Want to be a good writer? Keep talking.
I am retiring from The Poynter Institute on New Year’s Eve. As my wife and I watch the ball in Times Square slide down to 2017, our fervent smooch will not just mark a new beginning. It will be the first celebration of almost 40 years well-spent.
When my retirement was announced — along with the news that I would continue to work on some important projects for Poynter — my friend Jay Rosen generously described me as “a unique figure in American journalism.”
That uniqueness, if it is true, must be attributed to the vision of a great man, Gene Patterson, who hired me in 1977 to work for a year as a writing coach for the St. Petersburg Times. That one year turned into 40.
To mark that milestone, I thought it would be interesting to return to 1977. I was 29 years old. I was on leave from a college teaching job in Montgomery, Alabama. I had published scholarly articles on Chaucer and medieval literature. I had written my first report on my experience as a writing coach in the newsroom. It appeared on the pages of "The Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors." (Patterson was president of ASNE that year.)
So here is what I thought about newspaper writing way back when. With all the changes in journalism since then, let’s see how many of my conclusions still hold up.
Patterson plucked me out of a snug English department office last June and plunked me into the middle of the St. Petersburg Times newsroom. He then described what was to become my year’s labor in the newspaper business: “I want you to learn all about the business. I want you to improve the quality of the writing here at the Times. And I want you to find ways by which any newspaper can improve its writing.” Then, his jaw set with determination, he went on vacation.
Thus abandoned in the newsroom, I had no choice but to meet reporters and editors on their own terms. I accompanied reporters to dull courtroom trials and duller county commission meetings. I watched them write three stories in an hour. I sat in the press box during a Tampa Bay Buccaneers loss, and I marveled as our sportswriters banged out lines of able prose under an oppressive deadline. I worked for a month on the copydesk, absorbing the experience of editors as they gave muscles to flabby prose.
I learned a few valuable lessons right away: that newspaper writing is better than most academic writing, that a newspaper contains individuals of wildly varying abilities, that few agree on what constitutes “good” newspaper writing, that newspaper writers have fragile egos and that reporters and editors love to blame each other for the weaknesses in newspaper writing.
In my first weeks at the paper, I heard a story about a Midwestern editor who had developed his own way of improving the writing at his paper. He would throw his telephone at a writer who made a grammatical error. The mistake was rarely repeated.
Although I’ve had the urge to throw a phone – sometimes a telephone pole – at a college student who refused to make subject and verb agree, I know that is not the way to encourage good writing. I do not believe in holding a writer’s work up to ridicule or in burdening a student’s paper with dozens of red-penciled corrections that are inevitably ignored.
For complicated reasons, many college students can barely write. At times I will wait for weeks until I find the sentence I am looking for in the work of a student. “Yes. It has a subject and a verb. Subject and verb agree! The sentence is clear. And interesting. That’s it: one, good Standard English sentence. If you can do it once, you can do it again and again.”
I brought this philosophy of teaching to the newsroom: Get the writer to recognize and emulate his own strengths. Unlike college students, reporters write every day. They write with a purpose. And they write for an audience of editors and readers. They have a professional stake in improving their skills. For these reasons, I find the newsroom more fertile than the classroom for cultivating a writer’s skills.
What is a writing coach?
Before I tacked my newspaper writing thesis on Patterson’s door, I wanted to interview every writer on the staff, a process that lasted four months. I preferred one-on-one sessions to group meetings. These were, after all, professionals, and I wanted to avoid a classroom setting that might make some writers uncomfortable. I would use these interviews to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each writer, to make each one think more about writing as a craft, and to suggest one or two specific remedies to improve the writer’s style.
To prepare for the interviews, I reviewed about six months of articles from byline files and sought out editors’ opinions on a writer’s work. I looked carefully to find examples of strong writing: a good lead, an effective transition, even a single interesting word.
At a typical interview I might ask some of the following questions:
Where did you learn to write? How long have you covered your beat? How do your editors react to your work? Do they rewrite your stories? How do you feel about that? After a story appears in print, do the editors ever criticize your work? Has anyone at the paper ever praised your writing? What have you been reading lately? What writers do you admire? What are your writing habits? How do you handle deadline pressure? Do you rewrite much? If you do rewrite, what changes will you make?
Then the questions become more specific:
Do you think about the length of your sentences? How do you use direct quotations? Do you have problems incorporating attribution smoothly into a story? Do you find yourself using clichés as a result of covering (government, sports, police) for so long? What do you try to accomplish in a lead? What was the best lead you ever wrote? Do you pay attention to the types of verbs that you use? Do you ever think about the overall structure of your article? About transitions? Do you rely on the inverted pyramid? Do you spend as much time with endings as you do leads?
The reporter does most of the talking. After a free-wheeling bull-session that might last as long as two hours, we will browse through the byline file. I let the writer pick up a story at random and comment on problems he might have faced in writing it. I find an opportunity to point out specific strengths: “That lead works because you used two sentences instead of one” or “You have a way of dropping key facts into the story without obstructing the flow” or “That passage is concise because you use the active voice.”
About half the writers I interviewed could not describe the distinction between active and passive voice, even though most of them wrote with active verbs all the time. I would use the opportunity for some informal instruction.
In the days after the interview I would discuss a writer’s work with him whenever I got the chance, perching on the edge of his desk to exchange some ideas on a recent article. I am happy to say that after the interview many writers would seek me out to discuss problems with a story, to bitch about an editor or headline writer or to argue a point of usage. I also tried to work on an article with the writer, to concentrate on the process of writing as well as on the product.
The ability of the writers varied so greatly that no single interview proceeded in a set pattern. Some I talked with were accomplished newspaper writers and novelists. Others wrote ungrammatical prose. My goal was to raise the awareness of each writer about the craft of writing. I never attempt to force a writer into radical stylistic changes. When appropriate, I might suggest one or two specified changes: “Don’t always write one-sentence leads” or “Don’t begin so many sentences with it is or there are” or “Don’t feel you always have to cram the attribution into the lead.”
Four months of meetings with writers and editors and visits to other newspapers have led to a series of preliminary conclusions, which I presented to Patterson in October:
A writing consultant cannot single-handedly improve the quality of the writing at a newspaper. The push must come from the bigshots at a paper and the editors who handle copy every day. When a writer comes to a newspaper, he must learn quickly that he is entering an environment in which good writing is encouraged and rewarded. Long after the name of the writing consultant is a whisper in the wind, writers and editors will be working together to produce good writing for the Times.
Newspapers don’t give enough emphasis to good writing. They think more about accuracy, fairness, privacy, libel, advertising, circulation and design. “We don’t call them writers” said a New York editor, “we call them reporters. Oh, I was at a paper that had two writers once. They sat in a corner and talked to each other.”
Writers don’t rewrite enough. They have abdicated that responsibility to editors. At times the deadline makes rewriting impossible. But writers often use the deadline as a scapegoat. They got in the habit of writing quickly and will organize their time to avoid rewriting. Perhaps an editor will discourage a writer from rewriting because revisions slow the writer. But I have found that the better writers at a newspaper revise their work, refine their style and struggle to find just the right word….These writers know the insides of the words they use. They are good reporters. They rewrite. And it shows.
Editors hurt prose as often as they help it. I have seen an editor save a writer from an embarrassing mistake. I have praised many leads that had been radically rewritten by deskmen. [You will have noticed by now that in 1977 I was using the masculine reference as the universal, something I no longer do or teach. ‘Deskmen’ would now be ‘copy editors.’] But too few editors have nurtured a love for the language. They are not attuned to the subtle rhythms of prose or to the full power of language. Mike O’Neill, editor of the New York Daily News, once told his editors to “wear blindfolds” and start listening for good writing. To appreciate good writing an editor has to “grow ears.”
Some editors feel an editorial imperative that forces them to rewrite any passage that flashes across their [computer screens]. This is like unto a committee of the Anglican Church that decided to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” became “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” This represents the kind of change many editors would make. William F. Buckley Jr. sees this as proof that “A venerable passage will be reworded by a rewording commission insofar as a commission to reword possesses the authority to do so.”
Editors need not be great writers to do their work effectively. But they should be able to recognize good writing when they see it. There are times when the best response to a writer’s work is a round of applause.
Editors do not spend enough time with their best writers. This may seem to contradict my previous point, but I don’t think it does. Most editors expend a great deal of energy improving weak writing – just to get it in the paper. When they get a good article from a writer, they are so relieved that they do not give the article the attention it deserves. Editors often miss the opportunity to turn a good article into an excellent one and to refine a good writer’s skills.
Editors do not offer writers enough helpful criticism. Too often changes are made without the knowledge of the writer. And when changes are made, the editor offers no explanation as to how the changes improve the story. This reflects a general abandoning of the teaching role by editors. I am told that the burden of writing instruction has traditionally fallen on editors. It was an editor of the young James J. Kilpatrick who sent him this valuable memo: “…those interesting objects are known as periods. You do not seem to be well acquainted with them. I urge you to try a few. You will find the key that produces them on the bottom row of your typewriter, toward the right-hand end.”
Because newspapers are concerned with tomorrow’s product, editors rarely review yesterday’s writing. They fail to congratulate a writer for an effective story or to consider why a particular lead did not work or why a transition did not hold a piece together. Editors should occasional peruse byline files. They can remind a writer how well he did last year and how much better he should be doing next year.
Writers and editors stereotype the reader. A lot of formula writing results from an unfortunate characterization of the abilities and interest of the “typical reader.” We find out that he has the reading ability of an eighth-grader, or that he will not read any sentence longer than 12 words, or that he will never read more than five paragraphs into a story. When I hear these self-fulfilling prophecies, I am reminded of E.B. White’s statement that “writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” I often dispense the advice of William Zinsser: “Write for yourself.” The writer must have faith that good writing will not be lost on his reader, that some seed will fall on fertile as well as rocky ground.
How we made it work in the newsroom
In the fall of 1977, I presented a plan to Patterson that would build into the newspaper an atmosphere conducive to good writing. I wanted to get everyone concerned about good writing and interesting language. I consider this an effort in “Lone Ranger diplomacy”: To create a situation in which I am no longer needed. In June of 1978, I want everyone to look off in the distance and ask, “Who was that masked man?”
To accomplish this I introduced the paper to some new items:
– The Wind Bag: For the last two months I’ve published this weekly newsletter on writing. he prototype for this three-page memo is Ted Bernstein’s “Winners & Sinners.” But the Bag differs from Bernstein’s sheet in both tone and emphasis. The Bag does not contain specific, technical problems of usage, the nuts and bolts of last week’s paper. But it also discusses broader stylistic problems. I use The Bag to encourage good writing and to publicly praise the writing and editing skills of the Times. The Bag also accepts submissions from all staffers. We debate questions of usage and style. There is art and humor in The Bag. After only eight editions, I find that people are writing to get in The Wind Bag – and also to stay out of it.
– The Writers’ Lunch: Newspaper writers often forget how good newspaper writing can be. To remedy this I pick out an excellent article that illustrates effective writing techniques. Some of these come from well-known writers such as Breslin, Mailer, Updike or Willie Morris. Others are from lesser-known writers. We have averaged crowds of 25 persons, an interesting mixture of writers, editors and others. There is always a debate. When the opportunity arises I direct the discussion to our own paper: “Would the Times print this story” or “Have you read any editorials in our paper which were as persuasive as this one?”
– Deadline Questions: You can lead a writer to a copy of a Bernstein book or Strunk and White’s "Elements of Style." But you can’t make him read it. The writer can benefit from the wisdom in these works, but I have found that a reporter under deadline rarely applies the advice of the experts to his daily work.
I do not believe you can reduce good writing to rule. As Mencken says, “A style is always the outward and visible symbol of a man, and it cannot be anything else. To attempt to teach it is as silly as to set up courses in making love.” Struck and White meet Masters and Johnson.
But I compiled this short list of questions to encourage writers to rewrite more and to remind everyone that good writing is not a freak of nature but depends upon careful rewriting. Since these are not “rules” of good writing, they will not guarantee any dramatic improvements. But if a reporter has never thought seriously about the elements of effective newspaper writing, this list will give him a start:
– Have I used verbs in the active voice?
– Are subjects close to verbs?
– Have I avoided long, unreadable sentences?
– Does my article have a beginning, a middle, and an end?
– Have I sought alternatives to clichés?
– Have I cluttered my lead with needless attribution, confusing statistics or bureaucratic names?
– Have I cut needless words, especially modifiers?
This then is a history of my first half-year at the St. Petersburg Times. Tune in about six months from now to get my final report on Patterson’s daring project. But let me relieve some of the suspense. I see evidence that the interviews, memos, lunches and many daily informal meetings are working. Some mornings I read the paper and feel like Sisyphus after his stone has rolled down the hill. But I am rewarded on other days when I see signs of life from writers who have been hibernating for years in the Cave of Hacks.
Back to 2016
It is the real Roy here, here in our time, a little woozy from that trip back to 1977. Something happened in June of 1978, the month I was scheduled to return to teach at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama: Nelson Poynter died.
With some urgency, Mr. Poynter’s vision of creating a school that could inherit his newspaper had to be made real. I had expressed my desire to stay at the newspaper and work on my writing, which I was able to do for another formative year. Patterson offered me another opportunity and challenge: for about a 30 percent increase in my salary, would I join the Modern Media Institute (the original name of the Poynter Institute) and get things moving. My wife Karen said yes.
I became the first full-time faculty member and eventually the first dean, the first vice president and the first senior scholar. A lot happened over almost four decades, and I want to write about those things, too. But whatever I learned and whatever I taught, the seeds of that knowledge were sown in my first six months on the job.
My mission – personal and profession – remains the same: To learn something new about the craft every day, and to pass that knowledge along as soon as I am able.