Notes From A Writing Coach
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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.

How depressing.

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 your career:

  • Make up nothing.

  • Embellish 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 details.

  • 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 straight news writing and requires the same unyielding standards of accuracy.

  • Posted 21:13 
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    Fri, 16 Mar 2007

    Read for pleasure, not duty

    In his book On Writing, Stephen King says:

    “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 pretty respectable.

    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 themselves.

    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 it.

    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 is unnecessary.

    Posted 22:38 
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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 salvage.

    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 on deadline.

    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 order.

  • 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 first draft.

  • 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 disaster.

    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 easier.

    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.

  • Posted 20:05 
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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 embarrassing.

    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.

    Posted 16:46 
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    Thu, 08 Feb 2007

    Never defend bad writing as style

    Voice and style matter, but inexperienced 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 criticism.

    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 the work.

    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 reader.

    Fix the problems, whatever they are, and you will find that style and voice are much improved.

    Posted 19:04 
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