound you to know how many reporters, whose job it is to talk to people, are painfully, horrifically shy,” Monica Hesse, a Washington Post columnist, once tweeted from a Presidential campaign trail. “I’m here in New Hampshire and I get to eat one M&M every time I successfully interview another human.”

What may help is knowing that many people are terrified of journalists. Although it may be hard to believe, most people will be more afraid of you and the power you wield as a reporter than you are of them. Consider what J. C. McKinnon, a burly, stern-faced St. Petersburg police officer, once confessed to a group of my students: “I carry a can of pepper spray, a Glock pistol and 51 rounds of ammunition. But you’ve got something that can destroy me: a pen and a notepad.”

If you’re avoiding doing something—making the phone call, knocking on the door, visiting a part of your community you’ve never been to before —remember this about human nature. People love to talk about themselves. To share their opinions. They appreciate the attention.

Assertiveness reflects a belief in yourself. You have the right to ask questions, to approach someone for an interview, to request information, to write that short story or begin your long-delayed novel or script.  Of course, bear in mind that people have the right to say no, but don’t let that deter you. Just try someone else.

Be counterphobic. 

After all, as a savvy editor once said, journalism is all about one thing: Gulp. And go.

Acknowledge that you’re anxious and then go do it. When I’m really paranoid, I make a point of writing in my journal whatever my fear is, what I expect would happen, and then report back the outcome. Invariably, the feared result failed to materialize. On those rare occasions when it did, I found that I handled it or accepted the outcome.

Whatever it is that scares you, go ahead and be afraid, but do it anyway.

Just gulp. And go.

Photograph by Jon Tyson courtesy of

Show Up: Four Questions with Helen Ubiñas

Helen Ubiñas interviews schoolchildren

Helen Ubiñas is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Ubiñas was a longtime reporter and columnist for the Hartford Courant, where she was awarded numerous honors, including a team Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 1999. In 2000, she became the Courant’s first Latina news columnist. In 2007, she was one of 12 US journalists awarded the John S. Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford University. She won first place in column-writing at the 2014 Keystone Press Awards. In 2017, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists awarded her top honors for her columns. In 2018, she was the recipient of the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence for a series of columns on gun violence and its impact on Philadelphia teenagers.

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

Show up. It might sound instinctive, but it isn’t always —especially when you’re pressed for time and resources, as we all are, and it just might be easier to make a couple of calls. It’s about getting the story, obviously, with the kinds of details that I don’t think writers can get in any other way other than being present. But it’s also about showing the people and communities who remain underrepresented that I’m not just some faceless byline. I’m a person, a fellow citizen, sitting right across from them, sincerely interested in hearing and telling their stories, and in building the kinds of relationships it takes to make a real impact in the communities we are supposed to cover. Plus, I can’t count the times I’ve shown up for one story and left with ideas for many others. Always a win-win.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I like to think that the columns I write make an impact, but I’ve been really touched to see young people —especially young people of color — genuinely excited to see themselves reflected in their local paper. Years ago, they’d cut the article out of the paper, maybe their parents would put it up on the refrigerator. Nowadays they share it on social media, and I still get a huge kick out of it. It reminds me of how unheard and unseen so many people feel. It reminds me of why I got into journalism, and why as hard as it sometimes gets, I’m still all in.  

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

A police officer once called me a honey badger, and while I’m not sure he meant it as a compliment, I chose to take it as one. According to the limited information I have on my apparent spirit animal, they’re thick-skinned diggers who fly solo. Once I get into a story, I want to get to the bottom of things; I want some resolution. I don’t want to leave my readers hanging. Why didn’t those ex-offenders get paid for the work they did for the city? Why hasn’t the city ever evaluated questionable gun violence prevention programs they pour millions into? Why isn’t there a support group for paralyzed survivors of gun violence? Often that means following a topic or subject for years, and I’m OK with that.  Honey badgers are apparently relentless, and I guess so am I.  

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

I can’t remember who told me or if I maybe told myself: Be yourself. Write like yourself. Read other writers, admire other writers. Learn from other writers. Love Jimmy Breslin and Steve Lopez  and Dan Barry – and omfg I do. But write like only you can, tell stories like only you can. The world already has/had a Breslin and Lopez and Barry. There’s room for you too – a Puerto Rican little girl from the Bronx who somehow grew up to be one of not that many Latina newspaper columnists in the country!  

When your story needs shock trauma

Craft Lessons

In emergency medicine, the “golden hour” is 60 minutes of high-powered professional attention that can make the difference between life and death. It’s a narrow window of time when care must be managed or the traumatically ill or injured patient is not going to survive.

Apply the theory of shock trauma on deadline, couple it with the process approach to reporting and writing, and you have an efficient method that can make the difference between a compelling news story and one that dies on the page.

At the risk of practicing literary medicine without a license, I’d argue that the writer and editor’s first task is to diagnose — identify what works and what needs work in a story — and then treat.

1. What is the idea behind the story? Is it newsworthy, timely, relevant, interesting?
2. What would a reader/viewer/listener say the idea is? Is it the same answer as number 1?
3. How can the story idea be improved/refined/clarified?

• Identify the idea — a day in the life of an EMT during the Covid pandemic, the view from an immigration law office the day after a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, decisions made at a municipal meeting — and use that to evaluate the relevance of the material in the story.
• Move quickly from assignment to budget line (25-40 word summary of the story)


1. What questions does the reader still have about the story?
2. What additional reporting needs to be done? (Interviews, research, statistics, examples, explanation)

• Mine your notes: You only want the best — the most illustrative anecdote, the most telling detail, the most pungent quote, the most revealing statistic.
• Look for revealing details that put people on the page. The female police officer who wears “size four steel-toe boots.” The widow who sprays her dead husband’s aftershave on her pillow. “In a good story,” says David Finkel of The Washington Post, “a paranoid schizophrenic doesn’t just hear imaginary voices, he hears them say, ‘Go kill a policeman.'”
• Use the five senses in your reporting and a few others: sense of place, sense of people, sense of time, sense of drama.
• Brainstorm the reader’s questions. Find the answers or acknowledge that they’re unavailable. (“City officials say there are no statistics available on…”)


1. What is the story’s single dominant message?
2. What would the reader say the story is about? Is it the same answer as number 1?
3. How could the story’s focus be improved/sharpened/revealed/supported?

  • RX:
  • • Be ruthless about finding the heart of the story: an effective story has a single dominant impression.
  • • Address the question, “What’s the story really about?” and answer it in one word.
  • • Ask two questions that keep track of the focus of any story: What’s the news? What’s the point? They address the reader’s concerns: What’s new here? What’s this story about? Why am I reading this?
  • RX:
  • • Be ruthless about finding the heart of the story: an effective story has a single dominant impression.
  • Address the question, “What’s the story really about?” and answer it in one word.
  • • Ask two questions that keep track of the focus of any story: What’s the news? What’s the point? They address the reader’s concerns: What’s new here? What’s this story about? Why am I reading this?
  • Decide on a focus early but be willing to be flexible, to change with the information you report.


1. What is the path of the story? Does it have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end?
2. Are things in the right order?
3. Could the story be quickly reorganized using the “five boxes” approach?
4. What questions does each sentence, paragraph, box, answer? Are these the questions the reader will ask, in that order?

• Write the end first.  Once you settle on a destination, it’s easier to plan your route.
• Work the Rubik’s Cube. Move, cut, shift the elements of your story.
• Try Rick Bragg’s “five boxes” approach. Bragg doesn’t outline his stories, but he does preach the value of the “five boxes” method of story organization.

  • The first box, the lead, contains the image or detail that draws people into the story.
  • The second box is a “nut graph” that sums up the story.
  • The third box begins with a new image or detail that resembles a lead and precedes the bulk of the narrative.
  • The fourth box contains material that is less compelling but rounds out the story.
  • The fifth, and last, box is the “kicker,” an ending featuring a strong quote or image that leaves the reader with a strong emotion. (If you’re interested in an analysis of such a story, I read my email at

1. How is the story told: with scenes, summary, anecdote, quotes, attribution, statistics?
2. What additional material can be drafted or redrafted?

• Write early: Find out what you know, what you need to know.
• Write the end first. Most reporters concentrate on the lead. The ending is more important for time management for the writer. It’s also the reader’s last impression of the story. Make it count.
• Put your notes aside before you start to write. “Notes are like Velcro,” says, Jane Harrigan, former professor at the University of New Hampshire. “As you try to skim them, they ensnare you, and pretty soon you can’t see the story for the details.” Her advice: Repeat over and over, “The story is not in my notes. The story is in my head.”


1. What are the stumbling blocks — spelling, style, accuracy — in the story?
2. How can the story be made more accurate, fair, balanced, compelling?

• Raise the bar: is it good enough?
• Murder your darlings.
• Cut “like a surgeon,” poet Anne Sexton says. “Down to the bone.”
• Select, don’t compress: Paragraphs, not words.
• Is there a beginning, middle, and end?
• Is the ending resonant?
• Are the sentences active by using action verbs?
• Can you use punctuation as a tool?
• Role play the reader. Step back and pretend you’re reading your story for the first time. Does the lead make you want to keep reading? Does it take you too long to learn what the story is about and why it’s important? If not, are you intrigued enough to keep reading anyway? What questions do you have about the story? Are they answered in the order you would logically ask them?

Collaboration Pays Off: Four Questions with Jack Hart

Jack Hart

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

The most important thing I’ve learned is that collaborative editing with writers at the front end of the story process pays off with time saved at the back end. (Not to mention much better stories.)

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

My biggest surprise was how critical structure is to great storytelling … and that even novice narrative writers who grasp the essentials of structure can produce national quality work. 

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

As an editor, I aspire to be a seagull, effortlessly soaring on rising air currents provided by the writer. 

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

Resist the urge to start correcting the small stuff on your first pass through a manuscript. Instead, you should read the entire piece through thoughtfully, thinking hard about structure, theme, tone, and the other large questions that are far more important to reader impact than the easy copy-editing and polish corrections that can distract you on a first pass through a piece.  

Jack Hart is an author, writing coach, and former managing editor at The Oregonian, where he also worked as a reporter, arts and leisure editor, Sunday magazine editor, training editor, and editor at large. He has additional reporting experience at two other newspapers, holds a University of Wisconsin doctorate in Mass Communications, taught at six universities, and was a tenured associate professor at the University of Oregon, where he served as the journalism school’s acting dean. In 2012-13 he served as director of the school’s Portland campus, the George S. Turnbull Center.

At The Oregonian, Hart worked as an editor on four Pulitzer Prize winners and was the solo editor on two of them. He also edited national winners of the American Society of Newspaper Editors writing awards, the Ernie Pyle award, the Scripps-Howard business-writing award, the Overseas Press Club awards, the Headliners awards, and the Society of Professional Journalists feature-writing award. He is the author of The Information Empire, a history of The Los Angeles TimesSkookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest, A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work; Storycraft: A Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction (second editions forthcoming.)

The need to listen: Four Questions with G. Wayne Miller

G, Wayne Miller

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

Listen. Meaning several things:

First, in non-fiction, let the subject speak, putting yourself on the sidelines until absolutely necessary (I still struggle with this). Second, whether non-fiction or fiction, listen to a good editor or someone else you respect who will read drafts and give an honest critique. Third, listen to your characters; real-life or fictional, they will guide you as you write and rewrite. And a few more lessons, if I may: feel for others, get up early, write every day, fail, and never stop.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How it has brought me to so many actual and imagined people and places, in the process opening the doors to storytelling forms including journalism, fiction, filmmaking, podcasting, screenwriting and screen production. Writing is at the heart – is the start — of them all.

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

Wow, wonderful question! Never been asked this or even contemplated it beyond the tired old “ink-stained wretch,” which frankly I never really bought.

I thought first of some sort of bird, and then a mirror, and then a small little river, probably in Maine, that meanders from a spring in a foothills through woods and past villages, reflecting what it passes on its way to the sea.

But I’ll go with a camera, one you can bring with you into a dream.

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

I heard this first from Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal) actually, although others before him (Faulkner, Stephen King, etc.) also have said it is great advice:
Kill your darlings.
And it IS the best advice. I still struggle with it!

G. Wayne Miller is a Providence Journal staff writer, filmmaker, screenwriter, podcaster, visiting fellow at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, and co-host and co-producer of the Telly Award-winning weekly national PBS TV and SiriusXM Satellite Radio show “Story in the Public Square.” He is the author of 10 books of non-fiction, five novels and three short-story collections. His latest novel, “Blue Hill,” was published in October. He is also the author of “Kid Number One: A story of heart, soul and business, featuring Alan Hassenfeld and Hasbro.” Visit him at or

How brain science can make you a smarter writer

Craft Lessons

A TV ad for features an unscrupulous doctor manipulating a patient’s exposed brain, turning him into a puppet who flails away at a keyboard, hunting and pecking for online travel deals. It’s funny to some, offensive to others, but it illustrates a larger point that is important for writers. The brain influences the way readers respond to words, for better or worse.

A growing body of research reveals that different parts of the brain respond to language in unique ways. Neuroscientists learned this by observing brain scans as subjects read. Writers can take advantage of these findings to connect with readers in deep, intimate and lasting ways. And you don’t have to be a brain scientist to do it, just apply the same kind of techniques that writing teachers have been preaching for years.

The science of  “this is your brain,” “this is your brain on stories,” is relatively straightforward. It starts with a geography lesson, based on the principle that the map of the brain locates multiple areas that control the way we move, see, hear, taste, smell, touch and remember.

It’s long been understood that the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain that separates humans from all other species, interprets language through the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, which center on how the brain processes written words. But their powers are limited: they enable us to understand words, but nothing more.

That’s why traditional news articles with their passive verb forms, collective nouns (“officials said”) and clichés have so little impact on readers. Flabby prose turns off readers because it doesn’t turn on the brain. Neuroscience shows how carefully chosen words and the tools of storytelling activate parts of the brain other than those that process language to make reading a deep, resonant and lasting experience.

A fascinating essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” by Annie Murphy Paul, details these developments.

She describes how researchers at Emory University discovered that the phrase “he had leathery hands” aroused the sensory cortex that activated the sense of touch. Spanish researchers found that words like “cinnamon” and “soap” triggered a response from the olfactory cortex which processes smells.

A French team learned that action verbs, such as “Pablo kicked the ball,” fired up the motor cortex, which governs how the body moves. Not only that, but verbs that involved different parts of the body, such as the arm or leg, activated the parts of the brain that controls those specific limbs. Evocative language also reaches into the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory, and plays an important role in the way the mind turns language into meaningful experience, a goal for all writers.

Based on these findings, we can take advantage of this three-pound organ with its 86 billion nerve cells to enrich our writing. Here are five ways:

  1. Create scenes. The combination of characters in action, dialogue and evocative settings lies at the heart of what novelist John Gardner called “the vivid continuous dream” that captivates readers.
  2. Dig for details, the more specific the better. If you want to get a reader’s mind to visualize what they’re reading, a “cherry-red ’67 Mustang convertible” does a much better job than “a car.” “The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose,” Tom Wolfe wrote in “The New Journalism.” “It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”
  3. Choose vivid action verbs. “Michaela grabbed her umbrella and dashed into the rain” triggers the motor cortex. Strong verbs are not just words on the page. They represent action in the reader’s mind.
  4. Avoid passive verb forms. “The body was found” is not only a flabby word choice that robs the verb of energy and fails to ignite the brain. It usually signifies weak reporting. “A seven-year-old newsboy found the body” heightens the senses.
  5. Cultivate a “a nose for story.” Consider the power of the scented details in this sentence by Anne Hull of The Washington Post: “Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon.” The brain’s olfactory bulb not only lets us smell. It also triggers memories in the hippocampus. “Hit a tripwire of smell,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” “and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

Neuroscience offers profound lessons on the power of story. You can use this knowledge to bring stories alive in readers’ minds. For writers and readers, the brain is a terrible thing to waste.

Writing longhand: Experimenting with analog composition

Craft Lessons

Two decades in journalism taught me how to type. Not always accurately, but quickly. 

It’s a skill that comes in handy, especially when I’m having trouble writing. I can type so fast that I can easily outrace my inner critic that tells me what I’m writing is crap. 

But the other day I decided to make a change in my writing habits after I learned that many modern writers, among them Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Elin Hilderbrand and James Patterson, prefer to draft their work in longhand.

The list is long, the writers an admirable lot.

“I do write by hand a lot, especially first drafts and plotting.” J.K. Rowling.

“I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter.” Robert A. Caro.

A friend of mine who’s a film director turned me on to the Blackwing 602. What I like is that it sharpens to a really fine point, and it’s got a great feel to it that I just can’t describe. It’s like when you taste a really good wine or a cognac: You know it’s good stuff.” Andre Dubus  III

“I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers.  I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that.” Susan Sontag.

“Lined index cards and a Blackwing pencil, for copying and recopying, rubbing out and writing anew, the scenes I had imagined in the morning.” Vladimir Nabakov

“I write in longhand. I like to see it come back beautifully arranged in type and then hack it up and begin again.” John le Carré

“A pencil is magic; there is the feeling that anything can be fixed, just look at the eraser right there at the top, ready to undue whatever might need to be whisked away.” Michele Filgate

I’m nowhere near their league, but I decided to give it a try. Not just as a novelty after years of digital composition, but because I also discovered that science shows that pen in hand can be good for the brain. 

“There is a new body of science showing handwriting is good for us when it comes to learning,” according to Gwendolyn Bounds of The Wall Street Journal.  

Some physicians even believe it can even help aging Baby Boomers improve their minds and keep them sharp.” 

That’s because sequential finger movements activate large areas of the brain linked to thinking, language and working memory, MRI imagery showed. 

Definitely a plus for this Boomer.

My analog experiment started with a ballpoint pen and a blank notebook page.

 At first, the going was slow. It took 38 words to warm up before the short story I’ve been working on grabbed my pen’s attention. I wrote another 115 words, much faster than if I was banging away on my keyboard. 

And that’s the point, longhand aficionados believe.

“It made me slow down because it takes a long time” said Stephen King who wrote his novel “Dreamcatcher” in longhand, discussing his approach in a Paris Review interview

“I’ve still got a little bit of that scholar’s bump on my finger from doing all that longhand,” King said. “But it made the rewriting process a lot more felicitous. It seemed to me that my first draft was more polished, just because it wasn’t possible to go so fast. You can only drive your hand along at a certain speed. It felt like the difference between, say, rolling along in a powered scooter and actually hiking the countryside.

I didn’t do it long enough to produce a scholar’s bump on my finger, but another physical problem soon surfaced: writer’s cramp or dystonia, the scientific term for involuntary muscular contractions. commonly known as writer’s cramp. (Musicians and golfers call them the “yips.”).

 I took a break and the mild symptoms faded. 

I found the going easier when I put my pen down and switched to a sharp number two pencil. My pace was faster than with the pen, but I was more careful with my word choice.

My penmanship improved and deleting my mistakes required nothing more than a few swipes of the eraser. Cramping aside, the advantages of longhand began to pile up, as those who chose longhand writing have observed

“I don’t have to wait for my pen to boot up. I can write in any coffee shop, airport, plane, bus terminal, bus, beach and park, and never worry about recharging or power outlets, Michael Cahlin recounted in The Writer,

Besides the tactile pleasure of writing by hand, I noticed another salutary benefit. 

Focusing on every word, I avoid one of my biggest time wasters: surfing the Web as a method of procrastination. 

With my notebook open and my laptop closed, I felt no urge to turn to Google or news sites. 

Analog shuts out digital distractions. 

 “You never get distracted trying to send a tweet from a notebook,” novelist Joe Hill said. “A notebook never pings you with an email.

I found I also agreed with the British writer Niven Govinden who prefers a pen to pencil and enjoys the “greater sense of space. 

“But most importantly, I write in a more economical way. I think harder about one good sentence following another, which for me is all that matters.”

Even so, after my brief experiment going Old School, I find it hard to believe that someone could draft an entire novel, or in Caro’s case, 1,000-page biographies, with a pencil. 

But maybe there’s something more to learn about the practice of writing longhand. I’ll just have to sharpen my pencil and give it another try.  I had to remind myself that, over nearly five decades as a professional writer, how, even on a tight deadline, often turning to a blank page and pen pushed me past a lead stuck in neutral and helped me break the block for narrative passages that were going nowhere. Recharged I could return to my computer.

And now I know what I want for my birthday: a box of Blackwing 602s.

Photograph by Angelina Litvin courtesy of

Sacrifice Flies: Four Questions with Larry Welborn


Larry Welborn

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

A million correct words do not balance out one incorrect word

Words written carelessly can unintentionally hurt good people even if they are correct and true. Words written carefully and intentionally can often say the same thing, but cause no harm.

  What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

I am surprised how much I still enjoy reading the Dead Sea Scrolls … I mean my daily newspaper. I will grieve when I can no longer walk out to the driveway and find that daily miracle. Okay, I’m a dinosaur. Call me Tyrannosaurus Rex. But a story on the newspaper page still feels more real and more authentic than the same words on my laptop. Maybe it’s in the ink?  

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

Can I use a simile instead? My writing is like a freshly cut, unadorned Christmas tree. It’s plain and trustworthy. Like news consumers, tree buyers aren’t looking for anything fancy – they’re looking for solid and reliable. That’s what makes a good Christmas tree and a good piece of journalism.


There is a baseball term for a lazy fly ball to an outfielder that’s deep enough for a runner to tag-up and score from third. A sacrifice fly. There’s nothing pretty or spectacular about the easy out by itself, but it gets the job done. Once in a while I might hit a home run, and frequently I strike out. But there are a lot of sac flies in there too.

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

Early in my career, an old school editor told me to get out of the way and let the story unfold. Only he didn’t say it that politely. What he actually said was “quit trying to write like F.  Scott  f * * * ing Fitzgerald and just tell the damn story.”

Larry Welborn spent 44 years as a staff writer at The Orange County Register, much of that time on the courthouse beat, where he covered more than 500 trials and chronicled the 60 most notorious criminal cases in Orange County history. Larry spent 31 years researching the odd circumstances surrounding the 1974 death of a Linda Cummings before writing the award-winning 8-part “Murder by Suicide?” series in 2005. He is now turning that journey standing up for an absolute underdog into a book. Larry was president and chairman of the board of the California Scholastic Press Association and is now chairman emeritus. He also was the Dean of Register U, the newspaper’s in-house training program, where he was in charge of the annual National Writers Workshop, co-sponsored by The Poynter Institute. When he’s not writing, Larry golfs erratically and plays with his four (soon to be five) grandkids. He and his wife Annie have been married for 46 years. 

The Quote Diet

Craft Lessons

Get out one of your stories and start counting. Not all the words, just the ones between quotation marks.

Chances are you’ll get quite a mouthful.

We all know the importance of avoiding run-on sentences in our copy, but too often our standards drop when those twin apostrophes enter the picture, and we end up with quotes that run off at the mouth.

Here’s a quick and easy way to avoid journalistic logorrhea, one inspired by the current national obsession with calorie and carb-counting: Put your quotes on a diet.

The value of quote reduction became evident when I asked bureau reporters at a metro daily to add up the quotes in their stories. Many quotes weighed in at 30-40 words with some tipping the scale at 40-50 and even higher.

On closer examination, it became clear that reporters were all too often using quotes as filler, bulking up a journalistic meal with the empty calories of verbiage.

By comparison, a story by Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters who were traveling to visit each other, quoted six people, but each utterance illustrates what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.” (I’ve touched on his work previously but this is an extended look.) Notice how Gettleman can use brief quotes and even sentence fragments by blending them with exposition or action, either on the front or back end.

“What are the odds of this? One in a million? One in a billion?” asked Wentworth’s husband, Brian, as he took a long, sad drag on his cigarette.
14 words

“Sometimes, it makes the hair stick up on the back of your neck,” said Bo Hall, whose mother was killed.
13 words

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

11 words

In 1982, Hall was driving with her son, Bo, when they skidded off a bridge and into a creek. Bo, then 12 but thick for his age, bent the door open and sat his mother on top of the car. “So she wouldn’t drown,” he recalled.

4 words

“After that, we just don’t know what happened,” said Chuck Martin, the deputy county coroner. “Did they see each other and wave? Did one lose control?”

19 words

Wentworth was the family joker. She liked to tell people about the time she was baking biscuits and asked her first husband to go get some cigarettes. “He came back 11 years later,” said her sister Billie Walker. “That was the thing about Sheila. She’d make you laugh.”

16 words

“God, there will be times when we want to go hunting together and shopping together, but we can’t,” said the pastor, Steve Johnson. “There will be times we just want to sit and chat, but now, God, we can’t.”

34 words

As the service closed, relatives walked slowly back to their pickups.

“Y’all be careful now,” the pastor said.

4 words

Bingeing on quotes is an easy trap to fall in when the people — especially when the source is a politician, school board official, a lawyer, or any of those professional types — talk as if they were billing by the word.

But a 45-60 word quote explaining a sewer bond proposal that seems like an easy solution for the writer can choke a reader. (The quote diet is a timely discipline now during campaign season when the temptation is to let politicians and their mouthpieces go on ad infinitum.)

Obviously, there are times when it’s important we get the news directly from the source’s mouth. No paraphrase would have the impact of President Bill Clinton’s declaration “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”

Getting quotes is one thing. Using them effectively is another. Many reporters use quotations as a crutch. They forget that they, not their sources, are writing the story.

By all means, fill your stories with voices, but just as you’d steer clear of a windbag at a party, spare your readers those bloated quotes that deaden a piece of writing.

Here are some strategies for the quote diet:

1. Take ten percent off the top. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase.

2. Raise your quote bar. It’s the writer’s job to make meaning with the materials collected during the reporting. You decide which quotes convey the information and which are better paraphrased. Quotations, as Kevin Maney of USA Today put it, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.

3. Punctuate with quotes: Use quotes to amplify, to drive home a point at the end of a paragraph. A tight quote that completes a nut graf buttresses the theme of your story, as in this trend story about pre-teen dieting.

4. Watch out for the echo effect. Notice how many stories contain quotes that echo what you’ve already written:
The mayor said he’s pleased with the election results, noting that his victory demonstrates his popularity with the voters. “I’m pleased with the results,” said Mayor Foghorn. “It proves my popularity with the voters.”

Echo quotes often mean the writer isn’t giving readers enough credit. Readers don’t need a paraphrase and a quote to understand. One or the other will suffice.

5. Listen. Keep your quotes lean by always reading your story aloud as you make final revisions. Reserve quotation marks for words that reveal character, advance the narrative or drive home a controversial point. Use a blend of quotation and paraphrase. Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; It’s dictation.

6. Follow the one-breath rule. If a quote takes more than one breath to read, it’s probably too long. If you’ve got a good quote that takes more than one breath, insert attribution between the two parts. It will make comprehension easier for the reader.

7. Harness the power of the paraphrase. A teacher once told me that unless a source can say it better than you, paraphrase what they say. You’re the writer after all. A well-constructed paraphrase summing up a quote accurately and punctuated with a brief quote can add a powerful punch to your story.

A great is like a butterfly snatched from the air. It’s quick and flashy. Shoot from between 6 and 20 words to keep the reader interested. 

What makes a quote too long has less to do with the number of words and more to do with the content, rhythm, and purpose of the passage. The point is not to go on the quote diet for the sake of it, but to produce stories where every word counts, including those spoken by others.

The rewards of discipline: Four Questions with Matt Schudel

Matt Schudel

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

To search for the emotional core, or the emotional truth, of a story. Particularly when you are writing about people, there should be an animating purpose, a one-sentence core emotional truth (sometimes not explicitly stated in a story) around which everything else revolves. This is not the same as a nut graf, but it’s more of a Rosebud moment. The best stories are built on a foundation of facts, but the best stories connect with readers through their emotional resonance.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise to me as a writer is that deadlines can be a good thing. Samuel Johnson said, in another context, that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The same could be said for the kind of writing most journalists have to do.

I want to state, right off, that I hate deadlines. But without them, I tend to dither away my time, not getting anything down on the page (or computer screen). I often say that I can’t think unless my fingers are attached to a keyboard, and there are times – especially on deadline — when a kind of flow kicks in, and the story drives itself.

It is pointless and self-indulgent to wait for “inspiration” to strike. Inspiration comes from the practice of writing itself, from “applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair,” as an annoyed editor once told me.

Discipline is its own reward. Just write down anything, even seemingly random words, and soon those words will coalesce into thoughts, ideas, sentences, paragraphs and, if you’re lucky, a story.  

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

I’m hesitant to assign a metaphor to myself. So, at the risk of sounding a little crazy or arrogant, let’s say jazz improviser.

In an earlier journalistic life, I was a jazz critic, and to this day I often listen to instrumental jazz when writing. In some ways, musicians such as Bill Evans, Clifford Brown, Stan Getz and John Coltrane have filtered into my approach as a writer as much as, or more than, other writers have.

Classic jazz is all about the discipline of structure pushing against the freedom of improvisation. In a typical jazz tune, you begin with established chords, harmony and melody – the song’s grammar, so to speak. Then, as the song goes along, the musician will improvise off the melody and harmonic structure to create something new. The framework of the original tune is still there as a guide, but in different players’ hands, the improvisations can go in any direction. There are an infinite number of ways to develop a solo – it can be slow, fast, contemplative, humorous, furious – and *all of them are right.*

When working at the highest level, a soloist is inspired by the musicians around him, as they work together to create a spontaneous work of art.
It’s about being alive to the art of possibility. In jazz, you have to understand the harmony and the rhythm – the basic framework of your art – but then make it your own. The music takes you where it needs you to go.

The same can be true of writing. Keep your tools sharpened, including grammar, vocabulary and — especially for a journalist – your storehouse of facts and quotations. Be attentive. Have an idea of where you want to go.

Then put it all together on the keyboard, sort of like a pianist who blends all those years of practicing scales with the inspiration of the moment. When it’s done right, it sounds exciting, surprising, a little daring – and somehow exactly right.

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

I once heard an interview with the British rock performer and songwriter Nick Lowe, in which he described his style of songwriting: “Bash it now, and tart it up later.”This is the musical equivalent of your advice to get words down on paper (or on a computer screen), even if they’re almost random or seemingly irrelevant, then trusting that your thoughts will give them shape, coalescing into a readable sentence, a coherent paragraph and, with any luck, a memorable piece of writing.I think this advice touches on two major elements in producing nonfiction writing: Don’t wait for inspiration; just get to work. Then, once you have some ideas fleshed out, concentrate on editing and polishing those initial thoughts into something persuasive, powerful and emotionally true. It’s the craftsman approach to writing, rather than the stroke-of-genius approach. The genius, if there is any, comes out in the end, after sweating through the initial struggle to get words on paper, then editing them into a finished work. 

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida. In addition to writing obituaries, he has been a feature writer, magazine writer, jazz critic and art critic. He has won more than 30 regional and national writing awards and is the co-author, with photographer Flip Schulke, of a biography of Muhammad Ali’s years in Miami.

Do no harm: Four Questions with Jan Winburn

Jan Winburn

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

First, do no harm. What I mean by that is with every story I read as an editor, I want to first find something to like. Even the novice writer, or the experienced one struggling through a bad patch, will produce at least one thing that sings — a riveting passage, revealing description or unforgettable snatch of dialogue. I want to begin our conversation by talking about that high point in the writing (or reporting) before sharing more critical thoughts. It breaks the ice, and it also says, this is what works, I want more of that. I’m not talking about being disingenuous. I’m talking about trying to call upon my most generous self. That often creates in the writer an openness to hearing more, even if it’s critical.

What has been the most important surprise of your editing life?

That I would get to live vicariously through my writers, that they would let me into their processes so completely and willingly share their adventures. I am grateful for the amazing journeys they have taken me on.

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

What I aspire to be is a magician whose contribution to the storytelling is invisible to the reader and regarded by the writer as a welcome act of wizardry.

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

Lary Bloom, who I worked for at Northeast Magazine at the Hartford Courant, once said to me: “Don’t be the editor of the greatest unpublished work.” What that meant was take a risk to like something, to champion it and polish it and then publish it. You’ll never face criticism for the manuscripts you turn down; no one will see them. As an editor, you have to open yourself to scrutiny for what you choose to publish, and then stand behind it. That’s your job! 

(Lary, by the way, was the legendary one-time editor of Tropic Magazine at the Miami Herald before founding Northeast in the heyday of Sunday newspaper magazines.)

Jan Winburn is a fan of artful storytelling, kickass reporting and the powerful melding of the two. She spent more than four decades working in newsrooms as a narrative editor, writing coach and investigative editor and now teaches in the University of Georgia’s MFA program in Narrative Nonfiction. She edited Lisa Pollak’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, and the Dart Society recognized Winburn’s career work with its 2009 Mimi Award  given to editors “who encourage journalistic excellence.” Her writers have won many of the top prizes in journalism, including a Peabody Award, a Murrow, The Livingston Award for Young Journalists, the Ernie Pyle Award, the Al Neuharth Award for investigative journalism, the John Jay College Award for criminal justice reporting, the Wilbur Award for religion coverage, and the Batten Medal for public service. She led reporting teams at CNN, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. She is the author/editor of “Shop Talk and War Stories: Journalists Examine Their Profession” and co-editor of two e-books,“Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism 2013” and 2014.

Craft Lesson: Take Modeling Lessons

Craft 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.” (Added later, “form” 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’s Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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, that section of context high up in a story that tells readers what a story is about and why they should read it.

Copying word for word short stories by Larry Woiwode and Alice Adams and passages from novelists Richard Price and Stewart O’Nan taught me a variety of lessons — the evocative power of olfactory details, for instance — about the art of fiction that writers in any form can profit by using.

But a freelance magazine writing experience more than a decade ago made me a believer in a practice I’ve come to call “modeling lessons.”

It was a dream assignment. The Washington Post Magazine asked me to write a profile of the first Vietnamese graduate of West Point. Tam Minh Pham was a young man who marched with the long gray line of cadets in 1974, returning home just in time for the fall of his country and six years of imprisonment. But his American roommate never forgot him and 20 years later marshaled his classmates to cut through bureaucratic red tape and bring their buddy to America for a new life.

It didn’t take much reporting for me to decide that this was a powerful story.

But when I asked my editor about length, I was disappointed when he said to keep it to about 2,000 words because the piece had been slotted as a second feature.

I protested — it was a great cover story, full of drama and detail — but the top editor’s mind apparently was made up.

Fine, I said, but asked for back copies of the magazine and downloaded several others from a database. Back at my desk, I studied several cover pieces, but it wasn’t until I began actually copying them out that I began to understand the magazine’s formula.

As a newspaper reporter, I routinely kept my leads to a single paragraph that if not brief enough would be trimmed by a copy editor less enamored of my words than I.

But as I typed out the Post magazine leads by its cover stars (Peter Perl, Madeleine Blais, David Finkel, Walt Harrington), it was clear the rules were different.

Their leads were several grafs long, narrative scenes that consumed 500-600 words and featured a vivid main character in action in a specific place and time, the classic storytelling structure.

Typically, the nut graf that followed the Post‘s “you are there” close-up openings was, in cinematic terms, a wide-shot. Evelynne Kramer, former editor of The Boston Globe Magazine called it “opening the aperture,” a passage that gave the reader the context and background to satisfy the curiosity piqued by the lead. If the lead showed the story, the nut graf told it. But unlike my 50-75 word newspaper nut grafs, the magazine version was more expansive.

After I’d typed about a half-dozen openings of Post magazine cover stories, I figured I had the formula sussed and was ready to try my own.

In my first interview with Pham, he’d recounted an experience one night in prison that seemed to have all the ingredients of a powerful opening. Bolstered by further reporting and emulating what I’d studied, I crafted a vivid 663-word, eight paragraph lead.

Now I needed to move the camera back and give the reader a firmer grasp on what they were reading and why. I loosened my newspaper writing reins and wrote I wrote another 500 words, the longest nut graf of my life.

I reined myself in after that, trying to keep to the 2,000 word limit, and turned it in. A couple of days later, my editor called: 

You need to make it longer.


Because it’s going to be the cover piece. (You can read the entire story here.)

The lesson I learned was this: you can discover your own voice by listening to other writers, and one of the best ways to listen is by copying out their words.

This practice horrifies some respected writers and teachers; write your own damn 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. 

But now’s a good time for my one caveat about modeling lessons: I always copy the byline at the top of the story just in case I get deluded and confuse my copying with someone else’s writing.

Properly credited, I start copying. 

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.

Rick Bragg’s quotes are rarely very long: (“I need my morning glory.”) They’re punchy and have the flavor of human speech.

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.

I believe every writer, including broadcast and online writers, can profit equally from copying successful stories in their medium. They’d do well to study how the other writing elements — audio, video, interactivity — figure in.

Whomever you model, and however you do it, the point is to 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. And I hope you can, too.

Where Stories Are: Four Questions with Tom Hallman Jr.

Tom Hallman

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

Read. Everything. Constantly. If you don’t read, you can’t be a writer. Want to be a musician? Then you have to listen to music. I often ask writers what they are reading. They tell me what TV shows and movies they watch, but struggle to come up with anything they are currently reading.
Books, magazine pieces, short stories and news stories need to be part of a writer’s ongoing curriculum. 
Working on a moody crime story?
How would Elmore Leonard handle it?
Trying to tell a historical story?
Look at what William Manchester did with Winston Churchill.
Want to grab a reader?
Get Harlen Coben, Stephen King or Lee Child. 
Learn from others.
If you work at a newspaper, get out of the office. Stories don’t exist there, but out in the world. Stay in the office and you will be re-writing press releases or covering news events that every TV station has already covered.
Want originality? Get out there where people are living.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The ability to continue to grow and learn. I feel like am always in grad school, learning how to be a better interviewer, better storyteller. I like the process of storytelling. There is no finish line. I want to get better with each story.
I remember my first big story in my career. I thought I’ll never get a story that good again. I was wrong. I just had to go find it.

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

A cat.
I’ve been around Hells Angels, surgeons, cops, kids, teachers, loggers, drug dealers, gang members, nuns. I’ve watched a baby die. I never act like I am better than anyone else. I never judge anyone. I act the same around people whether that is a CEO or a janitor.
Most days my lunch hour consists of me walking around downtown Portland. I’m curious, like a cat. 
I overhear conversations. I wander into places. I talk with strangers – usually people who rarely get noticed.
A few months ago, I was walking to work early in the morning when I saw this man reading a book in his truck. I stopped and asked him what he was reading.
He held up a book: The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941.
This was a scruffy looking guy, the last person you would ever imagine reading that book.
I asked him why.
He said he loves to learn by reading books about all subjects. He was on a break, which means he was working while the rest of us were sleeping. He told me his job is cleaning the city’s public toilets.
No higher education.
Yet every morning he reads in his truck, his classroom.
That’s how you find stories.

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

The tip came from Jack Hart, my editor on some of my best work: Read a story out loud. Such a great way to hear the flaws in a story.
My tip is this: When I have something long, be it for the paper, or a book or a piece magazine piece, I always make a hard copy. I edit that. I always end up cutting about 20 percent from what I thought was a completed story.

Tom Hallman Jr. a senior writer for The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, including the Pulitzer Prize, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. A common thread in all of Hallman’s stories is the exploration of the character’s heart and soul. 
He is a frequent contributor to Readers Digest. He is the author of four books. His book, “Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask,” was published in 2002. He writes a column on writing for Quill Magazine. Hallman has been a speaker at National Writer’s Workshops and at papers across the United States. He has taught at USC, Notre Dame and Brown University.

May the writing go well.


CRAFT LESSON: Eight steps to better interviewing

Craft Lessons

Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook or turn on a recording device. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.

Interviewing lies at the heart of journalism. It is the critical path to building an information base that produces a fair, complete and accurate story. Yet too few journalists have ever received education or training in this critical skill. For most reporters, the only way to learn is on the job, mostly through painful trial and error.

How do you walk up to strangers and ask them questions? How do you get people — tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed — to give you useful answers? How do you use quotes effectively in your stories?

Step One: Get smart.

If you want to flop as an interviewer, fail to prepare. All too often, journalists start an interview armed only with a handful of questions scribbled in their notebooks. Take time, however short, to bone up on your subject or the topic you’ll be discussing. When former New York Times reporter Mirta Ojito interviewed experts, “I try to know almost as much as they do about their subject, so it seems we are ‘chatting,’ ” she said. A. J. Liebling, a legendary writer for The New Yorker, landed an interview with notoriously tight-lipped jockey Willie Shoemaker. He opened with a single question: Why do you ride with one stirrup higher than the other? Impressed by Liebling’s knowledge, Shoemaker opened up.

Step Two: Craft your questions.

The best questions are open-ended. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” These are conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that deliver an abundance of information.

Closed-ended questions are more limited but they have an important purpose. Ask them when you need a direct answer: Did you embezzle the city’s pension fund? Are you a member of the Proud Boys? Closed-ended questions put people on the record.

The worst are conversation stoppers, such as double-barreled (even tripled-barreled) questions. “Why did the campus police use pepper spray on student protesters? Did you give the order?” Double-barreled questions give the subject a choice that allows them to avoid the question they want to ignore and choose the less difficult one.

Craft questions in advance to ensure you ask ones that start conversations rather than halt them in their tracks. Stick to the script, and always ask one question at a time. Don’t be afraid to edit yourself. More than once, I’ve stopped myself in the middle of a double-barreled question and said, “That’s a terrible question. Let me put it another way.”

Step Three: Listen up.

The 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” focuses on two Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon White House. At one point, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, is on the phone with a Nixon fundraiser. Woodward asks how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and you see Woodward ask it and then remain silent for several agonizing moments until the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out incriminating information.

The moral:  Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow. “Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis of The Washington Post.

Step Four: Empathize.

A long-held stereotype about reporters is that they don’t care about people, they just care about getting stories. If you can show sources that you have empathy — some understanding of their plight —- they’re more likely to open up to you. “Interviewing is the modest immediate science of gaining trust, then gaining information,” John Brady wrote in “The Craft of Interviewing.”

“I am a human first,” said Carolyn Mungo, vice president and station manager at WFAA-TV in Dallas. “People have to see that journalists are not just a body behind a microphone. Even if you have five minutes, don’t rush, let them know you care.”

Step Five: Look around.

Good interviewers do more than listen.

“I always try to see people at home,” said Rhode Island freelancer Carol McCabe, who filled her newspaper and magazine feature stories with rich detail gathered during interviews. “I can learn something from where the TV is, whether the set of encyclopedias or bowling trophies is prominently displayed, whether the guy hugs his wife or touches his kids, what clothes he or she wears at home, what’s on the refrigerator door,” McCabe said. Weave these kinds of details for a richer story.

Step Six: Capture how people talk.

The most powerful quotes are short, sometimes just fragments of speech. In a story about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters traveling to visit each other, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times used simple quotes that illustrated what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.”

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

Just 11 words in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims.

Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; it’s dictation. Put your bloated quotes on a diet. Quotations, as USAToday’s Kevin Maney once said, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.

Listen for dialogue, those exchanges between people that illuminate character, drive action, and propel readers forward.

Step Seven: Establish ground rules.

You’ve just finished a great interview — with a cop, a neighbor, a lawyer — and suddenly the source says, “Oh, but that’s all off the record.”

That’s the time to point out that there’s no such thing as retroactive off the record. Make sure the person you’re interviewing knows the score right away.

When a source wants to go off the record, stop and ask, “What do you mean?” Often a source doesn’t know, especially if this is their first interview. Bill Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes exposing police abuses at The Philadelphia Inquirer, would read off the record comments back to his source. Often, he found that many sources changed their minds once they’d heard what they were to be quoted as saying.

Step Eight: Be a lab rat.

Record your interviews. Transcribe the questions as well as the answers. Do you ask more conversation stoppers than starters? Do you step on your subject’s words just as they’re beginning to open up? Do you sound like a caring, interested human being, or a badgering prosecutor? To be the best interviewer you can be, study yourself and let your failures and victories lead you to rich conversations and richer stories.

Mastering the Other Side of the Story: Four Questions with Bill Marimow

Bill Marimow/Elizabeth Robertson, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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

On stories about a controversy or a subject of sensitivity, do whatever is required to master the other side of the story. This is especially critical in investigative stories. Not only is it the right thing to do, journalistically, but it also will prove very valuable if you’re ever sued for libel. It would be very difficult for a plaintiff in a defamation case to prove that a reporter has written a story “with a reckless disregard of the truth” if the writer has done everything possible to master and communicate the other side of the story. Equally important, once a writer has secured both sides of the story, it will lead to writing with more nuance and authority. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

Writing about how civil service exams for aspiring police commanders were compromised, I received dozens of phone calls from officers who had taken the sergeants, lieutenants and captains tests, explaining in detail what I had missed and pointing out specific test takers whose results were highly suspicious. The callers offered dozens of leads and thanked me for exposing what appeared to be a pattern of preferential — and illegal —  treatment for some officers. These stories were published just a few years after my colleague Jonathan Neumann and I had written a series about criminal violence by the Philadelphia police, and we were considered “public enemies” by the mayor Frank L. Rizzo, a former Philadelphia police commissioner. A typical call from one of the police tipsters began this way: “Marimow, I never thought I’d be calling a newspaper. Especially not The Inquirer. And especially not you. But, pal, you’re telling it like it is, and the Police Department wants to thank you.” Before ending the call, the tipster would often supply the names of specific officers who had failed the civil service tests in the past and were suddenly ranked in the top handful of more than 5000 cops who had taken the sergeants test.

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

A Haverford Township sanitation engineer, a job that I had one summer in college for $1.80 an hour: Like an editor, I took pride in my work; I got to know my colleagues and the people who lived on my route. I’ve always tried to focus on the fulfillment of a job well done — whether making a difference through our stories or hauling trash on the streets of Havertown. In the case of my summer job, the fulfillment came in knowing that the trash was off the streets until the following week; I was getting into excellent physical condition, and I learned that everyone — especially my full-time colleagues on the sanitation crew — had great life stories to tell.

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

I think the best advice I ever got about writing was from Gene Roberts, who used to say that every good story should be brimming with “color, quotes and anecdotes.” As I recall, one of Gene’s first editors at the Goldsboro (NC) News-Argus was blind, and he demanded that Gene’s stories make him see. And as with all Gene Roberts’ kernels of wisdom, he delivered it in his inimitable North Carolinian drawl.

Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, has led three news organizations — The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun as editor in chief and National Public Radio (NPR) as the vice president of news.    As a reporter at The Inquirer, Marimow received the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1978 for stories he wrote with a partner on criminal violence by Philadelphia police, and again in 1985, for his investigation of the Philadelphia police K-9 unit.  In addition, Marimow received two Silver Gavel Awards from the American Bar Association and two Robert F. Kennedy awards — the first, for his work as an Inquirer reporter and, the second, for his work as vice president of news at NPR.      He was editor in chief of The Inquirer from 2006 until spring 2017– with one year off teaching at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University. He is a 1969 graduate of Trinity College from which he received an honorary doctorate degree. Marimow studied First Amendment law at Harvard Law School as a Nieman Fellow.   After retiring from The Inquirer in January 2020, Marimow joined Brian Communications as a senior adviser to Brian Tierney, the former publisher of The Inquirer.

Craft Lesson: Eight steps to successful revision

Craft Lessons

When I hear the word “revision,” I think:

  1. I failed. I should have gotten it right the first time.
  2. I have no clue how to revise my story.
  3. I don’t have time to revise.
  4. Yippee! I’ve got another chance to make my story shine.

Too many writers would pick 1, 2 or 3 from that list. Many writers equate revision with failure. “If I were more talented,” they think.” I wouldn’t need to revise.”

“My editor’s a sadistic hack” they complain when a story has been sent back for revising. “He wouldn’t know a good story if it hit him in the face.”

Revision has negative connotations because many writers don’t know how to tackle that part of the writing process. It’s a shame because revision is the most important step. All writing is, or should be, revision. “It is at the center of the artist’s life,” Donald M. Murray writes in “The Craft of Revision,” “because through revising we learn what we know, what we know that we didn’t know we knew, what we didn’t know.”

When it comes to writing success, it’s the winning choice. Number 4 is the best choice. Successful writers recognize that revision is not failure, but another attempt to make their story better.

“What makes me happy is rewriting … It’s like cleaning house, getting rid of all the junk, getting things in the right order, tightening things up. I like the process of making writing neat.”

Ellen Goodman

For many writers, the problem is number 2 on the list. They don’t know how to revise. They know their story isn’t working, but don’t see a way out.

I know. I’ve been there and so have many of my students.

“I’m at the point in the process where I feel I have utterly failed,” one wrote me.. “(Not only that, I am a talentless hack and a fraud, etc. etc.). I can’t see what is wrong with the draft or how to fix it. Please send help.

I know how you feel, I wrote back, because I’ve been there, more times than I’d like to count, and will probably be in that place many times in the future — in the despairing trough of near-completion

I was able to offer her a solution, one I developed to help me move from draft to revision. It’s an 8-step revision strategy that I came up with as a way to push back the negative feelings I had about my draft.

I know it will sound mechanical and it is — deliberately so. At this point, writers are burned out, stressed. Their confidence has ebbed. I know this state of mind very well, and have learned that resorting to a mechanical process distracts me from my despair and forces my brain to come to my aid. It’s time to ditch the Muse and bring out the toolbox: a printer and a pen.

Writing is a journey that teaches us something new every step we take.

More than anything, revision demands distance. There are two types: temporal and physical. The first is time. When the novelist John Fowles finished a draft, he would put in his desk drawer, sometimes for months. (Try selling that to your editor!)

The other, more realistic approach, is the printout, a physical product separate from the screen where pixelated prose tends to look perfect.

To go the distance on a piece of writing, you need to separate yourself from it enough to see it with the eyes of a reader — a stranger to the text instead of the creator. In fact, you need to stop being the writer for a while and assume the role of reader.

Here’s the way that works for me.

1. Hit the print button. The first step in achieving distance is to change the medium. We see words on a page differently than those on my computer screen. A cognitive scientist could probably tell me why, but the fact remains. I find it easier to detect flaws and possible fixes on a printout than when I am staring at the electrons in front of me. Open the draft and hit print.

2. Listen up “The ear is a wonderful editor — and usually a much sharper, smarter and livelier editor than the eye,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s Writing Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Read your story aloud, slowly, or, (my preference), ask someone to read it to you. During the reading, sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut; this means you can’t write on the draft or comment or respond, just listen.

 Koch paints an unforgettable scene in the life of Charles Dickens. His daughter Mamie “was once granted the unique privilege of spending several days reading and resting on a sofa in her father’s very closed-door study while he worked.” Normally, nobody watched Dickens at work, but Mamie had been sick, “was her daddy’s darling,” and promised to keep still.

As a grown woman, Mamie recalled her father, oblivious to her presence, begin “talking rapidly in a low voice.” Even away from his desk, he would “whisper the emerging cadences aloud,” Koch says.

“Take it from the greatest,” Koch advises. “You will hear what’s right and wrong on your page before you see it.”
3. Mark up. Read the draft a second time aloud, or silently to yourself, but now every time something strikes you — a criticism, a question, a change — make a check mark at that point in the manuscript. Nothing more. You’re just recording a response to something in your story. It may be something you like, something that confuses you, something you’d change or delete, or move.

By now, your draft is getting messy, but that’s not a bad thing.

The sepia image, below, is a manuscript page written by Honoré_de_Balzac, the prolific 19th-century novelist who helped pioneer literary realism, the precursor of today’ narrative journalism.

Never satisfied with his work, he was still making changes even after he sent them to the printer, which was an expensive proposition. One of his stories reportedly underwent seventeen proofs. It may look like a chicken has had its claws dipped in black ink and sent skittering across that page, but as an inveterate reviser, I find the sight comforting.

4. Countdown. Draw a circle next to every mark you’ve made. Number them. In the right margin, you’ll see an example of the method for a magazine story I was revising.

5. Remind yourself. Beside each number, write down why you flagged that word or passage. You will remember why you made the mark. For example, you might jot down, “cut this,” “check this with source,” “move this up,” “spelling,” “lead” or “kicker?” If the change is easy—deleting a word, correcting spelling, make it. Use arrows or slash marks to guide you.

6. Count up. Number the changes. Guesstimate how long each will take you to deal with each of them and write the number next to it. Five seconds. A minute. A half-hour of reporting. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m trying to make a game of it. Anything to keep me moving past the feelings of dread and despair a draft can inspire.

I love the flowers of afterthought.”

Bernard Malamud

7. Get moving. Place your marked-up draft by your screen. Open up the file and start revising. After every change, hit save (always hit save unless you use Google Docs and it does the job for you). Keep moving. Delete. Add. Cut and paste. X out each circle when you’re done. If you get bogged down on one, just skip over it and move on to the next. Move quickly. You don’t want to lose momentum. You may not be able to solve every problem in this revision. But you may the next time around, or, as I’ve found, the problem has been solved..

8. Rinse and repeat. Once you have gone through the entire list, hit print again. Repeat until you are satisfied, or you have to give up this story to your editor.  While this method is especially helpful for long term stories, there’s no reason you can’t do it on a daily deadline. While this method is especially helpful for long term stories, there’s no reason you can’t do it on a daily deadline, especially when you leave time for revision instead of wasting precious minutes trying to craft the “perfect” lead. On very tight deadlines, I’ve managed to hit print once, read the story over for problems and make changes in 15-20 minutes You don’t have time not to. 

This print, markup and revise method works because it helps furnish the psychic distance needed to address the problem you and many other writers face: I can’t see what is wrong with the draft or how to fix it.

Sometimes we can spot a problem in our writing without immediately knowing the solution. Some problems we may not be able to identify beyond a vague sense that “it’s just not working.” But we owe it to our stories to find out why. We must diagnose first if we have any hope of coming up with a good fix for the problem. And then fix it.

Sometimes we can spot a problem in our writing without immediately knowing the solution. Some problems we may not be able to identify beyond a vague sense that “it’s just not working.” But we owe it to our stories to find out why. We must diagnose first if we have any hope of coming up with a good fix for the problem.

I speak from experience. For many years, I would thrash around, bemoaning my inability to figure out why my story sucked and my powerlessness in coming up with ways to make it better. An experience several years ago with a short story changed my attitude. After producing multiple drafts, I still wasn’t satisfied but didn’t have a clue what was wrong or how to make it better.

I decided to give it one more read, marking up the manuscript whenever anything occurred to me as I read. I didn’t need to do anything more than make a checkmark or circle a sentence because when I read it again I remembered what it was that bothered me. (It was confusing, or repetitive, unclear, stilted, unnecessary) and in most cases I knew what to do about it; (rewrite it, move it, remove it).

When I was done and tallied up the marks I was horrified to see I’d come up with 113 things I thought needed to be fixed. And this for a 11-page story that had already undergone serious revision! (In fact, my wife and another writer friend had already told me to cut it out, stop obsessing, and send it off).

I decided to look at it as an exercise in revision: how long would it take me to make the changes. Okay, so it’s a head game, but at least it’s one I’m playing by myself.

It took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to make the changes. I read the new version aloud and when I got to the end I realized it was still not right. But now I saw, for the very first time, that the story actually ended three paragraphs earlier. I trimmed from the bottom, in the process ending with an exchange of dialogue that captured — and climaxed — the story in a way I’d never seen before. It was later published.

Every story can be a writing workshop, one that teaches us more about the craft. The lesson I learned is that even the most creative activity involves a certain amount of routine, even tedium. The woodworker spends hours hand-sanding a piece of furniture before applying the varnish that makes it gleam like a mirror. It may be tedious, but it’s a vital part of the process.

“Traveler there is no path,” the Spanish poet Antonio Machado says in an unforgettable line. “Paths are made by walking.”

May the writing go well.

Photo by Rebecca Matthews on Unsplash


A benevolent machete: Four Questions with Maria Carrillo

Maria Carrillo

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

Listen much more than you talk.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How many jobs are actually rolled into this one: teacher, coach, counselor, therapist.

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

I  really struggled with this, so I asked my three reporters.

Here’s what I got back.

One said:  “How ‘bout a benevolent machete, cutting away the stuff we don’t know we don’t need. And at least part therapist.”

Another: Mary Poppins: Fun, firm, kind, punctual, polite, collaborative, innovative … able to wrangle naughty children (and their parents) and make them want to please you … administering spoons full of sugar with each bitter dose of medicine … with all kinds of tricks in your bag

The third: My brain headed to plants for some reason. I feel like you nourish us to grow, making the conditions best so the most beautiful plants can flourish. You trim us exactly how we need it and give us darkness or sunlight depending on how we are doing. You fertilize us with a great writing road map, clearing away the overgrowth so we can stand straight up.  Reporters can grow awful healthy under those conditions.

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

A lot of things raced through my head thinking about this question, but I think the advice that has stayed with me the most wasn’t specifically about editing— in terms of handling copy — but about managing people and it came from Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maria Carrillo is senior deputy editor/enterprise at the Tampa Bay Times, where she oversees a team of reporters and works with journalists across the newsroom on ambitious stories. She was previously enterprise editor at the Houston Chronicle and, before that, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot. She has edited dozens of award-winnings projects, frequently lectures on narrative journalism, co-hosts a weekly podcast (WriteLane) about storytelling and has been a Pulitzer Prize juror five times. She was born in Washington, D.C., two years after her parents left Cuba in exile. She now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with her husband, and they have two grown children.

Craft Lesson: The Ten Percent Solution

Craft Lessons
Photo by Markus Spiske/

In “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” Stephen King describes a rejection slip he received in 1966 when he was still in high school.

“Not bad but puffy,” the editor wrote. “You need to revise for length.”

The editor provided this formula:

“2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10 %”

It may sound mechanical, but it’s a useful way to trim the fat off your story.

“I wish I could remember who wrote that note…” King writes. “Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly after. There was no sudden golden flood of magazine sales, but the number of personal notes on the rejection slips went up fast. What the Formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”

The Oregonian’s multi-award winning narrative writer Tom Hallman is a charter member of what I think of as the Ten Percent Solution Society.

“I really believe in being spare,” Hallman says.

“On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than 10 or 15 percent of the story,” he says. “So if it’s a 100-inch story, I always cut out 10 or 15 inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.”

As Stephen Koch advises in “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, “If your story is 10 pages long, make it nine pages long. 20 Pages? Make it 18. If your draft is 300 pages long,  knock it down to 270. Do you have a bunch of pages— any bunch of pages— that needs work? They have not been worked on until they have been washed and pre-shrunk in the 10-Percent Solution.”

Likely candidates:

Passive verb constructions. “The mayor is planning” becomes “The mayor plans,” adding energy, saving a word.
Modifiers. Search for “ly” to identify weak adverbs. Replace them with verbs that communicate with power and economy. “She knocked lightly” becomes “She tapped.”

Quotes. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase. You’re the writer: Unless your sources can say it better than you, silence them and put it in your own carefully crafted words.

Boredom. Heed Elmore Leonard’s dictum: Cut out the boring parts. Replace bloated description with dialogue. Do you really need that long anecdotal lead or would the nut graf that follows do the job just as well? If your eyes glaze over as you read your draft, be ruthless. Slice and dice.

Showing Off. “Cut phoniness,” Koch says. “There are going to be certain passages that you put in simply in the hope of impressing people… We all have our way of showing off, and they rarely serve us well. When you have identified your own grandiosity, do not be kind.” Georges Simenon, the prolific French mystery writer, made it his mission to cut away “his efforts to impress..” His main job when he rewrote was to… cut every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentences…Cut it.”

Follow Stephen King’s lead and join the Ten Per Cent Solution Society by keeping the formula close at hand as you revise.

Lose a few words but gain many more readers.

Or better yet. Whittle away as close as you can to the formula or beyond for maximum impact.

Lose words.

Gain readers.

Riding a Ferris wheel: Four Questions with Tommy Tomlinson

Tommy Tomlinson
Photo by Jeff Cravotta

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

It’s all about the reporting. We don’t write with words — we write with information. Every time I get stuck in writing a story, it’s because I don’t have the information I need and I’m trying to write around it. But fancy writing won’t patch the potholes. Make the extra call. Read the extra clip. When you’ve got the goods, the writing will be a whole lot easier.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How much people don’t stop and think about their own lives. I’ve written a bunch of stories where the subjects told me later that they learned things about themselves. What I’ve learned from that is that most of us spend most of our energy just getting through the day, and don’t step back to dwell on where we’re headed and why. I’ve realized that I’m not good at this, either.

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

I think of the job sometimes as riding a Ferris wheel. You’re in this constant loop of diving down low to the ground, then rising up to look from a higher vantage point. It’s the text and subtext — what’s happening in the story and What It All Means. I spend a lot of my time circling up and down, from text to subtext, trying to make sure the reader stays along for the ride.

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

I don’t remember who gave me this advice — I suspect I learned it by osmosis from watching some very good reporters. But here’s the advice:
If you hang around people long enough, eventually they become themselves.
At first, everybody a reporter talks to is likely to put up a front — some people suck up, others are mean and try to run you off, still others are fearful about the whole process. It’s hard for your first interactions to be authentic. But not many people can put up a front forever. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see the real person.

Tommy Tomlinson is the author of the memoir “The Elephant In the Room “(Simon & Schuster), about life as an overweight man in a growing America.He is also the host of the podcast “SouthBound” in partnership with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station. He has written for publications including Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Garden & Gun, and many others. He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. His stories have been chosen twice for the “Best American Sports Writing” series (2012 and 2015) and he also appears in the anthology “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.” He has taught at Wake Forest University as well as at other colleges, workshops and conferences across the country. He’s a graduate of the University of Georgia and was a 2008-09 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

BOOKBAG: Deconstructing the Writing Process Behind “The Sopranos”


One of the treasured books on my shelves is a copy of The Sopranos: Selected Scripts from Three Seasons.” published in 2002.

It reproduces shooting scripts of five episodes of the award-winning HBO mob drama, which was destination TV between 1999 and 2007, and which continues to be a long-running cable rerun hit.

 Its sterling cast was led by the late James Gandolfini, whose nuanced performance as depressive, violent Tony Soprano was peeled away by therapy with psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, achieving the impossible: sympathy for a homicidal crime boss. Gandolfini’s bravura anti-hero performance is considered one of the most powerful in television history.

Among the scripts is my favorite: “Pine Barrens”, about the hapless adventures of Tony’s underlings Christopher and Paulie, after an “errand,” aka mob hit, targeting Valery, a Russian gangster who works for money launderer Slava, goes sour and they have to dispose of his body in the thickly-wooded forest that blankets more than seven counties in New Jersey.

The pair spend a bone-chilling night in the Pine Barrens hunting for the victim who turns out to have nine lives. In this excerpt, static over cell phones between the pair and Tony lead to an elliptical hysterically profane and funny mix-up, one of the dark humor through lines that makes the series so unexpectedly appealing. Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher, said, “That episode was like a little one-act play. Like a different version of Waiting for Godot.” 


Tony walks down the street outside Slava’s, talking on his cell phone as he heads to the Suburban.


(through some static)

It’s a bad connection so I’m gonna talk fast!

The guy you’re looking for is an ex-commando!

He killed sixteen Chechen rebels single-handed!


Get the fuck outta here.


Yeah. Nice, huh? He was with the Interior Ministry.

Guy’s like a Russian green beret. He can not

come back and tell this story. You understand?


I hear you.


Paulie clicks off, looks at Christopher.


You’re not gonna believe this.

(off Christopher’s look)

He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator.



His house looked like shit.

You can watch a 10-minute clip of from “Pine Barrens.”

Beside offering complet scripts that are invaluable role models for any student or practitioner of scriptwriting is the four-page introduction by David Chase, creator of the multiple Emmy Award-winning series.  In it, he reveals the writing process behind “The Sopranos,” a series that reflects Chase’s love for “the foreign films I loved as a young adult for their ideas, their mystery and their ambiguity…”

From Chase’s intro, I’ve boiled down the show’s formula, a step-by-step run-through of the journey that Chase and his fellow writers took to produce a series that ranked first in Rolling Stone’s 2016 list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time.

1. Outline story arcs or “touchstones.”

Touchstone is Chase’s term for what journalists and many other writers call the “focus,” or theme, that is, what the story is really about. As the show’s creator and executive producer, these are his call. “The main theme of season 2,” Chase explains, is “plateau therapy — it deals with what Tony discovered and acknowledged in therapy during season one and the feelings these insights evoked.”

2. Fill in the outline.

The touchstone will play out over the season’s 13 episodes, each of which features three to four story “strands — What we call an A, B, (the main storylines) C, (a less major strand) or even D storyline, usually a comic runner.”

As a template, Chase uses “The Happy Wanderer” episode, the one where gambler David Scatino loses at high stakes poker and pays off Tony with his son’s SUV: “The A strand of the story is the spider-fly relationship between Tony and David and how they both behave according to their true natures … The B story is the relationship between Meadow and Eric Scatino (the two men’s teenage children) … The C strand is Tony finding out he has a retarded uncle, and the D story is the funeral for the father of Tony’s brother-in law.”

3. Flesh out the story

In the writing room, Chase and the show’s other writer/producers “flesh out the story for each episode, listing the ‘beats,’ i.e. scenes, for the A-D stories, one story at a time, on a wipe-off board. Each strand has a beginning, middle and end and could stand alone as films.”

That explanation helped me understand why the Sopranos, unlike almost all other TV fare, so often delivers the narrative satisfaction of a feature film, that sense that characters have reached a resolution, if not a final stop. At its most frustrating, as with the infuriating finale, episodes stopped frustratingly short of a satisfying ending.

Each episode has about 35 beats; with the main A and B strands each getting 13 scenes. The C strand gets 5 or 6 and the comic runner D plays out in “just a few beats.”

4. Cut and (Scotch) Tape

The scenes on the board are typed up and then “literally cut apart with scissors” and then “married” together with Scotch tape in the order of the complete script. “For example, a scene from story A could be followed by a scene from B, then back to A, then C and so on,” Chase explains.

Once the writers are satisfied with the scene order “aka story” the taped pages are retyped and voila: an outline that the writer, whoever he is, must faithfully follow.

5. Writing and Whacking

Scripts may go through 10 drafts, revised with notes from Chase and other producers, before they’re seen by any of the cast or crew. And even after filming, Chase may spend months in the editing room, generating “many cuts all the way to the final — which could include reordering and omitting scenes.”

“I firmly believe,” Chase says, “that the more time a filmmaker has to edit, the better a piece will be.”

What impressed me about Chase’s deconstruction was the way the process mixes creativity with mechanical procedures, equal parts brainstorming and Scotch tape. Even the most creative enterprise involves a measure of tedium. 

You can read the entire bootlegged script for “The Sopranos” pilot, the only one I could find, to see these elements at work.

Meanwhile, as fans waited for the the next episodes— Will Tony sleep with the fishes? Will Carmela run off to Italy with Furio? Will Christopher stay off smack? Will Meadow find her own mob man? Will Dr. Melfi get Tony back on Prozac and into the witness protection program?–thanks to HBO (subscription required), they can still watch reruns of all and watch as each strand of “The Sopranos’” stories weaves a dramatic experience that compelled millions of law-abiding Americans to turn a stone-cold killer into a star.

The story-behind-the-scripts is  a fascinating process, and one that I think any storyteller can profit from studying. I’m grateful to David Chase for revealing it.

Displaying a refreshing humility for someone who’s achieved such success, Chase concludes his essay by paying homage to a legendary Japanese filmmaker and an attitude about craft dedication that he clearly emulates.

 “I remember Akira Kurosawa saying at age 80-something that the great thing about filmmaking is you’re constantly learning. He was still learning, he said.”

And despite the Sopranos’ critical and commercial success, Chase said, “We’re continuing to learn.”

Holding fire in your hands: Four Questions with Jon Franklin

Jon Franklin

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

That it’s all about psychology . . . Yours, the reader’s, the characters’.  As time passes, literature and psychology may well merge.  Modern psychology grew from literature, after all; people forget that.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

John Steinbeck once wrote that he’d held fire in his hands, and I figured it was his right to use any metaphor he damned well chose.  Then, ten years later, I did a series of things right and, holy damn, I held fire in MY hands.  I think it has to do with focusing a lot of human experience into a small number of words.  Under certain circumstances, the writer as well as the reader can experience a momentary transcendence.
The point is that the magic is there, but reaching it requires a lot of technical skill as well as the inspirational kind.  I had not really been expecting magic.

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

I’m a science person, in the end.  That is, I believe in rationality.  But my sciences are literature and psychology, both of which are close to my central interest, the human condition.  After all, journalism can and frequently does become art.
All this is to say my own work is very science-like, but the universe it explores is literary.  For example, I once used a computer program to pick out the overlapping rhythms of steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
But I think I like “naturalist”, to describe me and my work.  Writing is part of the real world, and as such is subject to observation and experiment.

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

 My first editor, G. Vern Blasdell, said that if you find the heart of a character and you’ll have your story; find the story, and it’ll point to your character.  Sort of like yin and yang.  Each is the backside of the other.
Vern also introduced me to the idea that modern literature is mainly a reiteration of the stories the Greeks told.  Don’t look for a new story, you’ll fail.  Find an ancient one in new clothes — they are everywhere, and they never wear out.
And then, of course, the only way you learn to write is liberal application of ass to chair.  
Did you know about a condition known as writer’s ass?  If you sit on your tail bone too long, the tiny vessels in your coccyx become occluded and die.  The result hurts, aches, throbs, sometimes for decades and sometimes forever.  That’s why Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway, among others, wrote standing up.  I discovered that when I was diagnosed with it.  Talk about hurt!

Jon Franklin is a pioneer in creative nonfiction. His innovative work in the use of literary techniques in the nonfiction short story, novel, and explanatory essay won him the first Pulitzer prizes ever awarded in the categories of feature writing (1979) and explanatory journalism (1985) for his work at The Baltimore Sun. His books include: “The Molecules of The Mind,” “Writing for Story,” “Guinea Pig Doctors,” (with J. Sutherland) “Not Quite a Miracle, (with Alan Doelp) and ” Shocktrauma, (with Alan Doelp). He spent eight years (1959-1967) as a journalist in the U.S. Navy, and, finally, as a staff writer for All Hands Magazine. He taught at the University of Maryland College of Journalism from and was then professor and chairman of the Department of Journalism at Oregon State University and director of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon before joining the Raleigh (NC0 News and Observer as a narrative writer, special assignments editor and writing coach. In 2001, Franklin returned to the University of Maryland as the first Merrill Chair in Journalism. He retired as an Emeritus Professor in 2010.

CRAFT LESSON: Uncle Oren’s Toolbox and the Value of Over-reporting

Craft Lessons

CRAFT LESSON; Uncle Oren’s Toolbox and the Value of Over-reporting

One summer when Stephen King was a young boy, he helped his Uncle Oren, a carpenter,  repair a screen door on the side of his house. 

“I remember following him with the replacement screen balanced on my head, like a native bearer in a Tarzan movie,” King recalled. Oren meanwhile lugged his toolbox, bulging with tools and weighing in at  nearly 100 pounds, “horsing it along at thigh level.”. 

‘There was a hammer, a saw, the pliers, a couple of sized wrenches and an adjustable; there was a level with that mystic yellow window in the middle, a drill (the various bits were neatly drawered farther down in the depths), and two screwdrivers. Uncle Oren asked me for a screwdriver.”

Wielding the simple tool, Oren speedily removed the eight screws that secured the broken screen and attached the new one. But King was puzzled. He asked his uncle why he’d lugged the toolbox all the way around the house “if all he needed was the screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.” 

“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”

I thought of this story, which can be found in King’s magisterial memoir “On Writing”  today after a conversation with my friend Stephen Buckley. Stephen has had a distinguished career as a journalist; Washington Post foreign correspondent with postings in East Africa and Brazil, national correspondent and managing editor for the St. Petersburg Times, (now the Tampa Bay Times),dean of The Poynter Institute before returning to Kenya to run the Professional Development Program at the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications, Nairobi, He is now a media consultant.

When Stephen comes back on his occasional visits to the U.S., we always try to have breakfast at Trip’s, a local diner. It’s a highlight of my year, not just because he’s a wonderful companion, but a reflective practitioner of the craft of writing.

. “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story so I overreeport,’ he said on his last visit. “Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”

I stopped him mid-bite.. “You can’t ever overdo it,” I said. ‘You can’t overreport or research too much.  But you can underthink. You can underplan. You can underrevise.”

Writers, my mentor Don Murray taught me, “write best from an overabundance of material.” 

When Murray was a prolific magazine writer, he filled a trash can with the reporting materials he used and if the can was full he—and his editors—were satisfied he had a solid, fully-reported story. But when he needed something else–a quote, a fact, a statistic–and had to scour the bottom of the near empty bucket he knew he was screwed. He’d under-reported.

Over-reporting played an important role in the first draft of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times Magazine essay about the bitter legacy  of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to America.  Her first draft “was more than twice as long as what ran. There were a lot of examples that did not make it in the final draft. This is part of what makes long-form, deep research really hard. You just have so much information and it’s hard, when you’re so immersed in it, to figure out the most important examples and storytelling points.” The abundance of material, winnowed during revisions, gave the story the authority it needed to make her case. It  won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. 

What Stephen Buckley thought of as overreporting was the crucial accretion of facts, details, scenes, dialogue that made his own stories so memorable. Yes, it’s a hassle, whether you’re researching a book or magazine piece, a feature story or even a deadline news account, to confront a pile of notebooks, screenfuls of interview transcripts, audio recordings and the other research materials that go into effective writing. It can be agony to realize you can only use a fraction of what you collected, 

As Bloomberg Business Magazine writer Bryan Gruley said in a recent interview, when he’s pursuing a feature story, doing the work means “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.” 

But that’s where the power of a story comes from. It’s the price writers pay for writing stories that have the  heft of Uncle Oren’s toolbag. It’s what goes into stories that have no holes, that are written with the strength that can come only from over-reporting, 

The Stone Wall Builder: Four Questions with Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman/Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

Anne Fadiman is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale. Her most recent book, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, was chosen as one of The Guardian’s Top 10 Culinary Memoirs of all time. The former editor of The American Scholar and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fadiman is also the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction, and two essay collections, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small.

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

My friend the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, who died in January, visited my writing class almost every year since I started teaching it in 2005. In her own writing, she always embraced whatever subject lay at the center of her life, however difficult or unpleasant—mental illness, addiction, breast cancer, the discovery in her forties that her father wasn’t the man she’d been told was her father. And she always wrote in a voice that sounded exactly like her: funny, bitchy, contrarian, grumpy, warm, brazen. 

She told my students to be themselves, too.

One year, when the students around our seminar table introduced themselves to Elizabeth, one of them said he came from “a suburb of Chicago.” 

“What’s the name of it?” asked Elizabeth.


“You don’t come from a suburb of Chicago! You come from Flossmoor! Always say you come from Flossmoor! Be proud of it!”

As we become better writers, we may become deeper, more skilled, or better versions of ourselves on the page. But we should never try to become different selves. The moment we stop sounding like ourselves, we should remind ourselves that we come from Flossmoor, and we’re proud of it.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That anyone would want to read about me. 

I spent nearly twenty years as a reporter before I started writing personal essays. I’d always assumed that my own life—both exterior and interior—was too small to be of interest to anyone but myself, so I figured I’d gain some height by standing on the shoulders of people more interesting than I was. Hence, reporting. Then, at age 40, I was stuck in bed for eight months during a problem pregnancy. I started writing personal essays only because I could do them horizontally.

The essays were enormous fun, and some people actually wanted to read them. The baby turned out fine and is now a writer.

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

A stone wall builder.

I tried writing fiction in college, but I was terrible. I’m a nonfiction writer through and through. I’m decent at recognizing which stones are beautiful, and how to fit them together, and in what sequence I should lay them in order to build something that won’t fall down. Those suckers are heavy! I’m willing to grunt and sweat as I pick them up. But if I tried for a million years, I could never make the stones themselves.

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

My husband, George Howe Colt, who is also a writer, once said, “The difference between a good piece of writing and one that’s absolutely as good as you can make it is all the difference in the world.”

Insecurity travels with every keystroke: Four Questions with Jacqui Banaszynski

Jacqui Banaszynski

After more than three decades in newspapers, Jacqui Banaszynski is now editor of Nieman Storyboard, a global website which celebrates and examines the art and craft of narrative journalism. She is an emerita professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute. Her reporting career took her to all seven continents, including three trips to Antarctica. She has written about corruption and crime, beauty pageants and popes, AIDS and the Olympics, dogsled expeditions and refugee camps, labor strikes and political strife, traffic fatalities and family tragedies. While at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, her series “AIDS in the Heartland” won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.  She was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer in international reporting for coverage of the Ethiopian famine and won the nation’s top deadline sports reporting award for coverage of the 1988 Olympics. Banaszynski has edited numerous award-winning projects, including one that won ASNE Best Writing, Ernie Pyle Human Interest Writing and national business and investigative prizes.  In 2008, she was named to the Association of Sunday and Features Editors Features Hall of Fame.  

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

There are no small stories. Every story is important to the people it’s about, and every story should respect the people it’s for.

An extension of that: Don’t confuse the size of the masthead, the circulation or the assignment with the value or quality of the work. People in a small community deserve the same level of journalistic care as those in the big-dog markets — and they probably need it more. And the only real limit to your aspirations is you.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing (or editing) life?

As a writer: Good writing comes from good reporting. Great writing comes from great reporting. This came as a happy surprise that revealed itself over years of struggle (late-night tears and insecurity that would have been debilitating if not for my belief in answers to No. 1 above and wiring for No. 3 below.) I have never been, and am still not, an easy or eager writer. Insecurity travels with every keystroke. But I’ve learned to let that be, and trust that if I have the right goods in my notebook, and am determined to communicate clearly and effectively with readers, I can find my way through the writing.

As an editor: No one wants me to be the editor I had always wanted or needed; they want me to be the editor they want or need — even if it’s not me. And nothing much good comes of pulling punches. (See reference to “brickbat” in No. 3 below.)

As a teacher: I can’t teach anyone anything. All I can do is put knowledge in their path, try to light the way and clear the rocks a bit, but then accept that they will — or won’t — pick up that knowledge when they need it to go forward.

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

I don’t trust that how I see myself is how others see or experience me. Isn’t that why we resist the one-interview profile? So I crowd-sourced this one. (It was a small crowd.) Responses ranged from Fairy Godmother to Story Whisperer to Story Doctor to Xena Story Warrior to Brickbat. For now, I’ll go with one that I hope is true:

ER doc. Which means (I hope) I am calm, focused and effective under pressure. I care about the patient — or why would I do this work? — but don’t fold in the face of blood or chaos, and don’t indulge in my emotions to the extent it gets in the way of the work that needs to be done — which is never about me. (The same person, who knows me well, says I could probably land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in rough seas. I think he said this knowing we would never have to test that theory. He also knows I love to fly, and have always wanted to be in the cockpit. Alas, both metaphors are challenged by the reality that while I’m OK with blood, I puke at the smell of puke. And I get seasick.)

A funny variation on the above: An editor-boss once told me that one of the reasons he valued me was because “You’ll do dishes.” The feminist in me bristled — but I knew him well enough to know it was meant as a compliment: He could count on me to do what needed to be done and not feel I was above the mundane work. That allowed me to push back a bit for a discussion on what higher-level work I could/should be doing, and how he could support it.

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

Two things:

  1. Every story prepares you for the next story. So quit obsessing over the story someone else is doing, and give your best to the story in front of you. (Longer backstory here, but that’s a large part of how I did “AIDS in the Heartland,” the project that won a Pulitzer. I couldn’t have done that series 10, or even two, years before I did.
  2. Hit the send button. This wisdom came to me back in the early ’80s, when I was busting deadline as I obsessed over some basic civic story, probably from a planning commission meeting. So many planning commission meetings! The AME (Thank you, Steve Ronald.) stopped by and told me to put a period at the end of my next sentence, peel out the process BS, and hit SEND. The story was going inside the B section no matter how it was written. And it needed efficiency and clarity — not gothic prose.

The second answer above may seem to contradict the first. But it doesn’t. What I learned from this is to pay attention to the purpose of a story, and let that purpose guide the prose. An informational story needs to be just that: direct and utilitarian. It can open the door to follow-up enterprise pieces, but it shouldn’t ask the reader to wade through my writerly ego. And it shouldn’t ask the copy desk to wait through my angst.

This taught me not to fall in love with “creative” structures when the best thing for the reader is a quick list or Q&A or, yes, inverted pyramid. It also helped me get more efficient, and save time and creative juice for the stories that called for them.

That lesson has informed all my writing, editing and teaching — and reminded me of one of my mother’s many no-nonsense wisdoms: Don’t dress up a pig. Bacon is fine on its own. (If she were alive today, she would scoff at the trend of bacon bits in muffins and ice cream. She wouldn’t be wrong.)

Cultivating a Sense of Wonder: Four Questions with Stephen Buckley

Stephen Buckley

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

It’s tempting to think that good writing just calls for us to stitch together the fine tips and techniques we find in newsletters like yours.  The tips and techniques are awesome, but they are no substitute for thinking deeply about a piece of writing. What’s the story about? What’s the theme? What’s the focus? What’s missing? Am I being intellectually honest? What am I really trying to say? Doesn’t matter whether it’s a piece of fiction, a column, or a longform newsfeature: The deeper the thinking, the more original and compelling the writing. This takes patience, which I don’t have much of these days. So I find that I have to be savagely intentional about not cutting intellectual corners. But, in the end, that’s the only way to find my way to clarity and meaning.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I’m going to cheat and give you two surprises:   One is that cynicism kills creativity. When I was younger, I equated cynicism (which I think of skepticism poisoned by hopelessness) with sophistication. But the best writers cultivate a sense of wonder that only grows with age. It’s not that they are Pollyannas. It’s just that they see the world at odd angles, are generous and openhearted, and are always asking impertinent questions. They’ve trained themselves to be surprised. And as a result, their work gleams with beautiful simplicity and insight.    The other is that writing doesn’t get any easier. After 30-plus years of writing professionally, I can’t get over how much I still have to learn. It’s like a marriage: attention must be paid. And I haven’t always paid attention to my writing. Growth is humbling—and more than a little painful sometimes. Which is why I’ve finally accepted that writers need community—virtually or in person, informal or formal. Because meaningful growth almost always occurs in community.

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

Gosh, this one is tough. None leaps to mind. If anything, I’d say I’m an owl. I always think of owls as being the best observers and listeners in the animal kingdom (I have no idea if that’s true), and I think that’s the writer’s first duty: to take in the world as it is and then transport readers to that world. As the late James J. Kilpatrick said in The Writer’s Art: “We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently….” He said that’s the only path to original, precise language and images. And I agree.

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

I got a lot of good advice over the years, but two thoughts come to mind. The first was from Roy Peter Clark, who taught me that how we order words can enhance or dilute their impact. I think about this all the time, particularly given how impatient readers are today. Their attention always feels brittle, tenuous. And so, beyond insights and clarity, I feel like I can tug them along with language that’s precise and compelling—especially at the end of a sentence or paragraph. And I often think of something John McPhee says: Writing is selection. I find this oddly liberating, especially if I’m writing a long piece. McPhee’s advice frees me to just lay everything on the screen before I go back and slash away, and reorder, whole sections. Don’t get me wrong. Selection is hard. Sometimes really hard. But it’s also fun, even exhilarating, especially when it yields writing that’s both clean and muscular.

For most of the past decade, Stephen Buckley has taught journalism, communications, and leadership in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, the United States and Asia.  He began his career with The Washington Post, where he spent 12 years as a local reporter and international correspondent, based in Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro. He later worked at the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), where he was a national reporter, managing editor and digital publisher before turning to teaching. Stephen served as the Dean of Faculty at the Poynter Institute and has conducted workshops at numerous writing conferences.  Stephen won the International Reporting Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1999 for his coverage of Africa, and in 2002, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors named him the state’s best reporter.  He served as a Pulitzer Prizes juror four times. In  2015, he joined the faculty of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi where he served as an associate dean in charge of professional and executive programs. He is now a media consultant based in Nairobi.

Craft Lesson: Backstory: Using the story behind the story

Craft Lessons
Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

“We talked all night.” “We looked up and realized the restaurant was empty.”

How often have we heard these descriptions of successful dates, those close, and perhaps apocryphal, encounters when two people reveal their personal histories to each other for the first time?

In the vocabulary of fiction, we would say they’re giving each other their backstory, revealing past actions and influences that shaped their personalities, the way they think and behave. An abusive parent? An inspiring mentor. A serious childhood illness. A painful breakup.

The literary device of backstory establishes what happens before the story that is the main plotline. It’s the information that gives characters and narrative arcs a sense of personal and social history. 

Writers use them to raise the stakes for a character. Can a young mother with a history of drug abuse keep the monkey off her back so she can keep her child from the clutches of a vengeful ex-husband or Child Protective Services?  

A backstory makes a character’s psychological motivations understandable. In Charles Dickens’ “Great  Expectations,” why does the wealthy spinster Miss Havisham always wear her wedding dress even after it’s tattered? Why does she leave the uneaten wedding breakfast and cake untouched on a table? Because in her youth, she was left at the altar, leaving her wounded and cynical. That’s her tragic backstory, and explains why she torments Pip, the protagonist of the novel, and Estella, the orphan she adopted. She had intended to spare her ward from the suffering she endured, but couldn’t resist causing her pain.

“My dear!” she tells Pip, “Believe this: when she first came, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more. But as she grew, and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, and with my praises, and with my jewels, and with my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.”  

Backstories are critical elements in a novel or screenplay although they should not dominate the front story which make up the scenes and exposition of the main action.

A back story has two purposes,” writer Jessica Morrell says in her article, “What Backstory Can Do For Your Story.” “A character’s backstory comprises all the data of his history, revealing how he became who he is, and why he acts as he does and thinks as he thinks. It also reveals influences of an era, family history, and world events (such as wars) that affect the story and its inhabitants.”

The writer needs to know each character’s backstory, even though they may reveal only a small percentage. Lives are long. Just as people don’t tell a new friend or lover every single thing about themselves during a first meeting, the effective writer parcels out the backstory judiciously rather than cramming them all in flashbacks that tear the reader from the main story that has grabbed their attention in the first place.

There are a variety of ways to introduce backstory, including flashbacks, exposition, dialogue, direct narration and a character’s recollections. Whatever method you choose, avoid dumping background information on the story all at once.

“The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting,” Stephen King writes in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”

“Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest,” King says. “Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.”

When Ernest Hemingway talked about the fact that only one-eighth of an iceberg shows above the water, he was describing a theory of omission that represents a form of backstory. In his short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” the backstory is that the couple sitting drinking wine as they wait for a train are discussing an abortion without ever saying the word. The original  “Star Wars” movie and its first two sequels contain preconceived backstories that were later developed into prequels. Even its minor characters have backstories.

 Other backstories are a form of foreshadowing. Early in the movie, “The Silence of the Lambs,” which hews closely to Thomas Harris’ novel, agent Starling, played by Jodi Foster, sees a lineup of the gruesome photos of serial killer Buffalo Bill’s victims.

“Thus, when Catherine, the senator’s daughter, is captured,”  Morell notes, “we’re aware of the gruesome torments that await her. Further, because backstory reveals that Buffalo Bill keeps his victims alive for a certain number of days, the stakes are increased because time is running out for Catherine. When Starling confronts Bill in the climax of the novel, the backstory heightens the suspense.”

Backstories reveal characters motivations as these examples in “Backstory: The Importance of What Isn’t Told” by novelist K.M. Weiland demonstrate. 

  • The inability to measure up to his younger brother, which fuels Peter Wiggin’s anger and ambition (the “Ender’s Shadow” series by Orson Scott Card)
  • The long-harbored guilt for brutal war crimes, which impels Benjamin Martin to avoid war (the movie “The Patriot”).
  • The long years of loneliness which influenced John Barratt to accept the compulsory swapping of roles with his French lookalike (“The Scapegoat” by Daphne du Maurier).

As you compose your novel or screenplay and develop your characters, you have to know their backstory. Study the backstories in classic novels like Fyodor Dosteovsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” about Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student who murders an elderly money lender. ShowTime’s “Dexter” uses flashbacks to reveal how a serial killer with a twisted ethical compass is born. Dickens launches “David Copperfield” with backstory. The backstory of the “Harry Potter” series is the murder of Harry’s parents by the dark wizard Lord Voldemort. Reread your favorite novels and study films to identify the back story, their purpose and the methods the writer used to develop and present them. to the reader

As you start work on your own story, it’s crucial to answer a ton of questions about your characters to make sure you understand who they are and where they came from. Here’s one of the most comprehensive that I’ve found. It’s long, but essential if you hope to write a story that raises the stakes for its characters, furnishes psychological realism and above all, make readers understand how and why your characters behave as they do. Backstory has many purposes in the creation of realistic characters. The most important is that it helps readers care about them.  

Finding inspiration in reading: Tip of the week

Writing Tips

Find inspiration in reading.

Writing teacher Donald M. Murray liked to say that when he read something that inspired him, “my hand itches for a pen.” “Writers,” he once wrote, “read to be inspired, to see the possibilities of language. They learn most about writing by writing, but they learn a great deal by reading.” If you’re having trouble finding inspiration or are stuck in place, choose a “sacred text.” It could be anything from Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets or the King James Bible to a novel or short story collection by one of your favorite authors. Read for pleasure. When something strikes you as wonderful, copy it out. See if you can apply its lessons to your own work. As I mentioned in the last issue, I’ve steeped myself in the “Collected Stories of John Cheever.” His diction has inspired me to work harder on my own word choices. His carefully woven sentences prod me to write with greater complexity. Reading writers whose work I admire helps me see what works in my own writing and what needs work. It can do the same for you.

Rituals to Write By

Craft Lessons
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I’d heard the story many times, but I still couldn’t believe it.

Let’s face it, it sounded a little strange.

Gay Talese, the acclaimed narrative writer, a pioneer of New Journalism, pinned his manuscript pages to the wall of his office. 

He then walked across the room to his desk. On it rested a pair of binoculars.

 He picked them up and trained them on his pages to study them word by word.

Or so the story went.

Bizarre. Perhaps. But it seems to have worked.

Talese is the author of books and magazine articles that set the standard for narrative writing. One of them, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” famously demonstrated how you could write a profile without actually interviewing the subject.

Talese wouldn’t be the first writer to turn to a ritual, quasi-religious behavior.

Rita Dove, the former U. S. Poet Laureate, wrote by hand, standing up at a lectern with a candlestick on it. She wrote at the end of the day. She lit the candle and as the burning tallow began to flicker on the page, she began to compose.

When John Steinbeck was writing his classic novel ‘East of Eden,” he started each day by writing a letter to his editor Pascal “Pat” Covici.” By his side sat twelve round pencils sent spinning twice a day through an electric sharpener, each sharpened tip enough to last a page. 

Gail Godwin, the novelist (“A Mother and Two Daughters,” Grief Cottage“) and essayist, lights two different kinds of incense. Godwin relies on other totems: crisp new legal pads and new No. 2 pencils with erasers that don’t leave red smears.

Rituals, if these acclaimed writers demonstrate, matter to writers. They are part of their process, almost religious-like gestures designed it seems to summon the Muse.

Allure of rituals

The rituals of successful writers hold a special allure for those trying to emulate their success. 

Over the years, I’ve collected many examples. Unfortunately, many are unattributed. They may be apocryphal, their authenticity dubious.

But I’ve seen a picture of Rita Dove standing at her desk with the lighted candle glowing.

On the Internet, I found an image of a notebook page that James Joyce marked up with red crayons.

In her slim but rich and meticulously researched book, “Odd Type Writers:

From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors,” Celia Blue Johnson does a remarkably thorough job documenting the rituals, working habits and environments of nearly 200 writers from Diane Ackerman to W.B. Yeats.

James Joyce wrote in bed wearing a long white coat and used crayons to mark up his notebooks (in the picture below, he chose red and green ) for “Ulysses.”

Truman Capote, author of the legendary “In Cold Blood,” insisted on leaving three–only three– cigarette butts in his ashtray. Honoré de Balzac, the 19th-century novelist, gulped dozens of cups of strong coffee every day–the exact amount is in question–to keep him going. The French writer Colette couldn’t pick up her pen before picking the fleas off her cat. Whatever works, I guess.

James Joyce, notebook for “Ulysses

Some, like poet Robert Frost, could only write by night, Johnson recounts. As an aspiring fiction writer, J.D. Salinger huddled under his bedsheets at night, and “with the aid of a flashlight he began writing stories,” his editor William Maxwell recalled. William Faulkner wrote “As I Lay Dying” in just six weeks, churning out his novel during the night shift at the power plant where he worked. 

Others, like Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf trekked for miles in the countryside finding energy and inspiration along the way. Later in the modern age, the airplane became the favorite place of composition for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Margaret Atwood. 

Environment matters to many writers. Marcel Proust famously lined the bedroom where he wrote with corkboard to keep out the noise and heavy curtains to blank light that might distract him from composing the classic, “Remembrance of Things Past.” Maya Angelou rented hotel rooms to write in. By her bed, “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, “Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray and a Bible.”

“A room is far more than four walls. a ceiling, and a door. It’s a place where a writer can embrace, and even harness, her or his own idiosyncracies. In the solitude of a room, a writer’s creativity manifests not only on the page, but also in unique work habits.”

Celia Blue Johnson

I’ve been thumbing through Johnson’s book with great pleasure. It’s replete with fascinating examples demonstrating that “writers are a very quirky bunch,” sometimes bordering on the obsessive.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has altered the usual working spots for many writers, as author and teacher Matt Tullis found in this fascinating piece for Nieman Storyboard.

If you’d like to learn the rituals of some of your favorite writers, I recommend Johnson’s book, (I got a used copy off Amazon for under nine dollars. If you’d like to save some money, Maria Popova over at the inestimable Brain Pickings blog has already done a great service summarizing Johnson’s findings beyond the ones I’ve listed here.)

How writing rituals help

Tools matter. For the prolific French writer, Alexandre Dumas could only write poetry on yellow paper, pink for articles, blue for novels. Eudora Welty revised with scissors and pins–”straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins and needles-“-rather than paste. Langston Hughes wrote his letters in bright-green ink, Rudyard Kipling jet black.

To non-writers, these behaviors must smack of obsessive-compulsive disorder. To those of us struggling every day to create something worthwhile, they can be the difference between a productive day or one that ends in despair. Writers are fascinated by rituals, I believe, because they think if they mimic the routines of successful predecessors they might be able to achieve the same.

What may seem like ridiculous behavior to the non-writer, I recognize as actions with rational goals. They:

  • Help writers get in the frame to write.
  • Alleviate anxiety that prompts writer’s block, starting writing or procrastination, inability to get in the chair in the first place. 
  • Focus on the mundane as a way to set aside intrusions.
  • Provide a routine to keep a writer on track

Of course, not everyone believes in rituals. Isaac Asimov, with over 500 published books to his name, dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.”

“My only ritual is to sit close enough to the typewriters so that the fingers touch the keys.”

Gay Talese by David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

I own a treasured paperback copy of Gay Talese’s first book, the 1961 collection, “Fame and Obscurity: A Book about New York, a Bridge and Celebrities on the Edge.” To call it dog-eared is a vast understatement; the cover hangs by a few threads. I carried it with me to a writing conference years ago where I knew my idol was speaking. During a break, I managed to get not only Talese’s autograph, but to confirm, from his own mouth, that he had indeed reviewed his manuscript pages with binoculars.

I was so awestruck that I neglected to ask an obvious question: why? 

But if I had to guess, I think he would have answered, “Because it worked.”

May the writing go well,

Photograph by Filios Sazeides courtesy of

A choice, not a gift: Four Questions with John Woodrow Cox

John Woodrow Cox

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

So much about the way I approach stories has changed since the start of my career, but one lesson I learned early on has remained constant: Nothing matters more than the reporting. The most meaningful words in any story are the ones journalists earn before they ever sit down at a keyboard. I sometimes wish that wasn’t true, because capturing a revelatory detail or scene never gets easier. In a way, though, I also find comfort in that reality. I’m not the most naturally gifted writer I know, but the best reporting days are, more than anything, a product of hard work, and working hard is a choice, not a gift.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

My obsession with structure. It’s inconceivable to me today, but there was once a time when I didn’t outline anything before I wrote it, and I’m sure readers could tell. Now, I start thinking about a story’s potential architecture well before I’m done reporting it.

I just finished the draft of my first book, and it felt like I spent as many weeks working on structure as I did on writing. A blueprint of openings and endings — for the whole book, the chapters within it, the sections within them — migrated from dozens of notecards, spread out across the floor, to two massive sheets of paper taped to the wall in my home office. The journalist I was in college could never have imagined that scene.

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

Get out of the way. In other words: don’t overwrite; let your reporting do the work; cut the superfluous, whether that’s the unnecessary turn of phrase or the repetitive detail. I don’t know who first gave me that advice — or, rather, order — but I’ve heard some version of it from many great editors through the years. It’s always true.

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

I don’t use many metaphors in my writing and am reluctant to apply one to myself now, but I guess I could go with woodworker? A good woodworker, from what I gather, invests in his raw material. He fixates on small details and cares about precision. He plans before he builds. And, in my case, he works for a wise forewoman who knows just what to do when he saws the leg off of a chair.

John Woodrow Cox is an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post, currently working on “Children Under Fire,” a book being published by HarperCollins imprint Ecco. It will expand on his I series about kids and gun violence, a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.

He has won Scripps Howard’s Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Storytelling, the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, Columbia Journalism School’s Meyer “Mike” Berger Award for human-interest reporting, the Education Writers Association’s Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting and the National Association of Black Journalist’s single story feature award. He has also been named a finalist for the Michael Kelly Award, the Online News Association’s Investigative Data Journalism award and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. In addition, his stories have been recognized by Mayborn’s Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest and the Society for Features Journalism, among others.

John previously worked at the Tampa Bay Times and at the Valley News in New Hampshire. He attended the University of Florida, earning a bachelor of science in journalism and a master of science in management. He has taught narrative writing at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications and currently serves on the Department of Journalism’s Advisory Council.

Bookbag: The value of not writing

Craft Lessons


Mike Tinnion/unsplash

I want to make a sacrilegious argument. If you want to be a better writer, don’t write. At least, not for a while. 

How can that be? How can you improve if you’re not consistently practicing your craft, day in and day out?

If you’re like me, every day that passes without a word, a line, a paragraph written, seems like a day wasted. It brings to mind the French writer Simone de Beavuoir’s observation that I recently quoted: “A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes.” Not to mention that the motto at the end of my newsletters is “Never a day without a line.”

But there’s also something to be said, some writers argue, for letting the well of creativity fill up again after you’ve finished a story. 

Whether you’re writing full time or on the side, as many do, fallow periods may be just what you need, these writers say. Journalists and freelancers dependent on constant output may not have this option, of course, but they can take mini-breaks if they intelligently manage their time.

There’s an agricultural analogy that supports the argument of not writing. For a while at least. 

It’s not uncommon for farmers to plow their fields some seasons, but leave them unsown in order to restore their fertility.

The notion is reassuring because I’m suffering from an on-and-off spell of writer’s block. The days when I work productively on a fiction project are sadly outnumbered by those where I’ll do anything else. Incessant checking of my Twitter feed is a diverting substitute. Days have slipped by without my fingers touching the keyboard, except for producing my newsletters. The fog of self-doubt lifts some days, but even then my word count has amounted to just a few lines or scribbled phrases in my daybook.

As writers, we agonize over writer’s block, that occupational curse that holds our words at bay. But in “Maybe the Secret to Writing is Not Writing,” a provocative essay for Lit Hub I stumbled upon the other day, Kate Angus makes a persuasive case for taking a break. 

“These days I’ve come to believe that it’s natural for many of us to go through periods when we put words to the page and times when we can’t. Maybe we can accept that we aren’t blocked at all,” she writes, “and that resting might just be part of our process.”

That’s what Roy Peter Clark, the influential writing teacher and my former colleague at The Poynter Institute, has been saying for decades. He turns the notion of procrastination on its head by urging writers to eschew negative self-talk when the writing machine spins to a halt.

 “Turn your little quirks into something productive,” Clark says in “Writing Tools,” his best-selling guidebook. “Call it rehearsal or preparation or planning.” 

It’s a potent solution, one that removes the stigma of writer’s block, replacing it with something positive. 

Clark’s got a point. Your mind doesn’t shut off when you’re not writing. You’re still observing, an actor rehearsing a role, watching people and soaking up insights into the human condition — the subject matter of all great literature. Your mind still teems with story ideas, echoes with dialogue and creates possible characters. Like police officers, the writer is never really off-duty.

Angus quotes poet t’ai freedom ford (cq), who says there are “large swaths when I’m not actually writing, but I am doing lots of things to stimulate my muses and so I count it as writing. In that way, I don’t really believe in writer’s block, because when I consider the elements of my process, I’m most always writing (even if it’s only in my head).”

There are some who take the merits of not writing even further.

Ada Limón

Poet Ada Limón feels ‘like there should be a permission slip for writers. Something you can sign for someone that says, ‘You don’t always have to write,’” she says in the essay. “You have permission to just be in the world and grieve and laugh and live and do your damn laundry. Writing comes when it comes, and it’s not the most important thing. You and all the little nuisances and nuances of life are what matter most. Don’t miss this gorgeous mess by always trying to make sense of it all.”

Taking a break isn’t without its risks. Ceasing regular writing may make it difficult to restart the habit. 

Part of my problem is that I put aside my project while I finished a long short story besides my regular compendia of writing advice. I found it hard to regain my momentum, especially in the times of trouble we’re all living through. It’s hard not to be distracted and depressed by the steady drumbeat of tragic news, the pressures of pandemic and the gnawing uncertainty of life under quarantine even if, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to be spared personal loss. For those who haven’t please accept my deepest sympathies.

To deal with the fact that I’m writing less than I want or should, I’m reading more. 

I’m savoring the acclaimed “Collected Short Stories of John Cheever,” 61 stories by the 20th-century master stylist called the “Chekhov of the suburbs.” Rarely does a page go by when I’m not copying out phrases, sentences or whole paragraphs to cherish, learn from and try to imitate. Reading generates writing. It amounts to a slow re-entry. I recommend it highly. 

I may not generate hundreds of words at a stretch right now, but on walks with my dog, Leo, or by myself, I’ve been trying out scenes and staging imaginary plot points. They circulate in the back of my mind where I hope they will grow into something potent. 

After reading Angus’s essay, I’ve been trying not to beat myself up if I deviate from my writing schedule, even though I still fear I’ll lose velocity and, heaven forfend, give up. 

In the meantime, I’m learning to trust my subconscious. And I think it’s paying off. In recent days, I have found myself writing again, feeling excitement and energy rather than despair and inertia. The other morning I woke and couldn’t wait to start writing. I soon hit my daily word count and then nearly doubled it. And for the first time in a long time, I liked what I saw. Even a short break had topped off the tank of my creativity. 

I think Angus and Limón make a valid point. Eventually, that farmer who lets his field go fallow for a season or more will plant again. With the soil replenished by time and the cattle and horses who graze upon it, the crop will be greater, richer. Who’s to say that won’t be the case if you set aside your writing, to soak in the “gorgeous mess” of life? You’ll have a wealth of material to draw on when you return to your desk and the chance for a harvest far greater than what came before.

The details write the story: Four Questions with Susan Ager

Susan Ager

Susan Ager is a prize-winning journalist of many years, now freelancing for National Geographic. Getting her start at the Associated Press, in Lansing, MI and San Franciso, for a quarter century she wrote and edited for the Detroit Free Press. She worked as a full-time coach, at the Free Press and dozens of other papers. For 16 years she wrote a thrice-weekly column and traveled the state of Michigan for a popular project she called “Tell Susan Ager Where to Go.” Her 1992 book “At Heart” is an anthology of her early work. She is a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, in part for pioneering coverage of the spread of HIV in her state. She lives in northern Michigan with her husband, Larry Coppard.

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

The details write the story, and the details only get better the more time you spend with your subject or topic. Even on daily stories, a second phone call never hurts. Repeat interviews with profile subjects provide exponentially more insight and info. (I have often been quoted as instructing writers I’m coaching, “Go to the bathroom,” which means take time off to think about what you’ve got and your next step – but you never know what you’ll learn from the shower curtain or the magnets on the mirror.) Immersion journalism is, of course, my favorite: Live with your person or live in the place. If you live by these principles, you will know so much that you can write your story from memory, without checking your notes, leaving XXXs where you’ve forgotten a small detail. This is tremendously freeing.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That it gets both easier and harder. It becomes easier to craft sentences and paragraphs once you understand how readers consume words and ideas. It becomes harder to think through how a complex story should best be told. Which details to leave out is always challenging: You don’t want to over-spice your stew.

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

A great writer – a status I occasionally achieve – seduces readers. Take a walk with me, even though you don’t know me. Hold my hand. Let me lead you down a path you’ve never walked before. You might feel wary, or tired, or feel the faint beginning of boredom, but take another step with me, and another. Haven’t I surprised you with almost every step so far? I’ll take care of you. I’ll make sure the path is easy or, if challenging, at least worth the effort. In the end, you’ll be glad you trusted me, and will want to spend more time with me again.

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

“Write from memory,” mentioned above. And, “Just vomit.” Clean it up later. All that advice combined freed me from a bad habit of writing slowly, rewriting my first sentence three times, then rewriting the first paragraph endlessly — then flipping through my notebook and changing it all again. I tell writers now, “Get the clay on the table then shape it into the story you want.” Don’t check your notes until you’re done, then be cautious about including anything you had forgotten to include the first time. If it wasn’t important enough to remember, why add it now?

Get It On the Damn Page: Four Questions with Paula Span

Paula Span

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

Just get it on the damn page.  Once you spit some stuff out, you can mess around with it and improve it.  An editor can advise you (sometimes a mixed blessing, I admit).  Other folks can read it and help make the work better.  If it’s all in your head, where of course it’s perfect, and you therefore delete every sentence you write because it’s imperfect, then you can’t make it better and nobody else can help you. It’s a recipe for paralysis.  Start writing.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I still take pleasure in it. It has been, no lie, 50 years that I’ve been a reporter and writer. I can’t claim to have loved every story or every minute, but I still take satisfaction in producing a decent sentence, a well-wrought column or an essay that says what I want it to say.  Maybe I’ll get tired of this work when I’m 80, but maybe not. 

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

Let me turn this around (since one consequence of being at this for 50 years is, who remembers what someone told me back when?) and share a bit of what I advise my journalism students: a) Strong, active verbs. (It’s not incorrect to say, “He was a cab driver.”  It’s just better to say, “He drove a cab.”) b) No sludge. (Sludge: using more words than necessary to convey your meaning. You don’t have to point out, “She held a microphone in her hand.” How else would she hold it? If she were gripping it with her toes, you would have said so.)c) Avoid groaners like “journey” (unless describing treks across the tundra), “dream” (unless referring to visions during sleep) and “passion” (reserve for actual sex). 

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

Oh god, I don’t know. Maybe a mule. Not glam, not fast, kind of inflexible but gets there eventually. 

Paula Span is an alumna of the alternative press and the Washington Post and has freelanced for a raft of newspapers and magazines. The author of “When the Time Comes,” a book on eldercare, she now writes the New Old Age ( ) and the Generation Grandparent ( )  columns for the New York Times . She has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 1999. 

Five ways to build memorable characters

Craft Lessons
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

What makes a character unforgettable? A classic novel provides a handful of critical answers

A distant husband, father to two flighty children. A businessman with dubious ethics. A Loyal friend. A man who longs for a life with greater meaning than an existence he finds increasingly empty.

He could be someone’s father, uncle, husband, brother, a memorably flawed human being. 

But he is actually a character, George F. Babbit, a figment of a writer’s imagination, in this case, that of Sinclair Lewis, who wrote a series of closely-observed satirical novels that won him the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes.

I first read his 1922 novel, “Babbitt” in high school and have returned to it many times since. It’s been literature as comfort food. “Babbit” is nearly a century old and admittedly outdated in many, ways, but it remains a classic of literary realism.

Although he wrote fiction, Lewis brought to his novels a journalist’s attention to detail while researching his novels. From it, I learned many things, about style and satire and America in the early 20th century.

But most of all, Babbit teaches valuable lessons on how to create a believable character, so vivid that I can tell you, even though I haven’t cracked its pages in several years, what happens to him over the course of several months that constitute the novel’s trajectory. How he: 

  • embraces a boosterish, patriotic and xenophobic middle-class business community 
  • gleefully rips of clients and his employees
  • Ignores and cheats on his long-suffering wife
  • comes to doubt and ultimately doubt his beliefs and existence; 
  • engages in a misguided and humiliating affair and then, chastened by ostracism, renews his tragic allegiance to his culture and community. 

How did Lewis create a narcissistic character that lingers so deeply in the mind? And what can writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction learn from his methods that they can bring to their own stories? 

How did Lewis manage to create a character, on one hand, an odious human being, while at the same time, as English novelist Hugh Walpole wrote, “without extenuating one of his follies, his sentimentalities, his snobbishness, his lies and his meannesses, he has made him of common clay with ourselves.” Babbitt, the man and the novel, are a triumph of the imagination and the writerly gifts of his creator.

Strong characters are a mosaic of many features. Here are five principal ways, with examples from my Kindle edition of “Babbitt”, that Lewis relies on to create a believable figure. (You can read the book for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg.)

  1. Physical description
  2. Status details
  3. Dialogue
  4. Action
  5. Primary goal


What a character looks like creates a mental picture in the reader’s eye. Otherwise, he is a cipher. Lewis introduces Babbit in the opening pages as he sleeps:

He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay. His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; 

What does my character look like, sound like, smell like? Will readers be able to visualize him or her?


Status details are realistic and revelatory items that bring characters to life in fiction and creative nonfiction. In The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe defines status details as:

“the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behavior toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people’s status life, using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern and behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be. The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”

For Babbit, the details are the contents of his pockets, totems of his career and station in life. 

He was earnest about these objects. They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party. They included a fountain pen and a silver pencil (always lacking a supply of new leads) which belonged in the righthand upper vest pocket. Without them he would have felt naked. On his watch-chain were a gold penknife, silver cigar-cutter, seven keys (the use of two of which he had forgotten), and incidentally a good watch. Depending from the chain was a large, yellowish elk’s-tooth-proclamation of his membership in the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks. Most significant of all was his loose-leaf pocket note-book, that modern and efficient note-book which contained the addresses of people whom he had forgotten, prudent memoranda of postal money-orders which had reached their destinations months ago, stamps which had lost their mucilage, clippings of verses by T. Cholmondeley Frink and of the newspaper editorials from which Babbitt got his opinions and his polysyllables, notes to be sure and do things which he did not intend to do,

…But he had no cigarette-case. No one had ever happened to give him one, so he hadn’t the habit, and people who carried cigarette-cases he regarded as effeminate.

What status details are evident in my character’s life; from the car she drives to the contents of his wallet? What do they reveal about her?

Cover of French edition


How people speak to others and past them and to themselves within scenes reveals their character. In this exchange with his wife, we hear the kind of blustery monologue that characterizes Babbitt’s solipsistic personality and witness a Man Child on full display.

“I feel kind of punk this morning,” he said. “I think I had too much dinner last evening. You oughtn’t to serve those heavy banana fritters.” 

“But you asked me to have some.”

“I know, but—I tell you, when a fellow gets past forty he has to look after his digestion. There’s a lot of fellows that don’t take proper care of themselves. I tell you at forty a man’s a fool or his doctor—I mean, his own doctor. Folks don’t give enough attention to this matter of dieting. Now I think—Course a man ought to have a good meal after the day’s work, but it would be a good thing for both of us if we took lighter lunches.” 

“But Georgie, here at home I always do have a light lunch.” 

“Mean to imply I make a hog of myself, eating down-town? Yes, sure! You’d have a swell time if you had to eat the truck that new steward hands out to us at the Athletic Club! But I certainly do feel out of sorts, this morning. Funny, got a pain down here on the left side—but no, that wouldn’t be appendicitis, would it? Last night, when I was driving over to Verg Gunch’s, I felt a pain in my stomach, too. Right here it was—kind of a sharp shooting pain. I—Where’d that dime go to? Why don’t you serve more prunes at breakfast? Of course I eat an apple every evening—an apple a day keeps the doctor away—but still, you ought to have more prunes, and not all these fancy doodads.” 

“The last time I had prunes you didn’t eat them.” 

“Well, I didn’t feel like eating ’em, I suppose. Matter of fact, I think I did eat some of ’em. Anyway—I tell you it’s mighty important to—I was saying to Verg Gunch, just last evening, most people don’t take sufficient care of their diges—

 His speech also reveals his cultural and social influences in the manly but cartoonish banter with his friends over lunch at the Zenith Athletic Club. 

“Oh, boy! Some head! That was a regular party you threw, Verg! Hope you haven’t forgotten I took that last cute little jack-pot!” Babbitt bellowed. (He was three feet from Gunch.)

It unveils his needs and desires in his pathetic attempts to woo a neighbor at a dinner party.

“Anybody ever tell you your hands are awful pretty?”

What does my character talk like? What does the way he talks to others reveal about him or her?


Babbit is a series of set pieces, built on scenes that show Babbit in action. A boisterous lunch at his club. A boozy convention with a disastrous visit to a brothel. A fishing trip in the Canadian woods with his best friend, the reticent and artistic Paul Riesling. A bitter labor dispute in which he inadvisedly takes the side of the workers. His dealings with real estate clients. His brief love affair with a widow and his involvement with her alcohol-sodden friends. They show Babbit’s likes and dislikes, his interactions with other characters and his goals in life. 

How do my characters behave? How do their actions drive the plot and reflect the theme? 


More than anything, Babbit wants to belong, to be part of a community that embraces and admires him even as he desires another life that enables him to be free of his family, his companions and his work. But even when he rebels, his actions and those of others thwart those desires. He cheats on his wife only to feel trapped by that illicit relationship as he is in his sexless marriage. He befriends a Socialist in a labor dispute, betraying his class in a final act of rebellion which causes his friends and fellow Boosters to reject him. It is only after his wife falls seriously ill that his friends rally round him. Defeated, he rejoins their company, rejecting his dream life. The tragedy is complete.

What does my character want more than anything in life? Wealth? Respect? Victory? Love? 

That goal will play into everything we learn about the character.

I could have chosen other examples from my bookshelves and among the movies I’ve seen with equally memorable characters. 

The quirky obsessed comic industry creators in Michael Chabon’s best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”

Feisty Erin Brockovich in the eponymous Academy Award-winning film about a lowly legal clerk who takes down a polluting corporation. 

Mitchell Stephens, the haunted lawyer in Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” a novel set in a small town reeling from a school bus accident that has killed most of its children.

The brutally up-and-down boxer Floyd Patterson in Gay Talese’s classic profile, “The Loser.” 

John Updike’s “Rabbit,” a series of 20th-century novels about a car salesman whose realistic approach and themes echo the life of Babbit.

For that matter, I could have chosen from Lewis’ other novels: “Main Street,” his breakthrough novel about an idealistic young woman suffocated in a narrow-minded village; “Arrowsmith,” about an idealistic scientist,” or “Elmer Gantry,” which eviscerated a huckster evangelist. All are triumphs.

But I chose Babbit,  not only because I am so familiar with him, but because I wanted to know why he is so unforgettable so that I can develop characters as memorable as those Lewis created.

Since writers read twice—once to enjoy, the other learn—dissecting one of your favorite books or stories as I did can be a valuable exercise. If you want to create a memorable character, study how one is made. 

Craft Query: Who are the most memorable characters you have encountered in fiction or nonfiction and what made them linger in your mind.?

May the writing go well!


Tip of the week: Give credit where credit is due

Writing Tips

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.”

Modern Love: Cracking the personal essay formula


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.

Cliche alert

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.

  1. I’ll never forget
  2. I’ll always remember
  3. If I had to do it all over again
  4. Literally
  5. A. Sentence. With. A. Period. After. Every. Word.
  6. I curled up in a fetal position
  7. I curled up with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s

Submission guidelines

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.”

 Further reading

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

Sedentary hunters

Craft Lessons

“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?

Raymond Chandler’s two writing rules

Writers Speak

“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.

Raymond Chandler

Dismantle your story’s scaffolding

Craft Lessons
Ricardo Gomez/

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.

What’s 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. 

Some examples:

 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

When a newspaper shutdown hits close to home: An interview with Graig Graziosi


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.

Craft Lesson: The long patience of writing

Craft Lessons
Patrick Fore courtesy of

No one ever asks a guitar player how you become a guitarist. They know, without asking. You buy a guitar and you practice. For years. Until you learn how to play. If you practice hard enough and have the good fortune to be talented, you may even learn how to play well.

So why do people ask, how do you write? 

If they’re readers, I think they’re understandably mystified. A good story may be magical, but writers are not magicians. A great novel may seem to be a work of genius, but most writers are not geniuses.

A writer is someone who writes. Full stop.

But that answer doesn’t satisfy many people who ask the question in the first place.

What they want is a rule book, one with secrets to a successful life as a writer, preferably one with the word “Secrets” in the title. They can find plenty of them. I’ve bought my fair share.

I think people hope rule books have the answer because they suspect the hard truth.  Writing is a lonely occupation with no guarantee of success and no expiration date for the training period.

“Writing makes no noise, except groans,” the novelist Ursula K. LeGuin said, “and it can be done anywhere and it is done alone.”

It’s a lot easier to read a rule book than it is to sit in a room by yourself, struggling to free your imagination, to write from within, which is where all good stories and novels come from.

To write is simple:

You sit by yourself. 

And you write.

And you rewrite.

For years.

But you don’t stop there.

You read other writers. You study what they do and try to figure out how they’ve done it.

How they make characters come to life on the page. Write dialogue that sounds like real people talk. Craft sentences, paragraphs, scenes, stories, poems, scripts and novels that hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end. You try to adapt these lessons to your own work.

“Talent is a long patience,” the French novelist Gustave Flaubert said, “and originality an effort of will and intense observation.”

So you also study people. You eavesdrop on their conversations. You notice what they wear, how they walk and talk, how they show affection or disapproval. You take notes.

You become a student of human nature. You meditate on the human condition.

How do you become a writer? The same way you become a guitar player.

You do it.

May the writing go well.

Admit you’re ignorant

Writing Tips

Don’t be afraid to admit your ignorance.

Journalism is a lifetime of continuing education. People often say reporters are superficial, uninformed or downright ignorant. They don’t realize how hard the job of reporting is—that on any given day, you may be thrust into a subject you know nothing about. That’s why having basic information about how society operates is so critical. You need at least a rudimentary understanding of how things work. The only way you’re going to get this is by studying, by asking questions, by keeping your eyes and ears open, by being curious, by being humble enough to admit what you don’t know. People may criticize you for not knowing something, but they can’t criticize you for trying to learn and wanting to get smarter.

Where words sit: Four Questions with Michael Kruse

Michael Kruse

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


This spring, I’ll have been doing this for 20 years, making my living by reporting and writing, and it isn’t getting any easier. The better I get, the harder it gets. I try as hard as I try so I can to be better than I actually am.

But maybe that’s not quite what you mean. In that case, this: Writing isn’t typing. Typing is just typing with your fingers what you’ve already written with your head. And writing is structuring. The right structure lets words work. Words work not because of how they sound but because of where they sit.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I’m writing about politics and politicians. My journalism entryway was reading the all-star sports section of the Boston Globe as a boy. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a sportswriter, and I was, in the beginning—covering college basketball, covering recruiting, covering Major League Baseball. But before long, I decided I wanted to think about other stuff, too, and so I covered small towns in New York and business and courts in Florida and ultimately earned my way onto the enterprise team at the St. Pete (now Tampa Bay) Times. Even then, though, I really pretty seldom wrote about politics or politicians. I had a lot to learn when I started at POLITICO five and some years back. Still do! Always will! But I guess that’s also just the thing. Write what you know? No. It’s the other way around. The job is to do what you need to do to know what you need to know to write what you need to write.

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

I don’t know—a beaver?

Unfussy worker. Structure, structure, structure. Keeps growing.

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

I’m struggling to come up with just one thing from just one person. But from Terry Egan and the late Mike Levine at the Times Herald-Record in New York … to Mike Wilson and Kelley Benham and Tom French and Lane DeGregory at the Times in Florida and Bill Duryea at the Times and still at POLITICO … to good pals, competitors and peers like Ben Montgomery, Tom Lake and others, a composite of lessons learned, I suppose, might be this: Report, report, report, to earn the right to take charge, to make choices, to run a rope from post to post, stretched taut, taking and using what serves the story and moves it forward, from beginning to middle to end, while unsentimentally leaving behind what does not.

Michael Kruse is a senior staff writer for POLITICO and POLITICO Magazine, where he mostly writes about the president and the people who want to be the president next. A winner of awards from the American Society of News Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Foundation, his work has been anthologized in “The Best American Newspaper Narratives,” “Out There: The Wildest Stories from Outside Magazine “and “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.” A native of the Boston area and a graduate of Davidson College, he lives in North Carolina with his wife, two daughters, two dogs and a guinea pig.

Craft Lesson: The value of keeping it simple

Craft Lessons

William of Occam was a 14th century philospher, monk, and — few people realize — police reporter for the Occam News. (Okay, I made that last one up.)

He is remembered as the father of the medieval principle of parsimony, or economy, that advises anyone confronted with multiple explanations or models of a phenomenon to choose the simplest explanation first. Why Occam’s Razor? Because scientists use it every day or because it cuts through the fog of confusion are two explanations I’ve heard.

“If you hear hooves, think horses,” is one way to understand the principle. Or put another way, Keep it Simple, Stupid. K.I.S.S.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my introduction to Occam’s Razor came in my early 20s, when I was working for a crummy little newspaper and dreaming about becoming a writer, but doing more dreaming than writing,

A friend introduced me to a published writer. I asked her how I could become one, too.

First, she said, you have to read all the time. Read everything — books, stories, newspapers, magazines. Everything. Read. Read. Read.

Okay, I nodded. What else?

You have to write, she said. All the time. Every day. Write. Write. Write.

I leaned forward expectantly, waiting to hear the rest of her advice.

That’s it, she said.

“Thanks a lot,” I remember thinking. “For nothing.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was right. If you want to be a writer you have to read all the time and write all the time. It’s as simple as that.

Being a callow youth, I couldn’t accept it. There had to be more to it than that. Some magic formula.

But there really isn’t.

Want to write a story? Sit down and start writing. And then start revising.

Want to get published? Submit that story to a magazine or a literary journal. Write a novel or a screenplay. There’s no guarantee you will succeed, although it’s a safe bet that if you never try you won’t make it either. It’s that simple, and difficult, but well worth the challenge.

What many writers I meet seem to want and need is permission.

Can I do this? Can you do that? Is it okay to…?

My answer is always, yes. Yes, you can. It may suck, you may fail, you may get rejected, but the only way you’ll ever find out is by trying.

Want to write well? Follow George Orwell’s six rules from “Politics and the English Language.”

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Heed the prescription of “The Elements of Style” by Willian Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. A sampling from the classic text:

  1. Make every word tell.
  2. Omit necessary words.
  3. Use parallel constructions on concepts that are parallel.
  4. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
  5. Use definite, specific language

And finally the simple advice I try to heed for compelling writing.

  • Use short words.
  • Short paragraphs.
  • Short sentences, but don’t be afraid to vary length for pacing and style.
  • Go on a “to be” hunt,’ striking out passive instances of “is, was, was.” Replace with action verbs.
  • Search “ly” for unnecessary adverbs.
  • Trim bloated quotes.
  • Spell checks. Cliche check.
  • Read aloud.
  • Research. Revise. Rewrite. 

Looking back, I wish that writer had been more specific with her advice. Certainly, constant reading and writing and critical ae critical to becoming a writer. but there is so much more to becoming a published writer.

Like her counsel, some of this advice is obvious. But there’s a reason that scientists and other investigators continue to cite Occam’s Razor, more than 600 years after his death. It’s that simple.

Craft Query: What writing advice do you follow?

May the writing go well.

“Photograph by Josh Sorenson courtesy of

Put your verbs on a “to be diet”

Writing Tips

Replace all forms of passive verb constructions—”is planning,” “are hoping”—with active verbs—”plan,” “hope.”

Vigorous sentences follow subject-verb-object format. “Passive voice twists sentences out of their normal shape,” says Jack Hart, author of “A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work.”

The result is a style that is flabby, dull and plodding. Thus, as Hart argues, the lead “The West Hills home of a prominent business executive was destroyed in a fire Monday morning” is stronger and actually more precise when written as “A Monday morning fire destroyed a prominent business executive’s West Hills home. The fire is the subject, the actor, whereas the house is the object, which receives the action.

In praise of slacking

The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil 1874
Edouard Manet 

For decades, economists, labor activists and researchers have lobbied for the four-day workweek. Companies are now beginning to listen.

How about a four-hour workday?

For years, I’ve been reading interviews with authors, full-time authors chiefly — who have described that or thereabouts as their limit.

That’s why I so much enjoyed “Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too, a fascinating article in “The Nautilus” which dissects the work habits of successful scientists, musicians, and authors.

While their workdays were short, writer Alex Soojung-Kim Pang found, their achievements were huge.

“Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus.”

Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they spent only a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work.

The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.

Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements resulted from modest “working” hours.”

Pang clocked their workdays:

Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote more than 30 novels: 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., put in after his day job as a civil servant. He took Fridays off.

Stephen King, more than forty novels, most best-sellers: a thousand words a day, in the morning. More than that is a “strenuous day.”

Some writers stretched their workday, but not by much. Ernest Hemingway put in six hours as did Gabriel García Márquez. But among these literary luminaries, the eight-hour day was absent; three to four hours seemed to be the average.

Ernest Hemingway writing at a campsite in Kenya/National Archives and Records Administration

These writers weren’t lazy. They understood their limits, either instinctively or through experience, and knew that by working longer days they risked burnout, a creativity killer.

Clearly, this approach isn’t going to work in many fields. Can you imagine a newspaper reporter telling his editor, “Boss, I’m only going work four hours a day from now on?” Or telling your department chair you’re going to do the same? You’ll probably be shown the door. Consider showing them this article which is adapted from Pang’s book, “REST: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.” The piece shows that brief daily sessions, focused with deliberate attention will improve your chances of success.

Let’s face it. We waste a lot of time during the day: chatting (gossiping) with colleagues, procrastination. Subtract all that and the workday sounds like those of successful writers and musicians.

Pang gets support from Robert Boice, a psychologist, who prescribed “brief daily sessions,” writing 10-60 minutes at a time, no more than 3-4 hours a day, followed by “comfort periods,” such as rest or other activities. This is the case even when writing is your “full-time” job.

The objective: to establish “regular work related to writing,” he wrote in the pricey cult classic “How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: a Psychological Adventure,” which chronicles his work with blocked academics. “Be quick, but don’t hurry,” Boice said. “That is the secret to good writing.” His research found that binge writers produced far fewer pages than writers who followed his method.

Writing with full attention

Two factors determined the success of successful “slackers” profiled by Pang. They recognized the importance of rest to recharge their creative batteries and they were masters of time management. When it came time to work, they gave it their full attention. (Of course, as several commenters noted, they also had wives who took care of family and home responsibilities, freeing them to write and take long walks.)

Writing, like the mastery of a musical instrument, demands “deliberate practice,” Pang writes, “engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance.”

This is possible even if you have a full-time job and can devote only part of your day or week pursuing your writing dreams.

It may take longer to finish your projects this way, but if you burn yourself out with long work sessions, chances are strong you’ll quit anyway.

How well do you manage your time? Do you work with relentless focus or fritter the time away, stopping to surf the Web, or heading to the break room to learn the latest office gossip when you’re stumped?

Or when you’ve put in a productive stretch of work, do you decide to keep working or do you hit save, take a walk with the family, or read a good novel or essay just for the enjoyment of it?

Go ahead. You deserve it.

The West Wing and the Power of Digressive Narratives

Craft Lessons

I’m bleary-eyed as I write this. Late last night, I finished several weeks of binge-watching “The West Wing,” all 156 episodes of the nostalgic political series, which ran on television for seven seasons between 1999  and 2006, dramatizing the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff. 

The show has become a kind of televised comfort food for many Americans as the country is swamped by partisan bickering.

The plots are captivating, the dialogue, like its characters, is whip-smart. But while I watched the show for enjoyment, I also viewed it through the prism of a writer interested in story structure. What I found especially fascinating was a particular approach to storytelling that I think can be useful to writers of fiction and nonfiction: digressive narrative.

This is a stylistic device that writers employ to provide background information, describe the motivations of its characters and heighten suspense. They’re sudden detours from the story at hand. 

Writer/creator Aaron Sorkin uses the tool throughout the series, but its power is especially evident and instructive in the first two episodes of the second season. 

 “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” is a two-parter about an assassination attempt on President Bartlett and its aftermath. Using quick cuts, Sorkin toggles between the shooting by white supremacists that wounds the President and Josh Lyman, his deputy chief of staff, and a separate storyline: the creation of an upstart campaign staff that launched the obscure New England governor into the highest office in the land. (You can watch parts one and two on You Tube; Sorkin’s scripts for parts one and two are also available.) 

Novelists and nonfiction narrative writers also use digressions.

J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In the Rye,” is replete with these departures from the main plot, mirroring the manic personality of its rebellious teen hero, Holden Caulfield.

Digressions seem to stray from the main topic, but their purpose is to heighten the reader’s understanding. A famous one is Holden’s fixation with a pair of nuns he meets at a restaurant. He helps them with their suitcases, feels badly that they are eating just toast and coffee, and gives them a ten dollar donation.

 “That’s what I liked about those nuns,” he reflects. “You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It makes me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway.”

The nuns reappear in his consciousness as he worries about their poverty. At the novel’s end, he looks for the nuns, wondering if he might run into them collecting donations. Like many digressions, Salinger’s focus is on minor characters. In this case, their only purpose is to tell the reader more about Holden and his concern with morality that is a major theme. 

Nonfiction writers also turn to digressions. In “The John McPhee Reader,” editor William Howarth describes how the narrative nonfiction master’s “diving into the loops and stalls of digression, circling the main subject for a while” that “works his characters into a suspenseful plot.”

Many writers, like Sorkin, use digression as flashbacks. Others like McPhee take literary off ramps from their main story for informative digressions on everything from geology to roadkill. But sudden interruptions have other uses as well.

 “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America,” is Erik Larson’s nonfiction book about two warring enterprises—building and murder—during the construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. 

To tell the twin stories, Larson relies on repeated digressions, alternating the story of how the Exposition came to be with a more chilling tale of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer at loose in the city. Each story is powerful in their own right, but switching between them makes for a relentless read. It’s hard to lose interest when you have two suspenseful narratives that you can braid into a single story, which is why digressions can be such a useful narrative strategy.

I didn’t know the term at the time, but as a reporter for the Providence Journal Bulletin in 1981, I employed a digressive narrative to heighten suspense and give background information.

In Sorrow Thou Shalt Bring Forth Children” opens on Jackie Rushton, a young woman about to give birth in a local hospital. An encounter with a nurse convinces her that the birth has gone terribly wrong. “I’ve lost the baby,” she tells herself. “The baby is gone.” The story then switches to the past as I use a digression to take Jackie and her husband Rob through courtship, marriage and parenthood and a new pregnancy. The section ends at a baby shower when Jackie’s water breaks. After the digression dispenses with the requisite back story, the main narrative picks up from the opening scene and without interruption follows Jackie and Rob through a perilous night when they don’t know if their baby will live or not. 

Not everyone is a fan of the device. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn. Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon & Schuster editor who died in February at 87 after a storied career bringing best-sellers to print, wasn’t a believer, either. She was known, according to a 2004 profile, for “unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when — especially when — they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”

I think you can overdose on them, but used judiciously and with skill digressions, can engage readers who may welcome these temporary departures from the main plot. They’re certainly worth studying. You can start with The West Wing’s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”  or “The Catcher in the Rye” and then experiment with your own stories. Have fun!

This post appeared originally in Nieman Storyboard.

Following the side trips: Four Questions with Lane DeGregory

Lane DeGregory

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

 Listen and look around.As a young reporter, especially, I was so focused on gathering all the information I needed that I didn’t pay much attention to things I thought didn’t matter, or take down details like the color of the clouds or the timber of the coach’s voice. Shutting up is hard for me, and I had to train myself to really savor the quiet, note the unanswered questions, and follow the meandering side trips that subjects take you on. I realized that sometimes the seemingly meaningless details open windows into a person’s head or heart.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise of my writing life — truly — was: Winning the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.I never ever imagined, or even aspired to, that. It seemed so out of reach, I never even considered the possibility, and was floored when my editor told me they had entered my story as one of three features for the Times. I worked on that story for six months, and had 24 other bylines during that time. I didn’t travel or incur expenses or do anything differently than for any other longer-form feature. And I wasn’t even a finalist for the prize, just one of the top 10 who got “moved into contention by the jury.”  Before that, my biggest writing surprise had been in 1998, when I moved from a tiny bureau at the Virginian-Pilot to the downtown office and instead of covering three news stories a day, I started writing narratives, about one a week. One of my first was about an ice cream truck driver — pretty standard. But a copy editor stopped me in the hall to tell me how much she enjoyed MY WRITING. Not the story, or the information, but specifically MY WRITING. I cried in the bathroom. And knew then that I never wanted to be an editor.

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

The best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me was from Ronald L. Speer, who was my editor at the Virginian-Pilot when I was a young cub on the Outer Banks. He, and this piece of advice, turned me from a reporter into a writer: Put away your notes. The story isn’t in your notebook. It’s in your head. And heart.

I still stash my notes in my car or kitchen before I sit down to write.

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

Ok, I have two metaphors: One from me, another from the girlfriend of former Times’ writer John Barry.I would say, as a writer, I’m like a praying athiest. I’m too jaded and cynical to truly believe in the goodness of humanity, or some benevolent god, and I’m surrounded by ugly, often evil people in the news. But I’m still holding onto the hope that there is such a thing as universal truth and light, so I’m constantly searching for it, especially in the shadows.
John Barry’s girlfriend once told me that my stories reminded her of Lucinda Williams’ songs. I don’t know if I’m really anywhere near that realm, but it’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten: To be able to write gritty, lyrical, earthy ballads that give voice to every day people — stories of folks struggling, surviving, and saving each other.

Lane DeGregory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Tampa Bay Times who prefers telling stories about people in the shadows. She went to work with a 99-year-old man who still swept out a seafood warehouse, hung out with a boy trying to buy his first Valentine, followed a photographer taking portraits of dying children.

Lane grew up near Washington, D.C., and her parents read the newspaper to her every morning. At age 5, when the Watergate scandal splashed across the front page, she decided she wanted to be a journalist.

She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she was elected editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily student newspaper. Later, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Virginia in rhetoric and communication studies.

For the first decade of her career, Lane wrote news stories for the Charlotte Observer, Daily Progress and Virginian-Pilot. In 2000, she became a features writer for the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times).

Her freelance stories have appeared in Readers’ Digest, High Times, Working Mother and Our State magazines. She wrote one travel book: The Insiders’ Guide to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

Lane has been included in four journalism textbooks: Telling True Stories, Newswomen, Feature Writing, Always Get the Name of the Dog. Her stories are featured in four editions of America’s Best Newspaper Writing: 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008. And a 2018 story is included in that year’s volume of Best American Newspaper Narratives.

She has won dozens of national awards, including twice winning Scripps Howard’s Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing and has been recognized eight times by the National Headliner Awards and eight times by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2011, she was named a fellow by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Lane has taught at more than 100 colleges across the country, been adjunct faculty at the University of South Florida, sold-out webinars at the Poynter Institute, recorded YouTube videos on reporting and writing and spoken at journalism conferences around the world.

In 2017, she started a podcast, WriteLane. Each month, listeners on iTunes download an average of 4,000 episodes — on topics from coming up with ideas to finding features off breaking news to telling ghost stories.

Lane is married to a drummer, Dan DeGregory, and they have two sons in college, Ryland and Tucker. She also has a crazy cattle dog named Taz.

The Victory of Failure

Craft Lessons
Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

We celebrate the winners of elections. Cheer Super Bowl victors and the rising stock market. 4.0 grades and 800 SAT scores get our attention and praise. So do bestseller lists, the National Book Awards and the Pulitzers.

In our success-driven culture, it’s hard to accept that failure, not triumph, is a routine part of the writing craft, a constant in a writer’s life.

Sometimes we get lucky and the first draft is the final one. Sometimes the fates shine upon us and the first lead we write sings. Sometimes the agent or the editor says yes. 

But on the journey to make meaning with words, we often stumble. The draft is a jumble, the language sinks rather than soars. Rejection follows submission, sometimes so frequently, it’s easy to lose heart, to give up rather than try and lose. Failing is never fun, but it’s essential for those who practice the craft of writing, indeed any art form. 

I’ve been giving failure a lot of thought recently after discovering “The Fail Safe,” a new podcast devoted to writing and failure. Its creators aim to explore “how today’s most successful writers grapple with and learn from failure.” If you’re feeling like one, its guests offer a bracing dose of reality, as well as a modicum of comfort. 

”Being an artist depends necessarily on a  great tolerance for failure. It’s impossible to make art unless you give yourself permission to fail every day.“ That’s Garth Greenwell, author of the best-selling, critically-acclaimed, novel ”What Belongs to You” speaking in the inaugural episode. 

In the second, novelist and short story writer Chris Boucher spoke about the decade it took to write his first novel, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.” “If there wasn’t daily failure there was almost-daily failure for a long time,” he said. Boucher didn’t have a plotline for two years. A recent short story went through more than 30 drafts before it was published. “There are so many dead ends, so many false starts,” he said, “that I consider it part of the practice.”


Samuel Beckett “came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed,” Chris Power wrote in a Guardian essay about the revered modernist novelist and playwright. Beckett couldn’t find a publisher for his first novel. Sales for the short story collection he plundered from the book tanked.

But Beckett refused to surrender to the despair that accompanies failures. 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter,” he famously wrote in his short story  “Worstword Ho.” “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Failing better eventually brought him success, including a Nobel Prize for literature.

When I consider my own failures— the rejected stories, the elusive prizes, the novel abandoned and the play that I never sent out because I was afraid of rejection — it tends to make me more anxious than depressed. Will the writing well run dry?  Will I ever achieve all my dreams? What I took away from the first two episodes of “The Fail Safe” is that failure and anxiety are strands in the DNA of the artistic life. But there is a way to combat them. 

“The only strategy for making that anxiety bearable,” said Greenwell, “is showing up every day to do the work. Whether the work shows up or not is out of your hands, but you can show up for the work to happen.” After that, he said, the rest is all luck.

These writers have helped me redefine the nature of failure. It is not losing out on prizes or even publication.

“What failure means for a writer is to stop writing,” Greenwell said. “The only thing we have control over is showing up to do the work.” 

“And that,” he added, “means giving ourselves as many possible chances as we can to be lucky.”

So I’ll give myself more chances to be lucky and hope you’ll do the same by doing what successful writers do no matter how many failures they face. They show up and do the work. They court failure every day, hoping for victory.

Day by day: Why writers should keep a diary

Craft Lessons
Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

I started the day in the usual way, dressed and took my dog for his morning walk, brewed a cup of sweet Black Irish tea, quickly scanned the news and then opened a file labeled “Diary 2020.”

I wrote for about ten minutes. 

Jan. 21. 44 degrees this morning. Arctic by Florida standards, Parka, watch cap, gloves to walk Leo. Didn’t blow smoke but the wind cut like a knife through butter. Strange dream last night, David M., lanky, ginger nasty piece of work, tricked me into going to NYC with Neal, only Neal didn’t come and it turned out we were going to help someone move. Met the mother who told their kids they could have “a doughnut and three hot dogs for breakfast.” The work was overwhelming and I tried to quit but he kept tricking me into more. Finally, he stole my shoes and that was it. I ditched him. Only problem, when I looked up, I didn’t know where I was. NYC was foreign territory of high brick buildings. Wanted to go home but felt I should visit the art museum. Found myself in a maze of a mall. Fortunately, Leo’s barking woke me up. Having trouble with the novel. Still keeping to daily sessions but having trouble writing a page a day. Need to follow the advice in today’s post — answer the six questions to drive plot. For some reason, am having trouble switching from pantsing. The sky is a wintry, pale blue. The trees wave slowly, like a monarch parading through commoners in a gilded coach. Axios reports cell phones are banned during the impeachment trial. They’ll be twitching like a junkie jonesing for a fix. Today’s task: draft post about the importance of keeping a diary. 

If you haven’t already guessed, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep a diary. It’s not the first such promise. I have at least a dozen notebooks, dated early in the year. But soon the entries peter out and the diary’s forgotten.

The other day,  however, I stumbled upon a quote that made me think I needed to start anew this year.  In a Paris Review interview, the late British novelist John Fowles says, 

“I am a great believer in diaries, if only in the sense that bar exercises are good for ballet dancers: it’s often through personal diaries—however embarrassing they are to read now—that the novelist discovers his true bent, that he can narrate real events and distort them to please himself, describe character, observe other human beings, hypothesize, invent, all the rest. I think that is how I became a novelist, eventually.”

More than one writer agrees with Fowles, I found, thanks to an entry from Maria Popova’s excellent blog, “Brain Pickings.”

Keeping a diary, writers cited by Popova reveal, is an essential part of a writer’s life.

It’s a daily task that exercises the writing muscles, an early morning foray into the unconscious journeys of dreams and observations that can surprise and inspire further writing.

Today’s entry, for example, gives me a description of a departure from Florida’s sunny climate, a caustic take on a high school classmate I could use in the novel I’m composing. What I would do with that bizarre breakfast I don’t know. but I have it stored for future retrieval. 

But a diary’s prose need not be polished. “The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice,”  the English writer Virginia Woolf said. “It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.”

Looking over today’s entry, I cringe at the cliches, the gaps that make the stories within incomplete. But I like, “lanky, ginger,” as a way to describe this high school classmate and the addict metaphor for the U.S. Senators denied their cellphones. There are seeds that might sprout someday.

I’m comforted if this post, flawed as it is, inspires you to launch a diary. Brenda Ueland, author of the writing advice classic, “If You Want to Write.” advises writers to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary…You will touch only what interests you.”

The act of keeping a  diary, what Popova called “this private art,” is an essential discipline. Madeleine L’Engle (“A Wrinkle in Time“) has three rules for aspiring writers: Read, write and keep a diary or a journal as some refer to it. 

John Steinbeck kept a diary while he was writing “Grapes of Wrath.” The opening was prosaic for a novel that would win the Pulitzer Prize and was cited prominently when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

May 31, 1938: “Here is the diary of the book and it will be interesting to see how it works out.” he wrote in an entry published in “Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath.”

Later, when he shifted to writing “East of Eden,” Steinbeck began each day by writing a letter to his editor, Pascal “Pat” Covici,”a practice chronicled in “Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.” It was a warm-up exercise that the author used a baseball image to describe–“a way of getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.”

“If you want to write,” L’Engle says, “you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”

Thanks to these writers, this year I’m sold on the idea. I hope to make it a part of my morning routine, along with walking the dog and sweet tea. I urge you to consider doing the same, keeping it slovenly, headlong, impulsive and honest. Not a bad way to start a writer’s day.  

Switching from nonfiction to making things up: An Interview with Greg Borowski. Part Two

Greg Borowski

Last week, I posted the first part of an interview with Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. who every year for the last quarter century has written a short story keyed to the Christmas holidays.

His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.  

Borowski’s yearly departure from nonfiction holds important lessons for writers ,whether they’re writing true stories or making them up as I learned when I interviewed him recently for  Nieman Storyboard. Borowski is the author of “First and Long: A Black School, a White School and Their Season of Dreams.”

In this installment, he talks about whether writers of fiction need to report their stories, the differences and similarities between fiction and narrative nonfiction and the lessons nonfiction writers can learn from trying their hand at fiction.

Here’s the second part of our conversation, reprinted with permission.

You oversee projects and investigative stories? Do you hope the journalists you supervise will take inspiration for their own narratives from stories like this one?

I think writers get better by writing, but also by reading good writing. And good writing can be found in all sorts of places. 

Inspiration can come from anywhere.

The key: Don’t read a great story and think “How could I ever do that?” Instead, approach it as: “How did they do that?” The former makes fiction seem like an unattainable form of art, the latter positions it as the craft it is.

We can all get better at our craft by practicing it.

The story is peppered with dialogue. How important is that?

I think the dialogue is vital. I usually start out with too much and realize some of what is being said should be part of an expository paragraph, and some is just extra words and does not belong at all. I find reading the dialogue aloud helps, and reading it quickly. That forces you to say it as you’d say it, not as it is written, which helps make it feel more authentic. In some respects, the dialogue is the most intimate part of a scene — you’re not just watching what is happening from afar, you’re listening to a conversation. So, a little bit can go a long way.

How does your work as a journalist influence the writing of this story?

Many of the same rules apply: Hook the reader with a strong lead — not just the lead at the start of the story, but the lead for each of the sections. Same goes for the endings. Provide hooks throughout that pull the reader along. Pare back your prose. Never be boring.

Really, the biggest advantage is the discipline any veteran reporter has to just get something on the screen to work with — and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, to polish your way to the strongest verbs and tightest sentences and crispest dialogue. 

Good reporters know the stories that resonate most with readers are the ones that speak to deeper themes and ideas. You always have to be able to answer the question: “What is the story about?” 

In this case, you can answer it by saying it is a story about a woman who dies on Christmas Eve and her estranged daughter who arrives at her bedside. 

Or you can answer that it’s a story about: Loss. Forgiveness. Memory. Love.

The first answer — the plot — is just a means to illuminate the second, the theme.

Did you draw anything in the story from life?

Lots of things. Part of the original concept came from the experience with my late grandmother. Like the character, her name was Susan; her husband was Leonard. As a kid, I used to get tasked with helping my grandmother make ornaments — those kits that require precise beads and sequins. And, yes, she got to press the pins in while I put the beads on in the right order.

The living room belongs to a great aunt, though there were plastic runners on the floor instead of plastic on the couch. I remember visits as a kid where it seemed like there was nothing you were allowed to touch. The trio of ceramic angels were heirlooms on my mother’s side, though I got one of the instruments wrong. (Why would angels have cymbals?). 

Usually, I tuck in the names of nieces or nephews, or children of friends. My daughter, Annaliese, is in every story — not by name, but usually a referenced age or, in this story the sixth-grade.

I don’t write the stories from life, but there are always pieces of life in the stories.

The story is full of textbook examples demonstrating the power of show don’t tell. Instead of saying her soldier father died, perhaps in a war, you write, “On the end table was a photo of her father, his Army uniform ever pressed, his smile ever easy, his eyes ever bright. Lauren had never met him — she came along three months after he passed — but knew the story well: Her mother was expecting a Christmas Eve phone call, but got a knock on the door instead. The flag, precisely folded, was in a case on the mantel.” Why did you compose it this way?

One practical thing that has strengthened my stories, I think, is the need to keep them short enough to be printed out with Christmas cards. They must fit on a piece of legal paper, landscape mode, four columns of text on each side. This enforces some discipline on the process, and requires me to develop sharp themes and crisp scenes. 

The paragraph you cite is typical of at least a few that come up each year, where I need to tell a lot in a few words. Here I was trying to describe the living room, give a backstory for the characters and encapsulate the conflict that needs resolution. At the same time, I wanted to convey a feeling of wistfulness.

Do you think journalists should try their hand at fiction?

Yes. I think writers of all stripes only get better when they try new things and push their own envelopes. Likewise, writers of fiction would probably learn a lot by trying their hand at narrative nonfiction, as it would force them to work on a different set of related skills. 

In recent years, I have become a runner and know you don’t get better just by running. You have to do cross-training, too, to strengthen different muscles. The same applies here.

You can read the entire story here.

Switching from nonfiction to making things up: An Interview with Greg Borowski. Part One


Every year for the past quarter-century, Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writes a short story keyed to the holiday. His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.  

Writing fiction has profound implications for those trying to get better at narrative nonfiction. And vice versa.
That’s what  I learned recently when I interviewed Borowski for Nieman Storyboard.

Narrative writers like Borowski, whose credits also include “First and Long: A Black School, a White School and Their Season of Dreams,” call on the same tools to produce the verisimiltude that their fiction counterparts strive for: details, scenes, dialogue, drama and suspense. But there is a crucial distinction.

Here’s an excerpt from our interview, reprinted with permission:

Your story has all the elements of narrative nonfiction. How do you manage to write a made up story that feels so real?
I tend to fall back on techniques I learned as a journalist: Use only telling details. Make every word count. Cut anything that does not advance the story. Don’t use quotes/dialogue as exposition. Less is more.

With these stories, I try to write cinematically. That is, I can see the scene in my head — where people are standing, what the room looks like, every nod, gesture, voice inflection. When people are told to write descriptively, it can come off like an inventory of a room. When they describe action, it can read like stage directions. My goal is to have the reader feel like the scene is happening in front of them — for them to experience the story, not just read the story.

Beyond that, I try to do double duty with descriptions.

For instance, in the first paragraphs of the story, I wanted to get across the idea Lauren is a busy professional woman in a tough spot at Christmastime without saying any of those words. Likewise, I felt like I had a single paragraph to describe both the house where she grew up and what it was like to grow up without a father around.

Even though it’s fiction, do you have to report it?
As a rule, yes. But the stories I write generally focus on relationships between people, and often carry some magical Santa-esque element.

Rather than reporting out scenes and locations, I think of this more in terms of making sure the stories hold together within themselves. That is, does the reality they create — even if it’s something fanciful or magical — ring true? As I work through the drafts, I try to scrub them with that in mind: Is the character consistent throughout the story? Do the ages and timelines fit together properly? My wife, Katy, who is usually the first person to read them, is a good check on this. So is Jim Higgins, an editor at the Journal Sentinel who coordinates getting them published in print and online each year.

When they raise questions of reality or continuity, I sometimes want to reply: “Come on. It’s fiction. Anything can happen in fiction.” But that’s lazy and untrue. Instead, their questions are a sign I need to go back and rework something.

You’re an investigative journalist. How is writing fiction the same and dramatically different from narrative journalism?
The parts that are the same are easy. You need subjects/characters that are well-developed, a structure that includes conflicts or obstacles, strong dialogue and a resolution that is satisfying and true to the story. In short, something has to happen in the story and everything that is included has to drive the reader to that conclusion. Additionally, both forms require a steady hand from the writer. You’re taking the reader along for a ride, so the reader has to feel comfortable — not that they won’t be saddened or joyful along the way, or that there won’t be any twists or turns. Just comfortable that you, the author, know where you are going and can get them there.

For me, a major difference is that with narrative nonfiction you’re often trying to take real life, the ordinary, and make it feel special or magical. In my Christmas stories, I’m trying to take the magical and make it seem ordinary. That is, grounding it in reality. For instance, in this year’s story, I knew I needed a few touchstone family decorations as a plot device. I knew one would be a snow globe because, well, my daughter has several that come out at Christmas time and it seemed to fit.

It wasn’t until I typed out what was inside the snow globe — a winter scene with a church — that the next line of dialogue popped into my head:“That’s our church. That’s where I got married.” It wasn’t until I put the snow globe into the mother’s hands and allowed her to shake it, that I realized it was a metaphor for things being jumbled and then settling. And, really, that’s the arc of the story itself.

What lessons can writers of narrative nonfiction draw from writing fiction?
I think there are lots of lessons to be drawn simply from trying something different.

A major lesson, though, is that to truly resonate with readers, a story has to operate on multiple levels. You need the strong characters and cliffhangers and twists to pull you along, but what’s the deeper thing the story is really about? Redemption. Forgiveness. Healing.

Once you settle on that, it should inform and shape the structure, plot and dialogue and everything else that goes into the piece.

Next week: Part Two

Craft Lesson: Excuses, excuses

Craft Lessons

I’m too young to make it as a writer.

I’m too old.

Excuses, excuses. These two defenses cripple many writers from doing the work it takes to produce a novel, screenplay, a poem, a nonfiction book or article or an enterprise story. 

I’ve heard—and made—them over the years. They keep writers from achieving many of their writing dreams which is a darn shame. 

I’ve sat with writers who, with sincerity and some madness, make them. Here’s what I want to tell them:

Langston Hughes published his first major work when he was 19. Stephen King, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were 20. 21: Bret Easton Ellis and Mary Shelley. 22: Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury. Worried you’re too young? Read the rest of this list.

James Michener wrote 40 books after he turned 40.  Raymond Chandler was 43 years old when he published his first novel, “The Big Sleep.” Anna Sewell started writing “Black Beauty” when she was 51; she was 57 when she sold the book. Frank McCourt published his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes” when he was 66. Harriet Doer’s first novel, “Stones of Ibarra” won the National Book Award. It was published when she was 74. Worried you’re too old? Read the rest of this list.

Here’s another potent excuse, one fueled by what psychologists call the “Victim Mentality.” 

I’m quitting because I was rejected. Do you think you’re the first?

“First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?” That was the response of one of the multiple publishers who turned down Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” .

“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” That was the rejection Kenneth Grahame received for his classic “The Wind in the Willows.”

“An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.’” H.G. Wells got this rejection for “The War of the Worlds,” still in print more than a century after it was published. 

Joseph Heller got 22 rejections for his satirical masterpiece “Catch-22.” One of them read, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” For more on famous authors and their rejections, read the rest of the list here

There are lots of other excuses writers make. I’m too tired. My friends give me a hard time because I don’t have time for them. I’m not inspired. Revision means I’ve failed. I don’t have enough time.

Go ahead and use them. You’ll get nowhere fast.

But here’s what I’d rather say. Challenge them. You can make time. Mothers write during their baby’s nap time. When I was working demanding jobs, I got a lot done just by setting my alarm a half-hour early and writing. Scott Turow wrote the first of his best-selling thrillers, “Presumed Innocent,” on the train to his job as a federal prosecutor.

Good friends understand. Inspiration happens when you’re at your desk. And revision offers unlimited chances to make your writing better.

 Excuses try to release a person from blame. When it comes to writing, as with many other endeavors, most of the time there’s no one to blame but yourself. It’s easy for me to say take responsibility, but what I’d rather say is you don’t need to make excuses. Do the work.

“Getting good as a writer, or any kind of storyteller, seems to me a lifelong pursuit,” says Jacqui Banaszynski, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and editor of Nieman Storyboard which celebrates narrative nonfiction. “And one that demands we realize there is always another level to reach and dare ourselves to take some creative risks as we get there.”

Keep that counsel close. Dare yourself. And just bear in mind that if there’s anything the history of publishing demonstrates, it’s that writing success has no shelf life, and there’s no accounting for taste. 

Six Questions to Drive Your Story’s Plot

Craft Lessons
Wikimedia Commons

There are two types of writers: plotters, who plan out their story, sometimes in great detail before they begin, and “pantsers,” who prefer to write without knowing the outcome in advance,  content to sit at their desk and discover as they go along. I’m one of the latter.

But recently I pulled a book from my shelves that has led me to reconsider my approach. “Plot” is a 1988 primer by Ansen Dibell that takes a comprehensive look at this crucial element of storytelling. 

“Ask someone what the plot of their favorite novel or story and they will tell you what happened in it. That’s useful shorthand when the conversation is about finished stories, but when it comes to writing one, it’s like saying “that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles,” Dibell says. ” It doesn’t tell you how to make one.”

“Plot,” says Dibell, “is built of significant events in a given story — significant because they have important consequences.” She gives two examples. Taking a shower isn’t a plot, nor is braiding your hair. Neither have any consequences. They are incidents.

But if it’s Janet Leigh stepping into the shower while homicidal maniac Tony Perkins waits to pounce in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” or the mega-long braid that is going to let a prince climb up the tower where Rapunzel is being held by a witch, these mundane incidents are transformed into plots. 

For two months, I’ve worked nearly every day on a novel. I’ve written scenes and dialogue — the foundations of dramatic narrative — and summary narrative that leaps across time and space. But until I read Dibell’s book and other sources that discuss plotting, I didn’t realize I may just have been spinning my wheels because I didn’t ask some critical questions before I started.

  1. Is there something at stake? Plotting is the way you show things matter.
  2. Have I identified a protagonist, the person, in writing coach Jack Hart’s words, “makes things happen”?
  3. Can I summarize my plot in a sentence, the shorter the better, even if it takes hundreds of pages to play out?  Two more examples from Dibell. “A group of British schoolboys, attempting to survive after their plane crash lands on a tropical island, begins reverting to savagery. That’s the plot of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” “The police chief of a New England vacation community, although terrified of the ocean, sets out to destroy a huge killer shark.” “Jaws.”
  4. Have I established the sequence of events “that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves,” which is two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative writer Jon Franklin’s definition of story.
  5. Have I identified plot points, “any development that sends the story spinning off in a new direction,’ in screenwriting teacher Robert McKee’s formulation? These will help me plan my story trajectory.
  6.  Is my story going somewhere? Do I have an ending in sight, or at least in mind? Knowing your ending allows you to establish foreshadowing that can help build suspense and forge your story’s meaning.

Pantsing is fine for some writers, and has worked for me in the past, mostly with short stories when the journey is relatively short. But as the word count of my book rises, I realize I’m not sure where I’m going. And I don’t feel like spending a lot of time creating a spineless mass of prose that I may end up jettisoning or face a massive rewrite.  With these questions in mind, I’ve decided to stop spinning and start thinking first, pansting less and plotting more. If you’re struggling with a story, you might want to do the same. 

Doing the Work: Three Questions with Bryan Gruley


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

Do the work. That’s a variation on the familiar “ass in chair” exhortation, but it refers to much more than typing words on a screen. Mark Lett, my longtime boss at The Detroit News and later the executive editor of The State at Columbia, S.C., used the phrase often. “Do the work” means attending to all of the tasks—some more tedious than others—that lead to results. When I’m pursuing a non-fiction story in my 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. 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.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That people would profess to love something I wrote. I still get a thrill when a reader posts an online comment or sends me an email saying they liked one of my pieces or books. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m still disappointed when people dislike something I’ve written (which happens much more with fiction than non-fiction). My favorite comment ever is probably an email I received from one Evan Vetere, a Wall Street Journal subscriber. I had written a Page One story about a World War II lieutenant and the Jewish boy he rescued from Dachau. Mr. Vetere wrote me: “Your profession exists so people like you can write stories like this.” I’ll never forget it

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

Although it’s not entirely accurate, the one that pops immediately to mind is tortoise. I’m not a particularly slow writer, and sometimes, especially on deadline, I can be pretty fast. On September 11, 2001, I took 30,000 words of WSJ staff memos and turned them into a 3,000-word front-page story in under three hours. But I am tortoise-deliberate. I have a process that revolves mostly around elimination. In my non-fiction day job, I pile interviews, observations, documents and other stuff into big piles of clay that I then whittle away, getting ridding of stuff until what remains is my story. Fiction is different insofar as I have a lot more material I can use—virtually everything I’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, overheard, read, imagined, etc. I start by choosing what to put on the page. As the words multiply and the characters come more clearly into focus, the story actually begins to narrow because as I’m choosing where it will go, I’m also choosing where it will not, and the farther it goes in one direction, the less likely it’s going to go in infinite others. Then, when I’m rewriting, I’m doing a lot more subtraction than addition. Unlike some writers I know, I love rewriting, especially the tactile feel of using a pen to strike out words, phrases, and sentences. Eventually, I know that if I do the work and stick to my laborious process, I will give myself the best chance to produce something that someone will tell me they love.

Bryan Gruley is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of “Bleak Harbor,” which Gillian Flynn called “an electric bolt of suspense,” and his latest crime thriller, “Purgatory Bay,” which Michael Connelly says is “impossible to put down.” Gruley was nominated for an Edgar for his debut novel, “Starvation Lake,” the first in a trilogy set in a fictional northern Michigan town. When he’s not making things up, Gruley writes long-form features on a wide variety of topics as a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He has won numerous prizes for his journalism, and shared in The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Pam.

CRAFT LESSON: Attitude is all


When I think of the hundreds of writers I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it’s their attitude that makes them special in my eyes.

“The attitude we choose is by far the most important choice we make every day.”


Three decades of working with writers have convinced me that attitude — a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior —  matters more than talent. 

Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room.

“Most people place an undue emphasis on talent. I don’t doubt that it exists, but talent is essentially a potential for something. The issue is really not talent as an independent element, but talent in relationship to will, desire and persistence. Talent without these things vanishes and even modest talent with those characteristics grows.”


Writing is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding of structure, and facility with language, syntax, and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and above all, patience. Malcolm Gladwell famously estimated that achieving mastery in many fields requires 10,000 hours of work. True or not, there’s no doubt that becoming a good writer takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. And without the right attitude, the willingness to do that work, the chances of success are slim to none. 

In a field where so much — success and rejection, for starters —  is out of a writer’s hands, attitude is one thing we can control. We can decide whether to procrastinate or write every day, give up or commit to one more revision, try our hand at a different genre, or learn and learn from other writers rather than be consumed by jealousy about their achievements.

Inspired by the wisdom of acclaimed designer Milton Glaser, legendary coach Lou Holtz and David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, I found myself musing about the nature of attitude and its importance to writers seeking success, including myself. Here’s what I came up with. It’s a partial list; I hope you’ll add to it in the comment section.

  • Attitude matters than more than, talent.
  • Attitude makes the difference between giving up and sticking with a story.
  • Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft, burrowing into your draft one more time to refine and polish your story.
  • Attitude means a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.
  • Attitude means submitting a story the same day someone rejects it.
  • In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success

CRAFT QUERY: What does attitude mean to you?

May the writing go well.

Photograph by Jeff Sheldon courtesy of

Attitude is all

Craft Lessons

When I think of the hundreds of writers I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it’s their attitude that makes them special in my eyes.

Three decades of working with writers and editors have convinced me that attitude—a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior matters more than talent.

“Most people place an undue emphasis on talent,” influential designer Milton Glaser said. “I don’t doubt that it exists, but talent is essentially a potential for something. The issue is really not talent as an independent element, but talent in relationship to will, desire and persistence. Talent without these things vanishes and even modest talent with those characteristics grows.”

Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room. And as legendary coach Lou Holtz said, “The attitude we choose is by far the most important one we make every day.”

A good attitude can pay off. That was the case for David Maraniss when he was writing investigations and series at The Washington Post. When news broke, he was one of the first to pitch in. “Even if I’m doing a series,” he once told me, “I say, ‘Look, if you guys need me, I’d be happy to do something.’ I try to be in a position to say yes, and I try to volunteer so that I can have enormous freedom the rest of the time.

“I find that so many reporters keep banging away at their editors and having frustrating confrontations about what they have to do or don’t have to do. I’ve always found it much more effective to do what I want to do by doing some things for them.

“I like newspapers, and I love to write on deadline. And so I volunteer. But one of the reasons I do that is so that there’s a fair exchange, where they know that I’m always around when they need me, and then in return, I get a lot of freedom the rest of the time to do what I want to do.” Maraniss has gone on to write a string of best-selling critically acclaimed books.

Writing is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: the ability to generate ideas, excellence in reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding structure, and facility with language, syntax and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and, above all, patience. Malcolm Gladwell famously estimated that achieving mastery in many fields requires 10,000 hours of work. True or not, there’s no doubt that becoming a good writer takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. Without the right attitude and the willingness to do that work, the chances of success are slim to none. 

In a field where so much — success and rejection for starters — is out of the writer’s hands, attitude is the one thing that we can control. We can decide whether to procrastinate or write every day no matter how uninspired we feel, give up or commit to one more revision, try our hand at a different genre, or learn from other writers rather than be consumed with jealousy about their achievements.

Inspired by the wisdom of Maraniss, coach Holtz and designer Glaser, I found myself musing about the nature of attitude and its importance to writers, including myself, who seek success. It’s a list I printed out and keep close as I work. I hope it may be of value to you.

  • Attitude matters more than talent.
  • Attitude makes the difference between giving up or sticking with a story.
  • Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft and burrowing into that draft one more time to refine and polish your story.
  • Attitude means a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.
  • Attitude sometimes means submerging your own interests to contribute to the greater good.
  • Attitude means submitting a story again the same day someone rejects it.
  • In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success.

Making peace with your weaknesses: Four questions with David Finkel


David Finkel. Photo by Lucian Perkins

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

If reporting is always getting the name of the dog, writing is knowing when not to use the name of the dog.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The surprise is that I could even have a writing life, but that’s a lame answer, so let me go back to the first question. Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being methodical. Not that there’s one, perfect method, but the one that has worked for me is knowing my ending before I begin writing.  I used to get so lost in writing when I didn’t do this, as if magic, rather than method, would solve the day. Now, if I know my ending, and I mean the actual ending, down to the last sentence, even the last word, it means I know that my reporting is finished and I have a story to tell as opposed to, say, a caption to write. It also means I know the emotional tone of the piece and I can structure my material to get there as consistently and efficiently as possible. In every story I’ve done over the second half of my career, including my books, I’ve known my ending before I wrote the beginning.

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

I’m terrible at metaphors, so I’m going to pass on this one except to say part of writing is making peace with your weaknesses and avoiding them.

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

The first came from a writer who is better than me, and who I was trying to impress by describing a story structure I had worked out that was so sophisticated I was sure it was going to dazzle her. In the kindest way, she said: You know, I’ve found in my own work that the more complicated the structure is, the more time I have to spend getting myself out of corners, and the simpler it is, the more room I have to write my story.

And the second is that old Hemingway advice: As a writer, you should not judge. You should understand.

David Finkel is a journalist and author of “The Good Soldiers,” an account of a U.S. infantry battalion during the Iraq War, and “Thank You For Your Service,” a sequel that chronicles the challenges faced by soldiers and their families in war’s aftermath. An editor and writer for The Washington Post, Finkel has reported from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, and across the United States, and has covered wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Among his honors are a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2006 and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2012.  He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

Craft Lesson: Mornings are made for writing

Craft Lessons

When do you write? First thing in the day or last?

It depends on the writer, of course.

But many highly successful writers, whether by habit or belief, seem to find mornings to be the most productive time. Neuroscience backs them up.

An admittedly unscientific search culled through interviews with working writers, quote collections and an excellent book, “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” by Mason Currey, revealed repeated examples of writers choosing break of day.

“Get up very early and get going at once,” was the preference of poet W.H. Auden. “In fact, work first and wash afterwards.” Mornings were the rule for Nobel laureate Saul Bellow who would write for 3 to 4 hours at a sitting.

When Ernest Hemingway was working on a story, he said, “I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.

Pre-dawn is the preference for Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. When I’m in writing mode for a novel,” he says, “I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. 

Not every writer has the freedom or the inclination for morning writing. Exiled to military school at 15, J.D. Salinger wrote his early stories at night under his blanket by flashlight. “There’s a mislaid family of readers and writers at night,” Matt Shoard wrote in a survey of nocturnal writers. And nighttime writers are a passionate, if somewhat cranky lot. Maybe it’s the caffeine.

“Is it the peace and quiet? asked Stephanie Meyer who wrote “Twilight” mostly at night. Nighttime composition is also the preference of Danielle Steele, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Barack Obama. Allison Leotta used to write her legal crime thrillers before work as federal prosecutor. But that changed to nights after she became a mother.”Now,” says Leotta, “the sound of a softly snoring baby triggers a Pavlovian response in me to start typing.”

For every nighttime writer, though, there seem to be many more who prefer early morning, close to dream sleep when the unconscious still lurks.

Brain science suggests that a morning writing schedule is geared to creativity. Moderate levels of the stress hormone cortisol aid focus. It also helps that willpower is strongest at the start before the day’s stresses sap it. The writer can rely on the prefrontal cortex, which governs planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and acting with long-term goals in mind.

The routines of successful writers suggest that they’ve discovered, without a degree in neuroscience, the power of the morning writing session.

Children’s novelist Lloyd Alexander woke at 4 a.m. to write because, he said, “you are closer to the roots of the imagination. At the end of the day the edge is off—You’re not the same person as you were in the morning. “

Barbara Kingsolver described a routine that starts before dawn. “Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency.”

“Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency.”

Barbara Kingsolver

Of course, some writers have no choice. Work or family demands may make it impossible to start work first thing. You may have to steal time; drafting at your desk over a quick lunch, after dinner, when the kids are in bed. Crime writer Leotta also writes when her baby is napping. I know writers who work late at night after the house is quiet. They may sacrifice sleep but meet their daily quota.

I’ve tried both times of the day, and while I sometimes find afternoons are productive, in the end I’ve come to prefer the early morning quiet before the day’s responsibilities intrude. Otherwise, as the day goes by my willpower and energy wilt. I keep in mind the words of Goethe, the German master: “Use the day before the day. Early morning hours have gold in their mouth.”

Daytime writers like Italo Calvino, the Italian journalist and fiction writer, feared the effects of nighttime writing which keep their mind moving when they preferred it would rest. “I’m terrified of writing at night,” he told an interviewer for The New York Times, “for then I can’t go to sleep. So I start slowly, slowly writing in the morning and then go on into the late afternoon. “

You may want to experiment, toggling between day and night to discover your best writing time. But if you choose AM over PM, here are suggestions to get you moving and writing.

  • Wake up. Get up. If you’re’ the type who tends to overlseep, don’t hit the snooze alarm. Brew your coffee or tea, take it to your desk.
  • Quarantine yourself. Susan Sontag vowed in her diary to tell people not to call her in the morning and she resolved not to answer the phone. Lock your office door. David Margolick uses Flents Quiet Please foam earplugs to buffer the din outside his Manhattan apartment while he’s working on his books about comedian Sid Caesar and scientist Jonas Salk.
  • Start off easy. If you begin first thing trying to write a masterpiece, writer’s block will likely ensue. Begin writing in your journal, making notes for the day. Read “sacred texts.” from the Bible to your favorite novel or poem, writings that inspire you to start your own compositions as the sun comes up.

May the writing go well.

Photography by Nick Morrison courtesy of

Believing in what you write: Four Questions with John Branch

John Branch

John Branch has been a sports reporter for The New York Times since 2005. His feature about a deadly avalanche in Washington state, “Snow Fall,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and his work has been featured six times in “Best American Sports Writing.” His series about the death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the subject of his book, “Boy on Ice,” which won the PEN/ESPN Prize for Literary Sports Writing. His other books include one about a championship rodeo family in Utah called “The Last Cowboys” and “Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports.”

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

Believe 100 percent in what you write. I know people who have angles or hot takes that they don’t believe, but know it will get attention. I know people who write in ways (everything from angle to style to the words chosen) to please others, like editors or sources or readers. Be you. Your name is at the top. If you don’t believe in every word below it, why should anyone else? 

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I have a writing life at all. I never imagined it. I was a manager for Costco until I was 29. When I went back to school to get a journalism degree, I truly didn’t know if I would be any good at writing. I had never published anything. I thought it would be fun to be a reporter, and I figured I had read enough newspaper stories in my life that I knew good ones from bad ones. My first published article, I think, was a gamer for a baseball game as a stringer for the Denver Post, and the editor on duty seemed pleasantly surprised at how quickly I did it and how clean the copy was. People have been giving me opportunities ever since. Believe me, I sometimes don’t think I do this very well. I’m always about one painful graf or story away from thinking I’m a fraud about to be exposed. 

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

I’m devoted to non-fiction, so I’m a bigger fan of similes. They feel more honest. As a writer, I’m like a winding trail in the woods. You might not always see where you’re going, but I think you’ll appreciate exploring what’s around the next bend.  

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

Just go. That sounds like it has more to do with reporting than writing, but those two things are the heart and lungs of journalism. One’s not much good without the other. Every story starts with a foggy idea and lots of questions: What are the angles? Who are the characters? Where are the threads to pull? The answers can be hard to see, obscured by cubicle walls or the glow of the laptop, our preconceived notions or lack of imagination. The best brainstorming sessions end with an editor — I’m thinking of Jason Stallman at The New York Times — giving the best advice: Just go. It is never a bad decision. After all, my job is to take people places through my writing, and I can’t do that if I don’t go there with my reporting. Sure, I’ve written plenty of pieces that were reported and written from my desk. But I have never loved any of them.  

Craft Query: How would you answer these three questions?

May the writing go well.

Photograph by Danka & Pete courtesy of

Icebergs and better writing

Craft Lessons
Iceberg in the Arctic Ocean/Wikipedia

On the surface, Ernest Heminway’s iconic 1927 story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” is about a man and a woman having a conversation and drinking together while waiting for a train.

Lurking beneath the surface, however, is the question between the two over whether the woman will have an abortion. The words “pregnant” and “abortion” are missing.

The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said. 
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

At work here is his theory of omission, or more colloquially, “the iceberg theory of writing.”

It’s found in chapter sixteen of Hemingway’s nonfiction book about bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon,” when he segues into reflections about the writing process.

“A good writer should know as near everything as possible,” Hemingway writes. That knowledge, he qualifies, should not necessarily show up in the story.


“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who emits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

When the lookouts were on the Titanic on April 14, 1912, what they feared was not the jagged tops of ice that broke the surface of the North Atlantic but the mountain beneath.  

The same principle holds in writing. What makes a story powerful is all the work —the process approach to writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that gives writing its greatest strengths. We write most effectively from an overabundance of material. 

“Read before you write”

In “Reporter,” the 2018 memoir by Seymour Hersh, the famed investigative reporter, would spend “hours in libraries or newspaper morgues, (the home of newspaper clippings in the days before the Internet) finding everything he could in the way of background,” Don Nelson writes in a review of the book for Nieman Storyboard. For journalists and fiction writers, the “core lesson” is “read before you write.” 

Donald M. Murray kept a large trash can by his desk when he was freelancing for Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post and other so-called “slick” magazines of the 1960s. He noticed that when the trash can overflowed with discarded material, the stories were better. They were worse if he found himself diving in to find something — anything — to fill space.

 David Finkel filled up lots of notebooks when he was a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine. 

“I tend to write down everything I see, even if it’s something like, ‘2 rocks off to left- sedimentary??-resemble poodle.’ My hope is that as the reporting process continues, the significance of my notations will emerge. Usually, that doesn’t happen. Out of a 50-page notebook, I’ll have five pages of possibly usable quotes, ten pages of other possibly usable notes, and 35 pages of hieroglyphics.”

Finkel was an experienced feature writer, and later, a prize-winning author. He had more freedom than a reporter covering a meeting, say, or a speech, who has to file a story within an hour. (Finkel, who later went on to win a MacArthur “genius” fellowship,  is also overly modest; many reporters who admire his stories and books would be happy to find in their notes what he considers “hieroglyphics.”) 

When Wall Street Journal reporter Alix Freedman found her notebooks filled to bursting, she remembered an editor’s description of journalism’s essential challenge: “Distill a beer keg’s worth of information into a perfume bottle.”

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Freedman was accustomed to amassing a vast amount of material, more than enough to support her findings. She could spend months on a story, easily filling that metaphorical beer keg. Notwithstanding, the Journal’s news hole, the amount of column space available for the day’s edition, had its limits, even for front page blockbusters.  

Freedman came up with a method to meet the challenge. On a sheet of paper, she listed all the facts, quotes, statistics, scenes, examples and themes she’d uncovered in her reporting. She gave each one a letter grade, like a schoolteacher marking up tests. 

Only the A’s made it into her story.

Her aim, she said, was to “maximize impact,” to use “not just an example but a telling example. Not just a quote but a quote on point.”

Writers aren’t always sure what information will prove to be important, so they tend to fill their notebooks or drafts with an overabundance of material. Much of it never will appear in the final story.

The power of a story comes from what’s not in it.

May the writing go well.

Writing for Story: A look back at Jon Franklin’s masterpiece


In 1986,  two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Franklin put all of his knowledge about writing narrative nonfiction into a book. Three decades later it stands the test of time

In 1979, Jon Franklin won the first Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a dramatic rendering of a brain operation that focused on a surgeon who fought and lost a battle with a tumor. 

Six years later, in 1985, Franklin won his second Pulitzer, this one for explanatory reporting for “The Mind Fixers, “a seven-part series about the new science of molecular psychiatry.

A year later, he published “Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize winner.” Three decades later, it remains one of the finest handbooks available to the budding writer of narrative nonfiction.

The book still succeeds because Franklin is not just a superb writer, but a reflective practitioner and willing teacher who shares the lessons of his craft with clarity and generosity. He describes his methodology as a “step-by-step cookbook approach.” If you follow it, as I learned, you can write successful narrative nonfiction. 

I purchased the book shortly after it appeared, put its lessons into practice, and can testify to its power. To prepare for a new writing project, I recently dove back into my copy.

I was pleased to see that it was just as instructive and inspirational as I remembered.

Here are some of the most cogent lessons, mostly in Franklin’s own words,  that jumped out at me as keepers; consider it a sort of Cliff Notes version of a book that deserves a spot on every storyteller’s bookshelf.

 Franklin presents a coherent, easy to follow (if challenging to achieve) formula to build a story that can produce compelling stories.

He based his prize-winning theories on his study of short fiction, specifically the stories of Ernest Heminway, John Steinbeck and other writers that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and other popular magazines of the 1930’s and ‘40. These publications, he said, amounted to “the universal school for writers.”

The fiction they published rested on a simple but elegant formula: a complication, plus a body (or) development) and a resolution.” Franklin applies and expands the lessons of that form to the nonfiction story.

Among the highlights:

  • “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” 
  • “A complication is any problem encountered by any human being; it’s an event that triggers a situation that complicates our lives…” For instance, a surgeon confronts an intractable tumor or ‘Joe loses his job.”
  • “To be of literary value, a complication must be not only basic but also significant to the human condition.”
  • “A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication.”
  • “Most newspaper stories are endings without beginnings attached.” You can find story ideas by finding a good ending and reversing the order. 
  • You implement the formula by writing the complication, developments and resolution on three by five cards.
  • You must cast them in three words and in terms of action: “Cancer strikes Joe.” “Joe overcomes cancer.”
  • Avoid static or passive verbs: has, had, were, was, is, be, am, being been. Verbs must be action verbs.
  • “Once you’ve stated your complications and resolution in terms of clear action, identify the actions your character takes in his attempts to overcome the complication… using three-word active statements, you should be able to form a chronological chain of actions that lead either directly or indirectly from the complication to the resolution. This composes the development of your story. The complication, the action events that flow from it, and finally the resolution compose the backbone of the true story. A fiction writer would say you now have your plot.”
  • Outlining is essential. “With an outline you can think your story through, quickly and without great effort. Massive structural problems will stand out, and you can solve them with the stroke of a pen. You can think the story through, time and again, very quickly, and still retain the energy, enthusiasm and freshness you need to do a good job when it comes time to actually write the story.”
  • An outline might look like this
    • Complication: Company fires Joe
    • Development: 
      • 1.  Depression paralyzes Joe
      • 2. Joe regains confidence
      • 3. Joe sues company
    • Resolution: Joe regains job
  • The story must adhere rigorously to the facts. You can’t make up anything to fit your focus.
  • “If all else is done properly, The most dramatic aspect of any story is growth and change in the main character. The growth and change should be made the central part of the outline, so that it will emerge as the backbone of the story. 

In addition to the craft lessons, Franklin also reproduces “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” which won the Pulitzer, “ and his series, “The Ballad of Old Man Peters,” both of which he annotates.

Although the rest of the books contains more information about structure and revision, the lessons I itemized are the most vital for anyone contemplating a piece of narrative nonfiction.

I bought the book shortly after it appeared when word of its publication was spreading among narrative and would-be-narrative writers and their editors. I decided to try and put its lessons into practice as soon as possible. 

By chance, a call to theSt. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) reached me in the features department where I worked as a staff writer. 

The caller was an elderly man named Bert Mudd who had an interesting, but dubious, story to tell. Mudd said his older brother Thaddeus had been murdered  in his home in Viginia. Bert Mudd was going to find his murderer. With my marked up copy of “Writing for Story” staring at me from my desk, I asked if I could tag along.

Once I returned, with bulging notebooks and several audio tapes, I set to work.

It took a while before I could match Franklin’s formula, but eventually, I came up with:

Complication: Brother hunts killer

Resolution: Brother identifies killer

In between, I sketched out Mudd’s the developments: his travels north, fruitless encounters with authorities, his indefatigable sleuthing that led to a chance encounter with the man who would be charged, along with another man, with  his brother’s killing. Because I’m working from memory here, I can’t replicate what I wrote on the cards that charted the development of the story between the complication and the resolution, but the three-word complication and resolution are tattooed into my brain.

The story, “His Brother’s Keeper,” was splashed across the front page of the features section. That day, I received two phone calls. One was from the editor of a local magazine who offered me a freelance assignment. The other came from an English professor at the University of Tampa. She invited me to give a reading of the story.

The other day, I asked Franklin to what he attributed the staying power of the lessons in his book. He replied:

“I think the lessons had power when I was able to channel our forbears.  Adapt the things they knew, re-digest it and recast it for the modern reader.  It also dovetails into things we are just discovering about the brain and behavior.

I first discovered complication resolution from that wonderful book, “The Professional Story Writer and His Art.” But the authors got it from Chekhov, and I’m sure Chekhov stood on the shoulders of giants.  So in my own way I was sort of writing literary history.

‘These ways of conceptualizing story go back at least three thousand years — and may be genetically controlled.  Certainly the anatomy of story mirrors the anatomy of the human brain. Catch the harmonics of that and you will hold fire in your hands. (That from John Steinbeck.)

I was half biopsychologist even back then.”

If you’re interested in writing narrative nonfiction, you owe it to yourself to get Franklin’s book, either by buying it or borrowing it from your local library. It’s formulaic, to be sure, but the formula works. I recommend you also take a look at “Jon Franklin and “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,”” a 2012 Nieman Storyboard article by its editor, Paige Williams, who interviewed Franklin and reproduces the annotation found at the back of his book. In her introduction, Paige, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, said the story “never fails to captivate or instruct.”

The same can be said for “Writing for Story.”

Six ways to cover all your story’s bases

Craft Lessons
Keith Johnston courtesy of

There’s nothing worse than turning in a story and then being summoned by your editor who peppers you with questions you failed to answer. What hospital were the victims sent to ? What are their conditions? Did police lodge any charges? What was the name of the school principal? What was the name of the dog?

As a rookie reporter covering fires and accidents, I carried a checklist to make sure I got all the information I needed, or at least could answer the questions my editor might have. Over time, they became second nature, although I still jotted questions down before I headed out to a crime scene or accident? Better safe than sorry.

When a story was more complicated than a two-alarm fire or a car crash with injuries, I needed more than ever to make sure my story was complete. To cover all the bases.

Recently, I interviewed David Margolick about a story he wrote about a loud and noxious building project in his Manhattan neighborhood. The reporting was meticulously and richly detailed, from the health effects on neighbors — human, canine and feline — to the construction process and the description of the owners’ plans for an ostentatious underground entertainment center.

I was astounded by the lengths he went to to report the story. Given his history as a longtime contributor to Vanity Fair, former legal affairs writer for The New York Times and six-time book author, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Still, the lengths he went to were remarkably thorough. They display a consummate professional at work.

David Margolick

I sought out the presidents of the block associations on West 69th St., where the mansion will go, and West 68th St., where I live. I asked them for the names of residents closest to the construction site. To make sure I got diverse points of view, I asked those people for additional names, and also spoke to random people on the street. I went to several block association events. I also needed to identify the husband and wife who are responsible for the project, since they are hiding behind a corporate shell. This was something that virtually no one in the neighborhood had yet managed to do, but I did in surprisingly short order.

Because the man in the couple is a French businessman, I hired a French-speaking researcher to check the French and Belgian papers for information about him. Because she is a jazz singer, I checked out various musical websites, including a podcast in which she expressed great concern for rocks, trees, animals, air and various other entities her vanity project has disrupted. I never spoke to them, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Apart from contacting publicists, I reached out to all three architects who’d worked on the project; the owners’ lawyer; their representative on the construction site; one of their fellow investors in various cultural productions they’ve backed; and the Juilliard School, where he’d been a trustee, and set up a scholarship for struggling jazz musicians. (The violinist forced to flee because of the disruption — a move that set her back $5,000 — might have appreciated some of that largesse.)

Margolick’s remarkably comprehensive approach brought to mind a reporting rubric, one far more complete and sophisticated than the checklist from my cub reporter days. They are six elements that William E. Blundell devised for himself when he was writing and editing page one stories for the Wall Street Journal  and later shared as an influential writing coach in his classic guide, “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing.”

He described them in “Best Newspaper Writing 1982,” the year he won the award for best non-deadline writing. Blundell said he used these six areas to organize his material. “A few of these things are of interest, and others may not be, but I always consider all six of them,” he said.

1.      History. When did this start? Who started it? What are the pivotal events on a timeline? Does my main theme development have roots in the past? What are they?

2.      Scope. What is the extent of the problem? How many people are affected? How much money is at stake?

3.      Central reasons. Why is this happening? What are the economic, social or political forces that created it, influence it, threaten it?

4.      Impacts.“Who is helped or hurt by this,” Blundell said, “and to what extent and what’s their emotional response to it?”

5.      Gathering and action of contrary forces. “If this is going on, is somebody trying to do anything about it, and how is that working out?” Blundell said.

6.      The future. “If this stuff keeps up,” he said, “what are things going to look like five or 10 years from now, in the eyes of the people who are directly involved?”

Blundell used the six points to organize his reporting before he wrote. I think they can be equally valuable earlier in the process; Margolick demonstrates the value of going the extra mile in your reporting.

Blundell’s six points provide a roadmap for this kind of comprehensive research, reporting, and interviews.

Whether you’re on a daily deadline or working on a longer project like a magazine article or nonfiction book, they offer powerful assistance with the reporter’s never-ending challenge: developing expertise needed to write with clarity, completeness, accuracy and, above all, authority.

May the writing go well,

The Way to Finish a Book: Three Questions with Bruce DeSilva

Bruce DeSilva

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

My years in journalism taught me that writing is a job—something you do whether you feel like it or not. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You just plant your ass in your chair and write. The corollary for a novelist is to set a daily goal and stick to it. For me, that means writing 2,000 good words a day. If I do it in two hours, I get the rest of the day off. When the writing comes hard, I stay behind the keyboard until I reach my goal. That’s the only way I can finish a book.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I have learned much of what I know about my craft from musicians. I could ramble on at length about all I have learned about tone, mood, pacing, story architecture, characterization, and economy of language from the likes of Otis Redding, Carol King, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and hundreds of others. I am obsessed with how different the same song can be when it is performed by different artists. When the Chiffons belt out “One fine day, you’re gonna want me for your girl,” you KNOW it’s going to happen. But when Natalie Merchant croons the same lyrics set to the same melody, you realize it’s just a pipe dream. There are hundreds of examples of performers taking someone else’s song and making it their own. This, more than anything else, helped me find my voice as a writer.

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

As a journalist, I was a planner. I often outlined, and I usually wrote the ending first so I knew where I was going. As a novelist, I never plan. I just start with a general idea of what a book will be about and set my characters loose to see what happens. As I move from paragraph to paragraph, from chapter to chapter, I’m like a scent hound. (I know that’s a simile, not a metaphor, but I’ve always been a rebel.) I stop to sniff at every bush, every character, every turn in the road. Like a dog on a walk, I explore the world I am creating, discovering my story as I go. If I knew how it was going to end before I started, my desire to write the book would evaporate.

Bruce DeSilva grew up in a tiny Massachusetts mill town where the mill closed when he was ten. He had an austere childhood bereft of iPods, X-Boxes, and all the other cool stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. In this parochial little town, metaphors and alliteration were also in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction, which include “Rogue Island,” “Providence Rag,” “Cliff Walk,” “A Scourge of Vipers,” and most recently, “The Dread Line,” has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the New York Journal of Books, and The Associated Press. Previously he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for AP, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Polk and the Pulitzer.

This is a story about…clichés

Craft Lessons

Have you ever started a story this way:

“It’s that time of year again.”

“Webster’s defines…”

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

“This is a story about…”

“…takes no holidays.” Fill in the blank” Death, Crime.  I confess I wrote a story that began “Fire takes no holidays.” My only excuse:  I was young and very stupid.

How about a line that follows a lead about a person who exemplifies a trend:

“… is not alone,” as in “Chip is not alone. He’ one of millions of people worldwide who think their ideas are worth blogging about”.

Does your novel or screenplay feature a rebel without a cause, a snarky girl who saves the day, or estranged parents brought together after their child is kidnapped?

Every one of these examples is a cliché, a tired, overused phrase, or stereotyped plot or character that are the refuge of writers too lazy or weak to come up with something original. They’re annoying, too.

Clichés are flabby. They weaken the power of prose. They can cost you readers who are looking for writing that is fresh. 

Paint-by-numbers Writing

In “The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing,” the finest book on style on my bookshelves, Ben Yagoda defines cliché, broadly, as “the use, either unconscious or in an attempt to write colorfully or alluringly, hackneyed  or worn out words, phrases, or figures of speech.”

  • Yada yada yada
  • Only time will tell
  • Back in the day
  • Mother of all…

Clichés are an understandable refuge when you’re struggling to make meaning out of words, especially on deadline.

When you’re drafting a story, the public domain of words and phrases from popular culture automatically pops into the top of your conscious mind. Before you throw in the towel give up and throw your laptop out the window, cut yourself some slack, don’t be too hard on yourself. In a way, reliance on clichés is not your fault. 

“Clichés are prominent features of everyone’s first drafts…” Yagoda writes. “How could they not be? We hear and read them all the time and our brains are filled with them.” 

“You can certainly get your point across through clichés,” he concedes. “Iindeed, part of their appeal is the way they allow a  nearly effortless, paint by numbers communication.”

But clichés are deadly, and “their first victim,” he says, “ is thought.”

Clichés deaden the mind. They ignore the reader’s demand for originality.

Too many writers choose ready-made prose, George Orwell says in his influential 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,”  “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else.” 

In Orwell’s oft-quoted list of writing rules, avoid clichés tops the list. 

“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Clichés aren’t limited to news writers, Yagoda says, though they are prime offenders. They’re a trap for writers of other forms, too. 

“Journalists’ worst writing comes at points when they haven’t done enough reporting and have to fudge or generalize; critics and essayists when they haven’t fully worked out their points or are parroting someone else’s;  novelists when they haven’t done the imaginative work necessary to make types and stock situations into real people doing real things.”

  • Off the rack
  • Low-hanging fruit
  • A blast from the past
  • A sea change

Avoid clichés like the plague

Ernest Hemingway once said what the writer needs is a “built-in shit detector.” I’d add a built-in cliché finder.

To dodge clichés, ask yourself if you’ve ever heard a phrase before and where you heard it. Check dictionaries to make sure you’re using it correctly. The Urban Dictionary is especially useful for time-worn slang; it provides the history of usage, tracing “my bad,” for instance to the 1995 movie “Clueless.” Two decades of “my bad” have transformed a clever phrase into a cliché.

Your ears may be the best weapon you have.

If writing is all about revision, then “revision is all about reading,” Yagoda says. “And you need to be a good reader to hear your own clichés and the other ill-advised compositional decisions you’ve made.”

Reading aloud increases your chance of recognizing and deleting the commonplace words and phrases that deadline writing or first drafts generate. It also exposes you to original expression that can be a model of expression.

  • My bad
  • Jump street
  • Get go
  • Achilles’ heel

Before you use a phrase you think is original, check the Internet or your own publication’s archives. A producer at WLS-TV in Chicago created a wonderful list of clichés that reporters and producers could check their scripts against before airtime. 

I like The Internet’s Best List of Clichés. Check your stories against its comprehensive list of clichés, bromides, and buzz words. Right now “deep dive,” meaning a through examination of a subject is  hot in business writing and journalism.”

I’m beginning to see it more and more in headlines and copy (I used it recently). It has a nice alliterative ring, but I’ve resolved to avoid it in favor of something more original, if I can identify one.

Finally, turn a cliché around. Years ago, I read a business story in the early about computer sales that used “hearts and minds,” a phrase that came into currency during the Vietnam War five decades earlier! It screamed cliché. I thought about it for a minute and thought it might have worked better as ”win the hearts, minds, and modems.”

Avoiding leads is a full time job for writers who care that their prose is as original as they can  make it. In the writing improvement bible, “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser sets the standard for “cliché detectors.”

 “You will never make your mark as a writer,” he says, “unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.”

May the writing go well.