Following the side trips: Four Questions with Lane DeGregory

Interviews
Lane DeGregory

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

 Listen and look around.As a young reporter, especially, I was so focused on gathering all the information I needed that I didn’t pay much attention to things I thought didn’t matter, or take down details like the color of the clouds or the timber of the coach’s voice. Shutting up is hard for me, and I had to train myself to really savor the quiet, note the unanswered questions, and follow the meandering side trips that subjects take you on. I realized that sometimes the seemingly meaningless details open windows into a person’s head or heart.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise of my writing life — truly — was: Winning the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.I never ever imagined, or even aspired to, that. It seemed so out of reach, I never even considered the possibility, and was floored when my editor told me they had entered my story as one of three features for the Times. I worked on that story for six months, and had 24 other bylines during that time. I didn’t travel or incur expenses or do anything differently than for any other longer-form feature. And I wasn’t even a finalist for the prize, just one of the top 10 who got “moved into contention by the jury.”  Before that, my biggest writing surprise had been in 1998, when I moved from a tiny bureau at the Virginian-Pilot to the downtown office and instead of covering three news stories a day, I started writing narratives, about one a week. One of my first was about an ice cream truck driver — pretty standard. But a copy editor stopped me in the hall to tell me how much she enjoyed MY WRITING. Not the story, or the information, but specifically MY WRITING. I cried in the bathroom. And knew then that I never wanted to be an editor.

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

The best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me was from Ronald L. Speer, who was my editor at the Virginian-Pilot when I was a young cub on the Outer Banks. He, and this piece of advice, turned me from a reporter into a writer: Put away your notes. The story isn’t in your notebook. It’s in your head. And heart.

I still stash my notes in my car or kitchen before I sit down to write.

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

Ok, I have two metaphors: One from me, another from the girlfriend of former Times’ writer John Barry.I would say, as a writer, I’m like a praying athiest. I’m too jaded and cynical to truly believe in the goodness of humanity, or some benevolent god, and I’m surrounded by ugly, often evil people in the news. But I’m still holding onto the hope that there is such a thing as universal truth and light, so I’m constantly searching for it, especially in the shadows.
John Barry’s girlfriend once told me that my stories reminded her of Lucinda Williams’ songs. I don’t know if I’m really anywhere near that realm, but it’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten: To be able to write gritty, lyrical, earthy ballads that give voice to every day people — stories of folks struggling, surviving, and saving each other.

Lane DeGregory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Tampa Bay Times who prefers telling stories about people in the shadows. She went to work with a 99-year-old man who still swept out a seafood warehouse, hung out with a boy trying to buy his first Valentine, followed a photographer taking portraits of dying children.

Lane grew up near Washington, D.C., and her parents read the newspaper to her every morning. At age 5, when the Watergate scandal splashed across the front page, she decided she wanted to be a journalist.

She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she was elected editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily student newspaper. Later, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Virginia in rhetoric and communication studies.

For the first decade of her career, Lane wrote news stories for the Charlotte Observer, Daily Progress and Virginian-Pilot. In 2000, she became a features writer for the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times).

Her freelance stories have appeared in Readers’ Digest, High Times, Working Mother and Our State magazines. She wrote one travel book: The Insiders’ Guide to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

Lane has been included in four journalism textbooks: Telling True Stories, Newswomen, Feature Writing, Always Get the Name of the Dog. Her stories are featured in four editions of America’s Best Newspaper Writing: 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008. And a 2018 story is included in that year’s volume of Best American Newspaper Narratives.

She has won dozens of national awards, including twice winning Scripps Howard’s Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing and has been recognized eight times by the National Headliner Awards and eight times by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 2011, she was named a fellow by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Lane has taught at more than 100 colleges across the country, been adjunct faculty at the University of South Florida, sold-out webinars at the Poynter Institute, recorded YouTube videos on reporting and writing and spoken at journalism conferences around the world.

In 2017, she started a podcast, WriteLane. Each month, listeners on iTunes download an average of 4,000 episodes — on topics from coming up with ideas to finding features off breaking news to telling ghost stories.

Lane is married to a drummer, Dan DeGregory, and they have two sons in college, Ryland and Tucker. She also has a crazy cattle dog named Taz.

Switching from nonfiction to making things up: An Interview with Greg Borowski. Part Two

Interviews
Greg Borowski

Last week, I posted the first part of an interview with Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. who every year for the last quarter century has written a short story keyed to the Christmas holidays.

His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.  

Borowski’s yearly departure from nonfiction holds important lessons for writers ,whether they’re writing true stories or making them up as I learned when I interviewed him recently for  Nieman Storyboard. Borowski is the author of “First and Long: A Black School, a White School and Their Season of Dreams.”

In this installment, he talks about whether writers of fiction need to report their stories, the differences and similarities between fiction and narrative nonfiction and the lessons nonfiction writers can learn from trying their hand at fiction.

Here’s the second part of our conversation, reprinted with permission.

You oversee projects and investigative stories? Do you hope the journalists you supervise will take inspiration for their own narratives from stories like this one?

I think writers get better by writing, but also by reading good writing. And good writing can be found in all sorts of places. 

Inspiration can come from anywhere.

The key: Don’t read a great story and think “How could I ever do that?” Instead, approach it as: “How did they do that?” The former makes fiction seem like an unattainable form of art, the latter positions it as the craft it is.

We can all get better at our craft by practicing it.

The story is peppered with dialogue. How important is that?


I think the dialogue is vital. I usually start out with too much and realize some of what is being said should be part of an expository paragraph, and some is just extra words and does not belong at all. I find reading the dialogue aloud helps, and reading it quickly. That forces you to say it as you’d say it, not as it is written, which helps make it feel more authentic. In some respects, the dialogue is the most intimate part of a scene — you’re not just watching what is happening from afar, you’re listening to a conversation. So, a little bit can go a long way.

How does your work as a journalist influence the writing of this story?

Many of the same rules apply: Hook the reader with a strong lead — not just the lead at the start of the story, but the lead for each of the sections. Same goes for the endings. Provide hooks throughout that pull the reader along. Pare back your prose. Never be boring.

Really, the biggest advantage is the discipline any veteran reporter has to just get something on the screen to work with — and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, to polish your way to the strongest verbs and tightest sentences and crispest dialogue. 

Good reporters know the stories that resonate most with readers are the ones that speak to deeper themes and ideas. You always have to be able to answer the question: “What is the story about?” 

In this case, you can answer it by saying it is a story about a woman who dies on Christmas Eve and her estranged daughter who arrives at her bedside. 

Or you can answer that it’s a story about: Loss. Forgiveness. Memory. Love.

The first answer — the plot — is just a means to illuminate the second, the theme.

Did you draw anything in the story from life?

Lots of things. Part of the original concept came from the experience with my late grandmother. Like the character, her name was Susan; her husband was Leonard. As a kid, I used to get tasked with helping my grandmother make ornaments — those kits that require precise beads and sequins. And, yes, she got to press the pins in while I put the beads on in the right order.

The living room belongs to a great aunt, though there were plastic runners on the floor instead of plastic on the couch. I remember visits as a kid where it seemed like there was nothing you were allowed to touch. The trio of ceramic angels were heirlooms on my mother’s side, though I got one of the instruments wrong. (Why would angels have cymbals?). 

Usually, I tuck in the names of nieces or nephews, or children of friends. My daughter, Annaliese, is in every story — not by name, but usually a referenced age or, in this story the sixth-grade.

I don’t write the stories from life, but there are always pieces of life in the stories.

The story is full of textbook examples demonstrating the power of show don’t tell. Instead of saying her soldier father died, perhaps in a war, you write, “On the end table was a photo of her father, his Army uniform ever pressed, his smile ever easy, his eyes ever bright. Lauren had never met him — she came along three months after he passed — but knew the story well: Her mother was expecting a Christmas Eve phone call, but got a knock on the door instead. The flag, precisely folded, was in a case on the mantel.” Why did you compose it this way?

One practical thing that has strengthened my stories, I think, is the need to keep them short enough to be printed out with Christmas cards. They must fit on a piece of legal paper, landscape mode, four columns of text on each side. This enforces some discipline on the process, and requires me to develop sharp themes and crisp scenes. 

The paragraph you cite is typical of at least a few that come up each year, where I need to tell a lot in a few words. Here I was trying to describe the living room, give a backstory for the characters and encapsulate the conflict that needs resolution. At the same time, I wanted to convey a feeling of wistfulness.

Do you think journalists should try their hand at fiction?

Yes. I think writers of all stripes only get better when they try new things and push their own envelopes. Likewise, writers of fiction would probably learn a lot by trying their hand at narrative nonfiction, as it would force them to work on a different set of related skills. 

In recent years, I have become a runner and know you don’t get better just by running. You have to do cross-training, too, to strengthen different muscles. The same applies here.

You can read the entire story here.

Switching from nonfiction to making things up: An Interview with Greg Borowski. Part One

Interviews

Every year for the past quarter-century, Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writes a short story keyed to the holiday. His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.  

Writing fiction has profound implications for those trying to get better at narrative nonfiction. And vice versa.
That’s what  I learned recently when I interviewed Borowski for Nieman Storyboard.

Narrative writers like Borowski, whose credits also include “First and Long: A Black School, a White School and Their Season of Dreams,” call on the same tools to produce the verisimiltude that their fiction counterparts strive for: details, scenes, dialogue, drama and suspense. But there is a crucial distinction.

Here’s an excerpt from our interview, reprinted with permission:

Your story has all the elements of narrative nonfiction. How do you manage to write a made up story that feels so real?
I tend to fall back on techniques I learned as a journalist: Use only telling details. Make every word count. Cut anything that does not advance the story. Don’t use quotes/dialogue as exposition. Less is more.

With these stories, I try to write cinematically. That is, I can see the scene in my head — where people are standing, what the room looks like, every nod, gesture, voice inflection. When people are told to write descriptively, it can come off like an inventory of a room. When they describe action, it can read like stage directions. My goal is to have the reader feel like the scene is happening in front of them — for them to experience the story, not just read the story.

Beyond that, I try to do double duty with descriptions.

For instance, in the first paragraphs of the story, I wanted to get across the idea Lauren is a busy professional woman in a tough spot at Christmastime without saying any of those words. Likewise, I felt like I had a single paragraph to describe both the house where she grew up and what it was like to grow up without a father around.


Even though it’s fiction, do you have to report it?
As a rule, yes. But the stories I write generally focus on relationships between people, and often carry some magical Santa-esque element.

Rather than reporting out scenes and locations, I think of this more in terms of making sure the stories hold together within themselves. That is, does the reality they create — even if it’s something fanciful or magical — ring true? As I work through the drafts, I try to scrub them with that in mind: Is the character consistent throughout the story? Do the ages and timelines fit together properly? My wife, Katy, who is usually the first person to read them, is a good check on this. So is Jim Higgins, an editor at the Journal Sentinel who coordinates getting them published in print and online each year.

When they raise questions of reality or continuity, I sometimes want to reply: “Come on. It’s fiction. Anything can happen in fiction.” But that’s lazy and untrue. Instead, their questions are a sign I need to go back and rework something.

You’re an investigative journalist. How is writing fiction the same and dramatically different from narrative journalism?
The parts that are the same are easy. You need subjects/characters that are well-developed, a structure that includes conflicts or obstacles, strong dialogue and a resolution that is satisfying and true to the story. In short, something has to happen in the story and everything that is included has to drive the reader to that conclusion. Additionally, both forms require a steady hand from the writer. You’re taking the reader along for a ride, so the reader has to feel comfortable — not that they won’t be saddened or joyful along the way, or that there won’t be any twists or turns. Just comfortable that you, the author, know where you are going and can get them there.

For me, a major difference is that with narrative nonfiction you’re often trying to take real life, the ordinary, and make it feel special or magical. In my Christmas stories, I’m trying to take the magical and make it seem ordinary. That is, grounding it in reality. For instance, in this year’s story, I knew I needed a few touchstone family decorations as a plot device. I knew one would be a snow globe because, well, my daughter has several that come out at Christmas time and it seemed to fit.

It wasn’t until I typed out what was inside the snow globe — a winter scene with a church — that the next line of dialogue popped into my head:“That’s our church. That’s where I got married.” It wasn’t until I put the snow globe into the mother’s hands and allowed her to shake it, that I realized it was a metaphor for things being jumbled and then settling. And, really, that’s the arc of the story itself.


What lessons can writers of narrative nonfiction draw from writing fiction?
I think there are lots of lessons to be drawn simply from trying something different.

A major lesson, though, is that to truly resonate with readers, a story has to operate on multiple levels. You need the strong characters and cliffhangers and twists to pull you along, but what’s the deeper thing the story is really about? Redemption. Forgiveness. Healing.

Once you settle on that, it should inform and shape the structure, plot and dialogue and everything else that goes into the piece.

Next week: Part Two

Doing the Work: Three Questions with Bryan Gruley

Interviews

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

Do the work. That’s a variation on the familiar “ass in chair” exhortation, but it refers to much more than typing words on a screen. Mark Lett, my longtime boss at The Detroit News and later the executive editor of The State at Columbia, S.C., used the phrase often. “Do the work” means attending to all of the tasks—some more tedious than others—that lead to results. When I’m pursuing a non-fiction story in my day job as a feature writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, doing the work means, for instance, looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story. As a novelist, doing the work is more about sitting at my laptop every morning and putting words to digital paper. Whether it’s 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a day, if I keep doing the work, I know I’ll eventually have enough in front of me that I can begin to see my way to the middle of a book and, finally, an end. I’ve heard writers say, “That story just wrote itself.” If only.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That people would profess to love something I wrote. I still get a thrill when a reader posts an online comment or sends me an email saying they liked one of my pieces or books. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m still disappointed when people dislike something I’ve written (which happens much more with fiction than non-fiction). My favorite comment ever is probably an email I received from one Evan Vetere, a Wall Street Journal subscriber. I had written a Page One story about a World War II lieutenant and the Jewish boy he rescued from Dachau. Mr. Vetere wrote me: “Your profession exists so people like you can write stories like this.” I’ll never forget it

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

Although it’s not entirely accurate, the one that pops immediately to mind is tortoise. I’m not a particularly slow writer, and sometimes, especially on deadline, I can be pretty fast. On September 11, 2001, I took 30,000 words of WSJ staff memos and turned them into a 3,000-word front-page story in under three hours. But I am tortoise-deliberate. I have a process that revolves mostly around elimination. In my non-fiction day job, I pile interviews, observations, documents and other stuff into big piles of clay that I then whittle away, getting ridding of stuff until what remains is my story. Fiction is different insofar as I have a lot more material I can use—virtually everything I’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, overheard, read, imagined, etc. I start by choosing what to put on the page. As the words multiply and the characters come more clearly into focus, the story actually begins to narrow because as I’m choosing where it will go, I’m also choosing where it will not, and the farther it goes in one direction, the less likely it’s going to go in infinite others. Then, when I’m rewriting, I’m doing a lot more subtraction than addition. Unlike some writers I know, I love rewriting, especially the tactile feel of using a pen to strike out words, phrases, and sentences. Eventually, I know that if I do the work and stick to my laborious process, I will give myself the best chance to produce something that someone will tell me they love.

Bryan Gruley is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of “Bleak Harbor,” which Gillian Flynn called “an electric bolt of suspense,” and his latest crime thriller, “Purgatory Bay,” which Michael Connelly says is “impossible to put down.” Gruley was nominated for an Edgar for his debut novel, “Starvation Lake,” the first in a trilogy set in a fictional northern Michigan town. When he’s not making things up, Gruley writes long-form features on a wide variety of topics as a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He has won numerous prizes for his journalism, and shared in The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Pam.

Making peace with your weaknesses: Three questions with David Finkel

Interviews

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

If reporting is always getting the name of the dog, writing is knowing when not to use the name of the dog.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The surprise is that I could even have a writing life, but that’s a lame answer, so let me go back to the first question. Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being methodical. Not that there’s one, perfect method, but the one that has worked for me is knowing my ending before I begin writing.  I used to get so lost in writing when I didn’t do this, as if magic, rather than method, would solve the day. Now, if I know my ending, and I mean the actual ending, down to the last sentence, even the last word, it means I know that my reporting is finished and I have a story to tell as opposed to, say, a caption to write. It also means I know the emotional tone of the piece and I can structure my material to get there as consistently and efficiently as possible. In every story I’ve done over the second half of my career, including my books, I’ve known my ending before I wrote the beginning.

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

I’m terrible at metaphors, so I’m going to pass on this one except to say part of writing is making peace with your weaknesses and avoiding them.

David Finkel is a journalist and author of “The Good Soldiers,” an account of a U.S. infantry battalion during the Iraq War, and “Thank You For Your Service,” a sequel that chronicles the challenges faced by soldiers and their families in war’s aftermath. An editor and writer for The Washington Post, Finkel has reported from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, and across the United States, and has covered wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Among his honors are a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2006 and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2012.  He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

Believing in what you write: Three questions with John Branch

Interviews
John Branch

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

Believe 100 percent in what you write. I know people who have angles or hot takes that they don’t believe, but know it will get attention. I know people who write in ways (everything from angle to style to the words chosen) to please others, like editors or sources or readers. Be you. Your name is at the top. If you don’t believe in every word below it, why should anyone else? 

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I have a writing life at all. I never imagined it. I was a manager for Costco until I was 29. When I went back to school to get a journalism degree, I truly didn’t know if I would be any good at writing. I had never published anything. I thought it would be fun to be a reporter, and I figured I had read enough newspaper stories in my life that I knew good ones from bad ones. My first published article, I think, was a gamer for a baseball game as a stringer for the Denver Post, and the editor on duty seemed pleasantly surprised at how quickly I did it and how clean the copy was. People have been giving me opportunities ever since. Believe me, I sometimes don’t think I do this very well. I’m always about one painful graf or story away from thinking I’m a fraud about to be exposed. 

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

I’m devoted to non-fiction, so I’m a bigger fan of similes. They feel more honest. As a writer, I’m like a winding trail in the woods. You might not always see where you’re going, but I think you’ll appreciate exploring what’s around the next bend.  



John Branch has been a sports reporter for The New York Times since 2005. His feature about a deadly avalanche in Washington state, “Snow Fall,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and his work has been featured six times in “Best American Sports Writing.” His series about the death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the subject of his book, “Boy on Ice,” which won the PEN/ESPN Prize for Literary Sports Writing. His latest book, about a championship rodeo family in Utah, is called “The Last Cowboys.” 

Craft Query: How would you answer these three questions?

May the writing go well.

Photograph by Danka & Pete courtesy of unsplash.com

The Way to Finish a Book: Three Questions with Bruce DeSilva

Interviews
Bruce DeSilva

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

My years in journalism taught me that writing is a job—something you do whether you feel like it or not. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You just plant your ass in your chair and write. The corollary for a novelist is to set a daily goal and stick to it. For me, that means writing 2,000 good words a day. If I do it in two hours, I get the rest of the day off. When the writing comes hard, I stay behind the keyboard until I reach my goal. That’s the only way I can finish a book.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I have learned much of what I know about my craft from musicians. I could ramble on at length about all I have learned about tone, mood, pacing, story architecture, characterization, and economy of language from the likes of Otis Redding, Carol King, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and hundreds of others. I am obsessed with how different the same song can be when it is performed by different artists. When the Chiffons belt out “One fine day, you’re gonna want me for your girl,” you KNOW it’s going to happen. But when Natalie Merchant croons the same lyrics set to the same melody, you realize it’s just a pipe dream. There are hundreds of examples of performers taking someone else’s song and making it their own. This, more than anything else, helped me find my voice as a writer.

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

As a journalist, I was a planner. I often outlined, and I usually wrote the ending first so I knew where I was going. As a novelist, I never plan. I just start with a general idea of what a book will be about and set my characters loose to see what happens. As I move from paragraph to paragraph, from chapter to chapter, I’m like a scent hound. (I know that’s a simile, not a metaphor, but I’ve always been a rebel.) I stop to sniff at every bush, every character, every turn in the road. Like a dog on a walk, I explore the world I am creating, discovering my story as I go. If I knew how it was going to end before I started, my desire to write the book would evaporate.

Bruce DeSilva grew up in a tiny Massachusetts mill town where the mill closed when he was ten. He had an austere childhood bereft of iPods, X-Boxes, and all the other cool stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. In this parochial little town, metaphors and alliteration were also in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction, which include “Rogue Island,” “Providence Rag,” “Cliff Walk,” “A Scourge of Vipers,” and most recently, “The Dread Line,” has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the New York Journal of Books, and The Associated Press. Previously he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for AP, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Polk and the Pulitzer.

Don’t dazzle; communicate: Three Questions with David Margolick

Interviews

Your June interview with Nieman Storyboard is a master class in reporting and writing. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Write what you see and feel: don’t censor yourself. But don’t indulge yourself, either. You’re not out to dazzle but to communicate and, with any luck, move. The fewer words, and even syllables, the better.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

David Margolick
Photo by Lawrence Schiller

That editors will not only run what I write, but actually like and want it. I still feel that whenever something that pleases me appears — or that a phrase I like has survived — I’ve pulled a fast one. 

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

A workhorse. It’s never come easily to me, but with enough effort, I’ve usually —and eventually gotten the job done.

David Margolick is a veteran journalist and author. For many years he was a legal affairs reporter and columnist at The New York Times, for which he covered, among other stories, the trial of O.J. Simpson. He’s also been a long-time contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where he’s profiled Tony Blair, Benjamin Netanyahu, and many others. He is the author, most recently, of The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. His prior books include Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns; Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, a study of the principal figures in the iconic photograph from the 1957 school desegregation crisis; Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink; Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song; and A Predator Priest. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Guardian, and is currently writing books on Sid Caesar and Jonas Salk. 

May the writing go well.

The intrinsic strength of stories: Three Questions with Diana K. Sugg

Interviews
Diana K. Sugg

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

The most important lesson I’ve learned as an editor is to recognize the intrinsic strength of the stories. In my previous work as a reporter, the sentences and paragraphs felt fragile – and to fool with them too much would risk breaking the story apart. Now, however, being an editor has allowed me to truly see how much revision and tinkering can bring to a story. I wish I’d played more when I was a reporter with structure, focus, and endings. I wish I’d felt more like I do now. These days, when I’m working on a story, it feels as if I’m in the basement of my childhood home, in my father’s cozy workshop, seated on a stool at the long, narrow bench. There, I take apart the words, the sentences, the sections and scrutinize them, figuring out the most powerful way to put them together. Once you have the goods from the reporting, you’re set. We should never be scared to try different approaches with the writing.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

 Of all the surprises that have come with turning myself into an editor and writing coach, perhaps the most striking is how much I would come to love this work. It had never occurred to me to go into editing, since reporting had been my life’s calling. I was sure I’d never find any other job that lit me up from the inside the way reporting did. In those days, hours would pass by like minutes. I loved getting lost inside stories, getting to know strangers, chasing the moments that mattered, tangling apart complicated policies, science, medicine and ethics. It felt like I was tapping every skill in my brain and heart. 

    But after getting my sea legs in editing, I found myself falling in love again. It’s as if I’m on a new beat, only this time it’s inside the newsroom, and each reporter is a story I’m trying to develop and grow. Just as in reporting, I get lost inside the stories, picking apart the pieces, trying to open up the doors that a reporter didn’t see, and becoming obsessed and fascinated by each one. I thought editing would be a way station for me until I got back to reporting. Instead, it’s turned into a second love.

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

 I’ve never been a gardener, and I don’t know much about plants, but I sometimes feel like a gardener at The Baltimore Sun. To me, it feels as if each reporter is a different species, with particular traits, needs and skills. Each needs to be nurtured. And when I roam the newsroom, stopping at desks to chat, it’s as if I’m the reporter, trying to figure out what the story is behind each person. What are they struggling with, what do they really want to do, and how can I help take them to the next level? 

    It reminds me of the orchid on the tiled shelf behind my kitchen sink. I watch over it. Sometimes, I turn it slightly to better catch the rays of the sun. Or I gently wipe the dust off the leaves, or whisper encouragingly to it as I give it a drink of water. If I do a good job, that plant will thrive. If I do a good job at work, the reporter is lit up, inspired, renewed. Maybe we’ve dug a story out of their mental attic, one they’d given up on, or we’ve come up with another approach to a routine daily, or brainstormed a great enterprise story. For so many, it doesn’t take much to get them to face the sun. On good days, I see their imaginations and ambitions growing, their hearts blooming. They go from saplings to tall, strong trees. They find their inner core. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m in worn overalls, a faded hat on my head, at sunset, looking out over the sprawling fields. I take in the wildflowers, the orchards, the willow trees. And I feel joy. 

Diana K. Sugg is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and writing coach/enterprise editor at The Baltimore Sun, where she loves to nurture stories and reporters. She has edited award-winning series on the unseen, insidious effects of crime on Baltimore citizens, the struggles of refugees in a city high school, and the attempts to integrate Baltimore schools.Previously, she was a veteran beat reporter whose crime and medical coverage won national prizes. She worked at the Associated Press in Philadelphia, The Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-JournalThe Sacramento Bee and The Baltimore Sun, where she won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting for her medical stories. Her work has been featured in the country’s most popular journalism textbooks, and she’s spoken widely to journalists around the country about reporting and learning to follow your heart. She earned a master’s degree at Ohio State’s Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. She has served as a Pulitzer juror and on the National Advisory Board of the Poynter Institute.

Craft Query: How would you answer these three questions?

May the writing go well.

Separating your work from your worth: Three Questions with Ben Yagoda

Interviews
Ben Yagoda

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

(Those are such good questions that I’m going to answer each of them twice.)

The two answers to this one are paradoxical. One lesson is to listen to what other people say about your writing; the other is not to listen to what others say about your writing. The trick is knowing which one the situation calls for.
Starting out, when something I wrote was turned down, I would take it as a judgment both on my piece and myself. The latter is of course ridiculous, but human. Writers, actors, musicians—everyone who’s rejected a lot—have got to learn, early on, to separate their work from their worth as a person. What came a little later, for me, was to understand that an editor’s view of something I’d written was just his or her opinion, not ultimate truth. If I have faith in an idea or a finished piece, and it’s turned down, I’ve learned to just keep sending it out, if possible making it a little better each time. It usually (not always) finds a home somewhere.
At the same time, it’s important to learn to take honest criticism or suggestions in good faith. Right now, I’m developing a book idea, and when I described it to a writer friend, who I respect a lot, she suggested, if not a 180-degree turn, then at least a 120. At one point, I would have nodded and made polite sounds, but then kept going on exactly the same way. But I’ve learned my lesson over the years, and when I thought about what she said, I realized she was totally right. I’m going with her idea.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The first answer is a positive one, the second mixed. Number one has to do with the subjects I’ve written about. Most of them have to do with things I’ve been interested in since college or high school or even before—literature, sports, humor, music, American culture in general. But I wouldn’t have expected that I would develop a side specialty in language and writing—with four books so far, dozens and dozens of articles, and a website on an obscure point of usage that I’ve been writing for nearly nine years and has had 2.3 million page views (notoneoffbritishisms.com). Looking back, though, I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Probably half of my childhood memories have to do with hearing a word or expression for the first time or an unfamiliar or unusual way. This interest-bordering-on-obsession of mine had been hiding in plain sight all along.
The second surprise relates to that blog, and another I write on an equally obscure topic (moviesinothermovies.com), and specifically my monetary compensation for them, which is nada, zilch, bupkis. That’s the same rate I’m getting for answering these excellent questions. The surprising thing is loads of writers—not just me— are doing good work for free, or perhaps the hope or promise that the work will promote their books, or lectures, or trucker hats, or whatever. Writing gratis would have been unthinkable when I was starting out. If you didn’t have a staff job, you freelanced, a Grub Street hack, with all that that entailed. The current climate is bemusing. It’s unfortunate that readers have come to expect not to pay for what they read online; I’m not sure if that genie can be put back in the bottle. And corporate owners who rake in profits and don’t pay writers (or artists) for “content” are detestable. But there’s so much good, clever, passionate, knowing stuff out there on relatively narrow or obscure topics, stuff that just isn’t commercial. It’s sort of a 19th-century thing, and not completely terrible, that these enthusiasts have day jobs supporting their writing habit.

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


I’ve got a single answer for this one, with two parts. The metaphor for me as a writer is a floor cleaning company. First, I vacuum up every possible thing on a subject: stuff I read (especially), interviews, possibilities and notions that I follow through in my own mind. Then, after I’ve put something down, I bring out the polishing machine and run it back and forth over the floor for a long time, smoothing out all the roughness and buffing the surface till it gleams.


Ben Yagoda is the author, coauthor or editor of twelve books, among them “The Sound on the Page, ” “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” “How to Not Write Bad” and “The Art of Fact.” He has written about language, writing and many other topics for Slate.com, the New York Times Book Review and MagazineThe American ScholarRolling StoneEsquire, and magazines that start with every letter of the alphabet except K, Q, X, and Z. Between 2011 and 2018, he contributed roughly one post a week to Lingua Franca, a Chronicle of Higher Education blog about language and writing. You can find links to all his posts here. His personal blogs are Not One-Off Britishisms and Movies in Other Movies. He’s a native of New Rochelle, New York; a graduate of Yale; and a resident of  Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. In 2018, he retired after twenty-five years teaching writing and journalism at the University of Delaware. Before that, he worked as a film critic for the Philadelphia Daily News and an editor for Philadelphia and other magazines. He currently consults, edits, and works with writers.