Sharing the writing life with Chip Scanlan.

The Best Writing Tip of All Time: Sit

Having trouble getting the writing done?

I faced that familiar problem a few days ago. I had finished a chapter of my journalism textbook, patted myself on the back, and promptly felt myself shutting down. Starting the next chapter felt like standing at the foot of Mount Everest and contemplating the climb.

Fortunately, the block didn’t last too long. I cut it short by turning to the single best writing tip I know: Just plant your butt in your chair.

I did just that; problem solved.

How can such a simple action be so difficult? Why must there be all this thrashing around? Why do I keep forgetting the power of this habitual behavior?

I found an answer in “The Mechanic and the Muse,” my former blog that I visit weekly for posts worth updating.

I came upon a brief post, entitled “It’s a bird, it’s a plane; no, it’s Super-Scientist/WriterMan.” In it, I had linked to a Nova episode, the PBS science show, that profiled Karl Iagnemma, an MIT roboticist who also happens to also be an acclaimed fiction writer. Read more


Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2008

No time for The New Yorker?


Unread New Yorkers have been gathering dust lately — sprawled on the coffee table in the living room, perilously stacked on the bedroom bureau and resisting gravity in unstable columns on every unclaimed office surface.

Why am I foregoing the pleasure of one of my favorite pastimes? I’m certain there may be deep psychological reasons for this literary self-abnegation.

But discovering the reason doesn’t demand much analysis. I just don’t have enough time.

Fortunately, there is “emdashes: The New Yorker Between the Lines.”

It’s been nearly two years since I stumbled across this fresh and imaginative blog created by Emily Gordon. She has dedicated herself to exploring where the em dash (a punctuation mark the length of the letter m) goes: in this case, between the lines and behind the stories of The New Yorker magazine.

emdashes, as with all good blogs, is fueled by obsession. “Like me, you read The New Yorker. Read more


Monday, Mar. 24, 2008

Can Chess Make Us Better Writers?

I’ve never played chess. It always seemed too hard to learn. But a story in last week’s New York Times has me thinking about giving the game another shot.

The story focused on plans to introduce chess into every second- and third-grade classroom in Idaho next fall. That move, the Times‘ Dylan Loeb McClain reported, “will make Idaho the first state to offer a statewide chess curriculum.”

“One of the things that we hear is that too much of what we do is based on rote memorization,” Tom Luna, the state’s superintendent of education, said in the story. “The part I really like about this program is that kids are thinking ahead.”

The United State is several moves behind the rest of the world. Chess is part of school curricula in
“nearly 30 nations around the world, include Venezuela, Iceland and Russia,” according to the nonprofit America’s Foundation for Chess. Read more


Tuesday, Mar. 18, 2008

The Smell of War

We know all about the fog of war, but what about its smells?

In newsrooms I’ve visited I usually offer a bounty to anyone who can locate a story with sensory details that require the nose. I’ve never had any takers.

But Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, must know their value. My nose for olfactory news sniffed out a pungent line in a story from Beirut, where a war between Israel and Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Islamic political and paramilitary group, had been sparked by the capture of two Israeli soldiers. Shadid quotes a Lebanese victim of an Israeli air strike:

“They don’t want to strike civilians? Then why are they doing it?” asked Mohammed Fathi, a 37-year-old resident of south Beirut. He stood outside Harkous Chicken, the restaurant where he works as a chef. The smell of peppers mixed with the reek of cordite, and workers swept shattered glass off the street near a bridge destroyed in a pre-dawn airstrike. Read more

M&Ms: New Life for Old Lessons

On January 17, 2006, I launched “The Mechanic and the Muse,” a blog that would, I hoped, track my continuing quest to master the writing craft and share the lessons that every act of writing contains — from fact-gathering to revision.

There were other, more personal reasons, why I felt compelled to replace “Chip on Your Shoulder,” my weekly writing advice column, with a blog. I laid these out in “Why I Blog,” an essay that will reappear in “The New Writer’s Handbook 2008.”

Fourteen months and about 120 posts later, I was ready to put “The Mechanic and the Muse” to rest and return to writing “Chip on Your Shoulder” — first as a column and now as a blog. I never knew how big the audience for that blog was, but now I realize that once a week I could glean a useful post from that collection. Read more


Monday, Mar. 17, 2008

Talent vs. Endurance: A Message of Hope

Every day a writing quote appears in my inbox from The Writer’s Lifeline.

Sometimes it strikes a chord, sometimes not.

The one that chimed its arrival late Thursday is one I will keep close. The quote is attributed to Donald Hall, America’s Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2007 and still a working writer as he enters his 80th year:

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.”

I often say, and sincerely believe, that if I thought my best work was behind me, I’d be devastated.

Instead, I try to behave as if every writing day is the beginning of my career, not another fleeting 24 hours closer to its end.

Until Thursday night, I never thought of it as endurance, just simply the way that anyone who’s lucky enough to enjoy working with words spends the days.

I guess that’s why Hall’s observation jumped off the screen — a message of hope as twilight heralded the close of another writing day. Read more


Wednesday, Mar. 12, 2008

Widgets for Writers

Read a text version of Chip’s podcast.

Enroll in the “Get Me Rewrite” course.

Combine the World Wide Web and a software gadget and the result is a widget: a mini-application designed to do one or two things really well.

Widgets for every purpose one could imagine are available for computers, Web sites, and even mobile phones. There are hundreds, if not thousands, out there, free (or nearly free) for the downloading and appealing to every niche from Sudoku to “The Baby Countdown Pregnancy Ticker.”

Lately I’ve been thinking that there’s another way to look at these byte-sized helpers.

Just substitute “writing” for Web, and widgets take on a new meaning, as programs tailored for writers.

Here are some of my favorites:

Countdown timer
Designed to remind people to deal with “single events, lunch breaks, weekends, paying your monthly bills or birthdays and holidays.”

I’ve found it ideal to set the date and time of deadlines, whether for writing, teaching or consulting trips. Read more


Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Eye to Ear: From Newspapers to Public Radio

David Folkenflik spent more than a decade as an award-winning newspaper reporter at The (Baltimore) Sun. In 2004, he says, he “took a leap of faith across media platforms,” taking a job as a National Public Radio correspondent. He’s NPR’s media correspondent, now based in New York City.

Folkenflik says he “seeks stories that haven’t been widely told, such as the multimedia innovations of a small Kansas company and the decision by the owners of a crusading Alabama paper to make it not-for-profit.” He’s a digger too, breaking stories about the Chicago-based Tribune Co’s financial woes, and a skillful profiler of figures in the media world.

I’d long been a fan of Folkenflik’s media coverage at The Sun, and curious when he surfaced on NPR. I wanted to find out more about his decision and the lessons he’s learned from the transition — matters not only relevant to those who make such a change, but also to print reporters who contribute audio storytelling on their Web sites. Read more


Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007

We Stand Corrected: When Good Journalists Make Stupid Mistakes

Want to see a journalist wince? Publish a sentence that begins this way: “In yesterday’s edition, it was inaccurately reported…”

Want to make a journalist squirm? Post these two words above an online story: “Correction appended.”


Corrections are journalism’s equivalent of Puritan-era stocks, clamping a wrongdoer’s feet, hands or head inside heavy wood frames, on humiliating display in the town square.

As painful as corrections are to journalists, the screw-ups they reflect do damage on a far greater scale to the news organizations they work for.

“Each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabeled map erodes public confidence in a newspaper’s ability to get anything right,” a 1998 study commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors concluded. “Even seemingly small errors feed public skepticism about a newspaper’s credibility.”

Enter Craig Silverman, a Canadian freelance journalist and author who decided that the best way to make the case for accuracy was to expose mistakes and efforts to — or not to — correct them.

Read more

Tuesday, Dec. 04, 2007

Battling the Curse of Perfectionism

Benedict Carey is one of my favorite writers at The New York Times. He writes, with clarity and grace, about human behavior, neuroscience, cognitive science and other topics that hit me where I live.

It’s a psychic territory bounded on one side by the compulsion to be perfect in every way and by a wistful hope that what I do might be good enough.

This is familiar territory for many – or who knows, maybe for most of us.

Carey’s latest report, “Unhappy? Self-Critical? Maybe You’re Just a Perfectionist,” heads the list of today’s most e-mailed stories. No wonder. His story debunks prevailing thought about the importance of perfectionism.

Carey begins by listing the kinds of things perfectionists are told, tell themselves and, in a toxic hat trick, pass on to the next generations of perfectionists:

“Believe in yourself. Don’t take no for an answer. Never quit. Don’t accept second best.”

Sound familiar? It sure does to me.

Read more