Ask Chip: A new service for writers and editors

Propped against a wall in my office is a 3 by 5 foot poster-board.

I keep it in my office window as a reminder of a 2001 trip to Bermuda for the Society of American Travel Writers. (Hey, it’s a tough life, but somebody’s got to do it.)

Over several days, I gave a writing workshop and judged stories. The poster was designed to attract writers to individual coaching sessions. It was provided by one of the meeting’s planners who worked for Disney, where part of the magic involves illustrations that take visitors into a lost past.

“See The Writing Doctor, Chip Scanlan,” it heralds, written in an ornate font that wouldn’t have been out of place in the window of a 19th America apothecary, the precursor of today’s pharmacists.

“Cures For The Following” are offered, in a list bulleted with a hand, index finger extended:


The poster-board helped me develop an idea, one inspired by Joe Grimm’s “Ask the Recruiter” column: to offer a new service I want to offer readers of “Chip on Your Shoulder.”

The feature is called “Ask Chip,” and offers answers to anyone with questions about reporting, writing, editing, interviewing, productivity, time management or collaboration, to name a few areas that I think I can address.

It won’t supplant the other forms I use: mini-essays, Q&As and writing advice.

The format is simple:

1. Email me at

2. Put “Ask Chip” in the subject line.

3. Pose your question.

Once I’ve answered it, I’ll send it back to you. And then I’ll publish it on Poynter Online. Please provide your name, title and news organization, unless the question is sensitive, in which case, I can either use your surname, or mask your identity further (“a police reporter asks,” “an assistant city editor wonders,” etc.).

As a coach, I’ve learned that there are two types of responses to a draft of a story, a question about style, storytelling ethics, reporting and all the other challenges the process of writing brings to the surface:

1. Prescriptive

2. Descriptive

The writing doctor can prescribe solutions. Cut this graf, move this one up, write a nut graf, etc.

Or the literary physician can give a movie of his reading. The lead draws me in, I had to read the second graf twice. I’m halfway through and I’m bored.

I prefer the descriptive approach because it recognizes that most writers don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be told what the reader, listener or viewer experienced as they consumed the story. Clarity or confusion. Delight or frustration. Fascination or boredom. With that knowledge the writer can take the steps needed to keep the reader with them on the path of discovery that the writing and reading process is all about.

This doesn’t mean I won’t weigh in with a direct answer.

Above all, my goal as writing doctor is to do no harm, only to help in the best way I know.

I look forward to your questions.

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