Archive for March, 2009

Adverbs and other writing advice

March 27, 2009

Here’s some advice from William Zinnser, who has written one of the best books on nonfiction writing.

It’s called On Writing Well, and it’s sold 1.5 million copies. If you were to buy one book on writing, I would recommend this one.  Bill has become a friend of mine because of our mutual interest in teaching writing.  He’s written several volumes of advice about writing. He did the interview with New Yorker writer Mark Singer in a book called Speaking of Journalism.  He has a new essay  about how he came to write a book about writing in the American Scholar. I found it on a wonderful web site called Arts and Letters. You might want to bookmark that site.

Here’s the advice about adverbs:

I learned to delete every word or phrase or sentence that told readers something they had already been enabled to know or were bright enough to deduce. I also tried to stop using phrases like of course and adverbs like surprisingly, predictably, understandably, and ironically, which place a value on a sentence before the reader has a chance to read it. Readers, I learned, are not as dumb as the writer thinks; they must be given room to play their role in the act of writing—to discover for themselves what’s surprising or predictable or understandable or ironic. They don’t want that pleasure usurped.



March 25, 2009



Titles are often the last thing that gets fastened down in a piece of writing, usually by an editor. That doesn’t have to be.

 Writers ought to work with titles from the start, because a good title tells what the story is about, and finding what the story is about is the most difficult task of the writer. So start with a title, even if it is a provisional one, just to give you some direction. Editors may have better ideas, so be open to them.

 Some titles have the ring of slogans: The Right Stuff, The Perfect Storm, The World is Flat.

 Others have mystery: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, In Cold Blood, A Bright Shining Lie, Death of a Poet, Crime and Punishment.

 Emblematic: The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage.

 The title might contain the theme. After her husband died suddenly, Joan Didion kept thinking he was going to walk through the door again. She called her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking.

 It might be about an action: Black Hawk Down, A Civil Action, “The Open Boat,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” A Farewell to Arms, The Making of a Quagmire.

 Sometimes the story is about a place: Hiroshima, A River Runs Through It, Bad Land, The Great Plains, City of Fallen Angels, Coming into the Country.

 More often the story is about a character: The Orchid Thief, Fathers and Sons,

 Some stories are so much about a central character that the name becomes the title: Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Moby-Dick, The Brothers Karamozov, “Maizie.

 Consider the case of the film director Woody Allen: “He made some movies, but when he was 40, he felt like a failure. So he decided to try a new kind of film, which he called Anhedonia. It was several hours long, and it had almost no plot. He ended up cutting out almost everything except scenes with Diane Keaton, who played the love interest. So he named the movie after her character, Annie Hall (1977), and it won Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best actress. “(Writer’s Almanac, December 1, 2008.)

 Imagine Allen’s chance of success with a title like Anhedonia. He had to discover that his theme was not an idea but a character.

 A student wrote about how her father left the war in Laos and came to America. For a long time we called the story, “Leaving Laos.” But in her final draft, she found a title that resonates and has mystery: “Warrior.” What the story was really about was why he was fighting and how he left that identity behind.


Writing with people not abstractions

March 25, 2009

As you write, see if you can write about people and not ideas. Write about what people say, do, think, feel. 

Don’t let abstractions run the prose, as in (I’m making this up) “Laziness filled up the patio.”

Instead, “Larry was wearing flip flops, cargo pants and a dirty t-shirt. He popped opened a Sam Adams and shuffled to a shady corner, sat down, leaned back in his chair and took a long languid pull on his beer.”

Formatting your draft

March 25, 2009

Start with a title.

Next put your byline.

Use hanging indents for the paragraphs. 

Use space and a half.

Use subheads for each section. These may come out in the final draft. Use them for now. They help you focus on the theme of each section.

The age of your character

March 24, 2009

How old is your character and how do you present this? 

The age can be unimportant or emotionally significant. In “Death of a Poet,” Judith thinks how unfair it is to have cancer. She is only 33 years old. That’s an emotional moment in the story that I build towards. 

In Steven Provost’s story it’s important to reveal the character’s age, for he is at a turning point in his life.

But don’t drop the age into the story at random, as in “The 35-year-old waiter was bored with his life.” Or, “Smith, 56, etc.” Notice how I handled John Henry Faulk’s age in opening of the story quoted below. It’s important to get his age high in the story. Who am I writing about? A 76-year-old legend near the end of his life.

Where to place the quotation

March 24, 2009

The best way to handle quotation is in a single paragraph. This gives it the proper emphasis. It also requires that you figure out where to place it. Set up the quote. Build to the quote. Let the quote nail close down a section. Let it have emotion.

Sometimes writers mix quotations in the middle of paragraphs and spot them all around. For now, I would say, don’t do that. Make the quote stand alone. If it looks funny standing alone, maybe it doesn’t carry enough meaning or emotional weight. The quote ought to be significant. It ought to advance the meaning of the story. If it’s just background information, paraphrase it and blend it with like material. Don’t use partial quotation. Paraphrase instead.

One way to handle quotations is just to isolate the five or six best quotes  from your notes and write towards them.

Quotations are often used as “kickers” at the end of a section. The kicker quote kicks the story into the next section. You might end the  story with a quote. It’s especially effective to end a section of the story with a quotation, especially the opening.

Quotations and paraphrase

March 24, 2009

How much do you quote and how much do you paraphrase. The simple answer is: It depends on the story.

Suppose the subject of the story is a fabulous talker and story teller? Then there will be a lot of quotation. I wrote such a story for the Houston Chronicle’s Sunday magazine about John Henry Faulk, and you can bet I took my tape recorder.

Quotation is rightly emphasized in newspaper writing. The focus is on what witnesses and experts say. The information gathering process is typically short. 

But in magazine writing, the narrative voice of the writer dominates. The writer has had enough time to figure out what the story means, and can shape the meaning of the story in an emotional as well as a rational way. I have seen magazine stories with scarcely a quotation in them. I have seen others that are stuffed with quotation. 

So again, how do you decide? 

The rough rule is this: Use a quotation when someone says something that shouldn’t be paraphrased because the way it is said is so colorful, emphatic, precise, peculiar, wise or emotional that it must be quoted. Think of quotation as a powerful spice. Too much would overwhelm the story. 

Use paraphrase often, because the writer can write better than most people talk. You can pull together the thoughts, organize the sequence, add the transitions based on the interviews.

One other word about paraphrase. You can paraphrase in a way that captures the rhythm and flavor of the person you’re paraphrasing. In the opening of my Faulk story, I write it to sound like Faulk’s country way of humorous story-telling. Why don’t I quote? I could. But I want to give a quick survey of the kind of story telling Faulk does. I’m racing through his show and giving examples from it. Quoting would slow down the pace. I want the pace to be quick and full of examples. So I paraphrase:

John Henry Faulk was right in the middle of one of his favorite stories when he was interrupted by a burglar alarm that sounded worse than a billy goat caught in a barbed-wire fence. The alarm was to protect the art at San Antonio’s Witte Museum, where Faulk was performing his one-man show of Texas stories.

The stories, which he has been gathering and polishing most all of his 76 years, are set in the mythical town of Pear Orchard, Dobie County, Texas. Faulk already had portrayed Pear Orchard’s folksy mayor greeting a delegation of Japanese businessmen looking for a factory site. He had done the filling-station attendant advising the Japanese that if they have a Baptist among them, they ought to let him dicker with Cal, Pear Orchard’s biggest property owner. Cal is soft on Baptists, he declares. He weighs 312 pounds and ever’ ounce of ever’ pound is Baptist.

I call this kind of paraphrase ventriloquism. It uses a lot of Faulk’s words and expressions, but it isn’t an exact quotation. 


On perfectionism

March 20, 2009

I’ve been working on a chapter for my book over spring break and noticed that I can get hung up on the imperfections of the writing.

For one thing, I was constantly second guessing the opening of the chapter, because I wasn’t sure about the transition from the previous chapter. But I hadn’t written the previous chapter, just an outline of it.

Then I realized something really important: that I didn’t have to write a perfect chapter. The most important thing was to get the ideas and stories down. I can come back later and improve the transitions, pick at the language, add details, look up facts I’m not quite sure of, add more details from other sources.  That’s called editing, or re-writing.

So spare yourselves, if you can, the agony of writing a perfect draft. Just write a draft. Make it as complete as you can make it. Get it ready for our conferences. Then we’ll do the re-writing.

The poet Robert Hass put it this way: “You can’t revise nothing.”

Another version of this is the old newspaper saw: Don’t get it right. Get it written.

Salt the opening with details

March 13, 2009

The structure has to be simple but the details need to be complex, vivid, precise.

He was working at a restaurant in Miami.

He was working at a beachside restaurant in Miami where the customers wore tasseled loafers and too much makeup, and the mahi-mahi cost $29.95 a platter and the pina coladas were ten dollars a glass.

You have to drag the details out of the sources or out of books and the Internet.

When Kennedy tells the driver to lower the top of the car, what was the car?

 A 1961 Lincoln Continental Four-door convertible limousine, VIN # 1Y86H405950 JFK was riding in when he was assassinated. Quite possibly the most famous and controversial automobile in modern history. The car was custom built by Hess & Eisenhardt and was known as the X-100. At the time of the assassination, the car was painted dark blue and had a 1962 grille. 

Who were Hess & Eisenhardt? Who drove the car? 

William Robert Greer (September 22, 1909 – February 23, 1985) was an agent of the U.S. Secret Service, best known for having driven President John F. Kennedy‘s automobile in the motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963, when the president was assassinated. Greer was also involved in the aftermath of the assassination, including maintaining custody of the president’s body and clothing[1]. Despite the fatal delay on Elm Street[2], Greer was neither reprimanded nor demoted. And although no court or official report has ever alleged wrongdoing on his part, published researchers continue to explore Greer’s possible complicity in the assassination.

Okay, one more example. Among the details of the Robert Campbell story below, the one my editor liked best and that I am fond of, is that of the box in which the funeral wreath of gomphrenas was packed. 

The best example of writing with details is the Flanner profile of Hitler. I learned things about German gruel a I never thought I would need to know.

And Capote is right up there with Flanner. From the tattoos of the killers to the gunshy dog, to Herb Clutter feeding his apple core to Babe the horse, to what became of Babe the horse, In Cold Blood is full of details.

The opening as seed

March 13, 2009

Remember how in eighth-grade biology the teacher had you cut open a seed and identify the parts? Inside, in miniature, were the leaves, stem and roots of  a complete plant. That’s what the opening should be. It should contain all the necessary elements of the fully developed story. Everything that is to come is stated, or in some way hinted at,  in the opening. 

This is counter-intuitive to the way most of us think about writing. You mean give away the whole story in the beginning? Tell me everything? Shouldn’t I hold something back? In a word, No. Don’t hold anything back in the opening.  You need the whole story to tell everything. But in the opening, tell everything in miniature. The tiny plant inside the seed does not look like the adult plant. But it contains the possibility of the mature plant. 

This is why you want to tell us something really important in the first sentence of the lead. It could be a simple statement that requires elaboration. A young man is determined to change his life. A mother can’t let go of the house she grew up in, even though it’s falling apart and is a financial drain. Everybody in the family was relieved when Grandpa died. What is the story about in very simple terms? What does the story look like in embryo?

I’m urging you to use a narrative lead that exploits background and description. Think of “The One Left Behind” by John Ed Bradley. He tells you pretty much everything that happens in the opening: how a man has left a wife and family to go home and drink himself to death because he never got over the death of his brother. 

And once he tells you that, shows you that in miniature, he goes back over the material in detail. Remember that the story structure has to be simple, but the details need to be elaborate and precise and vivid. Readers need the structure so they feel secure. They need the details to make it come alive.

As I look at some of the outlines I can see that some of you are holding back important information from the opening and putting it in the background or even the chronology. You’ve got to give a complete picture of the story in the opening. 

Pile narrative detail on narrative detail.  And then what happened, and then what happened.

Here, for example is the complete opening of my story about the artist/physician/humanitarian, Robert Campbell. It is a complete description of what is to come. 

The Transformation of Robert Campbell

From Panhandle flatlands to Guatemalan mountains, Houstondoctor and artist Robert Campbell searched for a life with meaning.When he died, many said that life was his.

By Michael Berryhill

Published: April 13, 1995

Robert Campbell’s friends had a hard time getting from Houston to the little Panhandle town of Claude to bury him. It was St. Valentine’s Day, and snow and ice had closed the Amarillo airport. Along with Campbell’s parents and brother and sister, they were stuck in Dallas for several hours, worried about whether they would make it in time, and whether Campbell, clad in the white robes of a Dominican brother and resting in an unfinished pine box in the airport’s cargo area, would be late to his own funeral.

They might have remembered what Campbell, a physician and artist who dedicated his medical practice and art to the poor, had said to them many times: God provides. The storm abated, and friends and family caught a plane to Lubbock instead. They crowded into two rental cars and drove for an hour and a half to Claude, reminiscing about their beloved son, brother, companion, artist, doctor, humanitarian, social activist and possibly, some of them thought, saint.

The death of a loved one always affects those nearest to him, but Robert Campbell’s death rippled beyond his closest friends and family. Before he died of AIDS two months ago at age 39, Robert Campbell had accomplished the work of four people. First diagnosed with the disease in 1984, he channeled his energies into helping others. While practicing medicine in public health clinics in Texas, he had established three medical centers in poverty-stricken villages in Central America, recruiting volunteers and raising money from across the country. At the same time, he had steadily produced paintings and sculptures that expressed his spiritual and ethical concerns. A Catholic convert, he was inspired by the great Christian and Asian mystics. He encouraged himself and others with Gandhi’s saying: “God never occurs to you in person, but always in action.”

His friends remembered a man who died with dignity and without fear; and a man who, in the final dementia that often comes with AIDS, thought he had returned to his childhood home, and busily gave directions on the back roads of Claude.


By the time his friends and family reached the little country cemetery on a dirt road a few miles from the house where Campbell had grown up, they were close. The obstacles to their journey, thought one of Campbell’s medical colleagues, had drawn them together.

Campbell’s art dealer, Martha Claire Tompkins, had brought a crucifix of dried hydrangeas and gomphrenas, Campbell’s favorite flowers, to the cemetery. The crucifix fit perfectly in a cardboard carton that had held a new stovetop she’d just bought, and she had had to argue with the flight attendants about carrying it on board. Now it rested on the pine coffin that a carpenter friend of Campbell’s had built soon after Campbell died.

The officiating priest, Father Michael Burke, had cut a budding branch from a tree in the Campbells’ front yard, and used it to shake holy water on the coffin. In his burial sermon, he told a story about a caterpillar who feels the call within to go into a cocoon and, by dying, be transformed into a butterfly. Campbell, Father Burke said, had undergone that process and was leading the way for the rest of us.

Through their tears, the friends looked at the endless, flat landscape of the High Plains, so serene, like Campbell’s last abstract paintings. The winter had burnished the green pastures and fields to tawny shades of yellow, gold and sand.

So this is where his journey started, thought Tompkins. Now I understand. He couldn’t have come from anywhere else. He has come full circle.

Far to the east they could see storm clouds vanquished by the steady wind. Overhead hung an immense, cloudless sky. The Buddhists, whom Campbell studied and admired, talk about emotions being like clouds. Through the practice of meditation, we learn to let them pass, until we see with clarity our true nature. At the end of the service, three flights of cranes flew overhead. To the Chinese, cranes symbolize prosperity and longevity. Robert Campbell had neither. In the blue stillness, the mourners far below heard the cranes calling to one another.