Good writing may be magical, but it’s not magic. It is the by-product of a rational series of decisions and actions. Fortunately for those of us struggling to write well, that process can be observed, understood, and, on the best days, repeated.
Whether it’s a deadline account of a fatal accident, an editorial about toxic waste dumping, a feature on a neighborhood crime-fighting campaign, or a profile of a wily politician, writing requires the same process of reporting, focusing, organizing, drafting, and rewriting information into lively and clear prose.
The process is the skeleton beneath any story. By articulating the steps that produce effective writing, writers can more effectively diagnose and solve their writing problems. Writers and editors who share a common view and vocabulary of the writing process become collaborators rather than adversaries.
The writing process
Writers begin with an IDEA, either their own or an assignment from an editor. Good writers usually come up with their own ideas–editors expect that enterprise and rely on them to see stories that others don’t see.
We don’t write with words. We write with specific, accurate information. Not just who, what, when, where, and why, but how. What did it look like? What sounds echoed? What scents lingered in the air? Why did people care? The writer begins to REPORT, casting as wide a net as possible: interviewing, reading, observing, taking notes.
Storytellers aren’t tied to their desk. They are out in the streets. They’re the reporters who show up before the news conference and hang around after it’s over, the ones who interview the victim two weeks after the shooting. They know that stories don’t end after the arrest or the election. “The importance of the writer,” the novelist James Baldwin said, “is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.”
TIP: Look for revealing details that put people on the page. The female police officer who wears “size four steel-toe boots.” The widow who sprays her dead husband’s aftershave on her pillow. “In a good story,” says David Finkel of The Washington Post, “a paranoid schizophrenic doesn’t just hear imaginary voices, he hears them say, ‘Go kill a policeman.’” Use the five senses in your reporting and a few others: sense of place, sense of people, sense of time, sense of drama.
Once the writer accumulates a wealth of material–statistics, quotations, differing opinions–confusion often sets in. What does it all mean? What’s the significance of what I’ve learned? As writers try to answer those questions, they begin to FOCUS on the elements that make their subject compelling. Good writers know that a story should leave a single, dominant impression.
“The most important thing in the story,” says Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post, “is finding the central idea. It’s one thing to be given a topic, but you have to find the idea or the concept within that topic. Once you find that idea or thread, all the other anecdotes, illustrations, and quotes are pearls that hang on this thread. The thread may seem very humble, the pearls may seem very flashy, but it’s still the thread that makes the necklace.”
TIP: Ask two questions that keep track of the focus of any story: What’s the news? What’s the point? They address the reader’s concerns: What’s new here? What’s this story about? Why am I reading this?
A shape begins to emerge, and with it, a way to tell the story. The writer begins to ORGANIZE the story now. Some writers make a formal outline. Others jot down a list of the points they want to cover. Writers are always looking for a new way to tell their story, to stretch the traditional forms, to experiment.
Writing the lead often helps writers devise their plan of attack. Effective leads “shine a flashlight into the story,” as John McPhee of the New Yorker puts it. It is the first step of a journey. Just as important, if not more, is the last step, the ending. A map also furnishes another essential ingredient for a journey: a destination.
TIP: Before you begin writing, make a list of the elements you know you want to include in your story. Number them in order of importance. Structure your story accordingly.
The writer is ready to DRAFT the story, almost like an artist with a sketchpad. It may start with a line, a paragraph, perhaps even several pages. The writer is discovering the story by writing it. Writers use the draft to teach themselves what they know and what they don’t know about their subject. Saul Pett, a veteran feature writer for the Associated Press, says, “Before it’s finished, good writing always involves a sense of discipline, but good writing begins in a sense of freedom, of elbow room, of space, of a challenge to grope and find the heart of the matter.”
TIP: Put your notes aside before you start to write. “Notes are like Velcro,” says one of America’s best journalism professors, Jane Harrigan of the University of New Hampshire. “As you try to skim them, they ensnare you, and pretty soon you can’t see the story for the details.” Her advice: Repeat over and over, “The story is not in my notes. The story is in my head.”
Good writers are rarely satisfied. They write a word, then scratch it out, or in this computer age, tap the delete key, and try again. The writer has begun to REWRITE. “Nonwriters think of writing as a matter of tinkering, touching up, making presentable, but writers know it is central to the act of discovering,” says Don Murray, author of Writing for Your Readers: Notes on the Writer’s Craft from The Boston Globe.
The writing process isn’t a straight line. Often the writer circles back to re-report, re-focus, reorganize. Good writers are never content. They’re always trying to find better details, a sharper focus, a beginning that captivates, an ending that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
TIP: Role play the reader. Step back and pretend you’re reading your story for the first time. Does the lead make you want to keep reading? Does it take you too long to learn what the story is about and why it’s important? If not, are you intrigued enough to keep reading anyway? What questions do you have about the story? Are they answered in the order you would logically ask them?