August 2, 2002

1. Writing is magical, but it’s not magic.
I reread Youngblood Hawke recently and discovered it’s not a literary masterpiece. But at 12 the experience of consuming that story was a magical experience. And this Herman guy who wrote it was clearly a magician, a genius. I mean, 783 pages and every word was spelled right. I couldn’t stop reading. Clearly I was screwed because I was neither a magician nor a genius. It took me more years than I’d like to count to learn that writing may be magical, but it’s not magic. It’s a process, a series of rational steps and decisions that every writer, no matter the deadline or genre, must make. Most of all, it’s a process of discovery. You don’t know what you’re going to write until you write it down and then read it and see how it has to be rewritten.

2. To become a better writer, you must lower your standards.
I know it sounds strange. Hey, what did you learn at the National Writers Workshop? Oh, this guy from Poynter gave a tip. Lower your standards. But there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you make sure to put the bar way up high before you publish. It’s a way to avoid writer’s block, though I like what columnist Roger Simon had to say on the subject: “Funny, my father never had truck driver’s block.” Perfect is the enemy of good. Accept the faults of your first draft; it contains the promise of the final one

3. To write well, you may have to write badly.
At first. Writing is about one thing: revision. I
never could find an editor who liked this one.

4. The power of a story comes from what’s not in it.
Powerful writing demonstrates the “iceberg” effect: What is below the surface – the interviews, drafts, false starts – is the hidden source of strength. Collect an abundance of material.

We write best from an abundance of material. I used to say I over-reported every story. When I left The Providence Journal, the systems people cheered. I filled two rolling dumpsters of material when I cleaned out my files in Washington. My editors would say I tried to turn every story into a project. Well, at least a book. But now I see it differently. I wasn’t over-reporting. I was underthinking. I try to live by the iceberg principle now. The best stories are those that have a mountain of evidence below the surface. The challenge for the writer is to decide which is the best quote, the more salient theme, the dramatic scene.

5. The more personal you are, the more universal you become.
The writer who uses herself as a source and resource has the greatest chance of connecting with the largest audience. First, ask yourself: What do I think about this story? What do I know about it? My first impulse is to tap into the ‘Net or Lexis Nexis, but there we find only information and language that’s already in the public domain. The smart writers I know start out by tapping into their own private stock first.

6. To become an original, imitate others.
You can discover your own voice by listening to other writers. Listen best by copying out their words. This practice horrifies some respected writers and teachers–write your own damn stories, they say–but if we were visual artists no one would look askance at us copying the paintings of the masters to see how they use color and shadow and contrast. By taking literary modeling lessons, I learned how leads and scenes are constructed, discover that writers like Rick Bragg rarely choose the default ending of the newspaper story – a quote. The study, I’m convinced, got me on a cover story in The Washington Post, where I landed after copying out the leads of published stories by Walt Harrington, Madelaine Blais, Peter Perl.

7. It takes the greatest courage to admit you are afraid.
Writer’s block is caused and reinforced by fear–fear of success as much as fear of failure. Compelling writing draws its strength from honesty about one’s limitations.

8. To tell a story of 1,000 words (or 100,000) you must be able to tell it in one word.
Every story needs a single dominant message–a theme, defined as “meaning in a word.” To find it, I follow the advice of David von Drehele, a brilliant writer for The Washington Post:

“At a time like that, you have to fall back on the basics: Sit down and tell a story.

“What happened?

“What did it look like, sound like, feel like? Who said what? Who did what?

“And why does it matter?

“What’s the point? Why is this story being told? What does it say about life, about the world, about the times we live in?”

Newspaper writing, especially on deadline, is so hectic and complicated–the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure–that it’s easy to forget the basics of storytelling. Namely, what happened, and why does it matter?

9. The way to write a lot is to write a little.
How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time. Brief daily sessions are the key to writing productivity. Revision requires energy and hope. The writer who binges, whether with alcohol or writing, ends up tired. This spring and summer during one of the busiest periods in my life, I made a commitment to write two pages a day on my novel. Notice I didn’t say good pages. But after 155 days, I had a draft that was more than 100,000 words long. And now I’m revising it, again two pages a day. Louise DeSalvo, a writer and teacher, says writers have to develop a new relationship with time if they’re going to write long form. That’s especially difficult for reporters addicted to daily bylines. But if you do it in brief daily sessions, you start stacking up the pages.

10. To be a success you must seek failure.
The greatest rewards demand the greatest risks.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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