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Elmore Leonard

Remembering Elmore Leonard & his writing advice

Assuming that Elmore Leonard would be unimpressed with the imperatives of Search Engine Optimization, I will retitle this essay: “My Dinner with Elmore.”

I’ve read just enough Elmore Leonard to know that he was a brilliant writer with a distinctive American voice. Now that he has passed away, I plan to read more of him, so his words can teach me more about the craft.

Elmore Leonard

I believe it was in March of 2010 that I met the man. The occasion was the Tucson Festival of Books, one of the great literary weekends in America, and I was one of more than 300 authors invited to spread the gospel of reading and writing. An opening event at the University of Arizona brought together hundreds of authors, sponsors, community leaders and volunteers.

Picture me on one of the long buffet lines, hungry for the penne pasta. In front of me are two short men, one of whom looks vaguely familiar with a grey crew cut and owlish glasses. Read more


Thursday, June 06, 2013


What writers can learn from a close reading of The Great Gatsby

I just finished reading The Great Gatsby for the sixth time. Divided into my age, that makes about once per decade. Like so many other teens, I was introduced to Gatsby in high school – just about the time the Beatles arrived in America – creating a complete mismatch between my aspirations and my learning. I knew nothing about impossible wealth or hopeless love. The book was lost on me.

With age and five re-readings comes wisdom and insight. I’ll frame the question of this essay this way: “What do I see in the novel now that I was blind to 50 years ago?” What can I learn from the novel as a writer that I can apply in my next story? How can the book become for me — and for you — a mentor text?

I could select countless passages to study, as many bright and shiny things to admire as decorated Gatsby’s mansion.I could have great fun picking at the author’s naming of people, places, and things; or connecting the image clusters related to eyes – from the faded billboard ad for the eye doctor to the owl-eyed man at Gatsby’s funeral; or discussing the archetypal tensions between the promised land of West Egg and the wasteland of “the valley of ashes”; or studying Fitzgerald’s intentional elaborations on classic themes of American literature, patterns of individual and collective renewal that can be traced back to Franklin, Emerson, Whitman, and Cooper. Read more


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Storm damage in Moore, Okla., on May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

NPR tornado report reveals the elements of vivid newswriting

Driving to work Tuesday, I heard a four-minute NPR report on the massive tornado destruction in Oklahoma. So vivid was the account — and so visual the writing — that I pulled over to write down the name of the reporter. It was Wade Goodwyn, a Texas reporter who narrates the news with a husky maturity that manages to be both urgent and reassuring.

I was not alone in my admiration. Later that day I received a message from veteran North Carolina journalist Seth Effron.  “It was a transporting description,” he wrote of Goodwyn’s story.

I am about to analyze the elements of Goodwyn’s writing that make his story vivid.  I will cite lines and passages, but you may want to experience the story firsthand before I try to undress it.

Storm damage in Moore, Okla., on May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

A weak lead-in by David Greene and Steve Inskeep deserves little attention expect to point out a kind of logical flaw:  1) A tornado can wreck a home; 2) it can devastate a whole neighborhood; 3) it can even smash a school.  Read more

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Bob Woodward and Roy Peter Clark

Writing and reporting advice from 4 of The Washington Post’s best

Last Saturday I had the honor of teaching at a public writing conference at The Washington Post.  After I finished my part of the program, I spent the day listening carefully to four of the Post’s most accomplished writers and reporters:  David Finkel, Bob Woodward, DeNeen L. Brown, and Ezra Klein.

I took copious notes, wrote down anything that struck me as wise or useful, and want to share with you what I learned from them.  Please don’t take these as direct quotations, but as handwritten paraphrases containing the gist of their advice.  Particularly notable were the shared values of craft and sense of mission and purpose in a gang of four that ranged from the 70-year-old Woodward, still cranking out books, to the young phenom Ezra Klein, who is trying to re-invent how to make policy stories interesting and relevant.

I’ll take them in the order of their presentations:

David Finkel, author of reports and books on soldiers returning from war, talking about how to report for story:

  • My intent was to answer a question that needs answering for the reader:  What was it like for a soldier to be there in Iraq.
Read more

Thursday, May 16, 2013


What writers see in life, language and literature

At the end of this essay, I will be asking for your help in writing a proposal for a new book: “What Writers See: In Life, Language, and Literature.”

What do I mean when I ask the question “What do writers see?”

I once heard of a clever writing prompt given to school children: “If you had a third eye, what could you see?” Writers, I would argue, already have a third eye. They use it to see life, language and literature in special ways.

This third eye has a number of different names. It’s called vision (and then revision), curiosity, inspiration, imagination, visitation of the muse. When an ordinary person says “I see,” she usually means “I understand.” If she’s a writer, she means that and much more. For the writer, seeing is a synecdochic and synesthetic gerund. It stands for all the senses, all the ways of knowing.

Even blind and partially blind writers — from Homer to Milton to Joyce to Huxley — see. Read more


Wednesday, May 08, 2013


How some narratives can benefit from more translucence, less transparency

Transparency, transparency, transparency. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.

Transparency is the new pillar of responsible practice, inside and outside of journalism — including at Poynter. When it comes to reporting and writing, we are told (and I’ve said it myself, [an example of transparency!]) that readers not only want to know what we know, they also want to know how we’ve come to know it, and the practical limits of our knowledge.

Transparency plus humility.

“We want to be transparent about this,” reports the hypothetical anchor. “We have reporters in the field trying to get to the bottom of this, how the explosion happened, the number of dead and injured, whether there was foul play — but it is very early in the game, and we know how easy it is to get things wrong.”

When straight reporting turns to storytelling, the ethic of transparency becomes more complicated. Read more


Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013


Boston Globe reporter shows how news writing can unfold ‘like a story in a book’

A story from the Boston Globe has been getting a lot of buzz, and rightly so. It was written by Eric Moskowitz, and describes the harrowing experience of a young Chinese man carjacked by the two Boston Marathon bombers.

The man is called “Danny” in the story (more about that later), and his capture, dangerous odyssey, and eventual escape has the feel of a “Tarantino movie” (more about that later, too).

When a story rings a bell — for both the public and professionals — my inclination is to read it several times, study it, talk with others about it and then engage in a process of X-ray reading. The goal is to reverse-engineer the work, describing for other writers and editors not just why it works, but how it works.

If you haven’t yet read the story, I would suggest you do so now. I quote from it several times in my analysis, but it might help you to experience it uninterrupted from start to finish. Read more


Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013

Vague descriptions in Boston bombings hurt more than they help

My colleague Al Tompkins reminds journalists to remember the case of Richard Jewell as they cover the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Jewell was the security guard wrongly accused of the bombing at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.

But there is another cautionary tale to be told, and this one comes out of Massachusetts itself. It is not the Salem witch trials, but it can stand in that tradition of paranoia and scapegoating. It involves racial identifiers in stories about suspects.

In 1989, a young Boston man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife after childbirth classes, shot himself as a cover, and then told police that his family had been mugged by a black man. After a wide and aggressive dragnet by police in the city’s African-American neighborhoods, an arrest was made and Stuart identified a black man as the killer of his wife and unborn child. Read more

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Friday, Apr. 05, 2013

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Why Roger Ebert was a good writer

Before I tackle what made Roger Ebert a good writer, I’d like to tell  a story about why he was a good colleague and good person. It was 1978 and I was spending the year as a substitute film writer for the St. Petersburg Times.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were flying high with their tag-team television show, and I had the chance to interview them over the telephone.

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A few months later, Ebert visited St. Pete to check in on the making of a disastrous Robert Altman movie called HEALTH, a political parody so lame that it was never released, in spite of a cast that included James Garner, Glenda Jackson, and Lauren Bacall.

I wrote more than two dozen stories and profiles about the making of the movie, and Ebert must have been paying attention because he recommended me to the Detroit Free Press for a job there. Read more


Thursday, Apr. 04, 2013

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January.  (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

AP dumps ‘illegal immigrant’ but not neutrality

All big political wars are fought more often with words than with weapons.

Your “terrorist,” so the saying goes, is my “freedom fighter.”

Your “illegal alien” may be my “undocumented worker.”

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

But what if you do not see yourself as a combatant in a culture war? What if your job is to report on that war in a responsible way?  What if you see language as a gateway rather than a battering ram?  All those questions, and many more, come to the surface with the AP’s decision to dump “illegal immigrant” as a supposedly neutral news label.

But let’s begin with the language wars. Read more