Writing tips and techniques


How one young Canadian reporter in Haiti helped turn Twitter into a storytelling tool

Twitter launched in 2006 and in less than a decade has almost 300 million users. Conceived as a social network to share information, it was gradually embraced by journalists and is now an essential tool for reporting and communication. In spite of its 140-character limit, it has also become a powerful platform for storytelling, used as a live blog or as a kind of inverted serial narrative, with each tweet a micro-scene or mini-chapter.

One of the pioneers of this use, I have argued, is a young reporter from the Toronto Star named Joanna Smith. A beat writer of Canadian government and politics, Smith was sent to Haiti to cover the effects of a devastating earthquake and early efforts to recover. This week marks the fifth anniversary of that disaster.

I have written about Smith’s groundbreaking work before. In my book The Glamour of Grammar, I wrote:

“Reporters and photographers rushed to Haiti in 2010 after an earthquake devastated the island, destroying many buildings, killing more than 230,000 people, and injuring many more. The narrative they produced from the rubble told a story of hardship that inspired a great outpouring of support for the Haitian people from across the globe. Of all those reports, I was especially taken with the series of short vignettes created on Twitter by Joanna Smith, a report for the Toronto Star. I found it remarkable how much she could convey in scenes or snapshots of 140 characters.”

What follows is a brief anthology of some of her more interesting and memorable tweets I harvested back then and saved. They are re-published here, but not in the order in which they appeared on Twitter:

  • Was in b-room getting dressed when heard my name. Tremor. Ran outside through sliding door. All still now. Safe. Roosters crowing.
  • Fugitive from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.
  • Crowd watched him exhale blood.  Little girl in blue/white Dorothy dress pushed her way into mob to see.
  • Luckner Lewis asked to send msg 2 CDA: ‘We’re v glad 2 c u in #Haiti bc we need ur help. ‘Biggest prblm is the smelling,’ sez in 2 recorder.
  • Pile of garbage, some of it burnt, reeking on corner of Cana-Pevert. 2 chickens pecking it for spare crumbs.
  • 2 men carry little girl on cardboard stretcher, her arms around their necks, leg in newly set cast, yelping.
  • Man shouting into megaphone to clear road for garbage truck. Told it is on its way to mass burial site.  Following, but not sure.
  • Too dangerous to set up distribution point in notorious Cite Soleil slum now, but assessing.  Org gangs trying 2 profit, says UN.
  • Woman shrieking, piercing screams, ‘Maman! Papa! Jesus!’ as dressing on her wounded heel is changed outside clinic. No painkillers.
  • Little boys playing with neat little cars constructed from juice bottles, caps.  Fill with rocks and pull with string. Fun.

There is something in Twitter that is structurally antagonistic to narrative storytelling, not unlike the classic inverted pyramid style of reportage.  Good narratives usually require chronology, time moving forward.  If you were following Smith in real time in 2010, this straight narrative was real and remarkably vivid, not a motion picture, but a kind of strobe-like sequential snapshot effect.

Most Twitter readers enter such live blogs in media res – in the middle of things – and either have to scroll back in time or just pick up from the entry point.  Author note: I’ve always wondered why Twitter has not yet provided a way to link on a Tweet in such a way that it turns a sequence of messages upside down so that you can trace the steps in chronological order.

On this fifth anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, I contacted Smith via email with a series of questions.  In her sharp answers she reflects upon the power of Twitter as a reporting and storytelling tool.

Clark: You were the first reporter I noticed who used Twitter as a live blog for breaking news.  The effect was something like a serial narrative in miniature, like a movie made up from one snapshot after another. Where did you come up with the idea?

Smith: Twitter was still relatively new to journalism back then and I was one of the earlier enthusiasts at the Toronto Star. I was already pretty active on Twitter and so had planned to tweet while I was down there, but there was no real discussion or forethought beyond that.

I think it came about largely due to circumstance. It was taking much longer than expected to get into Haiti. I knew my editors were anxious for my first file from the country as soon as we (Toronto Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk and I) finally crossed the border from the Dominican Republic.

The trouble was that around that time, my mobile device could no longer access email on the Internet and it also wouldn’t let me call anyone to take my copy over the phone. I could send text messages, but it was around 4 a.m. and I did not have anyone to send them to. So, I decided to tweet my story out, line by line, using SMS text messages. My first one was directed at the Toronto Star’s Twitter account: “Anyone on the Web desk there? Going to attempt unconventional filing method: cut-and-paste via Twitter! Here we go.” I think it took me 15 tweets to get that story out.

Then I just kept going. There was so much happening all around me that I wanted to share, but it was virtually impossible to file traditional story updates to thestar.com throughout the day because we had no access to the Internet or electricity until we returned to our hotel at night.

I felt compelled to keep reporting, because if I wasn’t reporting, what on earth was I doing there? I wasn’t handing out jugs of water, or searching through debris for survivors or setting broken bones. I was there to tell stories, which felt like such a small thing, but that was my job and this was really the only way I could do it consistently.

Clark: It seems as if you were tweeting in real time from Haiti. Something dramatic would happen and you’d send out a tweet. Is that how it worked? Were you tweeting in the moment, or would you let some time pass between what you saw and what you reported?

Smith: I usually tweeted in the moment, just sharing my observations of what was happening in Port-au-Prince. It was like a digital notebook. For the first few days, when I was working exclusively with text messages, I couldn’t see the replies I was getting on Twitter. I didn’t even realize anyone was paying attention to what I was doing. Once I started receiving feedback, I learned that people were treating it as a way to join me as I traveled throughout the city and spoke to the people I met. Then I felt a responsibility to keep up that in-the-moment aspect of my tweets.

I think that is also when I started becoming more conscious of how I was crafting the tweets. I realized that people were reading them as stories – very, very short stories, but stories all the same – and so I put some more deliberate effort into achieving that effect.

Clark:  How did your tweets fit in with your other reporting and writing responsibilities?  What did the Toronto Star expect you to produce?

Smith: I tweeted throughout the day and then at night, after we returned to our hotel, which had a generator, I would file a story for the next day’s paper. I found my tweets – not just the content, but the style of writing – would often work their way into these stories. I think the 140-character limit really forced me to strip my writing of extraneous adjectives and adverbs, to use an active voice and to follow that basic writing adage: show, don’t tell. Once I sat down at my laptop and I had thousands of characters at my disposal, I really didn’t want or need them anymore.

Clark:  What kind of technology were you using for Twitter and your other reporting?  What were the technological challenges reporting from the site of such a terrible disaster?

Smith: I used a Blackberry for Twitter and a notepad, pen and digital audio recorder for the print/web stories. We used a satellite BGAN to access the Internet in order to file the rest. Since Lucas had the BGAN connected to his laptop to upload his photos, which took awhile, my access to the Internet was usually limited. This meant I had few opportunities to read what my competitors were filing or do any research beyond what I had seen with my own eyes. Other members of our team, both in Haiti and back in Ottawa and Toronto, were doing a great job adding historical and political context to our coverage, but I was just writing what I saw and heard out in the streets. And because we were pretty much incommunicado with our editors until close to deadline, we had complete control over our time and how we would approach the news that day. So, while the technological challenges could at times be frustrating, I also remember it as a really liberating experience.

Clark:  What did you learn in Haiti about the use of Twitter that you have been able to apply in your reporting on government and politics back in Canada?

Smith:  It’s hard, because political reporting can be so abstract. I’m writing about ideas and arguments and facts and figures more often than I am writing about what I see, so it can be difficult to tell stories in the same way. Still, whenever I am tweeting about something right in front of me, such as a particularly strong or interesting message in a speech, I aim to tell a short, complete story in a single tweet. It’s really tough, though, given the subject matter. I wonder how many of the new followers I gained while in Haiti abandoned me at the next committee meeting.

Here are some links to the work Joanna Smith did for the newspaper while in Haiti (as well as the amazing photographs by Lucas Oleniak, which will allow you to see some of the scenes Smith was tweeting about):

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Coming clean: notes on becoming an honest writer

I’ve written four books since 2006, and I’m at work on another. But for every book that reaches publication, I have at least one (sometimes two or three) proposals rejected.

One of them was to be called “The Honest Writer: A Guide to Originality.” I stumbled upon my proposal last week and delivered part of it to a group of college teachers gathered for a conference on academic integrity. Having dusted it off for them, I thought I’d show it to you. It includes, you should know at the start, a list of some of my literary sins over the years. The purpose of such a list is not to insist that everyone cheats, or, as they say in the sports world: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” I write more in the spirit of “The Confessions” of St. Augustine. I’m not trying to impose on any writer challenges I haven’t experienced myself. In that spirit, here’s my take.

*   *   *

Not long ago, I was editing a book manuscript when I came upon the phrase “fierce discipline,” which I had used to describe the capacity a writer needs to cut words, phrases, whole sections from drafts of his or her story. The phrase stopped me cold. Was it original to me, or had I encountered it in another essay or work of literature, a poem perhaps? If the phrase was not fully mine, should I attribute it (if I could find a source), or should I choose a different phrase, “exacting standards,” perhaps? I found myself disabled by what Harold Bloom described as “the anxiety of influence.”

But why? It was as simple and neurotic as this: I am considered an expert on writing and questions of plagiarism and did not want to be blown up by my own improvised exploding device. I could read the tabloid headlines in my nightmares: Ethicist Turns Plagiarist. And then, for the first time, I enlisted the tools of technology to protect me. I Googled the phrase.

I found 662 links to “fierce discipline,” none of which I recognized. Here is a sample:

–“She exercised a fierce discipline, worked hard and excelled in her studies.”

–“Are you willing to summon fierce discipline and crafty willpower not only to pump up your career ambitions but also to refine your approach to intimacy?”

–“On the contrary, putting the customer first is a fierce discipline that the market imposes on producers.”

–“Finally, ‘The Incident in the Cellar’ brings a wayward young wife home to face the fierce discipline she’s put off far too long.” (This turned out to be a kinky story about spanking!)

My search led me to two useful conclusions: 1) that this phrase “fierce discipline” was not (or at least not yet) a cliché. Remember, Google found only 662 matches, as opposed to 116,000 for “called on the carpet,” and almost two million for “face the music.” And 2) “fierce discipline” was used frequently enough so that no one writer could claim ownership. The phrase, though not original, was not common either, so I preserved it in my essay.

As I sat back and contemplated the significance of this process, I realized that I had stumbled upon the use of a search engine to test the reliability of my language. Or, to put it another way, I had discovered a tool of originality. We need more of them.

*   *   *

The best thing you can say about my writing is that it’s honest. I’ll take creative, powerful, illuminating, moving, or sexy. Give me original, thought-provoking, poignant, edgy, or courageous. Tell the world, O Critic, that my prose makes “Crime and Punishment” read like Dick and Jane. If none of these apply, I’ll settle for honest.

For the writer, in school or on the job, honesty is not just the best policy; it’s also the best insurance policy, protecting you and your reader from every form of literary malpractice. Honesty will keep you out of trouble.

Let’s imagine, for example, that you are tempted to steal the work of another writer, an act that we can trace to the earliest expression of poetry and prose, an act committed by some of our most famous authors and public figures. Tempted to commit what I once called “the unoriginal sin,” you wonder if you can get away with it. What are my chances of getting caught? In our time, literary piracy is not only easier to commit, via the Internet, but also easier to detect. Believe me: You may attend a tiny college in a small town surrounded by desert, but if you rip off part of a Maureen Dowd column for your school newspaper I guarantee that some scrofulous blogger living with his mommy half a continent away will detect it, and news of your transgression will travel round the world with the speed of light. And your life will have been changed forever.

*   *   *

If I were to write a book called the “The Honest Writer,” it would describe five primary forms of writerly dishonesty, all of which can get you into hot water, some cauldrons being hotter than others. The House of Dishonest Writing, which sends up its chimney the Stench of Scandal, can be entered through these passageways:

• Plagiarism: the intentional, fraudulent use of another person’s language or ideas without giving proper credit.
• Fabrication: Using significant fictional elements in a work that purports to be non-fiction.
• Deception of the Reader: Breaking the implied contract with readers about the nature of the work, its contents and its methods.
• Lack of Transparency: Using controversial or experimental methods without appropriate and responsible signals to the reader.
• Lazy Inattention to Craft: “I didn’t mean to plagiarize. I just kept sloppy notes and thought that paragraph was mine.”

*   *   *

Writing can be hard work, so it’s easy to see why inexperienced writers of every age might be oblivious to the standards and methods of the honest writer. I know this from my own experience. If I’m going to write a book called “The Honest Writer,” then I’m the writer in the world most obliged to be, well, honest. So I tell you, in all honesty, and with some feelings of vulnerability, that I have committed a number of the acts I’m going to ask you to avoid. Most of these false steps were taken when I was young, untutored, and unaware of academic or professional standards; but some came later, when I should have known better. If Oprah Winfrey grilled me on national television, I’d have to confess to these missteps:

–In high school, I would, on occasion, fabricate the quotations and footnotes for a term paper: “‘The ranks of the Roman army were made up of rogues, scoundrels and thieves, the dregs of Roman society,’ wrote Victor L. Duncan in his book March across Civilization (New York: Dunbar Press, 1937), p. 256.” Everything in this kind of citation was bogus, and I could count on a busy teacher – long before the Internet — not being able to track down all my references.

–In college, I lent a friend a term paper I had written a year earlier. He said he just wanted to use it for research, but I knew he would copy it word for word, which he did. If you were smart like me, the way to avoid being pegged as a nerd was to help the brain-impaired cheat on papers and examinations. My great teacher, Rene Fortin, gave me an A+, but the same paper only earned Cheater Boy something like a C-.

–A friend of a friend got in some academic trouble and needed a good grade on a paper to pass the course. My friend recounted his friend’s plight and, before I knew it, I was taking $50 to write his work for him. This is the first time I can remember dumbing down my work so his teacher would not be too suspicious. This required some awkward phrasing and the occasional comma splice or run-on sentence.

–Although I would one day become a journalist and journalism teacher, I was trained in English literature, so I was comfortable with the idea of a “higher truth.” Truth – with a capital T – was more important than literal, verifiable reality, so I took a couple of shortcuts in some of my earliest freelance writing. In a column on ideological disagreement in the Catholic Church, I made up the story of two parishioners who listened to the same sermon but arrived at radically different conclusions about its meaning. Such divergence of opinion was common in my experience as a Catholic, but I came to realize that my “composite character” was taboo in traditional nonfiction.

–As a young assistant professor, I was asked to introduce U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin of Watergate fame to a college audience. In my introduction, I borrowed a long passage, unattributed, from a nifty introduction to a book about the senator. I received great praise later for the spirit and humor of my words, and came to feel guilty that I had used another’s creativity without giving due credit. It may not have even occurred to me that I should attribute words I was borrowing for a short, public, but unpublished address.

–I’ve written and published personal essays that I now realize were way too casual in their methods. I usually settled for the most entertaining version my memory could conjure, rather than one that had been or could be verified. In the same sense, I have written narratives that, though original and truthful, were not as transparent as they should have been. My techniques were experimental enough that the reader deserved to know not only what I knew, but how I knew it.

I will not be the first author to declare he needed to make a journey from potential wordsnitch to wordsmith. In fact, some other much-more-famous writers make me feel like an archangel of honesty and originality. In his book “Stolen Words,” Thomas Mallon describes transgressions by the likes of Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The great New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, would reveal in a 1992 anthology of his stories that 10 of 36 stories – all assumed to be factual – were, in Mitchell’s words, “fictional.”

A more impressive malefactor appears to be John Hersey, whose book “Hiroshima” is considered to be among the great works of nonfiction in the 20th century, and whose essay, “The Legend on the License,” is held up, including by me, as a powerful manifesto on the need for honesty and straightforwardness in nonfiction. Yet, according to Ben Yagoda and Kevin Kerrane, a story that Hersey wrote in 1944 depended upon a composite character to describe the experience of a soldier returning home from the war. And, more damning, Anne Fadiman has argued that one of Hersey’s most famous books, “Men on Bataan,” was plagiarized from her mother, a correspondent for Time magazine. She concludes, from other evidence, that Hersey “turned out to have all the marks of the compulsive plagiarist: he borrowed repeatedly, he left extravagantly obvious clues, and – what a gifted writer he was! – he didn’t need to.” (Ex Libris, p. 111) [Author’s note: This is a real source. I didn’t make it up.]

*   *   *

I reveal my faults, and those of others, not to prove the redemptive value of confession, but to let you know that all writers, on occasion, fudge it. Those who say they never have are either a) saints, b) delusional, or c) dismissive of writing standards. I also detest the scrupulous conscience. I don’t want you to turn from the ideas in “The Honest Writer” because you fear they come from a Puritan holding a torch and looking to burn a witch. I am the witch. Ouch! That’s hot!

I failed my first driving test by driving too slowly. The inspector wanted me to get up to the speed limit, but I was unable to do so, petrified that I would exceed it and fail the test. So concerned was I about my speed, that I even drove through a red light. As a writer, you may be so concerned about exceeding the borrowing limit that your writing engine will grind to a halt.

I don’t want you, or any writer, to be paralyzed by virtue.

The other moral to my story is that I’ve had to learn my way toward honesty. It did not come naturally. That’s why this book will take a green light approach, pointing you to the habits of virtue more than the seductions of writing vice. The honest writer, it turns out, needs not only an inclination to do the right thing, but also the tools of originality.

I remember a research study commissioned by Reader’s Digest on the honesty of auto mechanics, who are often thought of as generically corrupt. The researchers drove a slightly defective car around the country and stopped at auto shops to get it fixed. It turned out that very few shops tried to rip off the driver, charging for unneeded repairs. Much more often the mechanics could simply not identify the problem. So this is true in automotive engineering, in politics, and in writing: In the absence of demonstrated competence, the consumer will assume negligence.

Just as the young mechanic must learn the tools of the trade, so must the inexperienced writer learn the tools of originality. The writer will be more able to resist the temptation to plagiarize or fabricate if the writer keeps an honest toolbox nearby: responsible research and note-taking methods; an understanding of the creative process; protocols of attribution; several methods of drafting, paraphrase, and revision.

Not long ago, I conducted a workshop for a group of middle and high school writers who had earned the opportunity to write on occasion for a professional newspaper, then called the St. Petersburg Times. We practiced various aspects of the craft, from note-taking to lead writing, but near the end I gave them a brief sermon on the dangers of the two-headed monster: Plagiarism and Fabrication. Then, on a whim, I made them stand up, raise their right hands and make a pledge. The words of the pledge were humorous and improvised, but the idea behind it was rock solid: They owed me their honesty and their best effort. I, in return, would show them how to avoid trouble by sharing the tools of originality.

Correction: Sen. Sam Ervin’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. Read more

Cow and field of fresh grass_depositphotos

When cows type: the power of the written word

My friend and Poynter colleague Chip Scanlan has called me many things over the years, including “a Philistine with a Ph.D.” I resemble that remark. In fact, I celebrate the seeming contradiction. I grew up in a working-class, television-drenched culture that immersed me in the world of The Three Stooges, roller derby, and Little Richard. On a parallel track, I experienced an elite parochial school education that pointed higher and higher to a world in which I could speak easily about Shakespeare, Aquinas, and T.S. Eliot.

One practical effect of this duality: I am never surprised by the diverse sources of enlightenment. It may come from a strange inning in a baseball game; a subway map; a Latin inscription atop an academic building; a 700-page novel; a ship’s manifest from Ellis Island; a tweet; a fortune cookie; a children’s book. If you are only a Philistine, “disdainful of intellectual or artistic values,” you will never gain altitude. If you live atop an ivory or ivy tower, you will never feel your feet in the sand.

So, if I were teaching a graduate level class in, say, “The First Amendment and the Five Freedoms,” the second text I would read (after the amendment itself, of course) would be a children’s book titled “Click, Clack, Moo/ Cows That Type.” Written by Doreen Cronin, a collector of antique typewriters, and illustrated by Betsy Lewin, this contemporary (2000) beast fable offers insights into the powers and responsibilities of free expression. By virtue of a recent experience, I can attest that the book satisfies its intended audience (ages 3 through 7) and transcends it.

Just this week I addressed a group of college writers at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and decided to use my 10 minutes to read them “Click, Clack, Moo.” When I announced my intention, I was surprised when a little voice in the middle of the crowd exclaimed, “I love that book!” It was a young girl named Isabella, a first or second grader, sitting on her mom’s lap. I invited her to sit next to me so she could enjoy the images in the book along with the text.

In the story, some cows find an old typewriter in a barn and learn to type. Farmer Brown hears them typing and talking: “Click clack, moo…clickety clack, moo.” The cows deliver a note to the farmer: that it is too cold in the barn and that they want electric blankets. He is outraged as the protest spreads from cows to chickens. Unless demands are met, there will be no more milk and no more eggs.

The farmer tries to cut a deal with the cows, and, in one of the most mature sentences in a story for kids, we learn, “Duck was a neutral party, so he brought the ultimatum to the cows.”

In what looks like a rash act of appeasement, the cows trade the typewriter for the blankets. But it turns out that the technology of expression will not be silenced.

The next morning he got a note:

Dear Farmer Brown,

The pond is quite boring.

We’d like a diving board.


The Ducks

Click, clack, quack…

Clickety, clack, quack.

The final page shows a duck’s tail feathers as he enjoys a dive into the pond. Power to the … uh, … farm animals.

Even most of the journalists I know cannot name the five freedoms enumerated by the First Amendment:

1. Freedom against the establishment of religion.

2. Freedom of speech.

3. Freedom of the press.

4. Freedom of assembly.

5. Freedom to petition government for redress of grievances.

Religious issues aside, “Click, Clack, Moo” exemplifies the other four freedoms. The cows and ducks express themselves in their individual languages: Moo and Quack. They express themselves via a miniature form of a press, the typewriter. They assemble to express their concerns collectively. And they petition the farmer because they have complaints about working conditions.

As I was reading this work aloud to about 50 adults and young Isabella, she laughed out loud at all the key moments, sparking enthusiasm from every corner of the room. I am not suggesting that “Click, Clack, Moo” ranks in social commentary with the “Grapes of Wrath” or “Animal Farm.” But as a parable of literacy and democracy, I’ll take it over most of the stodgy professional texts I’ve read on the subject. But, then again, I’m a Philistine. With a Ph.D. Read more

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The Shakespeare sentence that changed my writing – and can change yours

Although we do not know the exact day William Shakespeare was born, we celebrate his birthday on April 23, which brings us to the 450th anniversary of his birth. Since many of us will not be residents of this distracted globe when Will’s big 5-0-0 comes around, we should do our best to praise him now, and as often as we can for as long as we can. There is no one like him.

Those of us who have read my books or attended my classes know that I have a favorite Shakespeare sentence. It comes from “Macbeth” – or as those superstitious thespians refer to it, the “Scottish Play.” Lady Macbeth dies off stage, unable to wash the blood from her hands, no doubt. A messenger approaches Macbeth with the news.

“The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

Before I explain how this sentence forever changed my writing and my teaching, a bit of back story is in order. Several years ago, my daughter Alison Hastings performed in the Georgia Shakespeare production of “Macbeth” on a Halloween weekend. Alison played one of the three witches, named the Weird Sisters by Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s time, “weird” had a different meaning from the modern sense of super-crazy and unusual. Back then it meant “fate” or “destiny,” and it will be the prophecies of the Weird Sisters to Macbeth that help seal his fate.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest plays. When the Macbeths slaughter the king in their own castle, they have committed three of the gravest sins as imagined in the Elizabethan moral order: they kill a king (regicide), they kill a kinsman (patricide), and they violate the covenants of hospitality – that I am responsible for your safety while you reside within my walls. At the end, Macbeth gets what he deserves. He is killed in battle offstage, an opportunity for one final shock, as his conqueror walks onto the stage with Macbeth’s bloody head in his hand.

This is perfect Halloween stuff, and it was a joy to see Alison cavorting with her two very weird Weird Sisters, one played by a beefy gentleman. We watched two performances and I then returned home to re-read the play, and, somehow, I get hooked on the sentence: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

This obsession began with the realization that Shakespeare did not have to write the sentence that way. He had at least two, if not three other choices:

• The Queen is dead, my lord.
• My lord, the Queen is dead.
• And if the messenger had been Yoda of Star Wars fame, Macbeth may have had to deal with: “Dead the Queen is, my lord.”

As you examine those three alternatives, recognize that there is nothing “wrong” with them. All four versions stand up to the scrutiny of Standard English, even though Yoda’s version seems awkward and eccentric. In all four sentences, the six words are the same. They just roll out in a different order.

To honor Shakespeare, I profess that his version is the best. But such preferences cannot be just declared, they must be argued. Here, then, I make my case for “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

  • A momentous announcement, the death of a queen, is made public in six quick words.
  • The sentence has a clear beginning, middle, and ending – praise be to commas!
  • The subject of the sentence – “The Queen” – appears immediately. Any sentence with such a beginning carries important news.
  • The least significant element in the sentence “my lord” appears in the middle, the position of least emphasis.
  • The slight delay between subject and verb holds a nanosecond of suspense.
  • The most important phrase, “is dead,” appears at the end, the point of greatest emphasis.

This rhetorical strategy of placing the most emphatic word in a sentence at the end is more than 2,000 years old, but it felt new to me until Shakespeare slapped me good and hard. It has the feel of a theory of reading and writing, that any phrase that appears near the end of a sentence, or a paragraph, or a chapter, will receive special attention. What we call a period, the Brits call a “full stop,” a better name because it focuses our attention on the effects of an ended sentence. All humor and most oratory is generated by the repetition of this single strategy. Got something good, kid? Put it at the end.

The best thing you can do, my fellow writers, is to examine a draft and underline the language that turns up at the end of sentences and paragraphs. Those are the potential hot spots in your story. Make sure a great phrase is not hiding somewhere in the middle. If you find one, drag it out to the light where we all can see it.

It must be said that Macbeth’s response to the news turns out to be much more famous than the message. “She should have died hereafter,” he says. “There would have been a time for such a word.” There’s some ambiguity here. Some scholars think he means that she would have died eventually in the natural order of things. But then this:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing.

The poet has an advantage over the prose writer. Writers of prose can emphasize a word by placing it at the end of a sentence. The poet doubles down by placing a key word at the end of a line. These words end sentences: dusty death, brief candle, heard no more, signifying nothing. Now add the energy that comes with words at the end of lines: tomorrow, day, time, fools, candle, poor player, upon the stage, a tale, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Another great writer named William – Faulkner – recognized in “sound and fury” a perfect title for one of his most famous novels, in part a tale told by an “idiot.” Perhaps in my senescence I will teach a semester course on those 10 lines: one week devoted to one line.

There is so much to discover here:

  • All the words that define, mention, or measure time.
  • The repetition – even of simple words like “and” – that have a tick tock quality to them, signifying the passage of time.
  • The contrast between images of darkness and light.
  • The alliterations in petty/pace, dusty/death, tale/told, sound/signifying.
  • The words that refer to language and storytelling: such as syllable, recorded, tale.
  • The self-referential allusion to stagecraft.

In the end, what does it all signify? Nothing. Everything. Read more


Making the familiar strange: the legacy of journalist and novelist Gabriel García Márquez

This morning, on the front page of the Tampa Bay Times, I read the news that Gabriel García Márquez has died at the age of 87. He was a towering literary figure of the last century, journalist, novelist, essayist, public intellectual, and Nobel laureate. His fiction became a pillar in a literary movement known as “magical realism,” an oxymoron that elevated the work of a school of South American authors and gained it global attention.

A journalist at heart who wrote for newspapers in Colombia during the 1950s, Márquez expressed dissatisfaction with the “magical” part of the literary equation, arguing that every word he had ever written was grounded in experience.

Colette Bancroft, book editor of the Tampa Bay Times, included in her tribute to Márquez, the author’s most famous passage, the first sentences of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.  At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.  The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

The original, of course, was written in Spanish, translated by Gregory Rabassa.

Those three celebrated sentences sit atop 14 others to constitute the first paragraph of Márquez’s most famous book. In journalistic terms, 17 sentences would add up to an impossible lead, an impenetrable block of text, bulkier than some complete stories that appear in a newspaper or on a website. For a 400-page novel that covers the history of several generations of Colombian myth and magic, a sprawling first paragraph is an invitation to dive into a swift river or to jump on board a moving train, a form of transportation from wherever we sit into a richly imagined fictional world.

But let’s return to those first three sentences. Let’s don our X-ray reading glasses and look beneath the surface of the text and see what’s bubbling down below. If we can figure out what makes this famous passage so famous, perhaps we can add some sophisticated tools to our own writing workbench.

Many years later… An odd way to begin a novel, but it generates a question: Later than what? It reminds us that the most powerful form of transportation in a narrative is the river of time. Time flows. Stories flow. But authors have the ability to violate natural expressions of time, to make the past present and to invent the future.

as he faced the firing squad It is not unusual for a journalist to plant a detail in a lead that will bear fruit later in the work. This adverbial reference to a dramatic event in the future of the narrative reveals much about the kind of story we are about to experience, one in which there is danger, intrigue, and military styles of capital punishment.

Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon… The subject of the sentence is the name of a character with a military title. The name Aureliano will be particularly important as it will survive across generations as the name of children and grandchildren who will inherit or reject the legacy of their ancestors. The verb “was to remember” has a conditional quality to it. Memory is persistent, as Dali reminds us with his surrealistic images of melting watches, but it comes and goes. And it generates its own flawed narrative of the past at the most surprising moments, even facing the firing squad.

when his father took him to discover ice… The memory leads him back to his father as time seems to move in all directions. This first sentence ends – as most great sentences do – with an emphatic element, the discovery of ice. That detail suggests something in the distant past and also suggests a subtropical setting in which ice is not ubiquitous but something odd and mysterious. In a move journalists will recognize, this mention of ice in the lead sentence is something that is fully realized at the end of the first chapter, when father and son pay money at a gypsy carnival to see and put their hands on this alchemical element.

…At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses… Writers of narrative build little worlds that are inhabited by characters. They are worlds readers can visit, and the more we can “see” these microcosms, the richer will be our vicarious experience. The author transports readers back in time and to another place.

built on the bank of a river of clear water… The river is a powerful archetype of time but also of change. But it exists only within the controlling boundaries of the banks. Without banks, the river becomes a flood, a destructive sea. Historian Will Durant used that metaphor to describe the distinction between history and civilization: “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.” Márquez understands the power of both the banks and the river.

that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs… The author gives us more to see as we gaze down through the clear water, but it is the simile that seals the deal. The stones are like prehistoric eggs, once organic, life-containing objects now petrified by time and the forces of nature. Yet, in this magical place, one imagines they could crack open in an instant, generating an army of dinosaurs or flying fish.

…The world was so recent that many things lacked names… More manipulation of time here, but also an allusion that seems biblical. This feels like Genesis, in the beginning, when God gave to man dominion over the world, by investing human beings with the power of naming. No human being has greater power to name than does the poet.

and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point This is not where the Poynter Institute got its name, but it does remind us that language, however inherent in the human experience, is learned. The act of pointing has many purposes: to recognize, share, warn, call attention to, desire. I want that. Over there. Even babies do it.

There is a slightly awkward literary term that we should visit. It’s called “defamiliarization.”  It sounds better in a phrase: “to make the familiar strange.” Journalists are more likely to want to make the strange familiar. But there will be those times when we ask readers to see something they think they know in a completely new way.

Let’s return to the discovery of ice.

Imagine that you are experiencing ice for the first time. (There are many Floridians, it occurs to me, who have never experienced snow. But ice is as close as the nearest margarita.) This is where the genius of Márquez becomes palpable:

When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars….

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

…Little José Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled.

[The father] paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed: “This is the great invention of our time.”

I might argue that the great invention of all time is the human brain. Its evolution gave us language, which gave birth to our ability to tell stories. Those stories can describe things that really happened, as in Márquez’s 1955 book “The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor.”  More miraculously, they can contain things that never happened, that are imagined, a gift of God or nature that enriches our experience a thousand fold. Read more


Why these are the ‘Ten Best Sentences’

The editors of American Scholar have chosen “Ten Best Sentences” from literature, and readers have suggested many more. They threw in an eleventh for good measure. This lovely feature caught me in the middle of a new book project, “Art of X-ray Reading,” in which I take classic passages such as these and look beneath the surface of the text. If I can see the machinery working down there, I can reveal it to writers, who can then add to their toolboxes.

With respect and gratitude to American Scholar, I offer brief interpretations below on how and why these sentences work:

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

This sentence is near the end of the novel, a buildup to its more famous conclusion. It begins with something we can “see,” vanished trees. There is a quick tension between the natural order and the artificial one, a kind of exploitation of the land that is as much part of our cultural heritage as the Myth of the West and Manifest Destiny. “Vanished” is a great word. “The Great Gatsby” sounds like the name of a magician, and he at times vanishes from sight, especially after the narrator sees him for the first time gazing out at Daisy’s dock. What amazes me about this sentence is how abstract it is. Long sentences don’t usually hold together under the weight of abstractions, but this one sets a clear path to the most important phrase, planted firmly at the end, “his capacity for wonder.”

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
—James Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

This sentence also comes near the end of the novel, but is not the very end. It has the feel of an anthem, a secular credo, coming from Stephen Dedalus, who, in imitation of Joyce himself, feels the need to leave Ireland to find his true soul. The poet is a maker, of course, like a blacksmith, and the mythological character Dedalus is a craftsman who built the labyrinth and constructed a set of wings for his son Icarus. The wax in those wings melted when Icarus flew too close to the sun.  He plunged into the sea to his death.  This is where the magic of a single word comes into play:  “forge.”  For the narrator it means to strengthen metal in fire.  But it also means to fake, to counterfeit, perhaps a gentle tug at Stephen’s hubris.

This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.
—John Hersey, “Hiroshima”

Great writers fear not the long sentence, and here is proof.  If a short sentence speaks a gospel truth, then a long one takes us on a kind of journey.  This is best done when subject and verb come at the beginning, as in this example, with the subordinate elements branching to the right.  There is room here for an inventory of Japanese cultural preferences, but the real target is that final phrase, an “atavistic urge to hide under leaves,” even in the shadow of the most destructive technology ever created, the atomic bomb.

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
—Toni Morrison, “Sula”

I did not know this sentence, but I love it.  It expresses a kind of synesthesia, a mixing of the senses, in which a sound can also be experienced as a shape.  Add to this effect the alliteration of “loud” and “long,” and the concentric movement of sound in “circles and circles of sorrow,” and we have something truly memorable.

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?
—Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”

Who could not admire a sentence with such a clear demarcation beginning, middle, and end?  Thank you, commas. Only a single word – “neighbor” – has more than one syllable.  Austen gives us 19 words that add up to 66 letters, an astonishing efficiency of fewer than four letters per word.  But this math is invisible to the meaning. She begins by asking what at first seems like a metaphysical question: “for what do we live.” The social commentary that follows brings us crashing down to earth in a phrase, and carries us home with a delicious sense of revenge, a kind of sophisticated punch line.

It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.
—Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

Didion wrote a New Yorker essay on Hemingway that included a brilliant close reading of the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms.  There is something suggestive of that passage here, a march of time constructed from the repetition of the smallest words:  the, it, and.  Then comes a wonderful dropping off, as in a steep waterfall, as meaning flows down a stream of optimism with phrases like “sense of high social purpose” and “spring of brave hopes and national promise,” only to fall off the edge and crash upon the boulders of “it was not.”  Not once but twice.

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.—Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms”

Donald Murray used to preach the 2-3-1 rule of emphasis.  Place the least emphatic words in the middle.  The second most important go at the beginning.  The most important nails the meaning at the end.  Hemingway offers a version of that here. A metaphor of flowing water is framed by two abstractions Anger and Obligation.  That fact that the metaphor is drawn from the action of the narrative makes it more effective.

There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.
—Charles Dickens, “Nicholas Nickleby”

Older sentences feel more ornate.  Long gone from our diction is the “euphuistic” style of long intricately balanced sentences that showed off the brilliance of the writer, but asked too much of the reader. But in Dickens the sentence as argument feels just right.  In short, it says that poor men cannot hope for justice.  It does so by an act of civic demythology, hitting the target again with the memorable final phrase “the furniture of their pockets.”

In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.
—Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”

Again we see how a longer sentence can flow from the work done near the beginning: “he was like America itself.”  Such a simile always evokes an instant question from the reader:  “How was he like America itself?”  (How hot is it, Johnny?)  The answer combines description and allegory.  He is a living microcosm of American strength and weakness.  In an unusual turn, the most interesting element rests in the middle with “a roll of fat jiggling at his belly.”

There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.—Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”

This sentence has the ring of familiarity to it, perhaps Nabokov’s riff on King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Lolita may have more “best sentences” than any work on this list, but I’m not sure this is one of them. I worry about any sentence that uses an adverb for a crutch. “Cruel” is not enough for Humbert Humbert. He must magnify the cruelty with a word – atrociously — that denotes wickedness and cruelty.  It’s not the child’s fault she is adored and yet this makes her an atrocity.  Now that I have thought it through, it sounds exactly like Humber’s self-delusions after all.  Perfect.

Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.
—Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood”

We used to call this a “periodic” sentence, that is, one in which the main action occurs at the period.  The Brits have a better name for that mark of punctuation:  the full stop. Any word that comes right before it gets special attention.  That effect is magnified by the boxcar alignment of those opening similes, along with the shift from things we can see to something more abstract – drama.  Which never stopped there, of course.  Until it did. Read more

Photo of male and female hands with pens by the monitor during discussion

A new explanatory journalism can be built on a strong foundation

I like young writers with big ideas. I met Ezra Klein last year at a public writing conference sponsored by his old newspaper, The Washington Post, and the Poynter Institute. Like his writing, Klein was sharp, smart, and quick, arguing for a new kind of approach to writing about public policy.

He said that in the digital age journalists were beginning to doubt the efficacy of what he called “the reverse pyramid,” his version of the more common “inverted pyramid.” He advocated taking more responsibility for what readers know and understand about government, policy, and all such technical issues. Sometimes this is best done in a Q&A format, or via a tidy bulleted list, forms that lead to less clutter, jargon, and bureaucratic obfuscation.

Hooray, I thought. Finally, somebody is getting it. Read more


Let grammar know who’s boss

So Tuesday is National Grammar Day. The first time I heard of that celebration, I thought that Poynter’s Vicki Krueger had said “National Grandma Day.”  I’m not sure it’s a good thing that grammar – especially in New England – sounds something like grandma. I prefer to remember that at one time in the history of the English language the words grammar and glamour were the same word! (That deserves an exclamation point, don’t you think?)

But even as we spend the day recognizing the importance of grammar, the question remains, “Which grammar?” Is it prescriptive grammar day, where we would mark people off for violations of standard English? Or is it descriptive grammar day, when linguists get all huffy about the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the language scolds among us.

My inclination is to split the difference. If I had to place myself in a particular camp, mine would be rhetorical grammar.  As the name implies, I’m less interested in the rules than the effects of language use.

Let’s take a common language framework applied to writing: the difference between the active voice and the passive voice. As a refresher, if the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb, we call that “active.” If subject receives the action, we call that “passive.”

I am suddenly reminded of a thought I had as a fifth-grader, when I first learned this distinction: “So what?”

So plenty. Active verbs require fewer words and reveal the players. That’s why a century of writing experts prefer the active. In other words, they prefer a kind of usage because of its effects on the audience: clarity, economy, directness, transparency. Too often, that leads to disparagement of the passive, which is a foolish and counter-productive mindset.

Yes, politicians use the passive to avoid responsibility as in “mistakes were made.”  Or to portray themselves as victims as in “I was blindsided.”

But active verbs can be used in support of corrupt intentions too: “The protesters got what they deserved.”

Think instead of how both active and passive can work for you and be expressed in vivid language. If you want to place attention on the receiver of an action – even a victim of it – the passive should be there on your workbench.

So please join our webinar, Tuesday, March 4, 2 p.m. ET, to learn more strategies of rhetorical grammar. Register here. At the end you will be able to say that grammar works for you, not the other way around. Read more


The worst news ever: Negative headlines outperform positive ones


Put the brakes on your uplifting-content startup! The firm Outbrain found in two studies that headlines with “negative superlatives” vastly outperformed those with positive words:

Compared with headlines that contained neither positive (“always” or “best”) nor negative (“never” or “worst”) superlatives, headlines with positive superlatives performed 29% worse and headlines with negative superlatives performed 30% better. The average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts.

But…why? “Whereas positive superlatives may have become clichéd through overuse, negative superlatives may be more unexpected and intriguing,” Alex Bennett writes in just the most depressing, soul-destroying, heartbreaking blog post you’ll read all day. Read more

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As a New Jersey state trooper stands at attention nearby, Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Blindsided: How Christie used passive verbs to turn himself into a victim

My brother frequently drives from New Jersey to New York across the George Washington Bridge to visit our 94-year-old mom. Her name is Shirley Clark, and she likes Chris Christie. She prefers her politicians to be straight talkers. She would agree with George Orwell that the best political rhetoric is “demotic,” a fancy word for the “voice of the people.”

If I could bring Orwell back from his early grave, I would have loved to have sat next to him during the New Jersey governor’s press conference apologizing for dirty political tricks, or at his subsequent State of the State of New Jersey speech. Based on what Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” I think he would have given the governor a mixed grade.

Reviewing Christie’s words, there are moments when he seems to take responsibility for the traffic disasters as political vendetta in the city of Fort Lee. He says, for example, “I apologize to the people of Fort Lee” and “ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch – the good and the bad.” Read more


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