Think of writing as a conversation.

If you read James Nuland's book, How to Die?, you would have seen a quote from Laurence Stone, an 18th Century novelist: "Writing is but a different name for conversation."

This concept was driven home to me when I was Editor of the Boston Globe and invited Don Murray to be our writing coach. The first day he walked through the newsroom and arrived at my doorstep, Murray said:

"I can tell you who your best three writers are."

I couldn't resist, asking which ones, and he pointed to two women and a man who indeed were among the very best writers.

"How did you know?" I asked.

"Because," said Murray, "their lips move when they write."

Writing is a personal process, so maybe it's appropriate that the three main elements all start with the letter "I". They are:

1. Information--words are symbols for what we learn.

2. Importance--that is, what is significant (which we often find in the insignificant details).

3. Interest--if it affects the reader, it has passed the test.

The Steps:

  1. Writing is a process. Do an outline. There is a logical order to storytelling.

  2.  Write a one-sentence summary. William Faulkner mounted a 3 x 5 card on his typewriter with just a couple of words that reflected the theme of his novel, so that he would never stray from the point as he wrote. Good writing means throwing away much of what you have collected and synthesizing or hanging onto only what matches the central theme of the story.

  3. Writing is the story's voice. Determine voice. The tone should match the essence of the story. Is it best told   in an inverted pyramid structure? In first person? As an essay, following the standard format? Or in free form? The options are many. But when you are deciding which option best tells the story, you will eliminate a lot of options in order to allow the voice of the story to be heard properly.

  4. Writing is discovery. You are now ready to start your conversation. How? Just get it down on paper. Let yourself go and be surprised about what happens. Walt Whitman once said he never knew how his poems would end: "I just let her come until the fountain is dry." Edward Albee is quoted as having said, "I write to find out what I'm thinking about." Some people find they can write better without using notes, then come back and fill in the details. Don't worry about spelling or punctuation or capitalization or grammar. Faulkner said, "There are some kinds of writing that you have to do very fast, like riding a bicycle on a tightrope."   

  5. Good writing has a beginning, middle and end. Many writers get stuck on the beginning. My advice? Skip the first paragraph, start with the second and come back to it. Another technique is to write about 15 first paragraphs in different ways as fast as you can, even abbreviating words, virtually scribbling. Soon you will find you are borrowing elements from one paragraph and using it in another. Then you look back and pick the one you like best...or continue on with the second paragraph and go back later. The middle should come easy, if you have an outline.                                                           

  6. Finally, the ending. Well, it may be final, but it also is lingering. The last paragraph sticks in the reader's mind. So you should make a special effort to have a good final paragraph--not a summary, but something that captures the essence of the story. It may be a nugget of information that you have stored up like a squirrel. Many good writers often know what they are going to say in the last paragraph before they write the first paragraph. The possibilities are endless (pun intended). Look at how other good writers end their stories to get some ideas.