Finding inspiration in reading: Tip of the week

Writing Tips

Find inspiration in reading.

Writing teacher Donald M. Murray liked to say that when he read something that inspired him, “my hand itches for a pen.” “Writers,” he once wrote, “read to be inspired, to see the possibilities of language. They learn most about writing by writing, but they learn a great deal by reading.” If you’re having trouble finding inspiration or are stuck in place, choose a “sacred text.” It could be anything from Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets or the King James Bible to a novel or short story collection by one of your favorite authors. Read for pleasure. When something strikes you as wonderful, copy it out. See if you can apply its lessons to your own work. As I mentioned in the last issue, I’ve steeped myself in the “Collected Stories of John Cheever.” His diction has inspired me to work harder on my own word choices. His carefully woven sentences prod me to write with greater complexity. Reading writers whose work I admire helps me see what works in my own writing and what needs work. It can do the same for you.

Tip of the week: Give credit where credit is due

Writing Tips

Give credit where credit is due.

Plagiarism is theft, pure and simple, the purloining of another writer’s words.
No matter the excuse—sloppy note-taking, deadline pressure—the penalty can be harsh. Plagiarists often get fired, and even if they escape the ultimate death penalty, their career is tarnished, their story or book tainted. There’s an easy solution. Be honest about where you get your material. Don’t think everything you write has to be original. Writers stand on the shoulders of other writers. 
Thomas Mallon, author of “Stolen Words”, an engaging history of plagiarism, says writers should follow a general rule: “If you think you should attribute it, then attribute it.”

Admit you’re ignorant

Writing Tips

Don’t be afraid to admit your ignorance.

Journalism is a lifetime of continuing education. People often say reporters are superficial, uninformed or downright ignorant. They don’t realize how hard the job of reporting is—that on any given day, you may be thrust into a subject you know nothing about. That’s why having basic information about how society operates is so critical. You need at least a rudimentary understanding of how things work. The only way you’re going to get this is by studying, by asking questions, by keeping your eyes and ears open, by being curious, by being humble enough to admit what you don’t know. People may criticize you for not knowing something, but they can’t criticize you for trying to learn and wanting to get smarter.

Put your verbs on a “to be diet”

Writing Tips

Replace all forms of passive verb constructions—”is planning,” “are hoping”—with active verbs—”plan,” “hope.”

Vigorous sentences follow subject-verb-object format. “Passive voice twists sentences out of their normal shape,” says Jack Hart, author of “A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work.”

The result is a style that is flabby, dull and plodding. Thus, as Hart argues, the lead “The West Hills home of a prominent business executive was destroyed in a fire Monday morning” is stronger and actually more precise when written as “A Monday morning fire destroyed a prominent business executive’s West Hills home. The fire is the subject, the actor, whereas the house is the object, which receives the action.