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.  

Craft Lesson: Excuses, excuses

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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

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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. 

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.

Craft Lesson: Mornings are made for writing

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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

Icebergs and better writing

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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.

Six ways to cover all your story’s bases

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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,

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.

Text-to-speech: a digital proofreader that makes you a smarter writer

Craft Lessons
Center for Writing, University of Minnesota

Lately, I’ve been plagued by gremlins, those mischievous sprites that cause problems when you’re trying to get something done without fault.

Just recently, I submitted a freelance article that, after several revisions, had finally been accepted for publication. I copyedited it. I ran spellcheck. Several times.

I hit send and then — it’s always the case, it seems — gremlins popped up, smirking, their job done.

A missing article.

A misplaced quotation mark.

A word repeated twice in the same sentence: “that that”

Minor stuff, sure, but the kind of errors that keep writers up at night, worrying whether they got things right. The kind that makes an editor wonder she’s been dealing with an amateur all along and won’t make the same mistake twice.

These are the kinds of mistakes you see in a newspaper, a book or on a website that make you wonder what else they got wrong. Like facts. Or quotes.

I’d made another big mistake. I’d lost touch with Moira.

Moira is Irish, a young woman with a lilting, though slightly robotic voice. She lives inside my MacBook Pro, nestled under the System Preferences. Moira is a text-to-speech feature, a digital proofreader that, when I have the brains to use her, makes my copy cleaner, smoother, less prone, if not always immune, to rhetorical gaffes.

Moira is a young Irishwoman with a lilting, though slightly robotic, voice. She lives inside my MacBook Pro, nestled under the System Preferences.

Moira is a text-to-speech feature, (TTS) a digital proofreader that, when I have the brains to use her, makes my copy cleaner, smoother and less prone, if not always immune, to gaffes.

All I need do is go to the Dictation and Speech feature in System Preferences, choose among number of voices, select a key to activate TTS and I’m ready to roll.

Moira reads everything I define, from Word and Google documents to emails and text on Web sites, as soon as I simultaneously hit the control and K keys. Hit them again and she pauses in time for me to correct my mistakes.

Losing touch with Moira brought to mind a column I wrote in 2013 extolling the virtues of text-to-speech. Reading it over, I recalled all the advantages TTS offers. (As you’ll see, I’ve switched loyalties from Alex, my first, very robotic-sounding first TTS reader, to the accented tune of Moira.)

“In the three years that TTS has become part of my editing toolkit, Alex has improved my writing, bolstered accuracy and made my stories more graceful. Text-to-speech lets me hear my stories, simultaneously comparing them with the written version, allowing me to detect flaws of word choice, pacing and grammar that I can change on the fly.

When I listen carefully to Alex, he tells me when “know” should be “now.” He guides me to unnecessary sentences and paragraphs. I still rely on the spell and grammar checker, but Alex always manages to find lingering mistakes. I relied on him for every word in my latest book that already had the benefit of a first-rate copy editor. Alex still found missing words, homonyms, such as “then” and “than,” and things I revised but then neglected to delete my original mistake. These days, I let Alex “edit’ my copy before I even activate spell-check.

The brain conspires to keep us from getting things right. We make unconscious errors based on our kinesthetic memory that preserves motions and explains why we can ride a bicycle for the first time since childhood and, after a few wobbles, confidently pedal away. It stores keystrokes as well, which is why I habitually spell judgment with two e’s.

Romance novelist Carolyn Jewel, I noted back then, raved in a testimonial about Text Aloud, her preferred TTS. Hearing her work read aloud by a computer kept her from “supplying meaning that isn’t really there. Lots of writers recommend literally reading one’s work aloud because it’s a great way to catch clunky phrases and repetitive bits. I tried that once, but it’s pretty hard on the voice, and it still doesn’t solve the issue of your eyes and brain conspiring to ‘fix’ typos for you.”

Reading aloud works really well, especially if there’s someone to read to you. But when that’s not possible, text-to-speech is a valuable substitute. Five years after I wrote that column, I’m still a fan of TTS. I’ve started using it again, reacquainting myself with Moira and marveling at the way she keeps the gremlins at bay. I recommend it highly. If those gremlins pop up, I can only blame myself.

PS. Since I first wrote about TTS, Microsoft has vastly upgraded its TTS feature, once vastly inferior to the Apple version. Windows 10 is now on par. One caveat: no Moira.