Archive for April, 2009

About reading

April 29, 2009

Writers have one thing in common: they all read. If you plan to have any success in writing, you have to be a reader. Reading is good for all sorts of reasons, but especially for helping you be a better writer. You must read both widely and deeply. Read novels, plays and poems, as well as nonfiction. See if you can find reading lists. 

In 1999 the NY Times ran  list of the 100 best journalism stories.

Some of the names will be familiar: John Hersey, Truman Capote, Lillian Ross, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese. Some maybe will be less familiar: A.J. Liebling, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell. Check them out. It’s a long list, but you have a rich reading life ahead of you.  

One of the best values on the market is The New Yorker magazine. It costs $35 a year, about the cost of one hardback book. Earlier in the semester I urged you to take advantage of the fantastic bargain f all the New Yorker on CDs for $20. It’s still available at that price. The hard drive is nicer, but more expensive at $179.

 I keep up with serious books through the New York Review of Books. Expensive at $70 a year, but worth it to me. And of course the NY Times reviews books on Sundays and in the daily paper as well. Maybe you can only afford to read the Times one day a week. On Sundays. Sometimes the Sunday magazine stories are really good. 

Some beginning writers struggle with the idea of being original. They’re afraid of imitation. But imitation is the best way of mastering an art or craft until you know enough to do something highly original. There’s nothing wrong with imitation, especially if you are imitating structure. You might not want to scream like Tom Wolfe, or go on psychedelic riffs like Hunter S. Thompson. That’s impersonation. But you could do well by imitating their structures and their intense reporting.


What to think about when you’re revising

April 29, 2009

Forget about reporting. Write what you’ve got.

But what you’ve got can be shaped, refined, and emphasized. Constantly focus on what English teachers call the theme of the story. Constantly ask yourself what the story is about. Keep it simple but deep. Think of the story within the story.

The man who joins the Krishnas is looking for something and he is also rejecting something. The zydeco enthusiasts are trying to preserve something traditional in an urban setting that is completely different from their rural origins. The video game addict is addicted to something less dangerous to his physical health, but what about his mental health? 

It always seems crude to reduce a story to a mere headline and subhead, but that’s essential to the writing process. Where are the headlines in your story? In Matt Miller’s story, the theme of the ghetto kids is “being real.” That’s a theme worth sticking with and exploring throughout. Keeping it real.

Look for the emotional struggle at the bottom of the story and bring it out. People need to dance to zydeco because their lives are hard, whether they’re working in an oil refinery or fishing in the bayou. The folks at Onion Creek want a simpler,  laid-back life in the midst of a sprawling, monotonous city. Every story has an element of desire at the bottom of it. Need is another version of desire.

Now that we’re at the end, fatigue sets in. How do you revive your enthusiasm? Discover what your story is about. Not through research but by thinking about what you’ve got.

Deadlines for Revisions

April 22, 2009

The last official day of class is Monday May 4. Instead of meeting that day, we’ll have individual meetings that week about final revisions. This means you need to get me at the very least your revised opening, and better yet, the whole thing by Thursday April 30. Then we can talk about one more pass at the paper, one more chance to make it the best you can make it. I know this is exhausting and intimidating and you may be sick of the thing by then. But this is what writers go through. 

So, the schedule:

Monday May 4-Friday May 8 we’ll have conferences. You’ll need to send me your revisions as much as you have before the conferences on Thursday April 30.

The final drop dead deadline is Wednesday May 13 at 5. I have to read and grade. I’ll give you electronic feedback on the stories.

One word about grades. Those of you who have kept up will do well. If you are behind and I have seen much, catch up, catch up.

Let the order of the sentence reflect the order of meaning

April 15, 2009

Sequencing is the key to writing well. 

As the prosecutor informed the court that the government would challenge the judge’s decision in an appeal, my lawyer looked me in the eyes and spoke to me without any confidence for the first time.

The problem here is the placement of “for the first time.” It belongs earlier in the sentence. 

For the first time my lawyer spoke to me without any confidence.


Some common problems with language

April 15, 2009

Lazy words:

typical, standard, usual, quality, of choice, eventually, multiple, a number of, premier (adj),

Writers should be precise, and write with details. These words appear when the writer isn’t sure of the numbers or the dates or the merits or the qualities of the thing or person they are describing.


Some adverbs amount to an editorial intrusion, telling the reader what to think or feel about a situation. They can almost always be cut. Examples:  unfortunately, happily, hopefully, understandably, adequately, heartbreakingly.

Misused words

Over, more than. Use over for physical position: He placed the blanket over the corpse. Use more than and less than for number: More than 300,000 Laotians fled the country.

Crutch expressions

In fact, due to the fact that, however, nevertheless, therefore, the reason was, which meant that, it is, there is, there are,

“She could not ignore the stench, however.” See why you don’t need however? It adds nothing and detracts from the power of the sentence.

It started to make him feel bitter.  He was beginning to feel bitter.

Was able to, managed to, ended up,

Due to: use because, unless you’re writing about the rent, as the rent is due to the landlord, but more often, the rent is due on the first of the month.

Prior to, use before. People who use prior to (mostly cops, lawyers and bureaucrats, should be required to write subsequent to instead of after.


 Marginalized, altercation, vehicle, individual


  To say the least, the onslaught, a dream come true, a force to be reckoned with, fairy-tale season, the limelight, on the heels of, the last straw, in lieu of, ace up his sleeve, their hands were clean, par excellence, all the rage

Clichéd locutions: The century saw an increase in automobiles.


 Hyphenate adjective phrases: a stay-at-home mom, a part-time worker, a four-year-old child, a two-year checkup, one-parent household, last-minute excuse, an hour-long chore, middle-aged woman, back-to-school campaign, a two-acre plot, field-grown tomatoes, hand-painted signs, a life-sized statue,

Hyphenate noun phrases: a know-it-all, a nine-to-five.

But ceasefire. Why? Style. The beauty of the Internet is that you can look up these words rapidly.


“Originally founded in 1921…”

Every single person, very own,

A total of

In the field of

In the area of

A flood event, a rainfall event

Currently is almost always redundant.

Particular, as in this particular man


the 1930s, the 1960s, no apostrophe.

But, “The Beatles became popular in the ‘60s.” The apostrophe stands for something dropped from the word: 19. As in don’t, the apostrophe stands for the missing o in do not.


Revising your draft

April 6, 2009

Some of you may be discouraged. You didn’t realize it would be this hard.  But listen to this: Professional writers with years of experience struggle. They get anxious, they get blocked. They throw up with despair. They might have written dozens of successful pieces, but this time they think they might not be able to do it. This time they can’t figure it out.

 The job of editors is to help writers through these crises of nerve and guide the writers to a successful conclusion. That’s my role. All of you have now written a draft. Congratulations! Now comes the work of polishing and revising. That’s what we’ll spend the rest of the semester doing. Most of you have heard the expression, “Writing is re-writing.” The poet Robert Hass, who visited campus last spring, offered a variation: “You can’t revise nothing.”  What he meant was that you have to write a bad poem before you can make it a good poem. So there’s a psychological barrier to be crossed. But you have crossed it. You have written drafts that have many good qualities, but you’re not finished yet. And I have focused strongly on what’s missing, and not such much on what’s working.

 That’s the nature of editing. It’s the nature of doing something successfully is to do all the steps necessary in order to succeed. Most writers will comb through a manuscript a dozen times just cleaning up the language and improving the style.

 But we’re not at that point yet. We’re still working on the central idea. What is the story about? How can I revise, report and delete with an eye to the main theme? That’s why I’ve emphasized the opening so much. The opening should contain the seed of the story. All the major elements should be there, and developed strongly enough so that the rest of the story flows out of the promise of the opening.

 So step back a moment, the way a painter backs away from her canvas and looks at it from a distance. Gay Talese would literally back away and look at a  piece of writing through binoculars. I’m not recommending that. Gay Talese got so obsessive he had writer’s block for ten years.

But here are the four key things to consider.

 1) The opening. What is the need of my character or characters? Have I established that? Can I say what it is? Have I closed the opening section with a strong quotation or a powerful moment that creates some suspense or some emotional intensity?

 2) The background section. The background explains why the character has this emotional need. You probably have lots of background information, but how do you know what to include? Include only the background that helps account for the need of the character. That’s why most writers write the opening first and why they are obsessed with the opening early in the writing process. If it isn’t clear to you what to include in the background, chances are you have figured out the character’s need.

 The background might include not just material about the character, but also material about the problem. What do we know about the new urbanism?   How much money is involved? 

 3) Chronology. The opening establishes the problem and the character’s need. The background expands upon the problem and the character’s need. The chronology takes us back to the beginning and helps us see how the situation and the character evolved over time. But the chronology does not include everything that happened to the character. It’s everything related to the main theme of the story, that emotional need. Still, that can be a lot of things.

 4) Ending: The ending loops back to the problem or need that has been set up at the beginning. Perhaps the character or at least the writer has arrived at a better understanding. A lot of endings are about the future of the character or characters. It’s time to think back over the narrative and see how understanding the past might give us a glimpse of the future. A quotation, if it has the right emotional intensity, can be a good way to end. Look through your notes and see if you have such a quotation you can write towards.

 Writing with details

 When professional writers review student applications to graduate writing programs, they look for students who write with details. A good story is filled with details. Capote, for example, knows what Herb Clutter ate for breakfast: an apple, and he can build on that when he says that day, with the clear hard sun, was a perfect day for eating apples. He also knows that Perry Smith has asprin, root beer, and Pall Malls for breakfast. Not just cigarettes but the brand of cigarette.

 As you look at the writing sentence by sentence, add details. Some of them you already have in your mind or your notes.

 But you may need to do more reporting. You may need to ask your source for those details. Remember the person you are interviewing lived through the story. He or she doesn’t remember all those details in the telling. You may have to pry them out of your sources. Most people are not story-tellers.

 You have a great advantage with the Internet. You can get almost instant access to facts about obscure places in Southeast Asia or the number of soldiers suffering from PTSD. You can pick up details by scrutinizing photographs and maps.

 Narrative Style

 A narrative is a story about people acting in a place over time. Most of the sentences, maybe even all of them, should be written with a people as the subjects of the sentences. The subjects could be individuals, a musician, a baseball player, a mother, and the subjects could the groups of people: the city planners, historians. Do everything you can to keep people in your sentences.

 It’s hard to go wrong when the writing is focused on people.

 But if you write with concept nouns, with abstractions and ideas, the writing goes flabby, the focus gets lost. Remember you are writing about what people did. When you are sitting there struggling with a sentence, ask yourself how you can write it with a person acting. If you can’t, try cutting it. Chances are you’re not going to lose anything of importance.

 Test this principle of writing in your reading. Look at Talese’s profile of Sinatra. See how much it is about people doing things. Follow this simple principle and it will carry you a long way in writing narrative.

The war against concept nouns and other problems in writing

April 6, 2009

The cardinal rule of writing: write with people not abstractions. Write about people doing something, saying something, feeling something.

 Check out the subject of the sentence, and if it is not a person or some human agency (the Chicago Cubs, the federal government etc.) , see if you can write it with a person. Stories are about people doing things. Make your sentences about people.

 The selection came down to the University of Texas , Louisiana State University, Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas A&M and Arkansas.

 No person or agency is the subject above. An abstraction or a concept noun is the subject: the selection. Have either a person or a human agency as a subject of the sentence:

 He had to choose from University of Texas , Louisiana State University, Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas A&M and Arkansas.


 Five schools recruited him: University of Texas, Louisiana State University, Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas A&M and Arkansas.

 The issue he faced was…. Don’t tell us about issues. Just tell us what happened.

The sting of his racism still echoed around the chapel in the surprised glances of those who knew him best.

He had been a racist all his life. We were surprised at all those brown faces in the funeral crowd.

 The distinctive sounds of an accordion and scrub board, accompanied by the vibrating rhythm of the drums and a bass guitar, fill the room.

 Don’t let the sounds fill the room. Show us the musicians playing the instruments. Have people doing things in your writing.

 Active vs. Passive voice

 They are occasionally approached by adoring fans, who insist on giving an encouraging word and a handshake before departing. (passive)

 Their fans insist on shaking hands and giving them encouraging words. (active)

 Sometimes passive voice is useful, but stick with active voice wherever  possible. Eventually you will sort out the exceptions, which are rare, as  when the receiver of the action is more important than the actor.

John F. Kennedy was killed by an unknown  assassin today.

 About direct address

 If you look at all the stories we have been reading, you will almost never see direct address in them. Direct address is the way I am writing now. I am writing to “you.” That’s fine for instructional purposes. But not in literary journalism. Or hardly in journalism at all. 

 Phrases to eliminate

The fact that..,.

However, therefore, furthermore, henceforth, moreover

 Adjectives: typical, ordinary, genuine, unique, unusual, complete, enjoyable

 The worst adjective of all: typical. Typical means the writer isn’t going to write with details. The writer wants the reader to fill in the details. A lazy word. Ban it from your writing.

 Adverbs: apparently, ironically, fortunately, unfortunately, really, very, definitely, drastically, nicely, completely, merely, actually, painfully

See the passage on William Zinnser below.

 The worst adverb of all: eventually. It means the writer isn’t going to say when the thing happened. Eventually can mean just about anything.

 It is, There is…

 Type, as in a Jackson-five-type ensemble, or other kinds of adjective phrases. 

Wise, as in weather-wise, and other tv locutions


 Appositives are a way of sticking information into a sentence instead of  finding the logical place for it. Don’t use them.

 Jake, a Houston native, was 17 years old when he enlisted

 Parts of the body doing things

 His small hands gripped the edge of the podium

 He  gripped the edge of the lectern with small hands


 The podium is the box that speakers stand on. The lectern is the reading stand on which the speaker places books and papers.

 Don’t mingle background with attribution (Write the background in a separate sentence)

 “I come out because of the music,” said Roger Lavergne, a 77 year-old JAX regular who drives over 40 miles from Texas City to JAX every Saturday.  


1950s, not 1950’s.

but ‘50s, ‘60s. The apostrophe stands for 19.

 Gulf Coast, South Texas, North Texas, the South, the Depression. Capitalization is diffcult, and sometimes arbitrary. 

 Adjective phrases that take hyphens: over-the-shoulders vest, a five-piece band,

 all right, never alright