Craft Lesson: Write Around the Margins

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craft Lesson: Persuading kids to talk

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craft Lesson: Devote yourself to outlining

Craft Lessons

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

Make a list of what you want to say.

What piece of information should be at the beginning?

What piece of information should be at the end?

What belongs in the middle?

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

Assign values to quotations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRAFT LESSON: Braiding your narrative to tell a complete story

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

Here are two examples of braided narrative nonfiction worth studying. 

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

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

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

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


Craft Lessons

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

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

1. Do the math, and give numbers context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Show significance without actual numbers

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

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

5. Make time relatable

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

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

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

Craft Lesson: How to Cope with Emotional Interviews

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in a 2×2-inch square.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craft Lesson: Time is on our side

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

I am not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are ways to make time to write?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craft Lesson: The Thief of Time

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Know tomorrow’s task today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Craft Lesson: Time Management for Writers

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

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

Complete this sentence:

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

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

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

Build a “mountain of stairs.”

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

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

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

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

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

Work in brief daily sessions.

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

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

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

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

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

Make friends with a clock.

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

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

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

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