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50 Writing Tools
By Roy Peter Clark (more by author) Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute
Introduction The introductory column to the workbench of Roy Peter Clark. Writing Tool #1: Branch to the Right Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting subordinate elements branch to the right. Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early. Writing Tool #2: Use Strong Verbs Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple present or past. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players. Writing Tool #3: Beware of Adverbs Beware of adverbs. They can dilute the meaning of the verb or repeat it. Writing Tool #4: Period As a Stop Sign Place strong words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as a stop sign. Any word next to the period says, “Look at me.” Writing Tool #5: Observe Word Territory Observe “word territory.” Give key words their space. Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect. Writing Tool #6: Play with Words Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands. Writing Tool #7: Dig for the Concrete and Specific Always get the name of the dog. Writing Tool #8: Seek Original Images Seek original images. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language. Reject cliches and “first-level creativity.” Writing Tool #9: Prefer Simple to Technical Prefer the simple to the technical: shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity. Writing Tool #10: Recognize the Roots of Stories Recognize the mythic, symbolic, and poetic. Be aware (and beware) that common themes of news writing have deep roots in the culture of storytelling. Writing Tool #11: Back Off or Show Off When the news or topic is most serious, understate. When the topic is least serious, exaggerate. Writing Tool #12: Control the Pace Control the pace of the story by varying sentence length.
Writing Tool #13: Show and Tell Good writers move up and down the ladder of abstraction. At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like “freedom” and “literacy.” Writing Tool #14: Interesting Names Remember that writers are, by training and disposition, attracted to people and places with interesting names. Writing Tool #15: Reveal Character Traits Reveal character traits to the reader through scenes, details, and dialogue. Writing Tool #16: Odd and Interesting Things Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Writing Tool #17: The Number of Elements The number of examples you use in a sentence or a story has meaning. Writing Tool #18: Internal Cliffhangers Use them to move readers to turn the page. Writing Tool #19: Tune Your Voice Of all the effects created by writers, none is more important or elusive than that quality called “voice.” Writing Tool #20: Narrative Opportunities Take advantage of narrative opportunities. Writing Tool #21: Quotes and Dialogue Learn how quotes differ from dialogue. Writing Tool #22: Get Ready Take a tip from Hamlet and always be prepared to tell the big story: Expect the unexpected. Writing Tool #23: Place Gold Coins Along the Path Learn how to keep your readers interested by placing gold coins throughout your story. Writing Tool #24: Name the Big Parts Seeing the structure of a story is easier if you can identify the main parts. Writing Tool #25: Repeat Purposeful repetition is not redundancy. Roy’s ‘Toolbox’ is Filling Up Steve Buttry asks Roy Peter Clark about his Writing Tools, and gets a glimpse into the toolbox. Writing Tool #26: Fear Not the Long Sentence Do what you fear: Use long sentences. Writing Tool #27: Riffing for Originality
Riff on the creative language of others. Writing Tool #28: Writing Cinematically Authors have long understood how to shift their focus to capture both landscape and character. Writing Tool #29: Report for Scenes The scene is the most basic unit of narrative literature. Scenes put us there, and make us care. Writing Tool #30: Write Endings to Lock the Box All writers have a license to end, and there are many ways to do so. Writing Tool #31: Parallel Lines Writers shape up their writing by paying attention to parallel structures in their words, phrases, and sentences. Writing Tool #32: Let It Flow A transition from tools to habits. Writing Tool #33: Rehearsal Procrastination can be productive. Writing Tool #34: Cut Big, Then Small Precise and concise writing comes from disciplined cutting. Writing Tool #35: Use Punctuation Proper punctuation can help a writer control how fast — or slow — a reader goes. Writing Tool #36: Write A Mission Statement for Your Story Learn how to reach the next level in your writing. Writing Tool #37: Long Projects Breaking a big project into small parts makes it easier to start writing. Writing Tool #38: Polish Your Jewels In shorter works, don’t waste a syllable. Writing Tool #39: The Voice of Verbs Choose active or passive verbs for their special effects. Writing Tool #40: The Broken Line Use this tool to combine storytelling with reporting. Writing Tool #41: X-Ray Reading Reading others’ work can help make you a better writer. Writing Tool #42: Paragraphs Go short or long, depending upon your purpose.
Writing Tool #43: Self-criticism Go from nice and easy to rough and tough. Writing Tool #44: Save String Save information — it could be used for a big project later. Writing Tool #45: Foreshadow Plant important clues early in the story. Tool #46: Storytellers, Start Your Engines Good questions drive good stories. Writing Tool #47: Collaboration Help others in their crafts so they can help you. Writing Tool #48: Create An Editing Support Group Create a support network of friends, colleagues, editors, experts, and coaches who can give you feedback on your work. Writing Tool #49: Learn from Criticism Even severe or cynical criticism can help a writer. Writing Tool #50: The Writing Process Use these tools to demystify your writing. Writing Tool #51: Too Many ‘ings’ Beware of too many ‘ings.’
Fifty Writing Tools The workbench of Roy Peter Clark.
At times, it helps to think of writing as carpentry. That way, writers and editors can work from a plan and use tools stored on their workbench. You can borrow a writing tool at any time. And here’s a secret: Unlike hammers, chisels, and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened, and passed on.
Each week, for the next 50, I will describe a writing tool that has been useful to me. I have borrowed these tools from writers and editors, from authors of books on writing, and from teachers and writing coaches. Many come from the X-ray reading of texts I admire.
I have described most of these tools in earlier lists, first of 20 and then 30. In those renditions, I defined each tool in shorthand, 50 words or less, without elaboration or exemplification. In spite of — perhaps because of — their brevity, many aspiring writers found them useful, and the tools popped up all over the Internet, translated into several languages. This warm acceptance has given me the courage to do more with these tools, to hone them, to discard some rusty ones, and to add to my collection.
As you study and discuss these, please remember:
• These are tools and not rules. They work outside the realm of right and wrong, and inside the world of cause and effect. You will find many examples of good writing that seem to “violate” the general advice described here.
• It will not help to apply these tools at once, just as aspiring golfers swing and miss if they try to remember the 30 or so different elements of an effective golf swing.
• You will become handy with these tools over time. You will begin to recognize their use in the stories you read. You will see chances to apply them when you revise your own work. Eventually, they will become part of your flow, natural and automatic.
• You are already using many of these tools without knowing it. It is impossible to speak, write, or read without them. But now these tools have names, so you can begin to talk about them in different ways. As your critical vocabulary grows, your writing will improve.
My friend Tom French, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, told me he liked my tool list because it covered writing from the “sub-atomic to the metaphysical level.” By sub- atomic, he meant the ways words, phrases, and sentences work. By metaphysical, he meant the ways writers live, dream, and work.
With that as both introduction and promise, let us begin.
RELATED RESOURCES Writing Tool #1 By Roy Peter Clark Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting subordinate elements branch to the right. Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early. >>Read more
More Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark: • Thirty Tools for Writers • If I Were a Carpenter: The Tools of the Writer • The Internal Cliffhanger: Writing Tool #31 Click here to receive Writer’s Toolbox each week by e-mail
Writing Tool #1: Branch to the Right
Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting subordinate elements branch to the right. Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early.
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. Subject and verb of the main clause join on the left (“A reporter writes”) while all other elements branch off to the right. Here’s another right-branching sentence, written by Lydia Polgreen as the lead of a news story in The New York Times:
Rebels seized control of Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city, on Sunday, meeting little resistance as hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and looted the airport, which was quickly closed. Police officers and armed supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled.
That first sentence is 37 words long and rippling with action. The sentence is so full, in fact, that it threatens to fly apart like some overheated engine. But the writer keeps control by creating meaning in the first three words: “Rebels seized control…” Think of that main clause as the locomotive that pulls all the cars that follow.
Master writers can craft page after page of sentences written in this structure. Consider this passage by John Steinbeck from “Cannery Row,” describing the routine of a marine scientist named Doc:
He didn’t need a clock. He had been working in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a tide change in his sleep. In the dawn he awakened, looked out through the windshield, and saw that the water was already retreating down the bouldery flat. He drank some hot coffee, ate three sandwiches, and had a quart 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 China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.
RELATED RESOURCES Fifty Writing Tools By Roy Peter Clark At times, it helps to think of writing as carpentry. That way, writers and editors can work from a plan and use tools stored on their workbench. You can borrow a writing tool at any time. And here’s a secret: Unlike
In each sentence, Steinbeck places subject and verb at or near the beginning. Clarity and narrative energy flow through the passage, as one sentence builds upon another. And he avoids monotonous structure by varying the length of his sentences.
Subject 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. When we do this, even for good reasons, we risk confusing the reader:
A bill that would exclude tax income from the assessed value of new homes from the state education funding formula could mean a loss of revenue for Chesapeake County schools.
Eighteen words separate the subject “bill” from its weak 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 make 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.
Workshop:
1. Read through an edition of The New York Times with a pencil. Mark the location of subjects and verbs.
2. Do the same with a collection of your own stories. 3. Do the same with a draft of a story you’re working on now. 4. The next time you struggle with a sentence, see if you can rewrite it by placing
subject and verb at the beginning.
hammers, chisels, and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened, and passed on. Click here to receive Writer’s Toolbox each week by e-mail
Writing Tool #2: Use Strong Verbs
Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple present or past. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.
President John F. Kennedy testified that his favorite book was “From Russia With Love,” the 1957 James Bond adventure by Ian Fleming. This choice revealed more about JFK than we knew at the time and created a cult of 007 that persists to this day.
The power in Fleming’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.
Bond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him. Moonlight filtered through the curtains. He walked across and turned on the pink-shaded lights on the dressing-table. He stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few minutes under the shower. … He 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 back into the bedroom.
Bond drew aside one curtain and opened wide the tall windows and stood, holding the curtains open and looking out across the great boomerang curve of water under the riding moon. The night breeze felt wonderfully cool on his naked body. He looked at his watch. It said two o’clock.
Bond gave a shuddering yawn. He let the curtains drop back into place. He bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table. Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat.
There had been a nervous giggle from the shadows at the back of the room. A girl’s voice said, “Poor Mister Bond. You must be tired. Come to bed.”
In writing this passage, Fleming followed the advice of his countryman George Orwell, who wrote of verbs: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.”
Never say never, Mr. Orwell, lest you turn one of the writer’s most reliable tools into a rigid rule. But we honor you for describing the relationship between language abuse and political abuse, and for revealing how corrupt leaders use the passive voice to obscure unspeakable truths and shroud responsibility for their actions. They say: “It must be admitted after the report is reviewed that mistakes were made,” rather than, “I read the report, and I admit I made a mistake.”
News writers reach often for the simple active verb. Consider this New York Times lead by Carlotta Gall on the suicidal desperation of Afghan women: “Waiflike, draped in a pale blue veil, Madina, 20, sits on her hospital bed, bandages covering the terrible, raw burns on her
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neck and chest. Her hands tremble. She picks nervously at the soles of her feet and confesses that three months earlier she set herself on fire with kerosene.”
While Fleming used the past tense to narrate his adventure, Gall prefers verbs in the present tense. This strategy immerses the reader in the immediacy of experience, as if we were sitting – right now — beside the poor woman in her grief.
Both Fleming and Gall avoid the verb qualifiers that attach themselves to standard prose like barnacles to the hull of a ship:
• Sort of • Tend to • Kind of • Must have • Seemed to • Could have • Use to
Scrape away these crustaceans during revision, and the ship of your prose will glide toward meaning with efficient speed and grace.
Workshop:
1. Verbs fall into three categories: active, passive, and forms of the verb “to be.” Review three of your stories and circle the verb forms with a pencil. In the margins, mark each verb by category.
2. Look for occasions to convert passive or “to be” verbs into the active. For example, “It was her observation that …” becomes “She observed …”
3. In your own work and in the newspaper, search for verb attachments and see what happens when you cut them from a story.
4. Read “Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell. As you listen to political speech, mark those occasions when politicians or other leaders use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for problems or mistakes.
Writing Tool #3: Beware of Adverbs Beware of adverbs. They can dilute the meaning of the verb or repeat it.
The authors of the classic “Tom Swift” adventures for boys loved the exclamation point and the adverb. Consider this brief passage from “Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight”:
“Look!” suddenly exclaimed Ned. “There’s the agent now! … I’m going to speak to him!” impulsively declared Ned.
That exclamation point after “Look” should be enough to heat the prose for the young reader, but the author adds “suddenly” and “exclaimed” 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 Swiftie,” where the adverb conveys the punch line:
“I’m an artist,” he said easily.
“I need some pizza now,” he said crustily.
“I’m the Venus de Milo,” she said disarmingly.
At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express 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.”
Consider 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 verb.
A half-century after his death, Meyer Berger remains one of great stylists in the history of The New York Times. One of his last columns describes the care received in a Catholic hospital by an old blind violinist:
The staff talked with Sister Mary Fintan, who (in) charge of the hospital. With her consent, they brought the old violin to Room 203. It had not been played for years, but Laurence Stroetz groped for it. His long white fingers stroked it. He tuned it, with some effort, and tightened the old bow. He lifted it to his chin and the lion’s mane came down.
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The vigor of verbs and the absence of adverbs mark Berger’s prose. As the old man plays “Ave Maria…”
Black-clad and white-clad nuns moved lips in silent prayer. They choked up. The long years on the Bowery had not stolen Laurence Stroetz’s touch. Blindness 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 sunken cheeks creased in a smile.
How much better that “the audience pattered applause” than that they “applauded politely.”
Excess adverbiage reflects the style of an immature writer, but the masters can stumble as well. John Updike wrote a one-paragraph essay about the beauty of the beer can before the invention of the pop-top. He dreamed of how suds once “foamed eagerly in the exultation 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 (“exultation”), which personify the beer and tell us all we need to know about eagerness.
Adverbs have their place in effective prose. But use them sparingly.
Workshop
1. Look through the newspaper for any word that ends in –ly. If it is an adverb, delete it with your pencil and read the new sentence aloud.
2. Do the same for your last three essays, stories, or papers. Circle the adverbs, delete them, and decide if the new sentence is better or worse.
3. Read through your adverbs again and mark those that modify the verb or adjective as opposed to those that just intensify it.
4. Look for weak verb/adverb combinations that can be revised into strong verbs: “She went quickly down the stairs” can become “She dashed down the stairs.”
Writing Tool #4: Period As a Stop Sign
Place strong words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as a stop sign. Any word next to the period says, “Look at me.”
Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” advises the writer to “Place emphatic words in a sentence at the end,” which offers an example of its own rule. The most emphatic word appears at “the end.” Application of this tool –- an ancient rhetorical device –- 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 next to the white space.
Emphatic word order helps the news writer solve the most difficult problems. Consider this news lead from The Philadelphia Inquirer. The writer must make sense of three powerful news elements: the death of a United States Senator, the collision of aircraft, and a tragedy at an elementary school:
A private plane carrying U.S. Sen. John Heinz collided with a helicopter in clear skies over Lower Merion Township yesterday, triggering a fiery, midair explosion that rained burning debris over an elementary school playground.
Seven people died: Heinz, 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.
Flaming and smoking wreckage tumbled to the earth around Merion Elementary School on Bowman Avenue at 12:19 p.m., but the gray stone building and its occupants were spared. Frightened children ran from the playground as teachers herded others outside. Within minutes, anxious parents began streaming to the school in jogging suits, business clothes, house-coats. Most were rewarded with emotional reunions, amid the smell of acrid smoke.
On most days, any of the three news elements would lead the paper. Combined, they form an overpowering news tapestry, one that the reporter and editor must handle with care. What matters most in this story? The death of a senator? A spectacular crash? The death of children?
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 -– like the locomotive and coal car of a railroad train –- saving other interesting words for the end –- like a caboose.
Consider, also, the order in which the writer lists the anxious parents, who arrive at the school in “jogging clothes, business suits, house-coats.” Any other order weakens the
sentence. Placing “house-coats” at the end builds the urgency of the situation, parents racing from their homes dressed as they are.
Putting strong stuff at the beginning and the end allows writers to hide weaker stuff in the middle. In the passage above, notice how the writer hides the less important news elements – – the who and the when (“Lower Merion Township yesterday”) -– in the middle of the lead. This strategy also works for attributing quotations:
“It was one horrible thing to watch,” said Helen Amadio, who was walking near her Hampden Avenue home when the crash occurred. “It exploded like a bomb. Black smoke just poured.”
Begin with a good quote. Hide the attribution in the middle. End with a good quote.
These tools are as old as rhetoric itself. Near the end of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, a character announces to Macbeth: “The Queen, my Lord, is dead.” This astonishing example of the power of emphatic word order is followed by one of the darkest passages in all of literature. Macbeth says:
She should have died hereafter; There would have a time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking 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 Signifying nothing.
The poet has one great advantage over those of us who write prose. He knows where the line will end. He gets to emphasize a word at the end of a line, a sentence, a paragraph. We prose writers make do with the sentence and paragraph –- signifying something.
Workshop:
1. Read Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to study the uses of emphatic word order.
2. With a pencil in hand, read an essay you admire. Circle the last words in each paragraph.
3. Do the same for recent examples of your own work. Look for opportunities to revise sentences so that more powerful or interesting words appear at the end.
4. Survey your friends to get the names of their dogs. Write these in alphabetical order. Imagine this list would appear in a story. Play with the order of names. Which could go first? Which last? Why?
Writing Tool #5: Observe Word Territory
Observe “word territory.” Give key words their space. Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.
I coined the phrase “word territory” to describe a tendency I notice in my own writing. When I read a story I wrote months or years ago, I am surprised by how often I repeat words without care.
Writers may choose to repeat words or phrases for emphasis or rhythm. Abraham Lincoln was not redundant in his hope that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Only a mischievous or tone-deaf editor would delete the repetition of “people.”
To observe word territory you must recognize the difference between intended and unintended repetition. For example, I once wrote this sentence to describe a writing tool:
Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, creating an effect that Don Fry calls “steady advance.”
It took 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. Word territory.
In 1978 I wrote this ending to a story about the life and death of Beat writer Jack Kerouac in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida:
How fitting then that this child of bliss should come in the end to St. Petersburg. Our city of golden sunshine, balmy serenity, and careless bliss, a paradise for those who have known 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.
Years later, I admire that passage except for the unintended repetition of the key word “bliss.” Worse yet, I had used it again, two paragraphs earlier. I offer no excuse other than feeling blissed out in the aura of Kerouac’s work.
I’ve heard a story, which I cannot verify, that Ernest Hemingway tried to write book pages in which no key words were repeated. That effect would mark a hard-core adherence to word territory, but, in fact, does not reflect the way that Hemingway writes. He often repeats key words on a page — table, rock, fish, river, sea — because to find a synonym strains the writer’s eyes and the reader’s ears.
Consider this passage from “A Moveable Feast”:
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All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So 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 knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork 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 Hemingway passage. The effect is like the beat of a bass drum. It vibrates the writer’s message into the pores of the skin. Some words — like “true” or “sentence” — act as building blocks and can be repeated to good effect. Distinctive words — like “scrollwork” or “ornament” — deserve their own space.
Finally, leave “said” alone. Don’t be tempted by the muse of variation to permit characters to “opine,” “elaborate,” “chortle,” “cajole,” or “laugh.”
Workshop:
1. Read a story you wrote at least a year ago. Pay attention to the words you repeat. Divide them into three categories: a. function words (“said” or “that”) b. foundation words (“house” or “river”) c. distinctive words (“silhouette” or “jingle”)
2. Do the same with the draft of a story you are working on now. Your goal is to recognize unintended repetition before it is published.
3. Read some selections from novels or nonfiction stories that make use of dialogue. Study 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: Play with Words
Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.
Just as the sculptor works 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 God, the Great Shaper, formed heaven and earth.
Good writers play with language, even when the topic is about death:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to his dying father, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Play and death may seem at odds, but the writer finds the path that connects them. To express his grief, the poet fiddles with language, prefers ‘gentle’ to ‘gently,’ chooses ‘night’ to rhyme with ‘light,’ and repeats the word ‘rage.’ Later in the poem, he will even pun about those “grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight.” The double meaning of ‘grave men’ leads straight to the oxymoron ‘blinding sight.’ Word-play.
The headline writer is the journalist most like the poet, stuffing big meaning into small spaces. Consider this headline about a shocking day during the war in Iraq: Jubilant mob mauls four dead Americans.
The circumstances of the story are hideous: Iraqi civilians attack 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 onlookers cheer. Even amidst such carnage, the headline writer plays with the language. The writer repeats consonant sounds (like ‘b’ and ‘m’) for emphasis and contrasts words such as ‘jubilant’ and ‘dead’ with surprising effect. ‘Jubilant’ stands out as well-chosen, derived from the Latin verb that means ‘to raise a shout of joy.’
Words like ‘mob,’ ‘dead,’ and ‘Americans’ appear in news reports all the time. ‘Mauls’ is a verb we might see in a story about a dog attack on a child. But ‘jubilant’ is a distinctive word, comprehensible to most readers, but rare in the context of news.
Too often, writers suppress their own vocabularies in a misguided attempt to lower the level of language for a general audience. Obscure words should be defined in texts or made clear from context. But 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.”
Kelley Benham of the St. Petersburg Times is such a writer:
When they heard the screams, no one suspected the rooster.
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Dechardonae Gaines, 2, was toddling down the sidewalk Monday lugging her Easy Bake Oven when she became the victim in one of the weirder animal attack cases police can recall.
The writer’s choice of words brings to life this off-beat police story in which a rooster attacks a little girl. ‘Screams’ is a word we see in the news all the time, but not ‘rooster.’ Both ‘toddling’ and ‘lugging’ are words common to the average reader, but unusual in the news.
Benham uses other words that are common to readers, but rare in reporting: Ventured, belly, pummeling, freaking, swatted, backhanded, shuffled, latched on, hammered, crowing, flip- flops, shucked, bobbed, skittered, and sandspurs.
All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake, but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond. The good news is that the act of reporting always expands 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 Donald Hall. “He must also be able to step back, inside his head, and see the flowing sentence. But he starts with the single word.” Hall celebrates writers who “are original, as if seeing a thing for the first time; yet they report their vision in a language that reaches the rest of us. For the first quality the writer needs imagination; for the second he needs skill … Imagination without skill makes a lively chaos; skill without imagination, a deadly order.”
Workshop:
1. Read several stories in today’s newspaper. Circle any surprising word, especially one you are not used to seeing in the news.
2. Write a draft of a story or essay with the intention of unleashing your writing vocabulary. Show this draft to some test readers and interview them about your word choice and their level of understanding. Share your findings with others.
3. Read the work of a writer you admire with special attention to word choice. Circle any signs of playfulness by the writer, especially when the subject matter is serious.
4. Find a writer, perhaps a poet, whose work you read as an inspiration for writing.
Writing Tool #7: Dig for the Concrete and Specific
Dig for the concrete and specific: the name of the dog.
Novelist Joseph Conrad once described his task this way: “By the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.” When Gene Roberts, a great American newspaper editor, broke in as a cub reporter in North Carolina, he read his stories aloud to a blind editor who would chastise young Roberts for not making him see.
Details of character and setting appeal to the senses of the reader, creating an experience that leads to understanding. When we say “I see,” we most often mean “I understand.” Inexperienced writers may choose the obvious detail, the man puffing on the cigarette, the young woman chewing on what’s left of her fingernails. Those details are not telling — unless the man is dying of lung cancer or the woman is anorexic.
In St. Petersburg, editors and writing coaches warn reporters not to return to the office without “the name of the dog.” That reporting task does not require the writer to use the detail in the story, but it reminds the reporter to keep her eyes and ears opened. When Kelley Benham wrote the story of the ferocious rooster that attacked a toddler, she not only got the name of the rooster, Rockadoodle Two, but also the names of his parents, Rockadoodle and one-legged Henny Penny. (I cannot explain why it matters that the offending rooster’s mother only had one leg, but it does.)
Just before the execution of a serial killer, reporter Christopher Scanlan flew to Utah to visit the family of one of the murderer’s presumed victims. Years earlier a young woman left her house and never returned. Scanlan found the detail that told the story of the family’s unending grief. He noticed a piece of tape over the light switch next to the front door — 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 kept burning like an eternal flame.
Here’s the key: Scanlan saw the taped-over switch and asked about it. The great detail he captured was a product of his curiosity, not his imagination.
The quest for such details has gone on for centuries, as any historical anthology of reportage will reveal. British scholar John Carey describes these examples from his collection Eyewitness to History:
This book is … full of unusual or indecorous or incidental images that imprint themselves scaldingly on the mind’s eye: the ambassador peering down the front of Queen Elizabeth I’s dress and noting the wrinkles … the Tamil looter at the fall of Kuala Lumpur upending a carton of snowy Slazenger tennis balls … Pliny watching people with cushions on their heads against the ash from the volcano; Mary, Queen of Scots, suddenly aged in death, with her pet dog cowering among her skirts and her head held on by one recalcitrant piece of gristle; the starving Irish with their mouths green from their diet of grass.
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(Though there is no surviving record of the name of Mary’s dog, I have learned that it was a Skye terrier, a Scottish breed famous for its loyalty and valor!)
The good writer uses telling details, not only to inform but to persuade. In 1963 Gene Patterson wrote this passage in a column mourning the murders of four girls in the dynamite bombing of a church in Alabama:
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.
Patterson will not permit white Southerners to escape responsibility for the murder of those children. He fixes their eyes and ears, forcing them to hear the weeping of the grieving mother, and to see the one tiny shoe. The writer makes us empathize and mourn and understand. He makes us see.
Workshop:
1. Read today’s edition of The New York Times looking for passages in stories that appeal to the senses. Do the same with a novel.
2. Ask a group of colleagues or students to share stories about the names of their pets. Which names reveal the most about the personalities of the owners?
3. With some friends, study the collected work of an outstanding photojournalist. Make believe you are writing a story about the scene captured in the photo. Which details might you select, and in what order would you render them?
4. With some willing subjects, ask to see the contents of a wallet, purse, or desk drawer. Ask the owners to give you a ‘tour’ of the contents. Take extensive notes. Which details best convey the owner’s character?
Writing Tool #8: Seek Original Images
Seek original images. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language. Reject cliches and “first-level creativity.” The mayor wants to rebuild a downtown in ruins but will not reveal the details of his plan. “He’s playing his cards close to his vest,” you write.
You 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 peek at his hand. Whoever used this metaphor first, wrote something fresh. With 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 George Orwell. He argues that using cliches is a substitute for thinking, a form of automatic writing: “Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” Orwell’s last phrase is a fresh image, a model of originality.
The language of sources threatens the good writer at every turn. Nowhere is this truer than in sports journalism. A post-game interview with almost any athlete in any sport produces a quilt of cliches: We fought hard. We stepped up. We just tried to have some fun. It’s a miracle that the best sports writers are so original. A favorite of mine, Bill Conlin, wrote this about the virtues of one baseball great:
Cal Ripken is a superstar anomaly. His close-cropped hair is gray by genetics, not chartreuse, cerise, or hot pink by designer dye. He puts a ring around his bat while on deck, not through his nose, nipples, or other organs.
So what is the original writer to do? When tempted by a tired phrase, “white as snow,” stop writing. Take what the practitioners of natural childbirth call a “cleansing breath.” Then jot down the old phrase on a piece of paper. Start scribbling alternatives:
• White as snow. • White as Snow White. • Snowy white. • Gray as city snow. • White as Prince Charles.
Saul Pett, a reporter known for his style, once told me that he might have to create and reject more than a dozen images before the process led him to the right one. Such duty to craft should inspire us, but the strain of such effort can be discouraging. On deadline, write it straight: “The mayor was being secretive about his plans.” If you fall back on the cliche, make sure there are no others around it.
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More deadly than cliches of language are what Donald Murray calls “cliches of vision,” the narrow frames through which writers learn to see the world. In “Writing to Deadline,” Murray lists common blind spots: victims are always innocent, bureaucrats are lazy, politicians are corrupt, it’s lonely at the top, the suburbs are boring.
I have described one cliche of vision as “first-level creativity.” For example, it’s impossible to survive a week of American journalism without reading or hearing the phrase: “But the dream became a nightmare.”
This frame is so pervasive that it can be applied to almost any story: the golfer who shoots 33 on the front nine, but 44 on the back; the company CEO jailed for fraud; the woman who suffers from botched plastic surgery.
Writers who reach the first level of creativity think 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 Florida man, who, walking 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 workshop, I gave reporters a fact sheet from which they were to write five different leads for this story in five minutes. Some leads were straight and newsy, others nifty and distinctive. But almost everyone in the room, including me, had this version of a lead sentence:
When Robert Hudson headed home for lunch Thursday, little did he know that he’d become the meal. We agreed that if 30 of us had landed on the same bit of humor, it must be obvious — first level creativity. We discovered the next level in a lead that read: “Perhaps to a 10-foot alligator, Robert Hudson tastes like chicken.” We also agreed that we preferred straight writing to the first pun that came to mind. What value is there in the story of a renegade rooster that mentions “foul play,” or, even worse, “fowl play”?
Some forms of cleverness are irresistible. When the Salvador Dali Museum opened in St. Petersburg, Fla., who could blame the headline writer who typed out “Hello, Dali”? But if a dream never more becomes a nightmare, American journalism and the public it serves will be better for it.
Workshop:
1. Read the newspaper today with a pencil in your hand and circle any phrase you are used to seeing in print.
2. Apply this process to your own stories. Read some old ones and circle the cliches or tired phrases. Revise them with straight writing or original images.
3. Brainstorm alternatives to these common metaphors: red as a rose, white as snow, brown as a berry, blue as the sky, cold as ice, hot as hell.
4. Re-read some passages from your favorite writer. Can you find any cliches? Circle the most original and vivid images.
Writing Tool #9: Prefer Simple to Technical
Prefer the simple to the technical: shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
I once learned a literary technique called “defamiliarization,” a hopeless and ugly word that describes the process by which an author takes the familiar and makes it strange. Film 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 dazzling as with E.B. White’s description of a humid day in Florida:
On many days the dampness of the air pervades all life, all living. Matches refuse to strike. 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. Postage stamps mate with one another as shamelessly as grasshoppers.
What could be more familiar than a mustache on a teacher’s face, but not this mustache, as described by Roald Dahl in his childhood memoir:
A truly terrifying sight, a thick orange hedge that sprouted and flourished between his nose and his upper lip and ran clear across his face from the middle of one cheek 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 looking-glass every morning.
Both White and Dahl take a common experience or object – the humid day or the mustache – and, through the filter of their prose style, force us to see it in a new way.
We might as well give a name to the opposite and more common process. For balance we’ll call it “familiarization,” taking the strange, or opaque, or complex, and through the power of explanation, making 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 requirements without regard for their local cost and tax 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, working conditions and pensions.
The density of this passage has two possible explanations: the writer is writing for a specialized one, legal experts already familiar with the issues. Or, the writer thinks that form should follow function, that complicated ideas should be communicated in complicated prose.
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He needs the advice of writing coach Donald Murray, who says the reader benefits from shorter words and phrases, simpler sentences, at the points of greatest complexity. What would happen if readers encountered this translation of the editorial?:
The state of New York often passes laws telling local governments what to do. These laws have a name. They are called “state mandates.” On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state. But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn’t consider the cost to local government, or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea. The state should pay back local governments for some of these so-called “mandates.”
The differences in these passages are worth measuring. This first one takes six lines of text. The revision requires one additional line. But consider this: The original writer only has room for 57 words in six lines, while I get 81 words in seven lines. His six lines give him room for only one sentence. I fit eight sentences into seven lines. My words and sentences are shorter. The passage is much clearer. I use this writing strategy to fulfill a mission: to make the strange workings of government clearer to the average citizen. To make 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 – a determination to inform. What comes next is the hard work of reporting, research, and critical thinking. The writer cannot make something clear until the difficult subject is clear in the writer’s head. Then, and only then, does she reach into the writer’s toolbox, ready to explain to readers, “Here’s how it works.”
Workshop:
1. Review a story you think is unclear, dense with difficult information. Study the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs.
2. Repeat the process with your own prose. Pay special attention to passages you now think are too complicated. Try to revise a passage using the tools described above.
3. Begin to collect examples of stories where the writer has turned hard facts into easy reading. You can start by browsing through a good academic encyclopedia.
4. Look for an opportunity in a story to use the sentence: “Here’s how it works.”
Writing Tool #10: Recognize the Roots of Stories
Recognize the mythic, symbolic, and poetic. Be aware (and beware) that common themes of news writing have deep roots in the culture of storytelling.
In 1971 John Pilger described a protest march by Vietnam veterans against the war:
“The truth is out! Mickey Mouse is dead! The good guys are really the bad guys in disguise!” The speaker is William Wyman, from New York City. He is 19 and has no legs. He sits in a wheelchair on the steps of the United States Congress, in the midst of a crowd of 300,000 … He has on green combat fatigues and the jacket is torn where he has ripped away the medals and the ribbons he has been given in exchange for his legs, and along with hundreds of other veterans … he has hurled them on the Capitol steps and described them as shit; and now to those who form a ring of pity around him, he says, “Before I lost these legs, I killed and killed! We all did! Jesus, don’t grieve for me!”
Since the Greek poet Homer wrote “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” writers have recorded stories of soldiers going off to war and their struggles to find a way home. This story pattern — often called “there and back” — is primeval and persistent, an archetype so deep within the culture of storytelling that we writers can succumb to its gravitational pull without even knowing it.
Ancient warriors fought for treasure and for reputation, but in the passage above, the blessing becomes the curse. Symbols of bravery and duty turn to “shit” as angry veterans rip them from green jackets 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.
Good writers strive for originality, but they can achieve it by standing on a foundation of narrative archetypes, a set of story expectations that can be manipulated, frustrated, or fulfilled, on behalf of the reader.
• The journey there and back. • Winning the prize. • Winning or losing the loved one. • Loss and restoration. • The blessing becomes the curse. • Overcoming obstacles. • The wasteland restored. • Rising from the ashes. • The ugly duckling. • The emperor has no clothes. • Descent into the underworld.
My high school English teacher, Father Horst, 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.” But, he was quick to add, when it comes to powerful writing, a “symbol” need not be a “cymbal.” Subtlety is a writer’s virtue.
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That said, writers in search of a new story will often stumble upon ancient stories forms. Let’s call them archetypes, story shapes that are so deeply rooted in the culture that they appear over and over again. Badly used, archetypes can become stereotypes — clichés of vision — warping the reporter’s experience of the world to satisfy the requirements of the form. Used well, these forms turn the stuff of daily life into powerful experiences of news and culture.
Some of the best writers in America work for National Public Radio. The stories they tell, making great use of natural sound, open a world to listeners that is both fresh and distinctive, and yet often informed by narrative archetypes. Margo Adler admitted as much when she revealed that her feature story on the New York homeless living in subway tunnels borrowed on her understanding of myths in which the hero descends into the underworld.
More recently, NPR reported the story of an autistic boy, Matt Savage, who has become, at the age of nine, an accomplished jazz musician. The reporter, Margo Melnicove, tapped into the standard form of the young hero who triumphs over obstacles. But the story gives us something more: “Until recently Matt Savage 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 expressed in jazz.
“We use the archetypes,” says Pulitzer winner Tom French. “We 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. Study after study confirms the medical safety of this procedure. Yet the culture refuses to accept it. Why? French 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.
Use archetypes. Don’t let them use you.
Workshop:
1. Read Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” as an introduction to archetypal story forms.
2. As you read and hear coverage of the military actions in the Middle East, look and listen for examples of the story forms described above.
3. Re-examine your own writing over the last year. Can you now identify stories that fit or violate archetypal story patterns? Would you have written them differently?
4. Discuss Father Horst’s advice: a symbol need not be a cymbal. Can you find a symbol in any of your stories? Is it a cymbal?
Writing Tool #11: Back Off or Show Off
When the news or topic is most serious, understate. When the topic is least serious, exaggerate.
George Orwell wrote, “Good writing is like a window pane.” The best prose calls the reader’s attention to the world being described, not to the writer’s cleverness. When we look out the window onto the horizon, we don’t notice the pane. Yet the pane frames our vision just as the writer frames our view of the story.
Most writers have at least two modes: One says “Pay no attention to the writer behind the screen. Look only at the world.” The other says, without inhibition: “Look at me dance. Aren’t I a clever fellow?” In rhetoric, these two modes have names. The first is called understatement. The second is called overstatement or hyperbole.
Here’s a rule of thumb that works for me. The more serious or dramatic the subject, the more the writer backs off, creating the effect that the story is “telling itself.” The more playful or inconsequential the topic, the more the writer can show off. Back off or show off.
Consider this lead to John Hersey’s famous book “Hiroshima”:
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl in the next desk.
This book, described by some as the most important work of nonfiction in the 20th Century, begins with the most ordinary of circumstances, a recitation of the time and date, and two office workers about to converse. The flashing of the atomic bomb almost hides inside that sentence. Because we can imagine the horror that is to follow, the effect of Hersey’s understatement is chilling.
In 1958, R. M. Macoll, writing for an English newspaper, describes the execution of a man and woman in Saudi Arabia. The man is quickly and efficiently beheaded, but the woman suffers a crueler fate:
Now a woman was dragged forward. She and the man had together murdered her former husband. She, too, was under 30, and slender.
The recital of her crime too was read out as she knelt, and then the executioner 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.
Next, a lorry loaded with rocks and stones was backed 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 Muslim 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 keep women in their place.
Let’s contrast such understatement to the spritely style of the great AP writer, Saul Pett, who wrote this description of New York City’s colorful mayor Ed Koch:
He is the freshest thing to blossom in New York since chopped liver, a mixed metaphor of a politician, the antithesis of the packaged leader, irrepressible, candid, impolitic, spontaneous, funny, feisty, independent, uncowed by voter blocs, unsexy, 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 Babel with unseemly joy.
Pett’s prose is over-the-top, a squirt of seltzer down your pants, as was Mayor Koch. Although municipal politics can be serious business, the context here allows Pett room for the full theatrical review.
The clever uber-writer can, in the words of Anna Quindlen, “write your way onto page one,” as investigative reporter Bill Nottingham did the day his city editor assigned him to cover the local spelling bee: “Thirteen-year-old Lane Boy is to spelling what Billy the Kid was to gun- fighting, icy-nerved and unflinchingly accurate.”
To understand the difference between understatement and overstatement, consider the cinematic difference between two Steven Spielberg movies. In “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg evokes the horrors of the Holocaust rather than depict them graphically. In a black and white movie, he makes us follow the life and inevitable death of one little Jewish girl dressed in red.
“Saving Private Ryan” reveals in grisly detail the gruesome warfare on the shores of France 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.
Workshop:
1. Keep your eyes open for lively stories that make their way onto page one of the newspaper, even though they lack traditional news value. Discuss how they were written.
2. Review some of the stories written after the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001. Notice the difference between the stories that seemed “restrained” and the ones that seem “over- written.”
3. Read some examples of feature obits from The New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief.” Study the understated ways in which these are written.
4. Read works of humor from writers such as Woody Allen, Roy Blount Jr., Dave Barry, S.J. Pearlman, or Steve Martin. Look for examples of both hyperbole and understatement.
Writing Tool #12: Control the Pace
Control the pace of the story by varying sentence length.
Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, an effect that Don Fry calls “steady advance.” Or slam on the brakes.
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. While these metaphors of sound and speed may seem vague to the aspiring writer, they are grounded in useful tools and practical questions. How long is the sentence? Where is the comma and the period? How many periods appear in the paragraph?
Writers name three good reasons to slow the pace of a story:
1. To simplify the complex. 2. To create suspense. 3. To focus on the emotional truth.
Consider this unusual lead to a story about the city government budget:
Do you live in St. Petersburg? Want to help spend $548 million?
It’s money you paid in taxes and fees to the government. You elected the City Council to office, and as your representatives, they’re ready to listen to your ideas on how to spend it.
Mayor Rick Baker and his staff have figured out how they’d like to spend the money. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Baker will ask the City Council to agree with him. And council members will talk about their ideas.
You have the right to speak at the meeting, too. Each resident gets three minutes to tell the mayor and council members what he or she thinks.
But why would you stand up?
Because how the city spends its money affects lots of things you care about.
Not every journalist likes this approach to government writing, but its author, Bryan Gilmer, gets credit for an effect I call “radical clarity.” Gilmer eases the reader into this story with a sequence of short sentences and paragraphs. All the stopping points give the reader the time and space to comprehend. Yet there is enough variation to imitate the patterns of normal conversation.
But clarity is not the only reason to write short sentences. Let’s look at suspense and emotional power, what some people call the “Jesus wept” effect. To express Jesus’s profound sadness at learning of the death of his friend Lazarus, the Gospel writer uses the shortest possible sentence. Two words. Subject and verb. “Jesus wept.”
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I learned the power of sentence length when I read a famous essay by Norman Mailer, “The Death of Benny Paret.” Mailer has often written about boxing, and in this essay he reports on how prizefighter Emile Griffith beat Benny Paret to death in the ring after Paret questioned Griffith’s manhood.
Mailer’s account is riveting, placing us at ringside to witness the terrible event:
Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him 18 right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin.
Notice the rhythm Mailer 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 Paret is fatally injured, Mailer’s sentences get shorter and shorter:
The house doctor jumped into the ring. He knelt. He pried Paret’s eyelid open. He looked at the eyeball staring out. He let the lid snap shut. But they saved Paret long enough to take him to a hospital where he lingered for days. He was in a coma. He never came out of it. If he lived, he would have been a vegetable. His brain was smashed.
All that drama. All that raw emotional power. All those short sentences. In a 1985 book, Gary Provost created this tour de force to demonstrate what happens when the writer experiments with sentences of different lengths:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. 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. So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music. Workshop:
1. Review some of your recent stories to examine your sentence length. Either by combining sentences or cutting them in half, see if you can establish a rhythm that suits your tone and topic.
2. When reading your favorite authors become more aware of variation of sentence length. Mark off some very short sentences, and very long ones, that you find effective.
3. Most writers think 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. Discuss this effect with colleagues and see if you can reach a consensus.
4. Read some children’s books, especially for very young children, to see if you can gauge the effect of sentence length variation on the reader.
Writing Tool #13: Show and Tell
Good writers move up and down the ladder of abstraction. At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like “freedom” and “literacy.” Beware of the middle, the rungs of the ladder where bureaucracy and public policy lurk. In that place, teachers are referred to as “instructional units.”
The ladder of abstraction remains one of the most useful models of thinking and writing ever invented. Popularized by S.I. Hayakawa in his 1939 book “Language in Action,” the ladder has been adopted and adapted in hundreds of ways to help people think clearly and express meaning.
The easiest way to make 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. You can do things with it. Put it against a tree to rescue your cat Voodoo. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. Concrete is hard, which is why when you fall off the ladder from a high place you might break your leg.
The second word is “abstraction.” You can’t eat it or smell it or measure it. It is not easy to use as an example. It appeals not to the senses, but to the intellect. It is an idea that cries out for exemplification.
An old essay by John Updike begins, “We live in an era of gratuitous inventions and negative improvements.” That language is general and abstract, near the top of the ladder. It provokes our thinking, but what concrete evidence leads Updike to his conclusion? The answer is in his second sentence: “Consider the beer can.” To be even more specific, Updike was complaining that the invention of the pop-top ruined the aesthetic experience of drinking beer. “Pop-top” and “beer” are at the bottom of the ladder, “aesthetic experience” at the top.
We learned this language lesson in kindergarten when we played Show and Tell. When we showed the class our 1957 Mickey Mantle baseball card, we were at the bottom of the ladder. When we told the class about what a great season Mickey had in 1956, we started climbing to the top of the ladder, toward the meaning of “greatness.”
Let’s imagine an education reporter covering the local school board. Perhaps the topic of discussion is a new reading curriculum. The reporter is unlikely to hear conversation about little Bessie Jones, a third-grader in Mrs. Griffith’s class at Gulfport Elementary, who will have to repeat the third grade because she failed the state reading test. Bessie cried when her mother showed her the test results.
Nor are you likely to hear school board members ascending to the top of the ladder to discuss “the importance of critical literacy in education, vocation, and citizenship.”
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The language of the school board may be stuck in the middle of the ladder: “How many instructional units will be necessary to carry out the scope and sequence of this curriculum?” an educational expert may ask. Carolyn Matalene, a great writing teacher from South Carolina, taught me that when reporters write prose the reader can neither see nor understand, they are often trapped halfway up the ladder.
Let’s look at how some good writers move up and down the ladder. Consider this lead by Jonathan Bor on a heart
transplant operation: “A healthy 17-year-old heart pumped the gift of life through 34-year-old Bruce Murray Friday, following a four-hour transplant operation that doctors said went without a hitch.” That heart is at the bottom of the ladder — there is no other heart like it in the world — but the blood that it pumps signifies a higher meaning, “the gift of life.” Such movements up the ladder create a lift-off of understanding, an effect some writers call “altitude.”
One of America’s great baseball writers, Thomas Boswell, wrote this essay on the aging of athletes:
The cleanup crews come at midnight, creeping into the ghostly quarter-light of empty ballparks 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 September and October, they come to collect baseball souls.
Age is the sweeper, injury his broom.
Mixed 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.
Metaphor and simile help us to understand abstractions through comparison with concrete things. “Civilization is a stream with banks,” wrote Will Durant, working both ends of the ladder. “The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”
Workshop:
1. Read newspaper and magazine stories that have anecdotal leads followed by “nut” paragraphs that explain what the story is about. Notice if the level of language moves from the concrete to the more abstract.
2. Find some stories about bureaucracy or public policy that seem stuck in the middle of the ladder of abstraction. What kind of reporting would be necessary to climb down or up, to help the reader see and understand?
3. Listen to song lyrics to hear how the language moves on the ladder of abstraction. “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Or “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’.” Or, “I like big butts and I cannot lie … ” Notice how concrete words and images are used in music to express abstractions such as love, hope, lust, and fear.
4. Read 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, betrayal? Are there ways to make such meanings clearer to the reader?
5. Do a Google search on “ladder of abstraction.”
Writing Tool #14: Interesting Names
Remember that writers are, by training and disposition, attracted to people and places with interesting names.
The attraction to interesting names is not a tool, strictly speaking, but a condition, a kind of sweet literary addiction. I once wrote a story about the name Z. Zyzor, the last name listed in the St. Petersburg, Fla., phone directory. The name turned out to be a fake, made up long ago by postal workers so that family members could call them in an emergency, just by looking up the last name in the phonebook. What captured my attention was the name. I wondered what the Z stood for: Zelda Zyzor? Zorro Zyzor? And what was it like to go through life last in line?
Fiction writers, of course, get to make up names for characters, names that become so familiar they become part of our cultural imagination: Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab, Ishmael, Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield.
Sports and entertainment provide an inexhaustible well of interesting names: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Zola Budd, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Shaquille O’Neal, Spike Lee, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley.
Writers gravitate toward stories that take place in towns with interesting names:
• Kissimmee, Florida • Bountiful, Utah • Intercourse, Pennsylvania • Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan • Fort Dodge, Iowa • Opp, Alabama
But the best names seem, as if by magic, attached to real characters who wind up making news. The best reporters recognize and take advantage of coincidence between name and circumstance. A story in The Baltimore 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 Sierra Swann, who, in spite of a lyrical name evoking natural beauty, came apart in a grim environment, “where heroin and cocaine are available curbside beneath the blank stares of boarded-up windows.” The writer traced her downfall, not to drugs, but to an “addiction to the companionship of Nathaniel Broadway.”
Sierra Swann. Nathaniel Broadway. A fiction writer could not invent names more apt and interesting.
I opened my phone book at random and discovered these names on two consecutive pages:
• Danielle Mall • Charlie Mallette
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• Hollis Mallicoat • Ilir Mallkazi • Eva Malo • Mary Maloof • Joe Malpigli • John Mamagona • Lakmika Manawadu • Khai Mang • Rudolph Mango • Ludwig Mangold
Names sometimes provide a kind of backstory, suggesting history, ethnicity, generation, and character. (The brilliant and playful American theologian Martin Marty refers to himself as “Marty Marty.”)
The writer’s interest in names often extends beyond person and place to things. Roald Dahl, who would gain fame from writing the novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” remembers his childhood in sweet shops craving such delights as “Bull’s-Eyes and Old Fashioned Humbugs and Strawberry Bonbons and Glacier Mints and Acid Drops and Pear Drops and Lemon Drops … My own favourites were Sherbet Suckers and Liquorice Bootlaces.” Not to mention the “Gobstoppers” and “Tonsil Ticklers.”
It’s hard to think of a writer with more interest in names than Vladimir Nabokov. Perhaps because he wrote in both Russian and English — and had a scientific interest in butterflies — Nabakov dissects words and images, looking for the deeper levels of meaning. His greatest anti-hero, Humbert Humbert, begins the narration of “Lolita” with this memorable paragraph:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
In this great and scandalous novel, Nabokov includes an alphabetical listing of Lolita’s classmates, beginning with Grace Angel and concluding with Louise Windmuller. The novel becomes a virtual gazetteer of American place names, from the way we name our motels: “All those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac’s Courts” to the funny names attached to roadside toilets: “Guys-Gals, John-Jane, Jack-Jill, and even Bucks-Does.”
What’s in a name? For the attentive writer, and the eager reader, the answer can be fun, insight, charm, aura, character, identity, psychosis, fulfillment, inheritance, decorum, indiscretion, and possession. For in some cultures, if I know and can speak your name, I own your soul. Rumpelstiltskin.
Workshop:
1. In the Judeo-Christian story of Creation, God grants mankind a special power over other creatures: “When the Lord God formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, he brought them to the man to see what he would call them, for that which man called each of them, that would be its name.” Have a conversation about the larger religious and cultural implications of naming, including ceremonies of naming such as birthing, baptism, conversion, and marriage. Don’t forget nicknames and street names and pen names. What are the practical implications for writers?
2. J. K. Rowling is the enormously popular author of the Harry Potter series. Among her many gifts as a writer is her aptitude for naming. Think of her heroes, Albus Dumbledore or Sirius Black or Hermione Granger. And her villains, Draco Malfoy and his henchmen Crabbe and Goyle. Read one of the Harry Potter novels, paying special attention to the author’s great imaginative universe of names.
3. In a daybook or journal, begin to keep a record of interesting character names and place names related to your community.
4. The next time you are reporting a story, interview an expert who can reveal to you the names of things you do not know: 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 reader through scenes, details, and dialogue.
I once read a story in USA Today about a young teenage surfer in Hawaii who lost her arm in a shark attack. The piece, by Jill Lieber, began this way:
Bethany Hamilton has always been a compassionate child. But since the 14-year-old Hawaiian surfing sensation lost her left arm in a shark attack on Halloween, her compassion has deepened.
The key words in this lead are “compassionate” and “compassion.” Writers often turn abstractions into adjectives to define character. One writer tells us that the shopkeeper was “enthusiastic,” or that the lawyer was “passionate” in his closing argument, or that the school girls were “popular.” Some adjectives — such as “ashen,” “blond,” or “winged” — help us see. But 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 examples, for evidence. Don’t just tell me, Ms. Writer, that Super Surfer Girl is compassionate. Show me. And she does:
The writer describes how from her hospital bed, Bethany Hamilton “tearfully insisted” that the 1,500-pound tiger shark that attacked her “not be harmed.” Later 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 December, Hamilton touched more hearts when, on a media tour of New York City, she suddenly removed her ski jacket and gave it to a homeless girl sitting on a subway grate in Times Square. Wearing only a tank top, Hamilton then canceled a shopping spree, saying she already had too many things.
Now I see. That girl really is compassionate.
The best writers create moving pictures of people that reveal their characteristics and aspirations, their hopes and fears. Writing for The New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson describes a mother in desperate fear for the safety of her children, but avoids adjectives such as “desperate” and “fearful.” Instead she shows us a woman preparing her children for school:
Then she sprays them. She shakes an aerosol can and sprays their coats, their heads, their tiny outstretched hands. She sprays them back and front to protect them as they go off to school, facing bullets and gang recruiters and a crazy dangerous world. It is a special religious oil that smells like drugstore perfume, and the children shut their eyes tight as she sprays them long and furious so they will come back to her, alive and safe, at day’s end.
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By re-creating this moment, Wilkerson leads us into the world of this struggling family, offering us the opportunity for empathy. The scenic evidence is supported by the spoken words of the children:
These are the rules for Angela Whitiker’s children, recounted at the Formica-top dining room table:
“Don’t stop off playing,” Willie said. “When your hear shooting, don’t stand around — run,” Nicholas said. “Because a bullet don’t have no eyes,” the two boys shouted. “She pray for us every day,” Willie said.
Writing for the Maine Sunday Telegram, Barbara Walsh 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.” Groups of girls dance in tight circles, adjusting their hair and moving to the music.
“I loooove this song,” Robin says.
Robin points to a large group of 20 boys and girls clustered near the DJ.
“Theeeey are the populars, and we’re nooot,” she shouts over the music.
“We’re the middle group,” Erin adds. “You’ve just got to form your own group and dance.”
“But if you dance with someone that isn’t too popular, it’s not cool,” Robin says. “You lose points,” she adds thrusting her thumbs down.
My colleague Chip Scanlan might ask, “What is this story really about?” The words I choose lead me up the ladder of abstraction: Adolescence. Self-consciousness. Peer-pressure. Social status. Anxiety. Self-expression. Group-think. How 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.
Workshop:
1. Some writers talk about reporting a story until they come away with a dominant impression, something they can express in a single sentence: “The mother of the cheerleader is overbearing and controlling.” They may never write that sentence in the story. Instead, they review and try to re-create for the reader the evidence that led them to this conclusion. Try out this method on some of your stories.
2. Listen carefully to stories reported and written for National Public Radio. Pay special attention to the voices of story subjects and sources. What character traits do they reveal in their speech? How would you render that speech in a print story?
3. Sit with a notebook in a public place: a mall, a cafeteria, an airport lounge, a sports stadium. Watch people’s behavior, appearance, and speech. Write down the character
adjectives that come to mind: obnoxious, affectionate, caring, confused. Now write down the specific details that led you to those conclusions.
Writing Tool #16: Odd and Interesting Things
Put odd and interesting things next to each other.
At its best, the study of literature helps us understand what Frank Smith describes as the “grammar of stories.” Such was the case upon my first encounter with Emma Bovary, the provincial French heroine with the tragically romantic imagination. I remember my amazement at reading the scene in which author Gustave Flaubert describes the seduction of the married and bored Madame Bovary by the cad Rodolphe Boulanger. The setting is an agricultural fair. In a scene both poignant and hilarious, Flaubert switches from the flirtatious language of the lover to the calls of animal husbandry in the background.
I remember it as a back-and-forth between such language as “I tried to make myself leave a thousand times, but still I followed you” and the sounds of “Manure for sale!”
Or “I will have a place in your thoughts and your life, won’t I?” with “Here’s the prize for the best pigs!”
Back and forth, back and forth, the juxtaposition exposing to the reader, but not to Emma, Rodolphe’s true motives. “Ironic juxtaposition” is the fancy term for what happens when two disparate things are placed side by side, one commenting upon the other.
This effect can work in music, in the visual arts, and in poetry:
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky, Like a patient etherized upon a table…
So begins “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem in which T.S. Eliot juxtaposes the romantic image of the evening sky with the sickly metaphor of anesthesia. The tension between those images sets the tone for everything that follows.
Eliot died in 1965, my junior year in Catholic high school, and a group of us celebrated the event by naming our rock band after the poet. We were called “T.S. and the Eliots,” and our motto was “Music with Soul.”
The coupling of unlikely elements is often the occasion for humor, broad and subtle. In “The Producers,” for example, Mel Brooks creates a musical called “Springtime for Hitler,” starring a hippy Führer, and featuring June Taylor-style dancers who form the image of a swastika.
Moving from the grotesquely comic to the deadly serious, consider this introduction to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s story of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island:
4:07 a.m. March 28, 1979.
Two pumps fail. Nine seconds later, 69 boron rods smash down into the hot core of unit two, a nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island. The rods work. Fission in the reactor stops.
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But it is already too late.
What will become America’s worst commercial nuclear disaster has begun.
What follows is a catalog of all the terrible truths that officials will learn, along with some of the harrowing details: “Nuclear workers playing Frisbee outside a plant gate because they were locked out, but not warned of the radiation beaming from the plant’s walls … ”
The suspense that builds from those first short sentences reaches a peak when the high technology of the failed nuclear reactor produces radiation that bombards workers playing Frisbee. Radiation meets Frisbee. Ironic juxtaposition.
Dramatic tension does not have to be so monumental. Consider the story William Serrin wrote for The New York Times about the first woman killed in an underground mine disaster in the United States:
What 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 dead.
All he could see was a trickle of blood from her left temple.
Her face, like all coal miners’ faces, was black with coal. But 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.
Her face black as coal, her hands white as snow.
In some cases, the effect of ironic juxtaposition can be accomplished by a few words embedded in a narrative. The narrator of the dark crime novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice” lays out the plot to murder his girlfriend’s husband:
We played it just like we would tell it. It was about ten o’clock at night, and we had closed up, and the Greek was in the bathroom, putting on his Saturday night wash. I was to take 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. She was to wait ’til she heard him in the tub, go in for a towel, and clip him from behind with a blackjack I had made for her out of a sugar bag with ball bearings wadded down in the end.
James M. Cain creates a double effect in this passage, placing the innocent ‘sugar bag’ between the mechanical ‘ball bearings’ and the criminal instrument ‘blackjack.’ A sack for sugar loses its sweetness when converted to a murder weapon.
Workshop:
1. Feature photographers often see startling visual details in juxtaposition: the street person wearing a corsage, the massive sumo wrestler holding a tiny child. Keep your eyes open for such visual images and imagine how you would represent them in your writing.
2. Re-read some of your own stories to see if there are ironic juxtapositions hiding inside of them. Are there ways to revise your stories to take better advantage of these moments?
3. Now that you have a name for this technique, you will begin to recognize its use more often in literature, theater, movies, music, and journalism. Make a mental note of such examples. And keep your eyes open for them in real life as you report your stories.
Writing Tool #17: The Number of Elements
The number of examples you use in a sentence or a story has meaning.
A self-conscious writer has no choice but to select a specific number of examples or elements in a sentence or paragraph. The writer chooses the number, and when it is greater than one, the order. (If you think the order of a list unimportant, try reciting the names of the Four Evangelists in an order other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)
The Number One: Declare It
Let’s examine some texts with our X-ray reading glasses, looking down beneath the surface meaning to the grammatical machinery at work 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 characterizes the language of one.
• Jesus wept. • Call me. • Call me Ishmael. • Go to hell. • Here’s Johnny. • I do. • God is love. • Elvis. • Elvis has left the building. • Whassup? • You da man! • Word. • True. • I have a dream. • I have a headache. • Not now. • Read my lips.
Tom Wolfe once told William F. Buckley Jr., that if a writer wants the reader to think something the absolute truth, the writer should render it in the shortest possible sentence. Trust me.
The Number Two: Compare It
We know 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
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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. We have to balance them, weigh them against each other, compare and contrast them.
• Mom and dad. • True or false. • Scylla and Charybdis. • The devil and the deep blue sea. • Ham and eggs. • Abbott and Costello. • Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. • Sam and Dave. • Dick and Jane. • Rock and Roll. • Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. • 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. Rather 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:
• Beginning, middle, and end. • Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. • Heaven, purgatory, and hell. • Tinkers to Evers to Chance. • Of the people, by the people, for the people. • A priest, a minister, and a rabbi. • On your mark, get set, go. • Mickey, Willie, and the Duke. • Executive, Legislative, Judicial. • The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
At the end of his most famous passage on the nature of love, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three. But the greatest of all is love.” The powerful movement is from trinity to unity. From 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. Part of the magic of three is that it offers a greater sense of completeness than four or more. Once we add a fourth or fifth detail we have achieved escape velocity, breaking out of the circle of wholeness:
That girl is smart, sweet, determined, and anorexic.
We can add descriptive elements to infinity. Four or more examples create a list, but not a complete inventory. Four or more details in a passage can offer a flowing, literary effect that the best writers have created since Homer listed the names of the Greek ships. Consider the beginning of Jonathan Lethem’s novel “Motherless Brooklyn”:
“Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s.”
If we check these sentences against our theory of numbers, it would reveal this pattern: 1-2- 5-1. 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 –- so important he casts it in italics.
So good writing is as easy as one, two, three … and four.
In summary:
• Use one for power. • Use two for comparison, contrast. • Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness. • Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.
Workshop:
1. Begin an intense process of X-ray reading for examples in which the writer uses the number of items to achieve a specific effect.
2. Re-read some examples of your own recent work. Examine your own use of numbers. Look for cases in which you might want to add an example or subtract one to create the effects described above.
3. Have a brainstorming sessions with friends in which you list additional examples of the use of one, two, three, and four. Draw these from proverbs, everyday speech, music lyrics, famous speeches, literature, sports.
4. Look for an opportunity to use a long list in a story. For example, the names of kittens in a new litter. The items in the window of an old drugstore. Things abandoned at the bottom of a swimming pool. Play with the order of the list to achieve the best effect.
Writing Tool #18: Internal Cliffhangers What makes a page-turner, an irresistible read, a story or book that you can’t put down?
Well, lots of things. But one indispensable tool seems to be the internal cliffhanger.
During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal I read a remarkable story by David Finkel, who writes for the Sunday Magazine of The Washington Post. The title of the piece was “How It Came to This: The Scandal in 13 Acts.” More specifically, it answered this question: “How the heck did Monica Lewinsky get into the White House in the first place?”
The “13 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 Finkel would plant a story element that motivated the reader to keep reading. It might be an important question without an answer, or a dramatic turn of events, or a moment of insight, or a bit of foreshadowing.
For example, Finkel concludes chapter 8, which describes the taped conversation between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp about the famous soiled blue dress, this way: “And on they went, only one of them aware of the importance of the conversation they’d just had.” You don’t need a cliff to write a good cliffhanger.
I found a great example of the internal cliffhanger in my own backyard. A page-one story in the St. Pete Times described the struggle to keep desperate folks from jumping to their deaths from the top of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. This turns out to be a terrible problem, not just in St. Pete, but wherever a high, dramatic bridge lures the desperate or suicidal.
Here’s the opening segment of the story by reporter Jamie Jones:
The lonely young blond left church on a windy afternoon and drove to the top of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Wearing black pumps and a shiny black dress, she climbed onto the ledge and looked at the chilly blue waters 197 feet below. The wind seemed to nudge her. It’s time, she thought.
She raised her arms skyward and pushed off the edge. Two boaters watched as she began a swan dive into Tampa Bay.
Halfway down, Dawn Paquin wanted to turn back. “I don’t want to die,” she thought.
A second later, she slammed into the water. It swallowed her, and then let her go. She broke through the surface, screaming.
The internal cliffhanger at the end of that passage made it impossible for me to stop reading. The reporter organized the whole story that way, dividing the work into seven sections, each
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separated from the others by the visual marker of three black boxes. 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. We are more inclined to associate it with serialized film or television adventures with big endings. The super-sized ones come at the end of one season and sustain your interest until the next, as in the famous “Who Shot J.R.?”
Think of it as the “to be continued” effect, and consider how much we sometimes resent having to wait six months to find out what happens next.
I stumbled upon the internal cliffhanger by reading adventure books for young readers. I’m holding in my hand a reprint of the very first Nancy Drew mystery story, “The Secret of the Old Clock.” I’m quoting from the conclusion of Chapter XIX:
Clutching the blanket and the clock tightly in her arms, Nancy Drew partly crawled and partly fell over objects as she struggled to get out of the truck before it was too late. She was afraid to think what would happen to her if the robbers discovered her in the van.
Reaching the door, she leaped lightly to the floor. She could now hear heavy footsteps coming closer and closer.
Nancy slammed the truck doors shut and searched wildly for the keys.
“Oh, what did I do with them?” she thought frantically.
She saw that they had fallen from the door to the floor and snatched them up. Hurriedly inserting the right key in the lock, 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 quarreling among themselves, and already someone was working at the fastening of the barn door.
Escape was cut off. Nancy felt that she was cornered.
“Oh, what shall I do?” she thought in despair.
There you have it, the internal cliffhanger, daring you to stop reading.
Think about it. This technique energizes every episode of every television drama, from “Law & Order” to “The West Wing.” Even “American Idol” forces the viewer to sit through the commercial break to learn which performer has been voted off. Any dramatic element that comes right before a break in the action is an internal cliffhanger.
Workshop:
1. As you read novels or nonfiction books, begin to notice what the author places at the ends of chapters. How do these elements drive you to turn the page?
2. Pay attention to the narrative structure of television dramas. Writers of these shows often place dramatic elements just before the commercial break. Look for examples that work and for ones that fail to keep the viewer intrigued.
3. Lead a discussion of what it would take to put a mini-cliffhanger right before we ask readers to ‘jump’ inside the paper?
4. What if we put a mini-cliffhanger at the end of the first screen full of text online so that readers could not resist a click or scroll?
Writing Tool #19: Tune Your Voice
Tune your voice.
Of all the effects created by writers, none is more important or elusive than that quality called “voice.” Good 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.”
But what is voice, and how does the writer tune it?
The most useful definition comes from my friend and colleague Don Fry: “Voice is the sum of all the strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.”
Poet David McCord tells the story of how he once picked up an old copy of St. Nicholas magazine, which printed stories written by children. One of the stories caught his attention, and he was “suddenly struck by a prose passage more earthy and natural in voice than what I had been glancing through. This sounds like E.B. White, I said to myself. Then I looked at the signature: Elwyn Brooks White, age 11.” The qualities that led McCord to recognize the young author who would one day write “Charlotte’s Web” can be summed up in the word “voice.”
If Fry is correct, that voice is the “sum” of all writing strategies, which of those strategies are essential to creating the illusion of speech? To answer that question, think of a piece of sound equipment called a “Graphic Equalizer.” This is the device that creates the range of sounds in a sound system by providing about 30 dials or levers, controlling such things as bass and treble. Push up the bass, pull down the treble, add a little reverb to configure the desired sound.
So, if we all had a handy-dandy writing voice modulator, what ranges would the levers control? Here are a few, expressed as a set of questions:
1. What is the level of language? Is it concrete or abstract or somewhere in between? Does the writer use street slang or the logical argument of a professor of philosophy?
2. What “person” does the writer work in? Does the writer use ‘I’ or ‘we’ or ‘you’ or ‘they’ or all of these?
3. What is the range and the sources of allusions? Do these come from high or low culture, or both? Does the writer cite a medieval theologian or a professional wrestler?
4. How often does the writer use metaphors and other figures of speech? Does the writer want to sound more like the poet, whose work is thick with figurative images, or the journalist, who only uses them for special effect?
5. What is the length and structure of the typical sentence? Is it short and simple? Long and complex? Or mixed?
6. What is the distance from neutrality? Is the writer trying to be objective, partisan, or passionate?
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7. What are the writer’s frames of reference? Does the writer work with conventional subject matter, using conventional story forms? Or is the writer experimental and iconoclastic?
Consider this passage, a CBS radio broadcast by Edward R. Murrow, on the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp. Read it aloud to hear how it sounds:
We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little. All except two were naked. 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. He uses a single chilling metaphor, “stacked up like cordwood,” but the rest seems plain and straightforward. The sentences are mostly short and simple. His writing voice is not neutral — how could it be? — but it describes the world he sees and not the emotions of the reporter. Yet 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 like it might have come from Shakespeare. This brief X-ray reading of Murrow’s work shows the interaction of the various strategies that create the effect we know as “voice.”
How different is the effect when 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes describes the passions of mankind:
Grief for the calamity of another is PITY, and arises from the imagination that the like calamity may befall himself, and therefore is called also COMPASSION, and in the phrase of this present time a FELLOW-FEELING.
The Murrow passage, with its particularity, evokes pity and compassion. The Hobbes passage, with its abstractions, defines them. If you write like Murrow, you’ll sound like a great journalist. If you write like Hobbes, you will sound like an antique philosopher.
The most powerful tool on your workbench to test your writing voice is oral reading. Read your story aloud to hear if it sounds like you. When teachers offer this advice to writers, we often meet skeptical glances. You can’t be serious, say these looks. You don’t literally mean that I should read the story aloud. Perhaps you mean I should read the story “in-loud,” quietly, 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.
Writers 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 sentence? That question is best answered by oral – and aural – reading.
Workbench:
1. Read a draft of a story aloud to a friend or editor. Ask your colleague, “Does this sound like me?” Discuss the response.
2. After re-reading some of your stories, make a list of adjectives that you think 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.
3. Read a draft of a story aloud. Can you hear problems in the story that you cannot see?
Writing Tool #20: Narrative Opportunities Take advantage of narrative opportunities.
Journalists use the word ‘story’ with romantic promiscuity. They think 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. Reports need not be dull, of course, nor stories interesting. But the difference between story and report is crucial to the reader’s expectation and the writer’s execution. Story elements, call them anecdotes, appear in many news reports. But few pieces in a newspaper earn the title of ‘Story.’ Most items we call stories are actually reports.
So what are the differences between report and story, and how can the writer use them to strategic advantage? A wonderful scholar named Louise Rosenblatt argued that readers read for two main reasons: information and experience. Reports convey information. Stories create experience. Reports transfer knowledge. Stories transport the reader, crossing the boundaries of time, space, and imagination. The report points us there. The story puts us there.
A report sounds like this: “The school board will meet Thursday to discuss the new desegregation plan.”
A story sounds like this: “Wanda Mitchell shook her fist at the school board chairman, tears streaming down her face.”
The toolsets for reports and stories also differ. For example, while both quotes and dialogue are encased in quotations marks, the explanatory quote enlivens the report, while dialogue reveals character and moves the plot of a story.
The famous Five W’s and H, expressed in a form called the Inverted Pyramid, have helped journalists organize the news from most important down to least important. Who, What, Where, and When appear as the most common elements of information. The Why and the How are harder to achieve. When used in reports, these pieces of information are frozen in time, fixed so readers can scan and understand.
A great Seattle journalist, Richard Zahler, showed me how to thaw out those Five W’s, converting a report into a story, allowing time to flow and characters to grow. In this process of conversion:
• Who becomes Character. • What becomes Action. (What happened.) • Where becomes Setting. • When becomes Chronology. • Why becomes Motivation or Causality. • How becomes Process (How it happened.)
One of your most important jobs as a writer is to figure out when you’re writing a story as opposed to a report. Stories, argues Jon Franklin, require rising and falling action, complication, points of insight, and resolution. Tom Wolfe demonstrated how to match truthful reporting with fictional techniques, such as setting scenes, finding details of character, capturing dialogue, and altering points of view.
Narrative, scholars Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg tell us, requires a story and a storyteller. Consider this opening to a series in The Star-Ledger of Newark, about a troubled school nicknamed “Last Chance High”:
Ron Orr slumped in his chair, let out a long, deliberate sigh and again wondered what he was doing here. He 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 Valley School, 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 smoke marijuana right there in the hallway.Someone yelled to look outside – one of the students was planning to race by in a stolen car. “Of all days,” Orr said, rubbing his temples.
Orr liked to remind himself that he prayed for this job. On this day –- Graduation Day 2003 -– he added, “The Lord giveth, and now I wish he would taketh it back.”
It is the beginning to quite a story, and the storyteller, Robin Fisher, helps readers answer this question: What was it like to be in that school with that principal and those students on that particular day, Graduation Day? Fisher 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.
Let’s break it down. In this passage:
• The ‘Who’ is the Job-revising character of Principal Orr. • The ‘What’ is what will happen on Graduation Day. Will principal and students make it
through against the odds? • The ‘Where’ is the campus of the alternative high school, “the claustrophobic
madhouse.” • The ‘When’ is the beginning of a special day-in-the-life, Graduation Day. • The ‘Why’ and the ‘How’ are explored in the fuller narrative. Why does this principal
persist?How does the place work? How does it survive?
To convert a report into a story, the reporter must become a storyteller.
RELATED RESOURCES Wanna learn more? Check out our reporting, writing, and editing seminars.
Click here to receive Writer’s Toolbox each week by e-mail.
Workbench:
1. Look at the news with the distinction between reports and stories in mind. Look for narrative opportunities missed. Look for bits of stories wherever you may find them.
2. Take the same approach to your own work. Look for stories, or at least passages in stories, where you transport the reader directly to the scene. Search for places in your reports where you might have included story elements.
3. Narrative depends upon the strategic use of time in a story. Rick Zahler uses the example of an old hotel destroyed in a fire. Describe the ways a writer could take advantage of time elements, such as the history of the hotel, the time when the fire was discovered and reported, the time it took for firefighters to arrive and control the blaze. For your next story, use time as a reporting and writing tool.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistook the book of Job for the book of Psalms.
Writing Tool #21: Quotes and Dialogue Learn how quotes differ from dialogue. Reporters tell me that one of the most important lessons they learn in journalism school is to “get a good quote high in the story.” When people speak in stories, readers listen. But people speak in different ways. The St. Paul Pioneer Press covered the sad story of Cynthia Schott, a 31-year-old television anchor who wasted away and died from an eating disorder. “I was there. I know how it happened,” says Kathy Bissen, a friend of Schott’s from the TV station. “Everybody did what they individually thought was best. And together, we covered the spectrum of possibilities of how to interact with someone you know has an illness. And yet, none of it made a difference. And you just think to yourself, ‘How can this happen?'” Capturing a person’s speech has a variety of names. Print reporters call it a “quote.” TV reporters tag it a “sound bite.” Radio folks struggle under the awkward word “actuality,” because someone actually said it. As in the St. Paul case, the quote offers readers these benefits:
• It introduces a human voice. • It explains something important about the subject. • It frames a problem or dilemma. • It adds information. • It reveals the character or personality of the speaker. • It introduces what is next to come.
Here are three quotes from page one of the June 28, 2004 edition of The New York Times:
“We have forces. We have the judicial system, and he is going to go to court. It’s going to be a just trial, unlike the trials that he gave to the Iraqi people.” –- Iyad Allawi, interim president of Iraq, on his plans for Saddam Hussein
“We can do a better job of creating an environment that isn’t ‘Lord of the Flies,'” –- Dr. Joel Haber, a psychologist, on how to eliminate bullying from the experience of summer camp “Less than two percentage points we can handle just by not eating out as much.” –- Joyce Diffenderfer on how her family copes with mounting credit card debt But where is Joyce Diffenderfer? Where is she when she speaks these words? In her kitchen? At the desk where she pays her bills? In her workplace? Most quotes are disembodied — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they are dis-placed. The words are spoken above or outside the action of the story. Quotes are ‘about’ the action, not ‘in’ the action. In that sense, quotes interrupt the progress of the narrative. Which leads us to the power of dialogue. While quotes provide information or explanation, dialogue presents the reader with a form of action. The quote may be heard, but dialogue is overheard. The writer who uses dialogue transports us to a place and time where we get to experience the events described in the story. Journalists use dialogue in stories so sparingly, the effect stands out like a sunflower in a meadow. Consider this passage from Tom French on the trial of a Florida firefighter accused of a horrible crime against his neighbor:
His lawyer called out his name. He stood up, put his hand on a Bible and swore to tell the truth and nothing but. He sat down in the witness box and looked toward the jurors so they could see his face and study it and decide for themselves what kind of man he was.
“Did you rape Karen Gregory?” asked this lawyer.
“No sir, I did not.”
“Did you murder Karen Gregory?”
“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 exchange 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 skillful writer can use both dialogue and quotes to create different effects in the same story:
“It looked like two planes were fighting, Mom,” Mark Kessler, 6 of Wynnewood, told his mother, Gail, 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 wreckage atop an elementary school playground. Here’s another passage from the same story:
“It was one horrible thing to watch,” said Helen Amadio, who was walking near her Hampden Avenue ho

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