’50 Writing Tools in Three Hours’

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I just sat in on Roy Peter Clark‘s three-hour writing workshop at the Nieman narrative conference. I’ve heard Roy, my colleague at Poynter, talk about his “Writing Tools” book a dozen or more times, but I still learned something new today. Here are some of the tools I found most helpful:

“Get the name of the dog” — Dig for the little detail that adds color to a story. Sometimes, just saying, “Tell me about such and such,” can open a world of details.

— “Pay attention to names”— Names matter. Think about how good it makes you feel to hear someone call you by your name. Would you rather someone say, “Hey, you” or “Hey, Cindy”? Sometimes names can have a strange or interesting connection to a person’s past or profession — a mother who names her daughter after her own deceased mother, a race car driver aficionado whose last name is “Racer,” etc.

— “Tune your voice” — by reading your drafts aloud. When I have the opportunity to read my pieces aloud, I find words that sound awkward, overused, or unnecessary. I always used to wonder, “How the heck do I read a piece aloud if I’m sitting in the newsroom? The great writing coach Don Fry suggests picking up the phone and reading your piece. Your coworkers will just think you’re on the phone.

— “Reveal traits of character” — One of my editors told me about an exercise she did with a reporter. Both she and the reporter went to the same place and covered the same story. When they came back to the newsroom to compare what they had reported, they both had incredibly different notes. The reporter’s notebook was full of quotes from the people she interviewed. The editor’s notebook was full of scene, dialogue, and details about the place they had visited. She listened and observed more than she asked questions. Scene and dialogue put us in a story. Roy said today that “Dialogue is a form of action. A quote is heard, but dialogue is overheard.” So true.

— “Put odd and interesting things next to each other” — Doing so helps add variety and elements of surprise to a piece. When writing a piece during the session today, I wrote the sentence: “It couldn’t have been a coincidence that I crashed in front of the Crosspoint Baptist Church. On a road that is lined with five strip joints in a nine-mile stretch, I would have been more likely to crash in front of the Oz Topless Bar or Zona Erotica.” You wouldn’t think to put a church and a strip joint in back-to-back sentences, but doing so adds verbal variety to a story.

— “Save string” — Like most reporters, I have a list of stories I want to write. I can’t always get to them, but I save string and work until I get the ball I want.

— “Recruit your own support group” — It’s amazing how helpful positive reinforcement can be. Like most people, I thrive on feedback. Sometimes all it takes is asking an editor or a trusted colleague, “What works in this story? What needs work?”

— “Limit self criticism in drafts” (I would add to this “make deadlines for yourself) —

Often, the problem is our backspace button. We tell ourselves, “Oh, that doesn’t sound good. That doesn’t make sense. I need a more compelling lead,” and then we hit the backspace button. It’s tough to write through those thoughts, but when writing drafts, the space bar and enter keys are what move us forward.

When time permits, I find it helpful to scribble the lead to my stories on paper instead of on my laptop. There’s something about the hand-to-paper motion that engages me more in the material.

… Great session. Lots of writing, laughs, and guitar playing. More to come tomorrow.