Writing for Your Readers

22 things I underlined re-reading the late Don Murray's book on craft originally published in 1983:

1. Professional writers never learn to write; they continue to learn writing all their professional lives.

2. Writers need colleagues, test readers, editors, and sometimes a writing coach who, like the opera star's coach, does less teaching than reminding.

3. You are not an expert. You are a reporter.

4. Remember that people want to read about people.

5. Change your point of view. Drive to work by a different route. Go to a familiar place at an hour when you're not usually there. Shop in a supermarket patronized by people on welfare. Stand in line at an unemployment office and listen to what people are saying. Sit in a waiting room at a hospital clinic. Watch the ballgame from the bleachers.

6. Buy a different magazine each week.

7. Look for stories that have no event.

8. In writing a descriptive scene be aware of the dominant impression you wish to convey. Descriptions are not written effectively if they move from left to right or top to bottom. The details should lead someplace. You can make the reader see the pol, the cigar, the face, the belly, the left hand on one person's shoulder, the right hand grabbing another person's hand, the eyes focused on a third person. Everything in that description should reveal the dominant impression of the politician as a superficial gladhander.

9. It is a principal responsibility of the artist and the journalist to make connections.

10. Point of view does not mean opinion. Think of the writer standing beside the reader and pointing out the story. The point of view is the place from which the reader can most effectively see the story. It may be on the street corner, in the police car, before the judicial bench, in the cell, beside the victim at the hospital, at the funeral home, in the parents' kitchen.

11. The lead is vital, for it captures the reader, but the greatest point of emphasis in the story is the ending.

12. One hazard of writing endings, however, is the danger of "writing" them.

13. Artists talk a great deal about negative space, about what isn't in the picture, and art students are trained to draw the edge of what shouldn't be in the picture as well as what must be included. They are trained to leave out, to use white space. Writers should be trained the same way.

14. In writing endings we have to remember to leave some room for the reader. We can not tell the reader how to think or feel; we can deliver information that will make the reader think or feel. Once we have done that it's all over. The ending works or it doesn't work. Nothing you can say will make weak information strong. Deliver a solid piece of information — and stop.

15. The reader asks questions that do not appear in the text. Your text is an answer to those questions.

16. Transitions are always clumsy; try to find an order that makes them unnecessary.

17. Time is the thread that holds the story together.

18. An editor at Time told me you could tell a good story by the amount of interesting material that was thrown away.

19. We should remind ourselves that we write not with words but with information.

20. Readers like to read about people. They are far less interested in issues and ideas than in personalities.

21. Dialogue. This device is rarely used in newspapers, but it should be used more often.

22. Fiscal stories are still people stories.


Five tips from Next Wave

Some of what I underlined re-reading the anthology Walt Harrington and Mike Sager put out a couple years back:

1. Thomas Lake: The story, the story, the story. It exists whether you find it or not. Find it. Get it.

2. Robert Sanchez: Find the right character. If there's any advice that I can give to aspiring narrative non-fiction writers, it would be that.

3. Eli Saslow: Details are always the key to narratives. They are what make the characters and the circumstances feel real.

4. Seth Wickersham: Magazine writing is like carpentry: the grind precedes the art.

5. ... me: Public records are like the bottom rungs of rope ladders. They're something to grab onto. Names lead to names. Information leads to information. Material leads to material.


Lewis Lapham in today's NYT mag

Now I am 79. I've written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what's at stake isn't a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self. Click.



Deb Olin Unferth in the November Harper's:

In nature chickens live in smallish groups in overlapping territories. They have complicated cliques and can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too. They have distinct voices and talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen talks to her eggs and the embryos answer, peeping and twittering through the shells. Adult chickens have at least thirty different categories of conversation, centered around, to name a few, mating, eating, nesting, rearing, and warning, each with its own web of coos and calls and clucks.

According to the animal-studies professor Annie Potts, hens all have different dispositions. They have best friends and rivals. They are surprisingly curious. They play and bathe in the dust. A flock of chickens in nature resembles a lively village, with the males crowing and dancing around the females in courtship, the young ones sparring, most of them climbing into the trees at night to sleep.

Their eyes are especially ingenious. Human eyes work together and focus on one location but chickens' eyes work separately and have multiple objects of focus. A hen can look at a morsel on the ground with one eye and scan the area for predators with the other. When you see a hen cocking her head at you at different angles, she is getting a series of snapshots from different perspectives, studying you. If you study her back, she'll step closer and sit next to you. When I sit in a barn with a flock of hens, they come right over to me, hop up on my stool, poke at my pen, look into my face.


Telling True Stories

29 things I underlined re-reading the 2007 book edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call:

1. Jacqui Banaszynski: I think that stories make us human. Only by telling them do we stay so.

2. Gay Talese: Curiosity is the beginning. That's not something we are going to get from the Columbia School of Journalism or the University of Missouri.

3. David Halberstam: Print journalists have to better than they used to be. With network television, cable television, the Internet, and even video games, it's tougher to compete for people's time. There are more and more sources of information out there, and they demand less and less intellectual energy. People work harder; they have less time. When I started as a journalist, 52 years ago, I operated in an age with a single-income middle class. Now it's a two-income middle class. The writer must get better and better, become a better storyteller.

4. Katherine Boo: We often talk about story-making as a two-part process: reporting and writing. This leaves out the third part: thinking.

5. Lane DeGregory: What's the big idea? I ask myself this because my editor always does.

6. Isabel Wilkerson: In journalism school, no one called the interactions between journalists and sources relationships, but that's what they are.

7. Anne Hull: Observation, the art of watching, is one of the most underrated elements of reporting, especially in newspaper journalism. The natural impulse is to ask questions. Sometimes that is wrong. It makes the reporter the focus of attention. Be humble. It honors the person you're trying to observe. Think like a photographer. Watch. Change location.

8. Tracy Kidder: I try to write down all the visible, tactile, smellable facts as well as what I hear.

9. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Moments of enlightenment take time. People need time -- lots of time.

10. Jacqui Banaszynski: Your job as an interviewer is to turn the subject into a storyteller.

11. Alex Tizon: Every story has a protagonist who wants something, and must work through a series of obstacles to obtain it. Every good story, and every great profile, is a quest. The quest can be simple: to escape boredom, to get the girl, to win the money, to redeem oneself, to avenge something.

12. Katherine Boo: The best narrative isn't soft, and the best investigative reporting isn't only steel-plated facts.

13. Nora Ephron: Structure is the key to narrative.

14. Kelley Benham: Looking back at the stories I especially admired while growing up, I'm struck by how sparsely and carefully writers like Rick Bragg used quotes and dialogue. That's my first rule about including a subject's exact words: Do it sparingly. Using fewer quotes makes me a more disciplined and thoughtful writer. It forces me to think harder about my job and take better control of the story.

15. Jon Franklin: Good stories show how people survive.

16. Nicholas Lemann: The marriage of narrative and analysis is the fundamental project of journalism. Once you get past the realm of the purely entertaining or sensational, nearly all journalism is a promise to explain the world via narrative. Stories and characters have a powerful hold on the human mind. We translate the world into narrative form. That is why story, rather than datum, is the basic unit of journalism.

17. Bruce DeSilva: Readers devour narratives to discover how the problem will be resolved. Once they know, they stop reading -- so you had better stop writing.

18. Jon Franklin: Description alone isn't helpful. A reporter who doesn't understand a subject has no way of knowing what the details of the surroundings mean. To put it another way, information that explains motive goes into the piece. Everything else stays out.

19. Mark Kramer: Start your scenes at the last possible instant, cutting out all actions tangential to the main point, and end them as soon after the action as possible.

20. Tom French: Even in daily newspaper stories, I don't think about a lede, I think about an opening section. It is not useful to think about just your first paragraph, because you don't want the reader to stop at the end of it. The entire opening section must offer an experience that propels the reader forward through your story. Whatever you convey, it will be pointless unless the reader stays with you to the end. To make that happen, your story must get better as it goes. Open with something good. Build toward something even better.

21. Louise Kiernan: ... perhaps I do know how to answer that question about whether I am a features, investigative, or explanatory reporter: "Yes."

22. Walt Harrington: It is impossible to go intimately into people's lives without having to wrestle with what should be revealed.

23. Isabel Wilkerson: Authenticity comes from long conversations and then playing back to the person what you think you just heard.

24. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call: A great editor is a rare gift.

25. Anne Hull: Thinking is the most underused skill in the newsroom.

26. Tom French: The three most beautiful words in the English language are not "I love you" but "To be continued."

27. Jack Hart: Is there a protagonist? Is there a complication? Is there a sequence of events that leads to some kind of dramatic tension? Is that tension resolved? When the answer is no, we don't force it. It is better to publish no narrative writing than bad examples of it.

28. Lane DeGregory: Too much is written about people whose dreams come true. People facing failure or setbacks are far more fascinating. The tension is built into the story: Where do they go from here? How have the crises changed their lives?

29. Louise Kiernan: ... one important tactic is to report before you report.


The age in which we live

A sentence in the Danielle Sacks piece on Bonin Bough in the November Fast Company:

Participating in the culture is like trying to hold on to the side of an ever-accelerating runaway train while making sure that everyone you pass remembers your name. It's not easy.


Anthony Bourdain in Fast Company

"If you work hard at your job and do it well, even if it's a shit job, there is some kind of satisfaction in that, whether you're stacking plates, chopping vegetables, or just setting out a plate of food. There's this magnificent moment before a plate goes out to the dining room, for instance, when you know, and it's just for you. You think, Hmm, that's a pretty good fucking plate. And then it's gone." Click.


Catching up on the New Yorker

Nick Paumgarten on GoPro in the Sept. 22 issue:

When the agony of missing the shot trumps the joy of the experience worth shooting, the adventure athlete (climber, surfer, extreme skier) reveals himself to be something else: a filmmaker, a brand, a vessel for the creation of content. He used to just do the thing—plan the killer trip or trick and then complete it, with panache. Maybe a photographer or film crew tagged along, and afterward there'd be a slide show at community centers and high-school gyms, or an article in a magazine. Now the purpose of the trip or trick is the record of it. Life is footage.