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

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From ancient Greece to modern Boston, how stories help us survive

The events of recent days — from the bombing of the Boston marathon to the explosion of the fertilizer plant in Texas — should remind us of the power of stories. In a daily sense and over the course of human evolution, stories help us survive. But how?

We discussed this during our most recent writing chat. Our conversation was informed by the work of Brian Boyd, a scholar from New Zealand, and the author of an important book: “On the Origin of Stories.” The title evokes Darwin and evolutionary theory. It works this way: Our brains evolved to give us language; and that language gave us the ability to tell stories, even fictional ones.

We would not have that capacity, if stories did not help the species survive in these ways:

1. Stories enrich our experience. If experience is a teacher, consider how much more we learn, from inspiring and cautionary tales, about the nature of the human condition, its triumphs and tragedies.

2. Stories point us to dangers. Think of the way that citizens were informed — or misinformed — by the coverage of events in Boston last week. Despite the misinformation journalists spread, the purpose of their reports was clear in most cases: there was a danger to the public safety, and that danger had to be identified and neutralized.

3. Stories teach us how to collaborate. To fight against the dark side, people of good will almost always need to find ways to work together, and stories offer examples of how that can be done.

You can replay the chat here:

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Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013

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How to influence reader response to your work

All writers learn that it is not possible or desirable to control how a reader responds to story, or even a sentence.  But you can influence reader response, and you should.

How your reader responds is a crucial consequence of the writing process. To paraphrase a famous literary scholar, you may create the text, but it is the reader who turns that text into a story.  And, as we know, each reader brings his or her autobiography to the experience of a text.

For example, I have read The Great Gatsby four times: in high school, college, as a young literature teacher and as a mature adult.  The author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, stayed the same.  The text stayed the same. But the experience of reading proved different each time — because I, the reader, was different. It almost felt that I was reading four different books.

Themes of love, loss, death, wealth, decay work at the macro level, but readers also respond at the micro level: to paragraphs, sentences and words that are written in a way to elicit a certain reader response.

An important example involves what I call the “pace” of the story. How fast do I want the reader to move through the narrative? At times it will be fast, but at other times very slow.  Why would I want to set a slow pace? Perhaps for suspense, or emotional impact, or to make a complicated subject crystal clear.

But how would I slow the pace?

I talked about this and more in the chat, which you can replay here:

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Monday, Mar. 04, 2013

Tips for improving your writing on National Grammar Day

Today is National Grammar Day, a special holiday for someone — namely me — who has written a book titled “The Glamour of Grammar.”

That title still puzzles some people who think of grammar as a creaky old aspect of learning, the castor oil of learning and literacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grammar can be glamorous, and it can be powerful, but only if you frame it more widely than the stereotypes.

So, yes, grammar can concern issues such as why subjects should agree with verbs.  But what happens when a writer has a choice in a sentence between an active verb and a passive verb; or between a transitive and intransitive verb?

During a live writing chat, we explained how to expand the definitions of grammar to include other categories of written language, such as diction, semantics and, most important, rhetoric. We also offered related tips for improving your writing.

You can replay the chat, which was tied to a related News University Webinar, here:

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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013

How to solve your most difficult writing problems

Every writer faces problems. In the most recent  I’ll help you figure out solutions.

Much of the advice I’ll give will derive from my book, “Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces,” which just came out in paperback. The book completes (with “Writing Tools” and “The Glamour of Grammar“) a trilogy of guidebooks on how writers and readers create meaning.

In each of these books, I take a slightly different approach to the process of writing. “Help! For Writers” focuses on common problems and tested solutions. It breaks the process down into seven steps: Getting started, getting your act together, finding focus, looking for language, building a draft, assessing your progress and making it better.

For each of these seven steps, “Help!” identifies three of the thorniest problems. For example, the problems of “getting started” include having no ideas, getting bad assignments and being buried in your research. For each problem, “Help!” offers 10 solutions. Do the math: seven steps times three problems times 10 solutions equals 210 solutions.

During the chat, we addressed chat participants’ problems and offered steps and solutions. You can replay the chat here:

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Thursday, Feb. 07, 2013

How and when to break the rules of writing

The recent passing of former New York mayor Ed Koch reminded me of one of my favorite feature leads of all time, written in 1980 by one of the AP’s all-time greats, Saul Pett:

“NEW YORK — He is the freshest thing to blossom in New York since chopped liver, a mixed metaphor of a politician, the antithesis of the packaged leader, irrepressible, candid, impolitic, spontaneous, funny, feisty, independent, uncowed by voter blocks, unsexy, unhandsome, unfashionable and altogether charismatic, a man oddly at peace with himself in an unpeaceful place, a mayor who preside over the country’s largest Babel with unseemly joy.”

At a time when big-shot editors declared a preference for short, straightforward leads, Pett served up long, winding ones. “I once set a course record,” he told me back then, “by writing a lead that was 280 words long. It was a long sentence describing all the confusing things that had come up in a single day at a Republican convention. It ended up with the word ‘clear?’ Of course, it wasn’t clear. But then the day’s activities weren’t clear. The length of sentences and all those mechanical standards are kind of silly.”

Like Pett, great writers are kind of rebellious.

So how do you do it? How do you break the “rules” of grammar, style, and Standard English usage? To paraphrase that great editor Gene Roberts, how do you learn to zig when ever other writer is zagging?

We discussed this in a live chat, which you can replay here:
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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

How to get feedback on your writing

In a recent essay, I described how Tom French and I wrote our books using what I called “the buddy system.” In response, one writer tweeted: “Wish I had a buddy.”

So where do you find a buddy? And where else can you find the help you need to do your best writing?

All of us, I’ve argued for a long time now, need more writing help than is given to us.

Are you a staff writer at a newspaper? Guess what: Your editor does not have the time to give you the coaching you deserve.

Are you a freelance writer? Even if a magazine buys your story, editors may cut it on their whim, without giving you feedback or seeking your input.

Are you in a college writing class? Your teacher may be so busy grading papers that there is little opportunity for constructive conversation about revision.

So what is an ambitious writer to do? I explained, and offered related tips, in a live chat. You can replay it here:

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Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012

How to generate fresh ideas for holiday stories

Every journalist I know has faced the dreaded annual assignment: holidays, anniversaries, recurring events. These come down to writers not as sharp story ideas, but as topics:  Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, the annual spelling bee, Daylight’s Saving Time and so on.

There are usually three ways to carry out this task:

1. Write it straight and keep it short.

2. Strive for the first level of creativity — a kind of quick ingenuity that descends over time to cliche (spend Valentine’s Day at the divorce court).

3. I prefer the third: Shoot for something fresh, surprising and original. (Spend Mother’s Day with Mother Superior at a convent. Spend Valentine’s Day with a heart surgeon.)

If you want to achieve escape velocity from the gravitational pull of narrative tedium, replay the chat below. I offered practical tips and ideas, and answered related questions.

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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012

What journalists need to know about storytelling on tablets

Poynter’s most recent Eyetrack study reveals some interesting findings about how readers consume news on tablet devices. During a live chat, Poynter’s Sara Quinn and Northwestern University’s Jeremy Gilbert talked about the findings and their implications for journalists.

Here are some of the topics they addressed:

  • How to create stories that satisfy mobile and tablet users.
  • The differences between storytelling on tablets and storytelling on the Web.
  • What the elements of “touch” add to a story.
  • What helps people focus on stories they read on tablet devices.

Gilbert and Quinn, who helped lead the Eyetrack research, offered practical tips and answered related questions from the audience. You can replay the chat, which followed a related News University Webinar, here:

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=b516e0c8d6″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=b516e0c8d6″ >What journalists need to know about designing & crafting stories on tablets</a> Read more

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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012

Dan Barry offers writing tips, behind-the-scenes look at Elyria series

When I look back on the history of The New York Times, it rarely appears to be what some might call a “writer’s paper.”  While there has always been great reporting and editing talent at the newspaper, one senses the occasional reluctance to embrace writing and storytelling in the same way.

But there have always been some writers at the Times who have managed to stand out.  In the 1940s and ’50s it was the great Meyer Berger, who helped invent the “About New York” column. Berger’s spiritual heirs have been the likes of Francis X. Clines, Anna Quindlen, and now Dan Barry.

Barry is a brilliant and versatile writer, and his series of stories on Elyria, Ohio, have created a buzz on Twitter. His combination of shoe-leather reporting and elegant writing immerses us in a Mid-American culture of decline and despair — with hopes for revival.  Presidential debaters step aside. Welcome to working class America.

During a live chat, we talked with Barry about the five-part series and what he learned from reporting and writing it. He shared the back-story and also offered general writing tips for those who haven’t yet had a chance to read the series. You can replay the chat here:

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=5901b8c8fb” mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=5901b8c8fb” >Live chat today: Dan Barry offers writing tips, behind-the-scenes look at Elyria series</a> Read more

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Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012

Tips for becoming a faster, stronger writer

I remember an ancient episode of the 1950s TV version of “Superman.” Not only did the Man of Steel save the day, but when he returned to the newsroom as Clark Kent, he typed his deadline story at super speed, his hands a blur.

How cool would it be to be able to blast out a story “faster than a speeding bullet”?

Writing fast — and well — is a challenge for a lot of writers. One of the most common complaints from writers is: “Why am I so slow?” One of the most common complaints from editors is: “Why is she so slow?”

I believe that all writers can become faster, and that in fast times, fast writing is the ticket.  I have watched some of the fastest writers in America at work. They have shared their secret strategies with me, and I shared them in a live chat.

You can replay the chat here:

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=ffb6cb0ecb” mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=ffb6cb0ecb” >Tips for becoming a faster writer</a> Read more

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