"A grammar manual for the 21st century--a little more earthy, a little more relaxed. A welcome addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cares about language."
Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Facesby Roy Peter Clark
The craft of writing offers countless potential problems: The story is too long; the story's too short; revising presents a huge hurdle; writer's block is rearing its ugly head.
In HELP! FOR WRITERS, Roy Peter Clark presents an "owner's manual" for writers, outlining the seven steps of the writing process, and addressing the 21 most urgent problems that… See more details below
The craft of writing offers countless potential problems: The story is too long; the story's too short; revising presents a huge hurdle; writer's block is rearing its ugly head.
In HELP! FOR WRITERS, Roy Peter Clark presents an "owner's manual" for writers, outlining the seven steps of the writing process, and addressing the 21 most urgent problems that writers face. In his trademark engaging and entertaining style, Clark offers ten short solutions to each problem. Out of ideas? Read posters, billboards, and graffiti. Can't bear to edit yourself? Watch the deleted scenes feature of a DVD, and ask yourself why those scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. HELP! FOR WRITERS offers 210 strategies to guide writers to success.
A grammar manual for the 21st centurya little more earthy, a little more relaxed. A welcome addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cares about language."Ammon Shea, New York Times Book Review"
A fine common-sense guide to the proper use of language."Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe"
A streamlined, accessible, witty book...[Clark] is a coach rather than a scold, encouraging readers to 'live inside the language.'"Colette Bancroft, St. Petersburg Times"
An engaging and witty exploration of the shifting rules of English grammar...Clark shows breathtaking knowledge of how language is used in the real world and a passionate commitment to helping writers make good choices."Chuck Leddy, Minneapolis Star Tribune"
Who knew that a discussion of grammar could induce laughter? This is an eminently readable, extremely enjoyable guide that readers will find highly useful on their path to development, not just as writers, but as readers."Publishers Weekly"
[Roy Peter] Clark takes readers through a well-paced presentation...he conveys the magic that is to be found in English, in its ever active evolution."Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal"
A wealth of practical advice delivered with a welcome side of gentle reassurance, Roy Peter Clark's Help! For Writers breaks the writing process down into seven steps, spotlighting 21 problems that befall writers along the way and addressing them with 210 solutions. No matter where you get stuck, dip into this book and you'll find tips and tricks to get yourself moving again all accompanied by the humor, wit and cheerful sympathy that have made Clark one of the country's most beloved and effective writing teachers."Jason Fry, blogger, Reinventing the Newsroom
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Help! For Writers210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces
By Roy Peter Clark
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Roy Peter Clark
All right reserved.
Having the urge to write is one thing; acting on it is another. At the age of fifteen, I broke my ankle during a baseball game, and I still remember how I planned my first week of recovery. I would write a spy novel. It was the era of Goldfinger and Thunderball, and I dreamed of creating my own version of superspy 007. I was a good and clever writer as a teenager but had written nothing longer than a short story or a book report. No matter. I was ready to go. I found a comfortable spot on the back porch, rested my bum leg on a cushion, grabbed a legal pad and ballpoint pen, and then… nothing.
I have a clear memory of what stopped me from getting started: I did not know how to write a novel. I knew what a novel looked like, but not the process needed to create one. I thought I could write a book just by milking my imagination. After all, it was fiction. I could invent stuff. But it soon became clear that I needed to know more, a lot more—about spies, about Russians, about gadgets, about women, about everything—before I could proceed. Then the doubts arrived: “What made you think you could write a novel? You’re not a writer. You’re just a clumsy little asshole. You can’t even slide into home plate without breaking an ankle.”
Then, of course, the temptations followed: “Roy, the Yankees game is on. Wanna come in and watch it?” “Hey, kid, want to go to Carvel for some ice cream?” “Hey, Roy, Rosie’s on the phone for you.”
We learn in science class that inertia is a physical force that manifests itself in two ways. Things that are still—not moving—will stay still until acted upon by outside forces. (My laptop will remain on my desk until I pick it up and fling it—discus-style—out the window.) But inertia also describes the way an object in motion stays in motion until some external force slows or stops it. For the purposes of writing, I call the first kind “bad inertia” because it describes inactive writers who can’t get moving. The other kind is “good inertia,” because once you get started you can keep things rolling. No writing creates no writing. Some writing creates more writing. Getting started requires forms of exploration that become a way of life. The writer is a curious person who discovers topics to write about and, over time, comes to see the world as a storehouse of story ideas. Just as Rex, my little terrier, goes out into the yard to sniff for possums, so the writer is ignited by the hint of something in the air, a thought, a theory, an emotion, a story, a character worth attention, a problem to be solved.
Problems covered in this chapter:
The first challenge is to find something to write about. In my experience, there are two basic types of writers: the ones who write only in response to assignments and those who find ways to work on their own story ideas. Writers need both modes to fulfill the demands of the craft, but the best writers follow their noses along the path to good stories. They generate many more ideas than can be put into practice. That’s a nice problem to have. No writer should descend into a welfare system provided by editors or teachers or bosses. The writer wants and needs the ability to work independently. That means coming up with your own ideas and arguing diplomatically that your ideas have the best juice.
There are no bad story ideas or bad story assignments. What turns out to be good or bad is what the writer does with the idea or assignment. The assignment is a starting point. Editors or teachers may disagree, especially those who insist on adding stipulations for its execution: “You’ve got to cover the meeting, get responses from each member of the city council, three reactions from people who live on the north side of town, three from the south side…” In such cases, the writer feels like a short-order cook. With enough freedom, the writer explores the assignment for the elements that will be most interesting and most important, being alert to those sudden moments of clarity when even a bad assignment becomes a nifty story.
TROUBLE WITH RESEARCH
If your goal is to write a book, research may take years or even decades. Or, if an emergency call comes in and you must verify whether the fire destroyed the friary or the nunnery, it can take five minutes. Writers make the mistake of thinking of writing and research as mutually exclusive tasks. Since the research usually comes first, it can grow bigger and bigger, feeding on time that could be spent on drafting and revision. A reliable strategy is to write early and often, even if just a note on the results of the day’s research. Writing about your research will help you determine whether you know enough to write at full speed or need to learn much more.
Here and throughout the book, use the following questions to better understand yourself as a writer. Think about them. Talk about them with teachers, editors, students, friends, other writers. Write down your reflections and save them. Go back to them down the road and discover how far you have traveled.
Do you think of yourself as curious?
When was the last time you were dying to find out something about a person or a place?
Are you more likely to get story impulses, ideas, or assignments?
When was the last time you thought of a great writing idea?
What are some of the things you do now to find great stories?
What’s the most interesting thing about you that others do not know?
How much of your writing time is spent on research?
What do you find most interesting or most frustrating about research?
I can’t think of anything to write.
Spend a morning in a bagel shop or an afternoon in a bookstore.
For the price of a cup of coffee and a bagel, you can listen in on the morning’s conversations about news and current events; or you can browse through new books and magazines at a favorite bookstore. A survey will generate an endless stream of story ideas. Any café or bookstore is a story idea machine.
I just spent twenty minutes with the magazines displayed in the library of the Poynter Institute, the school where I’ve taught writing for more than thirty years. Even with our focus on journalism, I found an array of topics in the cover stories alone, gaining an overview of the broad concerns of the day. In April 2010 these included health care reform, how to survive in a bad economy, the influence of the iPad and other reading tablets, attempts to deal with childhood obesity, the beginning of baseball season, the Tiger Woods sex scandal. Within this forest of large issues, interesting little stories hide behind the trees. (For example, I’m thinking of writing a comparison of the Apple iPad with the classic kid’s toy Etch A Sketch.)
My eyes found the cover of Publishers Weekly, which included this tease: “Dystopian Future Is Here: Teens are reading about vampires, but end-of-the world scenarios are bigger than ever.” A light flickered in my head. What, I wondered, is the relationship between vampire stories and narratives about the end of the world, and is there any link to the fact that we have begun calling some young people “millennials”? Suddenly, I’m off and running—and writing.
Keep a little notebook to compile story ideas.
Ideas can be elusive—like fireflies at dusk. You will need a dozen story ideas for every one you eventually execute. You’ll need a place to store them. Use whatever suits you, including the notes mode on your mobile phone. I prefer to go old-school: a tiny notebook suitable for pocket or purse. I know writers who need paper in their pockets, in their cars, on the toilet tank, on the table beside their beds. The eccentric artist Salvador Dalí was known to take quick naps and awaken suddenly, his head filled with surrealistic images. He would capture these images on a pad as soon as possible so that they could not escape.
Your notebook can contain fully articulated story ideas, such as “Sports journalists and the public are harsher in their criticism of women athletes who play aggressively—to the point of violence—than of male athletes.” More often, you will record the seeds of story ideas, most of which will die out. A few will bear fruit. Here are examples of seedlings:
Not one person played an April Fool’s joke on me this year.
Does the word dope, as in the Disney dwarf Dopey, derive from the slang word for drugs? (Turned out the drug slang derives from the Dutch word for sauce or gravy.)
Saw ten big alligators around the golf course. What’s the rule for a ball that’s in play but dangerously close to a gator? (“Dogleg to the left; gator jaws to the right!”)
Church was packed for Easter Sunday Mass, but saw only three Easter bonnets, all worn by little girls. Whither the bonnet?
Read a book on a topic that is unfamiliar to you.
Insomnia can be good for you. It was good for me one night when, at about three A.M., I got up and turned on the television to see a C-SPAN panel featuring the work of Timothy Ferris, author of several important books on astronomy and cosmology. No, not cosmetology. That deals with craters on your skin. Ferris is more interested in craters on the moon and one, about a hundred miles wide, off the Mexican coast, possibly responsible for the extinction of many species on earth, including the dinosaurs.
See how much I’ve learned just by watching, and then reading, Ferris? You should always have “a book going,” advised Donald Murray, that comes from outside your normal field of interest. Because my interests are reading, writing, sports, and language, my “outside” reading includes works on photography and the visual arts, philosophy and theology, natural science, and applied mathematics. By reading such work, I discover not just specialized content but also story ideas that span more than one field.
You don’t have to spend much money. New media technologies afford access to texts of all genres, from all disciplines, written over centuries. Through online bookstores alone, writers can read passages—for free—of books that are for sale. Research is not the primary purpose of such commercial enterprises, but they allow us to taste many books and articles, including the ones we will one day purchase.
Break your routine. Go to work or school a different way.
I am a creature of routine, especially when it comes to my personal life. I like to stay home and watch television on Friday nights. And I enjoy going to breakfast on Saturday morning at the Frog Pond restaurant, especially if they are serving strawberry waffles. That doesn’t mean I have to drive to the restaurant the same way each week, and I try not to. There are probably ten or more routes from my house to St. Pete Beach, and I’ve taken most of them.
You may see stories from the vantage point of the main road: construction of a new big-box store, which might bring more traffic and more congestion—but lower prices. A great offbeat story, on the other hand, is more likely to be found on a side street, off the beaten path. An eagle sits atop a light pole, looking down at children playing soccer. An eighty-year-old Catholic nun takes dance lessons from a former Rockette. A charter school for poor kids offers golf lessons for PE. A corner of a cemetery is reserved for stillborn children. None of this is visible from the main road, so you must learn to turn left, turn right, and drive down that alley, even if it takes you a little longer to reach your destination.
There are stories that come out of Wall Street and others that come out of Main Street, but don’t get stuck in that false dichotomy. There are many stories to be found on the side streets and especially, as Bruce Springsteen reminds us, on the backstreets.
In the last couple of years, I have switched my lunch place of choice from Pizza Hut to the Banyan restaurant and coffee shop. The Banyan is more stylish but sits across the alley from Molly’s, a rooming house and bar that features a Laundromat and draft beer for a dollar. Negotiating the distance between those two unlikely neighbors, I’m sure I’ve run into dozens of story ideas, most of which I would never have encountered had I not abandoned my personal pan pizza routine.
Francis X. Clines, one of the finest writers in the history of the New York Times, once said that he knew he could find a good story if he could just get out of the office. With a virtual world at their fingertips, writers seem more office bound than ever. Achieving escape velocity from a mediated world to a flesh-and-blood one takes a concerted effort.
When people eat, they also laugh, argue, canoodle, whisper, check each other out, check you out, or talk too loud. Enjoy your meal but keep that mobile device in your pocket or purse and focus your attention on what is going on around you. Never be afraid to turn your listening into a conversation, especially with an interesting stranger.
There are eight million stories in the naked city, said the narrator of the old television series. Even better, there are at least three or four in a local eatery, if you can just get out of the office, or off campus, or even down the street. The school or office cafeteria may crave your business—or you may prefer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at your desk—but your physical liberation from such cloisters will lead you to a world of stories.
Watch people in their natural habitats.
My cousin Theresa was high up in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit her building on the morning of September 11, 2001. She hadn’t had breakfast yet, so she was about to enjoy a muffin and cup of coffee with her coworkers. They all felt the impact of the plane, and the whole building seemed to sway back and forth, a cart of fruit rolling first to the left, then to the right, and back to the left. She escaped with her life, but nothing would be the same for any of us.
This may be the ultimate example of what screenwriter Robert McKee describes as an “inciting incident,” an event, small or large, that dramatically changes the nature of an ordinary day, that “radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” Anyone who has been in a car accident knows the feeling. Just another day of work, a routine drive down the service road of a busy highway, and then WHAM. We have a cliché to describe such events. We say they hit us “out of the blue.”
Before we can tell stories about these lightning strikes, we have to develop a keen sense of normal life. How were people acting in the bar and grill at the exact moment that the runaway car crashed through the picture window? One way to learn the narrative potential of normal experience is to hang out. Where? In a sense, it does not matter: Try the park, the mall, a busy street, the gym, a hotel lobby, a church, a concert hall, a pub, the airport, the bleachers during a high school football game, Dunkin’ Donuts. Ride the bus. Take the train. Even when you are stuck inside that human sardine can we call an airplane, take in the setting. Imagine that a scene will play out there. Watch people’s reaction upon takeoff, or when the first bump of turbulence strikes. Could you write a play from the dialogue between characters on that plane—or a novel?
Your body may just be hanging out in all these places, but your mind is on fire with curiosity, imagining character, dialogue, narrative tension, points of view, a sequence of scenes—all the building blocks of story construction.
Read posters, billboards, store signs, graffiti.
Lane DeGregory, one of the most talented narrative writers in America, offers this advice to fledgling scribes: “Let the walls talk.” Drive around and look at the big signs, commercial and governmental. Walk around to see what the small signs say. When you enter a building or an office or someone’s home, look at what they’ve hung up on the walls or, especially, on the refrigerator door. In our house, that door will have a lot to say: You’ll find newspaper clippings about our daughter’s theatrical performances, the names of local businesses we support, magnets with the names of products or causes, funny stories or comic strips to which we relate, crucial telephone numbers, a recipe that signals an upcoming holiday feast. If you write fiction, you have many important scenic decisions to make, including “What will the walls say about my characters?”
I once shadowed a political writer, Howell Raines, to a barbecue in rural Florida, and we wandered through the parking lot, looking at the bumper stickers. Howell wanted the car bumpers to talk to him about the political, religious, and cultural affiliations of those in attendance. “Let me know if you see any ‘George Wallace for President’ signs,” he coached me.
If you were writing a story about me, you could learn a lot by letting my office walls and shelves talk. You would see a campaign poster from the 1930s of my grandfather Peter Marino, who ran as a Republican for the New York State Assembly. Next to it, you can find his name as a four-year-old boy on a ship’s manifest from about 1900 that records his family’s journey from Italy to the Port of New York. You’ll find a small black-and-white sports pennant with the name of my alma mater, Providence. You’ll find a photo of me as a young child typing on a toy typewriter. There is an artistic representation of my boyhood sports hero (Mickey Mantle) standing next to my mother’s idol (Joe DiMaggio). Twenty minutes in my office will have the walls not just talking but shouting details about my family history and my values.
Read the news for undeveloped story ideas.
By now all fans of TV’s Law & Order understand that many of the story lines are “ripped from the headlines.” I guess when you’ve been on the air for so many years—and spawned so many spin-offs—you’d better have a convenient way to generate plots, and what better place to find them than in the news? Begin with the small stories, the ones inside the paper. Look for announcements of events you might write about. Scour the classified ads, in the paper and online. Check out the list of lost puppies.
I remember well the day I noticed an announcement on the religion page of the newspaper that a young minister was going to spend the weekend on a platform atop a tall pole and preach the gospel to all who would listen. The item made me recall the story of a famous hermit from the early Christian church, Simeon Stylites, who lived and prayed and preached from atop a pillar.
When I traveled to the city of Bradenton to interview the preacher, I noticed how many Protestant churches stood on the street where he worked: at least six or seven, as I recall. Then it struck me. These churches competed for congregants and their souls. Each needed a way to stand out, and what better way to stand out than from atop a pole? Marketing the gospel from on high.
Here is the first item in the Lost column of today’s classified ads: “Bird—Cockatiel, grey with white face. St. Pete Beach area. Whistles at toes! Heartbroken [Phone number].” It took me thirty seconds to find the telephone number of a person who lives on the beach and is heartbroken because his cockatiel—who whistles at toes—is missing. So what are you waiting for? Get to work. Dial that number.
(There is an epilogue to this anecdote. On my tip, the St. Petersburg Times profiled the poor man who had lost his feathered friend. A few days later, the bird was spotted in a tropical storm and rescued by Vanessa Tonelli, who returned it to its grateful owner. Coincidentally, I’ve known Vanessa since she was a little girl. See, this stuff works!)
Interview the oldest person you know, and the youngest.
Many people are living longer and healthier lives. Someone who was born in 1919, like my mother, has experienced the Depression, World War II, the invention of the television, the fall of Soviet Russia, the election of an African American president, and on and on. Such human sources are precious—and fleeting. They provide testimony for oral histories, and they embody a set of experiences that can be mined for story ideas, both fiction and nonfiction. Tommy Carden died at the age of eighty-one, but not before I had an opportunity to extract his memories of the invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp.
A friend once referred to me as an “anniversarist,” and it’s true. The recurring cycle of time—often expressed as an anniversary—offers opportunities to learn about the past, and to see our history as a mirror of our own time and place. This book, I just realized, is scheduled for publication the month of the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001. A few years ago we recognized in St. Petersburg the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Salvador Dalí (St. Pete has a Dalí museum). By August I will have been married forty years to the same woman. Look for such anniversaries as an opportunity to find sources who lived through the original events.
While wisdom, at least on occasion, comes with age, it can also come with youth, and even kids can become sources for story ideas. Like others of my age, I often ask for practical advice from children on how to play a video game or how to put other technologies to work. I recently discovered that a five-year-old boy named Donovan is an expert on all things Star Wars. (He hit me in the knee with his version of a lightsaber—and left a mark.) And my little next-door neighbor, a five-year-old girl named Charlie, stood in my driveway yesterday, turned, looked in to where I was working, and said, “Wow, Mr. Clark. Nice garage!”
Spend the day with a person whose job interests you.
A classic example of an offbeat story idea was carried out by columnist and author Jimmy Breslin, who, on the day of John F. Kennedy’s burial at Arlington Cemetery in 1963, wrote a story about the grave-digger. If you can’t think of anything else to write, go spend a day with a grave-digger.
Jeff Klinkenberg has built his career as a Florida feature writer with an eye for eccentric characters performing quirky jobs. In four anthologies of his work, you can find a sponge diver, a plume hunter, a hog catcher, the original Coppertone girl, a highway patrolman, a fish smoker, a taxidermist, and a Holocaust survivor turned burlesque queen who now repairs roofs on apartments she owns.
There may be no more reliable story form than “a day in the life.” The “day” part of this equation creates an immediate time element that places useful boundaries around the research and spins possible narrative lines for a story. And the “life” part allows the writer to see sources in their natural habitats, observing them in action rather than interviewing them in stasis. It also helps to find a person who works as close to the action as possible: the garbage truck driver, not the supervisor; the prostitute, not the madam; the grave-digger, not the cemetery director.
I hate writing assignments and other people’s ideas.
Learn to turn an assignment into your story.
This strategy may persuade you that the stories generated by your own ideas can be as good as or better than the stories that come from assignments. The reason is obvious: When we invest in something, we treasure it more. That is true whether the investment is in a mortgage (which, by the way, once meant “death oath”), a marriage, or a common stock. You care more when it’s your idea; when you care more, you try harder. You try harder to validate the reason you went after the story in the first place. From your view of the world, this is what matters; this idea is interesting and important.
These feelings can have dangerous consequences. You cannot be a writer and believe that only your ideas are worthwhile. Talk with your editor, teacher, friend, or coworker. Find out what potential that person sees in the assignment. Holster your gun and proceed with a sincere desire to learn. But remember this: You are not on the job to dish out whatever greasy meal the boss orders. Good work requires you to test the assumptions built into any idea. The assignment may be to find out why there are so many auto accidents along Route 19, but your research may show that the statistics are skewed by trouble at one particular intersection. The assignment may have come from someone else, but you can turn it into your story.
Treat assignments as story topics rather than story ideas.
Remember that “Write something about Mother’s Day” is only a topic or occasion, not a full-grown story idea. The key choices remain with you, including whether to write about mothers, grandmothers, or great-grandmothers; you could write about the Mother Superior who works at the Mother House. You could write, as Lane DeGregory did, about a frat house mother who had no children of her own. If you really want to go around the bend, write about the “yo mama” jokes used in humorous insult fights. One of the Ten Commandments orders us to honor our mothers, so what’s up with “Yo mama so stank she makes Right Guard turn left and Secret tell all”?
Writers take pleasure from finding an alternate route to a great story. One of my favorite opportunities arrived when the identity of the man who helped Woodward and Bernstein bring down Richard Nixon was finally revealed. For thirty years we knew that mysterious person (W. Mark Felt) as Deep Throat, based on a famous pornographic movie from the early 1970s. It occurred to me that while the deep background source may have helped expose government secrets, it was the movie that would have the more sustained influence on American culture. The movie, I argued, led to the “pornographication” of many aspects of our national identity. When all the other writers are looking at the stage, don’t be afraid to turn around and watch the audience.
Make it your own.
This is one of the tired pieces of advice that TV judges give to contestants in talent shows such as American Idol. “You did it just like the record, dawg. You got to find a way to make it your own.”
Many high school graduations are written about in formulaic ways. But each ceremony has its special feel, and the attentive writer has the ability to capture that in the writing. At my daughter Lauren’s graduation in 1999, a late-afternoon Florida storm threatened to drown out the event, the wind knocking over portable chairs on the football field and sending mortarboards spinning across the campus like tumbleweeds. As the ceremony went on for an hour, then two, apocalyptic storm clouds shrouded the eastern sky and began to drift over the stadium. In a visually stunning juxtaposition, the western sky revealed a spectacular sunset, with hints of a rainbow forming in the distance.
These narrative details add value to a piece of writing. My story would have the important facts and details, of course: the number of graduates, the names of valedictorian and salutatorian, two or three key thematic quotes from speakers. But if I had my way, all that would be encased in a gorgeous setting that reflected my voice as a writer and what it was really like to be there. (Years later, we still talk about that stormy rite of passage.)
Send up a flare to express dissatisfaction with an assignment or to suggest something better.
Be direct with an editor or teacher: “I understand the assignment, but I wonder if you’d allow me to turn it in a different direction, from something routine to something special.”
I remember approaching my high school English teacher John Kane with an unconventional idea in response to his assignment on poems from the Enlightenment to the Romantic period: “I’d like to write an essay about eighteenth-century English poetry in poetic form, using rhyming couplets—the way Alexander Pope did in his satiric essays.” John Kane gave me a skeptical look. “I promise it will be as long or longer than five hundred words. I’m not taking a shortcut.” In his wisdom, he said, “Show me a sample—tomorrow.” When he read about ten lines, he was sold. I could indeed make the assignment my own. He wound up reading it to the class. Even better, one of my friends came up later to tell me how cool he thought it was.
This strategy has carried over into my professional work. I had the opportunity to do a telephone interview with horror author Stephen King. (It was so early in his career that he had not yet made his first million dollars!) In preparation, I had read Carrie and Salem’s Lot and The Shining. I knew how many of these marketing interviews he would be giving and did not want to become a channel for a set of automatic answers. I persuaded my editor to try something different: I wrote a scene that was meant to imitate King’s style. Although the scene of his speaking to me through the flames of a creepy fireplace was obviously invented, his quotes garnered from the interview were real.
Your goal is not to sneak around your teacher or editor. It’s to turn that person into an ally, not an adversary. Surprises may delight an ordinary reader, but not a teacher or an editor, who will expect the final work to adhere to directions. So by all means try something new. But first send up a flare.
Take what you think is a bad assignment and brainstorm with other writers on how to turn it into something special.
Get an assignment about the features of the new phone book? Feel the power of the collective: “You could write it as a book review.” “Call any number at random and write a story about that person.” “Look up the first name in the phone book.” “Look up the last name.” “I thought they were going to do away with White Pages.”
This technique is not unlike jazz improvisation. Someone begins with an idea, and others pick up on it as if it were a musical riff. It might emerge as something like this:
“I’ve been assigned to write about the time change.”
“You mean like: Don’t forget to turn your clocks back this Sunday?”
“Yeah, just like that. What more is there to say?”
“Interview Benjamin Franklin.”
“Yeah, old Ben invented the idea of daylight saving time.”
“Who is most affected by the time change?”
“Maybe people who get up early on Sunday to go to church?”
“Animals can’t tell time. Maybe the dogs in the kennels get out of sorts when their food arrives too early or too late.”
This is not just a two-player game. A group of three or more can accelerate the brainstorming process and help you build the best possible story idea out of what you thought was a dry assignment.
Talk over the story idea with some of the stakeholders or even with some friends who are not writers or editors.
It’s one thing to brainstorm with other writers, and quite another to find and interview the stakeholders, those who are most influenced or affected by your topic. Perhaps you are not so eager to write a back-to-school profile of the school crossing guard. Take a cleansing breath. Then begin talking to people about school crossing guards in general. You’ll find that most people have a story to tell—for better or worse—about the lady who held up her hand to stop the traffic and led little kids across the road to get to the other side.
I still remember when my elementary school hired a guard—too late to save a second-grade boy running across a busy intersection. In the seventh grade I was assigned to the safety patrol, but I was kicked off when I abandoned my post to talk to some of the cute girls getting off the school bus.
You probably got your “bad” assignment because someone, however selfishly, really cared about a news item, issue, or problem behind the assignment. So they are going to put in a speed bump on 66th Avenue South. Who cares? Well, the folks on my street, 63rd Avenue South, care because now all the speeders will come to prefer our street, unimpeded by humps or bumps. If you were assigned to this topic, you would search for me, and I would introduce you to my neighbors, the real stakeholders.
Use your favorite search engine to discover surprising connections.
In .56 of a second, more than forty thousand links become available to you for a topic such as “School Crossing Guards.” A quick survey of the first twenty links reveals a variety of angles for a back-to-school story, from safety guidelines to budget problems to awards and appreciations to relationships with police departments to acts of bravery. Search engines can make writers lazy, but the aces know how to use them as starting points to identify sources, subjects, and news items so that they can better use time in the field.
Now I’ll search for “speed bumps”: almost six hundred thousand links. The first one includes information about conventional and unconventional speed bumps. A Wikipedia entry offers several synonyms for the term and informs us that the earliest known speed bump, as reported in the New York Times on June 7, 1906, was in Chatham, New Jersey. To slow traffic, the city leaders had decided to raise the pavement by five inches at dangerous crosswalks. A less predictable result is the use of “speed bump” as a political metaphor, signifying the loss of liberty when the government becomes overprotective or controlling. I am beginning to see the outlines of an interesting story on speed bumps, one that would offer readers some surprising turns along the way.
If the story assignment points left, don’t be afraid to turn right.
Part of your rebellion against assignments involves a skeptical, contrarian attitude that can serve the writer and the reader well. Too often an assignment “begs the question,” a technical term in logic that means the conclusion is assumed or even predetermined in the assignment. “Go out and see why Catholic priests are more prone to abuse children than Protestant ministers or rabbis are.” It is the duty of the writer to challenge the premise, which, if it is wrong, deserves debunking. Shattering a common premise makes one hell of a story.
Back in the 1980s, many parents had their young children photographed and fingerprinted in the fear that they were vulnerable to kidnapping by strangers. (Remember those scary photos on milk cartons of lost kids?) The Denver Post won a Pulitzer Prize by looking at the cases of missing children and discovering that although kids were being snatched, the snatchers were most often not strangers but noncustodial parents or their minions.
If you read a story that says young people are not going to church as much as they did thirty years ago, wait a while and then test the thesis against the available evidence. You may find it to be true. Or you might discover that the findings reflect some unintended bias of the author, or a broad generalization from a very limited body of evidence. They zig. You zag. They flim. You flam. They whiz. You bang.
At least on occasion, stop grumbling and just follow the assignment.
If you want your teacher or editor to have your back, you must have that person’s back back. One way you win the privilege of working on your own story is to be a trouper rather than a prima donna or a prima dog. An assignment often comes down to you from your boss’s boss with lots of fingerprints all over it. Spend as much time as you need on the story to get it done at decent quality so you can get on to more interesting work.
How much effort you give can be a tricky equation. Even some Hall of Fame football players talk about how they “took a few plays off” during a game to preserve their energy and strength for a bigger moment. This is not a fashionable option in an age when we are told to reach for the impossible “110 percent.” As an editor, I would be happy with the occasional C+ performance if we were working under pressure of deadline and you, young writer, stepped in to save my ass, as they say in the newsroom.
I love the idea of the trouper, a word derived from show business. I used to misspell it trooper, as if it were a military metaphor used to describe a good soldier. Spelled trouper, it is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary as “a member of a theatrical company” and by extension “a reliable, uncomplaining, often hard-working person.”
My daughter Lauren performed in a community theater production of Sweet Charity and was disappointed at first when she didn’t get a larger role than that of one of the dance hall girls. The second lead was injured in an automobile accident, and Lauren was asked to step in just a day or two before opening night. It was too late to get another dancer, so Lauren had to play both roles. A real trouper.
Keep at hand a list of story ideas so that when you get a “bad” assignment you can try to trade it for one of yours.
“I need someone to check out this zoning variance at city hall. You up for it?”
“I’ll take it if you need me to, chief, but I just started working on this tattoo story.”
“Yeah. There’s this bridge club of old ladies, and at one of their meetings they got a little tipsy and all decided to get matching tattoos.”
“Yikes. What were they of?”
In such a scenario, you are sure to get to do the more interesting story. Having more story ideas than you can execute is no waste of effort. On the contrary, the exploration of ideas keeps your senses sharp, attuned to what is going down in your community and why it matters.
Out of your list, you will be able to pick the most interesting idea, or the timeliest, or the one with the most impact, or the one that matters most. Such choices are at the heart of what is called critical thinking or literary judgment, and the more story ideas you accumulate, the more defined your writing muscles will become.
I have trouble doing all the research.
Research until you begin to hear a repetition of stories or key information.
Such repetition is a good thing. It will strengthen your evidence and serve as a signal that it’s time to move to the next stage. You will experience repetition throughout the research or reporting, and much of it will be the equivalent of background noise, a result of everyone spouting the company line or offering the most superficial conventional wisdom. Instead, you are looking for nuggets.
Let’s say, for example, that you are writing a story about an influential school for journalists that began in a storefront with a tiny budget. Everyone you interview offers a different version of the same story: “It’s amazing how far we’ve come.” Or “No one could have walked into that old broken-down building and imagined we’d become a world-class institution.”
Then you interview me, the only remaining person to have taught in that building. “That converted old bank building was a pit. We had termites eating our library books. And we had pigeons roosting in the ceilings.” OK, termites and pigeons are good. Those are the kinds of details you’re looking for. “The space was so confining that we conducted small-group work in this antique bank vault that came with the building.”
More reporting will fill out these anecdotes. When you begin to hear the same key stuff from different sources, it may be the sign you need to gear down the research so that the drafting can be revved up. Most important, never use the need for more research as an excuse for not writing.
Work until you get to the unofficial experts.
Never be satisfied with official sources, human or documentary. Get deeper. Find the sources who are closest to the action. You want the investigating detective, not the public-information officer. You want the short-order cook or the waitress who takes your order without writing it down and remembers your name from a year ago. You don’t want the hospital administrator; you want the neonatal nurse, the one who sews beautiful white baptismal gowns for babies who have little or no chance of surviving. Donald Murray advised writers to look not to the foreman but to the young mechanic in the shop whom everyone seems to turn to.
I remember well my opportunity to interview glamorous movie star and famous Charlie’s Angel Farrah Fawcett, at the time one of the world’s most recognizable celebrities. I was among a dozen reporters covering her first full-length movie, Sunburn, and we were being herded around so the publicity apparatus could keep us under control. While other writers were being fed pabulum, I broke away. I wasn’t about to knock on her hotel room door, but I had one burning question in my mind: How do you get a celebrity like this through the Atlanta airport, into the city, through the hotel lobby, into a glass elevator, and way up to her room in the Hyatt without starting a riot? None of the publicity agents knew, but guess what? A member of the hotel staff was in charge of such squiring. She knew the ropes and was flattered that I asked her to show them to me.
Ask yourself if you have enough evidence to support a powerful conclusion.
If you research long enough, you will experience a dominant feeling or reach a strong conclusion. When you can re-create the evidence that led you there, you probably have enough. There is quite a distance between “feeling” and “concluding,” the former an expression of an emotion, the latter a destination reached through logic and reason.
Here is a feeling I remember from years ago: “I wish my daughters would stop hooking up with all these nice-looking slacker boys and find caring and responsible men for friendship and marriage.”
Here is a conclusion: “Based on an examination of the graduation rates by gender, there is a growing gap between the academic performance of boys and girls, men and women. The women are leaving the men in the dust.”
Here is evidence: “If my alma mater, which was once an all-male school, accepted students by academic merit alone, the school would have a female enrollment above 60 percent.”
As you gather evidence from many different kinds of sources, pay close attention to what that evidence tells you—especially how it makes you feel. As that feeling grows into a conclusion, you can move the dial from the collecting stage to finding a focus, or even drafting.
Report until you begin to see more and more stuff that you can leave out.
It may help you to see your work in the form of a funnel. The top of the funnel is wide. That’s where you pour in everything you’ve gathered for the story. But as the shape of the funnel narrows to a spout, the writer must become more selective, reaching a point where he can leave things out with confidence.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel described the tension between aggregation and curation, that is, adding stuff up as opposed to taking stuff out:
Writing is not like painting, where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture, where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.
As we will see down the road, you will make sharper choices if you come to understand what your story is really about. That magnifying glass will help you concentrate the light and burn out the weeds. Look for those moments when you can articulate with complete confidence what your story is about. Sometimes it’s a single fact discovered in mounds of research that delivers a working theme, one that can help in the gathering of information and eventually in the selection of details.
Research until you have heard someone say: “You’ve got to talk to Shirley.” And then talk to Shirley.
We’ve all met Shirley, who can be old or young, rich or poor, male or female. My mother’s name happens to be Shirley, and if you are writing a history of Italian Americans who migrated from Italy to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, you must talk to her. Shirley is ninety-two. Her memory is sharp, her reflections spicy, and when it comes to talking, God bless her, she is relentless, indefatigable. You can ask her:
What kind of street games did the Italian kids play back then?
Did people really pin money to religious statues during festivals of saints?
What did you eat during the Depression years? Did you ever feel hungry and unable to do anything about it?
Is it true that a famous gangster was shot and died in your grandmother’s arms?
I’ve watched the movie The Godfather about fifty times. I’m always fascinated by the wedding scene. Tell me what you remember about Italian American weddings.
A Shirley can verify notions you’ve heard elsewhere and provide evidence available nowhere else. A Shirley can help you decide if your reporting is done. But don’t be surprised if you hear a Shirley say, “You can’t do this story until you’ve talked to Tony.” That may require a good bit of hanging around, watching the official experts as they turn to the shop veteran who then turns to the unofficial expert always closest to the action: Tony.
Get busy writing before your editor or teacher starts yelling at you because you’re about to miss a deadline.
The most significant part of the word deadline is not “line,” but “dead.” In fact, there is a language of death that governs and distorts our thinking about the craft of writing. Old newspaper stories, for example, were kept in a “morgue.” Editors “spiked” stories, or “cut” them, or “buried” them. Famous writers talked about “sweating blood” during the process, or “opening a vein.” Even though these are dysphemisms—negative exaggerations—they reveal the trepidation that infects the craft, even at the highest level.
I too struggle as a writer. I have perfectionist tendencies. Not long ago, they made me miss an important book deadline. I have learned the hard way that struggle and delay are not virtues or signs of greatness. Nor, in most cases, are they necessary.
Do everything in your power to meet your deadlines, and that often requires handing in work that is not as good as you hoped it would be. If you are a student, you may need to make a cold calculation: Handing in B work on time is better than handing in A work a week late. That missed deadline may turn your A into a C.
It is more complicated for professionals. Someone who misses deadlines with regularity may risk losing a job. Even if that is not the case, a deadline crasher makes work harder for everyone else on the team. The editor lacks time to work with the writer on improving the story. The photo editor and page designer lack the time to do their best work.
Writers often devote a disproportionate amount of their time to research, leaving writing to the very end. I know writers who researched a story for ten months and gave themselves only ten hours to draft it. So when you hear the bell tower chime the hour, it’s a reliable sign that you should begin drafting. Your story will not be perfect, but most times “good enough” is good enough. Feel the adrenaline. Use it. Then let the work go.
Work until you can write a clear statement of what the story is really about.
This statement can take many forms: a note to yourself, a memo to the editor, a tentative lead sentence or paragraph, a theme statement. To write an effective version of any of these requires a knowledge that derives from your research. It’s evidence enough that even the first draft of your story will have a clear focus.
Pitch a story to a helper:
Dear Lindsay: Here’s an idea I have for an essay titled “Me and My Shadow.” I’ve borrowed that title from a popular song from the 1930s; it fits my analysis of one of my favorite nursery poems: “My Shadow,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. That poem describes a little boy who grows weary and impatient with his unruly shadow, which seems to take on a life of its own in the span of a simple day. I’ve just discovered that Stevenson wrote this poem about the same time he wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a story whose very title has become an archetype for the good side and the shadowy side of human nature. I read this poem as a child; the language in the poem has not changed, but I have changed. My adult perspective, perhaps too cynical for my own good, sees through the bright surface of the poem to find something dark lurking beneath.
My ability to write that memo, and draw those conclusions, indicates to me that I have enough to fire up a full draft.
Excerpted from Help! For Writers by Roy Peter Clark Copyright © 2011 by Roy Peter Clark. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Roy Peter Clark is vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, one of the most prestigious schools for journalists in the world. He has taught writing at every levelfrom schoolchildren Pulitzer Prize winnersfor more than thirty years, and has spoken about the writer's craft on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and NPR and at news organizations from the New York Times to The Sowetan in South Africa. A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has authored or edited fifteen books about writing and journalism, including Writing Tools and The Glamour of Grammar. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.
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