4 Questions with Mike Wilson

Interviews

Mike Wilson is the deputy editor of the New York Times feature “The Great Read,” which highlights narrative stories. Before joining the Times, he served as editor of the Dallas Morning News, where he transformed a traditional print newsroom into a digital-first news organization. Under his leadership, the News was a Pulitzer Prize finalist three times and won two national Edward R. Murrow Awards for feature writing.

Mike started his career at the Miami Herald, where he worked for 12 years as a writer and editor, ending with a stint on the writing staff of the Sunday magazine, Tropic. He then joined the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), where he was a writer, editor and, finally, managing editor. His enterprise writing staff at that paper won a Pulitzer for feature writing and was a finalist for four others. In 2013, he moved to ESPN in New York to become the founding managing editor of Nate Silver’s data journalism website, FiveThirtyEight.

He is the author of Right on the Edge of Crazy (1993), about American ski racers competing in the 1992 Olympics, and The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison (1997), about Oracle Corporation’s billionaire founder.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

Even though the editor is typically higher on the org chart than the writer, trust is far more important in the writer-editor relationship than power. Telling stories is a collaborative process. The writer and I need each other: I need the writer to do the difficult work of learning every detail of the story and writing it well. The writer needs me to provide support and encouragement and, importantly, to offer the kind of perspective that the writer, awash in details, may find it hard to maintain. When things go well, we come to appreciate and trust each other, and the edits we make are the ones we agree on. If I ever make a change in a story just because I’m the boss, something has broken down in the process.

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

I’m surprised by how much editing has tested me – and I think helped me grow – as a person, not just as a journalist. When I became an editor, I took on the responsibility for people’s stories, but also for their careers and sometimes their personal well-being. I’m constantly asking myself: How patient can I be? Can I adapt to each person’s way of working and thinking? How clearly and effectively can I say that a piece or work isn’t good enough, or that it’s great? The thing I like least about editing is that I don’t write much anymore. The thing I like best is that the work calls on me to be the best possible version of myself. (I fail at this regularly.)

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as an editorwhat would it be?

I’m a gymnastics coach. Think of writers as elite athletes attempting risky and difficult new skills. I push them, and I catch them.

What is the best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

The advice came from my friend Tom Shroder, who was my editor at the Miami Herald’Tropic magazine and later the editor of the Washington Post Magazine. Tom said editors should try to make the editing process as objective as possible for the writer. It’s never enough to say, “I didn’t like that line” or “We don’t need this paragraph.” Editors need to be prepared to explain why they’re making a change (and I would add, they need to be ready to be proved wrong). Whether editors are helping a writer conceptualize a story or putting the last touches on it before publication, they should be able to articulately explain their decisions. Tom was and is great at this.

Chip’s Writing Lessons #93

Interviews

In this issue:

Writers Speak: Simone de Beauvoir on the consequences of not writing

Four Questions with Christopher Blackwell

WRITERS SPEAK

A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes.

—Simone de Beauvoir

FOUR QUESTIONS WITH CHRISTOPHER BLACKWELL

Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington State. He co-founded Look 2 Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and actively works to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working towards publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Huff Post, and many other outlets. He is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents, a contributing editor at The Appeal, and works closely with the prison writing program Empowerment Avenue. You can follow him and be in touch on X (formerly known as Twitter) @chriswblackwell.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

That my words have real-life power. They can educate and help people see the harm taking place in areas that are often left to the dark corners of our carceral system. However, they can also cause harm if not used in the right way. It is important to remember that when I write and speak for the body of incarcerated people, I don’t cause harm by doing so. My goal is to shed light on the system and the bad actors within it, not sell drama for a good story or use someone’s story without first asking them if they are willing to allow me to tell their story.

A couple of years ago, I was writing a piece about an outbreak of COVID at the prison where I lived. I told a story about the first prisoner who contracted the virus in our living unit, and because of the failure of the medical staff to do their job properly, they allowed this individual to spread the virus, ultimately infecting the majority of the population at our prison—hundreds of people got sick. And sadly, an elderly prisoner lost his life due to the spread of the virus.

Not long after the story came out, we were all back in our living units from our trip to solitary confinement—what the Department of Corrections claimed was “medical isolation,” but in reality was nothing more than a cold, uncomfortable, concrete box—and the prisoner approached me and asked why I’d used his story without talking to him first. I explained that I wanted to hold DOC medical staff responsible for their negligence in failing to do their job to keep the general population safe. With a frustrated look on his face, he said, “But now it sounds like it was my fault that man died. That because I was sick, I had a hand in him getting sick and losing his life.” He went on to say I should have asked him before I used him as a key role within my piece, even if I didn’t name him, which I didn’t. He continued by saying everyone knew who I was talking about, even his loved ones on the outside. 

I was crushed by the harm my writing had caused this person. I wanted to help my fellow prisoners, not harm them. And knowing that he was sitting there with this heavy guilt, feeling like that elderly man losing his life was on his hands. Knowing what I wrote only fed that guilt. I felt horrible. It was at this moment that I realized it doesn’t matter what your intention is, only the outcome.

During this time, I was new to journalism. I had failed a key role of our job in telling a story. I had caused harm to someone! And what was worse, I couldn’t fix it or recall the story—the damage had been done.

Since this happened, I have always made it a key point to consult anyone I use in my stories. It doesn’t matter if I name them or not. I make sure I think of all the effects my piece could have and that I am telling a story in the right way.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How far my writing has reached. I never expected to see my voice travel so far. When I hear from all the different people who read my words, it really is something special. I’ve spent over half of my life—25 years—incarcerated, and for the majority of that time, I have felt like our voices don’t matter, that people don’t care what is happening inside the prisons and institutions across the country. But I now know people do care. We just had to take the time to show them—to expose what happens in the shadows. Through sharing our stories—and humanizing the people behind these towering walls and razor wire fences—we will allow society to see that we must change this system. 

If you had to use a metaphor to define yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

A man trying to free-climb Mount. Everest without any gear. I sometimes feel like what I’m doing—working to tear down the harms created through the carceral system—is an impossible task. That no matter what I or other incarcerated journalists do, we will never be able to dismantle the harm these systems produce. But I continue to climb by putting one foot in front of the other. I know with each step taken, I get one step closer to the summit.

What is the simple best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I honestly don’t know if there is just one piece that outshines all the others. Each style of writing requires different skills, and each of the skills I’ve come to develop came from different writers/mentors.

Jamie taught me how to tell personal parts of my life through descriptive narratives that allow readers to feel and see what I saw as a young man struggling to survive a neighborhood filled with gangs, drugs and over-policing. She helped me develop the skills to vividly paint what a cold, dirty concrete cell looks like in a solitary confinement unit. 

But Jessica taught me how to investigate. She showed me how to dig for a story and how to find and obtain strong sources that bring a story to life. Really paint a harm taking place by shining a bright light on it. She taught me structure and countless other little journalist tricks related to the trade. She taught me how to be a legitimate reporter from a prison cell.

It was these pieces of advice from strong mentors along the way that allowed my writing to become what it is today. And I continue to learn from the talented writers who enter my life. 

So the best advice is to surround yourself with good writers and listen to what they have to teach. Find the people who are willing to invest in you and let them mold and shape you through the skills they’ve acquired over their careers. And most importantly, stay humble. This profession is ALL about relationships. Building long-lasting ones will allow a writer to stay relevant, and nothing is more important in the world of writing.

If I’m writing, I’ve failed: 4 Questions with Bill Duryea

Interviews

Bill Duryea is deputy editor for features at Politico magazine where he has worked since 2015. Over a 24-year career at the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times he worked as a police reporter, general assignment reporter for the Floridian newsfeatures section, national editor and editor of the enterprise team. Reporters he has worked with have won awards from the American Society of News Editors, National Headliner, Florida Society of News Editors, National Press Foundation and Society of Professional Journalists. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

If I’m writing, I’ve failed. That doesn’t mean I’ve never rewritten a sentence or even paragraphs. Deadlines and the limits of a writer’s raw abilities at a given moment sometimes demand I step in. But the most satisfying edits for me (and I hope for the writer, too) are the product of conversations during which our mutual goals for the piece become so aligned that my nagging questions, my suggested rephrasings and even my cuts make enough sense to the writer that they can execute the changes with complete faith that the piece is still theirs. When I find myself typing too much in a story, I always think: The time I’m spending now “fixing” something would have been much better spent days ago when a conversation would have addressed the issue before it became a problem.   

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

That editing stories about politics would reveal how much I still have to learn about journalism and what readers really crave. I never expected to end up at a website like Politico whose plugged-in readers reputedly had no time for long narratives. That wasn’t exactly true. Turns out they have plenty of time for a detail-rich profile (as any number of Michael Kruse pieces have proved). Of course, they want scoops and ammunition for their political battles but even the most harried Capitol Hill staffer cannot resist the time-slowing satisfactions of a well-constructed historical narrative. If you can make them relevant to the current moment, stories like that provide readers with a necessary respite from the barrage of brevity that assaults their inboxes every day. I wasn’t sure this was true when I arrived eight years ago, but I am now.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?

How about pool player? Most any shot on a pool table is makable if you can deliver the cue ball to the object ball at just the right angle and with just the right amount of force. When I talk to writers, especially ones who are new to me, or put notes in their copy, I want to impart a clear, respectful message that lands in such a way that they leave the interaction moving confidently in the right direction. Sometimes that note is delicate and the angle oblique (“Have you thought trying it like this …?” or “When I read this it made me think of X. Did you mean it that way?’’). Sometimes it’s more direct and forceful (“We need to change this because …”) But just as in pool, it’s the next shot and the shot after that that matters most, so I’m careful not to say something that hinders the writer’s ability to move forward.

What’s the best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

The best piece of editing advice I ever got was actually a piece of writing advice. It came. not surprisingly, from a great writer who also happens to be the best editor I ever had. Mike Wilson helped me find my voice as a writer at the St. Pete (now Tampa Bay) Times by pushing me to find the larger meaning of my reporting. And then say it. Mike would take my workmanlike drafts and gently point out the places where I could “have a little fun.” “Maybe like this?” he’d say, as I sat just off his shoulder, watching him effortlessly riff a sentence or just a clause that enlivened my piece with humor or pathos. Mike was showing me the difference between relaying facts and telling a story. As an editor, I look for opportunities to do that Wilsonian thing for writers — to help them transcend their reporting and “have a little fun.” 

The Electrification Stage of Revision: 4 Questions with Mark Kramer

Interviews

Mark Kramer is a writer, professor, and leader in the international movement to bring narrative journalism into books, magazines, documentaries, broadcasts, podcasts, and news media. He teaches an independent master class for mid-career writers with longform projects. It explores the process from topic selection through to publication, and includes fieldwork, note-coding, structuring, drafting and revising, and covers sentence-craft, voice, pace, scene-and-character portrayal, and ethics.

Kramer started America’s leading narrative nonfiction writing conference at Boston University and continued it while writer-in-residence and founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Jounalism at Harvard University, and then when it returned to Boston University. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe and other papers, and in National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside, Best American Essays, The Nation, etc.

His books include Three Farms: Making Milk, Meat and Money from the American SoilInvasive Procedures: A Year in the World of Two Surgeons; and Travels with a Hungry Bear: A Journey to the Russian Heartland.  He’s co-edited two widely-adopted textbooks–Literary Journalism; and Telling True Stories: A Writers’ Guide to Narrative Nonfiction from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

Kramer was writer-in-residence and professor of journalism at BU for a decade, and writer-in-residence at Smith College for a decade before that. He’s also founded ongoing conferences in Amsterdam and Bergen, Norway, and shorter-lived conferences in Johannesburg, Lisbon, Rio and Paris. He’s finishing up a handbook for narrative journalists.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer:

That we should be called ‘revisers’ rather than ‘writers.’ I spend perhaps one percent of my ‘writing time’ writing, in new territory, filling blank pages.  The rest is revising.  And almost all the enduring ‘creative’ stuff–the sentences and passages and juxtaposed scenes and ideas that still gleam when I reread them a few years later, happened while I was far into reworking text.  

That said, writing that first draft, and even the scarily-messy earliest revisions, are so awful compared to how good you want a piece to turn out, that we seem destined to cling to the illusion that we already know where we’re heading and the end is nigh.  What’s more true is that a piece’s true destination, where you want readers to journey toward, looms up like a mirage at sea, as we persist in revising.  And then when it does, we can really start pruning and shaping more exactly, and the destination and journey toward it will refine further. 

Smoothing the phrasing is just one aspect of revising.  When I strengthen and tune up sentences, I’m clearing the underbrush of half-formed, twice-said and superfluous words and ideas.  That’s when the curve of the reader’s consecutive experience of the piece’s scenes and argument and sequence of realizations emerges, a hospitable trail you’re clearing through the woods. “Narrative arc” is a misleading term.  It’s way too heavenly an aspiration for that practical period when you’re at your workbench knowing you ought to be constructing one.  “Narrative arc” sounds expert but is bewilderingly hard to anticipate.  How do you build a rainbow?  You need one for a good piece, but you get there by considering what practical craft steps build a good scene, animate a life-like character, tighten the next floppy sentence toward austerity.  I find it helps me to ask myself repeatedly, “What should the reader experience next?” and then to work on that.  If you think about how next to continue perfecting readers’ sense of ‘delightful and appropriate consecutiveness’ in their reading experience, you’ll revise effectively.  This is hard. 

Solid structure is what the reader needs next, and in narrative work, it doesn’t spring from an outline. Revising develops it, if you favor improving the reader’s sequential flow of immersive scenes with good characters, pointing progressively toward aspects of the topic at hand (and, occasionally, feathering in interjected ideas).  And of course, the reader’s experience also improves when you make the sentences you’ve drafted ever more simple, personable and elegant, until the reader is with you, a quiet, nearly invisible, host.’  ‘Curating the reader’s sequential experience’ is an effective summary mission statement for the many chores of revising.  And revising.  And revising.   

What should happen when the hospitably accompanied reader, after enjoying those efficiently purposeful scenes with their lifelike characters, arrives at that destination? Insight, as the elements of the narrative converge and finally drop the reader off there, is the reader’s reward.  In high school and college English classes, I puzzled over the term ‘theme’ that my teachers insisted writers had in mind, like the armature around which a sculptor forms clay.  The puzzling term ‘theme’ has misled many a talented writer to simplify a symphony into a monotone.  Destinations of good work are nuanced.  They preserve the humanness of situations intact, and don’t turn them into object lessons. And they succeed as the reader realizes things, not as the writer turns preachy and sums everything up.    

First draft is merely shoveling up clay from a seam in the bed of a creek and slapping it down on the work table.  Sculpting it after a first rough shaping, the work emerges, as they say, from removing what isn’t the sculpture until what’s left is, AND that’s mostly what writers do. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The electrification stage of revision. Clearly, it takes patience bordering on endurance to report and research and sculpt your way through that first draft.  Then comes the long revision period, revising the revision of your revision.  You’ve immersed in your scenes, gone beyond what a deadline reporter might gain just from interviewing.  You slowly, while drafting, comprehend the treasures hidden even from yourself in your field notes. Once you’ve nailed down and sharpened your selection and sequence of scenes, you’re getting there.   

Then, something happens that rewards what may feel is fussy tinkering with every joint between every whole lot of words! That something is what I’ve come to think of as ‘the electrification stage’ — it’s an analogy to when you frame and sheath and roof and sheetrock a house and the unfinished rooms are recognizable, in place.  In your work, the scenes are mostly in place, the characters too, and that trail leading the reader from experience to experience still has a few extra loop-de-loops, but you finally know how it works. It’s sequence from realization to realization maps in your mind.  You suddenly know how to put it into place.  It realizes in your mind. You suddenly can connect up the wiring you’ve installed in that house you’re building, and the lights go on.  You’re not done yet.  In fact, the illumination contains its own punishment–you can now see fussy little flaws and have to work far into the night, in the light you’ve created.  And you can finally finish eliminating what you’d once thought essential but now you can see it’s superfluous, perhaps essential for your next piece, but not for this one.  Voila: electrification draft.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer?

Please see above.  I’ve got a sailor in the fog and a path-clearer on a hiking trail, a hospitable host, and a carpenter building a house and briefly, a pilot doing those loop-de-loops.  I guess I write to find out what I am, metaphorically.  

What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?  

Actually, it’s a pair of  . . .advices. ‘!‘ and  ‘fix‘.  

those were the two marks that most often showed up in the drafts returned to me by my editor, friend and mentor, Dick Todd, late and much-missed editor at the Atlantic Monthly.  he’d write a minuscule check in the margin when he really, really liked something a whole lot–an idea or little interstitial joke, or even a metaphor. he was given to eloquent understatement, but so brilliantly exacting that those scant checkmarks made me feel safe and enough on the right track so that when he occasionally also inscribed the word ‘fix’ in the margins (also in tiny characters) I would realize some dumb misstep I’d made that would have remained invisible to me without his marks.  the “!” showed me–in my late 20s, when i was just figuring things out–that the grace of an editor’s approving “!” was powerful in helping a writer feel safe enough to write on–or revise on. and I !!!’d a lot while working with other writers’ copy. and the “fix” showed me how fine-grained and precise was the sort of revision that a text needed before it felt like it made excellent contact with readers.       

PARK DOWNHILL: 4 QUESTIONS WITH LIZZIE JOHNSON

Interviews
Bill O’Leary/Washington Post

Lizzie Johnson is a reporter on The Washington Post’s local enterprise team and the author of “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire.” Previously, she was a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also worked at the Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the Omaha World-Herald and El Sol de San Telmo in Buenos Aires. She has BAs in journalism and political science from the University of Missouri at Columbia. Johnson is a three-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. The California News Publishers Association has recognized her for Best Writing, Best Profile, Best Enterprise and Best Feature. In 2021, she won first place for long-form feature writing in the Best of the West contest. She has appeared on “Longform Podcast,” “This American Life,” “Longreads Podcast” and “Climate One from the Commonwealth Club.” Her work has been featured by the Columbia Journalism Review, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Harvard University’s Nieman Storyboard. Johnson, who was raised in the Midwest, and her dog, Indie, currently call D.C. home.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

So much of writing happens when you aren’t actually writing. I come up with my best ledes and kickers when I let myself take a break and do something else, like go for a run or weed my garden. Switching gears when I’m stuck jumpstarts my creativity. I’ll rush right back to my keyboard with a renewed sense of purpose. (Which is probably why I’ve gotten dirt jammed in the keys so many times.)

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The writing cannot stand without the reporting. It might seem like shaping the story is the longest part of the process, but I’ve found that it’s easiest if you invest in the information gathering — no matter how long it takes. Digging through archives, putting in public records requests, gathering documentation, like copies of text messages, emails, phone logs, staying with a story subject an hour longer than you anticipated. Writing scenes is much easier when you have plenty of information to choose from — and it’s impossible when you don’t have the reporting to hold the storytelling up.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

A mechanic. If the engine’s not running, it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles the story has. As a writer, I’m constantly tinkering, trying to figure out what works, structure and tension-wise, knowing that, otherwise, people won’t read until the end.

What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Park downhill. I can’t remember who passed along this piece of advice — one of my former editors at The San Francisco Chronicle, who inherited it from someone else, I’d bet — but the sentiment has stayed with me. The idea is to stop while you’re ahead, to close up your laptop and end the work day when you have an idea of where you’re headed next. It makes picking things up the next morning that much easier. You’re excited and know what you want to write next — versus feeling stuck and staring blankly at your cursor for an hour, then deciding that you really should just go walk the dog, or wipe down the counters, or write that letter to your great-aunt or…. you get my gist.

BEWARE, WILD BEASTS: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH BERKLEY HUDSON

Interviews

Photo by Tom Rankin

Of himself, Berkley Hudson says:

Born, Columbus, Mississippi. My Daddy ran Main Street Service Station, “Don’t Cuss. Call Russ.” Three restrooms: Ladies, Gentleman, Colored. As a white boy, I learned to listen for stories when 4-County Power linemen pulled up for gas, with dead snakes hanging from back of their trucks. My mother’s family ran Sanitary Laundry & Dry Cleaners. (Clothes Dirty? Dial 630!). Left Mississippi after Ole Miss undergrad. Went straight to Columbia University journalism school. Worked 25 years as staff and freelance journalist, first at The Bulletin, Bend, Oregon; then, Providence Journal, and later, the Los Angeles Times. Late-bloomed media history & folklore PhD @UNC Chapel Hill. Long-time professor at Missouri School of Journalism where I edited Visual Communication Quarterly and chaired the Race Relations Committee in time of turmoil. Received National Endowment for Humanities grants to support four decades of research into photographs made in the Jim Crow-era of my hometown, also known as Possum Town. In 2022, UNC Press with Duke University’s Documentary Studies published my O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
To focus and set boundaries: whether it’s writing a scene with dialogue. Or describing the physicality of a person, place, animal or object. Or interleaving a tight summary of the news. Or knowing when to stop reporting, writing, and revising. As a journalist, I enjoyed a free-range chicken approach. I’m an omnivore. I go where I’m compelled to go. Or where an editor sends me. Even today, I can have focus problems. An addictive love of winding narratives, my own and others, is a blessing and curse. See James Agee’s letter to his mentor Father Flye: “Without guidance, balance, coordination, my ideas and impressions and desires, which are much larger than I can begin to get to paper, are loose in my brains like wild beasts of assorted sizes and ferocities, not devouring each other but in the process of tearing the zoo to parts.” To avoid such chaos, I’ve posed three questions since the 1980s: What’s the story? What’s the point? What’s the news? I ask myself that today, as when I worked with a writer named Chip Scanlan and our job was turning out, on deadline, cinematic and newsy narratives at the Providence Journal. In every situation, I stay alert to William Faulkner’s admonition about “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
Jane Yolen’s book “Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft” inspires me to say this: More than a half-century after my Mississippi days as a teen-aged editor of my high school newspaper, of laying out inky hot-type of words and pictures in metal trays, I remain delighted by the joy of writing. Yes, there are frustrations, troublesome situations and challenges. But I love that reporting, research, and writing allows me to discover the world around me, at once miraculous, scary, and sublime. As a journalist, with biologists, I uncover bears in snow dens in Maine or track endangered frogs in California’s San Gabriel Mountains. I hike Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mt. Katahdin in Maine. I investigate New England mobsters, write about the Ku Klux Klan, or listen deeply to stories of Hmong refugees who’ve lost relatives to “midnight death syndrome” in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
As a documentarian/archivist, I interview with my storyteller wife Milbre Burch, tellers in Hawaii or on the Navajo Reservation or in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As scholar, I write book chapters on magazine history and photography; encyclopedia entries about Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo and New Journalism, civil rights icon Medgar Evers and composer William Grant Still, and essays and book reviews. I continue to write because I must, must explore subjects that intrigue me, must tell others the stories I discover. Through writing, I can have the transcendent experience that Gabriel Garcia Marquez invokes:
“Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.”


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would
it be?

Marathoner. In my case, Marathon Man. Since the 8th grade, I’ve considered myself a runner, albeit now a slower jogger than earlier. I’ve run marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks. About 5 years ago I adopted Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway’s approach: warm up, run, take short walk break, run some more, take another short walk break, and so on. That’s how I finished my marathon in Los Angeles, March 2022. That dovetails with lessons from Don Murray: “revision is a process,” and from poet William Stafford: “lower your standards until there is no felt threshold.” Revision follows drafting. In running, I trip on a root at night on a woodland trail when I’ve forgotten to wear my headlamp. On a hot day, I don’t carry enough water to drink and hit a sidewalk crack and fall, bloodying my forehead. Or I slip on a moss-covered rock near a stream. Elbows and knee get scraped and bruised. Another day, I go too many miles and fracture a foot bone. As with writing, I rest, recover, resume. It’s a process: reporting, researching, thinking, writing, revising, drafting, revising more, and resting.

What’s the single best writing piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Count words. As a teenager and college student, I counted words in my ledes. But Don Murray taught me more word count recipes. Yes, count words in first sentence, first paragraph, last paragraph, all paragraphs. Use your finger or pencil to touch each word. Slow down. Count words in scenes, dialogue, story chunks, to reveal proportionality of beginnings, middles and ends of sentences, sections. See the writing anew.
Word counts can measure daily activity, without particularly judging what you wrote on any given day: 750 words. 1,500 words. 20 words. Word counts reveal writing as a process, not product. How many words did you write today? Nulla dies sine linea. Never a day without a line.
Doesn’t matter if you wrote on a computer, typewriter, or used a pen, pencil, crayon to write on a restaurant napkin or legal pad. How many will you write tomorrow?
Connected with word counts, print out drafts. Write the counts on drafts in red, green, any bold color. Place pages on floor as a way to look at from above. Tape them onto walls, windows, or whiteboards. Use old-school TIME magazine approach with index cards or with a storyboard approach: paragraph by paragraph. (On the wall of Rowan Oak, his home, Faulkner painted in red the outline of his novel, A Fable.) Cut drafts into sections. Reorder paragraphs. Make
discoveries about structure, voice, focus, scene, beginning, middle and end. What’s missing? What needs to be trimmed? Expanded?

Start Writing: 4 Questions with Ava Kofman

Interviews

Ava Kofman is a reporter on ProPublica’s national desk. She joined the newsroom in January 2019, after working as a contributing writer at The Intercept, where she covered algorithms, artificial intelligence and surveillance technology. In 2020, she reported with colleagues on toxic air pollution across the United States. Their award-winning work on America’s “Sacrifice Zones” was credited with helping spur reforms.  Kofman previously edited The New Inquiry. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, and The Atlantic, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles. @AvaKofman

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Revise. Revise again. Then one more time. Apologize profusely to your editor for all of the tiny changes you are making. Continue to make them. Some of the most lively moments in a story come from second-guessing and last-minute additions, cuts and tweaks. The story will need to be published eventually, but until it is, consider it unfinished. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

It only gets harder! I suppose this is an open secret, but I’ve been continually surprised that the more I learn (or try to learn) about writing, the harder it gets. Thomas Mann puts it this way: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” 

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I once heard that there are two ways to approach a first draft: as a diamond polisher or as a garbage compressor. I tend to do both. I start with the latter technique, ingesting and processing vast amounts of material and refuse. The writing in this phase feels like a lot of trash that would be unreadable to another person (and that I sometimes can barely understand myself). Eventually though, the pressure and heat starts to produce some ideas, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. I would hesitate to call these gems, but they are durable enough to begin polishing. 

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Start writing! And start earlier than you think. The longer you wait, the harder it gets. You can always do more reporting later. Even if you’re just writing a memo, or “fake writing,” or pretending to write, start putting something down on the page. (Plus, the more material you produce, the more you’ll be open to revising it.) I wish I could attribute this to a single wise source, but this advice has been given to me a thousand times by a thousand wise people. (Thank you to all of them).  I regret how often I fail to follow it.

Write Past the Fear: 4 Questions with DeNeen L. Brown

Interviews

DeNeen L. Brown joined the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism faculty in 2019 after more than three decades at The Washington Post.

Since coming to UMD, she has continued to write for The Post, including a series of stories on the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which led to the city’s mayor reopening an investigation into suspected mass graves.

Among other jobs at The Post, Brown has covered police, courts and education, and was a foreign correspondent. She was a staff writer in The Post’s Metro and Style sections and a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine. Brown has earned national recognition for writing narratives about the middle class, the homeless, culture, race, Black history, urban gentrification, poverty and the environment.

As The Post’s Canada bureau chief from 2000 to 2004, she traveled throughout the Canadian Arctic and Arctic Archipelago to write about climate change, melting permafrost, receding glaciers, indigenous populations and cultural erosion. She also has written dispatches from an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage, and covered stories from Greenland and Haiti.

She’s won national feature-writing prizes from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, as well as regional awards from the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association. In 2006, Brown’s story titled “Mr. Wonderful” won first place and the best-in-show award for daily writing from the Virginia Press Association.

Brown is a former Knight Fellow and Washington Post Media Fellow at Duke University. She has taught writing seminars at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism and has been a guest lecturer on narrative writing at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida.

She’s taught writing at National Writers Workshops around the country and at the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference. She was also an adjunct journalism instructor at Georgetown University.

Her essays about writing are published in “Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide.” Her award-winning narratives are published in “Best Newspaper Writing 1999: The Nation’s Best Journalism.”

Brown holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.


What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Phillip Dixon, a great city editor at The Washington Post, once told me, “Evoke the soul of the story.”   I was a young reporter then. I remember walking away from the city desk thinking he was a curiosity. I had no idea what he was talking about. I went to my desk and re-wrote the story. But, again and again, he would send it back with the mysterious instruction: “Evoke the soul of the story.”
Over time, I came to understand what he meant. “Evoke the soul of the story” meant to report so deeply inside a story that you understand the story and the characters perhaps better than they understand themselves. 

Evoking the soul of the story means, “Don’t just tell me what so and so said and what so and so did. But tell me what so and so said and meant to say and why he said it and what brought him to this point in life that would make him say what he said or do what he did. What motivates this character deep inside?” 

Evoking the soul of the story means that writers should reveal a character’s deepest fear and desire. Who are they when no one is looking? Long-form narratives are made richer by immersive reporting. The best stories are not about the writing, but about what is revealed in the reporting.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
My biggest surprise in my writing life came when I found out just how a great story has the power to change someone’s life. A story, reported deeply and written with an authentic writer’s voice, has the power to move readers. I’ve seen readers respond in droves to help a homeless woman who rode a bus as her bed. I’ve seen powerful stories move institutions. Words have that kind of power. I’m still a bit in awe of the power of words.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer what would it be and why?
When I sit down to write, I feel like a composer. Though I am not a musician, I go through the steps that a musical composer might take in creating music. Composers and writers are both creating something out of nothing. We look at a blank page and fill it with something that lives.
In the writing process, I often imagine flipping my coattails before sitting on an imaginary piano bench, the way a composer might. I imagine the computer keyboard is my piano. The words come like songs out of nowhere. They have rhythm. I hear the stories as I write. The cadence and the spacing are important to me. The way words are arranged on the page are like notes.
I think good stories, like any good song, have a rhythm. Like a good Aretha Franklin song, they have soul. Like a Miriam Makeba song, the words ebb and they flow. Like James Brown, they repeat themselves. They grunt and grind. They rise and they fall. And sometimes they just shout.

What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Margaret Atwood once told me that writing is like diving into a black hole. The writer dives into an abyss and emerges hours or days later with a story.
I will never forget that afternoon with Atwood. I had gone to a café in Toronto to interview her. I read most of her books in preparation. But instead of talking about her latest book, we talked about life and writing.
I asked her where she got her confidence as a writer. She told me she had none, that each blank page scares her. The trash can, she told me, is her friend. She explained how certain books drive her and how some of her characters live in her writing desk drawer until they are ready for her to write their stories.
So many years later, when I face a blank screen, I think of Atwood telling me to write past the fear, dive into the void and fill up the blank page with story.

A Team Sport: Four Questions with Stephen Robert Morse

Interviews

Stephen Robert Morse is s a two-time Emmy-nominated filmmaker and the Managing Director of London-based Lone Wolf Studios, bringing lean production methodologies to the film industry. He loves combining creativity and business and has now worked on a dozen successful film projects. The first major film he conceived and produced was “Amanda Knox”, a Netflix Original that earned him a Primetime Emmy nomination. He holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Oxford. He was nominated for a Best Writing : Documentary Emmy for “In the Cold Dark Night” about the racist murder of Timothy Coggins in 1983. 

 What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

The first draft is just a first draft: and you’ll likely need many more eyeballs on it and many more drafts before it’s perfect. Sure, a few individuals may write excellent first drafts, but everything needs improvement. Writing, like most activities, is a team sport. And behind every great writer, there’s a great editor ready, willing, and able to critique them. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The biggest surprise for me has been how much I formerly loved newspapers, magazines, and printed books — yet how infrequently I use them now. I truly love audiobooks and articles these days, especially when they’re read by the author. The second biggest surprise is that people write documentaries: you can so easily change the structure and balance and intent of a story simply by adding or cutting characters, adding a snippet here or cutting a snippet there — this was not the type of symphony I intended to create yet I love the process… and it’s always a process. 

if you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

As my mom always said to me, “You’re a jack of all trades.” In documentary, what you can “write” depends on what people say in interviews and what archive you have access to. This could be limiting for many people, but I attempt to treat documentary writing like I’m writing an essay: with a thesis statement established early and evidence to support my thesis — while also sharing counterpoints and arguments that I may not personally agree with. 

4. What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Perhaps I’m a traditionalist, but I’ve long subscribed to George Orwell’s six writing rules: 

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Nailing the Structure: 4 Questions with Line Vaaben

Interviews

Line Vaaben is a prize-winning writer and editor for Politiken, the largest daily newspaper in Copenhagen. Her work has been published in several textbooks, and she teaches narrative and longform journalism. She is also the author of a book about femicide in Denmark.

What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a writer?

Working with structure. When I was young — and more arrogant I guess — I thought I didn’t have to do outlines. But I was so wrong! The past ten years or so, I have worked intensively with structure, and it has made my writing process faster, less painful and my stories so much better. I use a one-word theme and Post-Its to do my storyboards and it has made a huge difference.

I wrote a piece about it for Nieman Storyboard: https://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/sticking-a-story-together-and-nailing-the-structure/

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That I never seem to run out of stories to write. When I was new in journalism, I remember being worried about having enough ideas, or others writing the stories before I got around to them. I was much more in a hurry. But as time has passed I realize that life is so rich and full that writing about it in new ways is a neverending love affair between me and reality. No need to hurry. Stories are all around.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
A squirrel comes to mind. For one, I am a very energetic and fast-moving human being. But also, I often feel that I am gathering material like nuts when I am reporting: As many details, scenes and bits of dialogue as possible, which I stack for later use, so that I have a lot of good bits to choose from, when I reach the writing process. Like a squirrel, putting aside lots and lots of good nuts with important energy for a long, cold winter.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Paying attention to the ending! Not only because it is so important, what you save for last, as it is the reward to the reader, for hanging on. But also because it has forced me to think much harder on the whole structure of my piece before I write. If you want a great ending, you must build up to it. Which means asking yourself what you actually want to say and what central question is driving the story. I owe this revelation to Tom French BTW, who really opened my eyes to the importance of endings.