Craft Lesson: Writing with Your Nose

Craft Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MADELEINE EFFECT 

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

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

SENSE OF SMELL AS PLACE  

Price repeatedly uses smells to evoke a sense of place:

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

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

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

SMELL AS CHARACTER TRAIT 

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

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

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

SMELL AS MOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Breathe In. 

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

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

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

2. Name that smell.

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

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

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

3. Describe the smell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Find the Source.



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

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

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

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

Craft Lesson: Under My Feet: Why Writers Should Walk

Craft Lessons

I rise before dawn and dress in the dark, so as not to wake my dog. This is my time. I dress for the weather, step outside and begin my morning walk. A while ago, I slipped on a rain-slicked sidewalk and banged my big toe. It wasn’t broken, but seven days went by before I could walk without pain. I felt like an addict in search of a fix.

Healed now, I power walk for an hour through my tree-shrouded neighborhood, swinging my arms high, as the sidewalks under my feet pass in a blur. Some mornings I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but the best times are when I shut off everything but my mind. As the house, gardens and yards on either side disappear in a blur, I think about stories, those I’m working on, dream about writing or are stuck on. As the sun begins to rise, sentences sometimes take new shape. Puzzling leads tease their way to fluency. 

During the day, more leisurely walks also furnish opportunities for inspiration as my dog Leo leads me along the alleys that crisscross our neighborhood. Only when I feel a sharp tug on his leash do I realize I’ve been lost in thought; ruminating about pedestrian seeds that someday may germinate a story or help with a bedeviling rewrite. 

Walks, many writers have found through the centuries, are fertile drivers of the imagination, summoning forth the stories they want to finish, ones they want to start or to reconnoiter through all of their senses, collecting plots, details and characters as they move through the world.

“Walking, like reading and writing,” says columnist Danny Heitman, “is an unending source of surprise.”

James Joyce was an inveterate walker, roaming the streets of Dublin to map out where Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom went about their lives in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.”

Virginia Woolf, the English novelist, loved tramping through the Cornish countryside and the Bloomsbury section of London where her literary circle gathered.

Charles Dickens’ legendary long walks—fact-finding missions to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of gritty 19th century London—usually measured 12 miles a day in two-and-a-half hours, his biographer Peter Ackroyd reports.

“Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing,” science writer Ferris Jabr says in “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” in The New Yorker

He quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s journal: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

Methinks he was right. 

Science reveals, Jabr says, that changes in our body chemistry explain why walking triggers our imagination. Our heart pumps faster when we walk, sending blood and oxygen not only to our muscles, but all our organs, including the brain. 

Among the many health benefits, walking improves our memory and attention, studies show, protecting the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped brain organ critical to remembering. 

Regular walks elevate “levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them,” Jabr says. Even mild exertion, like my walks with Leo, studies show, helps with memory and attention.

Since walking doesn’t require much conscious attention, our mind “is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre,” Jabr says. “This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.” 

That was true for Virginia Woolf. In “Moments of Being,” a collection of posthumously published autobiographical essays, Woolf recalled a special journey: One day, “walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, “To the Lighthouse,” in a great, apparently involuntary rush,” an epiphany cited by Rebecca Solnit in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.”

In “Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking,”  Duncan Mishnull has collected 36 testimonies to the literary inspiration that walking provokes. 


“In a 1975 reminiscence about New York,” Michael LaPointe wrote in an Atlantic review of the book, “the novelist and essayist Edward Hoagland recalls how he stalked the streets of his hometown, first “to smell the yeasty redolence of the Nabisco factory” and then “to West Twelfth Street to sniff the police stables.”

The author was inhaling the raw stuff that would fuel creativity: “I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be.”

LaPointe also gives a satisfying summary of the salutary benefits of perambulation from “Walking: One Step at a Time,” by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge (North, South, and Mount Everest) on foot, as well as underground journeys through the New York City sewer system. 

Kagge, who cultivates “inner silence” along the way, says he appreciates “a healthy stretch of [the] legs, a kick of endorphins,” his thoughts “bubbling between my ears, new solutions to questions that have been plaguing me.”

For writers who spend hours sunk into their chairs staring at a screen with an imagination deficit, a good walk, whether fast or slow, may be the best exercise to kick those endorphins into action and get your creative juices flowing. 

In a society dependent on cars for transportation and treadmills for exercise, a walk—long or short — gives writers the chance to stretch their imagination. The next time you’re wrestling with a story, or even a single paragraph, pull on your sneakers and go for one. 

CRAFT LESSON | A BLUEPRINT FOR BUILDING COMPELLING SCENES

Craft Lessons

Scenes are the building blocks of powerful fiction, narrative nonfiction and screenplays. An effective scene stands on its own—a taut episode featuring characters, dialogue, description and tension that is one part of a mosaic that reveals the action and themes that make up the entire work. With them, you have an engine that drives your story. Without them, you’re stuck with writing that is nothing more than a lifeless encounter between characters. 

By way of definition, a scene is a single dramatized event, uninterrupted by summary and a change in setting. 

Many writers have trouble writing scenes. As a young writer, I found that much of my fiction and was told in summary rather than dramatic narrative. “Telling a story,” I found, took much less effort than “showing” and my stories suffered as a result. It wasn’t until I learned how to write scenes that my stories began to be published. 

Of course, summary narrative has its place, to describe characters and bridge passages of time, except in scriptwriting, which relies exclusively on scenes, since scriptwriters generally don’t have access to those two tools (with the rare exception of voice-overs or a soliloquy.)

To write successful fiction, the writer must learn how to “intuitively or deliberately build their scenes,” says Albert Zuckerman, a book doctor who has shepherded two dozen novels onto best-seller lists and taught playwriting at Yale, and has important things to say on the subject.

“Somewhere in the first few lines or paragraphs (or carried over from an earlier scene) a question is subtly (or not so subtly) raised,” Zuckerman says “In Writing the Blockbuster Novel.” That question must be answered with a climactic moment. Zuckerman offers important advice to these writers. Take your manuscript and select two or three substantial scenes. Does anything in the text “raise a question that sets up suspense that is then dealt with or resolved in the scene’s climax.” If not, decide on what your climax should be, “write it, and then find a way to prepare for it.”

The same holds true for narrative nonfiction, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin writes in his essential handbook, “Writing for Story.” “In the realm of structural construction your concern will narrow to the practicalities…of scene-setting and building, pacing, action sequencing and the other techniques that will allow the reader to slide easily through your story,” Franklin says. 

Film can be an effective teaching tool for writers learning to craft powerful scenes in narrative nonfiction. Katie Engelhart is a documentary film producer who has written a powerful new book about assisted dying, “The inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die,” that focuses on people with terminal illnesses, mental anguish and dementia who want to end their own lives even though in many state’s it’s illegal. Barred by law, hospitals and hospice, some rely on sympathetic doctors and activists willing to help them make a peaceful final exit. 

“I think that working in film has helped me to see things in scenes, when I’m reporting — and then, later, to string those scenes together in a way that feels vivid and motivated,” she told me in a recent interview. “Other writers know how to do this instinctively, but I’m not sure I’m one of them. I needed to learn.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

A superb example of scenes in a film can be found in the screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” based on Mario Puzo’s novel; it’s a sequence of scenes that asks the question whether Michael Corleone will summon the courage to murder the family’s rival mobster, Virgil Sollozzo, and the corrupt police captain who broke Michael’s jaw after Don Corleone was ambushed in the street by Sollozzo’s thugs. In an earlier scene that foreshadows what’s to come, Michael arranges for a gun to be hidden in the bathroom of the restaurant where he and Sollozzo are to meet to discuss a truce. 

Later, on a moody dark night, Sollozzo picks him up outside for a ride to an Italian restaurant. In a brief moment of foreshadowing, Michael tells his father’s rival, “I’m going to straighten everything out tonight. I don’t want my father bothered anymore.” Sollozzo believes a truce is in the offing, but Corleone knows better. Then, in perhaps the film’s tensest scene, an obviously torn and frightened Michael excuses himself to the bathroom and returns with the gun. But facing the two men, he hesitates as he wrestles with the morality of what he is about to do before making up his mind. The story reaches its climax when he shoots them in the face, drops the gun and flees to a waiting car. You can watch the sequence of scenes here.

In praise of private records

Craft Lessons

   

Savvy writers know the value of public records—police reports, courthouse files, meeting transcripts and the myriad other documents generated by government agencies. Public records provide detail, authority, libel protection and the occasional smoking gun that often makes for powerful journalism and narrative nonfiction.

But there’s another, less obvious record type that smart writers use to add unforgettable ingredients to their stories.

You won’t find them in a government filing cabinet or database or discover them with a Freedom of Information request.

These are private records, the documentation that people create and keep about their own lives or others, the kind buried in a box in the attic, hanging on the refrigerator door or inside a photo album or yearbook.

This class of documentary evidence can strengthen your reporting and bring a new level of intimacy and depth to your stories, shedding light on a person’s character or a time in history. They don’t require a FOIA or hours toiling in a courthouse basement; by simply asking sources to hunt in their attics and basements and memory boxes, writers can locate records that reveal a character’s inner life and history.  

I’d never really thought about the distinction between public and private records until I heard Louise Kiernan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune, talk about their value at a writing conference years ago and and a later meeting with a group of my students. 

“Whenever you’re working on a story, you ought to be thinking about what documents can help you,” she advised these young reporters. To take advantage of public records, she says, “everyone should know how to search a court record and file a FOIA request.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is an ideal place to learn about these skills.

But don’t ignore the value of private records, said Kiernan, who now is editor of ProPublica Illinois, a nonprofit investigative project. 

 Among them: baby books, high school and college yearbooks, playbills for student productions, teacher evaluations, diaries, journals, letters, photos, and videos. She described how a Tribune colleague used teacher evaluations to profile a dying professor, the students’ comments opening windows into their teacher’s character. In a long-term project about postpartum depression Kiernan used excerpts from the journal of a woman who had committed suicide. 

After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, The Wall Street Journal used private records to reconstruct the last hours of five victims.

NEW YORK — The alarm on Moises Rivas’s nightstand went off at 5 a.m. on Sept. 11.

He had been up until 2 a.m., playing slow salsa on his guitar. He shut off the alarm, snuggled up to his wife, and fell back to sleep. It wasn’t until 6:30 that the 29-year-old cook raced out of the two-bedroom apartment, already late, and headed for work on the 106th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. 

It would be a busy day. A big corporate breakfast meeting was about to begin. Mr. Rivas wore baggy black bell-bottoms that morning, but he could change into his crisp white chef’s uniform when he arrived at the Windows on the World restaurant. 

His instructions for the day awaited him, taped to a stainless-steel pillar in the restaurant. “Moises,” said the handwritten note posted by the banquet chef the night before. “The menu for Tuesday: B.B.Q. short ribs, roast chicken legs, pasta with tomato sauce. NOTE: Please have the butcher to cut the pork chops. Cut the fish. Cut, Dice Carrot Onion Celery. Cubes of Potato for the Stew. Cook one box pasta. See you later and have a nice day.” 

How could the Journal writers know what that handwritten note said, since the Windows on the World restaurant vanished when the north tower collapsed? According to a sources note appended to the story’s end, the reporters based it on a “handwritten note to Mr. Rivas: reconstructed by Windows on the World banquet chef Ali Hizam from notes written to himself in his notebook.”

The reporters also used a store receipt to document the price of a pair of sneakers purchased by a survivor whose feet were sore from fleeing down 92 flights of stairs in heels. The note revealed that a private record bolstered the narrative detail. “Source: Shoe shopping: $43 price from Baldini credit-card receipt.”

In October 2019, a team of ProPublica Illinois journalists under Kiernan’s direction used an unusual private record in an investigative narrative that exposed the human impact of a clinical drug trial of children with bipolar disorder by a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Following an investigation by reporter Jodi S. Cohen of flawed clinical trials at UIC, Cohen, and engagement reporter Logan Jaffe, who managed a call-out to hear from families who participated in the study, obtained the online journal kept in late 2010-early 2011 by a woman named Aline*. In it, she records the disastrous side effects experienced by her 10-year-old son Wilson* (*middle names were used to protect their privacy) while participating in one of the UIC studies. Then, in an unusual, innovative move, one, Kiernan said, “that breaks the ‘rules’ in all the right ways,” they let the mother and son tell more than half the story. Together the reporters crafted a digressive structure that shifts from Cohen and Jaffe’s contextual narrative — based on the traditional tools of documents, interviews and research — to the private record of a family’s torment, what one colleague called “an emotional piece of evidence.” In addition to the mother’s journal, they also persuaded mother and son to reflect now on the devastating impact of Wilson’s treatment. These were used as real time annotations linked to Aline’s 8-year-old reflections and paired in a scrolling interactive presentation. The reporters and Kiernan unpacked their approach in a story I wrote for Nieman Storyboard. (The passage above first appeared there.)

I’ve used private records to report and write a memoir about my father, who died when I was 10 years old, particularly the impact of his father’s involvement in a government corruption scandal in 1932. 

Perhaps the most important was one of the documents included in a packet of materials his prep school’s alumni office provided. I described my findings in “The Only Honest Man,” an essay published in River Teeth, a journal of nonfiction narrative:

“There is another document that I have studied as carefully as my grandfather’s testimony. It is a single piece of paper, about the size of a 5 x 7-inch index card, divided into columns that are filled with typewritten figures. It is my father’s report card from the Canterbury School. It charts his academic career from his entrance in 1929 to his graduation on June 10, 1933.

“He was ranked 8th in a class of 17, far from the weakest student. Still, there seems little doubt that something happened to my father towards the end of high school. His freshman year, he earned middle and high Bs. By his junior year, his marks had nose-dived to a dispiriting collection of low Ds and just barely-Cs. There may have been other reasons, but I can’t help but notice that his poor performance in school dovetailed with the period that legions of New York City newspapers were painting his father as a Tammany Hall grafter.”

TIPS

Begin by thinking about private records in your own life. If someone were to write a story about you, what might they learn from your yearbook, the letters or cards you’ve kept, your journal entries, photo albums, videotapes?

Ask sources for private records. Investigative reporters know to always ask for public records. Ask for private records as well: the yearbook, the photos, the letters that a source might have. Be alert to the possibility that private records might exist. 

As Louise Kiernan observed, “People record their lives in all sorts of ways and often what they write or is written about them is more true than what they tell you…what people make and keep for themselves.”

Craft Lesson: Gulp. And Go.

Craft Lessons

Journalism demands courage.

Or as Melvin Mencher, the legendary Columbia J-school professor put it: If you’re going to be a reporter, you have to be counterphobic.

Counterphobia, defined in an online glossary of psychiatric terms: “Deliberately seeking out and exposing onself to, rather than avoiding, the object or situation that is consciously or unconsciously feared.”

One of the scariest parts of being a reporter is the challenge of approaching strangers. Beginners, and even some veterans, fear rejection, an angry reaction or worse. The fearful mind can create dark fantasies.

The same holds true for writers who fear starting, or finishing, a story, an essay or screenplay, anxious that it will reveal their incompetence. Journalists aren’t the only creative types that fear failure.

When I was teaching student journalists, the first assignment I gave was to head out to their beat and ask five people what news they considered important but had not appeared in their local paper. Many students admitted later they were afraid to do it, but the experience changed their minds.

“I was surprised the most by the fact that I was able to get over my fears of doing the actual reporting,” wrote one student, Steve Myers, now enterprise editor at USA Today. 

Whatever it is that scares you, be afraid, but do it anyway.

“No matter how the writing of the story turned out,” Myers said, “in my mind it was secondary to the fact that I knocked on all 18 doors on 56th Avenue S. I felt a little bit like an encyclopedia salesman, but I got over the nausea in the pit of my stomach by the fourth or fifth house.”

Even the most experienced journalists feel that fear.

“It would astound you to know how many reporters, whose job it is to talk to people, are painfully, horrifically shy,” Monica Hesse, a Washington Post columnist, once tweeted from a Presidential campaign trail. “I’m here in New Hampshire and I get to eat one M&M every time I successfully interview another human.”

What may help is knowing that many people are terrified of journalists. Although it may be hard to believe, most people will be more afraid of you and the power you wield as a reporter than you are of them. Consider what J. C. McKinnon, a burly, stern-faced St. Petersburg police officer, once confessed to a group of my students: “I carry a can of pepper spray, a Glock pistol and 51 rounds of ammunition. But you’ve got something that can destroy me: a pen and a notepad.”

If you’re avoiding doing something—making the phone call, knocking on the door, visiting a part of your community you’ve never been to before —remember this about human nature. People love to talk about themselves. To share their opinions. They appreciate the attention.

Assertiveness reflects a belief in yourself. You have the right to ask questions, to approach someone for an interview, to request information, to write that short story or begin your long-delayed novel or script.  Of course, bear in mind that people have the right to say no, but don’t let that deter you. Just try someone else.

Be counterphobic. 

After all, as a savvy editor once said, journalism is all about one thing: Gulp. And go.

Acknowledge that you’re anxious and then go do it. When I’m really paranoid, I make a point of writing in my journal whatever my fear is, what I expect would happen, and then report back the outcome. Invariably, the feared result failed to materialize. On those rare occasions when it did, I found that I handled it or accepted the outcome.

Whatever it is that scares you, go ahead and be afraid, but do it anyway.

Just gulp. And go.

Photograph by Jon Tyson courtesy of unsplash.com

When your story needs shock trauma

Craft Lessons

In emergency medicine, the “golden hour” is 60 minutes of high-powered professional attention that can make the difference between life and death. It’s a narrow window of time when care must be managed or the traumatically ill or injured patient is not going to survive.

Apply the theory of shock trauma on deadline, couple it with the process approach to reporting and writing, and you have an efficient method that can make the difference between a compelling news story and one that dies on the page.

At the risk of practicing literary medicine without a license, I’d argue that the writer and editor’s first task is to diagnose — identify what works and what needs work in a story — and then treat.

IDEA
DIAGNOSIS:
1. What is the idea behind the story? Is it newsworthy, timely, relevant, interesting?
2. What would a reader/viewer/listener say the idea is? Is it the same answer as number 1?
3. How can the story idea be improved/refined/clarified?

RX:
• Identify the idea — a day in the life of an EMT during the Covid pandemic, the view from an immigration law office the day after a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, decisions made at a municipal meeting — and use that to evaluate the relevance of the material in the story.
• Move quickly from assignment to budget line (25-40 word summary of the story)

COLLECT

DIAGNOSIS:
1. What questions does the reader still have about the story?
2. What additional reporting needs to be done? (Interviews, research, statistics, examples, explanation)

RX:
• Mine your notes: You only want the best — the most illustrative anecdote, the most telling detail, the most pungent quote, the most revealing statistic.
• Look for revealing details that put people on the page. The female police officer who wears “size four steel-toe boots.” The widow who sprays her dead husband’s aftershave on her pillow. “In a good story,” says David Finkel of The Washington Post, “a paranoid schizophrenic doesn’t just hear imaginary voices, he hears them say, ‘Go kill a policeman.'”
• Use the five senses in your reporting and a few others: sense of place, sense of people, sense of time, sense of drama.
• Brainstorm the reader’s questions. Find the answers or acknowledge that they’re unavailable. (“City officials say there are no statistics available on…”)

FOCUS

DIAGNOSIS:
1. What is the story’s single dominant message?
2. What would the reader say the story is about? Is it the same answer as number 1?
3. How could the story’s focus be improved/sharpened/revealed/supported?

  • RX:
  • • Be ruthless about finding the heart of the story: an effective story has a single dominant impression.
  • • Address the question, “What’s the story really about?” and answer it in one word.
  • • Ask two questions that keep track of the focus of any story: What’s the news? What’s the point? They address the reader’s concerns: What’s new here? What’s this story about? Why am I reading this?
  • RX:
  • • Be ruthless about finding the heart of the story: an effective story has a single dominant impression.
  • Address the question, “What’s the story really about?” and answer it in one word.
  • • Ask two questions that keep track of the focus of any story: What’s the news? What’s the point? They address the reader’s concerns: What’s new here? What’s this story about? Why am I reading this?
  • Decide on a focus early but be willing to be flexible, to change with the information you report.

ORDER

DIAGNOSIS:
1. What is the path of the story? Does it have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end?
2. Are things in the right order?
3. Could the story be quickly reorganized using the “five boxes” approach?
4. What questions does each sentence, paragraph, box, answer? Are these the questions the reader will ask, in that order?

RX:
• Write the end first.  Once you settle on a destination, it’s easier to plan your route.
• Work the Rubik’s Cube. Move, cut, shift the elements of your story.
• Try Rick Bragg’s “five boxes” approach. Bragg doesn’t outline his stories, but he does preach the value of the “five boxes” method of story organization.

  • The first box, the lead, contains the image or detail that draws people into the story.
  • The second box is a “nut graph” that sums up the story.
  • The third box begins with a new image or detail that resembles a lead and precedes the bulk of the narrative.
  • The fourth box contains material that is less compelling but rounds out the story.
  • The fifth, and last, box is the “kicker,” an ending featuring a strong quote or image that leaves the reader with a strong emotion. (If you’re interested in an analysis of such a story, I read my email at chipscan@gmail.com)

DRAFT
DIAGNOSIS:
1. How is the story told: with scenes, summary, anecdote, quotes, attribution, statistics?
2. What additional material can be drafted or redrafted?

Rx:
• Write early: Find out what you know, what you need to know.
• Write the end first. Most reporters concentrate on the lead. The ending is more important for time management for the writer. It’s also the reader’s last impression of the story. Make it count.
• Put your notes aside before you start to write. “Notes are like Velcro,” says, Jane Harrigan, former professor at the University of New Hampshire. “As you try to skim them, they ensnare you, and pretty soon you can’t see the story for the details.” Her advice: Repeat over and over, “The story is not in my notes. The story is in my head.”

REVISE

DIAGNOSIS:
1. What are the stumbling blocks — spelling, style, accuracy — in the story?
2. How can the story be made more accurate, fair, balanced, compelling?

RX:
• Raise the bar: is it good enough?
• Murder your darlings.
• Cut “like a surgeon,” poet Anne Sexton says. “Down to the bone.”
• Select, don’t compress: Paragraphs, not words.
• Is there a beginning, middle, and end?
• Is the ending resonant?
• Are the sentences active by using action verbs?
• Can you use punctuation as a tool?
• Role play the reader. Step back and pretend you’re reading your story for the first time. Does the lead make you want to keep reading? Does it take you too long to learn what the story is about and why it’s important? If not, are you intrigued enough to keep reading anyway? What questions do you have about the story? Are they answered in the order you would logically ask them?

How brain science can make you a smarter writer

Craft Lessons

A TV ad for kayak.com features an unscrupulous doctor manipulating a patient’s exposed brain, turning him into a puppet who flails away at a keyboard, hunting and pecking for online travel deals. It’s funny to some, offensive to others, but it illustrates a larger point that is important for writers. The brain influences the way readers respond to words, for better or worse.

A growing body of research reveals that different parts of the brain respond to language in unique ways. Neuroscientists learned this by observing brain scans as subjects read. Writers can take advantage of these findings to connect with readers in deep, intimate and lasting ways. And you don’t have to be a brain scientist to do it, just apply the same kind of techniques that writing teachers have been preaching for years.

The science of  “this is your brain,” “this is your brain on stories,” is relatively straightforward. It starts with a geography lesson, based on the principle that the map of the brain locates multiple areas that control the way we move, see, hear, taste, smell, touch and remember.

It’s long been understood that the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain that separates humans from all other species, interprets language through the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, which center on how the brain processes written words. But their powers are limited: they enable us to understand words, but nothing more.

That’s why traditional news articles with their passive verb forms, collective nouns (“officials said”) and clichés have so little impact on readers. Flabby prose turns off readers because it doesn’t turn on the brain. Neuroscience shows how carefully chosen words and the tools of storytelling activate parts of the brain other than those that process language to make reading a deep, resonant and lasting experience.

A fascinating essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” by Annie Murphy Paul, details these developments.

She describes how researchers at Emory University discovered that the phrase “he had leathery hands” aroused the sensory cortex that activated the sense of touch. Spanish researchers found that words like “cinnamon” and “soap” triggered a response from the olfactory cortex which processes smells.

A French team learned that action verbs, such as “Pablo kicked the ball,” fired up the motor cortex, which governs how the body moves. Not only that, but verbs that involved different parts of the body, such as the arm or leg, activated the parts of the brain that controls those specific limbs. Evocative language also reaches into the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory, and plays an important role in the way the mind turns language into meaningful experience, a goal for all writers.

Based on these findings, we can take advantage of this three-pound organ with its 86 billion nerve cells to enrich our writing. Here are five ways:

  1. Create scenes. The combination of characters in action, dialogue and evocative settings lies at the heart of what novelist John Gardner called “the vivid continuous dream” that captivates readers.
  2. Dig for details, the more specific the better. If you want to get a reader’s mind to visualize what they’re reading, a “cherry-red ’67 Mustang convertible” does a much better job than “a car.” “The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose,” Tom Wolfe wrote in “The New Journalism.” “It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”
  3. Choose vivid action verbs. “Michaela grabbed her umbrella and dashed into the rain” triggers the motor cortex. Strong verbs are not just words on the page. They represent action in the reader’s mind.
  4. Avoid passive verb forms. “The body was found” is not only a flabby word choice that robs the verb of energy and fails to ignite the brain. It usually signifies weak reporting. “A seven-year-old newsboy found the body” heightens the senses.
  5. Cultivate a “a nose for story.” Consider the power of the scented details in this sentence by Anne Hull of The Washington Post: “Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon.” The brain’s olfactory bulb not only lets us smell. It also triggers memories in the hippocampus. “Hit a tripwire of smell,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” “and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

Neuroscience offers profound lessons on the power of story. You can use this knowledge to bring stories alive in readers’ minds. For writers and readers, the brain is a terrible thing to waste.





Writing longhand: Experimenting with analog composition

Craft Lessons

Two decades in journalism taught me how to type. Not always accurately, but quickly. 

It’s a skill that comes in handy, especially when I’m having trouble writing. I can type so fast that I can easily outrace my inner critic that tells me what I’m writing is crap. 

But the other day I decided to make a change in my writing habits after I learned that many modern writers, among them Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Elin Hilderbrand and James Patterson, prefer to draft their work in longhand.

The list is long, the writers an admirable lot.

“I do write by hand a lot, especially first drafts and plotting.” J.K. Rowling.

“I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter.” Robert A. Caro.

A friend of mine who’s a film director turned me on to the Blackwing 602. What I like is that it sharpens to a really fine point, and it’s got a great feel to it that I just can’t describe. It’s like when you taste a really good wine or a cognac: You know it’s good stuff.” Andre Dubus  III

“I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers.  I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that.” Susan Sontag.

“Lined index cards and a Blackwing pencil, for copying and recopying, rubbing out and writing anew, the scenes I had imagined in the morning.” Vladimir Nabakov

“I write in longhand. I like to see it come back beautifully arranged in type and then hack it up and begin again.” John le Carré

“A pencil is magic; there is the feeling that anything can be fixed, just look at the eraser right there at the top, ready to undue whatever might need to be whisked away.” Michele Filgate

I’m nowhere near their league, but I decided to give it a try. Not just as a novelty after years of digital composition, but because I also discovered that science shows that pen in hand can be good for the brain. 

“There is a new body of science showing handwriting is good for us when it comes to learning,” according to Gwendolyn Bounds of The Wall Street Journal.  

Some physicians even believe it can even help aging Baby Boomers improve their minds and keep them sharp.” 

That’s because sequential finger movements activate large areas of the brain linked to thinking, language and working memory, MRI imagery showed. 

Definitely a plus for this Boomer.

My analog experiment started with a ballpoint pen and a blank notebook page.

 At first, the going was slow. It took 38 words to warm up before the short story I’ve been working on grabbed my pen’s attention. I wrote another 115 words, much faster than if I was banging away on my keyboard. 

And that’s the point, longhand aficionados believe.

“It made me slow down because it takes a long time” said Stephen King who wrote his novel “Dreamcatcher” in longhand, discussing his approach in a Paris Review interview

“I’ve still got a little bit of that scholar’s bump on my finger from doing all that longhand,” King said. “But it made the rewriting process a lot more felicitous. It seemed to me that my first draft was more polished, just because it wasn’t possible to go so fast. You can only drive your hand along at a certain speed. It felt like the difference between, say, rolling along in a powered scooter and actually hiking the countryside.

I didn’t do it long enough to produce a scholar’s bump on my finger, but another physical problem soon surfaced: writer’s cramp or dystonia, the scientific term for involuntary muscular contractions. commonly known as writer’s cramp. (Musicians and golfers call them the “yips.”).

 I took a break and the mild symptoms faded. 

I found the going easier when I put my pen down and switched to a sharp number two pencil. My pace was faster than with the pen, but I was more careful with my word choice.

My penmanship improved and deleting my mistakes required nothing more than a few swipes of the eraser. Cramping aside, the advantages of longhand began to pile up, as those who chose longhand writing have observed

“I don’t have to wait for my pen to boot up. I can write in any coffee shop, airport, plane, bus terminal, bus, beach and park, and never worry about recharging or power outlets, Michael Cahlin recounted in The Writer,

Besides the tactile pleasure of writing by hand, I noticed another salutary benefit. 

Focusing on every word, I avoid one of my biggest time wasters: surfing the Web as a method of procrastination. 

With my notebook open and my laptop closed, I felt no urge to turn to Google or news sites. 

Analog shuts out digital distractions. 

 “You never get distracted trying to send a tweet from a notebook,” novelist Joe Hill said. “A notebook never pings you with an email.

I found I also agreed with the British writer Niven Govinden who prefers a pen to pencil and enjoys the “greater sense of space. 

“But most importantly, I write in a more economical way. I think harder about one good sentence following another, which for me is all that matters.”

Even so, after my brief experiment going Old School, I find it hard to believe that someone could draft an entire novel, or in Caro’s case, 1,000-page biographies, with a pencil. 

But maybe there’s something more to learn about the practice of writing longhand. I’ll just have to sharpen my pencil and give it another try.  I had to remind myself that, over nearly five decades as a professional writer, how, even on a tight deadline, often turning to a blank page and pen pushed me past a lead stuck in neutral and helped me break the block for narrative passages that were going nowhere. Recharged I could return to my computer.

And now I know what I want for my birthday: a box of Blackwing 602s.

Photograph by Angelina Litvin courtesy of unsplash.com

The Quote Diet

Craft Lessons

Get out one of your stories and start counting. Not all the words, just the ones between quotation marks.

Chances are you’ll get quite a mouthful.

We all know the importance of avoiding run-on sentences in our copy, but too often our standards drop when those twin apostrophes enter the picture, and we end up with quotes that run off at the mouth.

Here’s a quick and easy way to avoid journalistic logorrhea, one inspired by the current national obsession with calorie and carb-counting: Put your quotes on a diet.

The value of quote reduction became evident when I asked bureau reporters at a metro daily to add up the quotes in their stories. Many quotes weighed in at 30-40 words with some tipping the scale at 40-50 and even higher.

On closer examination, it became clear that reporters were all too often using quotes as filler, bulking up a journalistic meal with the empty calories of verbiage.


By comparison, a story by Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters who were traveling to visit each other, quoted six people, but each utterance illustrates what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.” (I’ve touched on his work previously but this is an extended look.) Notice how Gettleman can use brief quotes and even sentence fragments by blending them with exposition or action, either on the front or back end.


“What are the odds of this? One in a million? One in a billion?” asked Wentworth’s husband, Brian, as he took a long, sad drag on his cigarette.
14 words

“Sometimes, it makes the hair stick up on the back of your neck,” said Bo Hall, whose mother was killed.
13 words

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

11 words

In 1982, Hall was driving with her son, Bo, when they skidded off a bridge and into a creek. Bo, then 12 but thick for his age, bent the door open and sat his mother on top of the car. “So she wouldn’t drown,” he recalled.

4 words

“After that, we just don’t know what happened,” said Chuck Martin, the deputy county coroner. “Did they see each other and wave? Did one lose control?”

19 words

Wentworth was the family joker. She liked to tell people about the time she was baking biscuits and asked her first husband to go get some cigarettes. “He came back 11 years later,” said her sister Billie Walker. “That was the thing about Sheila. She’d make you laugh.”

16 words


“God, there will be times when we want to go hunting together and shopping together, but we can’t,” said the pastor, Steve Johnson. “There will be times we just want to sit and chat, but now, God, we can’t.”

34 words


As the service closed, relatives walked slowly back to their pickups.

“Y’all be careful now,” the pastor said.

4 words

Bingeing on quotes is an easy trap to fall in when the people — especially when the source is a politician, school board official, a lawyer, or any of those professional types — talk as if they were billing by the word.

But a 45-60 word quote explaining a sewer bond proposal that seems like an easy solution for the writer can choke a reader. (The quote diet is a timely discipline now during campaign season when the temptation is to let politicians and their mouthpieces go on ad infinitum.)

Obviously, there are times when it’s important we get the news directly from the source’s mouth. No paraphrase would have the impact of President Bill Clinton’s declaration “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”

Getting quotes is one thing. Using them effectively is another. Many reporters use quotations as a crutch. They forget that they, not their sources, are writing the story.

By all means, fill your stories with voices, but just as you’d steer clear of a windbag at a party, spare your readers those bloated quotes that deaden a piece of writing.

Here are some strategies for the quote diet:

1. Take ten percent off the top. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase.

2. Raise your quote bar. It’s the writer’s job to make meaning with the materials collected during the reporting. You decide which quotes convey the information and which are better paraphrased. Quotations, as Kevin Maney of USA Today put it, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.

3. Punctuate with quotes: Use quotes to amplify, to drive home a point at the end of a paragraph. A tight quote that completes a nut graf buttresses the theme of your story, as in this trend story about pre-teen dieting.



4. Watch out for the echo effect. Notice how many stories contain quotes that echo what you’ve already written:
The mayor said he’s pleased with the election results, noting that his victory demonstrates his popularity with the voters. “I’m pleased with the results,” said Mayor Foghorn. “It proves my popularity with the voters.”

Echo quotes often mean the writer isn’t giving readers enough credit. Readers don’t need a paraphrase and a quote to understand. One or the other will suffice.

5. Listen. Keep your quotes lean by always reading your story aloud as you make final revisions. Reserve quotation marks for words that reveal character, advance the narrative or drive home a controversial point. Use a blend of quotation and paraphrase. Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; It’s dictation.

6. Follow the one-breath rule. If a quote takes more than one breath to read, it’s probably too long. If you’ve got a good quote that takes more than one breath, insert attribution between the two parts. It will make comprehension easier for the reader.

7. Harness the power of the paraphrase. A teacher once told me that unless a source can say it better than you, paraphrase what they say. You’re the writer after all. A well-constructed paraphrase summing up a quote accurately and punctuated with a brief quote can add a powerful punch to your story.

A great is like a butterfly snatched from the air. It’s quick and flashy. Shoot from between 6 and 20 words to keep the reader interested. 

What makes a quote too long has less to do with the number of words and more to do with the content, rhythm, and purpose of the passage. The point is not to go on the quote diet for the sake of it, but to produce stories where every word counts, including those spoken by others.

Craft Lesson: Take Modeling Lessons

Craft Lessons

In the early 1800s, an English writer named Charles Caleb Colton published a book of aphorisms, including one still popular today: “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.” (Added later, “form” rounds out the way we know it today.)

But for those of us trying to become better writers, imitation is more than flattery; it’s a powerful and time-honored way to master the craft. “Numerous writers — Somerset Maugham and Joan Didion come to mind — recall copying long passages verbatim from favorite writers, learning with every line,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Over the years, I’ve learned important lessons by copying out lines, passages, even entire stories by other writers whose work I admire and would like to emulate.

Typing Wall Street Journal features taught me the anatomy of a nut graf, that section of context high up in a story that tells readers what a story is about and why they should read it.

Copying word for word short stories by Larry Woiwode and Alice Adams and passages from novelists Richard Price and Stewart O’Nan taught me a variety of lessons — the evocative power of olfactory details, for instance — about the art of fiction that writers in any form can profit by using.

But a freelance magazine writing experience more than a decade ago made me a believer in a practice I’ve come to call “modeling lessons.”

It was a dream assignment. The Washington Post Magazine asked me to write a profile of the first Vietnamese graduate of West Point. Tam Minh Pham was a young man who marched with the long gray line of cadets in 1974, returning home just in time for the fall of his country and six years of imprisonment. But his American roommate never forgot him and 20 years later marshaled his classmates to cut through bureaucratic red tape and bring their buddy to America for a new life.

It didn’t take much reporting for me to decide that this was a powerful story.

But when I asked my editor about length, I was disappointed when he said to keep it to about 2,000 words because the piece had been slotted as a second feature.

I protested — it was a great cover story, full of drama and detail — but the top editor’s mind apparently was made up.

Fine, I said, but asked for back copies of the magazine and downloaded several others from a database. Back at my desk, I studied several cover pieces, but it wasn’t until I began actually copying them out that I began to understand the magazine’s formula.

As a newspaper reporter, I routinely kept my leads to a single paragraph that if not brief enough would be trimmed by a copy editor less enamored of my words than I.

But as I typed out the Post magazine leads by its cover stars (Peter Perl, Madeleine Blais, David Finkel, Walt Harrington), it was clear the rules were different.

Their leads were several grafs long, narrative scenes that consumed 500-600 words and featured a vivid main character in action in a specific place and time, the classic storytelling structure.

Typically, the nut graf that followed the Post‘s “you are there” close-up openings was, in cinematic terms, a wide-shot. Evelynne Kramer, former editor of The Boston Globe Magazine called it “opening the aperture,” a passage that gave the reader the context and background to satisfy the curiosity piqued by the lead. If the lead showed the story, the nut graf told it. But unlike my 50-75 word newspaper nut grafs, the magazine version was more expansive.

After I’d typed about a half-dozen openings of Post magazine cover stories, I figured I had the formula sussed and was ready to try my own.

In my first interview with Pham, he’d recounted an experience one night in prison that seemed to have all the ingredients of a powerful opening. Bolstered by further reporting and emulating what I’d studied, I crafted a vivid 663-word, eight paragraph lead.

Now I needed to move the camera back and give the reader a firmer grasp on what they were reading and why. I loosened my newspaper writing reins and wrote I wrote another 500 words, the longest nut graf of my life.

I reined myself in after that, trying to keep to the 2,000 word limit, and turned it in. A couple of days later, my editor called: 

You need to make it longer.

Why?

Because it’s going to be the cover piece. (You can read the entire story here.)

The lesson I learned was this: you can discover your own voice by listening to other writers, and one of the best ways to listen is by copying out their words.

This practice horrifies some respected writers and teachers; write your own damn stories, they say. But if we were visual artists, would anyone look askance at visiting a museum to try and copy the paintings to see how accomplished artists used color and shadow and contrast?

I’m not talking about plagiarism. Rather, modeling is copying stories to gain a more intimate understanding of the variety of decisions that writers make to organize material, select language, and shape sentences. 

But now’s a good time for my one caveat about modeling lessons: I always copy the byline at the top of the story just in case I get deluded and confuse my copying with someone else’s writing.

Properly credited, I start copying. 

When something strikes me, I’ll start to record my observations:

Wow, notice how that long sentence is followed by a short, three-word one, stopping me in my tracks to pay attention. Varying sentence length is a good way to affect pace.


Rick Bragg’s quotes are rarely very long: (“I need my morning glory.”) They’re punchy and have the flavor of human speech.


See how Carol McCabe’s leads follow a pattern? (“Cold rain spattered on the sand outside the gray house where Worthe Sutherland and his wife Channie P. Sutherland live.” “The Bicentennial tourists flowed through Paul Revere’s Mall.” “Three trailer trucks growled impatiently as a frail black buggy turned onto Route 340.”) Subject-Verb-Object. Concrete nouns, vivid active verbs. I’ve got to try that.

I believe every writer, including broadcast and online writers, can profit equally from copying successful stories in their medium. They’d do well to study how the other writing elements — audio, video, interactivity — figure in.

Whomever you model, and however you do it, the point is to pay attention to what the writer is doing and what effect it has on you, the reader. Most of all, writing is about impact, and writers need to learn how to make one, using all the tools at their disposal. 

“Do not fear imitation,” says Stephen Koch. “Nobody sensible pursues an imitative style as a long-term goal, but all accomplished writers know that the notion of pure originality is a childish fantasy. Up to a point, imitation is the path to discovery and essential to growth.”

In the end, you must use your own words to become the writer you want to be, but I’ve profited from learning how other writers used theirs. And I hope you can, too.