40 things I learned about the writing craft in 40 years
This is the first piece I have published since my official retirement from Poynter on New Year’s Eve. I have lots of work ahead of me, but it has been fun and instructive to look back. If you reach your destination in decent shape, it’s easy to forget the bumps in the road behind you. Better to look at the odometer and celebrate the distance you’ve traveled.
As is my habit, I have made a list. It contains 40 things I have learned in 40 years. In some cases, I learned it through study and teaching; in others, through reading and writing. A few of these I remember as original although most were borrowed and adapted from others or learned in collaboration. Whenever memory serves, I attribute this wisdom to others.
1. Writing process: I learned that writing was a process in graduate school, studying to be a composition teacher. It hit home years later when Donald Murray drew his model of the process on the board: idea, collect, focus, order, draft, clarify.
2. Coaching writers: Gene Patterson, a great newspaper editor, hired me to coach his writers at the St. Petersburg Times. An editor who coached writers eliminated the need to fix an endless cycle of broken stories.
3. Human side of editing: Don Fry read many editing books that treated the act of editing as if it were performing an autopsy on a cadaver. Editing required not just operating on stories. It meant working with a writer, a human being.
4. Marriage of writing, editing, design: Mario Garcia, the great news designer, figured this out. The word people and the visual folks need not be in competition. Journalists of all disciplines must collaborate to get the very best work on the page or screen.
5. Morality of craft: The strategies of good writing were neutral. They could be used to inspire, but also to coerce. J-prof Mel Mencher argued that the journalists had a moral responsibility to perfect the craft.
6. Green-light ethics: The early history of news media ethics was too bound up in codes that preached what you should not do. I coined the term “green-light” ethics to describe good journalists fighting to get into print work that was in the public interest.
7. Craft of honest writing: I spent a lot of time studying acts of malpractice in journalism, especially plagiarism and fabrication, of which we saw spectacular examples. Honest writing is a craft unto itself, one that should be learned early. It starts with how you take notes.
8. Tools not rules: We could think of writing as carpentry, learning how to use a set of tools. Rules were all about what is right and what is wrong. Tools are all about cause and effect, what we build for the audience.
9. Reports vs. stories: Reading scholar Louise Rosenblatt described a distinction I adapted to journalism: that reports were crafted to convey information — pointing you there. Stories were about vicarious experience, a form of transportation — putting you there.
10. Storytelling as virtual reality: I watched Tom French grow as a storyteller and studied all his moves — immersive reporting, interviewing for story, building a sequence of scenes, finding that narrative engine, a question that can only be answered by finishing the story.
11. Serialization: Except for a resurgence in the 1990s, journalism has not taken sufficient advantage of the serial as a way to capture audience. From novels by Dickens to binge-watching on Netflix, storytellers create the desperate need to know what will happen next. A long serial can be delivered in short chapters.
12. Cliffhangers: Nothing drives readers from one chapter to another with more energy than a good cliffhanger. The word suspense derives from the Latin word meaning “to hang.” A single story — if it has parts — can have internal cliffhangers that invigorate the reader’s interest.
13. The nut: Writers and editors at the WSJ and Philly Inquirer perfected the nut graf. If you led the story with an anecdote, you could follow with the news element or context. Chip Scanlan said it need not be a paragraph, you could have a nut word, phrase, or sentence. Or a nut zone!
14. Making hard facts easy reading: I had to learn that good writing did not equal long, dramatic narratives. Canada’s Stuart Adam described the need for civic clarity — a democratic craft that took important but impenetrable issues and made them accessible to citizens.
15. Setting the pace: A key strategy for taking responsibility for what readers know and understand was setting an easy pace. For Don Murray that meant shorter words, sentences and paragraphs at the point of greatest complexity.
16. White space as punctuation: Visual artists and designers rhapsodize about white space. Writers need to love it, too. White space, created by paragraphs, ventilates the page. Too much, and text elements seem scattered. Too little, and the page appears dense and impenetrable.
17. Effects of sentence length: This is counter-intuitive. A series of short sentences slows the reader, because each period is a “full stop.” A well-written long sentence speeds the reader toward the period. Long sentences take readers on a journey. Short ones tell the gospel truth.
18. Active vs. passive: Experts prefer the active voice with its easy 1-2-3 energy — Mantle blasted a homer. The passive should be used when the camera points to the victim — The laces on the ball were snapped by Mantle’s mighty swing. Verbs are not active or passive. Subjects are!
19. Emphatic word order: The journalist with news judgment decides what is most interesting or most important. That judgment can be conveyed in word order, placing the key words at the beginning or end. Not “The Queen is dead, my lord.” But “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”
20. Public style: There are countless writing styles, from scientific to bureaucratic to corporate. Many result from a desire to limit knowledge to a group. Journalism, at its best, seeks the largest possible audience, thinking of readers as citizens, inviting them into a public conversation.
21. Writing as a social literacy: I learned this from editor and writing coach Jack Hart. It’s good that we teach reading as a social literacy — a capacity every citizen should own. Why, then, do we teach writing as a fine art, to be pursued only by the gifted? What good is freedom of expression, if we lack the means to express ourselves?
22. Voice modulation: Don Fry defined voice as the sum of the strategies that create the effect that the writer is speaking from the page. The dials to influence voice include level of language; person (first, second, third); range of allusions; figurative language; and distance from neutrality.
23. X-ray reading: Writing tools comes from “mentor texts,” pieces of writing that not only express content but reveal the writer’s methods. Journalists have a strong negative critical muscle, but an underdeveloped appreciative muscle. You need to see “what works.”
24. Short writing: The short forms of writing always get special attention, especially the headline. Digital writing includes blog posts, tweets, status updates and text messages but go back 3,000 years. The most important messages were always expressed in short forms.
25. Rehearsal: This strategy came from Donald Graves, the expert on how to teach writing to children. For adults, it is the antidote to procrastination. The writer contemplates the text in advance, thinking about its content, structure, even its language.
26. Lowering standards: Poet William Stafford argued that writer’s block was a result of standards that were too high, too early. Lowering standards at the beginning of the process gets your hands moving, creating a flow of ideas. Standards can be raised in revision.
27. Zero drafting: I may have learned this from Chip Scanlan. It’s a practical strategy for lowering your standards. Before the writer is ready to write a First Draft, he or she writes something more tentative, a quick draft to expose what you know and what you need to learn. All journalists should write earlier than they think they can.
28. Teaching writing cradle to grave: I have not had a resume or CV for four decades. This serves — “I teach writing cradle to grave.” I have taught children in kindergarten and great grandparents who want to write the family history. We should become a nation of writers.
29. Journalism as literature: We have different standards and expectations from fiction and nonfiction. Both require skill in language use and a sense of story. Both can be expressed with scenes, dialogue, points of view and story arcs. Both require authorship and can aspire to art.
30. Rhetorical grammar: I learned a lot from writing teacher Carolyn Matalene, who accused me of being a “rhetorical grammarian.” She was right. I was interested in the conventions of Standard English, but more interested in elements of language as tools of making meaning.
31. Writing for social justice: Strategies of language are morally neutral. Inspiration comes from immersion in reports and stories committed to virtues as tolerance, empathy, and social justice. I learned from colleagues Keith Woods, Karen Dunlap and Kenny Irby how to create stories that included the alienated, marginalized and dispossessed.
32. Attending to language: British novelist David Lodge argues that writers cannot afford to ignore any expression of language, from slang to jargon, from prayer to obscenity, from arguments in high courts to locker room talk. Words matter — wherever you find them or they find you.
33. Discourse communities: Here comes another lesson from Carolyn Matalene. We all belong to diverse language clubs, groups in which certain words are approved or condemned. Writing for different audiences often requires “code switching,” shifting from one dialect or language level to another.
34. Feeling the rub: Thanks to Billy Joel who taught me — at a public lecture —the effect of a “suspended” chord in music. It creates a tension, “a rub,” that must be resolved. In good writing, no rub means no tension, no friction, no heat, no light, no illumination, no new understanding.
35. Ladder of abstraction: For its thousands of uses, we can thank semanticist S.I. Hayakawa. In 1939 he described how words exist on a ladder. Concrete words (that spider) sit at the bottom. Abstract words (needless anxiety) rise to the top. Good writers climb up and down the ladder. Journalists must beware of the middle rungs, where jargon lurks.
36. Name of dog: City editor Mike Foley communicated a reporting and writing value that was commonplace at the St. Petersburg Times. If there was a dog in the story, you better come back with its name. Such details, the pit bull named Fluffy, offered a particularity that helped us see and remember.
37. Storehouse of story ideas: The best journalists have a special vision. They can see through the walls of cold institutions to find the stories hiding behind them. Journalists must handle assignments, but they must also sharpen their vision so that every journey results in a story idea.
38. Appreciative analysis: This is not a name for touchy-feely editing. There is little time for that. Most days, editors and reporters use their critical eyes to purge the imperfections of daily stories on deadline. A different kind of learning comes when a conversation between editor and reporter reveals what works in a story. If you can name it, you can put it on your workbench.
39. Mission and purpose: I learned from brainy editor Cole Campbell that there can be no perfection of craft without a noble purpose. Without high ideals, language and story can and will be used for mischief and worse. Write a mission statement for your story.
40. Hourglass: The journalism of the 19th century gave us the telegraph, the wire services, the five W’s, and the inverted pyramid. Nothing wrong with this story form — especially for short stories, but we need more story shapes to do the job, including the “hourglass,” which I named because it reconciled news elements at the top with narrative at the bottom.
As I complete this list of 40, I realized that I have not quite exhausted what I know and what I have learned. Does this mean there may be more goodies to share in the months and years ahead? Maybe so.