Writing Short

Writing Short is a lot harder than long writing. You may remember the famous quip by Mark Twain: “I apologize for writing you a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one.” Writing short effectively takes more thought, knowledge, and design.

How long is short? It has little to do with actual length. A piece can read short or long, regardless of how much space it occupies. By short, we mean it seems short to readers as they read it.

Here’s the secret: selection, not compression. You write short by leaving things out, not by mashing things in. So short writing begins with simplifying, adjusting the number of subjects and details for the amount of room.

For most professional writers, editors assign the space, usually based on their publication format or their estimate of the piece’s importance. Important subjects get more space. That’s why the New York Times writes so long.

How do you calculate space? I judge it by how much explanation the readers need. If they need no explanation, the piece is short, and that’s the default. If they need some explanation, the piece is a little longer. If they need a lot of explanation, the space is large. If they need an enormous amount of explanation, you write a book. The trick is to use your space and your readers’ attention span economically.

First, lead with the essence of the piece, jumping to the action, and avoiding introductions. You decide the essence by asking, “What’s this about?” or “What’s my point?” Then type the answer as your first sentence. You may revise it later, but at least you’ve started with the heart of the matter.

Describing actions makes reading seem quick, so get to action as soon as possible, pulling your readers in and along. If you’re telling a story, they want to know how it comes out. And action requires characters.

Quotes are wonderful, and we all love them, but they slow things down and take up a lot of space. Each new character you introduce may require apparatus to get them on the stage, like name, title, etc. So you select the characters and speakers and quotes rigorously. Everything has to justify its space.

Background and context can take up a lot of space. You ask yourself what your readers already know, and how little you have to explain. Provide background in bits, parts of sentences, rather than as a separate block.

Attributing facts lets readers judge their validity, and you maintain their trust by clearly indicating where everything comes from. But attribution clutters the piece, so limit the number of sources you have to include.

You can’t simplify what you don’t understand, so short writing requires deeper gathering. You don’t have room for a lot of qualifiers and nuance.

See why short writing is harder? You don’t have as much space for devices that build authority and interest.

You also don’t have room for showy style, so you make every sentence add to the readers’ knowledge and understanding. You don’t have room for transitions, so don’t write them; readers will bridge the gaps. Finally, write an ending to cement the story in the reader’s memory. Even in very short writing, you need to close the loop so the readers can remember what you said.

Common sense would tell you that you also don’t have room for visuals, but they can save space in the body text. Push complex information into graphics, pictures, blurbs, at-a-glance boxes, sidebars, captions, and titles. One diagram can save two paragraphs describing pasta shapes.

The “look” of a piece can make it seem shorter or longer to readers. Large blocks of type, long paragraphs, and multi-page layout can make a short piece look long. Things that look long daunt readers.

As I read over what I’ve said above, I realize that all these principles apply just as well to long writing. The trick there is to make long writing read short.

[Want to share your tricks and anecdotes on writing short? Let’s hear them.]

Published in: on March 22, 2009 at 12:56 pm  Comments (2)  

Telephone Interviewing

Interviewing on the phone is harder than face-to-face. You can’t see your sources, and they can bail out more easily when you close in. So you need a few extra techniques.

Because you’re not present, you can’t pick up cues from facial expressions or body language. Your source may be talking perfectly calmly, but you don’t see her doodling scowly faces. And she can’t see you smiling and nodding, apparently writing down all the interesting things she’s saying. You can’t ask about things you might notice in the scene, such as that signed photo of Alice Waters on her desk, which you can’t see.

Telephone interviews tend to be shorter, so you need to know what you’re after, plan your questions ahead, and manage the time. I always make up a list of key questions to ask at the right moments. Resist the temptation to use a list of questions as a script, asking them in sequence. They key to great interviewing is listening hard to follow-up answers.

You have less time for small talk to create an atmosphere and relax your subject. You’ll spend less time asking factual questions that lay down a base for harder questions to follow. So you do a little more preparation ahead of time to get things underway quickly and focus on essentials.

You can use time efficiently by keeping your questions short, clear, simple, and to the point. You’re interviewing to find out what the source knows, not to hear yourself talk. Direct the flow of subjects, not letting the source wander. Interrupt a rambling subject politely but firmly, like this: “Hmm, that’s really interesting. Now, let’s talk about ….” You can also sharpen the language and guide the flow by paraphrasing back what your source says: “What I hear you saying is….” or “Do you mean…?”

Not being present makes confirming facts harder; you can’t share documents. And you won’t hear as well on the phone. So you double-check orally by reading back spellings and numbers, for example: “Jane Jones, spelled j-a-n-e-j-o-n-e-s, right?” You’ll feel stupid spelling out “Jane Jones” until your source replies, “Oh no, it’s j-a-y-n-e-j-o-h-n-e-s.”

Sometimes a source wants to end a call before you’re through, so you turn it into an interruption. Ask for a time to call back. If the subject hangs up on you, here’s a technique from Edna Buchanan, the great Miami cop reporter: count to 30, call back, and say, “I’m sorry. We were cut off.”

At the end of the call, thank your source and create a channel to talk with her again. Ask if you can call back to check things; request a home number and perhaps an e-mail address. Then say, “If you think of anything you’d like to add, give me a call; here’s my number.” And thank her again.

As I look back over these techniques, I realize they apply equally well to all interviews, whether you’re there or not.

[Got any tips for telephone interviewing? We’d like to hear them. Thanks.]

Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Creating My New Voice

Every time I reinvent myself, I create a new voice and a new pen name. Voice is the illusion that the text speaks, and readers assign it a personality. So when I become a new person, I need a new personality, a new voice, a new identity.

I can see the end of my 25-year career as a newspaper writing coach. But more than ever, the world still needs solid reporting, judgment, accuracy, and clear and compelling prose. So I see a future for journalism, and for me and the skills I study and teach.

Computers have changed the world in those 25 years, creating not only new media, but also the ability of ordinary people to manipulate pictures and sound. Computers make writing, especially revision, so much easier for people who type badly, like me. Computers allow everyone to publish.

People are changing their reading habits in response to new media opportunities. I like print, and I love hardback books. But digital reading is vastly superior, with searching, adjustable font size, linking, pop-ups, bookmarking, sound, video, and gigantic memory.

I’m working on my third voice now. The first was an academic voice, suitable for a brand-new assistant professor of English, who named himself “Donald K. Fry.” I wanted to write with striking power and clarity, so I turned Strunk and White’s Elements of Style into a voice. I used all their devices of clarity, and avoided anything that sounded conversational, such as the verb “to be.” My academic colleagues criticized that voice as too clear. One sniped, “You don’t sound professorial; people can understand you.”

I created a friendlier, less academic voice when I switched professions to journalism, and renamed myself “Don Fry.” I still valued clarity and power, but I also wanted journalists to engage, to act on what I wrote about. This voice kept the formality of Strunk and White, but admitted some conversational devices, such as an occasional “to be” and contractions. I used the second person singular “you” to draw readers into action.

That second voice worked. One commentator observed, “You could cut yourself on Don Fry’s prose.” I think that was a compliment.

You’re reading my third voice now, drafted by a character named “donfry.” I realized that my first voice sounded like a book because I thought of myself as a book writer. My second voice sounded like someone standing up because that’s what I did, stood up and talked AT people. This third voice leaps into our new world of exchanges, where readers and writers keep switching roles, talking WITH each other, not AT each other. In my old voices, I would have called it “multi-directional.” Now I call it fun.

What makes this new voice sound the way it does? It still uses all the devices of clarity and power, as well as the chatty contractions and sprinkles of the verb “to be.” Strunk commanded, “Omit needless words,” but now I leave some in. I ended that last sentence with a preposition, perfectly good grammar but informal. I’m also writing about myself.

I find myself analyzing the prose of respondents to the new style. Whoa, that sentence is in my previous voice. Let’s try it again.

I’m watching how friends talk back to my blog. Better.

Most of my reader friends seem to have blogging down pat, writing like bar talk. So I’ll experiment with this new voice and virtual self in front of you. And I’ll show you along the way how to create and recreate your own new voice, as I create mine.

[Have you developed your own voice? Let’s hear about how you did it.]

Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 9:15 am  Comments (4)  

Taking Notes

Several blog readers responded to my rant against tape recorders, that they lose control of an interview while trying to take notes and listen at the same time.

Taking notes looks simple. You hear the source say something you want to keep, so you write it down. Not simple at all. While you’re trying to jot it down from memory, she keeps on talking, saying something even more interesting and important than what you’re struggling to record. Meanwhile, you have to listen so you can ask follow-up questions.

So you start wishing for a tape recorder, or shorthand. Don’t. Taping can make you slow and literal-minded, and shorthand tempts you to write down everything the source says. I only know one writer who uses shorthand effectively, and he uses it to take notes, not to record. Good notetaking means good listening, control of the interview, and a rich notebook.

Two factors get in the way: writing down everything the source says, and trying to get it all in quote form.

After a terrific interview, you’ll probably use ten percent of what the source says, and about ten percent of that in quote form. The best quotes come late in interviews, after you’ve established an atmosphere of trust, and can ask targeted questions that get at character and depth. That’s when you need verbatim notes.

You want very little of the information in quote form. Most sources don’t speak well, so you have to paraphrase them later anyway. Lots of quotes in a story, especially long ones, tend to bog it down with apparatus.

You can train yourself to listen and take good notes. Record a good interview show or press conference from television. Try to write down everything the speakers say, then compare what you get with the recording. You’ll see how much of an interview is filler and blither and not useful, and how hard it is to make sense of those notes later. Then do the exercise again with a different program, listening hard for meaning and taking notes on content, rather than the exact words. Try to collect at least one really good quote verbatim. The second method is so much easier, you’ll want to perfect it, eventually practicing on live subjects. Interview your mother; you’ll be stunned by how quotable she is, and isn’t.

How much of a quote you should actually write down depends on your memory. One reporter friend of mine never uses a tape or a notebook. She writes down long quotes from memory later and prints them. I doubt her memory’s that good. I do have a good memory, so I tend to write down only the big words in a quote and fill in the little ones immediately after the interview. Some writers jot down key phrases and fill in the rest later.

You can control the pace of a one-on-one interview. I always ask my sources to slow up so I can get down all the good stuff they’re saying. They interpret that request as my being interested and careful about accuracy. You can slow things down by asking a question you don’t want the answer to. Then you rewrite the previous note, or jot down an observation, like “Signed portrait Elie Wiesel, desk. Ask later.”

When the source says something you want verbatim, you can interject, “Oh, that’s good. Can you say that again?” And it comes out clearer the second time. Variants include “Really?” “You mean X…, right?” “Did I hear you correctly, that X…?” Use this technique sparingly so the source doesn’t notice it.

For some pieces, you may need sound or video, but solid notetaking pays off later. Good notes make sense of your material quickly.

Got any good notetaking strategies you’d like to share with me?

Published in: on March 16, 2009 at 8:24 pm  Comments (3)  

A Rant against Tape Recorders

I’ve waged a 29-year campaign against tape recorders, because they undermine the basic skills of writers. Taping can make you slow, literal-minded, and a bad listener.

Effective interviewing involves creating and maintaining a relationship of temporary trust between yourself and your subject. We try to turn every interview into a conversation. The tape recorder reminds subjects that other people will hear what they’re saying, so they go all formal and make speeches. They give guarded, safe answers. They talk funny.

I once interviewed a star writer in person, with a tape recorder running. Suddenly, he leapt up and hit the STOP button, saying, “I can’t stand for my colleagues to hear this.” The machine made him self-conscious and afraid.

Sources can use tape recorders as a weapon. You’re setting up for a tough interview, and your subject lifts his big, black recorder onto the desk, and pushes the REC button. He’s just sent you a message: “My lawyer will listen to this, bud!” So you slap your bigger, blacker recorder onto the desk beside his, and hit your REC button. You’ve just replied, “So will mine, buster!” You’ll get nothing useful from that session because you both poisoned the atmosphere. Lots of “No Comment.”

Taping encourages lazy notetaking and, therefore, lazy listening. With the tape recorder running and (theoretically) getting everything that’s said, you think you can relax and let it do the work. Pretty soon, you’re not concentrating, and your follow-up questions get fuzzy. And when you listen to that tape, it has a big surprise for you. The machine failed; your tape is blank!

TAPE RECORDERS ALWAYS FAIL AT THE WORST MOMENTS.

Writers tape conversations mostly because they’re anxious to get the quotes right. However, most quotes have to be “cleaned up” a little, sometimes a lot, to make them publishable. One newspaper chain I worked with required all its beginning reporters to pass a 60-word-per-minute shorthand test. The writers then put long, verbatim quotes in their stories, making them unreadable.

Mostly we paraphrase sources to make what they say intelligible, and having the recorded quote available tempts us to quote. Bad quotes make bad explanation; they make reading drag.

Rather than depend on the tape, teach yourself to listen intently and take good notes. Your follow-up questions will improve because you listened better. Your notebook will contain only essential quotes, not pages of blither.

Taping encourages procrastination. Many writers try desperately to find some reason, any excuse, not to start typing. And their friendly tape recorders sit there waiting, singing this siren song: “Maybe you should just listen to the whole tape just in case you missed something.” Give in to that temptation, and you’ve just killed two, three, seven hours. You might even tempt yourself to transcribe the whole tape. Procrastinators are ingenious time wasters.

Despite all my growling above, there are times when you might use a tape recorder, such as in hostile interviews where lawyers will get involved later. You would need one for interviewing foreign-language speakers when you’re not fluent in their tongue; later, a native speaker can help you catch nuances and check your translation. You must tape any interview that will turn into a transcript, such as “Question and Answer” format. Finally, you would tape any interview with a person of historical importance. If you have the great fortune to get a session with Nelson Mandela, for example, tape it and later donate it to an archive.

Can you use tape recorders in ways that won’t undo you? Of course. Use a small, extremely reliable machine with brand-new or freshly-recharged batteries. Use it only as a back-up to great listening and notetaking. Write in your notebook the counter number of important things the subject says, and listen only to those marked items. And always remember the temptations that accompany taping.

Got any good anecdotes about taping? I’d like to hear them.

Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 2:58 pm  Comments (4)  

Storytelling I

I grew up in the American South in a storytelling culture. To explain something, you told a story, and everybody understood it. To explain things, we relate the unknown to what your audience already knows. Stories draw on common human knowledge and experience, and link those knowns to the unknown.

Newspapers call their basic units “stories,” although, technically speaking, most of them aren’t. They’re collections of data arranged in traditional templates, sometimes with bits of storytelling thrown in. We should probably call them “articles.” A few, mostly features or sports, do tell a whole story.

So what is a story? A story consists of actors performing actions in time for reasons, or a voice revealing actions by actors. That voice is the storyteller, and all stories have one. We call the storyteller “the persona,” to distinguish it from the author.

The storytelling voice, the persona, is an artifact, a device created and controlled by the author. (The second half of this book will show you how to create your own voice.) The persona allows you to escape the trap of sincerity; you don’t have to believe or mean what your persona says. Your persona is a fiction, even when you’re writing non-fiction.

In stories, actors act. We use various devices to characterize the actors, to make them seem like real human beings to our readers. (Actually, characters aren’t necessarily human; some are monsters or talking spiders.) The primary devices for characterization are description, action, and speech.

Human beings become expert at judging character, not just by what people say, but also how they say it. As we read quotes or dialogue, we make judgments about the speakers. Here’s Johnny Moore, who witnessed the Wright Brothers’ first flight: “They done it, they done it, damned if they ain’t flew.” That quote, 11 words, conjures up Johnny for you.

I didn’t describe Johnny, but you pictured him speaking, perhaps with his mouth gaping. Notice how that little detail enriched the image. You may have imagined a landscape surrounding Johnny, perhaps including the Wrights and their plane. Description works best when you don’t tell readers too much, allowing a few details to help them create their own version of the character.

Action has more power than description, so we set the actors in motion, letting them interact with each other. What they do and how they do it and how they talk about it reveals their characters, and now you have plot, or a sequence of motivated actions.

Storytelling is the most powerful form of explanation, the most fun to write and to read.

Published in: on March 7, 2009 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Briefing an Idea

The IDEA stage works best with another person, although you can do it alone. In a newspaper or a magazine, it usually involves an editor giving an assignment or accepting a story proposal. Ideally the editor brainstorms with you to achieve mutual agreement on the project, and to narrow or broaden your gathering of information. You want to leave such a session knowing what the story is likely about, the sources to start with, your deadline, and the scale of the piece. Are you writing a brief, an 18-inch feature, a three-part series, or an atlas? Smart writers also discuss potential visuals at this stage, just to get the production thinking started.

The other person need not be an editor, but it helps. This session, called a “Briefing,” launches the production process. The editor will follow up by commissioning photos and graphics, allocating space, scheduling when the piece will appear, etc. The secret of flawless coordination of all the things that make up the story is constant communication between editor and writer, updating each other and adjusting the whole process.

NEVER SURPRISE AN EDITOR.

You want such teamwork that editors always know what to expect from you, and they always get what they expect (plus a little more). The briefing session sets those expectations.

There are two models for these conversations. In the first, an assignment editor tells what she wants, when, how long, etc. You ask questions to make sure you’re both on the same wavelength. Do not leave a briefing session if you don’t understand any part of what you’re expected to do.

In the other model, you pitch an idea to the editor to get it approved. A helpful editor will ask about likely sources, treatment, length, possible visuals, etc. Then you reach agreements on deadline, length, reimbursement, etc. Freelancers would do well to ask the editor for a memo of what you’ve agreed.

How do you brief without an editor? You ask yourself questions that will organize your thinking and help you design the next phase, gathering materials. Recognizing that you don’t have all the information yet, here are some good questions:
What is this piece likely to be about?
What is the scale of it (letter to the editor, article with recipes, autobiography)?
Who will likely read it, and what do they already know?
What visuals would help readers understand it?
What sources, both documents and people, do I need to start with?
Where am I likely to publish this and when?

If a friend asks you these questions, you’re more likely to answer them honestly and specifically. Failing that, write down the answers. Everything’s clear in your head; you have to get it outside yourself to see what’s fuzzy. If you start the next phase with vague ideas of what you’re after, you’ll make lots of false starts and take forever.

Published in: on March 5, 2009 at 7:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Taming Your Internal Critic

All writers are phonies, and all writers know it. How do you know it? A voice inside your head keeps saying so while you type.

You didn’t know that other writers suffered from that voice, did you? Stick with me, and I’ll show you that you’re not as odd as you think, and I’ll teach you ways to deal with your debilitating quirks.

The mildest form of Internal Critic asks, “Are you really sure about that?” Good question for REVISION, but it slows up DRAFTING. It leads to a slow slide of confidence, like this: “You just might be wrong about that last sentence you just typed. Or maybe just part of what you wrote is a little shaky. Or maybe you got the emphasis just a little wrong. Remember the last time you screwed up?” Confidence drains, and you trudge along. Or quit.

I once coached a writer who would type a sentence, and then search on the Internet to see if it was right. He plodded along, checking each sentence before he wrote the next one. Needless to say, it took him forever to finish anything.

Most Internal Critics are imaginary, but some are real people, including reviewers, 10th-grade English teachers, editors, even mothers. As you type, you anticipate, for example, your editor’s reaction, inevitably negative: “He’ll hate this. He hates all my stuff. What if he asks me how I know this? What if he calls me ‘a little college snot,’ again?” And your Internal Critic cripples you. (I just mistyped “Internal Crisis!”)

At the other extreme, consider my own Internal Critic. He screams at me sentence by sentence: “That sentence sucks! The one before it is worse! If you print this drivel, everybody will laugh at you! Stop typing! NEVER WRITE AGAIN!” He also has yellow fangs, nasty claws, and flaming eyes.

Your Internal Critic damages your confidence sentence by sentence. HE DISTRACTS YOU INTO THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF INSTEAD OF WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY. And that’s the problem.

It’s okay to think you’re a phony; we all are. But you need to shut your Internal Critic up while you’re DRAFTING, and train him to say the right things during REVISION.

Here’s how. You need a “mantra,” a little saying that shifts your attention, away from yourself failing at the keyboard, to what you’re trying to say. You just keep repeating the mantra as you compose. (Mine is “Keep typing, Don.”) Other writers have found the following mantras helpful:
· “It’s the content, stupid.”
· “This is just a draft!”
· “Shut up, Mother!” (or “editor!” or “Sister Snarlissima!”)
· “Nobody will see this draft but me!”

Yes, I am suggesting that you talk to yourself while you compose. Your Internal Critic shouts at you as you type, and so can you, but calmly.

One stage later, in REVISION, you want your Internal Critic to change his tone. No longer can he sneer, “You’re no good.” You want him to say things like, “That sentence is merely good; give it one more try.” He might even exclaim, “Hey, this is really going well.” On a splendid day, he might admit, “You’re okay.”

Published in: on March 5, 2009 at 9:23 am  Leave a Comment  

Writing Clear Sentences I

You learned in school that a sentence’s structure determines what it means. But nobody taught you how to arrange the sentence so your readers could understand it easily.

A sentence has two anchors: the SUBJECT and the VERB. The sooner the readers get to the subject and verb, the more likely they are to understand. So here’s the first secret of clear sentences: keep the subject and verb together, as close to the beginning as possible. Check out this diagram:

[LEFT BRANCH] SUBJECT+VERB [RIGHT BRANCH]

The left branch includes anything that comes before the subject, and the right branch is everything that comes after the verb. Anything you put in the left branch delays the reader getting to the subject, and therefore hurts clarity. Anything you put between the subject and the verb delays the reader getting to the verb, and hurts clarity.

So, for maximum clarity, start the sentence with the subject, put the verb next to it, and add other stuff to the right.

I don’t mean that every sentence should start with the subject. I mean that you pay a penalty in clarity if you don’t start with the subject. The longer and more complicated the left branch, the higher the penalty you pay, and the less your reader understands.

Try to understand this example: “Wearing a burnt-tangerine windowpane-checked linen and cashmere blazer, beige suede trousers, brown Gucci boots, a shirt unbuttoned low on the chest, a leather-thong necklace, and with a gold ring in the shape of an alligator coiling on his finger, Mr. Solomon, accidentally observed admiring his appearance in a pier mirror inside the front door, greeted his guest in the drawing room and led him upstairs to a rooftop garden for a talk, his golden retriever, River, at his side.”

You had to wait 39 words for the subject (“Mr. Solomon”) and then 13 more for the verb (“greeted”). You drowned trying to get through that sentence, and so would your readers.

Which leads us to the next secret: Don’t insert things inside other things; put them end to end. In the dreadful sentence above, the author inserts “accidentally observed admiring his appearance in a pier mirror inside the front door” within the unit of the subject and verb, damaging both.

Consider this sentence: “Consumers in China, a land where refrigerator doors fall off, the frames of bicycles crack as they are wheeled from the store and the hands of doughnut-sized watches ignore conventional notions of time, are up in arms.” By the time the readers get to the verb (“are up in arms”), they forget the subject (“Consumers”).

Try to make heads or tails of this awful sentence: “It helps to know that these parents – the youths of past generations – who don’t want their kids to experiment with drugs and sex, even when they’d done so themselves in an era that became a synonym for rebellion survived.”

Actually, that sentence will make perfect sense in speech because the speaker punctuates it with his or her voice; but in prose, the readers might have to read it two or three times to puzzle it out.

It’s easier to write clear sentences in the first place if you picture actions. Start with the actor (subject), put the action (verb) next to it, then add things end to end to the right. Later, read it aloud and revise anything that bumps.

[I dedicate this post to Bruce DeSilva, my fellow writing coach, who also collects hideous sentences. Please send me good or bad examples from your own experience.]

Published in: on March 1, 2009 at 3:47 pm  Comments (1)  

Writing the Lead Last

Fasten your seat belt, here comes another crazy Don Fry idiosyncratic technique. I usually write the lead, the opening paragraph, last. And about five percent of the writers I know use this technique. They thought they were nuts until they heard me talk about it. They’re also among the fastest writers I know.

I want a perfect lead to introduce the subject matter, set the readers’ expectations, and establish my authority as a good guide through the journey of the story. I find it hard to write such a terrific lead on a body text I have to imagine. So I write the body text first, and then the lead.

Good leads mirror the language of the body text, and I find that simply typing the piece creates a lead before I reach the bottom. Sometimes, I just write bits and pieces (the way I’m writing this book) and let them all fall together. By that time, a lead will appear in my head, and I type it.

Sometimes, a terrific lead pops into my head as I compose the body text, and I just type it in wherever I am. I avoid the distracting temptation to polish it on the spot, and move it up later during revision. By the time I type to the bottom, an even better lead often shows up.

This may sound like Zen nonsense, but I know how it works. As I’m typing the body text, my brain is watching key words appear on the screen. Those words call up other words and phrases, and my head creates a lead for me. Sometimes I tell people that I have a staff in the back of my skull that watches me type and manufactures a lead.

Here’s the good news: a lead invented from an existing body text seldom needs revision. Maybe a little buffing, but no heavy reworking.

The best lead writers often have a head full of openings when they sit down to type. As they gather materials, their ears stay tuned up for leads, and they write them in their notebook. I mark potential leads (“PL”) and potential endings (“PK,” for “kicker”) in my notes. On a good day, I may organize with five possible leads and a couple of endings already in play.

So, even though I write the lead last, I’ve already done a lot of thinking about beginnings before I start drafting. Writing doesn’t start when you first put your fingers on the keys; writing begins in the IDEA stage. The fastest writers think about form through their whole process.

Published in: on March 1, 2009 at 12:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 646 other followers