8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Shape the Experience

I’ve left shaping, the most ruthless writing lesson, for last.

In essence, it’s simple. Shaping means ensuring that every detail of the text contributes to the experience I want the reader to have. Whatever fails to meet that test—be it a word, a comma, a bit of content, a phrase, a sentence, a structural device, or an organizational strategy—has to be fixed or has to be cut.

When I shape, I take myself by the nape of the neck and methodically excise the excesses lingering on the page. That includes those unnecessary flourishes I performed purely to announce my talent and the prettiness I can create. Instead of showing the reader that I can bend words to my will, while shaping I bend my will to what the writing demands.

To shape is to peel away the writer’s ego, leaving only that which executes my intention.

Sound difficult? It is. It would hurt when an editor told me that a word didn’t work or a sentence sounded jarring in the paragraph or my beautiful turn of phrase contributed nothing to my overall story. Not infrequently, I felt a sense of loss deleting the metaphor I had labored over but still sounded clunky. So why suffer through what can be a bruising process? Because, to paraphrase a saying, good writing reads better than mediocre writing looks.

The ruthlessness of shaping gives me the freedom to play and the courage to draft. It is my safety net. I can make a complete ass of myself in the draft—take all sorts of risks, allow myself wild tangents that lead to dead ends, indulge in verbosity and obscurity and all manner of useless showing off—because I know that when I shape I will surrender my ego to the specific demands of the writing, to the experience for the reader that I’ve committed myself to create.

To that end, and as the discussion here explains so well, shaping goes beyond proofreading or copyediting, correcting mistakes or cleaning up problems, important as those activities are. It clears the clutter so that a more powerful and coherent voice can emerge from the text. When I identify what doesn’t belong, I can accentuate what does belong; when I eliminate what impedes my reader’s experience, I can develop the elements that will enhance that experience. Shaping externally makes manifest the internal animating spirit of a given piece of writing.

Journalism taught me that shaping, like the other lessons I learned, happens best as part of a conversation. I can have that conversation with myself by setting my writing aside for a time, then returning to it later with a fresher, more detached perspective. But ideally, that conversation includes others: an agent, an editor, a mentor, writing friends. I’ve come to see the pervasive myth of the isolated, genius author is just that: a myth. We borrow our language from our culture, internalize it, develop it with the help of colleagues, then send it back out into the world for readers to experience. At every step, the work of writing connects to others, and that may be the most important writing lesson of all.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Reconsider

The work I did for newspapers was by far the most collaborative writing I’ve ever done, though generally I didn’t think I was collaborating at the time.

Every day, I reported my story, I thought about it, and I wrote it down—or I wrote it down and thought about it. I polished it up nice and shiny and minded my factual as well as stylistic p’s and q‘s, then turned it over to my editing and copyediting colleagues to put their fingers into it.

When the rooting around worked, it worked because those colleagues made you reconsider everything in the story that mattered. I reconsidered it when I sat down beside the desk editor and she questioned this lead paragraph and that quote and this comma and the use of that term. When, perhaps, she questioned whether my story was news at all rather than just the same old, same old. Or conversely when she questioned whether the run-of-the-mill story I had composed might instead be a significant crack in the wall of some institutional edifice.

I reconsidered it when, after I had left work and stopped to have a few beers and arrived at home to have a few more and watch something insipid but entertaining on television, or god forbid that I had gone out with my wife to a movie or dinner with friends, and someone on the copy desk interrupted my insipid entertainment, or I came home from the movie or dinner and found a blinking light on my answering machine (picture a time before cell phones when people were not constantly available).

At each reconsideration, you had to defend the decisions you made. And with each defense, if you had anything mentally going on, you had to ask yourself what the editor was asking you: Had your choices been the right ones? Had you left something out that you shouldn’t have? Had you gotten the essence of the story or had you missed it completely? And sometimes you discovered that the answers to at least some of those questions did not comfort you, but that this discomfort made the story better and made you a better writer. And then you realized that whatever the quality of your decisions, the act of reconsideration itself made you a better writer because it taught you the kinds of questions to ask yourself whether there was a copyeditor at the other end of the phone line or not.

You learned that what a priest I once interviewed said about his faith applied equally well to writing: that finding appropriate moments to question our choices makes our choices better.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the need, at some point, to make conscious decisions about your intentions for a piece and what means you would use to carry those intentions out. A simpler word for that decision-making is design. I would choose an experience I wanted my reader to have and design the writing to achieve that experience.

The collaborative experience in journalism helped me see the equal necessity of reconsidering my design, of being willing to chuck it all and start from scratch if I found my design to be wrongheaded. I have always found this reconsideration both terrifying and liberating. It scares me because it means that hours, days, weeks or more of labor can end up junked. But it frees more than it frightens because however wrong I get it, I can always give myself the chance to recuperate my writing, so long as I’m willing to tell myself the truth about the work I’ve done.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Engaging Play

One of my first jobs on the college newspaper at Kansas—The University Daily Kansan—was copyediting. As students in Dr. John Bremner’s editing class, each of us had to do a set number of shifts during the semester. I had written before, all kinds of writing for years, since I elementary school; but I had never edited writing—either mine or anyone else’s—as meticulously as I learned to edit in that class and on that desk.

Don Munday served as copy desk chief. He was an advanced undergraduate in his early 20s, but looked ageless. While he sat in the slot of the U-shaped desk, we were arrayed around him on the outside edge, making our editing marks on sheets of newsprint onto which reporters had typed their stories. Don was droll and very smart, and he had on his desk, facing us, a small statue of the Big Boy, a pudgy figure in checkerboard overalls whose image adorned the JB’s Big Boy restaurants that operated in Kansas at the time, and to whom Don bore an uncanny resemblance.

Day slid into shadow during each shift, the next door newsroom’s typing and buzz growing quieter until it ended altogether as evening progressed. Mainly I remember the fun of bathing our hands in words. I’ve never particularly enjoyed crossword puzzles or Scrabble, but decades later I still miss the challenge of wedging music and sense into a difficult headline space.

We formatted each page of our newspaper six columns across, and when it was time to write a headline Don would give us the count—the amount of space we had to fit the headline into: between one and six columns wide, between one and three lines of text, and the size of the print (the larger the print size the fewer words that would fit per line). The smaller the print size and the more columns of width and lines of depth, the more words would fit into the headline and the easier it was to write. One column headlines were the most difficult.

Early on, I learned that to compose a good head I had to read the entire story, distill its essence in my mind, and begin to play with words. Brevity mattered, but so did sound and sense. What began with something like “University Registrar encourages students to sign up for classes early” had to be whittled down: “Registrar urges early registration.” I discovered the value of play without noticing it. I’d try one word then another, searching for synonyms, trying this verb then that, excising adjectives, collapsing nouns into smaller and smaller words. I started to hear the emotional tone beyond strict meaning that each word carries. We editors played with poems, really, composing our kind of haiku. We’d practice with puns, seeing how far we could go before it became too much, too stylized, to obscure.

A few years later, I copyedited in my first professional newspaper job, and experienced one of my most productive periods of creative writing. Knocking off work at midnight or 1 a.m., still energized, in my basement apartment I’d stand by a tall chest of drawers tapping on the typewriter placed atop it, my mind roiling with the language I had kneaded and massaged for the previous eight hours. In play I’d pry my mind open, breaking and remaking the rules it’s impossible to learn any other way. I came to trust the truth of language to push past the limits others have erected to fence out the innovative. I found that surprise resides in play. Language’s musical echoes get buried in everyday exchanges but uncover themselves in play’s silly sideways illumination, in the infrared or ultraviolet glow just outside the spectrum of normal light.

So I bend words, phrases, sentences, ideas into myriad effects, just to see what happens. Just to see how it sounds this way or that, to see where the emphasis falls when I slide the word left or right, when I slip in the punctuation that punches or for fun flip a different switch. So much of writing is necessarily purposeful and directed, but play is my source, tapping into the deep wells within language and within me from which my writing flows. I freewrite; I brainstorm; I make word clusters; I concept map. I don’t expect the product of this play to see daylight; that isn’t its function. But through it I ready myself for serious writing business.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: About Drafting

I would enter the doors of the newsroom greeted by the jangle or bleat of telephones, the click of typewriter (eventually computer) keys, the voices of reporters talking to sources on the phones or gossiping with one another or trading insults, the shouts of editors checking on the status of stories in progress. Through the noise, I would make my way to my desk, turn on my typewriter or log into my computer, place my notes in front of me, and begin drafting my story.

That moment invariably excited and terrified me the most because it involved the most mystery, even more than the unknown of gathering information. By the time I began to draft, I knew I had something. I also knew, though, that I would only discover its true outlines in these moments. A story I thought was great might crumble in the writing of it; a mediocre story might suddenly take on new life; I might find that I’d done too much reporting, or far too little. All of this the words and sentences would tell me as they emerged from the blank surface of the page or screen, when the draft takes it first physical form, moving from the conceptual to the concrete.

It may sound obvious that you can’t write well without actually, well, writing, but like many of my students, I have at times worked hard to avoid drafting. Sometimes I’ve outlined and planned ad nauseum; sometimes I’ve obsessively gathered information; sometimes for days, weeks, even months, I’ve gone over in my head what I thought a piece should look like and sound like and say; other times I’ve just daydreamed about who I’d like to cast for the film version of my novel, or I’d concoct imaginary interview responses for my imaginary book tour. Anything to keep from simply putting my rear in a chair and letting the words and sentences out.

Like so many students and would-be writers, I’ve sometimes thought of drafting as a chore to get through. But my writing works best when I treat drafting as its own event in the process of creating a text. It’s not the recording of ideas or the tedious playing out of a predetermined plan. Without sounding too mystical—oh what the hell, I’ll sound mystical—during drafting, language steps forward and asserts itself. Echoes and allusions and rhythms fall onto the page; some of them work and some don’t, but in what appears I get my first sense of what might be possible.

In the ruthlessness of its deadlines, newspaper writing forced me into that realization on a daily basis. I couldn’t avoid it; I couldn’t hide. And the exercise of turning language loose on subject after subject made me a more trusting, more confident, and better writer. Who needs a daily word count target when you have a city editor breathing down your neck at 5 o’clock every weekday evening?

In a telling scene in the film All the President’s Men, the late, great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (played by the late, great actor Jason Robards) reads through an early Watergate story as Woodward and Bernstein anxiously look on. To their dismay, he takes out a red pen and begins crossing out large chunks of their story’s main assertions. He responds to their objections by saying simply, “You haven’t got it. You haven’t got the story.” And though they are disappointed, they recognize that he is right. They aren’t yet ready to write the story they would like to write, to say what they think they want to say.

For me, that scene represents the hard truth of drafting and of what the draft tells me. The words and sentences on the page—not the concepts in my head—determine whether a piece of writing works, whether it creates the experience for the reader that I want it to create. The drafting is where I find the text.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Intention

When I taught college writing, I sometimes asked my students what they thought motivated writers to write. Journalists, the students generally agreed, wrote from a vague desire to “inform” a general audience. But every reporter worth a damn that I ever knew wanted more. We wanted to render compellingly what we saw and heard. We had mixed motives: ego and ambition, public service, a hope that we could goad readers into doing the right thing, or make them notice when the right thing wasn’t being done. We wanted people to read our stories, and we wanted what they read to matter.

Making my writing matter meant finding something I wanted to say in each story I covered. It meant determining what each story was going to be about, not in the sense of its subject matter, but in the sense of revealing what made that subject worth writing (and reading) about. It meant finding an “angle.”

During one summer internship, I was assigned the “Fourth of July” story. These are the kinds of stories that newspapers hire summer interns for. It saves editors having to compel a regular, fulltime reporter to work resentfully on a holiday writing the kind of story that newspapers feel obliged to run but that no one really wants to write and readers don’t necessarily want to read. Generally, nothing new or significant happens; Fourth of July is Fourth of July.

Grateful as I was for the internship, I didn’t want to do the story. It meant driving around to neighborhood picnics and barbecues and fireworks celebrations, conducting man (or woman) in the street interviews of ordinary people saying ordinary, less than scintillating things. But I had a story to write, column inches to fill, and a deadline to meet. I had no idea what to write about Independence Day, but that’s what the reporting was for. In short, I had enough parameters set for me to create a sense of urgency. The rest I had to come up with myself.

Eventually, my angle turned about to be the almost universal refrain among the people I interviewed—old and young, male and female, native born and immigrant—that Independence Day had less to do with remembering the source and history of our freedom and more to do with a holiday and fireworks shows.

Journalism taught me that writing without an intention is like shooting an arrow without any target. Somewhere in the process of producing a piece of writing—not necessarily at the beginning—I need to find a clear intention to give my work shape and cohesiveness.

The intention for a piece of writing can be discovered in a thousand ways: identifying the audience, creating a thesis, choosing a genre, constructing an outline, determining the vocabulary, deciding whether to write in first or second or third person, the length of the piece, its title, its subject, and a hundred other choices a writer eventually has to make. In much of the writing I’ve done, someone else (an editor, professor, publication, style guide) made some of these limiting decisions for me. But ultimately the writing didn’t work unless I created or discovered my own.

Some of my writing students demanded that I provide every intention. “What do you want?” they continually asked. In a thousand ways, I tried to say, “I want you to find, within the parameters of the assignment, something you really want to tell me. I want you to do your best to make me care about what you want to show me.” To most students, intention belonged to teachers, and they were handed out, never discovered by the writer. For a few students, intentions were irrelevant; only creativity mattered. And creativity meant releasing themselves on the page with no parameters, no rules, no need for any kind of coherence.

But setting the intention for a piece of writing is as necessary as putting words on the page, because it’s from that intention that the experience I want my reader to have comes to life. And it emerges from a dialogue between the constraints others impose on our writing and those we find for ourselves.

Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: A Word About Process

There’s nothing revolutionary about saying, as I did in the previous post, that writing is a process. Many high school and college students can recite the old four-part, writing process box step they were taught: Prewrite (brainstorm, research, outline, figure out what you want to say); draft (get it down on the page, say it); revise (organize, clarify, polish); edit (proofread, correct, clean it up). Relatively simple and straightforward.

The hard part starts when you try to figure out how to perform each of these steps, and what to do when what you’re trying to do isn’t working, particularly when you aren’t quite sure what ‘”working” means. But you have a nagging feeling that what you’ve written doesn’t sound the way it’s supposed to, mainly because it doesn’t sound like anything is supposed to. But you’re doing the steps. At least you think you are.

Fortunately for me, rather than writing more of the English lit papers I produced in high school, in college I wrote news stories. And although the structure of a standard newspaper story can be quite formulaic, the process for writing that story both was and was not standard. Here let me pause to explain how I experienced the process in some detail, because this has informed everything related to my views about writing.

It begins when an editor assigns a story, tells you how long it should run, and gives you a deadline. Until that deadline arrives, or unless you run into a problem, you determine your own process for reporting and writing; and I have those seen those processes vary widely from writer to writer. That’s the non-standard part.

The standard part starts when you complete your story and turn it in. At that point, you enter into a dance with those who review your work. A desk editor reads it. She likes it, or doesn’t, or more often likes some aspects but not others. She tells you which parts generate which feelings in her. She peppers you with questions about why you made the reporting, word, organization, structural, and content choices you did. She may suggest different choices and return the story to you to ponder them; she may insist on different choices and return the story to you to incorporate them; or she may, if she is of a mind to and her deadline approaches, simply erase parts of what you wrote and type the different choices into your story. You may, of course, argue for your choices. You may win some or all of these arguments; you may lose some or all of them. If you want to work long as a journalist, you will thereafter know you must be prepared to at least explain your choices.

In any event, you arrive at some accommodation satisfactory to her (and, hopefully, you), and the story moves on. Depending on the importance of the story, another editor or editors higher on the food chain also may review it, generating new questions, new defenses, new alternatives, new accommodations. Or their dissatisfaction may reach such a level that they decide not to run the story at all.

But assuming they approve, your story then travels to the copy desk. Here, in addition to the kind of scrutiny previously applied, your story undergoes a line-by-line, word-by-word, punctuation-mark-by-punctuation-mark reexamination. Copy editors are the kind of people who argue over using the second serial comma before a conjunction (in the way baseball fans get into disputes about the designated hitter rule or jazz aficionados debate whether fusion was ever “really” jazz); they know which city names can appear in a story without the state or country name added (New York and Paris) and which cannot (Salinas, CA and Bhopal, India); they can recite the names of the current American president’s cabinet members and various heads of state around the world; and they read The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual to pass the time. These are the people who now have your work in their hands, and if you are smart, you learn to be grateful for that fact.

But copy editors also look for flaws—“holes”—that previous editors may have missed. If they discover significant holes, you will be called upon to fill them. If you can’t, the powers that be may yet decide not to run the story.

At this point a story undergoes the more mechanical processes of turning it into print (or these days, text for the screen). It’s formatted or coded, arranged on the page (screen), and proofed or previewed. Again, copy editors conduct this proofing, looking at the product as the reader will see it. They may catch additional errors of varying levels of severity, fixable or not. Even at this late date, because of holes or new information (or jitters on the part of the editors) a story can be pulled.

Accommodating your editors might mean something as simple as changing a few words, moving a paragraph to a slightly different spot, or adding a clarifying sentence. It might mean something as complex as returning to sources you’ve already consulted, re-interviewing people you’ve already spoken to, deleting entire sections, completely shifting the direction of the story, or scrapping virtually everything and starting over. Reworking the story can take a few seconds, or a few days, or longer. Or all of your work on a story can disappear down a rabbit hole from which it never returns.

In short, at any given moment in the process, anything and everything can be up from grabs.

Only years later did I realize that the demands of this writing situation changed me after a half dozen years. And perhaps it’s only now that I understand how much it matured my writing practice.


Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me, Part 2

We sat, about 20 or so of us, at our desks in a classroom high in Kansas University’s Flint Hall. A bank of windows offered a beautiful view of the Wakarusa River valley, but out attention was directed at our professor, Susanne Shaw, giving a mock news conference about a fictitious house fire. She provided a set of details, and we were free to ask questions to clarify or elaborate on what she had told us. Then we had the rest of the class time to type our stories (Yes type! On manual typewriters, no less!), which we turned in at the end of the hour.

I suspect that every journalist remembers vividly the first time his or her story went under an editor’s knife. For me, that happened in Prof. Shaw’s Reporting I class in early 1980.

At our next class meeting, she returned our stories crisscrossed with so much red ink that they resembled crime scene photos. And in a way, they were. Aside from the typos, sentence structure problems, and various inaccuracies, most of my frustration came from seeing the wide gulf between what I thought I had understood and conveyed, and what I had actually rendered on the page. In short, I had failed to create for the reader the drama and clarity I intended.

Often during my teaching, my students have made the same mistake. We’ve all had to learn that in writing what you mean to say or the experience you mean to create doesn’t matter. Only what you actually create does. Good writing doesn’t come from a great idea; it comes from a writer choosing the words, syntax, organizational structure, and content that compel the reader to keep reading.

In the quest to engage the reader, I have only those four tools—diction, syntax, structure, and content—at my disposal. But if I make the right choices about how to use those tools, they’re more than enough to meet the task. Journalism taught me that, in essence, composing is choosing. It’s not, though, a single creative act but a series of acts, demanding the interplay of sometimes contradictory skills: creating and critiquing, cutting and generating, playing and applying ruthless gravity. Which is another way of saying it’s a process that requires discipline.

Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me, Part 1

I graduated from high school 35 years ago as a strong enough writer to escape first-year college composition and get into journalism school, but I didn’t really understand how to write well. Six and a half years later, when I left fulltime journalism (reluctantly—but that’s a story for another time), I had become a much stronger writer, but not from magical inspiration or newfound talent. Journalism forced me to compose more and work harder, and it made my writing process more conscious and deliberate. In high school, I could turn out a decent paper on demand, but through journalism, I began to learn what writing was and how to work on it; I learned how to experiment and play with words and clauses and phrases and sentences; and I learned that mastering the process would change what my writing could do for readers and what it could do for me. In the decades that have followed, as I’ve written fiction and poetry, edited technical manuals, composed a doctoral dissertation and other academic pieces, and worked as a college-level teacher and administrator, journalism formed the foundation of whatever success I’ve had. It certainly isn’t the only place to learn these lessons, but the more I developed as a writing teacher and administrator, the more I recognized that I kept drawing from this source.

So here I present the first of the eight essentials lessons I learned:

In June 1983, I stepped off the train and into a steamy Philadelphia summer to work as an intern on the business copy editing desk of The Philadelphia Inquirer. On my first day at work, my brilliant and affable copy desk chief, Jim Moffatt, gave me a button a couple of inches in diameter that read in capital, multicolored letters, “ PYIRP.” I found out that this stood for “Put Yourself In the Reader’s Place.”

Moff reminded all of us on the copy desk that whatever the newspaper’s writers and columnists had in mind, those of us on the desk had one primary job: to stand in for the reader who would pick up the Inquirer at a newsstand or from her front stoop and make sure what she read was as accurate and understandable and engaging as we could make it.

From then on, I tried to practice what Moff preached, but decades passed before its significance sank in, and it took even longer before I consciously made it the core of how I define writing: To write is to create an experience—made of words, sentences, a structure, and content—that engages the reader.

Of course, written texts achieve (or attempt to achieve) all sorts of other aims. They persuade, entertain, energize, inspire, disturb, provoke. But if what I write doesn’t manage to elbow its way to the forefront of a reader’s attention, it won’t achieve anything else. I’ve found that this holds true even when I write exclusively for myself. The ideas, phrases, vignettes, descriptions, and other bits and pieces I (as writer) have put down in my journals and notebooks over the years were recorded so that I could re-experience them in a particular way later as a reader.

This became clearer to me years later when I taught writing to college students. I discovered that no matter how technically clean the writing, something often seemed missing from my students’ work, and I discovered it was this: They had no particular intentions for what they hoped to accomplish with their readers; in fact, they generally had no sense of the reader at all. Instead they fashioned packets of information with no purpose beyond generating the number of words the assignment required. But they failed to imagine the possible responses of actual human beings to what they might say or how they might say it.

At that point, I understood consciously what before then had only driven my work implicitly: The attempt to engage particular readers in particular ways for particular purposes had shaped my decisions, had helped me choose which words and which combinations and what details to include, and these had given my writing the coherence and direction that made it work.

And this backbone has structured my own writing, and my work with other writers, ever since.