The only way to learn how to write is to write. Another way of putting it: the more you write, the more you learn to write. That's what's makes it challenging: even old geezers like me are always learning how to do it better.
Good writing is good thinking. Indeed, a lot of good journalists and authors move their lips when they are writing. They are silently expressing themselves while their pen is putting the words on paper or their fingers are typing. Think of writing as conversation with another person. You do it all the time orally. So it should be easy.
One difference is that what you write needs to be based on something. That something is reporting. You need information to write well. Even opinion writing is more compelling if it has facts behind it rather than being random thoughts spouted by the writer.
Just as reporters should refrain from plunging into interviews, writers must refrain from writing until they take some preliminary steps that will be discussed in the next writing tutorial.
Before you dive into a pool of water, I would hope you look before you leap. The same is true with writing. Before you start scribbling or banging the keyboard, think about where you want to go with this story. Can you state the point of the story in one sentence? That should be the first thing you do. In fact, try writing that sentence about 20 times using different words and see which sentence really clicks--like a dive that creates hardly a splash. Frequently you will wind up using that sentence somewhere in the story.
They say William Faulkner never started a novel without writing down a phrase or sentence on a card reflecting the essence of his book. Then he propped the card on top of his typewriter so it was speaking to him throughout his writing.
A story needs facts which you gather in the reporting phase. I believe in over-reporting--squirreling away as many details, quotes, impressions, etc., as possible. After you gather them, you throw most of them away! That's what good writers do. They synthesize.
Every story has a beginning, middle and end. So after gathering, you organize. What material is going to go where in the story and in what order? Consider sketching out an outline. If the facts don't emphasize your core point, throw them away. Keep what's important, what's of interest. The reader expects you to provide the essence of the story, not to show off how much reporting you did.
And be sure to squirrel away a tasty morsel for the ending of the story. Readers seldom remember beginnings; they often remember endings.
Your mind works much faster than you can write. And part of the mystery of the writing process is that you discover things in your brain that you don't realize are there.
So, the faster you write the more you will surprise yourself with what you know and with your ability to express yourself well. Someone once compared it to riding a bicycle across a high wire in a circus. Walt Whitman said this: ``I just let her come until the fountain is dry.''
Once you've organized your reporting, just start writing. Don't worry about spelling or punctuation or even capitalization. Don't even write out (or type) the full quote you want to use at a certain point. In journalism, writers often type "TK" at the point where the quote is to go. It stands for: To Come. Why a "K"? I don't know. Maybe it's a throwback to Morse Code?
Don't be afraid about writing too long. You can take care of that later. A reporter once turned in a story to me that was 36 typewritten pages long. It was loaded with facts, but I had no idea what the the point of the story was. I asked him for his notes. I put them in my bottom drawer. Then I said, "OK, go back to your desk and write without notes." The new version was 12 pages long, captured the essence and didn't get tangled in all the notes he had made. He had been guilty in his first draft of what is called in the trade: "emptying your notebook". Not good.
Jimmy was a bright reporter. Even had a law degree. Writing was anguish for him. One day he came to me in exasperation. He had completed several days of reporting an important story and said, "I've been working for 3 hours on writing this story, and I just don't know how to start it." I told him to leave off the first paragraph, write the story from the second paragraph to the end, then come see me so we could discuss what the first paragraph might say.
He did as I suggested, but the appropriate first paragraph popped into his mind halfway through writing the story, and we never had to have the conversation.
That's one way to start when you don't know how to start.
Another way is to just write something--the first thing that comes into your mind. Then go back and redo it when inspiration strikes you. The less you think about it the more likely you'll have a brainstorm. One of the best writers I ever worked with said she got her "ledes" when she was cooking. "Ledes" is lingo for "leads", meaning the beginning of a story.
Sportswriters are experts at "ledes", because they write under deadline so often. Most sports events are at night, so sportswriters have to write under deadline. Many will write what is called "running" as a game is in progress. In other words, they will be actually typing the high points of what's going on while the game is in progress. As soon as it's over, they write a first paragraph on top of the "running", and a story is immediately ready for the first edition. Since most newspapers have more than one edition, sportswriters write an improved story--often with quotes from the participants and coaches--for the subsequent edition.
This tutorial starts with what is called an anecdotal "lede". It's a simple example that illustrates a point: That you shouldn't allow yourself to get bogged down with the first paragraph or two. Eventually it will come clear to you.
In the next tutorial I will suggest several other kinds of "ledes" as well as a little-used technique for starting with a bang!
Jack Driscoll can't type.
In my last tutorial, on Writing #4, I made several typographical errors. Sorry.
Seizing opportunity from the jaws of disaster, I began this tutorial with a subject (Jack Driscoll) and a verb (can't type). Some stories lend themselves to starting with a bang like that and proceeding from there.
How you begin a story sets a tone that should reflect the theme of the story. You don't put a fun-poking first paragraph on an obituary.
The easiest way to begin is with someone's quote, but frankly that can become a lazy device.
The Wall St. Journal often uses the case-study approach:
"Jeff is going to Singapore next week.
"Nusrah is going to Alaska.
"Hilary is going to Japan.
"It's vacation time, and many high school students are traveling around the world."
Usually, of course, the first three examples have more substance, but this illustrates a way to set up a story about a trend. The fourth paragraph is a summary of what that trend is.
Profile stories--which we could use more of in the most publications--often begin with a description of the person in a characteristic setting. Narratives use a storyteller's approach, unveiling the elements of the story a little at a time.
Old-fashioned journalism taught the 5 W's and an H approach: who, what, when, why, where and how. "The UN voted today to send a peacekeeping force to Cambridge, because a group of MIT students refused to get on the bus." It's still a good approach for certain basic stories.
Don't worry about which type of opening you use. Let the story dictate that. Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez summed up the importance of a first paragraph when he said, "The theme is defined, the style, the tone."
It's a good idea to study the works of accomplished writers; it's a bad idea to copy their way of writing.
Two elements should dictate how you approach your stories: you and the subject matter.
You should write in a way that is most comfortable to you, reaching down inside yourself to express what you are trying to convey. Imagine yourself writing just for one other person. You are not making a speech to a crowd or being a radio announcer with an audience of thousands. Write for an audience of one, because your stories are being read by one person at a time.
Immerse yourself in the subject matter. Digest it. And then tell what you know about the story in your own way. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes puts it this way: "When I sit and write, I am master of the world. For one brief moment, I am God. I create reality. In literature, imagination and language are reality.''
The subject matter should dictate the "voice" of your story. If you are writing about a funny thing that happened to you on the way to the forum, you use a different voice than what you would use writing about war in the Balkans.
Writer Donald Murray, a mentor of mine, once explained it to me as follows: "I like the word `voice' rather than 'style'", he said, "because style sounds like something you buy off a rack...When we say voice, we should mean the voice of the text, not the voice of the writer...Voice is flavor, voice is the music of writing, matching the meaning of the story."
The fun of writing--which stays with you the rest of your life--is that there
is no one way to write. You choose the words. You are in the driver's seat,
blending your voice with the voice of the story.
Ever fall asleep during a speech? Was it because you were tired or the speaker was boring?
If the answer was the latter, my guess is that the speech--in 90% of the cases--was too long.
When writing a story, how long is too long? Let's begin by saying that the effectiveness of a story is not measured by the number of words. It's determined by whether you make your point.
Short stories are good!
As stated previously, stories should have a single point or one dominant theme, and the art of good writing is often determined by how much you leave out and how well you condense.
A story of more than 200 words on the web has to have a lot going for it to maintain the reader's attention. Like what? Like: How well you write, how much timely, new and/or lively information it contains, how interesting and relevant the topic is and how much it educates, guides or entertains the reader.
Sounds like quite a challenge, eh? And yet writing short stories frequently is more difficult. They need to be fine-tuned. Sentences must be crisp. Verbs should convey action. Every word must count.
You should go to great lengths to keep your stories short.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL...On Writing (#8)
Think of writing as feasting.
It is an enjoyable experience. It is satisfying. It
feels a need. It…..(fill in the
Remember, however, that all good meals require one common
The same is true for writing. There’s
a lot of scouring cupboards, mixing and blending, slicing and dicing that comes
first. We call that process reporting.
A basic element—one you don’t see in movie and television depictions
of reporters—is plain old, plain old research.
A top-notch reporter I once worked with started his
assignment by talking through the
story concept with his editor, then heading for the library.
He would emerge carrying a basket of small file folders containing
previously written articles related to his topic.
He was going to school on the subject.
What does this have to do with writing? We have established that good writing is good thinking. It also should be informed thinking. Writing, for the most part, should be based on information. Therefore it is necessary to gather all available data, synthesize it at the time of writing, and sprinkle the story with just enough of it to add the right texture and the right flavor. Pop it in the oven for 35 minutes at 350 degrees… Well, you get the picture.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL...On Writing (#9)
Journalistic writing is the act of drawing pictures with words. Call journalism art, call it a craft, it is intended to inform and enrich the reader.
We should convey words and phrases with the care that an artist uses with brush strokes on a canvas. The right tone here, a splash of color there... The reader will stay with a story that is well portrayed—and will come back for more.
All the effort put into reporting can be lost if the writing is approached haphazardly. Stories need to have depth on the one hand, but they also need to be engaging on the other.
Texas columnist Molly Ivins once gave a magazine interview and made the following observations that can be applied to websites as well as print publications:
``We should be reading the daily newspapers to get some understanding of history and causation and structure--all the stuff that pictures cannot show you…I think newspapers also have to become more readable. The reason more people don't read newspapers is because they're boring. You can find more exciting prose on the back of a bottle of castor oil than you can in most newspapers.''
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL...On Writing (#10)
A word can be like a firecracker: It either flares and goes bang or it fizzles and flops. Among the words that are duds in the English language are “interesting”, “very”, “different” and “unique”.
When you use these words in your stories, you often send out a signal that you are writing for yourself not for the reader.
“I went to Rome on my vacation. It is an interesting place.” The word “interesting” in this case means a lot to the writer and nothing to the reader. Choose a more descriptive word or phrase.
What if you wrote, “It is a very historic place.”? Could someone define the word “very” for me? If you said it was “very hot”, does that mean hotter than hot?
The word “different” frequently is useless as well. What is the difference between the following two sentences:
“The students missed class on two different occasions.”
“The students missed class on two occasions.”
In short, the word “different” often is redundant.
The first editor I worked for banned use of the word “unique”. He argued that nothing in this world is unique. We can argue the merits of his policy, but I think all can agree that we are creating a dud with a description of Rome as a “very unique and interesting place”.
ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL...On Writing (#11)
Descriptive words are abundant; finding just the right word is often difficult.
When we put words on paper, we are conveying the meaning of what is in our mind to the mind of the reader. Since we are more familiar with the subject of our story, we more easily grasp the meaning of the words.
The writer, therefore, needs to get inside the mind of the reader (figuratively, that is) and figure out what word or combination of words will hit home. Sometimes the easiest approach to finding the right word is to write whatever comes into your head, then go back through your story when you’ve finished your first draft and analyze the effectiveness of your key word choices.
A New York Times story on the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley contained this well-honed sentence:
“It wasn’t only his hip-swiveling, lip-curling presence, so potent that when he was once legally coerced into standing still, he had to wiggle only one finger to make the girls scream.”
The master of word choice was Mark Twain, who wrote the following on the subject:
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.”