Notes From A Writing Coach
Fri, 04 May 2007
Write no lies
|By John Rains
A journalism teacher recently raised a question
on a listserv. He said he had some colleagues who
thought it was acceptable to use composite
characters and dress up the setting in a story.
After all the scandals in recent years involving
reporters, memoirists and historians who have
been caught lying, it is disheartening to hear
that some teachers think it is all right to
deceive readers. Take note, please. These rules
will save your honor, your self-respect and maybe
Make up nothing.
The minute you make anything up or embellish
setting or anything else, you’re writing fiction.
Do not use composite characters. They are
fiction. When they are used without disclosure to
the reader, they are lies. With disclosure, they
are a cheap gimmick. And they still put your
entire story in doubt. If the reader knows you’re
willing to make up a character, he can’t help but
wonder what else you may have made up.
Don’t change quotes. You can take out the
meaningless noise—the ums, ahs and ers—and you
can render words in regular English instead of
dialect—“gonna” is “going to”—but don’t change
the words. I like the guideline John McIntyre
spelled out on his blog recently: “We don’t want
the words the speaker uses in print to be
different from the speaker’s words as broadcast
on the television or radio.”
Don’t use other people’s writing without
giving them credit. Be generous with credit.
Taking other writers’ words without acknowledging
the authors is plagiarism. In more blunt terms, a
plagiarist is a liar and a thief.
Stay out of people’s heads. You cannot know
what anyone thinks. Don’t pretend you can.
Don’t lie by omission. If you distort the
story by leaving out information essential to
understanding, it is just as wrong as making up
Don’t ignore that uneasy feeling in the back
of your mind. Pay attention to it.
The rules hold in all forms of nonfiction,
including narrative. Some writers think that
narrative gives them license to play loose with
the facts. It doesn’t. Narrative requires
reporting that is every bit as rigorous as
news writing and requires the same unyielding
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Fri, 16 Mar 2007
Read for pleasure, not duty
In his book On Writing
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two
things above all others: read a lot and write a
lot. There’s no way around these two things that
I’m aware of, no shortcuts.
“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through
seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction.”
Slow reader? Maybe, but his yearly total is
Mr. King’s advice is dead on, but it is probably
wasted on people who don’t already have the
reading habit. These are people who tell you they
love to read, but they just don’t have time. They
are going to read more when they get the time.
No, they’re not. They might as well quit kidding
Some of them might develop the reading habit if
they thought of reading as a pleasure, which it
is, and not as a duty.
Read what you enjoy, or read because you want to
learn something that interests you. Don’t worry
about reading what you think you should read, or
what other people think you should read.
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t enjoy books that
are supposed to be good for you. If you have to
force yourself to read, you won’t stick with it
long and you won’t get much out of it.
But sample all sorts of writing. Before
dismissing a book as boring, give it a chance.
Read a page or two or three. Good writing has a
way of drawing you in even when the subject never
interested you before.
If you read for pleasure, read a lot, you will
soak up writing lessons without trying. After a
while, though, you will find yourself noticing
the lessons—beginning to see how the writer
achieves the effects that make the story work.
This won’t lessen your pleasure; it will increase
Many books have more to give than you can get
from one reading. The classic example is Mark
Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. An adolescent
can read it as an adventure story. The same
reader can revisit the book with a more mature
understanding and discover that it is not only a
great adventure story, but also is a commentary
on slavery and human nature.
A lesser-known example is The Ballad of the
Flim-Flam Man by Guy Owen. It’s a novel about
a down-at-the-heels grifter and a young rube who
ramble across North Carolina working one small-
time swindle after another. You can read it as a
rollicking comedy, which it is. But if you read
it again, the novel will take you deeper and
deeper until the laughter becomes mixed with
sorrow and sympathy for the frailties of human
beings. (You know, don’t you, that sorrow and
pain are the wellsprings of much of our humor?)
One class of books is especially worth reading
again and again: guidebooks for writers. A writer
can read these for pleasure as well as for the
learning. If a book on writing well isn’t
pleasurable reading, it isn’t likely that the
author has much to teach you.
You can return to a book such as The Careful
Writer by Theodore Bernstein or On Writing
Well by William Zinsser and gain something
new every time. Here are some other writing books
that reward you every time you go back to them:
Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein; The
Book on Writing, by Paula LaRocque; The
Word, by Rene J. Cappon; The Writer’s
Art, by James J. Kilpatrick.
Some writers may scorn the recommendation to read
books on the craft. In The Language of the
Night, Ursula K. LeGuin says she doesn’t read
such books. I wouldn’t presume to argue the point
with her. Her success—she is one of our most
honored writers of science fiction and fantasy—
speaks for itself.
Most of us, though, including me, aren’t as smart
as she is. Books on the craft won’t infuse
creativity or make you an original thinker. They
can, however, help you learn the tools and
techniques you need and save you much effort. It
seems to me that so many writers struggle to
discover principles that were discovered long ago—
as far back as Aristotle. Some of that struggle
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Fri, 02 Mar 2007
Forging beyond the first draft
A friend sent the first draft of a story and it
wasn’t good. My friend tends to beat herself up
when the writing doesn’t come easily, but she
shouldn’t. It is OK when a first draft fails to
be brilliant—provided the writer understands that
the draft is just the beginning of the work.
The writer fails only if he or she tries to foist
the draft on readers—or dumps it on an editor to
Some writers in journalism pay lip service to the
idea of revising, but the truth is they don’t
want to do it. As soon as they get a story in
written form, however rough, they want to move on
to the next one.
The nature of journalism tends to encourage
impatience and short attention spans—or at least
gives these writers an excuse for their attitude.
Some stories must be written on deadline, with no
time to rewrite. Because rewriting is sometimes
not feasible, the writers find it easy to avoid
even when it is feasible. The writers get in the
habit of regarding rewriting as an artsy-craftsy
indulgence. They get unspoken reinforcement from
editors who accept rough drafts and publish them
as is or who do the revision the writers should
be required to do.
The truth is, though, that often the reporter has
time, or can arrange to have time, for rewriting.
Many news and feature stories need not be written
The better writers learn to embrace the
opportunity to do new drafts, and some enjoy it.
They learn to throw out words, phrases,
paragraphs that don’t serve the story.
Revising allows them to:
Reshape the story. First drafts often lack
focus and flow. In subsequent drafts, the writer
imposes order—or lets the story find its natural
Trim flab. This can include even elements—
anecdotes, bits of description, clever metaphors—
that might be fine in themselves but don’t
advance the story.
Nail the theme. At the heart of a good story
is an idea, even though it may not be expressed
directly. Sometimes the idea gets lost in the
Hide the seams: Part of what makes rough
drafts rough is the clumsy way the parts are
stitched together. Characters are introduced
awkwardly. Quotes are plopped in without enough
context for the reader to understand.
First drafts might come out better more often if
writers would take the trouble to plan them. Many
journalists don’t. This is another idea they pay
lip service to but fail to practice.
Instead of organizing the story, they concentrate
on writing a clever lead, or what they imagine to
be a clever lead. They hope the rest of the story
will flow from their lead. If the story is the
least bit complicated, this is a route to
Again, it is all right if the first draft is
disastrous, so long as you revise it. But at some
point, you need to map out the story, so why not
do it before the first draft and get ahead of the
game? You may still need to revise that draft,
but the revision will probably be considerably
I mentioned my friend who was having trouble with
a story. A couple of days later, she sent another
draft and it was much better. I knew it would be.
My friend is a pro.
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Thu, 22 Feb 2007
Lessons on the serial narrative
Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute is
crafting a “starter kit” on writing serial
narratives in newspapers.
Check it out. Even if you are not a journalist,
you can learn from Mr. Clark’s teachings. In
fact, you should make it a point to read his
Writing Tools blog and all of his articles on
storytelling. Read his own serial narratives.
As I’ve said before, narratives—whether done as
serials or single stories—are wonderful magnets
for readers. I wish more newspaper editors
encouraged their writers to use narrative tools
and taught them how to do it.
But as I have also said before, narratives done
badly are terrible. Some journalists hear that
word “narrative” and they suddenly start writing
purple prose, dripping with adjectives and
adverbs. They seem to think narrative is a
license to write tedious description, to
substitute literary-sounding clichés for solid
details and to plod into stories with leisurely
leads that bore readers. The results can be
Writing a narrative is different from writing
conventional news and feature stories. It
requires a different approach and different
techniques, and these must be learned. They must
be practiced, too.
Practice with small narratives. A narrative need
not be a blockbuster or a serial with multiple
chapters. Good narratives can be done in 12 to 20
inches. They can even be done on deadline.
Practice using narrative techniques even in
stories that are not narratives. A section of
dialogue, for example, might add zing to that
meeting story you have to write.
When you can write a taut short narrative, when
you are comfortable with the tools of narrative—
description, dialogue, suspense, scenes,
cliffhangers—then you can try more ambitious
projects such as a serial.
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Thu, 08 Feb 2007
Never defend bad writing as style
Voice and style matter,
writers do best to approach them indirectly, with
their attention on other issues.
If they think about their style and voice as
they write, they may exaggerate or distort both.
Concentrate, instead, on matters such as
accuracy, clarity and simplicity. Concentrate on
the goal of making the work easy and pleasurable
for the reader. If writers do that, style and
voice will take care of themselves.
This advice isn’t needed by writers who have
mastered their craft. Such writers have the
discipline to make conscious decisions about
voice and carry them off.
In any case, there’s nothing sacred about
voice and style. Never use them to defend bad
writing. Some writers do that because their egos
won’t let them admit the writing is bad or
because they are insecure.
They turn in copy that is turgid and stuffy
or, at the other extreme, sophomorically breezy.
Then they get all prickly if an editor dares to
tamper with it.
As a coach, I would rather work with almost
any other writer than one who prattles about
voice and style and can’t face the least
Any writer has a voice. The question is
whether the voice is appealing. People won’t sit
in an audience listening to a speaker whose voice
is unpleasant, and readers won’t stay with a
writer whose work is boring or distracting.
If the writing isn’t working, it needs to be
fixed. The way to fix it is to focus not on voice
or style but on the specific problems that mar
Is the copy deadened by cliches and deadwood?
Get rid of them. Are there strained similes and
labored metaphors? Cut them. Is the tone pompous
because the writer is being pretentious and
trying to show off his vocabulary? Rewrite, using
plain words and speaking conversationally to the
Fix the problems, whatever they are, and you
will find that style and voice are much improved.
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