Help! For Writers

Chat Replay: Which Books Can Make Me a Better Writer?

The question of what writers read, and how they read, kept coming up in the days following the publication of my new book, “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.”

“Which other books on writing would you buy?” asked one reporter at a book festival.

“Which books did you read in order to prepare yourself to write your book?” messaged another.

“You’re alone on a desert island,” asked an Irish radio host, “and you can only have two books. What would they be?”

I had to think hard when the Barnes & Noble website invited me to describe three writing and language books that I could recommend to others. I could only name three books, and I had many other candidates.

My dilemma was whether I should name books that offered direct writing strategies, such as “The Elements of Style,” or ones that provided inspiring literary examples, such as “The Great Gatsby.” In fact, most writers I know like to draw from both sources — from books that describe and explain the technical aspects of language — but also from works of literature, read not only for their themes, characters and content, but also as an X-ray through which an expert writer reveals his or her best strategies. Read more


Chat Replay: How Do I Find a Structure For My Writing?

In St. Petersburg, Fla., we have a famous landmark and tourist site called The Pier. It’s an oddly shaped building sticking out into Tampa Bay, and it’s about to be demolished. In my single-minded brain, demolition of The Pier has become a symbol for the way we write news.
You see, The Pier is in the shape of a huge, inverted pyramid. The Pier is so top-heavy, and its foundation so wobbly, it has outlived its usefulness.

In writing, the problem is not a particular form or structure, from the news-heavy pyramid to the love-soaked sonnet. The problem comes when a single form dominates the landscape, or when unsuitable content is crammed into it. In short, we need more than one form. We need lots of forms.

Join us for a chat Thursday, August 26, at 3 p.m. ET for a fairly unstructured conversation about the problems of structure in your writing. Read more


Chat Replay: How Do I Speed Up My Writing Process?

My writing problem? I am so slow.

Not all of us can be fast writers, but all of us can be slow. Slow/good is not a problem, and can often benefit the writer and the story. Slow/bad can blow up on you.

Some stories or some investigations take time. If you report and write them too quickly, you may undermine their rich potential. You may need time for more reporting. You may need time for revision. You may need time to get feedback from editors, then to turn such critiques into improvements in the story. That’s when slow is good.

More often, slow is bad. Slow/bad means missing deadlines. It can mean draining a story of its timeliness. It can be a product, not of hard work, but of unnecessary delays like procrastination. It can be influenced by experiences outside the writing process, such as illness or family distractions or office politics. Read more


Chat Replay: What Are the Best Ways to Give My Story a Strong Beginning?

“Well begun,” said Mary Poppins, “is half done.”

Many experienced writers feel that way about the beginning of a story. Some testify that they might spend half of their time crafting the beginning. The theory is that the well-written lead opens some secret door for the writer, allowing the rest of the story to flow from hands to keyboard to screen.

There are so many decisions for the writer: Should I open with the news? Should I open with a scene? Should I ease the reader into the story or toss her in? How good does a lead have to be? Should I swing for a grand slam or a clean single?

Can a lead be too good? That is, can it set a standard that the rest of the story cannot hope to meet? Maybe there is a Hippocratic oath for writers of leads: First, do no harm.

One of the best metaphors for a lead comes from the great New Yorker writer John McPhee, who describes it as a flashlight that shines down into the story. Read more


Chat Replay: How Do I Find a Focus For My Writing?

When I think about “focus” as the central act of the writing process, I am using a metaphor drawn from photography.

In most cases, the photographer wants the image to be “in focus,” as sharp and as clear as it can be. As the photographer tries to focus the visual image through adjustment of the lens, so the writer tries to see the story as clearly as possible. As the photographer adjusts the focus for clarity, so the writer must undertake a process of “re-vision,” seeing the story with fresh eyes.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s reach down for an even deeper set of connotations for the word “focus.” I learned only recently that the word derives from the Latin word for “hearth.”

I find that so interesting. The hearth is the center of the household, the source of light and heat. The place where a family gathers for heat, sustenance and contact with other members of the family. Read more


Chat Replay: How Do I Write to an Appropriate Length?

There are a few standard ways in which reporters and writers are rewarded for their work:

  1. Pay
  2. Play
  3. And the freedom to generate more of the stories they want to work on.

All three are interrelated, of course, and it’s the journalist’s job to figure out how to do the best work and reap the most satisfying rewards. Let’s take, for example, the issue of “play.” Where does the editor decide to play the story and at what length? Does the story begin on the Sunday front page and stretch inside? Or does it run, without a jump, inside the local section?

Editors say they want more short writing. So why do the writers who write the longest still seem to get the best rewards, a fact reinforced by the most prestigious journalism contests, such as the Pulitzer Prize?

Here’s what writers need in the year 2010: Versatility. Versatile writers will always have marketable skills and will find a way to get their best work published. Read more


Chat Replay: What Are the Best Ways to Expand Your Vocabulary?

I know so many writers who begin to question themselves when they encounter another writer who seems to have a much richer vocabulary. I know I do. When I read my first book by the late David Foster Wallace, I was astonished by how many powerful and interesting words were available to him — and seemingly unavailable to me.

But anytime I face such a problem, I look to other writers for solutions. From research and practice, I’ve compiled a list of 10 ways to enrich your reading and writing vocabularies.

George Orwell argued that we should never use a long word when a short one will do. Shakespeare, I’ve recently learned, had a writing vocabulary of about 25,000 words, twice that of his nearest rival. And the Anglo-Saxon poets used to refer to their poetic language coming from a “word hoard” using similar language for the hoarding of gold. Read more


Chat Replay: How Do I Decide When I’m Done With My Reporting and Research?

One of the hardest things to do is to figure out when it’s time to stop reporting and start writing. While it’s true that reporting and writing are parts of the same process, it’s also true that reporters spend much more time on their research than on other important tasks such as story planning, drafting and revision.

How many investigative reports turned out to be unreadable because the reporters spent a month on the research and less than a day on the writing?

I’ve devised 10 tests to help you solve this problem. For example, when you hear an important anecdote from more than two sources, it may be time to wind down the reporting and to climb into the drafting cockpit. You can watch a replay of the chat below to learn about planning and creating the best possible fit between research and storytelling.  

You can revisit this link at any time to replay the chat. Read more


Writing Chats Schedule

Join us for biweekly chats about writing, hosted by Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. You can visit this page to participate in the first writing chat, and you can sign up for reminders for individual chats by clicking on the links below.

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Chat Replay: How Can I Tighten Up My Writing?

In American culture, the word “tight” has several distinctive meanings. If someone calls you a “tight wad,” it means you are stingy. But if we have a close relationship, we are “tight.” If the jazz trio is playing with perfection, they are “tight.” In hip-hop terms, “tight” can mean “outstanding.” So I guess I want to be a tight writer. No words wasted.
E.B. White told the story of his Cornell teacher, William Strunk Jr., whose verbal economy was so strict that he found the need to repeat his most famous lesson: “Omit needless words. Omit needless words.”
What makes a word needless? How do we know when every word in a sentence is hard at work? What are the signs that our stories are tight?
These are the questions we discussed in a live chat. If you never hit the word limit assigned to you by a teacher or editor; if anyone has ever called your prose “flabby”; if a critic condemned your first novel as being twice the desired length … then watch the chat replay for some group therapy. Read more


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