Although I have been unable to teach in-person writing workshops during the pandemic, my Zoom teachings have been zooming. Almost all of these virtual workshops have been pro-bono, but I have received rewards beyond money. A favorite activity is “visiting” a writing class, especially one that is using one of my writing books as a text. I have fun, play a little music, and get treated like Obama or Springsteen.
In other years, I would have walked across the street from the Poynter Institute to visit a class at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. Instead, I taught this week, in my new mode, from a computer perched on our dining room table.
The day before the class, the teacher, veteran journalist Janet Keeler, submitted a list of questions from the students who had been studying my most recent book “Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser.” In short, it’s a writing book about writing books.
The questions were so good, I was inspired to sit down for an hour or so and answer them in writing. Those questions and answers, lightly edited for clarity, may be of use to you in your own work. I hope so.
What makes you love writing so much?
I think it began with reading. As a kid I watched lots of television. I played sports. But there were times I wanted to escape to my room, or the public library, or even up a sycamore tree in our back yard.
In the 1950s if you were a kid who wanted to know the secrets of adult life, you couldn’t get them from TV or the movies. But you could get them from books.
It took a long time for me to realize that I could go from reading the stories of another writer to writing my own. The importance of stories has never felt more real to me than over the last year during these times of trouble.
Do you ever rescue your own “darlings” from the drawer and use them? Do most writers keep a certain amount of “clever” but unusable material as a source to pull ideas from?
I do this all the time. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch advised his students to “murder your darlings,” that is to kill those words and phrases designed to show off your cleverness, rather than support the focus of the story. But I say to Q: “Why do we have to murder those darlings? Why can’t we just send them to boarding school? Maybe there will come a day when we can welcome them home.”
In other words, don’t kill stuff you don’t use in a story; save it for another day.
When do you know when you’re finished writing?
Deadlines control this, to some extent. Feedback from teachers and editors also influences your sense that it’s time to hand it in. Or that it is not yet fully cooked.
I have this trick I use: Build up enough momentum to bust through the agreed-upon length. I won’t stop drafting a 1,000-word essay until I’ve hit 2,000 words. “Murder Your Darlings” was probably 30,000 words too long. But that feels like a good problem to have. Now you turn to revision and selection. I am a putter-inner, and then I become a taker-outer.
What is one thing that you did not say in the book but wish you had?
I may have written another 10 chapters that had to be cut. I have published some of those chapters as essays, and may publish more. I wish there had been more space for me to include the influence of key and enduring texts on my writing: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and especially the Oxford English Dictionary, the most important work on language ever compiled.
What has been the most interesting review from a reader?
One reader told me that when she saw the title, “Murder Your Darlings,” she said to herself. “Great! I love Agatha Christie!” I am fortunate — especially in the age of internet trolling — that the great majority of readers tell me that one of my books helped them solve a problem or inspired them to be better writers. If I can be useful and inspirational, that’s gold. That fulfills my professional mission and purpose.
On editors: How do we know when to stand our ground and grant a darling a stay of execution? Is this something we learn over time? Do we need to look for a new editor if we fundamentally disagree on a planned hit?
There is a sneaky way to get your darlings published, and a better way. The sneaky way is to place it down in your story about two-thirds of the way from the top. That space gets less attention than the top or bottom, so you may get it through. If you hand it in at the last minute, your editor may not have time to find it.
I hope you can tell that I don’t think this is the best way. Better to turn your editor into a shepherd for the edgier aspects of your work. You do this by “sending up a flare,” sharing that phrase or anecdote, expressing why you think it’s important, then be ready to defend it when a bigshot editor or grouchy reader doesn’t like it.
What are the most important priorities for self-editing? How can I be a better editor?
First, don’t think of revision as proofreading. You can revise every part of the process: the idea, the reporting, the focus, the selection, the order, the draft. You can even revise the revision. You can’t do any of that if you don’t give yourself time. Consider writing a lot earlier than you think you can.
How do you get inspiration to write about things you don’t care about or are not interested in? Do you think of ways to make yourself interested?
Let’s take brown pelicans. Why should anyone be interested in the brown pelican? I promise you this, there is someone out there who loves brown pelicans more than I love my children. Find that person. Tap into their passion. That person will deliver stories and insights that will light up your interest, and that of your readers.
How do you stay inspired past the initial idea?
It helps to see the world as a storehouse of story ideas. That means for every column I write I have five others I could write.
My friend Jacqui Banaszynski talks about “being in full story.” This means that as you build momentum, you will be amazed that you begin to see aspects of your story everywhere — and every day.
The day I decided to write about pelicans, a squadron of them pooped on the windshield of my car as I was driving over the Howard Frankland Bridge. It felt like a validation!
Would you share a tip you used as a newbie writer to overcome hesitancy due to insecurities and procrastination?
One key is to trust your hands. If you write earlier than you think you can and faster, you can create what Anne Lamott refers to as those “shitty first drafts.” I don’t think that’s a good term for that. With rare exceptions all early drafts are imperfect, but that imperfection is a gift — the raw material you need to make things better during revision.
As for procrastination, I never procrastinate. I “rehearse.” Just because your hands are not yet moving doesn’t mean that your mind isn’t working.
How do you balance an informal, conversational tone while maintaining authority on the topic?
One answer to this question is to take advantage of an ignored pronoun — you. The plural you. Or, as some say in the South: “y’all.” On occasion, writing directly to an imagined reader, as if you were talking to a curious and intelligent friend, leads you to language that can be both conversational and authoritative. TED Talks, I think, are good at this.
Could you tell us more about how you came up with the term “zero draft?”
I did not create that phrase, as I always admit in public. I have tried to track down the writer or teacher who coined the term, but no luck. But I will say that I have probably become its most avid proponent.
By definition, a zero draft is preliminary, not even to the level of a first draft. It allows you to relax, even to write without reference to your notes. Writing a zero draft teaches you what you already know and what you still have to learn.
In “Murder Your Darlings,” you wrote about being sincere in memoirs and about writers turning their hardships into advantage. Still, I’m not sure how to approach writing about this or if I even want to. Have you ever dealt with a decision like this?
I met a writer who had been in prison as a young man. I remember telling him that, as a writer, he was lucky. That my toughest obstacle in life was not being able to find my white minivan in the parking lot of the mall. I was a caregiver for my wife Karen for almost four years of her breast cancer treatments and recovery before I felt ready to write about it. I could now, at the age of almost 73, make a long list of troubles and tragedies in my experience worth writing about.
Each case, each story is different. It helps to write a little mission statement: Why do I want to write this? Who will be helped by it? Are there any vulnerable people in the story who may need to be protected?
Any tips to help a chronic run-on sentence writer?
My flip answer is to put in more commas, semicolons and periods. I love long sentences that describe something like a line of cars at COVID-19 testing sites. I try to put my best thought in my shortest sentence.
Do you think I can be a successful writer without also being an avid reader?
I am sure there are such writers, but I could not name one from my experience. It’s good to ask: how can I become a more literate person? I would suggest you practice three behaviors: 1) to read critically 2) to write purposefully 3) and to talk about how reading and writing create meaning — the way we are doing now.
In “Murder Your Darlings” you have a very distinct voice. How did you go about finding and developing that voice?
When I was a kid, I had a kind of New York wiseguy voice. I bet my wife I could go five minutes without making a joke, and I lost the bet in about 90 seconds. By the time I got to graduate school, I had learned to write about Shakespeare and Chaucer and Aristotle in a standard academic voice. I had graduated from piss to epistemology.
When I finally “grew up” at about age 50 I realized that I could write a story that alluded to both St. Thomas Aquinas and Seinfeld. It feels like who I am.
You have so many tips in the book. Which ones do you use the most in your own writing?
My favorite writing tip is to place the most important or interesting word in a sentence or paragraph at the end, where readers can see it. Take your best stuff out of hiding.