Creative Nonfiction: Write Truth with Style | Susan Orlean | Skillshare

Creative Nonfiction: Write Truth with Style

Susan Orlean, Staff Writer, The New Yorker

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15 Lessons (1h 49m)
    • 1. Trailer

      1:34
    • 2. Introduction

      6:43
    • 3. Subject: Finding Your Topic

      9:35
    • 4. Subject: Finding "The American Male at Age Ten"

      7:15
    • 5. Research: Preparing for Reporting

      9:10
    • 6. Research: Reporting

      9:16
    • 7. Research: Organizing Notes

      9:59
    • 8. Writing: Elements of a Story

      9:41
    • 9. Writing: Dialogue and Quotes

      6:02
    • 10. Writing: Description

      4:45
    • 11. Writing: Expert Opinion

      3:16
    • 12. Writing: Conclusions

      10:07
    • 13. Editing: Revising

      9:58
    • 14. Editing: Collaborating

      3:08
    • 15. The Ongoing Work of a Writer

      8:51
75 students are watching this class

About This Class

The rise of sites like Medium and Longreads have inspired a resurgence in creative nonfiction—that compelling, leisurely writing that weaves true ideas and characters into stories that reveal as much about its readers as its subject. But where do those stories come from? And how do they work?

In this class, Susan Orlean, best-selling author and longtime New Yorker staff writer, walks us through her writing process for transforming ordinary subjects into exceptional stories. She reveals how she prepares to write, takes a close look at her classic Esquire piece “The American Male at Age Ten,” and delves into why curiosity, revision, and collaboration are at the heart of being a writer.

In under two hours, this class demystifies the writing craft so that you can write a short and unforgettable profile of your own. Whether you’re an active writer, aspiring freelancer, or simply curious about the power of language, this class will help you navigate and polish the creative process of telling your best story.

Transcripts

1. Trailer: My name is Susan Orlean. I'm a Staff Writer at The New Yorker magazine. I've also written about eight books. I've always written nonfiction, long-form nonfiction, creative nonfiction, literary journalism, whatever you'd want to call it. We're going to be talking about how to choose a story, how to organize yourself and get ready to write, and how to revise your work and get it ready to be published. Appreciating the fact that there's always going to be some mystery about how a really wonderful piece of work gets made, it does follow rules of logic. There are ways to learn how to write. The project that students are going to be doing in this class is a three-page piece on the most mysterious person they know. To begin with, I think you have to go to the most elemental issue, which is curiosity. Are you curious? Is it an authentic curiosity? Can you go into the story with a genuine interest in learning about it? I love taking that subject that's so obvious, but, in fact, when you think about it, you really know nothing about it. There's no beat that I've ever covered except my own curiosity. 2. Introduction: My name is Susan Orlean. I'm a writer. I've been a writer my entire professional life. I'm a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. I've also written about eight books. I've always written nonfiction, long form nonfiction, creative nonfiction, literary journalism, whatever you'd want to call it. What I want to talk about today is that genre, creative nonfiction. What is it? How do you do it? How do you do it well? Creative nonfiction is the loose term that we apply to nonfiction writing that employs the techniques of fiction writing in the sense that it doesn't have to adhere to the journalistic pyramid of delivering information in a compact expeditious way. So these are pieces that can range in time, in tone, and often are observational rather than driven by a news event. What it really is about is good writing about factual observation. This isn't a new form of writing. In fact, it's actually an approach to writing that has been around for a long time. It's a particularly American form, as a matter of fact, which is interesting. In this country, there's been a long tradition of people writing leisurely observational pieces about the real world. Everyone from the very early practitioners such as A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, these are all people who were the pioneers of the form. So when I began writing, those were my heroes, those were the people who I looked to for ideas of how you went about this kind of writing, that is defined partly by not having a lot of rules except it has to be true and it has to be good. So you may ask, "Why nonfiction?" I will make a very powerful argument for why nonfiction. Learning to write effective nonfiction is valuable even if your interests as a writer is fiction, poetry, whatever genre. First of all, writing well is writing well. Whatever it is that you're writing. Writing, the use of words, the use of language, the ability to communicate an idea. It doesn't matter if it's fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essay writing. It all comes down to the same thing, which is, you are learning to write effectively, powerfully, evocatively, intelligently. I happen to think nonfiction is a great basic primer on writing because you're working with the craft of fact and using techniques to make that effective, elegant, creative. So I'm welcoming poets, fiction writers, novelists, short story writers. It's all part of the same goal which is, how do you write well? How do you use these simple things, these little blocks that are words to tell a story, to evoke a feeling, to provide insight, to learn to explore? That's true of whatever kind of writing you're doing. The basics of good writing are the same: create a narrative, pace a narrative, find rhythm in the way you write, structure what you're trying to say so that it's compelling and engaging. In nonfiction, in particular, you have to learn how to balance the facts which can be dry if they're laid out on their own with style which alone isn't sufficient. One of the challenges with good writing is it's not merely linear. There are a lot of perspectives. There are a lot of sub-themes. There's a lot going on. How do you orchestrate that? How do you find your own voice? This may be the biggest challenge and the biggest question that everybody has. Merely delivering facts in the case of nonfiction is not going to make you a great writer. It's necessary. It's not sufficient. So what makes it go to the next level is the art of forming the story of the narrative of the voice. What we're going to talk about in this class is the general principle of nonfiction writing. How to approach a piece, how to come up with a story idea, how to develop and find the voice in a piece of writing. In order to make some of those points more concrete, I'm going to be using, as an example, a piece I did 20 years ago, called The American Male at Age 10, which was published in Esquire. It's a complicated piece and I think describing how I built this story will serve as a good example that you can apply in really almost any piece of writing that you approach. So in this class, students are going to be writing his or her own piece of nonfiction using the tools and techniques that we're talking about here. The writing prompt that I want you to follow is to write a three-page piece about the most mysterious person you know. You can interpret that as you wish but it's this jumping off point that is what your project in the class is going to be. 3. Subject: Finding Your Topic: What we're going to talk about today is the most basic question as you begin writing a piece of nonfiction which is, how do you find a good story idea? That's a question that has many implications. It's not only how do you find a good idea, but how do you figure out if it's an idea that will work? Now if you've been given an assignment you don't have to worry about this. You have no choice but let's assume that you are finding your own subject or that you want to come up with a story to propose to an editor. To begin with, I think you have to go to the most elemental issue which is curiosity. Are you curious about this subject? Is it an authentic curiosity? Can you go into the story with a genuine interest in learning about it? That means really sitting down and thinking to yourself, would I read this story? Do I really want to know who or what this subject is all about? That you can really embrace it with a real curiosity because you can not move into a story well without that curiosity. In practical terms, is this subject too narrow or too broad. That's a really important point to make because readers have to know the extent of what the subject is as they begin reading a story. If it is a profile of your uncle Fred, who nobody knows and nobody cares about and nobody can draw any further lessons from Uncle Fred, you may be looking at something too narrow. If you are writing a profile of an ordinary person who can stand as an example of a bigger subject, then you're starting to see a topic that while it's narrow, it funnels out, it touches more than its own specific subject. It's really important to use that assessment especially if you're writing about subjects that are at least initially ordinary, and I use that word with some hesitation because it sounds really negative. If you approach an editor with a subject that's very, very narrow you're absolutely going to have to defend it on those terms. This is both a specific example of something and it can stand as an iconic example of something bigger. If you're passionate about a subject, that is in itself a good reason to pursue it. But it also helps to step back a little and take into account the more practical issues that might arise with any subject matter. How long will you need in terms of page and word count to tell the story effectively? It's useful to begin seeing a shape of a story even before you began working on it. Who will want to read this story? You could say to yourself, I'm so passionate about this subject that it will simply draw people in because I'm going to explain to them my passion for the subject, and I'm entirely in support of that. But I also think it's helpful to imagine the reader who might be drawn to the subject because of the subject not just because of your passion. I'm a great believer in being very responsive to your own enthusiasm and interest in the subject. I happen to think that if you really are excited about a story and you are really drawn to understanding it, you're going to bring along a lot of readers who will share and be interested in your enthusiasms. So that in itself can be part of what the appeal is. I think that the great analogue for this is imagining a dinner party, and everybody's chatting, and there are a lot of conversations going on, suddenly someone will break in and say, "I had the most amazing thing happen to me the other day when I was in Indianapolis". Now the reason I say Indianapolis is that is not normally a place where people go, oh my god I want to hear all about Indianapolis. But if you are sitting in a group and someone with enormous passion, energy and purpose says, "I have to tell you about this remarkable trip I had to Indianapolis", you're going to listen. That can be the measure as you're thinking about a story idea. Can you be that person at the dinner party to say, "I have this amazing story to tell about my uncle Fred". Normally, people would say, I have an uncle Fred too I don't see why I should be interested in your uncle Fred. But if you can say as a writer, this is a truly exciting interesting story or it is a story I'm going to tell with such grace and such intimacy, you are going to want to be part of it with me. That's the way to judge if a story is going to work. That's the abstract notion of how to assess whether something's a good story idea or not. But the question is, how do you even find stories? The single most important thing that you can cultivate as a writer and certainly it is important for us at the New Yorker is finding your own ideas. The minute you finish writing a story, you will be convinced that there are no more story ideas left in the world. Don't be alarmed. This happens to me every time I write a story. I find story ideas everywhere all the time. When I say everywhere, I really mean everywhere. I mean reading newspapers that I don't subscribe to, reading magazines, flipping through the back of magazines, walking around, seeing billboards, overhearing conversations, being open to ideas. Having something click and letting yourself follow it to the next step. This is the only way you can find good story ideas is to be out in the world, collecting, sifting, constantly absorbing information till something clicks and you can say, I want to know more about that. This also means following a lot of ideas that don't end up working as a story and that's fine. Your percentage of ideas you pursue to the ones you actually believe will work as a story, doesn't have to be high. In fact, it's probably great to practice following an idea and saying not going to work. I'm going to give you a couple examples of stories that I worked on and how I came to those ideas. This came about in the most unexceptional way that you could imagine. I was in a supermarket buying food for dinner and I thought, how did they get all the food in here? How did they move all these boxes and how did they decide what they keep in a store? I love taking that subject that's so obvious. But in fact, when you think about it you really know nothing about it. It's to me a very, very alluring idea to say you know I thought I knew something about this but I actually don't know anything about it. Taking the obvious, pulling it apart, finding what it really is all about. Another story that I pursued that came about in a very different way, visiting a friend and he happened to be out of the room, I was trying to keep myself occupied, he happened to have a catalog from a taxidermy supply company. Who knew there was such a thing as a taxidermy supply company? I didn't. I flipped through it and it was hundreds of pages. So this is the other way of following a story impulse for me, and that is the complete opposite of the obvious story. It's the one of I had no idea. It was right here under my nose the whole time. 4. Subject: Finding "The American Male at Age Ten": The story that we're going to analyze in greater detail, which is the American Male at Age 10, had a bit of a different origin. Now, as I said, your ability to find and really embrace your own story ideas is so important that I can't encourage you enough, even if it's just to constantly keep lists of possible story ideas, think through them, and get in the habit of looking at the world in those terms, whether this would make a good story. As I said, generally, 99 percent of the stories I write are my own ideas. In the case of American Male, I was approached by an editor, from Esquire magazine. They had asked me to do a profile of the actor, Macaulay Culkin, who was 10 years old at the time, which gives you an idea of how long ago this was. They already had a headline for the story, which was "The American Male Age 10" and Macaulay Culkin was going to be their American 10-year-old male. But I thought, Macaulay Culkin is not a typical 10-year-old boy in any way. He's so way typical that it doesn't tell me anything about life. To know what Macaulay Culkin's life is like, I went to the editor at Esquire, I said, "I know you've already got your headline. How about instead of Macaulay Culkin, I find an average kid, a regular kid, a 10-year-old boy, and write the story of his life. This is a really challenging kind of story to take on because you're almost emphasizing the unexceptional nature of the subject. It is a story about something so familiar, but has the power of being an unexplored notion, and that is in my mind a really exciting and challenging undertaking for a writer." To my great surprise and pleasure, the editors at Esquire agreed to let me do that, to put aside the celebrity profile, and to pursue this much quieter story that I believed, I was absolutely convinced, was a far more interesting story. I think it was the right choice. Earlier, I talked about how a very specific story is best when it can also resonate with a larger theme. Very often, that larger theme becomes clear to you only when you have begun doing the research and the reporting. It is helpful though if you can sense from the beginning what that larger issue might be. For instance, when I talked about wanting to do a story about taxidermy, my initial interests was, "Wow! This is an incredible sub-culture. I didn't even know it existed." The little bit of reporting that I did before I even went to my editor and proposed it, made it clear to me that what drew me and what interested me was the fact that the people involved in taxidermy were so passionate about the mastery of a craft. This could be something that almost anybody can relate to, whether you're doing taxidermy and stuffing a coyote, or whether you were somebody involved in any kind of pursuit. That was the thing that struck me, and interested me, was this desire to be the master of some kind of craft. While you may not know immediately what that big theme is, it's very useful when you start to try to imagine, can you see where that universal idea might go. Definitely, by the time you've written a story, you should know the universal theme that you touch upon. But, it's not necessarily going to be obvious to you in the very beginning. In the case of American Male at Age 10, when I was suggesting that I write about a very specific individual, he could have been any kid. So, his individual story wasn't the motivation as much as the idea that it explored the very universal larger theme of childhood, and that I felt actually looking at the life of a more ordinary kid would be more of an illustration of that, than writing about someone like Macaulay Culkin. That's where it resonated. In a way, the idea of which the little boy I chose almost wasn't important as much as that this boy could stand in a way as symbolic of childhood. When you're looking at a story like choosing an ordinary 10-year-old boy to right about, there is this challenge, which is, there are millions, literally, of 10-year-old boys. I didn't personally know any 10-year-old boys. I didn't know how to choose an ordinary boy. Because, of course, nobody is ordinary. I called a lot of friends of mine, and said, "Do you know any 10-year-old boys?" Which was the kind of question that people say, "Why are you asking me this?" I didn't want a boy who lived in Manhattan. I felt that that was going to be too unique of a childhood. I wanted to find a kid who was living in a situation that was more like what a lot of Americans live in, a suburb, a small town. I eventually got the names of a couple of boys who lived in New Jersey, and I went and met with them. Trying to get a sense of how open they might be and also if their parents were willing. So, Colin was the son of a friend, of a friend, of a friend. I didn't have any knowledge of him beforehand. When I met him, the thing that made me sure he was the right kid to write about was that, he seemed absolutely uninterested in being in a magazine in any way. He didn't want it. He did not want it. He had the typical 10-year-old boys sort of whatever attitude toward it, which seemed perfect. 5. Research: Preparing for Reporting: So, you've gotten past your first hurdle. You've come up with a great story idea, one that you're really excited about. What's the next step? Obviously, what comes between the concept of the story and the writing of it is the reporting. I want to point out that one of the wisest things an editor ever said to me was that in nonfiction writing, it's a three part process. It's reporting, thinking, and writing. I'm going to come back to that because it's something that I really, really think is important. You've got your idea, you're excited about the idea. What's the first thing you do? I'm going to tell you something that I think is very contrary. What I believe in is entering the story as unprepared as possible. What I mean by that it's, you can sit at a computer in a library, do tons of reading and preparation, and then go out to do the real time reporting that I feel almost every good nonfiction piece requires, and you're going to be so over prepared that you're going to have trouble seeing anything new. The analogy that I think makes this point really clear is, you've decided you're going to Paris, you spend hours reading every guidebook you can find, seeing every travel movie you can find about Paris, learning all you can about Paris. You arrive and what's your experience of it? There's no surprise, there's no journey, there's no learning. Every story is that same trip. If you got on a plane, landed in Paris and thought, all right, I've to figure this out. How does this place work? What goes on here? What are people doing? That's what's interesting. Not to enter it over prepared so that none of the experience of learning is going to happen. The philosophy that I believe matters the most when you are writing is that journey of learning that then becomes teaching. When you are researching, you're learning; when you're writing, you're teaching. So, that's the balance that I think always will serve you if you remember it. How you learn is not to be over prepared. How you learn is to throw yourself in, immerse yourself in the subject, and my preference is immerse yourself in the real time experience, talking to people, visiting places, exposing yourself to the story, then go do the back reporting that you need, the reading in the library, the Googling and that kind of research. I think it's too hard to experience the surprise of a subject if you're overly prepared. So, probably a lot of journalism professors would shudder to hear me say this, but I believe it very strongly. When I went to learn about Colin Duffy, I didn't begin by reading a lot of psychological treatises on an adolescence, I didn't do lots of research about the town he lived in. The point of the story was to get in his mind and to see the world through his perspective. It was already a bit of a leap given that I was not 10 and I wasn't a boy, I had to strip away everything that I knew or assumed about being a 10 year old boy and really be in the moment with him. I think the best reporting often can feel kind of uncomfortable and it should, but that is part of the process. For a writer, that discomfort is really an important part of what happens. If you overly prepare yourself, you're not going to find yourself in that more exposed, raw moment of being in another world and taking it in, and scrambling a little bit to understand it. I showed up, I had made arrangements with Colin's parents to follow him around, go to school with him for two weeks. I showed up at their home in New Jersey. I went to school with him. I immediately felt absolutely awkward. It was as if I was back in fifth grade and none of the kids were willing to talk to me. I was too big for the desks and chairs, and I started to remember what it was like to be 10 years old. I think if I had prepared myself, I'd come bristling with all my knowledge about being an adolescent, it would have been a lot harder for me to feel that raw sense of childhood again, and what it feels like to be looked at by other kids and want to belong and not know if you belong. I almost went through a kind of miniature version of adolescence in that time with him. It also forced me to ask him to tell me about his world, rather than me already knowing about his world. I think it's an incredibly valuable part of research to be turning to your subject and saying, explain this to me. That's where you really learn, and I think that's a great way to push yourself to listen hard. How do you prepare for that reporting? I tend to prefer the simplest tools imaginable. Pen, reporter's notebook. These are great because you can hold them in your hand and balance them very comfortably. I don't use a tape recorder and I would urge you not to. I used to be much more forgiving of the idea of using a tape recorder. More and more, I've come to believe that you do not listen the way you need to listen if you're taping a conversation. I stopped using tape recorders because I hate transcribing tapes. There is nothing that could be more alienating to a subject than turning on and off a tape recorder while they're talking, because the message you're sending is, now you're interesting, I'm going to turn it on, now you're not interesting, I'm going to turn it off. One of the things I've begun using that I like and that I would recommend if you're very uncomfortable not having a tape of conversation is a livescribe pen, and there may be other brands as well. But this is a pen that's just like a normal pen, but in the body of the pen is a micro tape recorder. So, it's recording conversation, but the really valuable part of it in my opinion is that you're taking notes. Notetaking is the first step toward processing, and that is what you are doing as a writer. That is the key piece of what you're doing for the reader. You're having an experience, processing it, and you're giving them the best concentrated version of that experience that you had. You're not merely recording in real time something and having them experience it, you're bringing perspective, you're bringing choices that you're making about what's very interesting, what's less interesting, what details are important. The writing that you do when you're taking notes is the first step in that very, very important piece of being a writer, which is making choices about what you're putting down. 6. Research: Reporting: All right. So, a little more impure practical discussion here. As I said, I favor these kind of notebooks. I'm not an absolutist on this. If you find another kind of notebook that you like, feel free to use it. I think these are terrific. This is a notebook from a story I did about a children's clown named Silly Billy. What I do is, generally, keep the first few pages blank and use that to start collecting the names and phone numbers, contact information for the people I'm going to interview. Then, I begin my notes. I am not a great taker of shorthand, but you can tell, from the looks of this, I'm writing fragments. I'm writing down, as I'm talking to people, things they might mention that I know are going to be interesting for me to look at later. The question may be, what about direct quotes? Now, with nonfiction, I'm a absolute stickler for the idea that, if you're saying it's nonfiction, that means it's factually true. It may not always be the most utterly comprehensive delivery of facts, but what you put in your story, if you're saying it's nonfiction, it's true, or it's not nonfiction. If you realize you didn't write down a quote that you wish you had, you don't make it up, you paraphrase from memory what the point was of what was being said. You don't make up the quote. It's a combination of both quotes that I am sure, as I'm hearing them, are going to end up in the story, and just information that I'm going to need. So, this is all from that story. I take a lot of notes. I do a lot of reporting. I think, you can ever do too much reporting. You never can know too much. When it becomes important though, the too much part, is when you sit down to write. You are not simply doing a data dump of everything you learned. But the more you learn, the better it is. I believe strongly in, not only interviewing the people who are primarily important in your story, but as many secondary and tertiary people that could enrich your knowledge of your subject. Often, that's the stuff that makes a story really work well, is the incidental fact or quote. The unexpected quote that you find by talking to somebody who didn't necessarily seem so important in the beginning. As I'm working, I will often be aware of the people and reporting that I need to do. So, this very thick pile here, don't be frightened, but this was a list of tasks that I needed to do while I was working on my book Rin Tin Tin. It's in no particular order. It was just something where I began throwing down on a page, things that occurred to me that I needed to find out. That would be important for me to remember to research. People to call, subjects that would be relevant to the reporting. Keeping a running list like that is really helpful. Don't edit yourself. Just throw anything on there that occurs to you as a possibility. It's a great way to just get your brain working, to think of your subject as broadly as you can. Because this isn't going to end up all in your piece, but it's a great way to- it's like a draft of reporting that you might want to do. Just to look at this list a little further, and this is in the course of reporting a book. So, it's a far more extensive list than would come up when you're working on a magazine length story. Important in this also is, what if I push out from the very specific on-the-nose reporting? What's just beyond that, that I should look at? What kind of connects that might end up really enriching the story? The to-do list for American male age 10, would have included, talking to Collins' family, talking to his friends, talking to his teacher, visiting his school, which I was, of course, doing every day and his home, and going with him to the places where he hung out. But then beyond that, what was there? I wanted to talk to people who study adolescence. I wanted to read census material about 10-year-old boys. I wanted to learn about his town. This was the context of the story. I was working on my first book and one of my editors made a great analogy that has stuck with me for a very long time. The idea that the writer should know much, much, much more than what they offer the reader. The reader, without even being aware of it, is going to be affected by the depth of knowledge that the writer has. The great analogy to that was apparently, Greta Garbo. Had it written into a contract, that she always had to be provided with silk underwear. Louis B. Mayer, who was her producer said, "Why should I spend all this money giving you silk underwear, if you aren't even going to take your clothes off in the film? No one will see the silk underwear." Her response was, "But I will know that I'm wearing it, and it's going to change the way I act." So, I do not have it written into my contract that I require silk underwear, but when I am reporting, I want the equivalent. Namely, I want to know that I know much, much, more than what I'm writing and what the reader will read. Because every sentence will be informed by all of that luxurious amount of information. You really need to know your story, and know it really thoroughly. And then what you're going to deliver is the distilled, interesting, engaging version of that story. Everything I'm telling you suggests a, kind of, endless reporting period that you just keep learning, and learning, and learning, and learning, and it might never end. That's both impractical because at some point, you are needing to sit and write. It's also not necessary. So, how do you know when you know enough? How do you know when you're ready? The really good thing about this is, it's not a mystery. There are real ways to tell if you're ready. First of all, when you're doing research, are you beginning to read the same material for a second or third time? In the beginning, when you're working on a piece, the learning curve is so steep. Everything you learn is new, and it's very exciting. You're learning tons of information. It's all new and it's happening very quickly, and you go from knowing very little about your subject, to suddenly being steeped in it. Then, the learning curve begins to flatten out. You're not learning as much new material, or you're revisiting material you've already learned. You're asking questions that you realize you already know the answer to. You are able to tell the story out loud. That's the point where you can begin to realize that you are ready to write. 7. Research: Organizing Notes: As I mentioned in the last lesson, the aphorism that I repeat all the time is, good non-fiction writing is reporting, thinking, and writing. The reason I linger on the thinking is that it's the one we often forget about. Everybody knows they have to get information. Everybody knows they have to actually write it. But there's an intermediate step and that is the thinking part and that's absolutely necessary and it may even be the most important of those three things. The thinking is when you've come to that sense that you've done enough reporting, you realize that the learning curve has flattened out, you're beginning to be able to step back and see the whole story from a number of different perspectives. This is a point where you sit down and review your notes. You may merely want to read your notes. I would recommend that you type them. There's a very good reason for that which is, I think by typing up your notes you reacquaint yourself with them in a deeper way. I'm sure there's neuro-linguistic research to support me on this but I know that for me flipping through a notebook is something I do where I'm half paying attention half not. If I sit there and I'm typing it really gets re-embedded in my brain. You're also beginning the editing process, the choice making. As you're typing up nodes and you come across a section that you suddenly realize is not very interesting or relevant you leave that out. So, you are moving closer to that distillation of the most interesting pieces of the story that will eventually become your story. So, review your notes ideally typing them up then review them again. If you've typed them up as I've suggested, what I recommend is taking those notes, take a highlighter go through the notes again and highlight the sections that really stand out. So, you are once again editing down the material you've got. Moving closer and closer to the highlight reel that the story really should be, the very best information. A lot of people at this point would do an outline. I have to confess I hate outlines and it may be a simple matter of never remembering which order the Roman numerals are supposed to go in or whether it's simply too structured to really accommodate the way I write. If you're comfortable outlining it's a great technique, what I generally do is transfer a lot of my notes that I know are really important that will help me with sections of the story and I'll transfer them to these big index cards. As I begin having a pile of these index cards relevant to the story, I start placing them out and organizing them in what will become the flow of the story. It's really like an outline but for me it allows a little bit more fluidity, I can move things around, I don't have the hierarchy of an outline. Find what you're comfortable with but I will make one very strong suggestion which is don't keep all your notes on your computer and never move them off a computer. A computer is a miracle tool, it's a magical being, but it allows you to see one piece of information at a time. That's not the way to build a good story, you need a holistic view of the story, you need to be able to stand back and sort of see your whole story at once. You can't do that on a computer. While you're working on this part of the process your thinking should be happening. You might think well what is it that I'm supposed to be thinking about. The big question is why? Why did you want to write this story to begin with? What about it appealed to you? What drew you to it? Why this story? Why the way you approached it as and compared to many different ways you might have approached it? Why now? That's the kind of thinking you should be doing. You may not be able to answer every one of those questions but it's the moment before you write a single word that you really need to spend. Thinking this through, what is the ultimate point of what you're doing? In addition, what really mattered to you in your journey of learning about the story? Not what you thought would be interesting but what turned out to really be interesting, how do you find that? The cheapest best way to help yourself as a writer is to find someone you can tell your stories to out loud. In the course of telling them without notes just the story of what you've learned you're going to begin hearing what you tell. You may even surprise yourself you may find that you're leaving out things you've thought would be really important. Instead telling anecdotes are describing things that you didn't really realize were interesting or important. This is once again that process of editing let yourself almost unconsciously filter through the material you have. When I was working on American Man at Age 10, I had a very big why? That was why did I choose not to write about Macaulay Culkin? Why did I choose to write about relatively regular suburban kid? This was a tough question because frankly would have been a lot easier to write about Macaulay Culkin. Because he was a celebrity and I knew readers would immediately understand that celebrity profiles were a very regular part of magazine writing. But I had felt so compelled to make this other choice why? The more I thought about it the more I realize that first of all having come of age in journalism when celebrity profiling was so standard. I wanted to turn that on its head and show that a regular life was frankly more interesting and more complex and richer and more in some cases comic and poignant and affecting than reading a very canned celebrity profile. It's been such an important thing to me as a writer to look at life as it is lived in the most ordinary sense, and see what's beautiful and interesting in it. That was the big why? In doing this profile the Collin Duffy rather than Macaulay Culkin. I also felt that there was simply the poetry of fact. That telling a true story if you are passionate about the way it can tell us something about our lives that was a justification enough. That if I could treat the story as both the most simple familiar thing in the world but at the same time something really quite beautiful and poetic, that I was accomplishing something. I was really motivated by that. I sat down to write with a lot of material that I had gathered over two weeks of spending time with Collin going to school with him, hanging out with him after school, talking to his friends, his family, his teachers, doing that extra research about what being 10-years-old means to your psychological development. I typed it up, I transferred it to index cards, I set it out in front of me and thought where do I begin? 8. Writing: Elements of a Story: The usual story that we're talking about here has a couple of elements that are pretty consistently there in every piece. So, obviously there's a lede. Obviously there will be an ending. Most likely there's going to be a lot of factual material. Probably dialogue, quotes. Undoubtedly there will be some expert opinion or third party observation about the information. Then there's going to be commentary, which is my shorthand for those sections of the piece that really reflect my observations, they're my understanding of what I've learned. Those are again, of course rooted in fact, but allow me some commentary on what I've observed. So, those are some the of the elements. Also of course description. There are lots of other pieces to his story. But those are some of the basic ones. The Introduction to any story, the lede is enormously important. As a writer, you as much as this may be uncomfortable, the fact is you're competing for a million other sexy distractions that can draw a reader away from you. So, to begin with, you've got this moment to attract a reader and embrace them and keep them in your story. So, it is really important to work on that lede, and to make it terrific. A lede does not have to be, nor should it be a capsule summary of what the story is going to be. To me that's incredibly dull. I think that the workable model for writing lede to a great story is a strip tease. Now, if you went to see somebody stripping, and the first thing they did was step out on stage and drop all their clothes, you wouldn't stay for the rest of the strip tease. You would have seen everything. Instead, you have to remove one small piece of clothing that reveals enough to be interesting, but not enough so that you feel you're done. So, you're drawn in, and you're going to stay in. You have to look at your reader as somebody who you're constantly beckoning, and saying come with me, I have a great story. Stay, keep reading, keep going. I'm going to just walk us through the manuscript here of american male and and show you how this unfolds. So, here's the lede, which I wrote knowing that if I said Collin Duffy is a really regular kid, who's ten years old, and there's nothing noteworthy or newsworthy about him, most readers would say, "Well then, why should I read this?" So, that couldn't be my lede. I had to begin not with that kind of nugget of information, but with something that was much more artful and hopefully intriguing. So that the reader would stop and say, "What is this about?" So, that's where this lede begins. With a hint about what it felt like to be inside the world of a 10-year-old boy. What I've done is mark through this piece so that you can see where the structure move then. Because, I began with what I'm just going to call commentary, namely it gives you some sense of who the character is in the story without telling you too much. So that with luck, I've got you hooked where you think what is this about? I want to keep reading. This next section, here I've given some facts. Who is this Colin Duffy that I'm referring to? This is almost a mechanical section of the story. I don't want the reader to be confused. I want him or her to say, "All right, I am intrigued by the sort of poetry of this first section, but give me an idea of what I'm reading about, otherwise, it's simply too baffling." So, I've continued here with more fact about who Collin is and where he is, to get you at least grounded in his world. I'm drawing the camera back, I'm letting you see who this is and who this person is it I want you to learn about. But then, pretty soon after that, I returned to a section that again is a little more commentary. It has a little more of my voice. It's me having learned about this boy and telling you more with some distance. Who he was and what I felt about what I learned by spending the time with him. There are a lot of sections in this piece that consists of what I would just call observational writing. One of the things that I did that was special in this piece was, spending time with a 10-year-old kid in his world. A lot of stories are exactly that. The writer is a proxy for the reader, going into experiences that the reader probably wouldn't be able to have on his or her own, and they want to hear about it. What was it like? The perfect example of that would be travel writing. Not everybody gets to go to exotic places in the world, but writers will go and tell you the story so you can in a secondary way experience it. So, but that's true not only in travel stories, it's also very true in any kind of really interesting good non-fiction writing. So, this is that kind of section. I went to school with Collin, and I wrote as faithfully I could a kind of real time documentary version of what it's like to be in a fifth grade classroom watching these kids. Not as a parent and not as a teacher, but in this other capacity which was special. I think if you were a parent going in and observing, you wouldn't have quite the same experiences I did, and that is the part of the reporting that sometimes can be the most fun, picking those great scenes. So, this provides a different kind of a rhythm to the writing. We've gone from commentary, to fact, to commentary, to observation. The reason that I'm showing you these different sections is, you've got to be constantly aware of the texture and the rhythm of your stories. You want sections that can go quickly, then another section that slower and quieter. You want to keep moving at different paces so that the reader is holding on to you to lead them through the experience. So, this is a section that's observational, and then a long section that's pure dialogue without any commentary. That's a great pacing technique. It's reading pure dialogue, feels very different from reading the more expository sections. It's almost like a camera shot as opposed to reading. A lot of people will say to me that they like the way that I use dialogue and quotes, and what's interesting to me is to look at what percentage that really represents in my stories. It's not a really large percentage. I just like to use those sections of dialogue and quotes when they're really good, and they really change the pacing and gives you an instant unfiltered sense of the subject. 9. Writing: Dialogue and Quotes: One of the very important building blocks of a non-fiction story is, of course, dialogue. As I was pointing out, there are certainly sections of dialogue in this piece, but it's not quite as much as you might think. The difference is, the distinction is that it is used in such a vivid way, that it seems to be bigger than it really is. So, what are the rules of using dialogue and quotes? First of all, I never would use a quote simply to deliver a simple fact. To have a quote saying, "I'm 10-years-old", it's annoying, actually, to a reader. "I'm 10-years-old," he said. I mean, the writer really should take control of that kind of factual information and deliver it in the writer's voice. This is part of what you've learned as a writer about your subject. So, don't use dialogue for that purpose. Use it when it can add and extend the reader's understanding of a character, of the character's voice, of the way a character expresses him or herself, not just to deliver simple information. I've used dialogue in a couple of different ways in the story. First of those is dialogue between the kids, themselves. That's almost documentary style. It's the language that they use with each other. To me, this is really illustrative of how they interact. It's a moment when in the perfect world, the writer can just disappear. All I'm doing is presenting these subjects. I'm not interfering at all. You are seeing them the way I saw them. That works when you have, in this case, kids talking to one another, subjects interacting with each other. It's wonderful. You don't always get that in stories. A lot of times, you merely get their response to your questions. If you can do reporting of subjects interacting with each other, where you're left out of it, the great advantage you have then is that textural change. That is the world presented to the reader without your interference. So, there's a lot of that in the story. There's also a lot of lists, basically, of Colin responding to my questions about the way he looked at the world. Here, in the early part of the story, I wrote, "On the way home that day, I was quizzing Colin about his world views." This is just me asking him specific questions and having him answer. It felt to me like this was giving you more and more of a sense of who he was and how he existed in the world. In this story, I also took the opportunity that isn't appropriate in every story but did feel appropriate in this one, for me to channel his dialogue essentially. There is a section in the middle of the story where I'm trying to give you an idea of what Colin and his friends felt about girls. It was relevant because 10-years-old is about the age that you begin actually thinking about such wild ideas as romantic love. The thing that was particularly funny was how much Colin vacillated between a somewhat mature idea of girls, and a completely youthful one, that these two ideas were often in conflict. So, at one point, I asked him to name the girls in his class, which he did, and they were all completely insulting nicknames. Rather than putting that directly in his voice, I thought it would be funnier if I wrote the sentence as if I were writing it directly. So, the sentence is, the girls in Colin's class at school are named Cortnerd, Terror, Spacey, Lizard, Maggot, and Diarrhea. Those were not my names for them. Those were Colin's names. Again, this is a chance to change up the texture to provide this other tone, which is me channeling his language. Then, I move into a section that's more dialogue. How can you tell if you have a good quote to use? As I said, begin with looking at the quote and trying to figure out if the way the subject is expressing himself or herself adds to the reader's sense of who they are. If it's just delivering information, don't use it as a quote, paraphrase it, own it as your writerly information, and look for quotes that are really vivid, that give you an idea not just because of the content, but the way it's being expressed, that makes it worth quoting. 10. Writing: Description: One part of writing that I really enjoy is description and this is kind of frustrating because I also happen to think that you've got to be very sparing with description. So as much as I enjoy writing it I also have to really moderate how much I use. It's one of those kinds of writing that can get very sludgy, very slow and you're far better off using shorter really vivid description and then going on at great length about anything. I sometimes feel like if something looks exactly like anybody would know it looks, don't describe it. Only describe the parts of something, a place, a person that stand out. Let the reader fill in the rest. This is a little like the technique of sketching where an artist does the most evocative suggestive marks on the page and your imagination fills in the rest, you don't need every detail drawn out. For that matter too, given that you have a set amount of space to fill with your story, you want to make sure that the description doesn't dominate. It isn't an overwhelming percentage. If you break out, take your favorite story, and break out what percentage of them are pure description. In the best stories you'll find that it is a little bit less than you might expect. That is because those descriptions that are in the story are really vivid, really memorable and remarkably evoke enough that the reader fills in the remainder. It was important to me of course to describe Collin and I didn't need to detail in every cellular way what he looked like and in fact the description of him in the whole story was primarily this one paragraph and I refer to his appearance throughout the story. But this is a pretty short almost just a snippet of a section describing him. The fact is that what was more important to me besides giving you the basic idea of what he looked like. The story really was to transport you into his world and not simply stand back and describe it. It didn't seem as necessary to detail extensively what he looked like but instead give you enough that you could picture him and then move forward with him and that's the way we have relationships with people in general anyway. You don't sit and examine the way someone looks. You have a relationship with them. That's what I wanted the reader to feel in reading the stories that they had a relationship with this kid just the way I did and that the focus on what he looked like could be dispensed with pretty quickly. I did it early in the piece so that you were grounded in an understanding of who this young boy was. But then I wanted to move more into a feeling of who he was and not so much in detailing what he looked like. Now, through the piece there's a lot of description but it isn't long extensive standalone sections, I described his school, I described his house, I described his bedroom, but those are woven in so that they don't stand out as a single piece that's not integrated. The more you can integrate description, the more natural it will feel and the more it will make the piece seem rich and confident and most importantly that the writer really knew this world and could talk about it very comfortably. 11. Writing: Expert Opinion: Part of what makes a piece really engaging and interesting is the movement in and out of focus. Close focus, medium focus, pull far back. When you're directly quoting, when you're seeing dialogue that's a very intimate moment, it's a very, very close focus. The commentary that you as a writer might make is that sort of middle focus. Then there's that pulling far back, and one way to do that is using someone outside, namely an expert to comment on the topic that you're writing about. There's almost always some expert opinion of how to everything that you're going to write about. There was in the case of writing about a 10-year-old boy. There are people who study 10-year-old boys, there are people who study video game usage among 10-year-old boys. There is always an opportunity to step back and use that kind of an outside expert factual analysis of the subject. How do you use that material? Number one, I would say, almost never is it very appealing to directly quote an expert. They don't usually speak in a way that's very interesting or engaging. So, what you need to do is learn what they have to say. Learn it well enough that you can then paraphrase it confidently. Not that you are in any way reproducing what they've said but you know this information now. You may be writing it off of note cards, but it's so much more appealing to a reader to have the writer be that voice of authority. And you can certainly reference the expert that you are going to be quoting from or paraphrasing. It's a much more appealing way of reading factual information if the writer in a more artful way, and also the writer has developed a relationship with the reader, to say, by the way, what experts say about 10-year-old boys is, and there, you've got your information. As opposed to saying, Dr. Smith of Boston University who studies 10-year-old boys says, quote. That's something where I'm done reading. I think you as a writer should also know your information well enough that you do have that confidence to explain what you've learned and allow the reader to hear it from you and not in that canned delivery that would come from quoting an expert. 12. Writing: Conclusions: Let's assume that you have done phenomenal research and reporting. You've spent a lot of time thinking about what your story is all about, you've done beautiful writing, you are 90 percent done. All you have left is the conclusion. This is a very sticky point in the writing process. So, I am going to save you some trouble by telling you a few things that I've learned about writing conclusions that make it actually a lot easier. Number 1, no story is ever finished. They end. They do not have to come to a crescendo and a completion that includes a recap and an assessment of everything you've already read. In fact, it's almost an insult to the reader to do that. The reader, if you've done a good job, has gone on this journey with you, met someone interesting or gone somewhere fascinating, and they are all along the way with you forming conclusions, coming to an understanding of why they read the story, why they stuck with the story, kind of replicating what you did as a writer. Why are you writing a story? Why do you care about the story? That's what you're hoping for, that you partner with the reader and that they follow the same experience you did. Just as in your reporting, there wasn't a day where you came to a conclusion. You came to a sense of understanding that while it's never entirely done because no subject is ever thoroughly exhausted, but you reach a point of a kind of contentment, that you've learn something new and you can move on. So, your conclusion in the story should afford the reader the exact same experience. It should not be a recap of the story. It doesn't need to be a conclusive conclusion. It ideally is a moment that's especially precious in the story, and you may want to find as you're working a scene or a quote that really resonates, that becomes kind of precious, and hoard that, save it, to use for your ending. It's great if it has a sort of tone of finality but that's very different from a conclusion. I happen to think that it's more interesting for a reader to finish a piece with a lingering yearning for it to continue. While that may sometimes leave you with that urge for the story to keep going, that's actually a kind of delicious way to leave a reader, which is to feel like, "I want to know more." You don't induce that feeling in anybody by saying, "In conclusion, 10-year-old boys will turn into 11-year-old boys and that's what we've learned." That's absolutely a horrible way to end a story and also, it simply recaps what, and in a sense undercuts, what the whole story is about, which is, "I want to have an experience of living inside this world for a while. I want you to come with me, I want to show you what it was like, and then we're both going to step out of it and look at it receding as the story ends." So, when you're sitting down to write a conclusion, don't think about the summary. Think instead of what emotion would you like the reader to leave with. Do you want them to leave laughing? The story was funny and you want to leave them in that mood. Do you want to evoke something mysterious, emotional? The easy way to answer that is to think of how you felt. What was the prevailing emotion that you felt in the course of writing the story? Look for that in the conclusion, not a conclusion. How did I learn this particular technique? It was learning through a painful discovery, which was when I first began writing for The New Yorker, I would work very hard at these grand finale conclusions. I'd write the story and then muster up everything and recap everything and come to a conclusion, and I would turn the story in and wait for it eagerly for my editor to remark on how marvelous the conclusion was, and I would get the galleys back and he would have cut off the last paragraph. I thought, "Where went my fabulous conclusion?" He said, "You really already ended the piece. You're just sort of recapping the story." It was a great way to learn. It was a hard way to learn because it felt so strange to me and initially, those endings felt not like endings, they felt almost like an interruption. But over time, I began to understand that a conclusion is rarely very authentic anyway, because there is no story worth writing that can have a conclusion. These are all should be much richer and more complex than that and shouldn't lend themselves to a simple conclusion. At the end of American Male at Age 10, I was faced with, "How do I end the story? How do I leave this world and how do I leave the reader?" I've lied a little bit, because I do make an attempt here to summarize what I felt was the most significant theme in the story, and that was the end of childhood and the tremendous poignancy of watching a really wonderful kid as he was maturing and the mixed feelings you have seeing that. So, I did write a short paragraph talking about, not so much Colin growing up, but an inversion of that idea which is the idea that his backyard, which seemed huge to him when he was little, would someday seem very small to him. That is, in a sense, a deflected description of what it feels like to grow up and that's what I was seeing. Even in the short time I spent with him, I could see the collision of his childhood and his adolescence coming together. But this was a scene that when it unfolded seemed to me immediately that I would be saving this to end the piece. It was a very quiet moment. So, the story has had a lot of Colin with his friends, Colin in school. It was a kind of noisy, funny, lively bunch of dialogue, bunch of scenes that I was describing. I wanted the end to be quiet. I wanted to ease the reader out much as I wanted to ease myself out. I felt a tremendous sadness really after having become close to this kid over the few weeks we spent together, acknowledging that I was done now, I was going to go back and write my story, and this unusual relationship was going to end. So, I wanted to capture that feeling, and I suppose I wanted the reader to experience it with me. So, I wanted to capture that quiet ending, and I almost wanted it to feel as if the reader were in a car, looking out the back window, and seeing him receding as the reader drove away, because that's really what it felt like to me. It was perfect but a little melancholy. It was a wonderful metaphor to me that he built this spider web and that without even realizing it, I got caught in it. It was a marvelous convenient metaphor for the way I had gotten caught in the emotion of the story. I discovered almost to my surprise, I didn't have kids at the time, that being in that moment of a child turning into a young adult was incredibly appealing and also a special and fleeting moment. So, I like the idea that he had caught me in that emotion. 13. Editing: Revising: You've done your reporting, you've done your thinking and you've done your writing, but you're not done. I love revision and I'm happy that I love revision because I think it's so important. It's also the greatest gift that you can have as a writer which is rather than creating something new where there was a blank page, you're now working from an actual document that you can improve and polish and just help evolve into a better and better piece. When I first started writing, I actually thought everything I wrote was kind of perfect and over time, I've come to understand that that's ridiculous and even if you think it's perfect, it probably can be more perfect even though that's grammatically incorrect. There can be nothing that is more perfect. But it's been very liberating to me to realize that you can always make a piece better. Don't look at it as a failure or a chore but really as this great opportunity to improve the piece you've done. The first best way to edit yourself is to read your story out loud. Ideally, read it out loud to nobody and then if you can find a willing listener read it out loud to somebody else. There is no better way to hear the parts of a piece that don't work, that don't make sense, that are draggy, that are boring, that are repetitive. For that matter, that really work. You can do it far better by hearing yourself read that than looking on a page. We read in a different way than we would hear and if you're reading on the page something you've written, you have a tendency to kind of rush past and in particular you rush past the things that aren't so great. Took a while for me to not feel slightly embarrassed to read it out loud, but I'm an absolute advocate of it. I have found more errors and bad sentences that way than any other way that I've done editing. What I do everyday as I began is print out what I wrote the day before. Let's assume that you're working on a multi day writing project. So, you're writing a certain amount everyday and I would actually encourage you to set a kind of program for yourself of a certain number of words to write everyday. The first thing you should do when you sit down is print out what you wrote the day before. Read it and edit it. There's a good chance that in the light of day, you will see things that suddenly can be fixed, can be improved upon and often if you were really stuck somewhere giving yourself a day to review it you can usually find the fix. So, this is a printout of one of the days when I was working on my book Rin Tin Tin. It was a regular day's printout from the day before and there are quite a few changes some of which are small but they were all significant to me. Sometimes the changes can be a lot bigger than this, whole section they get moved around. This isn't quite as butchered as another section might be but this is how I begin my day before I start writing anything new. Should you write a complete draft before you edit? That's a matter of personal choice. Some people find it very comfortable to write a complete draft and then begin working through. I tend to write, stop, revise and move on, revise and then move on. Find what's comfortable for you. I don't think there's any right or wrong in that. One of the values of reading your piece out loud to someone else is once you've become very familiar with your material and very immersed in your own piece, one thing that's hard to edit is the logic of the piece. You know the piece too well to be able to notice something that you might have forgotten or that doesn't make any kind of sense and I'll give you an example. Some years ago, I covered the Super Bowl for the New Yorker. I wrote the piece, turned it in and my editor came back to me and said, "I really like the piece, there's just one thing that you forgot to mention," and I said, "What's that?" And you said, "You never said who won." That's an example of how being so close to your piece is very easy to miss certain things that are pretty obvious. If you can find another reader whether it's that you read to them out loud or give them a manuscript, that part of it. The simple internal logic. The obvious explanations of important facts in the piece can often be better identified not by yourself but by someone else. There are three big questions to think about when you're revising. One that's a little bit more abstract but probably the most critical of the three and that is, how confident does the piece sound? Anywhere that you find an equivocation, I think, perhaps, might have. Look for those words, step back and revise. The reader wants to feel that the writer knows the material and is telling a story in a very authentic way from really knowing the material. So, check that as much as you can. Listen for any point where you wobble in the story. What's the pacing like in the piece? Does it sag in places? Does it go too quickly? Is there enough change in the motion of the story to keep a reader engaged. Are the parts that are important being delivered in a deliberate way or do you rush through them? I tend to be a kind of rusher and I often have to look back at sections and feel that I've tried to tell too much too quickly and that I need to slow down and air out some of the explanation of a story. Then on a more micro level sentence-by-sentence, how does the story feel? Is it lively? Does it mix up sentence length? This is something that you can look at simply by really analyzing the mechanics of the story. Not does the sentence work and that one doesn't but do you have five really long sentences in a row? That's rarely going to work. Do you have too many really short sentences in a row. If so why? Is that serving a particular purpose or was it sort of an accident of the way you were writing? Look for this to be as textured as varied and as compelling a reading experience as it can be both in these specific ideas that you're sharing and even just the almost physical experience of reading. It's not always easy to revise your own work because we all fall in love with the things we've written and certain things just feels so crucial or you work so hard on the sentence that it's difficult when you realize that something just isn't going to quite work. One way that I taught myself to be less possessive of my sentences was, instead of cutting and deleting something that I was afraid wasn't working, I would cut it and paste it into a new documents. So, I had a document of these pieces of material that I trick myself into feeling I was temporarily putting aside and eventually, I discovered that doing that was easier than cutting and deleting and I really did feel that I could always go back and get it if I suddenly thought wait, that sentence really didn't work. This way, I was much freer and felt much more comfortable taking a section out, putting it in this file that was of these orphaned pieces. It didn't feel like as brutal as absolutely slashing something out of the piece. 14. Editing: Collaborating: Collaboration is really valuable when you're a writer. There's a very simple, easy, obvious reason that it is, which is writing is, at its heart, a form of communication. It's not a private thing, if you're looking to publish. It's something that you are putting out into the world. So, the first person who is going to be taking in what you are putting out in the world is exactly in a position to help you make that work better. I've worked with terrific editors, I've been really lucky in that way. I've also worked with some editors who, while we disagree a lot, I felt like I learned because it made me more certain of what I wanted to do as a writer. I've been very lucky also in finding readers among my friends and my peers who I was comfortable showing work to when it was not done, and not feeling that I was really risking something by saying, "This isn't finished. Read it. Give me an overall reaction." Not a sentence-by-sentence reading, but is it working? Is it going in the right direction? As much as you can find that in your own life, the better you'll be in whether it's in a workshop, whether it's an individual, who is willing and whose opinion you trust. Whether you do it as an exchange that you're reading their work and they're reading yours, you've got to be honest and frank, otherwise, you're wasting everybody's time. You have to be willing to hear criticism. The easiest way to be comfortable hearing criticism, I think, is to not look at your pieces being done. The minute you think it's done, you're no longer really receptive to input. So, it's more helpful for your own ego to say, "This isn't done. Read it, tell me where it's going if it's working. But I'm open to the criticism because I'm not finished." In this class, you've got the opportunity to read and comment on each other's work. It's a perfect setting because you begin with the understanding that you're in the process of this work being completed. It's not done. It's an ongoing effort to revise and improve your work. It's really helpful to do that with your peers. It's certainly also helpful to do it with a mentor, an editor, somebody who's got much more experience. But it also works very well to share with your peers because they are your readers, and they can be standing in for the readers you're going to encounter when your work is published. 15. The Ongoing Work of a Writer: Being a writer is an ongoing process, and it's a state of mind, it's a regular daily way of being in the world. It's something that you can work on all the time even if you're not sitting at a keyboard writing. So how do you do that? First of all read as much as you can, read and read and read and read. There is such great work out there and the best way to learn is to read great work. Look at it as a template, examine it, figure out why a great piece of writing affects you, that's something that is always available to do and it's a great way to learn. Imitation in its purest sense is simply modeling after work that you admire. It's a perfect way to learn. I sit whenever I write with a couple of books on my desk that inspire me that have great work in them, and when I'm stuck, I go to those books, I flip through and invariably I will read something that will trigger a thought in my mind that will help me solve whatever writing block I'm at at that moment. The word imitation sounds really pejorative, it's not you look at great work and you try to reproduce it in your own voice. Another part of the way every minute of every day you can improve your work as a writer is something that's much more of a personal inquiry which is the question of why you want to be a writer? It's worth thinking about, it's worth trying to identify what part of it is important to you, do love language? Do you love communicating? Do you love exploring? Do you love learning? Do you love the idea of introducing people to new worlds? It can be many of those things, it can be all of those things, but it is essential for your own growth as a writer to really think about that, it's probably a question that you'll never thoroughly answer or that you will keep revisiting through the whole time of your career or your pursuit of writing, but it's a good question to ask and by asking it, every store you go into will be changed by that question, because you need to ask yourself why this story? But the question that proceeds that is why any story? Why do I want to be a writer? What about this appeals to me? It will help you, and it'll help you approach stories in a really different way if you practice that set of questions with yourself. Writing for yourself versus writing for an audience. Those are very different undertakings. Writing for yourself is a private exercise, writing for an audience is about communication, your a conduit of information, it's a very different undertaking. You are then engaging in a relationship with your readers. It's important to think about that, it's important to think about a reader, it's almost impossible to write well without being able to imagine a relationship with a person reading the piece. Again, this is a somewhat abstract idea but it can help you lead your way through a story, what am I trying to achieve here? What will the reader need from me? You're a guide and that's where writing for an audience is very different from writing for yourself. I think you can even use that same thinking when you're writing in formats like Facebook and social media, again, it's about communicating, what am I trying to say? How do I want it received? It's useful to keep that in mind and to even work on that. Writing is an art and a craft. I think the most satisfying times are when you can identify both of those qualities in the work, it's a craft that you can be very pragmatic and help yourself demystify some of what can sometimes make it hard for people to write. You can be very concrete about goals, about how many words to write in a day and what you're trying to achieve. Being pragmatic and looking at the craft of writing can then free you in the more artistic part of writing to experience and enjoy the creativity of it, but it helps to have that framework of the pragmatic. That's why having these tools of printing out your notes, and highlighting notes, writing out your ideas, all of those rather mechanical processes should relieve some of the kind of tension that we all feel when we're trying to write. Give yourself some concrete tools and then let the creativity exist within that. I want to emphasize again how wonderful revision is, and how much you should embrace it as a great part of the process not an onerous horrible frustrating one, but an incredibly thrilling one because you're taking something and making it better. It should be that, it should feel that way to you, and the better you can get it revising, the better you'll be as a writer, nobody gets it right the first time. If you let yourself be really open to revision whether it's your own revision or an editor's revision, you're going to get better. That's what's so wonderful about it, it's like weightlifting. If you live five pounds every day for a month, it will get easier. If you revise and revise and let yourself be open to revision, your work we'll get better. It's absolutely guaranteed. So, if you can do it enthusiastically and get good at it it's a guarantee that your work will improve. Writing is at its very heart a matter of language. You can improve your writing by cultivating and nurturing a love of language. Keep a little notebook with you, when you hear a phrase or a word or see a description that appeals to you, scribble it down, you may not use it but you're going to begin developing a habit in your own mind of collecting language as part of your toolkit. We all also get stuck in our own set of words that we use regularly and that are easy, grab bag of words try to break out of that. There's a lot of fear of thesauruses which I do not have because, I think a lot of times when you realize you've used the same words too many times, open yourself up to learning new words, don't use a thesaurus in a soppy where you're slam in words that you don't really understand or that actually have connotations that are inaccurate. But work on language, this is something that again, it's an easy thing to do, read, collect words, enjoy words, appreciate them, and develop a bigger and bigger toolkit of language to use in your pieces and to make them better, brighter, more vivid, more unique.