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50 Tools That Can Improve Your Writing

Writing Tool #1: Branch to the Right

Writing Tool #2: Use Strong Verbs
Writing Tool #3: Beware of Adverbs
Writing Tool #: !eriod As a Sto" Sign
Writing Tool ##: $bserve Word Territor%
Writing Tool #&: !la% with Words
Writing Tool #': (ig for the )oncrete and S"ecific
Writing Tool #*: See+ $riginal ,-ages
Writing Tool #.: !refer Si-"le to Technical
Writing Tool #1/: Recogni0e 1o2r Stor%3s Roots
Writing Tool #11 Bac+ $ff or Show $ff
Writing Tool #12: )ontrol the !ace
Writing Tool #13: Show and Tell
Writing Tool #1: ,nteresting 4a-es
Writing Tool #1#: Reveal )haracter Traits
Writing Tool #1&: $dd and ,nteresting Things
Writing Tool #1': The 42-ber of 5le-ents
Writing Tool #1*: ,nternal )liffhangers
Writing Tool #1.: T2ne 1o2r Voice
Writing Tool #2/: 4arrative $""ort2nities
Writing Tool #21: 62otes and (ialog2e
Writing Tool #22: 7et Read%
Writing Tool #23: !lace 7old )oins Along the !ath
Writing Tool #2: 4a-e the Big !arts
Writing Tool #2#: Re"eat
Writing Tool #2&: 8ear 4ot the 9ong Sentence
Writing Tool #2': Riffing for $riginalit%
Writing Tool #2*: Writing )ine-aticall%
Writing Tool #2.: Re"ort for Scenes
Writing Tool #3/: Write 5ndings to 9oc+ the Bo:
Writing Tool #31: !arallel 9ines
Writing Tool #32: 9et ,t 8low
Writing Tool #33: Rehearsal
Writing Tool #3: )2t Big; Then S-all
Writing Tool #3#: Use !2nct2ation
Writing Tool #3&: Write A <ission State-ent for 1o2r Stor%
Writing Tool #3': 9ong !ro=ects
Writing Tool #3*: !olish 1o2r >ewels
Writing Tool #3.: The Voice of Verbs
Writing Tool #/: The Bro+en 9ine
Writing Tool #1: ?@Ra% Reading
Writing Tool #2: !aragra"hs
Writing Tool #3: Self@criticis-
Writing Tool #: Save String
Writing Tool ##: 8oreshadow
Writing Tool #&: Stor%tellers; Start 1o2r 5ngines
Writing Tool #': )ollaboration
Writing Tool #*: )reate An 5diting S2""ort 7ro2"
Writing Tool #.: 9earn fro- )riticis-
Writing Tool ##/: The Writing !rocess
A2thor3s 4ote
All content herein credited to Ro% !eter )lar+ @ Senior Scholar; !o%nter ,nstit2teA
As of toda%; while the !o%nterAorg website is 2"; this set of articles is fo2nd onl% on the C,nternet ArchiveD +nown
as the Wa%bac+ <achine Ehtt":BBarchiveAorgBwebBwebA"h"FA ,3ve co-"iled these articles in an atte-"t to "reserve
the- for f2t2re 2se b% those who wo2ld find the- as en=o%able as , haveA There is a wealth of writing +nowledge
hereA ,t3s al-ost a boiled@down version of what ,3ve read fro- -an% "2blished writers3 words@of@wisdo-A This is
"art of a series of free content "2lled fro- the web to be 2"loaded and -aintained as to CArchiveD it and +ee" it
fro- disa""earingA , have not -odified the te:t in an% wa% other than co-"iling it for ease of readingA This is a
si-"le co"%B"aste so , a"ologi0e in advance for an% -iss"ells; gra--atical errors or bro+en lin+sA B2t "lease;
this is not -% wor+; so while %o2 can 2se it and change it and -a+e it better; ,3ll as+ that %o2 credit the original
a2thorA ,3- s2re he3d a""reciate it tooA
)ollected and co-"iled fro- the webA We need to +ee" val2able infor-ation li+e this aliveG
1o2rs tr2l%; )hristian WA
Writing Tool #1: Branch to the Right
Begin sentences with subects an! verbs" letting subor!inate elements branch to the right# $ven a long"
long sentence can be clear an! power%ul when the subect an! verb ma&e meaning earl'A
To use this tool, imagine each sentence you write printed on an infinitely wide piece of paper. In
English, a sentence stretches from left to right. Now imagine this: A reporter writes a lead sentence
with subject and verb at the beginning, followed by other subordinate elements, creating what scholars
call a right!branching sentence.
I just created one. "ubject and verb of the main clause join on the left #A reporter writes$ while all
other elements branch off to the right. %ere&s another right!branching sentence, written by 'ydia
(olgreen as the lead of a news story in The New York Times:
)ebels sei*ed control of +ap %aitien, %aiti&s second largest city, on "unday, meeting little resistance as
hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and
looted the airport, which was ,uic-ly closed. (olice officers and armed supporters of (resident .ean!
/ertrand Aristide fled.
That first sentence is 01 words long and rippling with action. The sentence is so full, in fact, that it
threatens to fly apart li-e some overheated engine. /ut the writer -eeps control by creating meaning in
the first three words: )ebels sei*ed control... Thin- of that main clause as the locomotive that pulls
all the cars that follow.
2aster writers can craft page after page of sentences written in this structure. +onsider this passage by
.ohn "teinbec- from +annery )ow, describing the routine of a marine scientist named 3oc:
%e didn&t need a cloc-. %e had been wor-ing in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a
tide change in his sleep. In the dawn he awa-ened, loo-ed out through the windshield, and
saw that the water was already retreating down the bouldery flat. %e dran- some hot coffee,
ate three sandwiches, and had a ,uart of beer.
The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean
recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown
and blue and +hina red. 4n the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells bro-en
and chipped and bits of s-eleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on
which the living scamper and scramble.
,n each sentence; Steinbec+ "laces s2b=ect and verb at or near the beginningA )larit% and narrative energ% flow
thro2gh the "assage; as one sentence b2ilds 2"on anotherA And he avoids -onotono2s str2ct2re b% var%ing the
length of his sentencesA
"ubject and verb often get separated in prose, usually because we want to tell the reader something
about the subject before we get to the verb. 5hen we do this, even for good reasons, we ris- confusing
the reader:
A bill that would e6clude ta6 income from the assessed value of new homes from the state
education funding formula could mean a loss of revenue for +hesapea-e +ounty schools.
Eighteen words separate the subject bill from its wea- verb could mean, a fatal flaw that turns what
could be an important civic story into gibberish.
If the writer wants to create suspense, or build tension, or ma-e the reader wait and wonder, or join a
journey of discovery, or hold on for dear life, she can save the verb until the end.
7. )ead through an edition of The New York Times with a pencil. 2ar- the location of subjects and
8. 3o the same with a collection of your own stories.
0. 3o the same with a draft of a story you&re wor-ing on now.
9. The ne6t time you struggle with a sentence, see if you can rewrite it by placing subject and verb
at the beginning.
Writing Tool #(: )se *trong +erbs
)se verbs in their strongest %orm" the simple present or past# *trong verbs create action" save wor!s"
an! reveal the pla'ers#
(resident .ohn :. ;ennedy testified that his favorite boo- was :rom )ussia 5ith 'ove, the 7<=1
.ames /ond adventure by Ian :leming. This choice revealed more about .:; than we -new at the time
and created a cult of >>1 that persists to this day.
The power in :leming&s prose flows from the use of active verbs. In sentence after sentence, page after
page, England&s favorite secret agent, or his beautiful companion, or his villainous adversary performs
the action of the verb.
/ond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him.
2oonlight filtered through the curtains. %e walked across and turned on the pin-!shaded lights
on the dressing!table. %e stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few
minutes under the shower. ? %e cleaned his teeth and gargled with a sharp mouthwash to get
rid of the taste of the day and turned off the bathroom light and went bac- into the bedroom.
/ond drew aside one curtain and opened wide the tall windows and stood, holding the curtains
open and loo-ing out across the great boomerang curve of water under the riding moon. The
night bree*e felt wonderfully cool on his na-ed body. %e looked at his watch. It said two
/ond gave a shuddering yawn. %e let the curtains drop bac- into place. %e bent to switch off
the lights on the dressing!table. "uddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat.
There had been a nervous giggle from the shadows at the bac- of the room. A girl&s voice said,
(oor 2ister /ond. @ou must be tired. +ome to bed.
In writing this passage, :leming followed the advice of his countryman Aeorge 4rwell, who wrote of
verbs: Never use the passive when you can use the active.
4ever sa% never; <rA $rwell; lest %o2 t2rn one of the writerHs -ost reliable tools into a rigid r2leA B2t we honor
%o2 for describing the relationshi" between lang2age ab2se and "olitical ab2se; and for revealing how corr2"t
leaders 2se the "assive voice to obsc2re 2ns"ea+able tr2ths and shro2d res"onsibilit% for their actionsA The%
sa%: I,t -2st be ad-itted after the re"ort is reviewed that -ista+es were -ade;I rather than; I, read the re"ort;
and , ad-it , -ade a -ista+eAI
News writers reach often for the simple active verb. +onsider this New York Times lead by +arlotta
Aall on the suicidal desperation of Afghan women: 5aifli-e, draped in a pale blue veil, 2adina, 8>,
sits on her hospital bed, bandages covering the terrible, raw burns on her nec- and chest. %er hands
tremble. "he picks nervously at the soles of her feet and confesses that three months earlier she set
herself on fire with -erosene.
5hile :leming used the past tense to narrate his adventure, Aall prefers verbs in the present tense. This
strategy immerses the reader in the immediacy of e6perience, as if we were sitting B right now !! beside
the poor woman in her grief.
/oth :leming and Aall avoid the verb ,ualifiers that attach themselves to standard prose li-e barnacles
to the hull of a ship:
"ort of
Tend to
;ind of
2ust have
"eemed to
+ould have
Cse to
"crape away these crustaceans during revision, and the ship of your prose will glide toward meaning
with efficient speed and grace.
7. Derbs fall into three categories: active, passive, and forms of the verb to be. )eview three of
your stories and circle the verb forms with a pencil. In the margins, mar- each verb by category.
8. 'oo- for occasions to convert passive or to be verbs into the active. :or e6ample, It was her
observation that ? becomes "he observed ?
0. In your own wor- and in the newspaper, search for verb attachments and see what happens
when you cut them from a story.
9. )ead (olitics and the English 'anguage, by Aeorge 4rwell. As you listen to political speech,
mar- those occasions when politicians or other leaders use the passive voice to avoid
responsibility for problems or mista-es.
Writing Tool #,: Beware o% -!verbs
Beware o% a!verbs# The' can !ilute the meaning o% the verb or repeat itA
The authors of the classic Tom "wift adventures for boys loved the e6clamation point and the adverb.
+onsider this brief passage from Tom "wift and %is Areat "earchlight:
'oo-E suddenly e6claimed Ned. There&s the agent nowE ... I&m going to spea- to himE impulsively
declared Ned.
That e6clamation point after 'oo- should be enough to heat the prose for the young reader, but the
author adds suddenly and e6claimed for good measure. Time and again, the writer uses the adverb,
not to change our understanding of the verb, but to intensify it. The silliness of this style led to a form
of pun called the Tom "wiftie, where the adverb conveys the punch line:
I,H- an artist;I he said easil%A
I need some pi**a now, he said crustily.
I&m the Denus de 2ilo, she said disarmingly.
At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they e6press a meaning already
contained in it:
The blast completely destroyed the church office.
The cheerleader gyrated wildly before the screaming fans.
The accident totally severed the boy&s arm.
The spy peered furtively through the bushes.
+onsider the effect of deleting the adverbs:
The blast destroyed the church office.
The cheerleader gyrated before the screaming fans.
The accident severed the boy&s arm.
The spy peered through the bushes.
In each case, the deletion shortens the sentence, sharpens the point, and creates elbow room for the
A half!century after his death, 2eyer /erger remains one of great stylists in the history of The New
York Times. 4ne of his last columns describes the care received in a +atholic hospital by an old blind
The staff tal-ed with "ister 2ary :intan, who #in$ charge of the hospital. 5ith her consent, they
brought the old violin to )oom 8>0. It had not been played for years, but 'aurence "troet* groped for
it. %is long white fingers stro-ed it. %e tuned it, with some effort, and tightened the old bow. %e lifted
it to his chin and the lion&s mane came down.
The vigor of verbs and the absence of adverbs mar- /erger&s prose. As the old man plays Ave
/lac-!clad and white!clad nuns moved lips in silent prayer. They cho-ed up. The long years on the
/owery had not stolen 'aurence "troet*&s touch. /lindness made his fingers stumble down to the violin
bridge, but they recovered. The music died and the audience pattered applause. The old violinist bowed
and his sun-en chee-s creased in a smile.
%ow much better that the audience pattered applause than that they applauded politely.
E6cess adverbiage reflects the style of an immature writer, but the masters can stumble as well. .ohn
Cpdi-e wrote a one!paragraph essay about the beauty of the beer can before the invention of the pop!
top. %e dreamed of how suds once foamed eagerly in the e6ultation of release. As I&ve read that
sentence over the years, I&ve grown more impatient with eagerly. It clots the space between a great
verb #foamed$ and a great noun #e6ultation$, which personify the beer and tell us all we need to
-now about eagerness.
Adverbs have their place in effective prose. /ut use them sparingly.
7. 'oo- through the newspaper for any word that ends in Bly. If it is an adverb, delete it with your
pencil and read the new sentence aloud.
8. 3o the same for your last three essays, stories, or papers. +ircle the adverbs, delete them, and
decide if the new sentence is better or worse.
0. )ead through your adverbs again and mar- those that modify the verb or adjective as opposed
to those that just intensify it.
9. 'oo- for wea- verbFadverb combinations that can be revised into strong verbs: "he went
,uic-ly down the stairs can become "he dashed down the stairs.
Writing Tool #.: /erio! -s a *top *ign
/lace strong wor!s at the beginning o% sentences an! paragraphs" an! at the en!# The perio! acts as a
stop sign# -n' wor! ne0t to the perio! sa's" 12oo& at me#1
"trun- G 5hite&s The Elements of "tyle advises the writer to (lace emphatic words in a sentence at
the end, which offers an e6ample of its own rule. The most emphatic word appears at the end.
Application of this tool B! an ancient rhetorical device B! will improve your prose in a flash.
In any sentence, the comma acts as a speed bump and the period as a stop sign. At the period, the
thought of the sentence is completed. That slight pause in reading flow magnifies the final word. This
effect is intensified at the end of a paragraph, where the final words often adjoin white space. In a
column of type, the reader&s eyes are drawn to the words ne6t to the white space.
Emphatic word order helps the news writer solve the most difficult problems. +onsider this news lead
from The Philadelphia Inquirer. The writer must ma-e sense of three powerful news elements: the
death of a Cnited "tates "enator, the collision of aircraft, and a tragedy at an elementary school:
A private plane carrying C.". "en. .ohn %ein* collided with a helicopter in clear s-ies over
'ower 2erion Township yesterday, triggering a fiery, midair e6plosion that rained burning
debris over an elementary school playground.
"even people died: %ein*, four pilots, and two first!grade girls at play outside the
school. At least five people on the ground were injured, three of them children, one of
whom was in critical condition with burns.
:laming and smo-ing wrec-age tumbled to the earth around 2erion Elementary "chool on
/owman Avenue at 78:7< p.m., but the gray stone building and its occupants were
spared. :rightened children ran from the playground as teachers herded others
outside. 5ithin minutes, an6ious parents began streaming to the school in jogging suits,
business clothes, house!coats. 2ost were rewarded with emotional reunions, amid the smell
of acrid smo-e.
4n most days, any of the three news elements would lead the paper. +ombined, they form an
overpowering news tapestry, one that the reporter and editor must handle with care. 5hat matters most
in this storyH The death of a senatorH A spectacular crashH The death of childrenH
In the first paragraph, the writer chose to mention the crash and the senator upfront, and saved
elementary school playground for the end. Throughout the passage, subjects and verbs come early !B
li-e the locomotive and coal car of a railroad train B! saving other interesting words for the end B! li-e a
+onsider, also, the order in which the writer lists the an6ious parents, who arrive at the school in
jogging clothes, business suits, house!coats. Any other order wea-ens the sentence. (lacing house!
coats at the end builds the urgency of the situation, parents racing from their homes dressed as they
(utting strong stuff at the beginning and the end allows writers to hide wea-er stuff in the middle. In
the passage above, notice how the writer hides the less important news elements !B the who and the
when #'ower 2erion Township yesterday$ !B in the middle of the lead. This strategy also wor-s for
attributing ,uotations:
It was one horrible thing to watch, said %elen Amadio, who was wal-ing near her
%ampden Avenue home when the crash occurred. It e6ploded li-e a bomb. /lac- smo-e
just poured.
/egin with a good ,uote. %ide the attribution in the middle. End with a good ,uote.
These tools are as old as rhetoric itself. Near the end of "ha-espeare&s famous tragedy, a character
announces to 2acbeth: The Iueen, my 'ord, is dead.
This astonishing e6ample of the power of emphatic word order is followed by one of the dar-est
passages in all of literature. 2acbeth says:
"he should have died hereafterJ
There would have a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
+reeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded timeJ
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. 4ut, out, brief candleE
'ife&s but a wal-ing shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
"ignifying nothing.
The poet has one great advantage over those of us who write prose. %e -nows where the line will
end. %e gets to emphasi*e a word at the end of a line, a sentence, a paragraph. 5e prose writers ma-e
do with the sentence and paragraph B! signifying something.
7. )ead 'incoln&s Aettysburg Address and 3r. ;ing&s I %ave a 3ream speech to study the uses of
emphatic word order.
8. 5ith a pencil in hand, read an essay you admire. +ircle the last words in each paragraph.
0. 3o the same for recent e6amples of your own wor-. 'oo- for opportunities to revise sentences so
that more powerful or interesting words appear at the end.
9. "urvey your friends to get the names of their dogs. 5rite these in alphabetical order. Imagine this list
would appear in a story. (lay with the order of names. 5hich could go firstH 5hich lastH 5hyH
Writing Tool #5: 3bserve Wor! Territor'
3bserve 1wor! territor'#1 4ive &e' wor!s their space# 5o not repeat a !istinctive wor! unless 'ou inten!
a speci%ic e%%ect#
I coined the phrase word territory to describe a tendency I notice in my own writing. 5hen I read a
story I wrote months or years ago, I am surprised by how often I repeat words without care.
Writers -a% choose to re"eat words or "hrases for e-"hasis or rh%th-A Abraha- 9incoln was not red2ndant in
his ho"e that a Igovern-ent of the "eo"le; b% the "eo"le; for the "eo"le; shall not "erish fro- the earthAI $nl% a
-ischievo2s or tone@deaf editor wo2ld delete the re"etition of I"eo"leAI
To observe word territory you must recogni*e the difference between intended and unintended
repetition. :or e6ample, I once wrote this sentence to describe a writing tool:
'ong sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, creating
an effect that 3on :ry calls steady advance.
It too- several years and hundreds of readings before I noticed I had written create and creating in
the same sentence. It was easy enough to cut out creating, giving the stronger verb form its own
space. 5ord territory.
In 7<1K I wrote this ending to a story about the life and death of /eat writer .ac- ;erouac in my
hometown of "t. (etersburg, :lorida:
%ow fitting then that this child of bliss should come in the end to "t. (etersburg. 4ur city of
golden sunshine, balmy serenity, and careless bliss, a paradise for those who have -nown hard
times. And, at once, the city of wretched loneliness, the city of rootless survival and of restless
wanderers, the city where so many come to die.
@ears later, I admire that passage e6cept for the unintended repetition of the -ey word bliss. 5orse
yet, I had used it again, two paragraphs earlier. I offer no e6cuse other than feeling blissed out in the
aura of ;erouac&s wor-.
I&ve heard a story, which I cannot verify, that Ernest %emingway tried to write boo- pages in which no
-ey words were repeated. That effect would mar- a hard!core adherence to word territory, but, in fact,
does not reflect the way that %emingway writes. %e often repeats -ey words on a page L table, roc-,
fish, river, sea L because to find a synonym strains the writer&s eyes and the reader&s ears.
+onsider this passage from A 2oveable :east:
All you have to do is write one true sentence. 5rite the truest sentence that you -now. "o
finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because
there was always one true sentence that I -new or had seen or had heard someone say. If I
started to write elaborately, or li-e someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I
could cut that scrollwor- or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple
declarative sentence I had written.
As a reader, I appreciate the repetition in the %emingway passage. The effect is li-e the beat of a bass
drum. It vibrates the writer&s message into the pores of the s-in. "ome words L li-e true or
sentence L act as building bloc-s and can be repeated to good effect. 3istinctive words L li-e
scrollwor- or ornament L deserve their own space.
:inally, leave said alone. 3on&t be tempted by the muse of variation to permit characters to opine,
elaborate, chortle, cajole, or laugh.
7. )ead a story you wrote at least a year ago. (ay attention to the words you repeat. 3ivide them
into three categories:
a. function words #said or that$
b. foundation words #house or river$
c. distinctive words #silhouette or jingle$
8. 3o the same with the draft of a story you are wor-ing on now. @our goal is to recogni*e
unintended repetition before it is published.
0. )ead some selections from novels or nonfiction stories that ma-e use of dialogue. "tudy the
attribution, paying close attention to when the author uses says or said, and when the writer
chooses a more descriptive alternative.
Writing Tool #6: /la' with Wor!s
/la' with wor!s" even in serious stories# Choose wor!s the average writer avoi!s but the average rea!er
.ust as the sculptor wor-s with clay, the writer shapes a world with words. In fact, the earliest English
poets were called shapers, artists who molded the stuff of language to create stories the way that Aod,
the Areat "haper, formed heaven and earth.
Aood writers play with language, even when the topic is about death:
3o not go gentle into that good night, wrote 5elsh poet 3ylan Thomas to his dying father, )age,
rage against the dying of the light.
!la% and death -a% see- at odds; b2t the writer finds the "ath that connects the-A To e:"ress his grief; the "oet
fiddles with lang2age; "refers HgentleH to Hgentl%;H chooses HnightH to rh%-e with Hlight;H and re"eats the word HrageAH
9ater in the "oe-; he will even "2n abo2t those Igrave -en; near death; who see with blinding sightAI The
do2ble -eaning of Hgrave -enH leads straight to the o:%-oron Hblinding sightAH Word@"la%A
The headline writer is the journalist most li-e the poet, stuffing big meaning into small spaces.
+onsider this headline about a shoc-ing day during the war in Ira,: Jubilant mob mauls four dead
The circumstances of the story are hideous: Ira,i civilians attac- American security officers, burn them
to death in their cars, beat and dismember their charred carcasses, drag them through the street, and
hang what&s left from a bridge !! all while onloo-ers cheer. Even amidst such carnage, the headline
writer plays with the language. The writer repeats consonant sounds #li-e &b& and &m&$ for emphasis and
contrasts words such as &jubilant& and &dead& with surprising effect. &.ubilant& stands out as well!chosen,
derived from the 'atin verb that means &to raise a shout of joy.&
5ords li-e &mob,& &dead,& and &Americans& appear in news reports all the time. &2auls& is a verb we might
see in a story about a dog attac- on a child. /ut &jubilant& is a distinctive word, comprehensible to most
readers, but rare in the conte6t of news.
Too often, writers suppress their own vocabularies in a misguided attempt to lower the level of
language for a general audience. 4bscure words should be defined in te6ts or made clear from conte6t.
/ut the reading vocabulary of the average news user is considerably larger than the writing vocabulary
of the typical reporter. As a result, scribes who choose their words from a larger hoard often attract
special attention from readers and gain reputations as writers.
;elley /enham of the St. Petersburg Times is such a writer:
5hen they heard the screams, no one suspected the rooster.
3echardonae Aaines, 8, was toddling down the sidewal- 2onday lugging her Easy /a-e 4ven
when she became the victim in one of the weirder animal attac- cases police can recall.
The writer&s choice of words brings to life this off!beat police story in which a rooster attac-s a little
girl. &"creams& is a word we see in the news all the time, but not &rooster.& /oth &toddling& and &lugging&
are words common to the average reader, but unusual in the news.
/enham uses other words that are common to readers, but rare in reporting: Dentured, belly,
pummeling, frea-ing, swatted, bac-handed, shuffled, latched on, hammered, crowing, flip!flops,
shuc-ed, bobbed, s-ittered, and sandspurs.
All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a la-e, but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as
a pond. The good news is that the act of reporting always e6pands the number of useable words. The
reporter sees and hears and records. The seeing leads to language.
The writer must be able to feel words intimately, one at a time, writes poet 3onald %all. %e must
also be able to step bac-, inside his head, and see the flowing sentence. /ut he starts with the single
word. %all celebrates writers who are original, as if seeing a thing for the first timeJ yet they report
their vision in a language that reaches the rest of us. :or the first ,uality the writer needs imaginationJ
for the second he needs s-ill ... Imagination without s-ill ma-es a lively chaosJ s-ill without
imagination, a deadly order.
7. )ead several stories in today&s newspaper. +ircle any surprising word, especially one you are
not used to seeing in the news.
8. 5rite a draft of a story or essay with the intention of unleashing your writing vocabulary. "how
this draft to some test readers and interview them about your word choice and their level of
understanding. "hare your findings with others.
0. )ead the wor- of a writer you admire with special attention to word choice. +ircle any signs of
playfulness by the writer, especially when the subject matter is serious.
9. :ind a writer, perhaps a poet, whose wor- you read as an inspiration for writing.
Writing Tool #7: 5ig %or the Concrete an! *peci%ic
5ig %or the concrete an! speci%ic: the name o% the !og#
Novelist .oseph +onrad once described his tas- this way: /y the power of the written word to ma-e
you hear, to ma-e you feel L it is, before all, to ma-e you see. 5hen Aene )oberts, a great American
newspaper editor, bro-e in as a cub reporter in North +arolina, he read his stories aloud to a blind
editor who would chastise young )oberts for not ma-ing him see.
3etails of character and setting appeal to the senses of the reader, creating an e6perience that leads to
understanding. 5hen we say I see, we most often mean I understand. Ine6perienced writers may
choose the obvious detail, the man puffing on the cigarette, the young woman chewing on whatMs left of
her fingernails. Those details are not telling L unless the man is dying of lung cancer or the woman is
,n StA !etersb2rg; editors and writing coaches warn re"orters not to ret2rn to the office witho2t Ithe na-e of the
dogAI That re"orting tas+ does not reJ2ire the writer to 2se the detail in the stor%; b2t it re-inds the re"orter to
+ee" her e%es and ears o"enedA When Kelle% Benha- wrote the stor% of the ferocio2s rooster that attac+ed a
toddler; she not onl% got the na-e of the rooster; Roc+adoodle Two; b2t also the na-es of his "arents;
Roc+adoodle and one@legged Lenn% !enn%A M, cannot e:"lain wh% it -atters that the offending rooster3s -other
onl% had one leg; b2t it doesAN
.ust before the e6ecution of a serial -iller, reporter +hristopher "canlan flew to Ctah to visit the family
of one of the murdererMs presumed victims. @ears earlier a young woman left her house and never
returned. "canlan found the detail that told the story of the familyMs unending grief. %e noticed a piece
of tape over the light switch ne6t to the front door L so no one could turn it off. The mother always left
the light on until her daughter returned home, and though years had passed, that light was -ept burning
li-e an eternal flame.
%ereMs the -ey: "canlan saw the taped!over switch and as-ed about it. The great detail he captured was
a product of his curiosity, not his imagination.
The ,uest for such details has gone on for centuries, as any historical anthology of reportage will
reveal. /ritish scholar .ohn +arey describes these e6amples from his collection Eewitness to !istor:
This boo- is ? full of unusual or indecorous or incidental images that imprint themselves
scaldingly on the mindMs eye: the ambassador peering down the front of Iueen Eli*abeth IMs
dress and noting the wrin-les ? the Tamil looter at the fall of ;uala 'umpur upending a carton
of snowy "la*enger tennis balls ? (liny watching people with cushions on their heads against
the ash from the volcanoJ 2ary, Iueen of "cots, suddenly aged in death, with her pet dog
cowering among her s-irts and her head held on by one recalcitrant piece of gristleJ the starving
Irish with their mouths green from their diet of grass.
#Though there is no surviving record of the name of 2aryMs dog, I have learned that it was a "-ye
terrier, a "cottish breed famous for its loyalty and valorE$
The good writer uses telling details, not only to inform but to persuade. In 7<N0 Aene (atterson wrote
this passage in a column mourning the murders of four girls in the dynamite bombing of a church in
A Negro mother wept in the street "unday morning in front of a /aptist +hurch in /irmingham.
In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. 5e hold that shoe with
(atterson will not permit white "outherners to escape responsibility for the murder of those children.
%e fi6es their eyes and ears, forcing them to hear the weeping of the grieving mother, and to see the
one tiny shoe. The writer ma-es us empathi*e and mourn and understand. %e ma-es us see.
7. )ead todayMs edition of The New York Times loo-ing for passages in stories that appeal to the
senses. 3o the same with a novel.
8. As- a group of colleagues or students to share stories about the names of their pets. 5hich
names reveal the most about the personalities of the ownersH
0. 5ith some friends, study the collected wor- of an outstanding photojournalist. 2a-e believe
you are writing a story about the scene captured in the photo. 5hich details might you select,
and in what order would you render themH
9. 5ith some willing subjects, as- to see the contents of a wallet, purse, or des- drawer. As- the
owners to give you a OtourM of the contents. Ta-e e6tensive notes. 5hich details best convey the
ownerMs characterH
Writing Tool #8: *ee& 3riginal Images
*ee& original images# 9a&e wor! lists" %ree:associate" be surprise! b' language# Reect cliches an!
1%irst:level creativit'#1
The -a%or wants to reb2ild a downtown in r2ins b2t will not reveal the details of his "lanA ILeHs "la%ing his cards
close to his vest;I %o2 writeA
@ou have written a cliche, a worn!out metaphor. This one comes from the world of gambling, of
course. The mayor&s adversaries would love a pee- at his hand. 5hoever used this metaphor first, wrote
something fresh. 5ith overuse, it became familiar and stale.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print, writes
Aeorge 4rwell. %e argues that using cliches is a substitute for thin-ing, a form of automatic writing:
(rose consists less and less of words chosen for the sa-e of their meaning, and more and more of
phrases tac-ed together li-e the sections of a prefabricated hen!house. 4rwell&s last phrase is a fresh
image, a model of originality.
The lang2age of so2rces threatens the good writer at ever% t2rnA 4owhere is this tr2er than in s"orts =o2rnalis-A
A "ost@ga-e interview with al-ost an% athlete in an% s"ort "rod2ces a J2ilt of cliches: We fought hard. We
stepped up. We just tried to have some fun. ,tHs a -iracle that the best s"orts writers are so originalA A favorite of
-ine; Bill )onlin; wrote this abo2t the virt2es of one baseball great:
+al )ip-en is a superstar anomaly. %is close!cropped hair is gray by genetics, not chartreuse, cerise, or
hot pin- by designer dye. %e puts a ring around his bat while on dec-, not through his nose, nipples, or
other organs.
"o what is the original writer to doH 5hen tempted by a tired phrase, white as snow, stop writing.
Ta-e what the practitioners of natural childbirth call a cleansing breath. Then jot down the old phrase
on a piece of paper. "tart scribbling alternatives:
"hite as snow.
"hite as Snow "hite.
Snow white.
#ra as cit snow.
"hite as Prince $harles.
"aul (ett, a reporter -nown for his style, once told me that he might have to create and reject more than
a do*en images before the process led him to the right one. "uch duty to craft should inspire us, but the
strain of such effort can be discouraging. 4n deadline, write it straight: The mayor was being secretive
about his plans. If you fall bac- on the cliche, ma-e sure there are no others around it.
2ore deadly than cliches of language are what 3onald 2urray calls cliches of vision, the narrow
frames through which writers learn to see the world. In 5riting to 3eadline, 2urray lists common
blind spots: victims are always innocent, bureaucrats are la*y, politicians are corrupt, it&s lonely at the
top, the suburbs are boring.
I have described one cliche of vision as first!level creativity. :or e6ample, it&s impossible to survive a
wee- of American journalism without reading or hearing the phrase: /ut the dream became a
This frame is so pervasive that it can be applied to almost any story: the golfer who shoots 00 on the
front nine, but 99 on the bac-J the company +E4 jailed for fraudJ the woman who suffers from botched
plastic surgery.
5riters who reach the first level of creativity thin- they are being original or clever. In fact, they settle
for the ordinary, the dramatic or humorous place any writer can reach with minimal effort.
I remember the true story of a :lorida man, who, wal-ing home for lunch, fell into a ditch occupied by
an alligator. The gator bit into the man, who was rescued by firefighters. In a writing wor-shop, I gave
reporters a fact sheet from which they were to write five different leads for this story in five minutes.
"ome leads were straight and newsy, others nifty and distinctive. /ut almost everyone in the room,
including me, had this version of a lead sentence:
"hen %obert !udson headed home for lunch Thursda& little did he know that he'd become the meal.
5e agreed that if 0> of us had landed on the same bit of humor, it must be obvious !! first level
creativity. 5e discovered the ne6t level in a lead that read: (erhaps to a 7>!foot alligator, )obert
%udson tastes li-e chic-en. 5e also agreed that we preferred straight writing to the first pun that came
to mind. 5hat value is there in the story of a renegade rooster that mentions foul play, or, even worse,
fowl playH
"ome forms of cleverness are irresistible. 5hen the "alvador 3ali 2useum opened in "t. (etersburg,
:la., who could blame the headline writer who typed out %ello, 3aliH /ut if a dream never more
becomes a nightmare, American journalism and the public it serves will be better for it.
7. )ead the newspaper today with a pencil in your hand and circle any phrase you are used to
seeing in print.
8. Apply this process to your own stories. )ead some old ones and circle the cliches or tired
phrases. )evise them with straight writing or original images.
0. /rainstorm alternatives to these common metaphors: red as a rose, white as snow, brown as a
berry, blue as the s-y, cold as ice, hot as hell.
9. )e!read some passages from your favorite writer. +an you find any clichesH +ircle the most
original and vivid images.
Writing Tool #;: /re%er *imple to Technical
/re%er the simple to the technical: shorter wor!s an! paragraphs at the points o% greatest comple0it'#
I once learned a literary techni,ue called defamiliari*ation, a hopeless and ugly word that describes
the process by which an author ta-es the familiar and ma-es it strange. :ilm directors create this effect
with super close!ups or with shots from severe or distorting angles. This is harder to do on the page, but
the effect can be da**ling as with E./. 5hite&s description of a humid day in :lorida:
4n many days the dampness of the air pervades all life, all living. 2atches refuse to stri-e.
The towel, hung to dry, grows wetter by the hour. The newspaper, with its headlines about
integration, wilts in your hand and falls limply into the coffee and the egg. Envelopes seal
themselves. (ostage stamps mate with one another as shamelessly as grasshoppers.
What co2ld be -ore fa-iliar than a -2stache on a teacherHs face; b2t not this -2stache; as described b% Roald
(ahl in his childhood -e-oir:
A truly terrifying sight, a thic- orange hedge that sprouted and flourished between his nose
and his upper lip and ran clear across his face from the middle of one chee- to the middle
of the other?It was curled most splendidly upwards all the way along as though it had a
permanent wave put into it or possibly curling tongs heated in the mornings over a tiny
flame?.The only other way he could have achieved this curling effect, we boys decided
was by prolonged upward brushing with a hard toothbrush in front of the loo-ing!glass
every morning.
/oth 5hite and 3ahl ta-e a common e6perience or object B the humid day or the mustache B and,
through the filter of their prose style, force us to see it in a new way.
5e might as well give a name to the opposite and more common process. :or balance we&ll call it
familiari*ation, ta-ing the strange, or opa,ue, or comple6, and through the power of e6planation,
ma-ing it comprehensible, even familiar.
Too often, writers render complicated ideas with complicated prose, producing sentences such as this
one, from an editorial about state government:
To avert the all too common enactment of re,uirements without regard for their local cost
and ta6 impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be
clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that state should partially reimburse local
government for some state imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee
compensation, wor-ing conditions and pensions.
The density of this passage has two possible e6planations: the writer is writing for a speciali*ed one,
legal e6perts already familiar with the issues. 4r, the writer thin-s that form should follow function,
that complicated ideas should be communicated in complicated prose.
%e needs the advice of writing coach 3onald 2urray, who says the reader benefits from shorter words
and phrases, simpler sentences, at the points of greatest comple6ity. 5hat would happen if readers
encountered this translation of the editorialH:
The state of New @or- often passes laws telling local governments what to do. These laws
have a name. They are called state mandates. 4n many occasions, these laws improve life
for everyone in the state. /ut they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn&t consider
the cost to local government, or how much money ta6payers will have to shell out. "o we
have an idea. The state should pay bac- local governments for some of these so!called
The differences in these passages are worth measuring. This first one ta-es si6 lines of te6t. The
revision re,uires one additional line. /ut consider this: The original writer only has room for =1 words
in si6 lines, while I get K7 words in seven lines. %is si6 lines give him room for only one sentence. I fit
eight sentences into seven lines. 2y words and sentences are shorter. The passage is much clearer. I use
this writing strategy to fulfill a mission: to ma-e the strange wor-ings of government clearer to the
average citi*en. To ma-e the strange familiar.
It is important to remember that clear prose is not just a product of sentence length or word choice. It
derives first from a sense of purpose B a determination to inform. 5hat comes ne6t is the hard wor- of
reporting, research, and critical thin-ing. The writer cannot ma-e something clear until the difficult
subject is clear in the writer&s head. Then, and only then, does she reach into the writer&s toolbo6, ready
to e6plain to readers, %ere&s how it wor-s.
7. )eview a story you thin- is unclear, dense with difficult information. "tudy the length of words,
sentences, and paragraphs.
8. )epeat the process with your own prose. (ay special attention to passages you now thin- are too
complicated. Try to revise a passage using the tools described above.
0. /egin to collect e6amples of stories where the writer has turned hard facts into easy reading.
@ou can start by browsing through a good academic encyclopedia.
9. 'oo- for an opportunity in a story to use the sentence: %ere&s how it wor-s.
Writing Tool #10: Recogni<e the Roots o% *tories
Recogni<e the m'thic" s'mbolic" an! poetic# Be aware =an! beware> that common themes o% news
writing have !eep roots in the culture o% stor'telling#
In 7<17 .ohn (ilger described a protest march by Dietnam veterans against the war:
The truth is outE 2ic-ey 2ouse is deadE The good guys are really the bad guys in
disguiseE The spea-er is 5illiam 5yman, from New @or- +ity. %e is 7< and has no legs.
%e sits in a wheelchair on the steps of the Cnited "tates +ongress, in the midst of a crowd
of 0>>,>>> ... %e has on green combat fatigues and the jac-et is torn where he has ripped
away the medals and the ribbons he has been given in e6change for his legs, and along with
hundreds of other veterans ... he has hurled them on the +apitol steps and described them as
shitJ and now to those who form a ring of pity around him, he says, /efore I lost these
legs, I -illed and -illedE 5e all didE .esus, don&t grieve for meE
Since the 7ree+ "oet Lo-er wrote IThe ,liadI and IThe $d%sse%;I writers have recorded stories of soldiers
going off to war and their str2ggles to find a wa% ho-eA This stor% "attern O often called Ithere and bac+I O is
"ri-eval and "ersistent; an archet%"e so dee" within the c2lt2re of stor%telling that we writers can s2cc2-b to its
gravitational "2ll witho2t even +nowing itA
Ancient warriors fought for treasure and for reputation, but in the passage above, the blessing becomes
the curse. "ymbols of bravery and duty turn to shit as angry veterans rip them from green jac-ets and
toss them in protest. These soldiers return not to parades and glory, but to loss of faith and limb that can
never be restored.
Aood writers strive for originality, but they can achieve it by standing on a foundation of narrative
archetypes, a set of story e6pectations that can be manipulated, frustrated, or fulfilled, on behalf of the
The journey there and bac-.
5inning the pri*e.
5inning or losing the loved one.
'oss and restoration.
The blessing becomes the curse.
4vercoming obstacles.
The wasteland restored.
)ising from the ashes.
The ugly duc-ling.
The emperor has no clothes.
3escent into the underworld.
2y high school English teacher, :ather %orst, taught us two important things about the reading and
writing of literature. The first was that if a wall appears in a story, chances are it&s more than just a
wall. /ut, he was ,uic- to add, when it comes to powerful writing, a symbol need not be a
cymbal. "ubtlety is a writer&s virtue.
That said, writers in search of a new story will often stumble upon ancient stories forms. 'et&s call them
archetypes, story shapes that are so deeply rooted in the culture that they appear over and over again.
/adly used, archetypes can become stereotypes L clichPs of vision L warping the reporter&s
e6perience of the world to satisfy the re,uirements of the form. Csed well, these forms turn the stuff of
daily life into powerful e6periences of news and culture.
"ome of the best writers in America wor- for National (ublic )adio. The stories they tell, ma-ing great
use of natural sound, open a world to listeners that is both fresh and distinctive, and yet often informed
by narrative archetypes. 2argo Adler admitted as much when she revealed that her feature story on the
New @or- homeless living in subway tunnels borrowed on her understanding of myths in which the
hero descends into the underworld.
2ore recently, N() reported the story of an autistic boy, 2att "avage, who has become, at the age of
nine, an accomplished ja** musician. The reporter, 2argo 2elnicove, tapped into the standard form of
the young hero who triumphs over obstacles. /ut the story gives us something more: Cntil recently
2att "avage could not stand to hear music and most other sounds. Intensive auditory therapy turns the
boy&s neurological curse into a blessing, unleashing a passion for music e6pressed in ja**.
5e use the archetypes, says (ulit*er winner Tom :rench. 5e can&t let the archetypes use us.
As a cautionary tale, he cites the reporting on the dangers of silicone breast implants to the health of
women. "tudy after study confirms the medical safety of this procedure. @et the culture refuses to
accept it. 5hyH :rench wonders if it may arise from the archetype that vanity should be punished, or
that evil corporations are willing to profit by poisoning women&s bodies.
Cse archetypes. 3on&t let them use you.
7. )ead .oseph +ampbell&s %ero 5ith a Thousand :aces as an introduction to archetypal story
8. As you read and hear coverage of the military actions in the 2iddle East, loo- and listen for
e6amples of the story forms described above.
0. )e!e6amine your own writing over the last year. +an you now identify stories that fit or violate
archetypal story patternsH 5ould you have written them differentlyH
9. 3iscuss :ather %orst&s advice: a symbol need not be a cymbal. +an you find a symbol in any of
your storiesH Is it a cymbalH
Writing Tool #11: Bac& 3%% or *how 3%%
When the news or topic is most serious" un!erstate# When the topic is least serious" e0aggerateA
Aeorge 4rwell wrote, Aood writing is li-e a window pane. The best prose calls the reader&s attention
to the world being described, not to the writer&s cleverness. 5hen we loo- out the window onto the
hori*on, we don&t notice the pane. @et the pane frames our vision just as the writer frames our view of
the story.
2ost writers have at least two modes: 4ne says (ay no attention to the writer behind the screen. 'oo-
only at the world. The other says, without inhibition: 'oo- at me dance. Aren&t I a clever fellowH In
rhetoric, these two modes have names. The first is called understatement. The second is called
overstatement or hyperbole.
%ere&s a rule of thumb that wor-s for me. The more serious or dramatic the subject, the more the writer
bac-s off, creating the effect that the story is telling itself. The more playful or inconse,uential the
topic, the more the writer can show off. /ac- off or show off.
+onsider this lead to .ohn %ersey&s famous boo- %iroshima:
At e6actly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August N, 7<9=, .apanese time, at
the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above %iroshima, 2iss Toshi-o "asa-i, a cler-
in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin 5or-s, had just sat down at her place in
the plant office and was turning her head to spea- to the girl in the ne6t des-.
This boo-, described by some as the most important wor- of nonfiction in the 8>th +entury, begins
with the most ordinary of circumstances, a recitation of the time and date, and two office wor-ers about
to converse. The flashing of the atomic bomb almost hides inside that sentence. /ecause we can
imagine the horror that is to follow, the effect of %ersey&s understatement is chilling.
In 7<=K, ). 2. 2acoll, writing for an English newspaper, describes the e6ecution of a man and woman
in "audi Arabia. The man is ,uic-ly and efficiently beheaded, but the woman suffers a crueler fate:
Now a woman was dragged forward. "he and the man had together murdered her former
husband. "he, too, was under 0>, and slender.
The recital of her crime too was read out as she -nelt, and then the e6ecutioner stepped
forward with a wooden stave and dealt a hundred blows upon her shoulder.
As the flogging ended, the woman sagged over on her side.
Ne6t, a lorry loaded with roc-s and stones was bac-ed up and its cargo deposited in a pile.
At a signal from the prince the crowd leaped and started pelting the woman to death.
It was difficult to determine how she was facing her last and awful ordeal, since she was
veiled in 2uslim fashion and her mouth was gagged to muffle her cries.
I can easily imagine a version of this passage laced with outrage, but I find the straightforward account
vivid and disturbing, leaving room for my own emotional and intellectual response, that this is a cruel
and unusual punishment, designed to -eep women in their place.
'et&s contrast such understatement to the spritely style of the great A( writer, "aul (ett, who wrote this
description of New @or- +ity&s colorful mayor Ed ;och:
%e is the freshest thing to blossom in New @or- since chopped liver, a mi6ed metaphor of a
politician, the antithesis of the pac-aged leader, irrepressible, candid, impolitic,
spontaneous, funny, feisty, independent, uncowed by voter blocs, unse6y, unhandsome,
unfashionable, and altogether charismatic, a man oddly at peace with himself in an
unpeaceful place, a mayor who presides over the country&s largest /abel with unseemly joy.
(ett&s prose is over!the!top, a s,uirt of selt*er down your pants, as was 2ayor ;och. Although
municipal politics can be serious business, the conte6t here allows (ett room for the full theatrical
The clever uber!writer can, in the words of Anna Iuindlen, write your way onto page one, as
investigative reporter /ill Nottingham did the day his city editor assigned him to cover the local
spelling bee: Thirteen!year!old 'ane /oy is to spelling what /illy the ;id was to gun!fighting, icy!
nerved and unflinchingly accurate.
To understand the difference between understatement and overstatement, consider the cinematic
difference between two "teven "pielberg movies. In "chindler&s 'ist, "pielberg evo-es the horrors of
the %olocaust rather than depict them graphically. In a blac- and white movie, he ma-es us follow the
life and inevitable death of one little .ewish girl dressed in red.
"aving (rivate )yan reveals in grisly detail the gruesome warfare on the shores of :rance during the
Invasion of Normandy, complete with severed limbs and spurting arteries. I, for one, favor the more
restrained approach where the artist leaves room for my imagination.
7. ;eep your eyes open for lively stories that ma-e their way onto page one of the newspaper,
even though they lac- traditional news value. 3iscuss how they were written.
8. )eview some of the stories written after the tragedies of "ept. 77, 8>>7. Notice the difference
between the stories that seemed restrained and the ones that seem over!written.
0. )ead some e6amples of feature obits from The New York Times' (ortraits of Arief . "tudy the
understated ways in which these are written.
9. )ead wor-s of humor from writers such as 5oody Allen, )oy /lount .r., 3ave /arry, "...
(earlman, or "teve 2artin. 'oo- for e6amples of both hyperbole and understatement.
Writing Tool #1(: Control the /ace
Control the pace o% the stor' b' var'ing sentence lengthA
'ong sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, an effect that 3on
:ry calls steady advance. 4r slam on the bra-es.
The writer controls the pace of the story, slow or fast or in between, and uses sentences of varying
lengths to create the music, the rhythm of the story. 5hile these metaphors of sound and speed may
seem vague to the aspiring writer, they are grounded in useful tools and practical ,uestions. %ow long
is the sentenceH 5here is the comma and the periodH %ow many periods appear in the paragraphH
5riters name three good reasons to slow the pace of a story:
7. To simplify the comple6.
8. To create suspense.
0. To focus on the emotional truth.
)onsider this 2n2s2al lead to a stor% abo2t the cit% govern-ent b2dget:
3o you live in "t. (etersburgH 5ant to help spend Q=9K millionH
It&s money you paid in ta6es and fees to the government. @ou elected the +ity +ouncil to
office, and as your representatives, they&re ready to listen to your ideas on how to spend it.
2ayor )ic- /a-er and his staff have figured out how they&d li-e to spend the money. At 1
p.m. Thursday, /a-er will as- the +ity +ouncil to agree with him. And council members
will tal- about their ideas.
@ou have the right to spea- at the meeting, too. Each resident gets three minutes to tell the
mayor and council members what he or she thin-s.
/ut why would you stand upH
/ecause how the city spends its money affects lots of things you care about.
Not every journalist li-es this approach to government writing, but its author, /ryan Ailmer, gets credit
for an effect I call radical clarity. Ailmer eases the reader into this story with a se,uence of short
sentences and paragraphs. All the stopping points give the reader the time and space to comprehend.
@et there is enough variation to imitate the patterns of normal conversation.
/ut clarity is not the only reason to write short sentences. 'et&s loo- at suspense and emotional power,
what some people call the .esus wept effect. To e6press .esus&s profound sadness at learning of the
death of his friend 'a*arus, the Aospel writer uses the shortest possible sentence. Two words. "ubject
and verb. .esus wept.
I learned the power of sentence length when I read a famous essay by Norman 2ailer, The 3eath of
/enny (aret. 2ailer has often written about bo6ing, and in this essay he reports on how pri*efighter
Emile Ariffith beat /enny (aret to death in the ring after (aret ,uestioned Ariffith&s manhood.
2ailer&s account is riveting, placing us at ringside to witness the terrible event:
(aret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duc- away, his left arm and his head became tangled
on the wrong side of the top rope. Ariffith was in li-e a cat ready to rip the life out of a
huge bo6ed rat. %e hit him 7K right hands in a row, an act which too- perhaps three or four
seconds, Ariffith ma-ing a pent!up whimpering sound all the while he attac-ed, the right
hand whipping li-e a piston rod which has bro-en through the cran-case, or li-e a baseball
bat demolishing a pump-in.
Notice the rhythm 2ailer achieves by beginning that paragraph with three short sentences, culminating
in a long sentence filled with metaphors of action and violence.
As it becomes clearer and clearer that (aret is fatally injured, 2ailer&s sentences get shorter and shorter:
The house doctor jumped into the ring. %e -nelt. %e pried (aret&s eyelid open. %e loo-ed at
the eyeball staring out. %e let the lid snap shut. /ut they saved (aret long enough to ta-e
him to a hospital where he lingered for days. %e was in a coma. %e never came out of it. If
he lived, he would have been a vegetable. %is brain was smashed.
All that drama. All that raw emotional power. All those short sentences.
In a 7<K= boo-, Aary (rovost created this tour de force to demonstrate what happens when the writer
e6periments with sentences of different lengths:
This sentence has five words. %ere are five more words. :ive!word sentences are fine. /ut
several together become monotonous. 'isten to what is happening. The writing is getting
boring. The sound of it drones. It&s li-e a stuc- record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. 2usic. The writing sings. It has a
pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium
And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of
considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a
crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals !! sounds that say listen to this, it
is important.
"o write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences.
+reate a sound that pleases the reader&s ear.
3on&t just write words. 5rite music.
7. )eview some of your recent stories to e6amine your sentence length. Either by combining
sentences or cutting them in half, see if you can establish a rhythm that suits your tone and
8. 5hen reading your favorite authors become more aware of variation of sentence length. 2ar-
off some very short sentences, and very long ones, that you find effective.
0. 2ost writers thin- that a series of short sentences speeds up the reader, but I&m arguing that they
slow the reader down, that all those periods are stop signs. 3iscuss this effect with colleagues
and see if you can reach a consensus.
9. )ead some children&s boo-s, especially for very young children, to see if you can gauge the
effect of sentence length variation on the reader.
Writing Tool #1,: *how an! Tell
7ood writers -ove 2" and down the ladder of abstractionA At the botto- are blood% +nives and rosar% beads;
wedding rings and baseball cardsA At the to" are words that reach for a higher -eaning; words li+e Ifreedo-I
and Iliterac%AI Beware of the -iddle; the r2ngs of the ladder where b2rea2crac% and "2blic "olic% l2r+A ,n that
"lace; teachers are referred to as Iinstr2ctional 2nitsAI
The ladder of abstraction remains one of the most useful models of thin-ing and writing ever invented.
(opulari*ed by ".I. %aya-awa in his 7<0< boo- 'anguage in Action, the ladder has been adopted and
adapted in hundreds of ways to help people thin- clearly and e6press meaning.
The easiest way to ma-e sense of this tool is to begin with its name: The ladder of abstraction. That
name contains two nouns. The first is ladder, a specific tool you can see, hold in your hands, and
climb. It involves the senses. @ou can do things with it. (ut it against a tree to rescue your cat Doodoo.
The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. +oncrete is hard, which is why when you fall off
the ladder from a high place you might brea- your leg.
The second word is IabstractionAI 1o2 canHt eat it or s-ell it or -eas2re itA ,t is not eas% to 2se as an e:a-"leA ,t
a""eals not to the senses; b2t to the intellectA ,t is an idea that cries o2t for e:e-"lificationA
An old essay by .ohn Cpdi-e begins, 5e live in an era of gratuitous inventions and negative
improvements. That language is general and abstract, near the top of the ladder. It provo-es our
thin-ing, but what concrete evidence leads Cpdi-e to his conclusionH The answer is in his second
sentence: +onsider the beer can. To be even more specific, Cpdi-e was complaining that the
invention of the pop!top ruined the aesthetic e6perience of drin-ing beer. (op!top and beer are at
the bottom of the ladder, aesthetic e6perience at the top.
5e learned this language lesson in -indergarten when we played "how and Tell. 5hen we showed the
class our 7<=1 2ic-ey 2antle baseball card, we were at the bottom of the ladder. 5hen we told the
class about what a great season 2ic-ey had in 7<=N, we started climbing to the top of the ladder,
toward the meaning of greatness.
'et&s imagine an education reporter covering the local school board. (erhaps the topic of discussion is a
new reading curriculum. The reporter is unli-ely to hear conversation about little /essie .ones, a third!
grader in 2rs. Ariffith&s class at Aulfport Elementary, who will have to repeat the third grade because
she failed the state reading test. /essie cried when her mother showed her the test results.
Nor are you li-ely to hear school board members ascending to the top of the ladder to discuss the
importance of critical literacy in education, vocation, and citi*enship.
The lang2age of the school board -a% be st2c+ in the -iddle of the ladder: ILow -an% instr2ctional 2nits will be
necessar% to carr% o2t the sco"e and seJ2ence of this c2rric2l2-PI an ed2cational e:"ert -a% as+A )arol%n
<atalene; a great writing teacher fro- So2th )arolina; ta2ght -e that when re"orters write "rose the reader can
neither see nor 2nderstand; the% are often tra""ed halfwa% 2" the ladderA
'et&s loo- at how some good writers move up and down the ladder. +onsider this lead by .onathan /or
on a heart transplant operation: A healthy 71!year!old heart pumped the gift of life through 09!year!
old /ruce 2urray :riday, following a four!hour transplant operation that doctors said went without a
hitch. That heart is at the bottom of the ladder L there is no other heart li-e it in the world L but the
blood that it pumps signifies a higher meaning, the gift of life. "uch movements up the ladder create
a lift!off of understanding, an effect some writers call altitude.
4ne of America&s great baseball writers, Thomas /oswell, wrote this essay on the aging of athletes:
The cleanup crews come at midnight, creeping into the ghostly ,uarter!light of empty
ballpar-s with their slow!sweeping brooms and languorous, sluicing hoses. All season, they
remove the inanimate refuse of a game. Now, in the dwindling days of "eptember and
4ctober, they come to collect baseball souls.
Age is the sweeper, injury his broom.
2i6ed among the burst beer cups and the mustard!smeared wrappers headed for the trash
heap, we find old friends who are being consigned to the dust bin of baseball&s history.
The abstract inanimate refuse soon becomes visible as burst beer cups and mustard!smeared
wrappers. And those cleanup crews with their very real brooms and hoses transmogrify into grim
reapers in search of baseball souls.
2etaphor and simile help us to understand abstractions through comparison with concrete things.
+ivili*ation is a stream with ban-s, wrote 5ill 3urant, wor-ing both ends of the ladder. The stream
is sometimes filled with blood from people -illing, stealing, shouting, and doing the things historians
usually record, while on the ban-s, unnoticed, people build homes, ma-e love, raise children, sing
songs, write poetry, and even whittle statues. The story of civili*ation is the story of what happened on
the ban-s. %istorians are pessimists because they ignore the ban-s for the river.
7. )ead newspaper and maga*ine stories that have anecdotal leads followed by nut paragraphs
that e6plain what the story is about. Notice if the level of language moves from the concrete to
the more abstract.
8. :ind some stories about bureaucracy or public policy that seem stuc- in the middle of the ladder
of abstraction. 5hat -ind of reporting would be necessary to climb down or up, to help the
reader see and understandH
0. 'isten to song lyrics to hear how the language moves on the ladder of abstraction. :reedom&s
just another word for nothin& left to lose. 4r 5ar, what is it good forH Absolutely nothin&. 4r,
I li-e big butts and I cannot lie ... Notice how concrete words and images are used in music to
e6press abstractions such as love, hope, lust, and fear.
9. )ead several stories you have written and try to describe, in three words or less, what each story
is really about. Is it about friendship, loss, legacy, betrayalH Are there ways to ma-e such
meanings clearer to the readerH
=. 3o a Aoogle search on ladder of abstraction.
Writing Tool #1.: Interesting ?ames
Remember that writers are" b' training an! !isposition" attracte! to people an! places with interesting
The attraction to interesting names is not a tool, strictly spea-ing, but a condition, a -ind of sweet
literary addiction. I once wrote a story about the name R. Ry*or, the last name listed in the "t.
(etersburg, :la., phone directory. The name turned out to be a fa-e, made up long ago by postal
wor-ers so that family members could call them in an emergency, just by loo-ing up the last name in
the phoneboo-. 5hat captured my attention was the name. I wondered what the R stood for: Relda
Ry*orH Rorro Ry*orH And what was it li-e to go through life last in lineH
:iction writers, of course, get to ma-e up names for characters, names that become so familiar they
become part of our cultural imagination: )ip Dan 5in-le, Ichabod +rane, %ester (rynne, +aptain
Ahab, Ishmael, %uc-leberry :inn, %olden +aulfield.
"ports and entertainment provide an ine6haustible well of interesting names: /abe )uth, .ac-ie
)obinson, 2ic-ey 2antle, Rola /udd, .ohnny Cnitas, .oe 2ontana, "ha,uille 4&Neal, "pi-e 'ee,
2arilyn 2onroe, Elvis (resley.
5riters gravitate toward stories that ta-e place in towns with interesting names:
Kissi--ee; 8lorida
/ountiful, Ctah
Intercourse, (ennsylvania
2oose .aw, "as-atchewan
:ort 3odge, Iowa
4pp, Alabama
/ut the best names seem, as if by magic, attached to real characters who wind up ma-ing news. The
best reporters recogni*e and ta-e advantage of coincidence between name and circumstance.
A story in The (altimore Sun revealed the sad details of a woman whose devotion to her man led to the
deaths of her two young daughters. The mother was "ierra "wann, who, in spite of a lyrical name
evo-ing natural beauty, came apart in a grim environment, where heroin and cocaine are available
curbside beneath the blan- stares of boarded!up windows. The writer traced her downfall, not to
drugs, but to an addiction to the companionship of Nathaniel /roadway.
"ierra "wann. Nathaniel /roadway. A fiction writer could not invent names more apt and interesting.
I opened my phone boo- at random and discovered these names on two consecutive pages:
3anielle 2all
+harlie 2allette
%ollis 2allicoat
Ilir 2all-a*i
Eva 2alo
2ary 2aloof
.oe 2alpigli
.ohn 2amagona
'a-mi-a 2anawadu
;hai 2ang
)udolph 2ango
'udwig 2angold
Names sometimes provide a -ind of bac-story, suggesting history, ethnicity, generation, and character.
#The brilliant and playful American theologian 2artin 2arty refers to himself as 2arty 2arty.$
The writer&s interest in names often e6tends beyond person and place to things. )oald 3ahl, who would
gain fame from writing the novel +harlie and the +hocolate :actory, remembers his childhood in
sweet shops craving such delights as /ull&s!Eyes and 4ld :ashioned %umbugs and "trawberry
/onbons and Alacier 2ints and Acid 3rops and (ear 3rops and 'emon 3rops ... 2y own favourites
were "herbet "uc-ers and 'i,uorice /ootlaces. Not to mention the Aobstoppers and Tonsil
It&s hard to thin- of a writer with more interest in names than Dladimir Nabo-ov. (erhaps because he
wrote in both )ussian and English L and had a scientific interest in butterflies L Naba-ov dissects
words and images, loo-ing for the deeper levels of meaning. %is greatest anti!hero, %umbert %umbert,
begins the narration of 'olita with this memorable paragraph:
'olita, light of my life, fire of my loins. 2y sin, my soul. 'o!lee!ta: the tip of the tongue
ta-ing a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. 'o. 'ee. Ta.
"he was 'o, plain 'o, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one soc-. "he was 'ola in
slac-s. "he was 3olly at school. "he was 3olores on the dotted line. /ut in my arms she
was always 'olita.
In this great and scandalous novel, Nabo-ov includes an alphabetical listing of 'olita&s classmates,
beginning with Arace Angel and concluding with 'ouise 5indmuller. The novel becomes a virtual
ga*etteer of American place names, from the way we name our motels: All those "unset 2otels, C!
/eam +ottages, %illcrest +ourts, (ine Diew +ourts, 2ountain Diew +ourts, "-yline +ourts, (ar- (la*a
+ourts, Areen Acres, 2ac&s +ourts to the funny names attached to roadside toilets: Auys!Aals, .ohn!
.ane, .ac-!.ill, and even /uc-s!3oes.
5hat&s in a nameH :or the attentive writer, and the eager reader, the answer can be fun, insight, charm,
aura, character, identity, psychosis, fulfillment, inheritance, decorum, indiscretion, and possession. :or
in some cultures, if I -now and can spea- your name, I own your soul. )umpelstilts-in.
,n the >2deo@)hristian stor% of )reation; 7od grants -an+ind a s"ecial "ower over other creat2res: IWhen the
9ord 7od for-ed o2t of the gro2nd all the beasts of the field and the birds of the air; he bro2ght the- to the -an
to see what he wo2ld call the-; for that which -an called each of the-; that wo2ld be its na-eAI Lave a
conversation abo2t the larger religio2s and c2lt2ral i-"lications of na-ing; incl2ding cere-onies of na-ing s2ch
as birthing; ba"tis-; conversion; and -arriageA (onHt forget nic+na-es and street na-es and "en na-esA What
are the "ractical i-"lications for writersP
7. .. ;. )owling is the enormously popular author of the %arry (otter series. Among her many
gifts as a writer is her aptitude for naming. Thin- of her heroes, Albus 3umbledore or "irius
/lac- or %ermione Aranger. And her villains, 3raco 2alfoy and his henchmen +rabbe and
Aoyle. )ead one of the %arry (otter novels, paying special attention to the author&s great
imaginative universe of names.
8. In a dayboo- or journal, begin to -eep a record of interesting character names and place names
related to your community.
0. The ne6t time you are reporting a story, interview an e6pert who can reveal to you the names of
things you do not -now: flowers in a garden, parts of an engine, branches of a family tree,
breeds of cats. Imagine ways you might use such names in your story.
Writing Tool #15: Reveal Character Traits
Reveal character traits to the rea!er through scenes" !etails" an! !ialogue#
I once read a story in )S* Toda about a young teenage surfer in %awaii who lost her arm in a shar-
attac-. The piece, by .ill 'ieber, began this way:
/ethany %amilton has always been a compassionate child. /ut since the 79!year!old
%awaiian surfing sensation lost her left arm in a shar- attac- on %alloween, her
compassion has deepened.
The -ey words in this lead are compassionate and compassion. 5riters often turn abstractions into
adjectives to define character. 4ne writer tells us that the shop-eeper was enthusiastic, or that the
lawyer was passionate in his closing argument, or that the school girls were popular. "ome
adjectives L such as ashen, blond, or winged L help us see. /ut adjectives such as
enthusiastic are really abstract nouns in disguise.
Though adjectives such as popular and compassionate convey a general meaning, they become
almost useless in describing people. The reader who encounters them screams out silently for
e6amples, for evidence. 3on&t just tell me, 2s. 5riter, that "uper "urfer Airl is compassionate. Show
me. And she does:
The writer describes how from her hospital bed, /ethany %amilton tearfully insisted that the 7,=>>!
pound tiger shar- that attac-ed her not be harmed. 'ater the girl meets with a blind psychologist and
offers him the charitable donations she is receiving to fund an operation to restore his sight.
And in 3ecember, %amilton touched more hearts when, on a media tour of New @or- +ity,
she suddenly removed her s-i jac-et and gave it to a homeless girl sitting on a subway grate
in Times ",uare. 5earing only a tan- top, %amilton then canceled a shopping spree, saying
she already had too many things.
Now I see. That girl really is compassionate.
The best writers create -oving "ict2res of "eo"le that reveal their characteristics and as"irations; their ho"es
and fearsA Writing for The New York Times; ,sabel Wil+erson describes a -other in des"erate fear for the safet%
of her children; b2t avoids ad=ectives s2ch as Ides"erateI and Ifearf2lAI ,nstead she shows 2s a wo-an
"re"aring her children for school:
Then she sprays them. "he sha-es an aerosol can and sprays their coats, their heads, their
tiny outstretched hands. "he sprays them bac- and front to protect them as they go off to
school, facing bullets and gang recruiters and a cra*y dangerous world. It is a special
religious oil that smells li-e drugstore perfume, and the children shut their eyes tight as she
sprays them long and furious so they will come bac- to her, alive and safe, at day&s end.
/y re!creating this moment, 5il-erson leads us into the world of this struggling family, offering us the
opportunity for empathy. The scenic evidence is supported by the spo-en words of the children:
These are the rules for Angela 5hiti-er&s children, recounted at the :ormica!top dining
room table:
3on&t stop off playing, 5illie said.
5hen your hear shooting, don&t stand around L run, Nicholas said.
/ecause a bullet don&t have no eyes, the two boys shouted.
"he pray for us every day, 5illie said.
5riting for the +aine Sunda Telegram, /arbara 5alsh introduces us to a group of girls facing the
social pressures of middle school. The story begins at a school dance in a gym that smells of peach
and watermelon perfume, cheap aftershave, cinnamon Tic Tacs, bubble gum. Aroups of girls dance in
tight circles, adjusting their hair and moving to the music.
I loooove this song, )obin says.
)obin points to a large group of 8> boys and girls clustered near the 3..
Theeeey are the populars, and we&re nooot, she shouts over the music.
5e&re the middle group, Erin adds. @ou&ve just got to form your own group and dance.
/ut if you dance with someone that isn&t too popular, it&s not cool, )obin says. @ou lose
points, she adds thrusting her thumbs down.
2y colleague +hip "canlan might as-, 5hat is this story really aboutH The words I choose lead me
up the ladder of abstraction: Adolescence. "elf!consciousness. (eer!pressure. "ocial status. An6iety.
"elf!e6pression. Aroup!thin-. %ow much better for us as readers to see and hear these truths through
the actions of these interesting young women, with their authentic adolescent vowel sounds, than from
the pursed lips of jaded sociologists.
So-e writers tal+ abo2t re"orting a stor% 2ntil the% co-e awa% with a do-inant i-"ression; so-ething the% can
e:"ress in a single sentence: IThe -other of the cheerleader is overbearing and controllingAI The% -a% never
write that sentence in the stor%A ,nstead; the% review and tr% to re@create for the reader the evidence that led
the- to this concl2sionA Tr% o2t this -ethod on so-e of %o2r storiesA
8. 'isten carefully to stories reported and written for National (ublic )adio. (ay special attention to the
voices of story subjects and sources. 5hat character traits do they reveal in their speechH %ow would
you render that speech in a print storyH
0. "it with a noteboo- in a public place: a mall, a cafeteria, an airport lounge, a sports stadium. 5atch
people&s behavior, appearance, and speech. 5rite down the character adjectives that come to mind:
obno6ious, affectionate, caring, confused. Now write down the specific details that led you to those
Writing Tool #16: 3!! an! Interesting Things
(ut them ne6t to each other.
/ut o!! an! interesting things ne0t to each other#
At its best, the study of literature helps us understand what :ran- "mith describes as the grammar of
stories. "uch was the case upon my first encounter with Emma /ovary, the provincial :rench heroine
with the tragically romantic imagination. I remember my ama*ement at reading the scene in which
author Austave :laubert describes the seduction of the married and bored 2adame /ovary by the cad
)odolphe /oulanger. The setting is an agricultural fair. In a scene both poignant and hilarious, :laubert
switches from the flirtatious language of the lover to the calls of animal husbandry in the bac-ground.
I remember it as a bac-!and!forth between such language as I tried to ma-e myself leave a thousand
times, but still I followed you and the sounds of 2anure for saleE
4r I will have a place in your thoughts and your life, won&t IH with %ere&s the pri*e for the best
/ac- and forth, bac- and forth, the ju6taposition e6posing to the reader, but not to Emma, )odolphe&s
true motives. Ironic ju6taposition is the fancy term for what happens when two disparate things are
placed side by side, one commenting upon the other.
This effect can wor+ in -2sic; in the vis2al arts; and in "oetr%:
,et us go then& ou and I&
"hen the evening is spread out against the sk&
,ike a patient etheri-ed upon a table.
"o begins The 'ove "ong of .. Alfred (rufroc-, a poem in which T.". Eliot ju6taposes the romantic
image of the evening s-y with the sic-ly metaphor of anesthesia. The tension between those images
sets the tone for everything that follows.
Eliot died in 7<N=, my junior year in +atholic high school, and a group of us celebrated the event by
naming our roc- band after the poet. 5e were called T.". and the Eliots, and our motto was 2usic
with "oul.
The coupling of unli-ely elements is often the occasion for humor, broad and subtle. In The
(roducers, for e6ample, 2el /roo-s creates a musical called "pringtime for %itler, starring a hippy
:Shrer, and featuring .une Taylor!style dancers who form the image of a swasti-a.
2oving from the grotes,uely comic to the deadly serious, consider this introduction to The
Philadelphia Inquirer&s story of the nuclear accident at Three 2ile Island:
9:>1 a.m. 2arch 8K, 7<1<.
Two pumps fail. Nine seconds later, N< boron rods smash down into the hot core of unit
two, a nuclear reactor on Three 2ile Island. The rods wor-. :ission in the reactor stops.
/ut it is already too late.
5hat will become America&s worst commercial nuclear disaster has begun.
5hat follows is a catalog of all the terrible truths that officials will learn, along with some of the
harrowing details: Nuclear wor-ers playing :risbee outside a plant gate because they were loc-ed out,
but not warned of the radiation beaming from the plant&s walls ...
The suspense that builds from those first short sentences reaches a pea- when the high technology of
the failed nuclear reactor produces radiation that bombards wor-ers playing :risbee. )adiation meets
:risbee. Ironic ju6taposition.
3ramatic tension does not have to be so monumental. +onsider the story 5illiam "errin wrote for The
New York Times about the first woman -illed in an underground mine disaster in the Cnited "tates:
5hat he would not forget, after he had left the hospital where she lay, still in her sweatshirt and long
underwear and coveralls, on an emergency room cart, was that there was nothing to suggest she was
All he could see was a tric-le of blood from her left temple.
%er face, li-e all coal miners& faces, was blac- with coal. /ut her hands had been covered
with gloves. And, as she lay on the hospital cart, the gloves removed, her hands were as
white as snow.
%er face blac- as coal, her hands white as snow.
In some cases, the effect of ironic ju6taposition can be accomplished by a few words embedded in a
narrative. The narrator of the dar- crime novel The (ostman Always )ings Twice lays out the plot to
murder his girlfriend&s husband:
5e played it just li-e we would tell it. It was about ten o&cloc- at night, and we had closed up, and the
Aree- was in the bathroom, putting on his "aturday night wash. I was to ta-e the water up to my room,
get ready to shave, and then remember I had left the car out. I was to go outside, and stand by to give
her one on the horn if somebody came. "he was to wait &til she heard him in the tub, go in for a towel,
and clip him from behind with a blac-jac- I had made for her out of a sugar bag with ball bearings
wadded down in the end.
.ames 2. +ain creates a double effect in this passage, placing the innocent &sugar bag& between the
mechanical &ball bearings& and the criminal instrument &blac-jac-.& A sac- for sugar loses its sweetness
when converted to a murder weapon.
7. :eature photographers often see startling visual details in ju6taposition: the street person
wearing a corsage, the massive sumo wrestler holding a tiny child. ;eep your eyes open for
such visual images and imagine how you would represent them in your writing.
8. )e!read some of your own stories to see if there are ironic ju6tapositions hiding inside of them.
Are there ways to revise your stories to ta-e better advantage of these momentsH
0. Now that you have a name for this techni,ue, you will begin to recogni*e its use more often in
literature, theater, movies, music, and journalism. 2a-e a mental note of such e6amples. And
-eep your eyes open for them in real life as you report your stories.
Writing Tool #17: The ?umber o% $lements
The number o% e0amples 'ou use in a sentence or a stor' has meaningA
A self!conscious writer has no choice but to select a specific number of e6amples or elements in a
sentence or paragraph. The writer chooses the number, and when it is greater than one, the order. #If
you thin- the order of a list unimportant, try reciting the names of the :our Evangelists in an order
other than 2atthew, 2ar-, 'u-e, and .ohn.$
The Number One: Declare It
'et&s e6amine some te6ts with our T!ray reading glasses, loo-ing down beneath the surface meaning to
the grammatical machinery at wor- below.
That girl is smart.
In this simple sentence, the writer declares a single defining characteristic of the girl, her intelligence.
The reader must focus on that. It is this effect of unity, single!mindedness, no!other!alternativeness, that
characteri*es the language of one.
.esus wept.
+all me.
+all me Ishmael.
Ao to hell.
%ere&s .ohnny.
I do.
Aod is love.
Elvis has left the building.
@ou da manE
I have a dream.
I have a headache.
Not now.
)ead my lips.
Tom 5olfe once told 5illiam :. /uc-ley .r., that if a writer wants the reader to thin- something the
absolute truth, the writer should render it in the shortest possible sentence. Trust me.
The ?umber Two: Compare It
5e -now that girl is smart, but what happens when we learn:
That girl is smart and sweet.
The writer has altered our perspective on the world. The choice for the reader is not between smart and
sweet. Instead, the writer forces us to hold these two characteristics in our mind at the same time. 5e
have to balance them, weigh them against each other, compare and contrast them.
2om and dad.
True or false.
"cylla and +harybdis.
The devil and the deep blue sea.
%am and eggs.
Abbott and +ostello.
2en are from 2ars. 5omen are from Denus.
"am and 3ave.
3ic- and .ane.
)oc- and )oll.
2agic .ohnson and 'arry /ird.
I and Thou.
The Number Three: Surround It
The dividing magic of number two turns into what one scholar calls the encompassing magic of
number three.
That girl is smart& sweet& and determined.
As this sentence grows, we are influenced to see the girl in a more well!rounded way. )ather than
simplify her as smart, or divide her as smart and sweet, we now triangulate the elements of her
character. In our language and culture, three seems to give us a sense of the whole:
/eginning, middle, and end.
:ather, "on, and %oly Ahost.
%eaven, purgatory, and hell.
Tin-ers to Evers to +hance.
4f the people, by the people, for the people.
A priest, a minister, and a rabbi.
4n your mar-, get set, go.
2ic-ey, 5illie, and the 3u-e.
E6ecutive, 'egislative, .udicial.
The Nina, the (inta, and the "anta 2aria.
At the end of his most famous passage on the nature of love, "t. (aul writes to the +orinthians: :or
now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three. /ut the greatest of all is love. The powerful movement is
from trinity to unity. :rom a sense of the whole to an understanding of what is most important.
The Number Four or More: Count It
In the anti!math of writing, the number three is greater than four. (art of the magic of three is that it
offers a greater sense of completeness than four or more. 4nce we add a fourth or fifth detail we have
achieved escape velocity, brea-ing out of the circle of wholeness:
That girl is smart& sweet& determined& and anore/ic.
5e can add descriptive elements to infinity. :our or more e6amples create a list, but not a complete
inventory. :our or more details in a passage can offer a flowing, literary effect that the best writers have
created since %omer listed the names of the Aree- ships. +onsider the beginning of .onathan 'ethem&s
novel 2otherless /roo-lyn:
+onte6t is everything. 3ress me up and see. I&m a carnival bar-er, an auctioneer, a downtown
performance artist, a spea-er in tongues, a senator drun- on filibuster. I've got Tourette's.
If we chec- these sentences against our theory of numbers, it would reveal this pattern: 7!8!=!7. In the
first sentence the author declares a single idea, stated as the absolute truth. In the second, he gives the
reader two imperative verbs. In the third, he spins five metaphors. In the final sentence, the writer
returns to a definitive declaration B! so important he casts it in italics.
"o good writing is as easy as one, two, three ... and four.
In summary:
Cse one for power.
Cse two for comparison, contrast.
Cse three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
Cse four or more to list, inventory, compile, and e6pand.
7. /egin an intense process of T!ray reading for e6amples in which the writer uses the number of
items to achieve a specific effect.
8. )e!read some e6amples of your own recent wor-. E6amine your own use of numbers. 'oo- for
cases in which you might want to add an e6ample or subtract one to create the effects described
0. %ave a brainstorming sessions with friends in which you list additional e6amples of the use of
one, two, three, and four. 3raw these from proverbs, everyday speech, music lyrics, famous
speeches, literature, sports.
9. 'oo- for an opportunity to use a long list in a story. :or e6ample, the names of -ittens in a new
litter. The items in the window of an old drugstore. Things abandoned at the bottom of a
swimming pool. (lay with the order of the list to achieve the best effect.
Writing Tool #18: Internal Cli%%hangers
What -a+es a "age@t2rner; an irresistible read; a stor% or boo+ that %o2 canHt "2t downP
5ell, lots of things. /ut one indispensable tool seems to be the internal cliffhanger.
3uring the +linton!'ewins-y scandal I read a remar-able story by 3avid :in-el, who writes for the
"unday 2aga*ine of The "ashington Post. The title of the piece was %ow It +ame to This: The
"candal in 70 Acts. 2ore specifically, it answered this ,uestion: %ow the hec- did 2onica 'ewins-y
get into the 5hite %ouse in the first placeH
The 70 Acts were numbered parts or chapters. It was a fascinating tale, a page!turner, even if there
weren&t that many pages to turn.
At the end of each chapter :in-el would plant a story element that motivated the reader to -eep
reading. It might be an important ,uestion without an answer, or a dramatic turn of events, or a moment
of insight, or a bit of foreshadowing.
8or e:a-"le; 8in+el concl2des cha"ter *; which describes the ta"ed conversation between 9ewins+% and 9inda
Tri"" abo2t the fa-o2s soiled bl2e dress; this wa%: IAnd on the% went; onl% one of the- aware of the i-"ortance
of the conversation the%Hd =2st hadAI
1o2 donHt need a cliff to write a good cliffhangerA
I found a great e6ample of the internal cliffhanger in my own bac-yard. A page!one story in the St.
Pete Times described the struggle to -eep desperate fol-s from jumping to their deaths from the top of
the "unshine "-yway bridge. This turns out to be a terrible problem, not just in "t. (ete, but wherever a
high, dramatic bridge lures the desperate or suicidal.
%ere&s the opening segment of the story by reporter .amie .ones:
The lonely young blond left church on a windy afternoon and drove to the top of the
"unshine "-yway bridge.
5earing blac- pumps and a shiny blac- dress, she climbed onto the ledge and loo-ed at the
chilly blue waters 7<1 feet below. The wind seemed to nudge her. It&s time, she thought.
"he raised her arms s-yward and pushed off the edge. Two boaters watched as she began a
swan dive into Tampa /ay.
%alfway down, 3awn (a,uin wanted to turn bac-. I don&t want to die, she thought.
A second later, she slammed into the water. It swallowed her, and then let her go. "he bro-e
through the surface, screaming.
The internal cliffhanger at the end of that passage made it impossible for me to stop reading. The
reporter organi*ed the whole story that way, dividing the wor- into seven sections, each separated from
the others by the visual mar-er of three blac- bo6es. Each of the sections has a bit of drama at the end,
a reward for the reader, and a reason to plunge forward.
The cliffhanger is not thought of as an internal device. 5e are more inclined to associate it with
seriali*ed film or television adventures with big endings. The super!si*ed ones come at the end of one
season and sustain your interest until the ne6t, as in the famous 5ho "hot ..).H
Thin- of it as the to be continued effect, and consider how much we sometimes resent having to wait
si6 months to find out what happens ne6t.
I stumbled upon the internal cliffhanger by reading adventure boo-s for young readers. I&m holding in
my hand a reprint of the very first Nancy 3rew mystery story, The "ecret of the 4ld +loc-. I&m
,uoting from the conclusion of +hapter TIT:
+lutching the blan-et and the cloc- tightly in her arms, Nancy 3rew partly crawled and partly fell over
objects as she struggled to get out of the truc- before it was too late. "he was afraid to thin- what
would happen to her if the robbers discovered her in the van.
)eaching the door, she leaped lightly to the floor. "he could now hear heavy footsteps
coming closer and closer.
Nancy slammed the truc- doors shut and searched wildly for the -eys.
4h, what did I do with themH she thought frantically.
"he saw that they had fallen from the door to the floor and snatched them up. %urriedly
inserting the right -ey in the loc-, she secured the doors.
The deed was not accomplished a minute too soon. As Nancy wheeled about she distinctly
heard the murmur of angry voices outside. The robbers were ,uarreling among themselves,
and already someone was wor-ing at the fastening of the barn door.
Escape was cut off. Nancy felt that she was cornered.
4h, what shall I doH she thought in despair.
There you have it, the internal cliffhanger, daring you to stop reading.
Thin- about it. This techni,ue energi*es every episode of every television drama, from 'aw G 4rder
to The 5est 5ing. Even American Idol forces the viewer to sit through the commercial brea- to
learn which performer has been voted off. Any dramatic element that comes right before a brea- in the
action is an internal cliffhanger.
7. As you read novels or nonfiction boo-s, begin to notice what the author places at the ends of
chapters. %ow do these elements drive you to turn the pageH
8. (ay attention to the narrative structure of television dramas. 5riters of these shows often place
dramatic elements just before the commercial brea-. 'oo- for e6amples that wor- and for ones
that fail to -eep the viewer intrigued.
0. 'ead a discussion of what it would ta-e to put a mini!cliffhanger right before we as- readers to
&jump& inside the paperH
9. 5hat if we put a mini!cliffhanger at the end of the first screen full of te6t online so that readers
could not resist a clic- or scrollH
Writing Tool #1;: Tune Your +oice
4f all the effects created by writers, none is more important or elusive than that ,uality called voice.
Aood writers, it is said time and again, want to find their voice. And they want that voice to be
authentic, a word from the same root as author and authority.
/ut what is voice, and how does the writer tune itH
The most useful definition comes from my friend and colleague 3on :ry: Doice is the sum of all the
strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is spea-ing directly to the reader from
the page.
(oet 3avid 2c+ord tells the story of how he once pic-ed up an old copy of St. Nicholas maga*ine,
which printed stories written by children. 4ne of the stories caught his attention, and he was suddenly
struc- by a prose passage more earthy and natural in voice than what I had been glancing through. This
sounds li-e E./. 5hite, I said to myself. Then I loo-ed at the signature: Elwyn /roo-s 5hite, age 77.
The ,ualities that led 2c+ord to recogni*e the young author who would one day write +harlotte&s
5eb can be summed up in the word voice.
,f 8r% is correct; that voice is the Is2-I of all writing strategies; which of those strategies are essential to creating
the ill2sion of s"eechP To answer that J2estion; thin+ of a "iece of so2nd eJ2i"-ent called a I7ra"hic
5J2ali0erAI This is the device that creates the range of so2nds in a so2nd s%ste- b% "roviding abo2t 3/ dials or
levers; controlling s2ch things as bass and trebleA !2sh 2" the bass; "2ll down the treble; add a little reverb to
config2re the desired so2ndA
"o, if we all had a handy!dandy writing voice modulator, what ranges would the levers controlH %ere
are a few, e6pressed as a set of ,uestions:
7. 5hat is the level of languageH Is it concrete or abstract or somewhere in betweenH 3oes the
writer use street slang or the logical argument of a professor of philosophyH
8. 5hat person does the writer wor- inH 3oes the writer use &I& or &we& or &you& or &they& or all of
0. 5hat is the range and the sources of allusionsH 3o these come from high or low culture, or
bothH 3oes the writer cite a medieval theologian or a professional wrestlerH
9. %ow often does the writer use metaphors and other figures of speechH 3oes the writer want to
sound more li-e the poet, whose wor- is thic- with figurative images, or the journalist, who
only uses them for special effectH
=. 5hat is the length and structure of the typical sentenceH Is it short and simpleH 'ong and
comple6H 4r mi6edH
N. 5hat is the distance from neutralityH Is the writer trying to be objective, partisan, or passionateH
1. 5hat are the writer&s frames of referenceH 3oes the writer wor- with conventional subject
matter, using conventional story formsH 4r is the writer e6perimental and iconoclasticH
+onsider this passage, a +/" radio broadcast by Edward ). 2urrow, on the liberation of /uchenwald
concentration camp. )ead it aloud to hear how it sounds:
5e entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stac-ed up li-e
cordwood. They were thin and very white. "ome of the bodies were terribly bruised, though
there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. "ome had been shot through the head, but they bled
but little. All e6cept two were na-ed. I tried to count them as best I could and arrived at the
conclusion that all that was mortal of more than five hundred men and boys lay there in two
neat piles.
The journalist grounds his report in the language of eyewitness testimony. I can hear in his report the
struggle between the professional reporter and the outraged human being. The level of language is
concrete and vivid, describing terrible things to see. %e uses a single chilling metaphor, stac-ed up
li-e cordwood, but the rest seems plain and straightforward. The sentences are mostly short and
simple. %is writing voice is not neutral L how could it beH L but it describes the world he sees and
not the emotions of the reporter. @et he places himself on the scene in the last sentence, using the &I& to
give no doubt to the possible deniers that he has seen this with his own eyes. The phrase all that was
mortal sounds li-e it might have come from "ha-espeare. This brief T!ray reading of 2urrow&s wor-
shows the interaction of the various strategies that create the effect we -now as voice.
%ow different is the effect when 71th century English philosopher Thomas %obbes describes the
passions of man-ind:
Arief for the calamity of another is (IT@, and arises from the imagination that the li-e
calamity may befall himself, and therefore is called also +42(A""I4N, and in the phrase
of this present time a :E''45!:EE'INA.
The 2urrow passage, with its particularity, evo-es pity and compassion. The %obbes passage, with its
abstractions, defines them. If you write li-e 2urrow, you&ll sound li-e a great journalist. If you write
li-e %obbes, you will sound li-e an anti,ue philosopher.
The most powerful tool on your wor-bench to test your writing voice is oral reading. )ead your story
aloud to hear if it sounds li-e you. 5hen teachers offer this advice to writers, we often meet s-eptical
glances. @ou can&t be serious, say these loo-s. @ou don&t literall mean that I should read the story
aloud. (erhaps you mean I should read the story in!loud, ,uietly, with my lips moving.
No, I mean out loud, and loud enough so that others can hear.
The writer can read the story aloud to herself or to an editor. The editor can read the story aloud to the
writer, or to another editor. It can be read this way to receive its voice, or to modulate it. It can be read
in celebration, but should never be read aloud in derision. It can be read to hear the problems that must
be solved.
5riters complain about tone!deaf editors who read with their eyes and not with their ears. The editor
may see an unnecessary phrase, but what does the deletion of that phrase do to the rhythm of the
sentenceH That ,uestion is best answered by oral B and aural B reading.
7. )ead a draft of a story aloud to a friend or editor. As- your colleague, 3oes this sound li-e
meH 3iscuss the response.
8. After re!reading some of your stories, ma-e a list of adjectives that you thin- define its voice,
such words as heavy, or aggressive, or tentative. Now try to identify the effects in your
writing that led you to these conclusions.
0. )ead a draft of a story aloud. +an you hear problems in the story that you cannot seeH
Writing Tool #(0: ?arrative 3pportunities
Ta&e a!vantage o% narrative opportunitiesA
.ournalists use the word &story& with romantic promiscuity. They thin- of themselves as the wandering
minstrels of the modern world, the tellers of tales, the spinners of yarns. And then, too often, they write
dull reports.
)eports need not be dull, of course, nor stories interesting. /ut the difference between stor and report
is crucial to the reader&s e6pectation and the writer&s e6ecution. "tory elements, call them anecdotes,
appear in many news reports. /ut few pieces in a newspaper earn the title of &"tory.& 2ost items we call
stories are actually reports.
"o what are the differences between report and story, and how can the writer use them to strategic
A wonderful scholar named 'ouise )osenblatt argued that readers read for two main reasons:
information and e/perience. )eports convey information. "tories create e6perience. )eports transfer
-nowledge. "tories transport the reader, crossing the boundaries of time, space, and imagination. The
report points us there. The story puts us there.
A report sounds li-e this: The school board will meet Thursday to discuss the new desegregation
A story sounds li-e this: 5anda 2itchell shoo- her fist at the school board chairman, tears streaming
down her face.
The toolsets for reports and stories also differ. :or e6ample, while both ,uotes and dialogue are encased
in ,uotations mar-s, the e6planatory ,uote enlivens the report, while dialogue reveals character and
moves the plot of a story.
The famous :ive 5&s and %, e6pressed in a form called the Inverted (yramid, have helped journalists
organi*e the news from most important down to least important. 5ho, 5hat, 5here, and 5hen appear
as the most common elements of information. The 5hy and the %ow are harder to achieve. 5hen used
in reports, these pieces of information are fro*en in time, fi6ed so readers can scan and understand.
A great "eattle journalist, )ichard Rahler, showed me how to thaw out those :ive 5&s, converting a
report into a story, allowing time to flow and characters to grow. In this process of conversion:
5ho becomes +haracter.
5hat becomes Action. #5hat happened.$
5here becomes "etting.
5hen becomes +hronology.
5hy becomes 2otivation or +ausality.
%ow becomes (rocess #%ow it happened.$
4ne of your most important jobs as a writer is to figure out when you&re writing a story as opposed to a
report. "tories, argues .on :ran-lin, re,uire rising and falling action, complication, points of insight,
and resolution. Tom 5olfe demonstrated how to match truthful reporting with fictional techni,ues,
such as setting scenes, finding details of character, capturing dialogue, and altering points of view.
4arrative; scholars Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg tell 2s; reJ2ires a stor% and a stor%tellerA )onsider this
o"ening to a series in The Star-Ledger of 4ewar+ ; abo2t a tro2bled school nic+na-ed I9ast )hance LighI:
)on 4rr slumped in his chair, let out a long, deliberate sigh and again wondered what he
was doing here.
%e could have had a cushy job in the suburbs, he said, holding his head in his hands.
Instead he chose to be the principal of the Dalley "chool, a claustrophobic madhouse full
of renegade teenagers, some of them violent, all of them troubled.
At the moment, one of them was outside his door, cursing him out. Another was
threatening to smo-e marijuana right there in the hallway."omeone yelled to loo-
outside B one of the students was planning to race by in a stolen car.
4f all days, 4rr said, rubbing his temples.
4rr li-ed to remind himself that he prayed for this job. 4n this day B! Araduation 3ay
8>>0 !B he added, The 'ord giveth, and now I wish he would ta-eth it bac-.
It is the beginning to ,uite a story, and the storyteller, )obin :isher, helps readers answer this ,uestion:
5hat was it li-e to be in that school with that principal and those students on that particular day,
Araduation 3ayH :isher becomes our eyes and ears. The virtual reality she creates moves the reader
toward empathy, concern for a good man struggling to help young people under difficult circumstances.
'et&s brea- it down. In this passage:
The &5ho& is the .ob!revising character of (rincipal 4rr.
The &5hat& is what will happen on Araduation 3ay. 5ill principal and students ma-e it through
against the oddsH
The &5here& is the campus of the alternative high school, the claustrophobic madhouse.
The &5hen& is the beginning of a special day!in!the!life, Araduation 3ay.
The &5hy& and the &%ow& are e6plored in the fuller narrative. 5hy does this principal persistH
%ow does the place wor-H %ow does it surviveH
To convert a report into a story, the reporter must become a storyteller.
7. 'oo- at the news with the distinction between reports and stories in mind. 'oo- for narrative
opportunities missed. 'oo- for bits of stories wherever you may find them.
8. Ta-e the same approach to your own wor-. 'oo- for stories, or at least passages in stories,
where you transport the reader directly to the scene. "earch for places in your reports where you
might have included story elements.
0. Narrative depends upon the strategic use of time in a story. )ic- Rahler uses the e6ample of an
old hotel destroyed in a fire. 3escribe the ways a writer could ta-e advantage of time elements,
such as the history of the hotel, the time when the fire was discovered and reported, the time it
too- for firefighters to arrive and control the bla*e. :or your ne6t story, use time as a reporting
and writing tool.
Writing Tool #(1: @uotes an! 5ialogue
2earn how Auotes !i%%er %rom !ialogue#
Re"orters tell -e that one of the -ost i-"ortant lessons the% learn in =o2rnalis- school is to Iget a good J2ote
high in the stor%AI When "eo"le s"ea+ in stories; readers listenA B2t "eo"le s"ea+ in different wa%sA
The St. Paul Pioneer Press covered the sad story of +ynthia "chott, a 07!year!old television anchor
who wasted away and died from an eating disorder.
I was there. I -now how it happened, says ;athy /issen, a friend of "chott&s from the TD station.
Everybody did what they individually thought was best. And together, we covered the spectrum of
possibilities of how to interact with someone you -now has an illness. And yet, none of it made a
difference. And you just thin- to yourself, &%ow can this happenH&
+apturing a person&s speech has a variety of names. (rint reporters call it a ,uote. TD reporters tag it
a sound bite. )adio fol-s struggle under the aw-ward word actuality, because someone actually
said it. As in the "t. (aul case, the ,uote offers readers these benefits:
It introduces a human voice.
It e6plains something important about the subject.
It frames a problem or dilemma.
It adds information.
It reveals the character or personality of the spea-er.
It introduces what is ne6t to come.
%ere are three ,uotes from page one of the .une 8K, 8>>9 edition of The New York Times:
5e have forces. 5e have the judicial system, and he is going to go to court. It&s going to
be a just trial, unli-e the trials that he gave to the Ira,i people. UVW! Iyad Allawi, interim
president of Ira,, on his plans for "addam %ussein
5e can do a better job of creating an environment that isn&t &'ord of the :lies,& UVW! 3r.
.oel %aber, a psychologist, on how to eliminate bullying from the e6perience of summer
'ess than two percentage points we can handle just by not eating out as much. UVW! .oyce
3iffenderfer on how her family copes with mounting credit card debt
/ut where is .oyce 3iffenderferH 5here is she when she spea-s these wordsH In her -itchenH At the
des- where she pays her billsH In her wor-placeH 2ost ,uotes are disembodied !! or perhaps it&s more
accurate to say they are dis!placed. The words are spo-en above or outside the action of the story.
Iuotes are &about& the action, not &in& the action. In that sense, ,uotes interrupt the progress of the
5hich leads us to the power of dialogue. 5hile ,uotes provide information or e6planation, dialogue
presents the reader with a form of action. The ,uote may be heard, but dialogue is overheard. The
writer who uses dialogue transports us to a place and time where we get to e6perience the events
described in the story.
.ournalists use dialogue in stories so sparingly, the effect stands out li-e a sunflower in a meadow.
+onsider this passage from Tom :rench on the trial of a :lorida firefighter accused of a horrible crime
against his neighbor:
%is lawyer called out his name. %e stood up, put his hand on a /ible and swore to tell the truth and
nothing but. %e sat down in the witness bo6 and loo-ed toward the jurors so they could see his face and
study it and decide for themselves what -ind of man he was.
3id you rape ;aren AregoryH as-ed this lawyer.
No sir, I did not.
3id you murder ;aren AregoryH
No sir.
The inhibitions against using dialogue in news stories are unfounded. Although dialogue can be
recovered and reconstructed from careful reporting, using multiple sources and appropriate attribution,
it can also be directly heard. An angry e6change between the mayor and a city council member can be
recorded and published. The reporter who did not witness testimony from a trial may be able to recover
accurate dialogue from court transcripts, often available as public records.
The s-illful writer can use both dialogue and ,uotes to create different effects in the same story:
It loo-ed li-e two planes were fighting, 2om, 2ar- ;essler, N of 5ynnewood, told his mother, Aail,
after she raced to the school.
The boy had just witnessed the midair collision of a plane and a helicopter, an accident that dropped
deadly wrec-age atop an elementary school playground. %ere&s another passage from the same story:
It was one horrible thing to watch, said %elen Amadio, who was wal-ing near her %ampden Avenue
home when the crash occurred. It e6ploded li-e a bomb. /lac- smo-e just poured.
%elen Amadio offers us a true ,uote, spo-en directly to the reporter. Notice the difference between that
,uote and the implied dialogue between the young boy and his mother. The si6!year!old describes the
scene to his frantic mom. In other words, the dialogue puts us on the scene where we can overhear the
characters in action.
4n rare occasion, the reporter combines the information of the ,uote and the emotional power of
dialogue, but only when the source spea-s in the immediate aftermath of the event, and only when the
reporter focuses on both words and actions. )ic- /ragg carries this off brilliantly in his story on the
4-lahoma +ity bombing:
I just too- part in a surgery where a little boy had part of his brain hanging out of his head, said Terry
.ones, a medical technician, as he searched in his poc-et for a cigarette. /ehind him, firefighters pic-ed
carefully through the s-eleton of the building, still searching for the living and the dead.
@ou tell me, he said, how can anyone have so little respect for human lifeH
7. )ead the newspaper loo-ing for ,uotes and read fiction loo-ing for dialogue. 3iscuss
the different effects upon the reader.
8. 'oo- for missed opportunities to use dialogue in news reports. (ay special attention to
controversial meetings and the coverage of trials.
0. 3evelop your ear for dialogue. 5ith a noteboo- in hand, sit in a public space, such as
the mall or an airport lounge. Eavesdrop on nearby conversations and jot down some
notes on what it would ta-e to capture that speech in a story.
9. )ead the wor- of a contemporary playwright, such as Tony ;ushner. 5ith friends, read
the dialogue aloud and discuss to what e6tent it sounds li-e real speech or seems
=. Interview two sources about an important conversation they had years ago. "ee if you
can re!create the dialogue to their satisfaction. /egin by spea-ing to them separately,
and then bring them together.
Writing Tool #((: 4et Rea!'
Ta-e a tip from %amlet and always be prepared to tell the big story: E6pect the une6pected.
4et rea!'#
That great writing coach (rince %amlet said it best: The readiness is all.
Areat writers get ready for the big story, even if they cannot see it. They e6pect the une6pected. 'i-e
/atman, they cinch up a utility belt filled with handy tools. They report and report and research and
then report some more, filling up a reservoir of -nowledge they can use at any time.
"ports writers are the world champions of readiness. They write big stories under deadline pressure
against formidable competition with the outcome of the event in doubt. /ill (lasch-e of the ,os
*ngeles Times was ready when .ustin Aatlin won the 8>>9 4lympic gold in the 7>>!meter dash:
%is first trac- event was the 7>>!meter hydrants, a -id running down Iuentin "treet leaping over every
fire plug in his path.
%is second trac- event was the 7>>!meter spo-es, the -id racing in tennis shoes against his friends
riding bicycles.
A do*en years later, on a still 2editerranean night far from home, the restless boy on the bloc- became
the fastest man in the world.
The advanced reporting ma-es that great deadline lead possible. The readiness is all.
Another great sports journalist, )ed "mith was ready when /obby Thomson shoc-ed the world in
4ctober 7<=7 with the most dramatic home run in baseball history:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. )eality has
strangled invention. 4nly the utterly impossible, the ine6pressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible
5riting the big game story re,uires readiness enough. Now try to imagine what it too- for A(
correspondent 2ar- :rit* to write this 7<<9 account of the genocidal massacre in )wanda:
Nobody lives here any more.
Not the e6pectant mothers huddled outside the maternity clinic, not the families s,uee*ed
into the church, not the man who lies rotting in a schoolroom beneath a chal-board map of
Everybody here is dead. ;arubamba is a vision from hell, a flesh!and!bone jun-yard of
human wrec-age, an obscene slaughterhouse that has fallen silent save for the roaring bu**
of flies the si*e of honeybees.
8ew =o2rnalists are as versatile as (avid Von (rehle of The Washington Post; who in 1.. was assigned to
cover a big stor%; the f2neral of for-er "resident Richard 4i:onA Von (rehle +new heHd be writing on deadline
against a s-all ar-% of co-"etitorsA I(eadlines alwa%s -a+e -e shiver;I he ad-its; b2t the shivers are a
"h%sical -anifestation of his readiness to "rod2ce "rose li+e this:
@orba 'inda, +alif. !! 5hen last the nation saw them all together, they were men of steel and bristling
crew cuts, titans of their time !! which was a time of pragmatism and ice water in the veins.
%ow boldly they tal-ed. %ow fearless they seemed. They spo-e of fi6ing their enemies, of
running over their own grandmothers if it would give them an edge. Their goals were the
goals of giants: +ontrol of a nation, victory in the nuclear age, strategic domination of the
The titans of Ni6on&s age gathered again today, on an unseasonable cold and gray afternoon,
and now they were white!haired or balding, their steel was rusting, their s-in had begun to
sag, their eyesight was failing. They were invited to contemplate where power leads.
.ohn 3onne once said that there is a democracy about death, the )ev. /illy Araham told
the mourners at )ichard 2. Ni6on&s funeral.
"uch powerful wor- is no accident, and Don 3rehle generously shares the secrets of readiness:
At a time li-e that, you have to fall bac- on the basics: "it down and tell a story.
5hat happenedH
5hat did it loo- li-e, sound li-e, feel li-eH 5ho said whatH 5ho did whatH
And why does it matterH
5hat&s the pointH 5hy is this story being toldH 5hat does it say about life, about the
world, about the times we live inH ...
I learned long ago: 3on&t get fancy on deadline. ;eep the structure simpleJ start at the
beginning, march through the middle, end at the end. That&s what I did here. There are no
flashbac-s, no digressions, no interwoven storyline. .ust beginning, middle, end. 'ead,
chronology, -ic-er.
5hat elseH 'ots of short sentences. Active verbs. +lear metaphors. (ithy ,uotes. Divid
details ... :all bac- on the basics. They&ll get you through !! even when you feel li-e you&re
going to free*e.
I end with the story of 'aurence "tallings, a famous reporter and writer who got to sit in the press bo6
at a 7<8= football game between the universities of (ennsylvania and Illinois . 3uring the game, )ed
Arange scored at least three touchdowns for the Illini, as the legendary Aalloping Ahost
amassed hundreds of yards of offense. Illinois beat (enn by a score of 89 to 8.
"tallings was awestruc-. %ow could anyone cover this eventH It&s too big, he said. This came from a
man who had once covered the )ussian )evolution. "omeone should have ,uoted "ha-espeare: The
readiness is all.
7. 5ith the help of an editor or friend ma-e a list of some possible big stories that could emerge from
your beat, specialty, or area of interest. /egin &saving string& on these topics, material that will help you
down the road.
8. As you watch big sporting events, such as the 5orld "eries or the "uper /owl or the 4lympics,
rehearse in your head possible leads you would write for the most dramatic stories that
emerge. +ompare and contrast your ideas with those that appear in the print or on the air.
0. /ig stories need big headlines and titles. Aet ready for the ne6t big story by re!writing the headlines
you see on important contemporary stories. +onsider also what you might have written if you were
writing headlines for the following events: the assassination of .ohn :. ;ennedyJ the devastation of
%urricane AndrewJ the destruction of the 5orld Trade +enterJ the 4-lahoma +ity bombingJ the
destruction of the /erlin 5allJ the death of Elvis (resley.
9. :or your eyes only, write a memo to persuade an editor to give you the time and
resources you need to cover a big story.
CORRCTION: In the original version of this article, Illinois& opponent was incorrectly identified, as
was the year the game was played.
Writing Tool #(,: /lace 4ol! Coins -long the /ath
'earn how to -eep your readers interested by placing gold coins throughout your story.
/lace gol! coins along the path#
%ow do you -eep a reader moving through your storyH 3on :ry tells this parable:
Imagine that you are wal-ing on a narrow path through a deep forest.@ou wal- a mile and there at your
feet you find a gold coin. @ou pic- it up and put it in your poc-et. @ou wal- another mile, and, sure
enough, you see another gold coin. 5hat will you do ne6tH 5ill you wal- another mile in search of
another coinH
'i-e our person in the forest, the reader ma-es predictions about what&s down the path of the story. The
inverted pyramid trains readers to predict that information will become less important as you read on.
5hen readers read chronological narratives they begin to wonder what will happen ne6t.
Thin- of a gold coin as any element in a story that rewards the reader for reading that far. A good start
is its own reward, of course. And crafty writers -now enough to put something shiny at the end, a final
reward, an invitation to return to the wor- of that writer. /ut what about the territory between
beginning and endH 5ith no gold coins for motivation, the reader may drift out of the forest.
The easiest thing for a reader to do, argues (ulit*er (ri*e winner 2ichael Aartner, is to ,uit
A gold coin can appear in a story as a small scene or anecdote: A big buc- antelope s,uirms under a
fence and sprints over the plain, hoofs drumming powerfully. &Now that&s one fine sight,& murmurs a
It might appear as a startling fact: 'ightning ... is much feared by any mounted man caught on the
open plain, and many cowboys have been -illed by it.
It can appear as a telling ,uote, 2ost of the real cowboys I -now, says 2r. 2iller, have been dead
for a while.
These three gold coins appeared in a pri*e!winning story on the dying culture of the cowboy, written by
the great /ill /lundell for The "all Street 0ournal, a newspaper that ta-es the act of rewarding the
reader seriously, and sometimes not so seriously.
5hich brings me to my favorite gold coin of all time, a passage from a story written in 7<K9 by (eter
)inearson for The Seattle Times. The gold coin appeared in a long chapter in a long series about the
creation of a new airliner, the /oeing 1=1. The chapter on engineering, for e6ample, included endless
details about the passenger door, how it contained =>> parts and was held together by =,<>> rivets.
>2st when -% interest in the engineering began to fade; , ca-e across this "assage:
After its stop in 2ontreal last "eptember, the 1=1 flew on to England with a load of Eastern and /oeing
4n the way, a duc- hit one of the coc-pit&s No. 8 windows, not an unusual incident.
It&s usually not a big deal, said 'es /erven, an :AA pilot who was co!piloting the flight. All it did
was just to ma-e him into jelly and he slid down the side of the window.
The window didn&t brea-!! but then /oeing -new it wouldn&t because the window had gone through a
series of chic-en tests.
/oeing is a little touchy about the subject of chic-en tests, and points out they are re,uired by the :AA.
%ere&s what happens:
A live 9!pound chic-en is anestheti*ed and placed in a flimsy plastic bag to reduce aerodynamic drag.
The bagged bird is put in a compressed!air gun.
The bird is fired at the jetliner window at 0N> -nots and the window must withstand the impact. It is
said to be a very messy test.
The inch!thic- glass, which includes two layers of plastic, needn&t come out unscathed. /ut it must not
puncture. The test is repeated under various circumstances !! the window is cooled by li,uid nitrogen,
or the chic-en is fired into the center of the window or at its edge. 5e give /oeing an option, /erven
jo-ed. They can either use a 9!pound chic-en at 8>> miles an hour or a 8>>!pound chic-en at 9 miles
an hour.
No one who reads about the chic-en test thin-s about air travel or +olonel "anders the same way again.
5hile the authors of boo-s or screenplays -now the value of dramatic or comic high points in a story,
journalists are at a disadvantage. Their wor- is so top!heavy that even an eager editor will do the wrong
thing for the right reason:
That&s a great ,uote, says the admiring editor to the writer. 'et&s move it up.
)eaders will learn a lot from that anecdote. 'et&s move it up. And so it goes.
5hile moving the good stuff up honors the material, it may dishonor the story. The result is a -ind of
bait and switch.The reader winds up with three or four nifty paragraphs, followed by the to6ic waste
that drifts to the bottom.
7. Tal- with your editor about the concept of gold coins. Together, review some of your stories to
see if they are too top!heavy. 'oo- for missed opportunities to create a more balanced structure.
8. +arry the concept of gold coins into your reading and movie watching. "tudy the structure of
stories loo-ing for the strategic placement of dramatic or comic high points.
0. Ta-e a draft of a story you are wor-ing on and mar- it to identify the gold coins. 3raw a star
ne6t to any story element with a particular shine. Now study their placement and consider
moving them around.
9. "ee if you can begin to recogni*e gold coins during your reporting. 5hen you see one or hear
one, report it more thoroughly so it can have the best possible effect in your story.
Writing Tool #(.: ?ame the Big /arts
"eeing the structure of a story is easier if you can identify the main parts.
All good stories have "arts: Beginnings; -iddles; and endingsA 5ven writers who achieve a sea-less ta"estr%
can trace the invisible stitchingA A writer who +nows the big "arts of a stor% can na-e the- for the reader; 2sing
s2ch techniJ2es as s2b@headlinesA The reader who sees the big "arts is -ore li+el% to re-e-ber the whole
The best way to illustrate this effect is to reveal the big parts of a short, and seemingly simple,
children&s song, Three /lind 2ice.
(art I is a simple musical phrase repeated once:
Three blind mice& three blind mice
(art II builds on that phrase but adds something:
See how the run& see how the run
(art III adds three more comple6 phrases:
The all ran after the farmer's wife&
who cut off their tails with a carving knife&
did ou ever seen such a sight in our life
(art ID repeats the first phrase, Three blind mice, closing the song into a tight circle.
5e remember songs, contrasted to stories, because of their transparent structure: verse, chorus, verse,
chorus, bridge, instrumental, verse, chorus, coda. The delightful sounds of songs often distract us from
the mechanics of structure, but the architecture of music becomes perceptible with more careful
5hich brings me to the dreaded 4!word.
2any writers of the 4ld "chool were re,uired to hand in outlines of our wor- with drafts of our stories.
"uch outlines loo-ed something li-e this:
And so on.
%ere was my problem: I could never see far enough ahead to plot what the third part of section + was
going to be. I had to write my way to that point in the story. In other words, I had to discover what I
was going to say.
"o, as a survival mechanism, I invented the reverse outline. I would write a full draft of the story, and
then I would create the outline. This turned out to be a useful tool. If I could not write the outline from
the story, it meant that I could not discern the parts from the whole, a symptom of disorgani*ation.
Altho2gh , still canHt write a for-al o2tline in advance of a stor%; , can write a "lan; 2s2all% a few "hrases
scribbled on a %ellow "adA And hereHs another tool , discovered: An infor-al "lan is nothing -ore than the
Ro-an 42-erals created b% a for-al o2tlineA ,n other words; , can see the big "arts of the stor%A
%ere&s a plan for an obituary of entertainer )ay /olger, the beloved "carecrow of The 5i*ard of 4*:
I. 'ead with image and dialogue from 4*.
II. Areat moments in his dance career other than 4*.
III. %is signature song: 4nce In 'ove with Amy.
ID. %is youth: how he became a dancer.
D. %is television career.
DI. A final image from 4*.
I constructed this reverse outline from a close reading of Tom "hales&s award!winning obituary of
/olger in The "ashington Post.
5hen a story grows to any significant length, the writer should label the parts. If the story evolves into
a boo-, the chapters will have titles. In a newspaper or maga*ine, the parts may carry subtitles or sub!
headlines. 5riters should write these sub!headlines themselves !! even if the newspaper or website
does not use them.
%ere&s why: The sub!headlines will ma-e visible to the busy copy editor and time!starved reader the big
parts of the story. The act of writing them will test the writer&s ability to identify and label those parts.
And, when well!written, these sub!heads will reveal at a glance the global structure of the piece,
inde6ing the parts, and creating additional points of entry into the story.
In 7<<9, the great American editor Aene (atterson wrote an essay for the St. Petersburg Times titled,
:orged in /attle: The :ormative E6perience of 5ar. The occasion was the =>th anniversary of the
Invasion of Normandy. (atterson fought in 5orld 5ar II as a young tan- commander in (atton&s Army.
(atterson&s mini!epic begins in medias res, in the middle of things:
I did not want to -ill the two Aerman officers when we met by mista-e in the middle of the main street
of Aera /ronn.
They somersaulted from their motorcycle when it rounded a corner directly ahead of my
column of light armor. They scrambled to their feet, facing me 8> yards in front of the
cannon and machine gun mu**les of my lead armored car, and stood momentarily still as
deer. The front wheel of their flattened motorcycle spun on in the silence.
This passage introduces a meaty memoir of war. :ive strong sub!headlines inde6 the body of the wor-:
A 2an of the 8>th +entury
'ead with the %eaviest (unch
:rom the Aeorgia "oil
"enseless 3ying
Two +ertainties about 5ar
Notice how the reader can almost predict the structure and content of (atterson&s essay from these
subtitles alone. They divide the story into its big parts, name the parts, and ma-e visible a movement of
theme, logic, and chronology that readers can perceive and remember.
7. "ha-espeare&s plays are divided into five acts. The acts are then divided into scenes. )ead a comedy
and a tragedy, such as As @ou 'i-e It and 2acbeth, paying special attention to the structure of the
play and what "ha-espeare tries to accomplish in each of the big parts.
8. :ind the longest story you have written in the last year. Csing a pencil, mar- up the story according
to its parts. Now label those parts using headlines and sub!headlines.
0. 4ver the ne6t month, pay more attention to the structure of stories you read. Notice the point in your
reading where you begin to perceive the global structure of the piece. Notice any differences between
stories that have sub!headlines and those that don&t.
9. 'istening carefully to music helps writers learn the structures of composition. As you listen, see if
you can recogni*e the big parts of songs.
=. :or your ne6t story, try wor-ing from a plan, an informal outline that attempts to plot the three to si6
big parts of the wor-. )evise the plan if necessary.
Writing Tool #(5: Repeat
(urposeful repetition is not redundancy.
)se repetition to chain parts o% a stor' together#
)epetition wor-s in stories, but only if you intend it. The repetition of -ey words, phrases, and story
elements creates a rhythm, a pace, a structure, a drumbeat that reinforces the central theme of the wor-.
"uch repetition wor-s in music, in advertising, in humor, in literature, in political speech and rhetoric,
in teaching, in homilies, in parental lectures !! even in this sentence, where the word &in& was used 7>
5riters use repetition as a tool of persuasion, few as s-illfully as 2ichael Aartner, who, in a
distinguished and varied journalism career, won a (ulit*er (ri*e for editorial writing.
+onsider this e6cerpt from Tattoos and :reedom:
'et&s tal- about tattoos.
5e haven&t seen the arms of .ac-son 5arren, the food!service wor-er at Iowa "tate
Cniversity, but they do sound repulsive. A swasti-a on one, ;;; on the other.
That&s obno6ious.
The administrators at the university thin- so, too, so in response to a student&s complaint
they&ve temporarily reassigned 5arren to a job where he won&t be in contact with the
general public.
That&s outrageous.
7artnerHs re"etition of I2ghI and IThatHs obno:io2sAB ThatHs o2trageo2sI fra-e the arg2-ent for "rotection of free
s"eech; even when that s"eech is e:"ressed in s2ch a des"icable wa%A
)emember the flag burners in Te6asH The Na*i marchers in "-o-ieH The war protesters everywhereH
(rotected citi*ens, one and all. 4bno6ious, sometimes. 4utrageous, sometimes. 3espicable, sometimes.
/ut never unspea-able.
The pattern throughout is repetition, repetition, repetition, flavored by variation. At the end of the
editorial, Aartner answers the ,uestion of what message the presence of the tattoo man sends to
students on campus, many of whom would find the tattoos repugnant:
The message you&re giving is clear:
This is a school that believes in free speech.
This is a school that protects dissent.
This is a school that cherishes America.
That&s what Iowa "tate officials should be saying.
:or .ac-son 5arren, bedec-ed in symbols of hate, should himself be a symbol of freedom.
As we&ve seen in a previous tool, the number of repetitions has meaning. Three gives us a sense of the
whole #This is a school...$, while two creates comparison and contrast, symbols of hate vs. symbol of
Aartner ta-es his pattern of repetition to a comic level in an editorial urging donations to the local
public radio station.
Aive some money to 54I radio.
5e don&t often shill for things on these pages, but when we do we&re blunt about it and go
all out.
Aive some money to 54I radio.
The body of the editorial contains eight paragraphs, each containing an argument in favor of giving,
and each ending with the money sentence: Aive some money to 54I radio.
Aartner adds a twist at the end:
@ou probably thought you could guess the last line of this editorial. /ut if you didn&t get the message by
now, one more pitch won&t ma-e a difference. "o instead of saying give some money to 54I radio,
we&ll just say:
Than-s for listening.
:or Aartner, repetition is never accidental. It&s the refrain, he told (oynter&s +hip "canlan, ?the
rhythmic refrain with a different tag on it each time. It&s almost a musical device. I love /roadway
musicals and have always thought I could write a musical. +ouldn&t write the music, but I could write
the lyrics because I li-e word play and rhymes, rhythms, and beats, and cadences. "ometimes I thin-
these editorials are the lyrics to a song that has never been written.
In the hands of master teachers or poets, repetition has a power transcending the rhetorical, ascending
to the level of myth and scripture. These words, for e6ample, from the boo- Night by Elie 5iesel
are embla*oned on a wall of The Cnited "tates %olocaust 2useum:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night,
seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smo-e. Never shall I forget the
little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smo-e beneath a silent blue s-y.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire
to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my Aod and my soul and
turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live
as long as Aod %imself. Never.
)epetition can be so powerful, in fact, that it can threaten to call attention to itself, overshadowing the
message of the story. If you&re worried about too much repetition, apply this little test. 3elete all the
repetition and read the passage aloud without it. )epeat the -ey element once. )epeat it again. @our
voice will let you -now when you&ve gone too far.
7. Cnderstand the difference between repetition and redundancy. The first is useful, designed to create a
specific effect. The latter is useless, words wasted. )ead several e6amples of your own wor-, loo-ing
for e6amples of both repetition and redundancy. 5hat happens to your prose when you eliminate
redundancy but reinforce repetitionH
8. 'oo- through an anthology of historical speeches and read it with an eye toward repetition. 2a-e a
list of the reasons the authors use repetition, starting with: to help us remember, to build an argument,
to underscore emotion.
0. Try re!writing the passage by Elie 5iesel above. :or the sa-e of the e6ercise, eliminate as many uses
of the word never as you can without altering the meaning. Now read both the original version and
your revision aloud. 3iscuss what you&ve discovered.
9. )epetition in a story does not have to be highly rhetorical. :or e6ample, you can mention or ,uote a
character three times in a story, at the beginning, in the middle, and near the end, to chain the elements
together. 'oo- for cases of this style of repetition in news stories.
Writing Tool #(6: Bear ?ot the 2ong *entence
3o what you fear: Cse long sentences.
5ver%one fears the long sentenceA 5ditors fear itA Readers fear itA <ost of all; writers fear itA 5ven , fear itA 9oo+A
Another short oneA ShorterA 8rag-entsA 8ragsA >2st lettersA 8QfQfQfA )an , write a sentence witho2t wordsP
>2st "2nct2ationP Q:GP
2elvin 2encher, the great journalism teacher, preaches the value of being counter!phobic. 3o what
you fear. "o it is with the long sentence. Cntil the writer tries to master the long sentence, he or she is
no writer at all. :or while length ma-es a bad sentence worse, it can also ma-e a good sentence better.
An e6ample:
<% favorite To- Wolfe essa% fro- the earl% da%s of the 4ew >o2rnalis- -ove-ent is titled IA S2nda% Kind of
9ove;I na-ed after a ro-antic ballad of the "eriodA The events described ta+e "lace one -orning in a 4ew 1or+
s2bwa% station on a Th2rsda%; not a S2nda%A Wolfe sees and sei0es a -o-ent of %o2thf2l "assion on the cit%
2ndergro2nd to redefine 2rban ro-anceA
'oveE Attar of libido in the airE It is K:9= A.2. Thursday morning in the I)T subway station at =>th
"treet and /roadway and already two -ids are hung up in a -ind of herringbone weave of arms and
legs, which proves, one has to admit, that love is not confined to "unday in New @or-.
That&s a fine beginning. Erotic fragments and e6clamation points. The concaveFconve6 connection of
love captured in herringbone weave, the ,uic- movement from short sentence to long, as writer and
reader dive from the top of the ladder of abstraction, from love and libido down to two -ids ma-ing
out, bac- up to variations on amour in the metropolis.
3uring rush hour, subway travelers learn the meaning of length. The length of the platform. The length
of the wait. The length of the train. The length of the escalators and stairwells to ground level. The
length of lines of hurried, grouchy, impatient commuters. Notice how 5olfe uses the length of his
sentences to reflect that reality:
"till the oddsE All the faces come popping in clots out of the "eventh Avenue local, past the ;ing "i*e
Ice +ream machine, and the turnstiles start whac-ing away as if the world were brea-ing up on the
reefs. :our steps past the turnstiles everybody is already bac-ed up haunch to paunch for the climb up
the ramp and the stairs to the surface, a great funnel of flesh, wool, felt, leather, rubber and steaming
alumicron, with the blood s,uee*ing through everybody&s old sclerotic arteries in hopped!up spurts
from too much coffee and the effort of surfacing from the subway at the rush hour. @et there on the
landing are a boy and a girl, both about eighteen, in one of those utter, 2y "in, bac-brea-ing embraces.
This is classic 5olfe, a world where &sclerotic& serves as antonym for &erotic,& where e6clamation points
sprout li-e wildflowers, where e6perience and status are defined by brand names. #2y "in was a
perfume of the day.$ /ut waitE There&s moreE As the couple canoodles, a cavalcade of commuters
passes by:
All round them, ten, scores, it seems li-e hundreds, of faces and bodies are perspiring, trooping and
bellying up the stairs with arterio!sclerotic grimaces past a showcase full of such novel items as .oy
/u**ers, ",uirting Nic-els, :inger )ats, "cary Tarantulas and spoons with realistic dead flies on them,
past :red&s barbershop, which is just off the landing and has glossy photographs of young men with the
-ind of baro,ue haircuts one can get in there, and up onto =>th "treet into a madhouse of traffic and
shops with weird lingerie and gray hair!dyeing displays in the windows, signs for free teacup readings
and a pool!playing match between the (layboy /unnies and 3owney&s "howgirls, and then everybody
pounds on toward the Time!'ife /uilding, the /rill /uilding or N/+.
The statement I am about to ma-e may defy the cool reason re,uired for a tool!ma-er&s credibility, but
has any reader ever e6perienced a more glorious long sentence, a more rollic-ing evocation of
underground New @or-, a more da**ling 78K words from capital letter to periodH (robably. /ut if you
find it, I&d li-e to read it.
A close reading of 5olfe suggests some strategies to achieve mastery of the long sentence:
It helps if subject and verb of the main clause come early in the sentence. XTool Y7Z
Cse the long sentence to describe something long. 'et form follow function.
It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
Cse the long sentence in variation with short sentences and sentences of medium length.
Cse the long sentence as a list or catalogue of products, names, images.
'ong sentences need more editing than short ones. 2a-e every word count. Even. In. A. Dery.
'ong. "entence.
5riting long sentences means going against the grain. /ut isn&t that what the best writers doH
In the 7<9>s )udolf :lesch studied the effects that made a sentence easy or hard to read.
According to :lesch, an 7K<0 study of literature illuminated the shrin-ing English sentence: The
average Eli*abethan written sentence ran to about 9= wordsJ the Dictorian sentence to 8<J ours to 8>
and less. :lesch used sentence length and syllable count as factors in his readability studies, a
calculation once derided by E./. 5hite. 5riting is an act of faith, wrote 5hite, not a tric- of
The good writer must believe that a good sentence, short or long, will not be lost on the reader. And
although :lesch preached the value of the good 7K!word sentence, he praised long sentences written by
such masters as .oseph +onrad. "o even for old )udolf, a long sentence, well!crafted, was not a sin
against the :lesch.
7. 5ith this tool in mind, -eep an eye out, in literature and journalism, for well!crafted long sentences.
Test these sentences in conte6t, using the criteria above.
8. 3uring revision, most journalists are inclined to ta-e a longish sentence and brea- it up for clarity.
/ut writers also learn to combine sentences for good effect. )eview some e6amples of your recent
wor-. Try combining shorter sentences and see if the result is a richer variety of sentences structures
and lengths.
0. The best long sentences flow from good research or reporting. )eview 5olfe&s sentences above.
Notice the details that come from direct observation and note!ta-ing. The ne6t time you are reporting in
the field, loo- out for scenes or settings that might lend themselves to description in a long sentence.
9. "entences can be divided into four structural categories: "imple #one clause$J +omple6 #main clause
plus dependent clauses$J +ompound #more than one main clause$J +ompound!+omple6. %ere&s an
important insight: A long sentence does not have to be compound or comple6. It can be simple: A
tornado ripped through "t. (etersburg :riday, tearing roofs off do*ens of houses, shattering glass
windows of downtown businesses, uprooting palm trees near bayside par-s, and leaving +lyde %oward
cowering in his claw!footed bathtub. That 09!word sentence is a simple sentence with one main clause
#A tornado ripped?$ "urvey the contents of your purse, your wallet, or a favorite jun- drawer. Try to
write a long simple sentence describing what&s inside.
Writing Tool #(7: Ri%%ing %or 3riginalit'
Ri%% on the creative language o% others#
The day after the vice!presidential debate of 8>>9, I read a clever phrase that contrasted the appearance
and styles of the two candidates. Attributed to radio host 3on Imus, it described the differences
between 3r. 3oom and The /rec- Airl. 4f course, the tough and dour 3ic- +heney was 3r. 3oom.
And, because of his handsome hair, .ohn Edwards was li-ened to a pretty girl in a shampoo ad.
/y the end of the day, a number of commentators had riffed on this phrase. )iff is a metaphor from ja**
to describe a form of improvisation in which one musician borrows and builds on the musical phrase of
another. The original Imus phrase morphed into "hre- vs. /rec-, that is, the ogre vs. the hair model.
5hat followed was a conversation with my clever colleague "cott 'ibin, who was writing about the
language of political analysis. The two of us begin riffing on the popular distinctions between the two
candidates. +heney is often described as &avuncular,& said "cott. The word means li-e an uncle.
'ast night he loo-ed more carbuncular, than avuncular, I responded, li-e an angry boil ready to pop.
'i-e two musicians, "cott and I began to offer variations on our improvisations. /efore long, +heney
vs. Edwards became:
3r. No vs. 2ister Alow
+old "tare vs. Aood %air
(issed!off vs. 5ell!coiffed
I first suggested Aravitas vs. 'evitas, gravity vs. levity, but Edwards is more toothsome than humorous,
so I ventured: Aravitas vs. 3ental :loss.
5riters collect apt phrases and colorful metaphors, sometimes for use in their conversation, and
sometimes for adaptation into their prose. The danger, of course, is plagiarism, -idnapping the creative
wor- of other writers. No one wants to be -nown as the 2ilton /erle of wordsmiths, the stealer of
others& best material.
The harmonic way is through the riff. Almost all inventions come out of the associative imagination,
that is, the ability to ta-e what is already -nown and apply it metaphorically to the new. Edison was
said to have solved a problem in the flow of electricity by thin-ing of the flow of water in a )oman
Thin- of how many words have been adapted from old technologies to describe tools of new media:
5e file, we browse, we surf, we lin-, we scroll, just to name a few.
The notion that all new -nowledge derives from old wisdom should liberate the writer from fears of
piracy or conformity. The apt phrase then becomes not a temptation, the apple in the Aarden of Eden,
but a tool to compose your way to the ne6t level of invention.
'et me offer an e6ample from my own wor-. 5hen I moved from New @or- to Alabama in 7<19, I was
struc- by the generali*ed American speech patterns of local broadcast journalists. They did not sound
li-e "outherners. In fact, they had been trained to level their regional accents in the interests of
comprehensibility. This struc- me as more than odd. It seemed li-e a prejudice against "outhern
speech, an illness, a form of self!loathing.
As I wrote an essay on this topic, I reached a point when I needed to name it. I remember sitting on a
metal chair at a des- I had constructed out of an old wooden door. 5hat nameH 5hat nameH It was
almost li-e praying. I thought of the word disease. And I remembered the nic-name of a college
teacher. 5e called him The 3isease because his real name was 3r. .urgalitis. A litany went through
my brain. .urgalitis. Appendicitis. /ronchitis. I almost fell off my chair: +ron-itisE
The essay, now titled Infectious +ron-itis, was published on the op!ed page of The New York Times.
I received letters from 5alter +ron-ite, 3an )ather, and other well!-nown broadcast journalists who
had lived in the "outh. I was interviewed by 3ouglas ;i-er for The Today "how. A couple of years
later I met the editor who had accepted the original essay for The Times. %e told me he li-ed the essay,
but what sold him was the word +ron-itis.
A pun in two languages, no less, he said.
Two languagesH I wondered.
@eah, the word &-ran-heit& in Aerman means &disease.& /ac- in vaudeville, the comic doctors were
called &3r. ;ran-heit.&
)iffing on language will create wonderful effects you never intended. 5hich leads me to this writing
advice: Always ta-e credit for good stuff you didn&t intend, because you&ll be getting plenty of
criticism in your career for bad stuff you didn&t mean either.
Writing Tool #(8: Writing Cinematicall'
Authors have long understood how to shift their focus to capture both landscape and character.
Turn 'our noteboo& into a camera#
/efore there was cinema, writers wrote cinematically. Influenced by the visual arts !! by portraits and
tapestries !! authors have long understood how to shift their focus bac- and forth to capture both
landscape and character.
2any authors now write boo-s with movies in mind. /ut cinematic techni,ues can be traced to the
earliest e6pression of English literature. A thousand years ago, the unnamed poet who wrote the epic
/eowulf -new how to write cinematically. %e could pull bac- the lens to establish heroic settings of
land and seaJ and he could move in close to see the jeweled fingers of the ,ueen or the demonic light in
a monster&s eyes.
,n 2// the Beow2lf "oet has been re"laced b% the li+es of New York Times re"orter )A>A )hivers; who writes a
narrative acco2nt of the terrorist occ2"ation and bo-bing of a school in war@torn Belsan; R2ssiaA
5hen the first tremendous e6plosion shoo- the air, sending a blast wave through the neighborhood
around 2iddle "chool No. 7, the crowd of women near the southern police barricades buc-led over. An
old woman&s eyes welled instantly with tears. "he began to pound her head with her fists. Another
woman wailed.
NayyyyyyyyyyE she screamed, and collapsed to her -nees.
In two short paragraphs, the writer shows us the event from three distinct camera angles, moving from
an almost aerial view of the e6plosion, to an establishing shot where we see the crowd, to an e6treme
close!up where we see the tears in the old woman&s eyes.
I learned the techni,ue of reporting cinematically from my friend 3avid :in-el, who covered the war in
;osovo in 7<<< for the "ashington Post. :in-el creates a -ind of journalistic cinema in describing
refugees so needy that the act of helping them turns into a -ind of warfare:
4ne of the volunteers pic-s up a loaf of bread and tosses it blindly. There is no chance it will hit the
ground. There are too many people watching its flight, pac-ed too tightly. 4ut goes another loaf, and
another, and hundreds of arms suddenly stretch s-yward, fingers e6tended and waving.
In this paragraph, :in-el begins with a close shot of one wor-er and then moves the camera bac- so we
can see hundreds of arms. The crowd grows out of control, and :in-el focuses his lens on one woman.
:or children. :or children, a woman is shouting, arms out, trying to reach the cart. "he is wearing
earrings, a headband and a sweater, and when she can&t reach the cart she brings her hands to her head
and covers her ears because behind her is her daughter, perhaps K, holding on to her, getting crushed,
And behind her is another girl, 7> perhaps, wearing a pin- jac-et decorated with drawings
of cats and stars and flowers and, now mud. "he has red hair. There is mud in her hair.
"ome simple descriptions of standard camera angles should help writers imagine how to use their
cameras to create a variety of effects:
A Aerial view: The writer loo+s down 2"on the world; as if he were standing ato" a s+%scra"er or viewing the
gro2nd fro- a bli-": 5:a-"le: IL2ndreds and h2ndreds of blac+ So2th African voters stood for ho2rs on long;
sand% ser"entine lines waiting to cast their ballots for the first ti-eAI
8. Establishing shot: The writer stands bac- to capture the setting in which the action will ta-e place,
describing the world that the reader is about to enter, sometimes creating a mood for the story: 5ithin
seconds, as dusty clouds rose over the school grounds, their great widths suggesting blasts of terrifying
force, bursts of rifle fire began to sound, ,uic-ly building to a sustained and rolling roar.
0. 2iddle distance: The camera moves closer to the action, close enough to see the -ey players and
their interaction. This is the common distance for most stories written for the newspaper. "cores of
hostages survived, staggering from the school even as intense gunfire sputtered and grenades e6ploded
around them. 2any were barely dressed, their faces strained with fear and e6haustion, their bodies
bloodied by shrapnel and gunshots.
9. +lose!up: The camera gets in the face of the subject, close enough to detect anger, fear, dread,
sorrow, irony, the full range of human emotions. %is brow furrowed and the crow&s feet deepened as
he struggled to understand?The man pulled at the waistband of his beige wor- pants and scratched his
sun!aged face. %e stared at her, stalling for time as he tried to understand, but afraid to say he didn&t.
=. E6treme close!up: This writer focuses on an important detail that would be invisible from a distance:
The pin-y ring on the mobster&s finger, the date circled on the wall calendar, the can of beer in the cop&s
hand: The hand of the cancer!care nurse scooped the dead angel fish out of the office a,uarium.
(atients at this clinic had enough on their minds. They didn&t need another reminder of mortality.
@ears ago I attended an outdoor concert in which the pun- band, The )amones, performed in a
courtyard adjacent to a :lorida retirement hotel. It was ,uite a scene. 3own below were young fans
sporting tur,uoise 2ohaw- haircuts. Cp above, staring out of windows, were blue!haired ladies
thin-ing the world had come to an end. I watched the young writer who had been sent to review the
concert stand in one place for two hours with his noteboo- in his poc-et. %e should have been
e6ploring the territory li-e a photographer, seeing the event from down in the mosh pit and then up on
the roof!top.
7. )ead selections of your own recent wor-, paying special attention to the distance between the writer
and the story subjects. 'oo- for your tendencies. 3o you move the camera aroundH 4r do you settle for
a safe middle distanceH
8. +hanging camera distance and angle is at the heart of cinematic art. 5atch one of your favorite
movies with a friend, paying special attention to the camera wor-. 3iscuss how you would describe
certain scenes if you had to write them in print form.
0. Ta-e a disposable camera with you to your ne6t story assignment. @our goal is not to ta-e
publishable photos. It is to -eep your eyes opened and your mind attentive. /e sure to ta-e photos from
different distances and angles. )eview these before your write your story.
9. The ne6t time you write about an event, ma-e a special effort to change the vantage point of your
reporting. If possible view the event from close up and far bac-, from in front of the stage and behind
* previous version of this stor placed +iddle School No. 1 in $hechna. The school is in (eslan&
Writing Tool #(;: Report %or *cenes
The scene is the most basic unit of narrative literature. "cenes put us there, and ma-e us care.
Report %or scenesC place them in seAuence#
Tom 5olfe argues that realism, in fiction or non!fiction, is built upon scene!by!scene construction,
telling the story by moving from scene to scene and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical
narrative. This re,uires, according to 5olfe, e6traordinary feats of reporting, so that writers
actually witness the scenes in other people&s lives as they ta-e place.
That advice was offered -ore than / %ears ago; b2t adherence to it still -a+es e%ewitness stor%telling see-
/aghdad, Ira, !! 4n a cold, concrete slab, a mos,ue careta-er washed the body of 79!year!old Ar-an
3aif for the last time.
5ith a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across 3aif&s olive corpse, dead for
three hours but still glowing with life. %e blotted the rose!red shrapnel wounds on the soft
s-in of 3aifMs right arm and right an-le with the poise of practice. Then he scrubbed his
face scabbed with blood, left by a cavity torn in the bac- of 3aif&s s-ull.
The men in the Imam Ali mos,ue stood somberly waiting to bury a boy who, in the words
of his father, was li-e a flower. %aider ;athim, the careta-er, as-ed: 5hat&s the sins of
the childrenH 5hat have they doneH
This is the wor- of Anthony "hadid, covering the war in Ira, for the "ashington Post, practicing a
form of immersion journalism, getting close to the action, capturing scene after bloody scene.
The scene is the basic unit of narrative literature, the capsule of time and space created by the writer
and entered by the reader or viewer. 5hat we gain from the scene is not information, but e6perience.
5e were there. 5e are there.
As the atom is the smallest discrete unit of matter, writes %olly 'isle, so the scene is the smallest
discrete unit in fictionJ it is the smallest bit of fiction that contains the essential elements of story. @ou
don&t build a story or a boo- of words and sentences and paragraphs !! you build it of scenes, one piled
on top of the ne6t, each changing something that came before, all of them moving the story ine6orably
and relentlessly forward.
:rom childhood, we e6perience scenes everywhere. 5e get them from literature and news reports, from
comic strips and comic boo-s, from movies and television, from advertising and public service
announcements, from our memories and dreams. /ut all these are mimetic, to use an old!fashioned
literary term. They are imitations of real life.
The best writers wor- hard to ma-e scenes real. In one of the great scenes in dramatic literature, (rince
%amlet # III. ii$ directs the traveling players on how to create scenes so realistic that they will capture
the conscience of the murderous -ing: "uit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o&erstep not the modesty of nature. Anything e6aggerated or overdone,
argues the melancholy (rince, ta-es away from the purpose of dramatic art, which is to hold?the
mirror up to nature.

The mirror remains a powerful metaphor for the aspiring writer, especially the journalist. The reporter&s
goal is to re!create life, reflect the world, so that readers can see it, feel it, understand it.
The wind was so strong it blew the American flag stiff, -noc-ed over rows and rows of folding chairs,
and sent the blac- caps of high school graduates spinning along the ground li-e tumbleweed. :rom our
seats in the bleachers, we stared west, hoping that another -aleidoscopic :lorida sunset would add
symbolic luster to this most American rite of passage. /ut rain clouds roiled behind us.
As I re!read that passage I wrote in 7<<< it transports me bac- in time to the evening of my daughter&s
high school graduation. I can say with honesty that the scene was really li-e that. And I believe that if I
shared it with the hundreds of people who were there that night, they would testify on my behalf.
@essir. That&s how it was. @ou held that mirror up to nature.
/ut the job of the writer is not merely to capture scenes or compile them. As Tom :rench demonstrates
in his writing and teaching, these scenes, these moments within scenes, must be placed in a se,uence.
It may seem obvious that the most common se,uence will be chronological. /ut scenes can be arranged
in space as well as in time, from one side of a street to the other. "cenes can be used to balance parallel
narrative lines, shifting from the perspective of the criminal to the cop. "cenes can flash bac- in time,
or loo- ahead.

4ne of the most arresting stories to come out of the great :lorida hurricane season of 8>>9 was written
by 3ong!(huong Nguyen, a colleague of Tom :rench at the St. Petersburg Times. "et in (ensacola, in
the aftermath of %urricane Ivan, the story records the poignant e6perience of fol-s returning to their
neighborhood to view the destruction for the first time.
It begins from a distance with a simple scene:
They waited for days in the hot sun behind the patrol cars and sheriff&s deputies, straining for any
/ecause of the danger, authorities bloc-ed their return. 2ore elaboration of the scene:
They brought coolers and portable chairs. They jo-ed about their fine china. They warned each other
about using their hands to sift through the rubble because of the sna-es.
In another scene they confront the sheriff:
5hy won&t you let us inH they shouted.
/ulldo*ers clear debris from the neighborhood, and a se,uence of scenes reveal the emotional, as well
as physical, devastation:
The residents who had just been jo-ing about what they would find wal-ed along Arand 'agoon
/oulevard in silence.
:ive houses in, they began to weep.
5omen wailed inside cars. Teenagers sat in the beds of pic-up truc-s with their hands
covering their open mouths.
The camera moves closer.
+arla Aodwin ,uietly wal-ed down Arande 'agoon +ourt as neighbors lifted roofing from bi-es and
brushed off ceramic plates. 5e don&t even having a dining room table anymore, she sobbed. I don&t
-now where it is. It&s gone.
A se,uence of tiny scenes follows in this order:
7. A woman finds a television set in her bathroom. It is not hers.
8. The woman wal-s down the street loo-ing for her neighbors, who cry out to her.
0. Another woman stands in the rubble of her house going through her stuff.
9. &2y cat is aliveE& one man came screaming from his house.
=. Another man emerges from his house smiling, strumming his guitar.
N. A distraught woman is comforted by family.
1. A woman finds blistered photos of her babies washed up on a neighbor&s patio.
K. A woman ta-es cell phone calls from other neighbors in,uiring about their property.
These are moments of real life, drawn out from the news of the day, and ordered by a s-illful young
writer into a scenic se,uence that gives them meaning and special power.
7. The ne6t time you wor- on a story, pay special attention to the scenes you are witnessing. 3escribe
these scenes in enough detail that you can re!create them for the reader.
8. 3ialogue is different from ,uotations #see Tool Y 87: Iuotes G 3ialogue$. As you report for scenes,
-eep your ears open for dramatic dialogue that can help readers enter the e6perience.
0. Try an e6ercise invented by Tom :rench. 5ith a group of friends or students, view an interesting
photograph or artistic portrait #:rench favors Dermeer$. 5hile these images are static, the writer must
place details in an order the reader can follow. 5rite a scene describing each image, and compare your
wor- with others.
9. "e,uencing can be learned from careful viewing of film. Ta-e one of your favorite movies and watch
it slowly and carefully. "top the tape often. Notice, perhaps for the first time, how the director lines up
the scenes. %ow is meaning derived from the se,uenceH
Writing Tool #,0: Write $n!ings to 2oc& the Bo0
All writers have a license to end, and there are many ways to do so.
Write en!ings to loc& the bo0#
:rom our earliest years as readers, we learn that stories have endings, however formulaic. The prince
and princess live happily ever after. The cowboy rides off into the sunset. The witch is dead. The End.
:or the journalist, the ending presents a problem. 4ld, but still reliable, story forms resist the pointed
ending. News stories in the inverted pyramid style stac- information upside down, from most important
to least. In this form, the reader creates the ending by choosing to stop. The busy copy editor cuts from
the bottom without fear of deleting something vital.
<an% readers and writers "refer other for-s of stor%tellingA 4ews"a"ers and -aga0ines are filled with col2-ns;
editorials; h2-an@interest stories; narratives; and reviewsA The writers who craft these all have a license to endA
5hen it comes to endings, we face a dividing line. "ome journalists thin- of themselves as reporters,
while others aspire to the title of writer. 5hile these labels more often refer to self!image than e6ercise
of craft, the idea of an ending often divides the reporter from the writer. The writer wants to craft an
ending. The reporter just wants to stop.
4ne way to write good endings is to read them, and few wor-s of literature end with power of The
Areat Aatsby.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, un-nown world, I thought of Aatsby&s wonder when he first
pic-ed out the green light at the end of 3aisy&s doc-. %e had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his
dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. %e did not -now that it was
already behind him, somewhere bac- in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dar- fields of the
republic rolled on under the night.
Aatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It
eluded us then, but that&s no matter !! tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms
farther...And one fine morning !!
"o we beat on, boats against the current, borne bac- ceaselessly into the past.
:. "cott :it*gerald plants the seeds for this ending early in the novel, at the end of the first chapter
when narrator Nic- +arraway sees Aatsby for the first time:
I decided to call to him. 2iss /a-er had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an
introduction. /ut I didn&t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone !!
he stretched out his arms toward the dar- water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could
have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward !! and distinguished nothing e6cept a
single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a doc-. 5hen I loo-ed once
more for Aatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the un,uiet dar-ness.
(owerful lessons are embedded in this passage. 'oo- at the phrase un,uiet dar-ness. The author
shows us that sentences and paragraphs have endings too, even as those endings foreshadow the boo-&s
final scene, some 7N> pages later, when the green light, the doc-, the outstretched arms will return,
freighted with thematic significance.
These techni,ues are not for novelists alone. 2y colleague +hip "canlan wrote an op!ed piece for The
New York Times in which he argues that journalists should ta-e lessons from citi*ens when it comes to
as-ing good ,uestions of politicians:
As /ob "chieffer of +/" News polishes his ,uestions for the final presidential debate tomorrow, he
might want to ta-e a page from 3aniel :arley. And )andee .acobs. And Norma!.ean 'aurent, 2athew
4&/rien, .ames Darner, "arah 3egenhart, and 'inda Arabel.
In that lead paragraph, +hip lists the names of citi*ens who had as-ed effective ,uestions in the
previous presidential debate. In his final paragraph, +hip closes the circle, replaying the chords he
struc- in the beginning:
"o tomorrow 2r. "chieffer can serve the public interest and teach his fellow reporters an important
lesson about truth!gathering. %e can model his ,uestions on those as-ed by a handful of 2issourians
who understand the toughest ,uestions are those that show the country what a candidate won&t !! or
can&t !! answer.
There are endless ways to begin or end stories, but writers rely on a small toolbo6 of strategies, just as
musicians do. In musical compositions, songs can build to a crescendo, or fade out, or stop short, or
echo the opening. In written compositions, the author can choose from among these:
!. Closin" the circle. The ending reminds us of the beginning by returning to an important place or re!
introducing us to a -ey character.
#. The tie$bac%. ;eith 5oods says he enjoys how humorist 3ave /arry ties his ending to some odd or
off!beat element in the body of the story.
&. The time frame. The writer creates a tic-!toc- structure with time advancing relentlessly. To end the
story, the writer decides what should happen last.
'. The s(ace frame. The writer is less concerned with time than with place or geography. The
hurricane reporter moves us from location to location, revealing the terrible damage from the storm. To
end, the writer decides our final destination.
). The (a*off. The longer the story, the more important the payoff. This does not re,uire a happy
ending, but a satisfying one, a reward for a journey concluded, a secret revealed, a mystery solved.
+. The e(ilo"ue. The story ends, but life goes on. %ow many times have you wondered, after the house
lights come bac- on, what happened ne6t to the characters in a movieH )eaders come to care about
characters in stories. An epilogue helps satisfy their curiosity.
,. -roblem and solution. This common structure suggests its own ending. The writer frames the
problem at the top and then offers readers possible solutions and resolutions.
.. The a(t /uote. 4ften overused, this techni,ue remains a sturdy tool for ending stories. "ome
characters just spea- in endings, capturing in their own words a neat summary or distillation of what
has come before. In most cases, the writer can write it better than the source can say it. /ut not always.
0. 1oo% to the future. 2ost stories and reports are about things that have already happened. /ut what
do people say will happen ne6tH 5hat is the li-ely conse,uence of this decision or those eventsH
!2. Mobili3e the reader. The end of a story or report can point the reader in another direction. Attend
this meeting. )ead that boo-. "end an e!mail message to the "enator. 3onate blood for victims of a
@our endings will be better if you remember that other parts of your story need endings, too. "entences
have endings. (aragraphs have endings. As in The Areat Aatsby, each of these mini!endings
anticipates your finale.
I end with a warning. Avoid endings that go on and on li-e a )achmaninoff concerto or a heavy metal
ballad. .ust as leads can be buried, so can endings. (ut your hand over the last paragraph. As- yourself,
5hat would happen if my story ended hereH 2ove it up another paragraph until you find the natural
stopping place.
7. )eview several of your most recent stories. (lace your hand over the last paragraph and as- yourself:
5hat would happen if my story ended hereH Is the natural ending for your story hidingH
8. /egin reading stories, listening to music, and watching movies with endings in mind. (ay close
attention to details or themes that are planted early in the wor- to bear fruit at the end.
0. "ome journalists say they report for leads. :ewer say they report for endings. The ne6t time you are
out in the field, begin to watch and listen for opportunities to end your story effectively. 5hat happens
to your writing process when you begin with an ending in mindH
9. .ust for fun, ta-e some of your recent stories and switch the beginnings and the endings. %ave you
learned anything in the processH
Writing Tool #,1: /arallel 2ines
5riters shape up their writing by paying attention to parallel structures in their words, phrases, and
5raw parallel lines# Then cut across them#
5riters shape up their writing by paying attention to parallel structures in their words, phrases, and
sentences. If two or more ideas are parallel, writes 3iana %ac-er, they are easier to grasp when
e6pressed in parallel grammatical form. "ingle words should be balanced with single words, phrases
with phrases, clauses with clauses.
The effect is most obvious in the spo-en words of great orators, such as 2artin 'uther ;ing:
"o let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New %ampshire. 'et freedom ring from the mighty
mountains of New @or-. 'et freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of (ennsylvaniaE 'et
freedom ring from the snowcapped )oc-ies of +oloradoE
4otice how (rA King b2ilds a crescendo fro- the re"etition of words and gra--atical str2ct2res; in this case a
series of "re"ositional "hrases with a no2n designating -o2ntains; and an ad=ective defining -a=est%A
Cse parallels wherever you can, wrote "heridan /a-er in 7<N8. +iting passages from %emingway
and :reud, he argued that e,uivalent thoughts demand parallel constructions.

.ust after reading /a-er, I stumbled upon an essay by one of my favorite English authors, A.;.
+hesterton, who wrote detective stories and literary essays early in the 8>th +entury. %is more
mannered style highlights the parallel structures in sentences and paragraphs:
5ith my stic- and my -nife, my chal-s and my brown paper, I went out on to the great downs.
That sentence strides across the page on the legs of two parallel constructions: the fourfold repetition of
&my,& and the pair of pairs connected by &and.&
X4ld poetsZ preferred writing about great men to writing about great hillsJ but they sat on the great hills
to write it. They gave out much less about Nature, but they dran- in, perhaps, much more.
Notice not only how &writing about great men& parallels &writing about great hills,& but also how &much
less& is balanced by &much more.&
The late Neil (ostman once argued that problems of society could not be solved by information alone.
%e shaped his arguments around a set of parallel propositions:
If there are people starving in the world !! and there are !! it is not caused by insufficient information. If
crime is rampant in the streets, it is not caused by insufficient information. If children are abused and
wives are battered, that has nothing to do with insufficient information. If our schools are not wor-ing
and democratic principles are losing their force, that too has nothing to do with insufficient
information. If we are plagued by such problems, it is because something else is missing.
/y repeating those If clauses !! by ending four consecutive sentences with &insufficient information,&
!! (ostman creates a drumbeat of language, a drum!line of persuasion.
"uddenly I began seeing parallels everywhere. %ere is a passage from The (lot Against America, a
recent novel by (hilip )oth. In one of his trademar- long sentences, )oth describes .ewish!American
wor-ing!class life in the 7<9>s:
The men wor-ed fifty, si6ty, even seventy or more hours a wee-J the women wor-ed all the
time, with little assistance from labor!saving devices, washing laundry, ironing shirts,
mending soc-s, turning collars, sewing on buttons, mothproofing woolens, polishing
furniture, sweeping and washing floors, washing windows, cleaning sin-s, tubs, toilets, and
stoves, vacuuming rugs, nursing the sic-, shopping for food, coo-ing meals, feeding
relatives, tidying closets and drawers, overseeing paint jobs and household repairs,
arranging for religious observances, paying bills and -eeping the family&s boo-s while
simultaneously attending to their children&s health, clothing, cleanliness, schooling,
nutrition, conduct, birthdays, discipline, and morale.
In this da**ling inventory of wor-, I count 7< parallel phrases, all building upon &washing laundry.&
5hat ma-es it sing, though, is the occasional variation from the pattern, such as the phrase &cleaning
sin-s, tubs, toilets, and stoves.& The first clause offers a similar e6ample. )oth could have written: The
men wor-ed fifty, si6ty, seventy hours a wee-, a perfectly parallel string of adjectives. Instead, he
gives us even seventy or more. /y brea-ing the pattern, he gives even more emphasis to the final
"uch intentional violation of parallels also adds power to the conclusion of 3r. ;ingMs speech:
'et freedom ring from the curvaceous pea-s of +aliforniaE XThat follows the pattern.Z
/ut not only thatJ let freedom ring from "tone 2ountain of AeorgiaE
'et freedom ring from 'oo-out 2ountain of TennesseeE
'et freedom ring from every hill and molehill of 2ississippi. :rom every mountainside, let freedom
5hen ;ing points the compass of freedom toward the segregationist "outh, he alters the pattern.
Aenerali*ed American topography is replaced by specific locations associated with racial injustice:
"tone 2ountain and 'oo-out 2ountain. The final variation covers not just mighty mountains but every
inch of 2ississippi.
All writers will fail, on occasion, to ta-e advantage of parallel structures. The result for the reader can
be the e,uivalent of driving over a pothole on a freeway. It can deliver ,uite a jolt.
5hat if the creators of "uperman told us that the 2an of "teel stood for truth, justice, and doing lots of
American thingsH 5hat if "t. (aul taught us that the three great virtues were faith, hope, and
committing ourselves to charitable wor-H 5hat if Abraham 'incoln had written about a government of
the people, by the people, and for the entire nation, including the red and blue statesH These violations
of parallelism should remind us of the sturdy symmetry of the original versions.
7. E6amine several of your recent stories with parallelism in mind. 'oo- for e6amples in which you
used parallel structures to shape your wor-. +an you find some potholes !! some unparallel phrases or
sentences !! that jar the readerH
8. 5ith this new tool in mind, begin to notice parallel language in novels, in creative nonfiction, in
journalism. 5hen you find a passage, underline the parallel structures with a pencil. 3iscuss the effect
of parallelism on the reader. /egin with the passage above from (hilip )oth.
0. .ust for fun, ta-e parallel slogans or sayings and rewrite the last element. "uch as: .ohn, (aul,
Aeorge, and that drummer who wears the rings.
9. /y fiddling with parallel structures, you might discover that an occasional violation of parallelism
can lend special emphasis or a humorous imbalance to a sentence.
Writing Tool #,(: 2et It Blow
A transition from tools to habits.
When -% friend To- 8rench first read -% list of writing tools; he offered this a""reciation: I<an; %o2 ta+e writing
fro- the s2b@ato-ic to the -eta"h%sical levelAI At this =2nct2re; with abo2t 2/ -ore tools to go; ,H- al-ost read%
to ta+e the big t2rn fro- the tools of writing to the habits of good writersA S2ch habits -a% not get %o2 a tic+et to
<eta"h%sical WorldA B2t the% sho2ld hel" the writer with the e-otional and "s%chological challenges of the craftA
5ven if %o2 have a tho2sand tools on %o2r wor+bench; writing is a confidence ga-eA
As %o2 stroll aro2nd the garden of The !o%nter ,nstit2te; several ins"irational sa%ings; carved into -arble; greet
%o2A $ne co-es fro- the great s"orts writer Red S-ith: IWriting is eas%A All %o2 do is sit down at a t%"ewriter
and o"en a veinAI That J2ote re-inds -e of another fro- re"orter 7ene 8owler: IWriting is eas%R all %o2 do is
stare at a blan+ sheet of "a"er 2ntil dro"s of blood for- on %o2r foreheadAI The agon% in the gardenA
A-erica is not a nation of writers for -an% reasonsA $ne big reason is The WriterHs Str2ggleA Too -an% of 2s tal+
and act as if writing were a for- of "rocreation witho2t the se:; all labor and "ain; all dilation and contraction;
with none of the ro-ance and e:cite-ent at the "oint of conce"tionA
8or those of %o2 who want to write well; ,H- abo2t to reveal a great secret: The WriterHs Str2ggle is over@ratedA ,n
fact; the str2ggle t2rns o2t to be not =2st a confidence ga-e; b2t a con ga-e; a cognitive distortion; a self@
f2lfilling "ro"hec%; the best e:c2se in the world for not writingA
IWh% sho2ld , get writerHs bloc+PI as+ed veteran news"a"er col2-nist Roger Si-onA I<% father never got tr2c+
driverHs bloc+AI
,-agine these e:c2ses for "rocrastination:
:ire :ighter&s /loc-
(aramedic&s /loc-
1!77 +ler-&s /loc-
+asino 3ealer&s /loc-
3itch 3igger&s /loc-
"urgeon&s /loc-
(ostal 5or-er&s /loc-
(resident&s /loc- #4;, this one may be valid.$
I will not deny the periodic utility of The 5riter&s "truggle, which I learned as a boy. "on, said
mother, there&s a foot of snow on the ground. Ao out and help your father shovel.
Aee, I&d li-e to, 2om. /ut I&m really struggling with this boo- report.
'et&s be honest. 5e privileged writers are invested in the struggle. 5e become writers to avoid heavy
lifting. 4ur hernias are mental. /ut because physical wor- aversion is considered unmanly, we&ve
created a mythology about our craft. The writer&s life is so hard, %emingway and his il- taught us, that
only drin-ing, drugs, and infidelity forestall the dissolution that awaits us.
+ompare writing to reading. Although good readers may struggle with a difficult te6t, a metaphysical
poem by .ohn 3onne, few would argue that struggle is the point of reading. The point of reading is
fluency. 2eaning flows to the good reader. 5riting should flow for the good writer, at least as an ideal.
4ne purpose of these writing tools is to help you become a fluent writer.
, co-e to this disc2ssion as a recovering str2ggle@holic; having traffic+ed in the Iwoe@is@weI b2siness for -ore
than 2# %earsA ,Hve been J2oted as sa%ing; I, donHt li+e writingA , li+e having writtenAI That so2nds -ore li+e
(oroth% !ar+er than -e; b2t ,Hve e-braced the ideaA
As , beco-e a -ore fl2ent writer; the -ore , en=o% the craft and the -ore "rod2ctive , beco-eA These da%s ,
so2nd li+e a Sen -aster: IThe -ore , write; the -ore , writeAI When , loo+ bac+ on -% da%s of str2ggle; , see a
%o2ng -an tr%ing to tread water while wearing a "air of wor+ bootsA , sta% afloat -2ch easier in -% bare feetA
<% "ath to fl2enc% did not co-e fro- so-eone elseHs -a"A !erha"s str2ggle is the toll we "a% to find the "athA
9oo+ing bac+; , can re-e-ber so-e trailheadsA These g2ide"osts transfor-ed -% negative tho2ghts into 2sef2l
wor+; the wa% 9a-a0e -others learn to re@i-agine labor "ains as -2scle contractionsA
To beco-e a -ore fl2ent writer; tr% these strategies:
!. Trust *our hands. :orget your brain for a while, and let your fingers do the writing. @our hand
bones are connected to your brain bones. I had only the most vague sense of what I wanted to say in
this chapter until my hands taught me.
#. Ado(t a dail* routine. :luent writers prefer mornings. Afternoon and evening writers #or runners$
have the whole day to invent e6cuses not to write #or run$. The -ey is write rather than wait.
&. 4uild in re5ards. Any routine of wor- #or not!wor-$ can be debilitating, so build in many little
rewards: a cup of coffee, a ,uic- wal-, your favorite song.
'. Draft sooner. 2any writers use reporting and research to fill up the available time. Thorough
investigation is -ey to a journalist&s success, but over!reporting ma-es writing seem tougher. 5rite
earlier in the process so you discover what information you need.
). Count e6er*thin". 3on 2urray&s favorite motto is Never A 3ay 5ithout a 'ine. Not a hundred
lines. :or the fluent writer, every word counts. 'earn to judge your own wor- by ,uantity, not ,uality.
+. Re5rite. The ,uality comes from revision, rather than from speed writing. :luent writing gives you
the time and opportunity to turn your ,uic- draft into something special.
,. 7atch *our lan"ua"e. (urge your vocabulary #and your thoughts$ of words li-e procrastination
and writer&s bloc- and delay and suc-s. Turn your little ,uir-s into something productive. +all it
rehearsal or preparation or planning.
.. Set the table. 5hen wor- piles up on my des-, I find it hard to stic- to my fluent writing routine.
That is when I ta-e a day to throw things away, answer messages, and prepare the altar for the ne6t day
of writing.
0. Find a rabbi. 5e all need one helper who loves us without conditions, someone who praises us for
our productivity and effort, and not the ,uality of the final wor-. Too much criticism weighs a writer
!2. 8ee( a da*boo%. "tory ideas, -ey phrases, a startling insight, these can be fleeting. A handy
companion, li-e a noteboo- or dayboo-, helps you preserve the ingredients for new writing. Although I
will return from time to time to hard edged writing tools #Dary the lengths of those paragraphsE$, the
ne6t set of tips are designed to help you develop the habits of a good writer. They will be designed to
help you overcome your resistance to writing, ma-ing the act of writing central to the way you see the
world. As you add tools to your wor-bench, you&ll begin to see the world as a storehouse of story ideas.
As you gain fluency, the act of writing will ma-e you a better student, a better journalist, a better
friend, a better citi*en, a better parent, a better teacher, a better person.
:inally, remember this ,uote from poet .ohn +iardi: @ou don&t have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence
is enough suffering for anyone.
XThis essa is a revision of 2The 3luent "riter&2 which appeared previousl on Ponter 4nline.Z
Writing Tool #,,: Rehearsal
(rocrastination can be productive.
Turn procrastination into rehearsal#
Almost all writers procrastinate, so there&s a good chance that you do too. If you wor- in a newsroom,
surrounded by professional writers and editors, you will see the delay ta-ing many forms. The film
reviewer may be chec-ing her e!mail messages for the 7>th time. The sports columnist may be
watching E"(N. The city hall reporter may be staring into space.
The word H"rocrastinateH derives fro- the 9atin word cras; -eaning tomorrowA 4ever write toda% what %o2 can
"2t off Htil to-orrowA !rocrastination is e:"erienced b% writers as a vice; not a virt2eA (2ring the "rocess of not@
writing; we begin to do2bt o2rselves; sacrificing the creative ti-e when we co2ld be drafting o2r storiesA
/ut what would happen if we viewed this period of delay, not as something destructive, but as
something constructive, even necessaryH 5hat if we found a new name for procrastinationH 5hat if
we called it &rehearsal&H
%ere&s what my friend and mentor 3onald 2urray writes about this act of re!invention:
5hen I first became a newspaper writing coach, I found that most of the reporters went out and
covered a story, came bac- to the office, sat down and started to write the story. "ounds logical, doesn&t
itH /ut I had been familiar with 3onald Araves&s research into the writing processes of young children
and he discovered that the best writers rehearsed what they were going to write before they began. I
found this was also true of the best writers on newspapers. They had been writing the story in their
head !! and often in their reporter&s noteboo- !! before they went out on the story, while they were
reporting, and all the way bac- to their des-s. They were rehearsing what they might write the way we
all rehearse a marriage proposal, a re,uest for a raise, an interview for a new job.
(ut simply, authors write stories in their heads. /lind poets and novelists such as 2ilton and .oyce did
this, composing narrative passages through long nights only to be mil-ed by transcribers in the
morning. The reporter is no different from the literary artist.
'et&s imagine a reporter covering a brea-ing news story, say a fire at a construction site. This reporter
has spent a half!day at the scene, filling a noteboo- with details. "he must now drive a half!hour to the
newsroom. There the writer will have one hour before deadline. Adrenalin -ic-s in. No time to
Thirty minutes in the car are precious. (erhaps the reporter will turn off the radio and begin writing the
story in her head. "ome reporters can rehearse and remember several paragraphs. 2ore li-ely, she may
begin to imagine the three big parts of the story, or a few -ey e6pressions, or perhaps a tentative lead:
%igh winds whipped a brush fire into an inferno Thursday, destroying most of a three!bloc- condo
comple6 on the outs-irts of @bor +ity.
3eadlines move most reporters to action. /ut too many writers wait too long to get their hands moving,
until the pressures of deadline become irresistible. The alternative is to reframe the periods of inaction
into forms of rehearsal. There is a Ren!li-e ,uality to such wisdom: The writer must not write in order
to write. To write ,uic-ly, Arasshopper, you must write slowly.
%ere the dilatory habits of writers come into play. 4ne writer daydreams, another eats, another wal-s,
another listens to music, another paces, another drin-s and drin-s then urinates, another chec-s favorite
websites #www.poynter.org$, another tidies up a des-, another tal-s, tal-s, tal-s. Each act of
procrastination can become a time of planning and preparation. The reporter can say with conviction to
the s-eptical editor: I am not procrastinating, 2inion, I am rehearsing.
2ore debilitating than procrastination is writer&s bloc-, but even this inhibition turns out to have a
creative source !! high standards. 'isten to poet 5illiam "tafford:
I believe that the so!called writing bloc- is a product of some -ind of disproportion between your
standards and your performance ... 4ne should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go
over in writing. It&s easy to write. @ou just shouldn&t have standards that inhibit you from writing.
No standards. 5hat could be more liberating for the writerH The wisdom of the poet&s advice can be
seen in the hundreds upon thousands of te6ts created each day in the form of e!mail messages and
weblog entries. )ela6ed standards are persuading a generation of online writers that they are members
in good standing of what :ran- "mith calls the 5riting +lub.
It would not be hard to ma-e a case that the standards of most bloggers are too low, that these digital
innovators would ma-e themselves more readable and persuasive by raising their standards !! but onl
at the end of the process.
/ut thereby hangs another tool.
7. 2any writers use reporting and research as forms of delay. They report for months or years, and then
only give themselves hours to write. %ere&s a tip: /egin writing much earlier than you thin- you can.
5rite a summary of the day&s reporting. 5rite a memo to yourself on what you&ve learned. 5rite a
conditional lead. 'et all of this writing teach you what else you need to learn.
8. %ave a conversation with a writer who seems to be procrastinating. In a diplomatic and supportive
way, as- open!ended ,uestions about the writing: 5hat are you wor-ing onH %ow&s it goingH It turns
out that tal-ing about writing can transform procrastination into rehearsal, maybe even into action.
0. 3on :ry divides writers into two types: plodders and plungers. I prefer the words bleeders and
speeders. If you are a plodder or a bleeder, it may be worth your time to e6periment with some forms of
free writing. If you are stuc-, try writing for three minutes as fast as you can. The purpose is not to
create a draft, but to build a bit of momentum.
9. :or one month, -eep a dayboo-. Cse it to jot down ideas or capture some phrases. Tell yourself that
no sentence in your dayboo- will appear in your story. This will help you lower your standards. Now
write some memos to yourself about your story. This early writing may help you speed up your
Writing Tool #,.: Cut Big" Then *mall
(recise and concise writing comes from disciplined cutting.
Cut big" then small#
After we overcome writer&s bloc-, it is easy to fall in love with our words. That is a good feeling, but it
can lead to a bad effect.
5hen we fall in love with all our ,uotes, characters, anecdotes, metaphors, it seems impossible to -ill
any of them. /ut -ill we must. In 7<79 /ritish author Arthur Iuiller +ouch wrote it bluntly: 2urder
your darlings.
"uch ruthlessness is best applied at the end of the process, where creativity can be moderated by cold!
hearted judgment. A fierce discipline must ma-e every word count.
Digorous writing is concise, wrote 5illiam "trun- when E./. 5hite was still his student. A sentence
should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a
drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This re,uires not that
the writer ma-e all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline,
but that he ma-e every word tell.
B2t how to do thatP
/egin by cutting the big stuff. 3onald 2urray taught me that brevity comes from selection, not
compression. That re,uires lifting whole parts from the wor-. 5hen 2a6well (er-ins edited Thomas
5olfe, he often confronted manuscripts that could be measured by the pound. The famous editor once
advised the famous author: It does not seem to me that the boo- is over!written. 5hatever comes out
of it must come out bloc- by bloc- and not sentence by sentence. 4ne four!page passage about
5olfe&s uncle was reduced to si6 words: %enry, the oldest, was now 0>.
If your goal is to achieve precision and concision, begin by pruning the big limbs. @ou can sha-e out
the dead leaves later.
+ut any passage that does not support the focus of the story.
+ut the wea-est ,uotations, anecdotes, or scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
+ut any passage you have written just to avoid prosecutorial editing.
3on&t invite editors to cut. @ou -now the story better. 2ar- optional trims. "hould they
become actual cutsH
If you lac- time for revision, shoot for a draft and a half. That means cutting phrases, words, even
syllables. The greatest model for such word editing is 5illiam Rinsser. Ta-e a loo- at pages 7>!77 of
4n 5riting 5ell. 4n those pages, Rinsser demonstrates how he cut the clutter from final drafts of his
own boo-. Although they loo- li-e a first draft, they had already been rewritten and retyped ... four or
five times. 5ith each rewrite I try to ma-e what I have written tighter, stronger, and more precise,
eliminating every element that is not doing useful wor-.
In his draft, Rinsser writes of the struggling reader: 2y sympathies are entirely with him. %e&s not so
dumb. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer of the article has not been careful enough to
-eep him on the proper path.
That passage seems lean enough, so it&s instructive to watch the author slice the fat. In his revision
&entirely& gets the -nife. "o does &%e&s not so dumb.& "o does &of the article.& And so does &proper.& #I
confess that I would -eep &proper path,& just for the alliteration. /ut &path& contains the meaning of
The revised passage: 2y sympathies are with him. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the
writer has not been careful enough to -eep him on the path. Twenty!seven words do more wor- than
the original 0N.
%ere are some targets for cuts. 'oo- for:
7. Adverbs that intensify rather than modify: just, certainly, entirely, e6tremely, completely,
8. (repositional phrases that repeat the obvious: in the story, in the article, in the movie, in the city.
0. (hrases that grow on verbs: seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to.
9. Abstract nouns that contain active verbs: consideration becomes considersJ judgment becomes
judgesJ observation becomes observes.
=. )estatements: a sultry, humid afternoon.
A previous draft of this essay you&re reading contained K=> words. This version contains N<<, a savings
of 7K percent. That ,ualifies me !! with a bullet !! for +hip "canlan&s Ten (ercent +lub.
7. +ompare and contrast my longer draft with my shorter one. 5hich revisions ma-e the essay
betterH %ave I cut something you would have retainedH "tate your case for -eeping it.
8. Aet a copy of 4n 5riting 5ell. "tudy the cuts Rinsser ma-es on pages 7>!77. "ee if any
patterns emerge. %int: notice what he does with adverbs.
0. The ne6t time you watch a 3D3 version of a movie, pay attention to the deleted scenes. 3iscuss
with friends the director&s decisions. 5hy was a particular scene left on the cutting room
9. Now review three of your published stories. +ut them without pity. /egin with big cuts, then
small ones. +ount the words you&ve saved. +alculate the percentage of the whole.
Writing Tool #,5: )se /unctuation
(roper punctuation can help a writer control how fast !! or slow !! a reader goes.
)se punctuation to control pace an! space#
"ome teach punctuation using technical distinctions, such as the difference between &restrictive& and
&non!restrictive& clauses. Not here. I prefer tools, not rules. 2y preference shows no disrespect for the
rules of punctuation. They help the writer and the reader, as long as we remember that such rules are
arbitrary, determined by consensus, convention, and culture.
If you chec- the end of that last sentence, you will notice that I used a comma before &and& to end a
series. :or a ,uarter century, we at The (oynter Institute have argued about that comma. :ans of "trun-
G 5hite #that&s meE$ put it in. Thrifty journalists ta-e it out.
As an A-erican; , s"ell the word Hcolor;H and , "lace the co--a inside the J2otation -ar+sA <% chee+% 5nglish
friend s"ells it Hcolo2rH; and she leaves that "oor little croissant o2t in the coldA
2ost punctuation is re,uired, but some of it is optional. That leaves the writer with many choices. 2y
modest goal for the ne6t 1=> words or so is to highlight those choices, to transform the formal rules of
punctuation into useful tools.

&(unctuation& comes from the 'atin root &point.& Those funny dots, lines, and s,uiggles help writers
point the way. To help readers, we punctuate for two reasons:
To set the pace of reading.
To divide words, phrases, and ideas into convenient spaces.
@ou will punctuate with power and purpose when you begin to consider pace and space.
Thin+ of a long; long; well@written sentence with no "2nct2ation e:ce"t the "eriodA S2ch a sentence is a long
straight road with a sto" sign at the endA The "eriod is the sto" signA 4ow thin+ of a winding road with lots of sto"
signsA That analog% describes a "aragra"h with lots of "eriods; an effect that will slow the "ace of the stor%A The
writer -a% desire s2ch a "ace for strategic reasons: to achieve clarit%; conve% e-otion; or create s2s"enseA
,f a "eriod is a sto" sign; then what +ind of traffic flow is created b% other -ar+sP The co--a is a signal to +ee"
going @@ b2t with ca2tionR the se-icolon is a s"eed b2-"R the "arenthetical e:"ression is a barricadeR the colon
anno2nces a crossroadsR the dash is a tree branch in the roadA
A writer once told me that he -new it was time to hand in a story when he had reached this stage: I
would ta-e out all the commas. Then I would put them all bac-. The comma may be the most
versatile of mar-s and the one most closely associated with the writer&s voice. A well!placed comma
points to where the writer would pause if he were to read the passage aloud. %e may have been a
genius, as mutations sometimes are. The author of that line is ;urt Donnegut. I have heard him spea-,
and that central comma is his voice.
The semicolon is what we called in driver education a rolling stop. 2ore muscular than the comma,
it is most useful for dividing and organi*ing big chun-s of information. %ere )obert 'ouis "tevenson
describes an adventure game in which boys wore cheap tin lanterns !! called bulls!eyes !! under their
5e wore them buc-led to the waist upon a cric-et belt, and over them, such was the rigour of the game,
a buttoned top!coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tinJ they never burned aright, though they
would always burn our fingersJ their use was naughtJ the pleasure of them merely fancifulJ and yet a
boy with a bullMs!eye under his top!coat as-ed for nothing more.
The (arentheses introduce a play within a play. 'i-e a barricade in the middle of a street, the
parenthesis forces the reader to drive around it to regain the original direction. (arenthetical
e6pressions are best -ept short and #(ray for us, "t. .ohn of /elushi$ witty.
2y great friend 3on :ry has underta-en a ,ui6otic ,uest to eliminate the dash. Avoid the dash, he
insists as often as 5illiam "trun- begged his students to 4mit needless words. 3on&s crusade was
inspired by his observation !! with which I agree !! that the dash has become the default mar- for
writers who never mastered the formal rules !! namely me. /ut the dash has two brilliant uses. A pair of
dashes can set off an idea contained within a sentence. A dash near the end can deliver a punch line.
Edward /ernays uses both -inds of dashes in describing the purposes of propaganda:
5e are proud of our diminishing infant death rate !! and that too is the wor- of propaganda.
(ropaganda does e6ist on all sides of us, and it does change our mental pictures of the
world. Even if this be unduly pessimistic !! and that remains to be proved !! the opinion
reflects a tendency that is undoubtedly real.
That leaves the colon, and here&s what it does: It announces a word, phrase, or clause the way a trumpet
flourish in a "ha-espeare play sounds the arrival of the royal procession. 2ore from Donnegut:
I am often as-ed to give advice to young writers who wish to be famous and fabulously well!to!do.
This is the best I have to offer:
5hile loo-ing as much li-e a bloodhound as possible, announce that you are wor-ing
twelve hours a day on a masterpiece. 5arning: All is lost if you crac- a smile.
5hen it comes to punctuation, all writers develop habits that buttress their styles. 2ine include
wearing out the comma and using more periods than average. I abhor unsightly blemishes so I avoid
semicolons and parentheses. I overuse the colon. I prefer the comma to the dash but sometimes use
one !! if only to pluc- 3on :ry&s beard.
7. 2a-e sure you have a good basic reference to guide you through the rules of punctuation. I favor A
5riter&s )eference by 3iana %ac-er. :or fun, read Eats, "hoots G 'eaves, a humorous if crusty
attac- by 'ynne Truss against faulty punctuation, especially in public te6ts.

8. Ta-e one of your old stories and re!punctuate it. Add some optional commas, or ta-e some out. )ead
both versions aloud. "ee if you can hear a difference.
0. In your ne6t story ma-e conscious decisions on how fast you&d li-e the reader to move. (erhaps you
want readers to *oom across some physical landscape. 4r maybe you want them to tiptoe through some
technical e6planation. (unctuate accordingly.
9. )ead the essay above and discuss the uses of punctuation. :eel free to challenge my choices.
=. 5hen you gain confidence, use all your tools to have some fun, not only the punctuation mar-s
described above, but also ellipses, brac-ets, and capital letters. %ere is some inspiration from .ames
2c/ride describing a preacher in The +olor of 5ater:
5e?XsilenceZ?-now?today?arrhh?um?I said 5EEEE?-now..T%AT XsilenceZ ahhh?.E"C"
Xchurch: AmenEZ?ahhh, +A2E 345N?X@esE AmenEZ I said +A2E 345555NNNNE XAo
onEZ %e +A2E!345N!AN3 B'E3!T%E B(E4('E!4: B.E)C!"A'E2!A2ENE
Writing Tool #,6: Write - 9ission *tatement %or Your *tor'
'earn how to reach the ne6t level in your writing.
Write a mission statement %or 'our wor&#
In 7<<N the St. Petersburg Times published my series Three 'ittle 5ords, the story of a woman
whose husband died of AI3". The series appeared on 8< consecutive days and received unprecedented
attention from local readers and journalists everywhere. A month of chapters was a lot to as- of readers.
/ut here was the catch: No chapter was longer than K=> words. @ou could -eep up by reading five
minutes a day. 'ong series, short chapters.
,n the words of (onald <2rra%; good writers t2rn stories into wor+sho"s; intense -o-ents of learning in which
the% advance their craftA , learned -ore abo2t re"orting and telling stories fro- IThree 9ittle WordsI than fro-
an% other writing e:"erience of -% lifeA ,H- still learning fro- itA B2t , did not learn how -2ch , learned 2ntil ,
st2-bled 2"on a strateg% ,Hve t2rned into a toolA
I wrote a mission statement for my story.
'et&s imagine that 2ar- Twain wrote a mission statement for %uc-leberry :inn: I want to tell a story
through the eyes and in the voice of an 77!year!old boy, %uc- :inn. To capture his dialect and his view
of the world, I&m going to have to repress my own vocabulary and wor- through irony. I&m not sure any
author has tried anything ,uite so daring before, if I may be permitted a moment of self!
2ost writers aspire to some invisible ne6t step !! for a story or a body of wor-. :or some, this
aspiration remains unfilled and metastasi*es. 5riting down your mission turns your vague hopes for a
story into language. /y writing about your writing, you learn what you want to learn.
I scribbled my mission for Three 'ittle 5ords on two pages of a legal pad. It covers both the content
and the form of the story, what I was writing about and how I wanted to write it. It begins: I want to
tell a human story, not just about AI3", but of the deeply human themes of life, love, death, sorrow,
hope, compassion, family, and community. 4n one page I list seven points, including how I want to
frame the life of my main characterJ how this story on AI3" will differ from othersJ how I hope readers
will react.
4n a second page, I turned to issues of story form:
I want to restore the form of the serial narrative to newspapers B! using the shortest chapters
I want to reconcile the values of short and long writing.
I want to give each chapter a stand!alone ,uality, a cliffhanger ending, a new starting point for
X:or a complete version of the mission statement, clic- here.Z
I cannot overstate the value of this e6ercise, which too- only 7> minutes. It gave me a view over the
hori*on before I began drafting the story. It provided the language I needed to share my hopes with
other writers, editors, and readers. It could be tested, e6panded, revised !! and it was !! during the
drafting process.
2ission statements can bring into focus individual stories or an emerging body of wor-:
I. I want to write a city government budget story so clear and interesting that it will attract readers who
usually ignore such coverage.
II. I want to write a story about a 5orld 5ar II veteran who tells great war stories and has lead an
ama*ing life. /ut I want to render the story in his voice, not mine.
III. I want to transform the writing of photo captions into an art form.
2y Three 'ittle 5ords wor-shop goes on and on as I hear from readers and journalists years later.
:rom this distance, I see things I would have done differently: reduce the number of chapters by a
thirdJ ma-e the reporting and writing methods more transparentJ create a straighter narrative line by
eliminating one flashbac-.
/y writing that mission statement eight years ago, I not only planted the seeds for my own learning, I
created a playing field where many others could tag along.
7. 5rite a short mission statement for your ne6t story. Cse it to discuss your aspirations with editors
and colleagues.
8. 3o the same for the body of your wor-. 5here is the ne6t level for you, that unseen but imagined
destination over the hori*onH
0. "tudy some of your old stories, especially ones that wor-ed best. 5rite a mission statement after the
fact, listing what you learned from each.
9. Imagine that famous authors had written mission statements for their masterpieces. 5hat would they
loo- li-eH If you -now the wor-, write one for 2oby 3ic-, %amlet, The +atcher in the )ye, The
+olor (urple, or To ;ill a 2oc-ingbird.
Writing Tool #,7: 2ong /roects
/rea-ing a big project into small parts ma-es it easier to start writing.
Brea& long proects into parts" long stories into chapters#
Anne 'amott&s great boo- /ird by /ird gets its title from an anecdote about her brother. At the age of
7>, he struggled with a school report on birds. 'amott describes him as immobili*ed by the hugeness
of the tas- ahead. /ut then, my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother&s shoulder,
and said, &/ird by bird, buddy. .ust ta-e it bird by bird.&
5e all need such coaching to remind us to brea- long projects into parts, long stories into chapters,
long chapters into episodes. "uch advice is both encouraging and practical.
5here writers gather, I often as- this ,uestion: %ow many of you have ever run a marathonH In a
group of 7>>, maybe one or two will raise a hand. If properly trained and motivated, how many of you
thin- you could run 8N milesH A half!do*en more. 5hat if I gave you =8 days to do it, so you only
had to run a half mile a dayH 2ost of the hands in the room go up.
3onald 2urray puts it this way: A page a day is a boo- a year.
5hen my children were young, I volunteered to teach writing in their elementary school. After each
class, I would scribble notes in a journal, never ta-ing more than 7> minutes to complete the tas-. 5hat
had I learned that dayH %ow did the children respondH 5hy was /onnie not writingH After three years,
I thought I might have a boo- in me about teaching children to write. I had never written a boo- before
and did not -now how to begin, so I transcribed my journal entries. The result was about 8=> pages of
typed te6t, not yet a boo-, but a sturdy foundation for what was to become :ree to 5rite: A .ournalist
Teaches @oung 5riters.
Tin% dro"s of writing beco-e "2ddles beco-e riv2lets beco-e strea-s beco-e dee" "ondsA
It never occurred to me that I could write a serial narrative for a newspaper. The reporting and writing
seemed too big. /ut I -new I could write a newspaper columnJ in fact, after the research, I could
produce one in <> minutes or less. That became the psychological and architectural strategy for drafting
my series Three 'ittle 5ords: Each chapter was the length of a newspaper column, about K=> words.
I couldn&t write a series !! so I thought !! but I could write 8< columns and ma-e them cohere. That&s
how the wor- got written in a timely fashion.
The power of this writing habit is overwhelming, li-e %arry (otter being told for the first time that he is
a famous wi*ard. @ou are now reading tool Y01 in a year!long series, headed for =>. If I had said to my
editors, @ou -now, I&d li-e to write a boo- of writing tools, I never would have gotten the wor- done.
At the front end, boo- projects always seem impossible to get your arms around, li-e hugging a sumo
wrestler. Instead, I pitched the writing tools project as => short essays, delivered at the rate of one or
two per wee-.

The same strategy could have produced the boo- on my nightstand, The 'ord Is 2y "hepherd by
%arold ;ushner, a superb writer and teacher. The foreword begins:
I have been thin-ing about the ideas in this boo- for more than 9> years, since I was first ordained as a
rabbi. Every time I would read the Twenty!third (salm at a funeral or memorial service, or at the
bedside of an ailing congregant, I would be struc- by its power to comfort the grieving and calm the
fearful. The real impetus for this boo- came in the wa-e of the terrible events of "eptember 77, 8>>7.
In the days following the attac-s, people on the street and television interviewers would as- me,
5here was AodH %ow could Aod let this happenH I found myself responding, Aod&s promise was
never that life would be fair. Aod&s promise was that, when we had to confront the unfairness of life, we
would not have to do it alone for %e would be with us. And I reali*ed I had found that answer in the
Twenty!third (salm.
5riters are always loo-ing for the focus of a story, and what a strong focusing idea to write a boo-
about a single 79!line prayer, one that has such powerful meaning within the .udeo!+hristian conte6t.
Imagine writing a boo- about the 'ord&s (rayer, or the Ave 2aria, or one of "ha-espeare&s sonnets. /ut
how to organi*e the writing and reading of such a boo-H ;ushner provides an elegant solution: Each
chapter is devoted to one line of the (salm. "o there is a chapter called The 'ord Is 2y "hepherd and
another called Though I 5al- through the Dalley of the "hadow of 3eath and another called 2y
+up )unneth 4ver. A 71=!page national bestseller is divided into 7= short chapters, handy units for
the writer and the reader.
/ird by bird, tool by tool, line by line.
7. Admit it. @ou want to write something bigger than you&ve ever written before. /ut you can&t get your
arms around the project. The length or breadth of it intimidates you. +ut up the monster. In a dayboo-
or journal brea- it up into its smallest parts: chapters, sections, episodes, vignettes. 5ithout reference to
any notes or research materials write one of these small units. "ee what happens.
8. Ne6t time you are in the boo-store, ta-e a pee- at several big volumes: novels, memoirs, almanacs.
+hec- out the table of contents and figure out the structural units that ma-e up the boo-. Now chec-
out individual chapters to see how they are subdivided. /egin to notice these small parts in the rest of
your reading.
0. The /ible is divided, traditionally, into /oo-s, +hapters, and Derses. /rowse through the ;ing .ames
Dersion and pay special attention to how the boo-s are divided. Notice the difference, for e6ample,
between Aenesis, (salms, and the "ong of "ongs.
9. /efore you begin drafting your ne6t story, scribble down on a legal pad what you conceive as the
parts of the story. 3on&t just write down: beginning, middle, and end. Try writing down the smaller
parts of those bigger parts.
Writing Tool #,8: /olish Your Dewels
In shorter wor-s, don&t waste a syllable.
/olish 'our ewels#
I&ve seen the %ope 3iamond at the "mithsonian. At 9= carats, it is big and blue and bu6om, but not
beautiful. "maller gems have more facets and reflect light more brilliantly.
The same can be true of writing. In the ideal, the author of a great big novel should not waste a syllable,
but he will, and, chances are, given the setting, the reader will not notice. The shorter the story form,
the more precious is each word. "o polish your jewels.
5riting with video images and natural sound, +harles ;uralt was the master of ma-ing each word !!
each pause !! count:
I have fallen in love with American names, wrote the poet "tephen Dincent /enet.
5ell, really !! how could you notH Not if you&ve been to 'ic- "-illet, Te6as, and /ug
Tussle, and Nip and Tuc-, and +ut and "hoot. In +alifornia you can travel from %umbug
:lat to 'ousy 'evel, with a detour to Aouge Eye.
+ould the good people of "leepy Eye, 2innesota, use some %ot +offee, 2ississippi, to
wa-e them upH
@ou can go from 2atrimony, North +arolina, to +aress, Dirginia !! or from +aress to
I have passed time in 2on-ey&s Eyebrow, ;entuc-y, and /owlegs and Tombstone, /ig
+himney and /ull Town. And I li-ed 3warf, ;entuc-y, though it&s just a little town.
I have fallen in love with American names. %ow could anybody notH
)obert 'ouis "tevenson was also struc- by the wealth upon our maps. %e wrote, There is
not part of the world where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous, and pictures,ue, as
the Cnited "tates of America. %e called our country a songful, tuneful land.
That&s it, the whole essay.
2y friend (eter 2ein-e, a brilliant poet, taught me that short writing forms have three peculiar
strengths. Their brevity can give them a focused powerJ it creates opportunity for witJ and it inspires
the writer to polish, to reveal the luster of the language. ;uralt&s essay e6emplifies all three, capturing
the power of the American language with witty e6amples off the American map, each clever name
another facet cut into the diamond.
In his I G A newspaper column, .eff Elder wrote this response to a ,uery about the e6tinction of an
American species:
(assenger pigeons loo-ed li-e mourning doves, but more colorful, with wine!red breasts, green nec-s
and long blue tail feathers.
In 7K>>, there were = billion in North America. They were in such abundance that the new
technology of the Industrial )evolution was enthusiastically employed to -ill them.
Telegraphs trac-ed their migration. Enormous roosts were gassed from trees while they
slept. They were shipped to mar-et in rail car after rail car after rail car. :armers bought
two do*en birds for a dollar, as hog feed.
In one human generation, America&s most populous native bird was wiped out.
There&s a stone wall in 5isconsin&s 5yalusing "tate (ar-. 4n it is a bron*e pla,ue of a bird.
It reads: This species became e6tinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.
5hen I as- readers to appreciate this piece, they point to its many shiny facets. %ere are some of the
things they notice:
The phrase &rail car after rail car after rail car& actually loo-s li-e a rail car.
The phrase &were gassed& carries connotations of a holocaust.
The first paragraph is filled with natural imageryJ but the second contains the language of
destructive technology.
Aiven their e6tinction, it is fitting that the pigeons loo-ed li-e &mourning& doves. The author
ta-es advantage of that coincidence.
In short writing the ending is visible to the reader from the get!go. 5ith his good ending, Elder adds a
finish to the polish.
%ere is a caption to a photo that appeared in the *tlanta $onstitution:
As a Navy bagpiper played Ama*ing Arace and men and women dabbed at tears, the Atlanta %istory
+enter on Thursday dedicated the city&s first permanent memorial to metro!area men who died in the
Dietnam 5ar.
Erected by the Atlanta Dietnam Deterans business Association, the mar-er was unveiled as
friends and relatives of the fallen, including .anel %arrison #left$, watched in silence. It is in
a new par- on the history center grounds, at the corner of "laton 3rive and 5est (aces
:erry )oad in /uc-head.
Association (resident )ic- 'ester read a poem to the fallen that appears on the memorial&s
bron*e pla,ue. An Army band played martial tunes, a seven!person rifle s,uad fired a 87!
gun salute, and three Army helicopters flew over. /uglers played taps.
Newly laid pine straw and sod gave the memorial the loo- of a fresh grave.
The author, /ill %endric-, turns the most conventional of newspaper forms, the photo caption, into a
little gem of a story. %e transforms what could have been an informational brief into a tiny, shiny
narrative, a story of loss and memory, of the sacred and profane.
7. )e!read the three short pieces above. "tudy them for their polished style. 2a-e an inventory of the
techni,ues the writers use to create the effect of the story as a polished jewel.
8. :ind the shortest story you have written in the last year. +ompare it to the e6amples above. Try
revising it so that every word wor-s.
0. Dolunteer to write a photo caption li-e the one above. (ractice on your own, using news or feature
photos from newspapers or maga*ines.
9. /egin a collection of short writing forms. "hare these with colleagues. 3iscuss how they are written.
2a-e a list of techni,ues you could use in your writing.
Writing Tool #,;: The +oice o% +erbs
+hoose active or passive verbs for their special effects.
)se active verbs :: but !onEt !ismiss the passive#
The gold standard for writing advice is this: Cse active verbs. Those three words have been uttered in
countless writing wor-shops with such conviction that they must be true. /ut are theyH
)hec+ o2t that last "aragra"hA ,n the first cla2se; , 2se a for- of the verb Hto be;H in this case HisAH ,n the ne:t
sentence , 2se the "assive voice; Hhave been 2tteredAH ,n the final sentence; , resort to Hare;H another for- of Hto
beAH <% tric+% "oint is that %o2 can create acce"table "rose; fro- ti-e to ti-e; witho2t active verbsA
I learned the distinction between the active and passive voice as early as fifth grade. I did not learn,
until much later, why that distinction mattered. /ut let me first correct a popular misconception. The
&voice& of verbs #active or passive$ has nothing to do with the &tense& of verbs. 5riters will sometimes
as-: Is it ever 4; to write in the passive tenseH Tense defines action within time, when the verb
happens. Doice defines the relationship between subject and verb, who does what.
If the subject performs the action of the verb, we call the verb active.
If the subject receives the action of the verb, we call the verb passive.
A verb that is neither active nor passive is a lin-ing verb, a form of the verb to be.
All verbs fit into one of those three bas-ets.
Any of these verb forms can appear in any tense. "o an active verb can indicate the past: Thompson
-ic-ed the winning goal. 4r the future: I bet Thompson will -ic- the winning goal. 4r any other
tense. "o please never confuse voice and tense again.
5hy, then, does voice matterH It matters because of the different effects active, passive, and to be
have on the reader or listener. 4ne of my favorite writers, .ohn "teinbec-, describes this encounter in
North 3a-ota:
(resently I saw a man leaning on a two!strand barbed!wire fence, the wires fi6ed not to posts but to
croo-ed tree limbs stuc- in the ground. The man wore a dar- hat, and jeans and long jac-et washed
palest blue with lighter places at -nees and elbows. %is pale eyes Xwere frostedZ with sun glare and his
lips scaly as sna-es-in. A .88 rifle leaned against the fence beside him, and on the ground lay a little
heap of fur and feathers !B rabbits and small birds. I pulled up to spea- to him, saw his eyes wash over
)ocinante, sweep up the details, and then retire into their soc-ets. And I found I had nothing to say to
him ... so we simply brooded at each other.
I count 70 verbs in that passage, 78 active, and one passive, a ratio "trun- G 5hite would admire. The
litany of active verbs heats up the scene, even though not much is happening. The active verbs reveal
who is doing what. The author sees the man. The man wears a hat. The author pulls up to tal- with him.
They brood at each other. Even inanimate objects perform action. The rifle leans against the fence.
3ead animals lie on the ground.
Embedded in all that verbal activity is one splendid passive verb. %is pale eyes were frosted with sun
glare. :orm follows function. The eyes, in real life, received the action of the sun, so the subject
receives the action of the verb.
That&s a writing tool: Cse passive verbs to call attention to the receiver of the action. )emember, from a
previous tool, .eff Elder&s short piece on the e6tinction of the passenger pigeonH %e used passive verbs
to paint the birds as victims: Enormous roosts were gassed from trees ...They were shipped to mar-et
in rail car after rail car ... In one human generation, America&s most populous native bird was wiped
The best writers ma-e the craftiest choices between active and passive. A few paragraphs from the one
cited above, "teinbec- wrote: The night was loaded with omens. "teinbec- could have written
4mens loaded the night, but the active voice would have cheated both the night and the omens, the
meaning and the music of the sentence.
5e would e6pect strong active verbs in a news story about tsunami relief efforts:
)escue planes from throughout the world delivered supplies for millions of survivors
around "outh Asia on 5ednesday, but disorgani*ation bloc-ed the lifesaving food, water,
and medicine from reaching many of those stric-en and in need.
/ut the same "ashington Post writer uses the passive when the focus turns to the receivers of action:
+artons of food and water were stac-ed in an airplane hangar in the devastated Aceh region
of northern Indonesia after military transports delivered tons of supplies to the provincial
capital of /anda Aceh, which was mostly destroyed in the "unday earth,ua-e and tsunami
that hit minutes later.
(aulo :reire, a /ra*ilian educator, uses the distinction between active and passive verbs to challenge an
educational system that places the power of teachers over the needs of students. An oppressive
educational system, he argues, is one in which:
the teacher teaches and the students are taughtJ
the teacher thin-s and the students are thought aboutJ
the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.
In other words, an oppressive system is one in which the teacher is active and the students are passive.
Aeorge 4rwell argues that the passive voice can be a tool for political abuse. )ather than say, The
mayor studied this problem and accepts full responsibility for the mista-es he made, we get, This has
been loo-ed into and it must be admitted that mista-es were made. The passive allows the spea-er or
writer to hide the agent.
A strong active verb can add dimension to the cloudiness created by some uses of the verb &to be.&
"trun- G 5hite provides a nifty e6ample. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the
ground becomes 3ead leaves covered the ground. A five!word sentence outwor-s one with 78
In graduate school, 3on :ry helped me see how my prose wilted under the weight of passive and &to be&
verbs. "entence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph began It is interesting to note that... or
There are those occasions when..., the -ind of pompous indirection bred by the ,uest for an advanced
/ut there are sweet uses of to be, as 3iane Ac-erman demonstrates in this passage about one
difference between men and women:
The purpose of ritual for men is to learn the rules of power and competition ... The purpose of ritual for
women is to learn how to ma-e human connections. They are often more intimate and vulnerable with
one another than they are with their men, and ta-ing care of other women teaches them to ta-e care of
themselves. In these formal ways, men and women domesticate their emotional lives. /ut their
strategies are different, their biological itineraries are different. %is sperm needs to travel, her egg
needs to settle down. It&s astonishing that they survive happily at all.
&3omesticate& is a strong active verb. "o is &needs& in the sentence about sperm and egg. /ut, mostly, the
author uses the verb &to be,& what we once called !! promiscuously !! the &copulative& verb, to forge some
daring intellectual connections.
"o here&s your tool of thumb:
Active verbs move the action and reveal the actors.
(assive verbs emphasi*e the receiver, the victim.
The verb &to be& lin-s word and ideas.
7. In (olitics and the English 'anguage Aeorge 4rwell writes Never use the passive where you can
use the active. The word &never& overstates the case. /ut give 4rwell a chance to ma-e his case.
3iscuss his argument that the use of the passive contributes to political abuse, to the defense of the
8. Ta-e a hard loo- at the last si6 stories you have written. +ircle all the verbs. Csing the categories in
this essay, mar- each verb as active, passive, or a form of &to be.& +an you recogni*e a trendH
0. The ne6t step in this e6ercise is to transform your passive and &to be& verbs into the active. Notice
when you do this that the emphases in your sentences will change. "o will the connections !! the
cohesion !! between one sentence and another. 5hat -ind of revisions will these changes lead toH
9. :rom now on, whenever you follow a public scandal, pay attention to the verbs used by the players.
Notice especially those uses of passive verbs that leave out the responsible parties.
=. In tool Y 01 I wrote this clun-er: That&s how the wor- got written in a timely fashion. .ay Arelen
proposed this revision. That&s how I wrote the series in a timely fashion. 3iscuss the difference.
Writing Tool #.0: The Bro&en 2ine
Cse this tool to combine storytelling with reporting.
)se the bro&en line to mi0 narrative an! anal'sis#
"ome writing tools wor- best for straight reports. 4thers help the writer craft fully reali*ed narratives.
/ut the author will often need tools to do both: construct a world the reader can enter, and then report
or comment upon that world. The result is a hybrid, best e6emplified by a story form I call the bro-en
To 2nderstand the bro+en line; thin+ of its o""osite; the 2nbro+en lineA <ost -ovies are 2nbro+en narrative linesA
8rodo ta+es "ossession of the ring of "ower and sets o2t on a =o2rne% to destro% itA >a-es Bond receives an
assign-ent; saves the world; and gets the girlA
4n occasion, a director will brea- the line of the narrative for some other purpose. In the movie
Alfie, the main character stops the action, turns to the camera, and spea-s directly to the audience.
These surprise solilo,uies reveal the nuances of his character and foreshadow the plot complications.
In ancient pornographic movies, the se6 would be interrupted by a doctor in a white coat, who would
supply redeeming social value by commenting on the importance of se6 in a healthy married life. 4f
course, no one would -eep watching such a flic- without the e6pectation that the commentary would
soon stop and the se6 play return.
That is the secret and the power of the bro-en line. The writer tells us a story then stops the story to tell
us about the story. Imagine this story form as a train ride with occasional whistle stops. "omething that
loo-s li-e this:
A master of this techni,ue is Nicholas 'emann, now dean of the +olumbia Araduate "chool of
.ournalism. 'emann writes boo-s about big important topics in American life: the migration of /lac-
Americans from "outh to NorthJ the tension between merit and privilege in higher education.
5onderful insights and e6planations are hung li-e rubies upon a strong narrative string. A story invites
us into a new world. Then the writer e6plains that world to us.
The pattern begins early in 'emann&s boo- The (romised 'and, when the author introduces us to an
African!American family from +lar-sdale, 2ississippi:
3uring that year, 7<01, )uby saw her father for the first time. After 5orld 5ar I, he had moved bac- to
the hills, living here and there. "ometimes he would write letters to )uby and )uth in the 3elta, or send
them dresses. Now that they were grown, they decided to visit him. They traveled by train and bus to
the town of 'ouisville, 2ississippi, where they had arranged to meet him in front of a cotton gin. Their
first glimpse of each other was a crystal!clear memory for )uby into old age: 4h, my children, he
cried out, nearly overcome with emotion, and embraced them.
'emann then pulls the camera bac- and up from this emotional moment. %is ne6t perspective, from
high atop the ladder of abstraction, draws upon history, sociology, anthropology, ethnography:
Americans are imbued with the notion that social systems proceed from ideas, because that is what
happened at the founding of our country. The relationship of society and ideas can wor- the other way
around, though: people can create social systems first and then invent ideas that will fulfill their need to
feel that the world as it e6ists ma-es sense. 5hite people in the 3elta responded to their need to believe
in the system of economic and political subjugation of blac-s as just, fair and inevitable by embracing
the idea of blac- inferiority, and for them the primary evidence of this was lives li-e )uby&s.
These are startling ideas. They give 'emann&s story altitude, a liftoff from the tarmac of scenes and
events to a vantage of meaning from the s-y. /ut too much o*one can leave the reader feeling o6ygen
deprived. Time to land. #Time to get bac- to the se6.$ And so he does. 4ver the course of the boo-, the
movement 'emann creates, bac- and forth, bac- and forth, between narrative and analysis is
2any newspapers have miniaturi*ed this movement with a device called the nut paragraph. Any
story that begins without the news re,uires a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a *one that answers the
,uestion "o whatH The "all Street 0ournal, over 0> years, has perfected this techni,ue with
whimsical front!page features off the news.
;en 5ells begins a story out of New @or- +ity:
Emma Thornton still shows up for wor- at = a.m. each day in her blue slac-s, pinstripe shirt and
rubber!soled shoes. A letter carrier for the C.". (ostal "ervice, she still dutifully sorts all the mail
addressed to 4ne 5orld Trade +enter, and primes it for delivery.
/ut delivery to where and to whomH
5hy is this an important anecdoteH The answer re,uires a little altitude, a movement off the narrative
line and up to a higher level of meaning:
"ince "ept. 77, as many as <>,>>> pieces of mail a day continue to flood in to the 5orld Trade +enter
addresses that no longer e6ist and to thousands of people who aren&t alive to receive them. 4n top of
that is another mail surge set off by well!wishers from around the C.". and the worlds !! thousands of
letters addressed to, among other salutations: The (eople %urt, Any (olice 3epartment and The
5or-ing 3ogs of Around Rero, N.@. "ome of this mail contains money, food, even biscuits for the
dogs that were used in the early days to help try to sniff out survivors.
The mi6 of 5orld Trade +enter mail and Around Rero mail represents a calamity for the
C.". (ostal "ervice, which served N7N separate companies in the 5orld Trade +enter
comple6 whose offices are now rubble or relocated.
This movement from anecdote to meaning would be nothing more than a cheesy bait and switch
without a return to the narrative line, to the world of letter carrier Emma Thornton. The writer delivers:
%er route in the North Tower has been transformed into a N!by!N steel cubicle ... surrounded by tall
metal rac-s of pigeonholes.
The bro-en line is a versatile story form. The reporter can begin with narrative and move to
e6planation, or begin with straight reporting and then illustrate the facts with an anecdote. In either
case, the easy swing, bac- and forth, can feel li-e cloc-wor-.
7. )ead the wor- of Nicholas 'emann for e6amples of the bro-en line. Analy*e his movement from
narrative to analysis in boo-s such as The (romised 'and: The Areat /lac- 2igration and %ow it
+hanged America or The /ig Test: The "ecret %istory of the American 2eritocracy.
8. )eview some of your own recent wor-. Try to find a story that might wor- better if you had used the
structure of the bro-en line.
0. )ead the collection of "all Street 0ournal features titled :loating 4ff the (age. "earch it for
interesting e6amples of the nut paragraph, and the general movement between reporting and
9. As you review your own wor-, loo- for e6amples where you used the nut paragraph to reveal the
higher meaning of the story. (ay special attention to what comes after the nut graph. 3o you move bac-
to narrative, or are you practicing bait and switch on the readerH
Writing Tool #.1: F:Ra' Rea!ing
)eading others& wor- can help ma-e you a better writer.
Rea! %or both %orm an! content#
B% the third grade; , +new , was a good readerA <% teacher; <iss Kell%; told -e soA She was i-"ressed; she said;
that , co2ld recogni0e the word HgiganticH in a stor% abo2t (av% )roc+ett; who +illed Ha gigantic bearAH Wh%; then;
did it ta+e -e 2/ -ore %ears to i-agine that , was a writerP
(erhaps it&s because we teach and learn reading as a democratic craft !! necessary for education,
vocation and citi*enship !! but writing as a fine art. Everyone should read, we say, but we act as if only
those with special talent should write.
4ne thing we -now for sure. 5riters read for both form and content. If you put together a pu**le, you
benefit from the image on the bo6. If you try a new recipe, it helps to see a picture of the finished dish.
If you are a carpenter, you need to -now the difference between a boo-case and a creden*a. The writer
must answer this ,uestion: 5hat am I trying to buildH And then this one: 5hat tools do I need to build
,n literat2re; the word that describes the for- of a stor% is HgenreAH ,n the words of reading scholar 8ran+ S-ith;
the reader learns not onl% the gra--ar of lang2age b2t also the gra--ar of storiesA )hildren "erceive stor%
for-s fro- an earl% ageA ,f the% hear the words Ionce 2"on a ti-e;I the% "redict a fair% taleA
Whenever , tr% to ta+e a big ste" in -% writing; , begin b% readingA $f co2rse; , read for contentA ,f ,H- writing
abo2t anti@Se-itis-; , read Loloca2st -e-oirsA ,f ,H- writing abo2t A,(S; , read bio-edical te:ts and social
histories of the diseaseA ,f ,H- writing abo2t World War ,,; , read -aga0ines fro- the 1./sA So; b% all -eans;
read for contentA
/ut also read for form. If you want to write better photo captions, read old issues of ,I3E maga*ine. If
you want to become a better e6plainer, read a great coo-boo-. If you want to write clever headlines,
read the big city tabloids. If you want to write witty short features, read Tal- of the Town in The New
Yorker maga*ine.
5hen it occurred to me that I wanted to write a long serial narrative in short chapters, I began
searching for models. I read some 3ic-ens, whose wor- was seriali*ed. I read 5inesburg, 4hio, a
series of connected short stories by "herwood Anderson. I read The "tory of A "hipwrec-ed "ailor, a
seriali*ed newspaper story by Aabriel Aarcia 2ar,ue*. In all these cases, the chapters were too long.
Ironically, I found my pattern in the adventure stories of my youth. The %ardy /oys and Nancy 3rew
mysteries had chapters I could read in about five minutes or less, with a mini!cliffhanger at the end.
That structure became the blueprint for my Three 'ittle 5ords.
<% friend To- 8rench -a% be the best reader a-ong the re"orters , +nowA The "ower of his nonfiction serial
narratives derives in "art fro- his e:"ansive reading; fro- the Tar0an advent2res of his childhood to the 2/
vol2-es of British sea tales written b% !atric+ $HBrianA To- sa%s he has alwa%s been alert to those "arts of a
stor% that -ade hi- want to +ee" readingA What ca2ses the effect; he wonders; of not being able to "2t the stor%
downP When he hits s2ch a s"ot he -ar+s it; ret2rns to it; and reflects 2"on the techniJ2es 2sed b% the writerA
I call such an act T!ray reading. 4ne way writers learn from stories is to use their T!ray vision.
#After all, "uperman was also a newspaper reporter.$ T!ray reading helps you see through the te6t of
the story. /eneath the surface grinds the invisible machinery of grammar, language, synta6 and
rhetoric, the gears of ma-ing meaning, the hardware of the trade.
%ere are some reading tric-s offered by good writers:
7. )ead to listen to the voice of the writer.
8. )ead the newspaper in search of under!developed story ideas.
0. )ead online to e6perience a variety of new storytelling forms.
9. )ead entire boo-s when they are compellingJ but also taste lots of little parts of boo-s.
=. In choosing what to read, depend more upon your compass than upon the advice of others.
N. "ample !! for free !! a wide selection of current maga*ines and journals in boo-stores that serve
1. )ead on topics outside your discipline, such as architecture, astronomy, economics or
I temper my enthusiasm for reading with this caution: There will be times in the middle of a writing
project when you may want to stop reading. 5hile describing these tools, I stopped reading boo-s
about writing. I did not want my fascination with the topic to seduce me from my writing time. I did
not want to be unduly influenced by the ideas of others. Nor did I wish to be discouraged by the
brilliance of finished, published wor-.
:inally, read with a pen nearby. 5rite in the margins. Tal- bac- to the author. 2ar- up interesting
passages. As- ,uestions of the te6t. "cholars, such as 'ouise )osenblatt, argue that reading is a mPnage
\ trois among author, te6t and reader. The author may create the te6t, but the reader turns it into a story.
"o the reader is a writer after all. Doil\E
Ao to /orders or /arnes G Noble and immerse yourself in the maga*ine section. 3rin- as much coffee
as you need. 'oo- for publications that stretch your interest and challenge your standards.
8. :ind an author to admire. )ead several wor-s by this writer with a pen in your hand. 2ar- up
passages that wor- in special ways. "how these to a friend and try to T!ray read them together. 5hat
writing tools did you findH
0. Try a tric- taught to me by +hip "canlan. )ead an interesting passage aloud. Then put it away and
write freely on any topic of your choosing. E6plore the -ind of influence that flows from this
9. A sad little secret of the journalism world is that some reporters don&t even read their own newspaper.
Ta-e the opposite approach. :or a wee- read the paper voraciously, including the classified ads. 2a-e a
list of all the story ideas you discover.
=. If you are an editor, use a shared reading e6perience to inspire your writers. "wap stories you li-e
and T!ray read them. 5hy do they wor-H
7ritin" Tool 9'#: -ara"ra(hs
Ao short or long, depending upon your purpose.
:ar* the len"th of (ara"ra(hs.
In a boo- review, critic 3avid 'ips-y tears into an author for including, in a boo- of 8>1 pages, more
than 9>> single!sentence paragraphs !! a well!established distress signal, recogni*ed by boo- readers
and term!paper graders ali-e.
/ut a distress signal for whatH The answer is most li-ely: confusion. The big parts of a story should fit
together, but the small parts need some stic- as well. 5hen the big parts fit, we call that good feeling
coherenceJ when sentences connect, we call it cohesion.
The paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length, argues /ritish grammarian %.5. :owler.
That implies that all sentences in a paragraph should be about the same thing and move in a se,uence.
It also means that writers can brea- up long, long paragraphs into parts. They should not, however,
create confusion by pasting together paragraphs that are short and disconnected.
Is there, then, an ideal length for a paragraphH
'et&s loo- at an e6ample. "ports reporter .oanne ;orth wrote this summary lead about a dramatic
football game decided in overtime:
The roo-ie ,uarterbac- played li-e a roo-ie. The beloved running bac- fumbled the ball away. And the
top!seeded "teelers nearly suffered another gut!wrenching home playoff loss.
"o can a single word be a paragraphH An adverb, no lessH
I found the answers in 2odern English Csage, the irreplaceable dictionary compiled by :owler in
7<8N. 5ith typical common sense he begins by telling us what the paragraph is for:
The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest. The writer is saying to him: &%ave you got
thatH If so, I&ll go on to the ne6t point.&
/ut how much rest does a reader needH 3oes it depend upon subject matterH Aenre or mediumH The
voice of the authorH There can be no general rule about the most suitable length for a paragraph,
writes :owler, A succession of very short ones is as irritating as very long ones are wearisome.
In a long paragraph, the writer can develop an argument or build part of a narrative using lots of related
e6amples. In E6 'ibris by Anne :adiman, the typical paragraph is more than a hundred words long,
with some longer than a full boo- page. "uch length gives :adiman the space to develop interesting,
,uir-y ideas:
5hen I read about food, sometimes a single word is enough to detonate a chain reaction of associative
memories. I am li-e the shoe fetishist who, in order to become aroused, no longer needs to see the
object of his desireJ merely glimpsing the phrase spectator pump, si*e N 7F8 is sufficient. 5henever I
encounter the :rench word plein, which means full, I am instantly transported bac- to age 7=, when,
after eating a very large portion of poulet 5 l'estragon, I told my (arisian hosts that I was pleine, an
adjective that I later learned is reserved for pregnant women and cows in need of mil-ing. The word
ptarmigan catapults me bac- 7> years to an e6pedition I accompanied to the +anadian Arctic, during
which a polar!bear biologist, tired of canned beans, shot a half do*en ptarmigans. 5e pluc-ed them,
fried them, and gnawed the bones with such ravening carnivorism that I -new on the spot I could never,
ever become a vegetarian. "ometimes just the contiguous letters pt are enough to call up in me a
nostalgic rush of guilt and greed. I may thus be the only person in the world who salivates when she
reads the words ptomaine poisoning.
The writer can use the short paragraph, especially after a long one, to bring the reader to a sudden,
dramatic stop. +onsider this passage from .im 3wyer, in which a group of men struggle to escape from
a stalled elevator in the 5orld Trade +enter, using only a window!washer&s s,ueegee as a tool.
They did not -now their lives would depend on a simple tool.
After 7> minutes, a live voice delivered a blunt message over the intercom. There had been
an e6plosion. Then the intercom went silent. "mo-e seeped into the elevator cabin. 4ne
man cursed s-yscrapers. 2r. (hoeni6, the tallest, a (ort Authority engineer, po-ed for a
ceiling hatch. 4thers pried apart the car doors, propping them open with the long wooden
handle of 2r. 3emc*ur&s s,ueegee.
There was no e6it.
This techni,ue !! a four!word paragraph after one of N9!words !! can be abused with overuse. To
surprise, it pac-s a strong punch. %ere&s another e6ample from 3avid /roo-s in The New York Times:
2alcolm Aladwell has written a boo- about the power of first impressions, and every review, including
this one, is going to begin with the reviewer&s first impression of the boo-.
2ine was: /offo.
5riters and editors adjust paragraph length to conform to column width. /oo- authors write longer
paragraphs without having to give the reader a rest. /ut a boo- paragraph cemented into a newspaper
column creates a tombstone of gray type. 4n the flipside, a series of telegraphic newspaper paragraphs,
transplanted into a boo-, seems snowed in by white space.
(aragraphing is also a matter of the eye, writes :owler. A reader will address himself more readily
to his tas- if he sees from the start that he will have breathing!spaces from time to time than if what is
before him loo-s li-e a marathon course.
7. )ead the paragraph above by Anne :adiman, which contains 8>8 words. +ould you, if necessary,
divide it into two or three paragraphsH 3iscuss your choices with a friend.
8. +hec- some e6amples of your recent wor-. 'oo- for strings of long paragraphs or short ones. +an
you ta-e some of the long paragraphs and brea- them into smaller unitsH Are the one!sentence
paragraphs related enough so they can be joinedH
0. In your reading of journalism and literature, pay attention to paragraph length. 'oo- for paragraphs
that are either very long or very short. Imagine the author&s purpose in each case.
9. In your reading, pay attention to the ventilating effects of white space, especially surrounding the
ends of paragraphs. 3oes the writer use that location as a point of emphasisH
7ritin" Tool 9'&: Self$criticism
Ao from nice and easy to rough and tough.
1imit self$criticism at the be"innin". Turn it loose durin" re6ision.
As I peruse my collection of boo-s on writing, I find they fall into two broad categories. In one bo6, I
find boo-s written mostly by men, wor-s such as The Elements of "tyle and 4n 5riting 5ell.
These classics by "trun- G 5hite and 5illiam Rinsser capture writing as a craft, so they concern
themselves with toolbo6es and blueprints. In the other bo6, I find boo-s written more often by women,
such as /ird by /ird and 5ild 2ind. In these wor-s by Anne 'amott and Natalie Aoldberg, I&m
less li-ely to find advice on techni,ue than on living a life of language, of seeing a world of stories.
The standards for these great boo-s by women go bac- at least to the 7<0>s when 3orothea /rande
wrote /ecoming a 5riter #7<09$ and /renda Celand wrote If @ou 5ant to 5rite #7<0K$. It is a
blessing that both boo-s remain in print, inviting a new generation into the community of writers.
/rande e6presses her preference for coffee, a medium!soft lead pencil, and a noiseless portable
typewriter. "he offers advice on what writers should read and when they should write. %er concerns
include meditation, imitation, practice, and recreation. /ut she is most powerful on the topic of self!
criticism. To become a fluent writer, she argues, one must silence the critic early in the process. The
critic becomes useful only when enough wor- has been done to warrant evaluation and revision.
Influenced by :reud, she argues that, during the early stages of creation, the writer should write freely,
harnessing the unconscious:
Cp to this point it is best to resist the temptation to reread your productions. 5hile you are training
yourself into facility in writing and teaching yourself to start writing whenever and wherever
opportunity offers, the less you turn a critical eye upon your own material the better !! even for a
cursory survey. The e6cellence or triteness of your writing was not the matter under consideration. /ut
now, turning bac- to see what it may reveal under a dispassionate survey, you may find those
outpourings very enlightening.
:our decades later, another woman writer, Aail Aodwin, would cover the same territory in an essay
titled The 5atcher at the Aate #7<19$. :or Aodwin, the watcher stands for the restraining critic who
lived inside me, and who appeared in many forms to loc- the doors of her creativity.
It is ama*ing the lengths a 5atcher will go to -eep you from pursing the flow of your imagination.
5atchers are notorious pencil sharpeners, ribbon changers, plant waterers, home repairers and
abhorrers of messy rooms or messy pages. They are compulsive loo-er!uppers. They cultivate self!
important eccentricities they thin- are suitable for writers. And they&d rather die #and -ill your
inspiration with them$ than ris- ma-ing a fool of themselves.
'i-e /rande, Aodwin draws her central images from :reud, who ,uotes "chiller: In the case of a
creative mind?the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in?and only
then does it review and inspect the multitude. "chiller chides a friend: @ou reject too soon and
discriminate too severely.
/renda Celand fights the battle against internal and e6ternal criticism with the passion of a warrior
princess and the *eal of a suffragette. "he titles one of her chapters: 5hy 5omen who do too much
housewor- should neglect it for their writing. %er first chapter argues, Everybody is talented, original
and has something important to say.
"he notes that all people who try to write?become an6ious, timid, contracted, become perfectionists,
so terribly afraid that they may put something down that is not as good as "ha-espeare. That is one
loud critical voice, one gargantuan watcher.
And so no wonder you don&t write and put it off month after month, decade after decade. :or when you
write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free, !! free and not an6ious. The only good teachers
for you are those friends who love you, who thin- you are interesting, or very important, or
wonderfully funnyJ whose attitude is:
Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel
and -now and all the changes inside and out of you. 'et more come out.
And if you have no such friend, !! and you want to write, !! well then you must imagine
:or Aodwin, weapons against the watcher include such things as deadlines, writing fast, writing at odd
times, writing when you&re tired, writing on cheap paper, writing in surprising forms from which no one
e6pects e6cellence.
"o far, I have emphasi*ed only one side of the e,uation: the value of silencing the voice of the internal
critic early in the process. @ou have a right to as-: /ut when the voice spea-s out during revision,
what should I hope she says to meH "he will be a more useful critic, I say immodestly, after e6posure
to this set of tools. 5ith e6posure, the voice might say: 3o you need that adverbH 4r Is this the place
for a gold coinH 4r Isn&t it time for you to climb down the ladder of abstraction and offer a good
"o I end with an important lesson: That the self!conscious application of all this writing advice will
paraly*e you if you try to apply it too early, or if you misapply it as orthodo6y. 3orothea /rande,
/renda Celand, Aail Aodwin !! these women have the right idea. There&s enough hard critical wor- to
do, and enough criticism to face. "o begin with a gift to yourself, maybe that first cup of coffee.
7. /e more conscious now of those moments when the critical voice starts shouting in your ear. 5hat
is the voice sayingH 2a-e a list of the negative things the voice is li-ely to say about you. Now burn
the list and flush it down the toilet.
8. %ave at least one person in your circle of helpers who praises you without reservation, who is willing
to tell you what wor-s in your story, even when you -now that so much wor- remains to be done. +an
you play this role in the life of another writerH
0. /e aware of the moment in the story process when you are ready to call the critical voice on stage.
2a-e a list of the -inds of ,uestions you&d li-e the voice to as- you. +onsult these writing tools to form
the list.
9. Aodwin writes that she fools the watcher by disguising the form of the writing. "o if she is wor-ing
on a draft of a short story, she may disguise it in the form of a letter. The ne6t time you struggle with a
story, put a salutation at the top #3ear :riend$ and write a message to your friend about the story. "ee
what happens.
7ritin" Tool 9'': Sa6e Strin"
"ave information !! it could be used for a big project later.
To "ather ra5 material for bi" (ro;ects< sa6e scra(s others 5ould thro5 a5a*.
5hen writers tell me stories about wor-ing on big projects, they often use one of two metaphors to
describe their method. The first is composting. To grow a good garden you need to fertili*e the soil. "o
some gardeners build a compost heap in their yards, mounds of organic material containing scraps, li-e
banana peels, that others would throw away.
The second is saving string. /its of twine get rolled into tiny balls that grow into bigger balls that grow,
in e6treme cases, into balls of civic pride. A man named :rancis .ohnson created a ball of twine that
weighed more than 71,>>> pounds, was twelve feet in diameter, and became the main roadside
attraction for the town of 3arwin, 2innesota.
.ohnson should become patron saint of those who save little bits of stories, hoping that one day they
will grow into something publishable. %ere&s how it wor-s for me: I will be struc- by a theme or issue
in politics or culture. )ight now, for e6ample, I am fascinated by the plight of boys. As the father of
three daughters, I&ve watched many young women succeed in education and flourish in careers, while
young men seem to lag behind. I lac- the time or -nowledge to write about this topic now, but maybe I
will someday. The chances will become greater if I begin to save string.
To save string, I need a simple file bo6. I prefer the plastic ones that loo- li-e mil- crates. I display the
bo6 in my office and put a label on it, say: The (light of /oys. As soon as I declare my interest in an
important topic, a number of things begin to happen. :irst, I notice more things about my topic. Then I
have more conversations about it with friends and colleagues. They start to feed my interest. 4ne by
one, my bo6 fills with items: an analysis of graduation rates of boys versus girlsJ a feature on whether
video games hurt or help the development of boysJ a story about decreasing participation by boys in
high school sports. This is a big topic, so I ta-e my time. 5ee-s and wee-s pass, sometimes months
and months, and one day I&ll loo- over at my bo6 and hear it whisper. It&s time. I&m ama*ed at how
full the bo6 is, and even more astonished about how much I&ve learned just by saving string.
This process of story growth may appear long and unproductive. Too much waiting around. The tric- is
to grow several crops in your garden at the same time. @ou can fertili*e one crop, even as you harvest
another. "o in my office, I have several bo6es with labels on them:
I have an AI3" bo6, which culminated in the publication of the series Three 'ittle 5ords.
I have a millennium bo6, which culminated in publication of a seriali*ed newspaper novel Ain&t 3one
I have a %olocaust and anti!"emitism bo6, which culminated in the series "adie&s )ing. It is now a
boo- manuscript, rejected by 8= publishers, but still loo-ing for its place in the world.
I have a bo6 titled +ivil )ights, which culminated in an anthology of newspaper columns from the
7<N>s on racial justice in the "outh.
I have a bo6 titled :ormative )eading, bursting with materials on critical literacy, which I thought
would become a boo-. It has produced several articles.
I have a bo6 called 5orld 5ar II, which produced two newspaper features, one of which might
become a small boo- some day.
I once learned an important lesson from .ames 5. +arey, one of the great scholars of journalism and
culture. "ome scholars, he said, build their careers by attaching themselves to topics of narrower and
narrower interest. +arey encourages young writers and scholars to attach themselves to big topics:
)eligion in America, 5orld (opulation, News and 3emocracy.
Ta-e another loo- at my bo6es and inventory the topics: AI3", the %olocaust, racial justice, the
millennium, 5orld 5ar II, literacy. These are topics of ine6haustible interest, capable of generating a
lifetime of reporting, storytelling, and analysis. Each one, in fact, is so huge, so imposing, it threatens
to overpower the writer&s energy and imagination. 5hich is the reason to save string. Item by item,
anecdote by anecdote, statistic by statistic, your bo6es of curiosity fill up without effort, creating a
literary life!cycle: planting, cultivation, and harvesting.
%ere&s the real value of saving string. )ight now, buried in routine, you feel you lac- the time and
energy to underta-e enterprising wor-. 2aybe you cover the education beat for a small newspaper.
(erhaps you have to produce a story, or more, every day. 'et&s say that you, too, are interested in the
academic bac-sliding of boys. If you are too embarrassed to create a bo6, start an electronic or paper
file. As you do your routine wor-, tal- about the plight of boys. %arvest opinions and anecdotes from
parents, teachers, and editors. "cribble them down, one by one, fragment by fragment, until one day
you&ll loo- up and see a monument of persistence, ready to be mounted in the town s,uare.
7. )eview your writing for the last couple of years. 2a-e a list of your big categories of interest and
curiosity. 5hich of those topics do you want to save string onH
8. 5hat other big topics interest you that are not reflected in your current writingH 5hich one
fascinates you the mostH +reate a bo6 or a file and put a label on it.
0. If you are covering a regular beat, what topics have you been unable to get toH +reate a file for one
of these and begin tal-ing about it with your sources.
9. 3o a Aoogle search on one of your new topics. "pend a little time e6ploring. Add to your file some
items from blogs or 5eb sites that connect with your new interest.
7ritin" Tool 9'): Foreshado5
(lant important clues early in the story.
Foreshado5 climactic e6ents.
Not long ago, I saw two movies that reminded me of the power of foreshadowing. In each case, clues
planted early in the narrative offered what a dictionary definition would describe as vague advance
indications of important future events.
The /ird +age opens inside a cabaret in 2iami. 4n the stage, a chorus line of female impersonators
dances and lip synchs to the disco hit 5e Are :amily, performed by "ister "ledge. Two hours later, in
the story&s climactic scene, a conservative Cnited "tates "enator #played by Aene %ac-man$ escapes
from the club and avoids media scrutiny by dressing in drag, donning a blonde wig, and dancing off the
stage to the same song.
In %arry (otter and the (risoner of A*-aban, several terrible events are reversed at the end when
%ermione reveals to %arry her ability to travel bac- in time by means of a charm she wears around her
nec-, a time turner. 4n first viewing, the plot twist comes as a surprise. Cpon watching the film a
second time, I noticed how often the director ma-es reference to time, especially in visual images of
huge pendulums and giant cloc-wor-s.
:or novels and movies, it may re,uire several readings or viewings to fully appreciate the associations
pre!figured by foreshadowing. The techni,ue becomes more transparent in wor-s of shorter length.
+onsider this narrative poem, Cncle .im, by (eter 2ein-e:
5hat the children remember about Cncle .im
is that on the train to )eno to get divorced
so he could marry again
he met another woman and wo-e up in +alifornia.
It too- him seven years to untangle that dream
but a man who could sing li-e Cncle .im
was bound to get in scrapes now and then:
he e6pected it and we e6pected it.
2other said, It&s because he was the middle child,
And :ather said, @eah, where there&s trouble
.im&s in the middle.
5hen he lost his voice he lost all of it
To the surgeon&s -nife and refused the voice bo6
They wanted to insert. In fact he refused
Almost everything. 'oo-, they said,
It&s up to you. %ow many years
3o you want to liveH And Cncle .im
%eld up one finger.
The middle one.
This is a poem with a punch line, set up by the foreshadowing in the middle stan*a. .im&s the middle
child, always in the middle of trouble, so why not flash that middle finger at the endH
:oreshadowing in filmH @es. In narrative poetryH @es. In journalismH 'et&s see.
In 7<K> a huge oil tan-er collided with a tall bridge near my hometown, destroying more than 7,>>>
feet of the span, sending a bus and several cars to the bottom of Tampa /ay, -illing more than 0>
people. The great Aene 2iller of the +iami !erald was in town on another assignment and managed to
find the driver of a car that s-idded to a stop only 89 inches from the jagged edge. %ere is his
memorable lead, a sidebar to the main story:
)ichard %ornbuc-le, auto dealer, golfer, /aptist, came within two feet :riday of driving his yellow
/uic- "-ylar- off the "unshine "-yway /ridge into Tampa /ay.That simple sentence ta-es only 8=
words, but each one advances the story. :irst, 2iller ta-es advantage of the protagonist&s unusual
name !! %ornbuc-le !! with its auto!imagery. This will turn out to be the story of an auto dealer driving
a used car with good bra-es. And 2iller, a master of detail, gets good mileage out of &yellow /uic-
"-ylar-.& &@ellow& goes with &"unshine,& and &"-ylar-& goes with &"-yway.& %e&s playing with words.
/ut the real fun comes with those three nouns in apposition to the subject, for each one foreshadows a
thread of narrative down in the story. &Auto!dealer& sets up a description of %orbuc-le&s wor- schedule
and how he came to be at that spot on that day. &Aolfer& prepares us for the cra*y moment when!!
during his escape from the vehicle !! %ornbuc-le turns bac- to retrieve his golf clubs from the trun-.
#That man really loves his golf.$ And &/aptist& ma-es way for a wry ,uote in which the reluctant
believer turned survivor swears that he&ll be in church the ne6t morning. Auto dealer. Aolfer. /aptist.
In dramatic literature, this techni,ue is sometimes referred to as +he-ov&s Aun. In a letter he penned in
7KK<, )ussian playwright Anton +he-ov wrote: 4ne must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one
is thin-ing of firing it.
7. 3o you ever violate the principle of +he-ov&s AunH 3o you place elements high in your story that
never come into play againH
8. Cntil now, you may not have noticed the techni,ue of foreshadowing in movies, fiction and dramatic
literature. Now that you have a name for it, begin to loo- more carefully for e6amples.
0. :oreshadowing can wor- not only in narrative forms, but in persuasive writing. A good column or
essay usually has a point, which is often revealed at the end. 5hat details can you place up high to
foreshadow your conclusionH
9. In journalism, literary effects must be reported, not invented. 4n your ne6t reporting assignment, see
if you can begin to recogni*e potential endings while you are in the field. That way, you may also be
able to gather details that help foreshadow your ending.
Tool 9'+: Stor*tellers< Start =our n"ines
Aood ,uestions drive good stories.
>ood stories need an en"ine< a /uestion the stor* ans5ers for the reader.
5ho done itH Auilty or not guiltyH 5ho will win the raceH 5hich man will she marryH 5ill the hero
escape, or die tryingH Aood ,uestions drive good stories.
This narrative strategy is so powerful it needs a name, and Tom :rench has given it one. %e calls it the
engine of the story. :rench defines the engine as the ,uestion the story answers for the reader. 2ost
newspaper reports lac- an engine because they reveal the answer before the reader -nows there is a
In my newspaper today, a reporter writes a story about a man hired as a greeter at a new 5al!2art. It is
an amiable local story:
+harles /urns has been waiting for wee-s to say three words:
5elcome to 5al!2artE
5hen the doors open this morning at "t. (etersburg&s first 5al!2art "upercenter, /urns&
face will be one of the first that shoppers see.
%e is the greeter.
/ut because the story is written the day before the opening, we never get to see +harles /urns in
action. %e never greets anybody. As a result, there is no engine, not even a simple: %ow did his first
day of greeting goH or 5hat was the response from the first customerH or %ow did the e6perience
match the e6pectationH
In the same edition, there is a much more serious international story about tsunami survivors in "ri
In the pediatric ward of the town hospital here, "ri 'an-a&s most celebrated tsunami orphan do*es,
drools and, when he is in a foul mood, wails at the many visitors who crowd around his crib.
%is identity is un-nown. %is age, according to hospital staff, is between four and five
months. %e is simply and famous -nown as /aby No. K7, the K7st admission to the ward
this year.
/aby No. K7&s awful burden is not in being unwanted, but in being wanted too much.
"o far, nine couples have claimed him as their own son. "ome among them have threatened
suicide if the baby is not delivered into their arms. +ountless other parents who lost their
babies to the tsunami have also rushed in to see if /aby No. K7 is theirs. The national
newspapers have carried almost daily narratives about his fate. The hospital has been so
mobbed that for a while, the staff hid the baby in the operating theater every night for his
own protection.
This story, which first appeared in The New York Times, has a supercharged engine. If you are li-e me,
the engine too- the form of ,uestions such as these: 5hat will happen to /aby No. K7H 5ill we ever
learn his true name and real identityH 5ho will wind up with /aby K7, and whyH %ow will they
determine the true parentsH
To its credit the story raises ,uestions of its own, not just on what might happen ne6t, but on the story&s
higher meaning:
+ould it possibly be that nine couples honestly believe /aby No. K7 to be their flesh and bloodH +ould
it be that childless parents are loo-ing for a boon amid the disasterH +ould it be that a photogenic baby
boy has inspired a craving that a girl would not haveH All these theories circulate on the streets of
Tom :rench believes that a story, especially one with sub!plots, can have more than one engine. This
certainly wor-s in film narratives. In the movie The :ull 2onty, a group of unemployed factory
wor-ers tries to ma-e money by becoming male strippers. The engine is something li-e will these
odd!shaped men go all the way !! and how will their women react to themH /ut here&s what ma-es the
story more special: Each man has something powerful at sta-e and is motivated by his own particular
engine. 5ill the overweight guy restore the spar- to his marriageH 5ill the s-inny guy lose custody of
his sonH 5ill the old guy find a way to pay his debtsH
5hen .an 5inburn was an editor at The (altimore Sun, she helped her writers create a cast of
characters for their stories by as-ing the ,uestion 5ho has something at sta-e hereH The answer to
that ,uestion can lead to the creation of a story engine: 5ill the loser of the contest still get her
I thin- of Tom :rench&s story engine as a distant cousin of what 'ajos Egri calls the premiseof a
story. Everything has a purpose, or premise, he writes. Every second of our life has its own premise,
whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. The premise may be as simple as breathing or as
comple6 as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there.
Every play must have a premise, argues Egri. :or )omeo and .uliet it is Areat love defies even
death. :or 2acbeth it is )uthless ambition leads to its own destruction. :or 4thello it is
.ealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.
The premise, as described by Egri, ta-es the ,uestion of Tom&s engine and turns it into a thematic
statement. It can easily be converted bac-: 5ill 4thello&s jealousy destroy him and the woman he
Tom :rench ma-es a distinction between the engine of the story and the theme:
To me, the engine is this raw visceral power that drives the story and -eeps the reader engaged. %ow
the writer uses that engine !! the ideas that we e6plore along the way, and the deeper themes we&re
hoping to illuminate !! is a matter of choice. A good e6ample: +iti*en ;ane. Its opening scene sets up
one of the most famous story engines of all time, what is )osebudH @et the movie isn&t about the sled,
or even particularly about ;ane&s childhood. "till, the reporter&s ,uest to unloc- the riddle of the dying
man&s last word drives the story forward and -eeps us watching as 4rson 5elles e6plores deeper
themes of politics, democracy, America, etc. The mystery of )osebud drives us through what&s
essentially a civics lesson on the real nature of power. There are other things holding our attention as
well !! fabulous writing and acting, compelling characters !! but )osebud is what gets us going and
holds the whole thing together.
:inally, we should note that some stories are driven not by what ,uestions, but by how. 5e -now
before the opening credits that .ames /ond will con,uer the villains, but we are driven to -now how.
5e imagine that the affable :erris /ueller will not be punished for his truancy, but we delight in
-nowing how he will escape detection.
)eports must anticipate the reader&s ,uestions and answer them. Editors will be on the loo-out for holes
in the story where -ey ,uestions are left unanswered. "torytellers ta-e these ,uestions to a narrative
level, creating in the reader a curiosity that can only be ,uenched by reaching the end of the story.
7. )eview a collection of your recent stories. "ee if you can find some story engines, or at least
potential story engines.
8. /egin loo-ing for stories that capture your attention. 3oes the story have an engineH If so, what is
the ,uestion that story answers for youH
0. 'oo- for engines in films and television narratives. 3oes an episode of I 'ove 'ucy have an
engineH %ow about an episode of "einfeld, which is supposed to be about nothingH
9. As you read newspaper reports, loo- for under!developed stories that might benefit from the energy
of an engine.
7ritin" Tool 9',: Collaboration
%elp others in their crafts so they can help you.
Ta%e an interest in all crafts that su((ort *our 5or%.
The central act of journalism is reporting, the gathering, verifying and rendering of important
information. /ut don&t stifle your imagination. If you thin- of reporting as only a writer&s act, you&re
missing the big play. A graphic artist who researches a diagram of how a new vaccine wor-s is a
reporter. A photographer who captures images from a war *one is a reporter. The designer is a reporter.
That last declaration may surprise some myopic writers who thin- of designers as decorators, the
artistic fringe of the news or publishing operation. /ut consider this definition: 3esign is the form of
journalism that renders each element of news in its most interesting and accessible form, and combines
them in the most coherent way. 3esign frames editorial decisions about what matters on the page, on
the screen, and in the world.
If you aspire to great things as a writer, begin with your self!interest: If your story is well!designed, it
will loo- more important and more people will read it. @ou would be a fool to ignore or belittle that
In fact, you will never be able to reach your potential as a writer unless you ta-e an interest in all the
associated news and literary crafts. +ultivate this habit: as- ,uestions about the crafts of copy!editing,
photojournalism, illustration, graphics, design, and new media. @ou need not become an e6pert in these
fields, but it&s your duty to be curious and engaged. Eventually you will be able to tal- about these
crafts without an accent.
!. Co(* editors: Ignore the traditional antagonism that leads writers to believe that copy editors are
vampires who wor- at night and suc- the life out of stories. Thin-, instead, of copy editors as the
champions of standards, as invaluable test readers, as your last line of defense. I once wrote a story
about two brothers with terrible physical handicaps. The boys had been separated for several years. I
described the wonderful reunion of the brothers, how they watched cartoons and fed each other :ruit
'oops. A copy editor, Ed 2erric-, called me to chec- on the story. %e offered his praise for a job well
done, but said he had sent a news cler- down to the supermar-et #this was before the convenience of
the Internet$ to chec- on the spelling of :ruit 'oops. "ure enough, the correct spelling was :root
'oops. Nice catch. The last thing I wanted was for the reader to notice this mista-e, especially at a
high point in the story. @ears later, I would see Ed and give him the thumbs!up sign in gratitude for his
:root 'oops fi6. Tal- to copy editors. 'earn their names. Embrace them as fellow writers and lovers of
#. Ne6er refer to a (hoto;ournalist as ?m* (hoto"ra(her.? 2a-e sure photo assignments are
considered early in the process, not as an afterthought. Csing television journalism as a model, loo- for
opportunities for you and the photographer to be at a scene at the same time. %elp the photographer
understand your vision of the story. As- ,uestions about what the photographer is seeing. Cse the wor-
of the photographer to document the story. 'et the photographer teach you about focus, framing,
composition, and lighting. As- the photographer what you can do to help.
&. Tal% to all the 6isual ;ournalists in the sho( and let them %no5 5hat *ou are 5or%in" on. As a
story develops, ma-e sure they are included in the conversation early in the process. 'earn from them
what you need to see and bring bac- from a scene, material that can be converted into powerful visual
and design elements. As- your editor and visual journalists how you can help them while you are
reporting or doing research.
)emember that good wor- ta-es time, not just for you. 'earn to organi*e your time and meet your
deadlines in a way that gives others time to do their jobs. Even if you lac- the authority to convene
conversations, encourage early planning that includes all the -ey players.
I learned these strategies while wor-ing on the series Three 'ittle 5ords. The story was so unusual in
its conception and e6ecution !! a month!long serial narrative with short chapters !! that it re,uired
planning and intense collaboration. %ere are some of the conversations that were re,uired:
I wor-ed closely with photographer .oanna (inneo and stood beside her as we selected a
signature photo of the main character that would run as a logo for the story.
I consulted with designer 2ario Aarcia, who thought that each individual section could be
designed to loo- more li-e a boo- chapter than a newspaper column.
I spent many hours with editor )ichard /oc-man, reviewing language choices, copy editing
changes, and writing headlines and summaries.
I wor-ed with editors of the St. Pete Times 5eb site since this would be the first series that
would also be made available in an electronic archive.
I wor-ed with cler-s at the paper to figure out how to respond to fol-s who missed a chapter or
tuned in late.
I was as-ed to help the promotion department develop in!house ads that would match in tone
and language the voice of the story.
I recorded summaries of the chapters that could be accessed via the telephone.
I did all that wor- in 7<<= at the front edge of a media revolution in which news and information are
now communicated across media platforms. "ince 8>>7, I have written about =>> columns and essays
for the (oynter Institute 5eb site. I am by no means an e6pert on how to produce a story using
numerous platforms or multimedia approaches. /ut I am trying to adapt my writing tools and habits to
a brave new world of media technology. The opportunity to write in different voices, the chance to
interact with the audience, the adventure of crossing many old boundaries !! all these re,uire a richer
imagination and greater collaboration than ever before.
If you wor- hard at your cross!disciplinary education, supporting the marriage of words and visuals,
you will be preparing yourself for a future of collaboration, innovation and creativity. And you can do
this without sacrificing the enduring values of your craft and profession. This re,uires not just the
Aolden )ule, but what my old colleague /ill /oyd calls the (latinum )ule: Treat others the way that
they want to be treated. %ow does the copy editor want to be treatedH And what does the photographer
need to do her best wor-H And what ma-es the designer deeply satisfied in his wor-H The only way to
-now for sure is to as-.
7. If you wor- in a news organi*ation or for a publishing house, if you are writing a film documentary
or a nonfiction narrative, if you write for a 5eb site or a newsletter, you are dependent upon a lot of
people to get your best wor- accomplished. /egin by ma-ing a list of the names of these people. 2a-e
sure you have their phone numbers and e!mail addresses.
8. 3evelop a schedule of conversations with each of the people who are on your list. Apply the
(latinum )ule. :ind out what they need to do their best wor-.
0. 'oo- for opportunities to praise the -ind of support you desire. 3o not just show up at the copy des-
or the design des- with a complaint. If someone has written a good headline or saved you from a
mista-e, reward that good wor- with praise.
9. 3o a little reading about the associated crafts. :ind a good boo- on photojournalism. )ead some
design maga*ines. "tart listening in to conversations about these crafts and try to develop a le6icon so
that you can chime in.

Editor's Note6 This essa borrows from an earlier one& 2"h 7esigners +atter.2
7ritin" Tool 9'.: Create An ditin" Su((ort >rou(
+reate a support networ- of friends, colleagues, editors, e6perts, and coaches who can give you
feedbac- on your wor-.
Create a su((ort net5or% of friends< collea"ues< editors< e@(erts and coaches 5ho can "i6e *ou
feedbac% on *our 5or%.
(erhaps the most disabling myth of authorship is that writers practice a lonely craft. There is something
romantic about the notion of a writer loc-ed away in a loft overloo-ing the ocean, his only companions
a portable typewriter, a bottle of gin and a -itty named %emingway.
In the real world, writing is more li-e line dancing, a social function with many partners. "ome of those
partners !! a writing teacher, a producer, an assigning editor !! may be re,uired to achieve our
publishing goals. 4ther helpers can and should be of our choosing.
Not many writers get to choose their editors, so you may feel stuc- with what you have. If you are
luc-y, you may benefit from a curious, nurturing editor. Cnluc-y, you may labor under the control of a
There are ways to train your editor, as we shall see. 2ore important, you must create for yourself a
system of support both wider and deeper than the one assigned to you. If you limit yourself to one
classroom teacher or one agent or one editor, you are not getting the -ind of guidance you need.
2y support system changes as I change. I&m a different writer and a different person than I was 8>
years ago, so I&ve refreshed the team I&ve assigned to help me. This should be a radical concept to you,
especially if you are a young or ine6perienced writer. @ou may say to yourself: I&d be happy with any
editing at all. I am saying to you: 3on&t settle for what is given to you. 5hatever it is, it is not enough.
5or- on developing the support system you need and deserve.
%ere are the -inds of people I need:
7. * helper who keeps me going. :or years, +hip "canlan has played this role for me, especially when I
am wor-ing on a long project. +hip has a rare ,uality as a colleague. %e is capable of withholding
negative judgments. %e says to me, over and over again, ;eep going. ;eep writing. 5e&ll tal- about
that later.
8. * helper who understands m idiosncrasies. All writers have ,uir-s. The fleas come with the dog. I
find it almost unbearable to read my own published wor- in the newspaper. I assume I&ll find some
terrible mista-e. 2y wife, ;aren +lar- understands this. 5hile I am cowering under the covers with
my dog )e6, she&s at the -itchen table, reading my story in the paper and ma-ing sure no unforeseen
horror has appeared. All clear, she says, to my relief.
0. * helper willing to answer m questions. :or many years 3onald 2urray has been willing to read my
drafts, and he begins by as-ing me the -ind of response I&m loo-ing for. In other words, %ow would
you li-e me to read thisH or 5hat -ind of reading are you loo-ing forH 2y response might be, Is
this too +atholicH or 3oes this seem real enough to publish as a memoirH or .ust let me -now if you
find this interesting. 2urray is always generous, but it helps us both when he reads with a focus in

9. *n e/pert helper to match m topic. 2y current interest often dictates the -ind of helper I need.
5hen I was writing about the %olocaust and the history of anti!"emitism, I depended upon the wisdom
and e6perience of a rabbi, %aim %orowit*. /ut when I was writing about AI3", I turned to an
oncologist, 3r. .effrey (aonessa. "uch characters may begin as sources, but the deeper you get into a
story, the more they can turn into sounding boards and confidantes.

=. * helper who runs interference. I remember the day I began writing a long series, a project that
would ta-e more than a month of daily writing. 4n fire with enthusiasm for the project, I&d wa-e up
early, get into the office before daylight, and try to get a couple of hours of writing done before my
other wor- responsibilities forced an interruption. .oyce /arrett helps me in many ways. /ut I
especially remember the morning she came in, saw that I was writing, closed my office door, and put a
motel style 3o Not 3isturb sign on the handle. That&s good downfield bloc-ing.

N. * coach who helps me figure out what works and what needs work. :or more than a year, a intern
named Ellen "ung edited a column I wrote for the (oynter 5eb site. In most ways, the two of us could
not have been more different. I was older, white, male, with a print orientation. Ellen was 89 years old,
+hinese!American and thrived online. "he was well!read, curious, with mature sensibilities as an
editor. "he could articulate the strengths of a column, as-ed great ,uestions that would lead to revisions
and clarifications, and framed negative criticism with persuasive diplomacy. Ellen now wor-s as a
newspaper reporter, but she is still part of my networ-, someone willing to assume a role as a helper at
a moment&s notice.
"o now you have a networ-. /ut how do you train the editor you&re stuc- withH "ome writers adopt bad
behaviors, forms of aversive conditioning to shut out a cruel or negative editor. 4ne reporter avoids eye
contact with his editor in the hope of side!stepping assignments. Another hands in stories as late as
possible to escape an in,uisition. "till another tries to wor- from home. 4ut of sight, out of mind.
These are forms of guerrilla warfare. @ou will do better when you hope for the best, using strategies
that turn the editor from an adversary into an advocate. These include ma-ing deadlinesJ being
prepared for story consultationsJ briefing and de!briefingJ sending up a flare when the story changesJ
praising the -ind of editing you wantJ and being candid about editing behaviors that drive you cra*y.
@ou can gripe about an editor behind his bac-. %ow much better to loo- him in the eye and let him
-now how he can do a better job of helping youH %e&s more li-ely to change if you have demonstrated
a willingness to help him in a pinch. Dolunteer to become part of his networ- of support.
7. 'oo- at the si6 categories of helper described above. 2a-e a list of si6 people who might be able to
serve you in these capacities. )ehearse a conversation with each one in hopes of e6panding your
8. 2a-e a list of the specific ways an editor has helped you improve a story. %ave you ever approached
that editor to e6press than-s for such helpH If not, go out of your way the ne6t time it happens.
0. Admit it. An editor is driving you cra*y. )ehearse a conversation in which you describe the behavior
that is an obstacle to your best wor-. +an you find a way to communicate this with civility and
diplomacyH .im, the last few times I&ve suggested a story idea to you, you&ve assigned it to another
reporter. I find this discouraging. I&d li-e to wor- on some of these stories. Is this something we can tal-
9. 2a-e a list of the people who belong to your current networ- of support. Ne6t to their names, list the
roles they play for you. 5ho else do you need to get your best wor- doneH
7ritin" Tool 9'0: 1earn from Criticism
Even severe or cynical criticism can help a writer.
Do *our best to tolerate e6en unreasonable criticism of *our 5or% as a 5a* of "ro5in" as a
I&ve saved one of the hardest lessons for near the end. I don&t -now anyone who enjoys negative
criticism, especially of creative wor-. /ut such criticism can be priceless !! if you learn how to use it.
The right frame of mind can transform criticism that is nasty, petty, insincere, biased, even profane, into
This alchemy re,uires one magic strategy: The receptive writer must convert debate into conversation.
In a debate, one side listens only to find a counter!argument. In a conversation, there is give and ta-e. A
debate ends with a winner and a loser. A conversation can conclude with both sides learning, and a
promise of more to come.
As hard as it is to follow, I long ago made a resolution that will sound li-e a %erculean impossibility: I
never defend m stor against criticism.
Not defend your storyH That sounds as impossible as not blowing out a match as it burns toward your
fingers. The refle6 to defend your wor- against attac- is a force of nature, the literary e,uivalent of
flight or fight.
'et&s ta-e a hypothetical e6ample. "ay I&ve written this news lead out of a city council meeting: "hould
the "eattle police be able to peep at the peepers in the peep showsH
Now say I get this criticism from an editor. )oy, you&ve got much too much peeping going on here for
my taste. @ou&ve turned a serious story about privacy into a cute play on words. I was e6pecting 'ittle
/o (eep to show up. %a, ha.
"uch criticism is li-ely to ma-e me angry and defensive, but I&ve come to believe that argument is
useless. I li-e all that peeping. 2y editor hates it. %e prefers a lead such as, The city council debated
whether the "eattle police should be able to go undercover as part of the effort to see whether adult
businesses are adhering to municipal regulations of their activities. 2y editor suffers from omnivorous
gravity. %e thin-s I suffer from irreversible levity.
4ne of the oldest bits of wisdom about art goes li-e this, and please e6cuse the 'atin: 3e gustibus non
est disputandum. There can be no arguing about matters of taste. I thin- 2oby 3ic- is too long. @ou
thin- abstract art is too abstract. 2y chili is too spicy. @ou reach for the Tabasco.
5hat, then, is the alternative to a donnybroo-H If I don&t fight to defend my wor-, won&t I lose control
to people who do not share my valuesH
%ere&s the alternative: Never defend your wor-, but e/plain what ou were tring to accomplish. "o,
.ac-, I can see that all that peeping in my lead didn&t wor- for you. I was just trying to find a way for
readers to be able to see the impact of this policy. I didn&t want to let the police action get lost in a lot of
bureaucratic language. That response is more li-ely to turn a debate #one the writer is li-ely to lose$
into a conversation #in which the editor might convert from adversary to ally$.
2y friend Anthea (enrose offered a negative criticism of my short, short chapters for the serial
narrative Three 'ittle 5ords. "he said something li-e, It wasn&t enough for me. .ust when I was
getting into it, you were finished. I wanted more.
%ow could I possibly change her mindH And why should IH If the chapters are too short for her, they
are too short. "o here was my response: Anthea, you&re not the first one to respond that way to the
short chapters. They clearly do not wor- for some readers. /y using short chapters, I was trying to lure
into the story time!starved readers who say they never read any enterprise wor-. I&ve received a few
messages from readers who told me they appreciate my concern for their time, that this is the first
series in the Times that they have ever read.
Another critic: I hated the way you ended that chapter after .ane was tested for %ID and didn&t tell the
me results of the test right away. I wanted to -now now. /ut you made me wait until the ne6t day&s
paper. I thought that was really e6ploitative.
2y response: @ou -now, .ane was tested a number of times, and bac- then she might have to wait a
couple of wee-s for the results. I came to understand how e6cruciating it must have been to wait that
long, with life and death in the balance. "o I thought if I made the reader wait overnight for the results,
it would get you to identify with her plight and empathi*e.
"uch a response always softened the tone of the critic and tore down the wall between us. ;noc-ing
down the obstacle created openings for conversation, for ,uestioning, for learning on both sides.
In summary:
3o not fall into the trap of arguing about matters of taste.
3o not, as a refle6, defend your wor- against negative criticism.
E6plain to your critic what you were attempting to do.
Transform arguments into conversations.
Even when the attac- is personal, try to deflect it in your mind bac- onto the wor-. 5hat was it in the
story that would provo-e such angerH If you can learn to use criticism in these ways, you will continue
to grow and grow as a writer throughout your career.
7. )emember a time when someone delivered harsh criticism of your writing. 5rite down the criticism.
:orce yourself to write down something you learned from the criticism that you can apply to your
future wor-.
8. Csing that same e6ample of criticism, write a memo to your critic e6plaining what you were trying
to accomplish by writing the story the way you did.
0. /e your own harshest critic. )eview a batch of your stories and write down ways that each could
have been better.
9. (eople tend to be harsher and more insensitive when they deliver criticism from a distance via e!
mail. The ne6t time you receive criticism this way, resist the urge to fire bac- a response. Ta-e some
time to recover. Then practice the advice offered above: e6plain to your critic what you were trying to
=. 5riters often -now what is wrong with a story when they hand it in. "ometimes we try to hide these
wea-nesses from editors. 5hat would happen if we began to e6press them as part of the writing and
editing processH (erhaps this would change the nature of the conversation and get writers and editors
wor-ing together.
7ritin" Tool 9)2: The 7ritin" -rocess
Cse these tools to demystify your writing.
A ma( of the 5ritin" (rocess can hel( focus *our stor*.
In 7<K0, 3onald 2urray wrote on a chal-board a little diagram that changed my writing and teaching
forever. It was a modest blueprint of the writing process as he understood it, five words that describe
the steps toward creating a story. As I remember them now, the words were: Idea. +ollect. :ocus. 3raft.
+larify. In other words, the writer conceives a story idea, collects things to support it, discovers what
the story is really about, attempts a first draft, and revises in the ,uest for greater clarity.
%ow did this simple diagram change my lifeH
Cntil then, I thought great writing was the wor- of magicians. 'i-e most readers, I encountered wor-
perfected and published. I&d hold a boo- in my hand, flip through its pages, feel its weight, admire its
design, and be awestruc- by its seeming perfection. This was magic, the wor- of wi*ards, people
different from you and me.
2urray&s model of the writing process revealed a new path. :inished writing may seem magical to the
reader, but it is the product of an invisible process, a series of rational steps, a set of tools. 5riting
teachers at The (oynter Institute have been playing with 2urray&s model for more than 8> years now,
revising it, e6panding it, adapting it to various writing and editing tas-s. %ere&s my annotated version.
Sniff around: I got this from 3on :ry. /efore you get a story idea, you get a whiff of something.
.ournalists call this a nose for news, but all good writers e6press a form of curiosity, a sense that
something is going on out there, something in the air.
@(lore ideas: The writers I admire most are the ones who see their world as a storehouse of story
ideas. They are e6plorers, traveling through their communities with a special alertness, connecting
seemingly unrelated details into story patterns. 4nly two -inds of writers e6ist in the world: the ones
with ideas, and the ones with assignments.
Collect e6idence: I love the wisdom that journalists write not with their hands, but with their legs. The
great :rancis T. +lines of The New York Times says he can always find a story if he can just get out of
the office. 5riters collect words, images, details, facts, ,uotes, dialogue, documents, scenes, e6pert
testimony, eyewitness accounts, statistics, the brand of the beer, the color and ma-e of the sports car,
and, of course, the name of the dog.
Find a focus: :or +hip "canlan, who was with me when 2urray unveiled his model, the process is all
about focus. :inding what the story is reall about re,uires careful reporting, sifting through evidence,
e6perimentation, and critical thin-ing. The focus of a story can be e6pressed in a lead sentence, a
summary paragraph, a headline or title, a theme statement, a thesis, a ,uestion the story will answer for
the reader, three little words.
Select the best stuff: There&s one great difference between new writers and e6perienced ones. New
writers often dump the contents of their noteboo- into a story. /y Aod, I wrote it down, so it&s going in.
Deterans use a fraction, sometimes half, sometimes one!tenth of what they&ve gathered. /ut how do you
decide what to include and, more difficult, what to leave outH A sharp focus is li-e a laser. It helps the
writer slice material that might be tempting, but does not contribute to the central meaning of the story.
Reco"ni3e an order: Are you writing a sonnet or an epicH As "trun- G 5hite as-, are you erecting a
pup tent or a cathedralH 5hat is the scope of your storyH 5hat shape is emergingH 5or-ing from a
plan, the writer benefits from a vision of the global structure of the story. This does not re,uire a formal
outline. /ut it helps to have a sense of beginning, middle and ending.
7rite a draft: "ome writers write fast and free, accepting the inevitable imperfection of early drafts,
moving toward multiple revisions. 4ther writers !! my friend 3avid :in-el comes to mind !! wor- with
meticulous precision, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, combining drafting and revising
steps. 4ne way is not better than another. /ut here&s the -ey: I once believed that writing began with
drafting, the moment my butt hit the chair and my hands hit the -eyboard. I now recogni*e that step as
deep in the process, a step that is more fluid when I have ta-en other steps first.
Re6ise and clarif*: 2urray once gave me a precious gift, a boo- of manuscript pages titled Authors
At 5or-. In it you see the poet "helley crossing out by hand the title To the "-ylar-, revising it to
To a "-ylar-. @ou see the novelist /al*ac writing do*ens upon do*ens of revisions in the margins of
a corrected proof. @ou can watch %enry .ames cross out 8> lines of a 8=!line manuscript page. :or
these artists, writing is re!writing. And while word processors now ma-e such revisions harder to trac-,
they also eliminate the don-ey wor- of re!copying, and help us improve our wor- with the speed of
"niff. E6plore. +ollect. :ocus. "elect. 4rder. 3raft. )evise.
3on&t thin- of these as tools. Thin- of them as tool shelves or toolbo6es. A well!organi*ed garage has
the gardening tools in one corner, the paint cans and brushes in another, the car repair e,uipment in
another, the laundry helpers in another. In the same way, each of my process words describes a mode of
writing and thin-ing that contains its own tool set.
"o in my focus bo6 I -eep a set of ,uestions the reader may as- about the story. In my order bo6, I have
story shapes such as the chronological narrative and the gold coins. In my revision bo6 I -eep my tools
for cutting useless words.
A simple blueprint for the writing process will have many uses over time. Not only will it give you
confidence by demystifying the act of writing. Not only will it provide you with big bo6es in which to
store your tool collection. It will also help you diagnose problems in individual stories. It will help you
account for your strengths and wea-nesses over time. And it will build your critical vocabulary for
tal-ing about your craft, a language about language that will lead you to the ne6t level.
7. 5ith some friends, ta-e a big piece of chart paper, and with colored mar-ers draw a diagram of your
writing process. Cse words, arrows, images, anything that helps open a window on your mind and
8. :ind one of your stories that did not wor-. Csing either of the writing models described above, can
you identify the part of the process that bro-e downH 3id you fail to collect enough informationH 3id
you have a problem selecting the best materialH
0. Csing the steps of my writing process, create for yourself a scoring grid. )eviewing a portfolio of
your writing, grade yourself on each of the categories. 3o you generate enough story ideasH Is your
wor- well!orderedH
9. Csing some of the categories above, interview another writer about her writing process. Turn it into a
conversation in which you describe your own methods.
Should 7ritin" Tools 4ecome A 4oo%A
Than-s for stic-ing with me during this last year, wor-ing your way through my 5riting Tools. I am so
glad that many of you have found them useful. Now I could use your help. I am in the process of
creating a proposal to turn the 5riting Tools into a boo-. An agent who is advising me thin-s it would
be helpful to have some testimonials. In other words, if these tools have been useful to you, I would
love to hear from you in the form of a personal e!mail message. A simple paragraph describing the
value of the 5riting Tools might influence potential publishers. And, of course, if you can thin- of
ways to sharpen these tools, I&d gladly receive such feedbac- as well. These messages will not be
posted in a public forum without your permission. @ou can reach me at rclar-]poynter.org. Than-s for
reading. 5ho -nowsH There may be more tools to come. !! )oy (eter +lar-
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