Writing Chats: Chat bi-weekly with Roy Peter Clark about writing. Supported by CCI.

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Let Abe Lincoln become your writing coach

Tomorrow, Nov. 19, turns out to be the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. To celebrate, Poynter published a chapter I wrote about it in my recent book “How to Write Short” last week.

There is a great opportunity for us as readers, writers, editors and students to look at an enduring work of literary culture and ask the question “Why.”  What was it — what is it — about these 269 words that stick with us?  I like to call the process X-ray reading.

Join us for a chat about Lincoln’s great speech, and, more important, about his skills as a writer and an editor today.  There is no reason why Honest Abe’s writing tools can’t exist on your workbench.

You can replay the live chat on this page at anytime after the chat has ended. All of our live chats are archived at www.poynter.org/chats.

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Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013

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How to turn hard facts into easy reading

I was recently hired by a department of the federal government to conduct a workshop on how to write reports that were short and clear. The director of the department who hired me pointed out the problem in her own official title. It was 29 words long.

I am “vice-president and senior scholar” at the Poynter Institute. I am embarrassed that my title is too long — and it’s only five words. What could I possibly do with 24 more?

“Bureaucracies,” I moaned, “is where language goes to die.”

The sixty policy wonks in the room collectively rolled up their sleeves. They understood the problem. They knew that they worked in a language club where jargon and thick information were king and queen. But they were stuck.

They wanted to know “how” they could change. They wanted to know “how” in the world it’s possible to take very hard, very complex, very technical, very academic, very abstract elements and turn them into easy reading. Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013

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Have you lost that writing feeling? Is it gone, gone, gone…?

The dialogue with a stranger on a plane often goes something like this:

Stranger:  “What do you do for a living?”
Me:  “I’m a teacher.”
Stranger:  “What do you teach?”
Me: “I teach writing.”

The response from the stranger is almost predictable. Odd looks. Nervous laughter. Usually followed by an admission that he doesn’t like to write, or that she tried to write in school once but it didn’t work out, or that he has to write as part of his job — but hates it.

Even professional writers will confess their loss of passion for their craft.

So do we hate writing? Or does writing hate us?

This feeling has many different names: writing anxiety, writing apprehension, writers’ block, paralyzing procrastination, aversive conditioning. The best description of the problem comes from the international reading scholar Frank Smith, who once described literacy as “a club.” Usually, something bad happens in school that persuades people that they are not fit to become members of the “writing club.”

This is a very sad state of affairs. Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 02, 2013

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Why stories need a focus … or do they?

If there is one writing lesson that Poynter has taught for more than three decades now, it’s that good stories need a sharp focus.

I once heard my friend Chip Scanlan say that all parts of the writing process amount to these three words: focus, focus, focus.

We focus the:

  • Story idea
  • Reporting
  • Structure
  • Ending
  • Language
  • Revision

And, yes, we probably even focus the focus.

I have compared focus to the way that the eyedoctor tests you for new lenses. The image is supposed to get sharper and sharper with each slight correction.

But there’s always a big but, isn’t there?

How do we account for great works of art that defy all attempts to declare a focus? Does Hamlet have a focus? Or Moby Dick? Or Huckleberry Finn? What makes these works great (and perhaps flawed at the same time) is a certain recklessness on the part of the writer, a sense that the story cannot be easily defined or confined by theme or “focus.”

It is OK to face the question: “What is your story REALLY about?” and answer, “It’s REALLY about a lot of things.”

 

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Thursday, Sep. 19, 2013

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How to write longform stories

You knew it was only a matter of time until the author of “How to Write Short” would turn his attention to “How to Write Long.”

It turns out that long and short writing are not necessarily in conflict. Think for a moment about your favorite magazines. Compared to newspapers, the long stories in magazines are longer, and the shorter pieces are shorter. It’s the combination of short and long that make a publication versatile for readers.

Although I’ve met some writers who tell me “I want to write shorter,” that is the exception.  Most writers I know — including me — want to go longer. The daily beat reporter wants to do a Sunday feature. The Sunday feature writer wants to do a series. A series writer wants to do a book. The book author wants to do a trilogy.

If you have had any of these aspirations and want tips on how to write longform pieces, replay out chat:

 

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Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013

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Are you a happy writer or a sad writer?

Yesterday was a happy day for me as a writer after I received an enthusiastic review of my new book “How to Write Short.”

But what if it had been a negative review, or a hostile review, or an insulting review? I would like to think that it still would have been a happy writing day. But how is that possible? It’s because I’ve finally reached a point where my self-worth as a writer is not determined by the reaction of others: not editors, not readers, not critics.

Of course, such reaction “influences” my feelings, but it does not “determine” them.

To apply some of the principles of cognitive psychology to the writing craft, here are some of our emotional responses that I now think are “cognitive distortions”:

  • “An editor changed my story, proof that I cannot do good work on my own.”
  • I’ve received a dozen rejections on this book manuscript; I must be a terrible writer.
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Thursday, Aug. 08, 2013

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Tips for writing short and well

With official publication date three weeks away, I am happy to hold in my hand the first copy of my latest book: “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.”

I have never had more fun writing a book, and I hope it shows. During a writing chat, I offered a practical preview of the writing strategies described in the book.

I’ve learned a lot about short writing over the last three years and want to share that knowledge widely — especially at a time when good short writing is more in demand than ever before.

Tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts, text messages — all these newer forms of expression have brought short writing into the foreground. That said, the Internet is a bottomless pit, a container for some of the longest, emptiest pieces of writing in human history.

In our online chat we:

  • Discussed the best ways to learn good short writing.
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Thursday, July 11, 2013

girl writing at table by pen and ink indoor in summer day with s

How to practice ‘escapist writing’ this summer

It’s a standard of American culture that we use the summer for both enrichment and escape. On the sour end are high school students who receive a recommended summer reading list. On the sweet side are those opportunities to head for the beach with that trashy mystery or romance novel tucked into our canvas bag next to the sun screen.

If we eliminated summer, John Grisham would go broke.

But wait a minute. If we are allowed and encouraged to indulge in escapist reading, why can’t we use the dog days of summer as a time for escapist writing?

Escape from what?

  • Escape from writing from an objective distance to write something personal.
  • Escape from journalism by writing in a new genre, say poetry or fiction.
  • Escape from conventional forms of reporting, by writing a radically different version of a traditional story.

I just looked up the word “escape” and see that it derives from the Latin and means to “get out from under one’s cape.” That is, to feel the freedom of throwing off your conventional garments to try something new. Read more

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

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How to write the ‘perfect’ sentence

The best way to write a perfect sentence is to lower your standards.

I hope that advice doesn’t come across as some bait and switch, that there is no such thing as a perfect sentence. I do believe in the perfect sentence. I’ve written hundreds of them — and so have you.

The perfect sentence, I would argue, cannot be planned in advance. It is a byproduct of a curious mind matched with a reliable writing process. Sometimes it seems as if you find it, or it finds you. You stumble upon it.

I would add that the perfect sentence more often results from revision than from drafting. I’ve seen some sentence turn from “Oy!” to “Oh, boy!” by doing nothing more than changing the order of the words. Imagine that Shakespeare had written “The Queen is dead, my lord,” but then revised it to “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

The context and purpose matters. Read more

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Thursday, May 02, 2013

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How to include narrative elements in a hard news story

During this week’s writing chat, we talked with Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz about his story that describes the experience of a young man who was carjacked by the Boston bombing suspects.

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark praised Moskowitz earlier this week for the way he wrote and structured the piece. During the live chat, Clark talked with Moskowitz about the challenges he encountered while reporting the story, what he learned from reporting and writing it, how he decided to structure it, how editing factored into the piece, and more. Moskowitz also offered general advice about how to include scene, dialogue, character details in a hard news story.

You can replay the chat here:

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