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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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?
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 Societyof 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.
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.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
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:
Make every word tell.
Omit necessary words.
Use parallel constructions on concepts that are parallel.
Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
Use definite, specific language
And finally the simple advice I try to heed for compelling writing.
Use short words.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
“I do not sit down at my desk to put into in verse somethng that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind I would have no incentive or need to write about it. I am an explorer…We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand.”