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 chipscan@gmail.com)

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 gwaynemiller.com or facebook.com/GWayneMillerNews/

How brain science can make you a smarter writer

Craft Lessons

A TV ad for kayak.com 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 unsplash.com

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.