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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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Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013

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.… Read more

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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.… Read more

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Thursday, June 06, 2013

Booksandwriting3

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?… Read more

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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.… 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.… Read more

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

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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.… Read more

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Booksandwriting3

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

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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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Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013

Booksandwriting2

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.… Read more

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