Writers Speak | Kim van Alkemade on what a fiction reader chooses
Interview | Four Questions with Samira Shackle
Writing to Savor | “How an arts reporter unraveled a controversial and opaque family art dynasty” by Rachel Corbett, Nieman Storyboard
“If a reader chooses fiction, that reader is choosing story over fact, character over information, plot over events.”
-Kim van Alkemade
INTERVIEW | Getting the Words Down: Four Questions with Samira Shackle
Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, author and editor based in London, specializing in long-form reported features. She is a regular contributor to the Guardian Long Read, among other publications.
Her reporting won a One World Media award in 2023, and a Foreign Press Association award in 2021. She was a finalist for freelancer of the year at the 2023 Society of Editors Awards. Her first book, Karachi Vice, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Her Substack newsletter can be found at https://samirashackle.substack.com/
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Just start writing. Once you have something down on paper, even if it’s terrible (and some of my very rough drafts – seen only by myself – are truly terrible) then you have something to work from, to sculpt and to craft. That’s not to say that it’s not important to digest your material and think about what to say before you write – of course, that’s a crucial part of the process, too, and I usually write some kind of plan before embarking on a draft. But I find that it’s only in the process of actually getting words down on a page that I can start to figure out the logical puzzle of how precisely to sequence different pieces of information in the most compelling way.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
Actually being able to make a living from writing. Before I could read or write, I used to staple pieces of paper together, fill them with squiggles, and tell my parents that I’d written a book. My desire to write ran deep. I’ve been a freelance journalist for over a decade now, and while it’s certainly not the most lucrative or secure career path, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do something I find so fulfilling.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?
Given what I said about the importance of just starting to write, I’m going to say a potter. I’m thinking of someone whacking a huge, shapeless lump of clay onto a pottery wheel and slowly sculpting it into a vase, a pot, a bowl, or something with a recognizable and attractive shape. I often think of my first stage of writing as “whacking it all down on the page,” throwing down a shapeless lump and then crafting it into something with a coherent narrative that people want to keep reading.
What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
To think not just about conveying the facts, but about the characters, scenes and specific details that will bring it alive to the reader.
WRITING TO SAVOR | “How an arts reporter unraveled a controversial and opaque family art dynasty by Rachel Corbett,” Nieman Storyboard, Jan. 24, 2024
Writers Speak | Valeria Luiselli on control of time in fiction
Interview | Four Questions with Lauren Smiley
Craft Lesson | Be a diagnostician
“Nothing can fall into place in a novel if the author does not have control over its sense of time, be it linear or fractured.”
— Valeria Luiselli
INTERVIEW | FOUR QUESTIONS WITH LAUREN SMILEY
Photo by Coleen Jose
Lauren Smiley, a self-described “boots on the ground tech reporter,” is a contributor at Wired. She has written human-centered stories about technology for The Atlantic and New York magazine. She was an investigative reporter for the “Broken Harts” true crime podcast and has worked on staff for Matter and SF Weekly.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
To keep reading. We stand on the shoulders of giants and reading them keeps me striving, and, frankly, envious. While reading, I keep asking: Why is this working? How could I do this? (Consuming other types of storytelling — TV, movies, plays, is also helpful.) I sometimes read passages of favorite stories during the drafting process to jolt myself into trying to match that level of mastery.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
This is especially true for a features writer without a beat, but I’m consistently surprised that I start at zero on every story. My reporting and current draft don’t care about my last story. There’s very little resting on any tiny laurel. I watched the new Tom Wolfe documentary and perked up when he described writing as sheer agony and admitted that he was often filled with doubt that he’d ever write a good sentence again. On the positive side, the toil is part of why journalism is endlessly engaging. You might go broke, but you won’t get bored.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Let’s go with architect. Thinking of the endeavor as a science rather than art soothes me, reminding me this is in my control. So my building isn’t going to stand, let alone inspire anyone, if I don’t start with quality materials (i.e., reporting) and a blueprint (outline). Then I have to build each floor with solid craftsmanship and the hope that the result is more meaningful than a simple stack of bolts and glass.
What is the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Figure out what your story is really, really about. A million writers have said this in different ways — for me, most recently, it was the great features writer Elizabeth Weil. Distill what the story is about into a short sentence or word. Aim to make the whole story excavate that theme — from the first sentence to word choices to structure. That’s when the story achieves lift-off from a series of nice sentences to something more meaningful, something that will stick with people, a piece with something to say.
That, and read your draft aloud. I hate doing it so much, but it pays off.
CRAFT LESSON | BECOME A DIAGNOSTICIAN
In his MasterClass, the playwright and scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin advises aspiring writers to “become a diagnostician.”
“Watch TV shows, plays and movies with the screenplay in your lap,” he says. (I’ve been hankering for a MasterClass subscription after they debuted in 2015, but the fee was beyond my budget. I was thrilled when MC offered a New Year’s deal of just $7 a month for every class. That means several hours of R.L. Stine, Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Judd Apatow, Judy Blume and several other very successful authors discussing their craft and offering tips.)
Sorkin reminded me of another approach to understanding how great writing is made. It’s called Modeling 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.” (“Form,” added later, 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 Writer’s Workshop.
LEARN FROM THE BEST
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,” journalese for that section of context high up in a story that tells readers what a story is about and why they should read it.
You can discover your own voice by listening to other writers. One of the best ways to listen is by copying out their words.
This practice horrifies some respected writers and teachers; write your own darn 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.
A WARNING SIGN
Now’s a good time for my one caveat about modeling lessons: Always copy the writer’s byline at the top of the story in case you get deluded and confuse someone else’s writing with your own.
Properly credited, I start typing.
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.
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.
Every writer, including broadcast and online writers, can profit from copying successful stories in their medium. They’d do well to study how other elements figure in.
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. You can, too.
Chronology Is Your Friend: Four Questions with Peter Perl
Craft Lesson Revisited | Tell Me an Article, Daddy
Writing to Savor | “How a Script Doctor Found His Own Voice” by Patrick Radden Keefe
“If you have a problem in the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”
— Billy Wilder
INTERVIEW | CHRONOLOGY IS YOUR FRIEND: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH PETER PERL
Peter Perl retired as Assistant Managing Editor of The Washington Post after a 33-year career as a reporter, editor and magazine writer.
He supervised personnel matters, career development, skills and management training, leadership coaching, and various other roles in the operation of the 600-person Post newsroom. Prior to joining Post newsroom management, he was an award-winning staff writer of The Washington Post Magazine. He also served as chair of The Post newsroom’s labor union and was elected to the governing Executive Council of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, representing 1,400 Post employees. Prior to The Post, he was a reporter at the Providence Journal-Bulletin and at Connecticut Magazine. Perl is the recipient of more than 35 journalism awards from the Associated Press, the Newspaper Guild, the American Bar Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Education Writers Association, the AFL-CIO, and other organizations. He has taught journalism at Georgetown University in Washington and at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. His work has also appeared in Reader’s Digest, Columbia Journalism Review, Working Woman and other publications, and he has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and on MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams.
What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a writer? First, be human. Then be a writer. Whether it’s profiling a famous person or interviewing a crime victim, I have learned that I must show up as a person, not a reporter/writer. It’s important not to adopt the persona of the question-asker/note-taker/or word processor. For me, I have learned that it must start with empathy: the sense that we all, as fellow humans, are struggling to figure out who we are, who we want to be, and what to do. The other person is not a “subject” of my story. She/he is someone whose life is intersecting with mine at some important moment and they have to know and feel that I understand their situation — or at least that I am genuinely trying to understand who they really are and what they are living through. That is when they will open up and really share their story.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? I have frequently been amazed that people will allow me into their lives with a degree of intimacy that I, personally, would never, ever extend to a stranger. Most of the time, I have been able to genuinely earn the trust of my subjects. I think it’s because of my approach of being a human first, and a writer second. Bob Woodward and I once had a discussion about how to get people to talk to you, and he said that he often puts himself in the position of a person who needs the other person’s help. He would tell the person that he does not understand a situation and he really needs their help. He said it often works because many people feel a genuine need to help others. Of course, this can come across as disingenuous, and people often know when you are bullshitting. But I have been successful at persuading people that I honestly am seeking “truth.” The challenge then is figuring out how to write the truth.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be? A cop-turned-shrink. I’ve been a reporter, editor and magazine writer for more than 40 years and, looking back, I see two primary, evolving identities. I grew up with a father who was a New York City private eye and a pretty suspicious, cynical guy. So my first writing identity was as a digger/investigator always trying to ferret out the real story, and often that meant exposing the wrongdoing and finding the bad guys. About 15 years into my career, I got tired of being a cop and gravitated toward using my investigative inclinations to try to understand and write about people, about what motivated them, and about the truth and lies that they told themselves. The latter part of my career ended up focusing on psychologically oriented profiles in which I often ended up in a role akin to a therapist.
What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you? I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors and writer colleagues, and their best collective writing advice could be summed up as: Keep it simple, stupid. Under that heading, the specific pieces of advice that stuck with me are: 1) S-V-O; Subject-Verb-Object. Straight, simple, declarative sentences are your best starting point. You can always dress up your writing with fancy clauses and pretty, lyrical swirls, but start simple. 2) Chronology is your friend. The writer — and the reader — can get hopelessly lost when you are bouncing back and forth in time. Be as linear as possible and be very clear when you are moving forward or backward in time. 3) Tell What Happened. People love hearing stories and they want to know what happens next. So don’t use extraneous details and other distractions that will keep them from getting it.
CRAFT LESSON REVISITED | TELL ME AN ARTICLE, DADDY
“Boss, I need another day/week/month to finish that story.”
“How the heck did that story get on the front page?
And the old standby: “Story at 11.”
We call them stories, but most of what appears in print, online, and broadcast are articles or reports, says writing teacher Jack Hart.
Here’s an example from The Guardianabout the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine:
Fierce fighting broke out in Kyiv as Russian forces tried to push their way towards the city centre from multiple directions in the early hours of Saturday, and as the Ukrainian president, Volodomyr Zelenskiy, bluntly rejected a US offer to evacuate him from the country’s capital.
Articles present information about an accident, a public meeting, a speech, a contested presidential election, or even a war. They’re a convenient way to convey information in a clear, concise, accurate fashion told in a neutral voice.
But please, let’s not confuse them with stories.
A story features characters rather than sources and communicates experience through the five senses and a few others: place, time and, most of all, drama.
It has a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention, a middle that keeps the reader engaged and an ending that lingers. Scenes peppered with dialogue and a distinct voice drive the action.
Here’s how Mitchell S. Jackson opened “Twelve Seconds and a Life,” his Runner’s World story about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, by three white men in 2020 while jogging through their suburban Georgia neighborhood.
Imagine young Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery, a junior varsity scatback turned undersized varsity linebacker on a practice field of the Brunswick High Pirates. The head coach has divided the squad into offense and defense and has his offense running the plays of their next opponent. The coach, as is his habit, has been taunting his defense. “Y’all ain’t ready,” he says. “You can’t stop us,” he says. “What y’all gone do?” The next play, Maud, all 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds of him, bursts between blockers and — BOOM! — lays a hit that makes the sound of cars crashing, that echoes across the field and into the stands, that just might reach the locker room.
Jackson’s story won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for feature writing.
Journalists must be able to write articles and stories. Each has their own challenges. Articles compress events and focus on newsworthy elements. Narratives connect us with the universals of the human condition. They matter because they transport us to different worlds that reveal the personal and emotional realities behind the news.
We need stories, nonfiction author Bill Buford wrote in a 1996 essay, because “they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle and end of our personal and collective trajectories … because it is impossible to live without them.”
Articles have their place, but late at night, your child will never say, “I can’t sleep. Tell me an article, Daddy!”
No, they beg to be lulled into slumber by a story.
Instead, in much of news writing, we provide few if any of these.
Instead of settings, we give readers an address.
Instead of characters, we give people stick figures: “Goldilocks, 7, of 5624 Sylvan Way.”
Instead of suspense, we give away the ending at the beginning using the inverted pyramid, the form which presents newsworthy elements in descending order and peters out at the end.
The challenge for today’s journalists is to use literary techniques to write true stories that, as Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal, described it, reveal the “joys and costs of being human.”
• Newspapers are full of stories waiting to be told. Police briefs, classified ads, obituaries, the last two paragraphs of a city council story; all may hold the promise of a dramatic story. Mine your paper/broadcast/website for story ideas.
• Find the extraordinary in the ordinary stuff of life: graduations, reunions, burials, buying a car, putting Mom in a nursing home, or the day Dad comes to live with his children.
• Change your point of view. Write the city council story through the eyes of the Asian-American woman who asks for better police protection in her neighborhood.
• Look for ways to drop storytelling features in your daily articles: a description, a scene, a snatch of dialogue.
WRITING TO SAVOR | “HOW A SCRIPT DOCTOR FOUND HIS OWN VOICE” BY PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE
Scott Frank spent a long career as a Hollywood scriptwriter, making up to $300,000 a week punching up troubled movie scripts. Among his credits: Saving Private Ryan and The Minority Report. Despite his success, in middle age he abandoned the lucrative gigs to write his own words and found a home in the streaming world that has overshadowed the movie industry, writing the international mega-hit The Queen’s Gambit. In this fascinating profile, Patrick Radden Keefe digs into Frank’s life and career at the same time, illuminating the world of scriptwriting.
Nieman Storyboard, where I am a contributor, published its list of the top 10 most viewed posts of 2023. No. 3 on the list was the annotation I did with Lauren Smiley, who wrote “I Am The Operator: The Aftermath of a Self-driving Tragedy” for Wired magazine. It’s a compelling story, illuminated by Smiley’s commentary on her indefatigable reporting and writing process.