Analyzing Joan Didion’s voice

Joan Didion has a most recognizable and influential voice, as in this selection from “Goodbye to All That,” 1967:

I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always has an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu.

I would characterize the persona speaking to us here as sophisticated, world-weary, sardonic and edgy, intense, knowing and sad. What devices create this voice?

Her sentences are long and complex, even the short ones. She creates rolling rhythms, mostly with simple words and lengthy clauses, with lots of things inserted into them. She use no contractions, lifting the formality slightly. She repeats parallel phrases. Some of her sentences have extended, introductory dependent clauses. She builds toward powerful images at the end of sentences: “the shining and perishable dream itself,” “one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.” She uses specific images of stores and places to build up a sense of plenitude pointing toward abstractions. We have a sense that she’s thinking in front of us, in her back-and-forth clauses and phrases, all tightly controlled by precise sentences.

[How do you experience this voice?]

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 7:51 pm  Comments (1)  

Mind mapping ideas

Sometimes in the IDEA stage and often in the GATHERING stage, you have so much material available that you don’t know where to land. You need a map of the territory, a way to see connections and find patterns, or to find the most promising areas to develop. So you create your own map.

We call this technique “Mind Mapping.” Essentially, you lay out areas of interest or events, and draw arrows to show what causes what.

Suppose, for instance, that American women decided they’re fed up with preparing Thanksgiving dinner and would rather watch football. What would happen? This map explores possible consequences:

You can draw a mind map to figure out why something happened. This one explains why, despite excellent planning, I ended up in my chiropractor’s office after building a backyard fence with my son:

We saved some critical decisions for later (thickness, bracing, how many finished sides), which resulted in more stooping and bending than we expected, which took a toll on fingers and knees, the kind of thing that makes chiropractors rich.

You can also use mind mapping to explore a lot of material to figure out which part to focus on and write about. Let’s use adopting feral cats as our subject:

You could ask which of these consequences of adoption most interests you, or might intrigue your readers, or fits a publication you’re aiming at, or promises rich material. Then you select part of the map and write about it.

[Ever make a mind map?]

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Scribbling, the worst way to write

About half of the problems I deal with as a writing coach happen in the ORGANIZING stage, mostly because many writers skip it altogether. They have no concept of organizing what they write.

In many journalism classes, students are still being taught to end the Gathering stage (which they call “reporting”) by asking, “What’s my lead?” No organizing at all, no questions about content, or what the piece is about. Just try to come up with that first sentence.

Perhaps half of all writers begin typing without thinking about content or form, in a process I call “Scribbling.” Here’s how they do it, in four steps:

1. What’s my lead?
2. Backing up the lead
3. What else have I got?
4. What have I left out?

The first step usually begins with the question, “What’s my lead?” or some equivalent. Writers have been taught that they need a perfect, terrific first sentence, or the reader won’t read them. They see the lead as a hook. But readers enter a package in this order: photo, headline, caption, text. In that fourth position, leads aren’t hooks.

So they try to come up with a perfect hook lead when they have no idea what they want to say or how. Obviously, that’s hard to do and often takes a lot of time and agony. (I once coached an investigative reporter who took a month to write her first sentence, an extreme form of “lead anxiety.”)

Finally, they type something on the screen that’s good enough to get them going, and then they polish it until it’s perfect. They start like this:

Have you noticed that wren in your bird feeder is bullying the other birds?
The wren in your bird feeder is a bully.

The wren, despite being the smallest North American bird, is a bully in your feeder.

They like that third version, so they shift to the second step, Backing up the Lead, trying to prove that the lead is true. They type their second sentence:

This smallest of North American birds (except for hummingbirds) makes up for his lack of size by aggressive behavior.

Now the lead is wrong, so they fix it:

The wren despite being the smallest North American bird is a bully in your feeder.

Then they have to revise their second sentence:

This smallest of North American birds (except for hummingbirds) makes up for his lack of size by aggressive behavior.

The lead’s still not perfect, so they fix it, again:

The wren is a bully bullies everybody else in your bird feeder.

Then they write the third sentence, still not knowing what they want to say or how, still backing up the lead, producing this sequence:

The wren bullies everybody else in your bird feeder.
This smallest of North American birds makes up for lack of size by aggressive behavior. Tail flicking up, he elbows his way in, pushing even larger birds aside.

Not bad, but wrens aren’t people and don’t have elbows, so they have to revise the new sentence:

Tail flicking up, he elbows his way in, pushing pushes even larger birds aside.

Now the first two sentences need revision, again:

The wren bullies everybody else all the other birds in your bird feeder.
This smallest of North American birds makes up for lack of his size by aggressive behavior

    sheer pushiness


And so on. This process is called “Down and Up.” Everything they write down makes something above it wrong or unsatisfactory or imperfect, and they must fix it before they can write the next sentence.

There are several assumptions here, all of them wrong:

1. You must write the piece in the order the readers will read it.
2. Everything must be perfect.
3. Anything not perfect must be fixed immediately.

They continue Down and Up throughout the rest of the draft, especially trying to keep the lead perfect. In a 25-sentence piece, they may rewrite the lead 25 times. And it gets worse, not better; denser, not clearer; longer, not shorter and punchier.

Stage three is “What else have I got?” They write this step the same way as the first two, but now there’s more text above that can become imperfect. Nevertheless, they trudge along, Down and Up, Down and Up, making the piece harder to read.

The final stage, “What have I left out,” happens when they’re tired, fed up, and running out of time. You can spot writers in this step because they’re flipping through their notes franticly, and swearing at themselves. “Dammit, how could you leave that out?!” So they type, “Male wrens may make as many as four nests, hoping to attract as many females as possible.” And then they stick that sentence in somewhere, and it causes problems above and below where they poke it, requiring not only Down and Up, but also Down and Down.

Then they turn the piece in, late and messy.

What’s wrong with Scribbling? Nothing. It does get a story written. But it’s the slowest and hardest way to do it, and the most damaging to confidence. It makes writers decide to apply to law school. And the resultant piece is heavy and dense, full of qualifiers, poorly written, and barely revised in the second half when they’re running out to steam.

You can write like that if you enjoy suffering, but there are easier ways. And the first is to organize your pieces. There are many ways to do that, and this blog explains most of them.

[Got any variant versions of Scribbling?]

Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 2:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Magic interview questions

I was in Zambia conducting workshops in the Lusaka Post, a newspaper so aggressive that they called interviewing “confrontation.” Three reporters excused themselves to go confront the President of Zambia. They returned two hours later, jumping up and down in delight, and high-fiving each other. They said they had tried out some of the “magic interview questions” in my handout on the president, who for the first time gave them answers that weren’t contemptuous and full of lies. “Magic questions,” indeed.

Questions that good must be shared, so here they are:

1. “What happened?”
2. “Why?”
3. “Explain how X works.”
4. “What can you tell me about Y?”
5. “What do you remember vividly about X?”
6. “Where can I find out more about X?”
7. “Talk about that. Tell me more.”
8. “What do you expect to do about X?”
9. “What might happen next?”
10. “How does X manifest itself?”
11. “What’s the most important thing about X?”
12. “Describe your day for me.”
13. “What do you mean?”
14. “How would you explain X to Y?”
15. “What does X mean to you / to the organization / to Y?”
16. “How do you know?”

[Got any magic questions of your own?]

Published in: on November 22, 2009 at 1:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Good interview questions

John Sawatsky taught me that the way you ask questions in interviews determines how good an answer you get. Not only that, but some ways of asking actually suppress the answer.

In general, you want your subjects to give you accurate, full, and honest answers. You want to find out what they know and think. And you don’t want stuff their staffs wrote for them to memorize and spout back at you.

Good questions tend to be open-ended, active, neutral, simple, and short.

An open-ended question does not limit subjects to one path, but allows them to choose where to go. Such questions often lead you to things you didn’t know about, and give you clues to the subjects’ personality and experience. Here’s an open-ended question: “What formed you as a glass artist?”

Active questions make the subjects think. They require exploration and invite follow-ups, where the treasure usually lies. Here’s an active question: “How do financial considerations affect what you choose to paint?”

Neutral questions avoid value judgments that lead to digressions from what you want to find out. Suppose you ask, “Had you seen Van Gogh’s Starry Night (my favorite painting) before you painted your own Brightly Night?” The artist may reply, “Actually, I dislike Dutch painting.” And you have to ask the question again in different form. The neutral version might be “What other art works, if any, influenced your Brightly Night?”

Simple questions focus a little more by limiting the avenues the subjects can pursue. “Why did you switch from painting on oak to painting on glass?”

And short questions tend to get the best answers of all, because they startle the subjects a little but don’t distract them. Here’s the most effective short question, in my experience: “Why?” Then you sit back, shut up, and wait. I also use “How?” and “Oh?” a lot. My favorite question isn’t a question, but “Hmm, tell me more.”

[What are your favorite interview questions?]

Published in: on November 19, 2009 at 12:07 pm  Comments (9)  

Dreadful sentences – I

My friend Bruce DeSilva and I have a two-person private club, called “The New York Times Dreadful Sentence Society.” We send each other awful bits from the paper. It’s not a contest, but if it were, this sentence would surely win. It appeared in a feature about Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks:

But it’s their friendship – and the bond of the 2,000 Year Old Man routine – that has helped sustain the two men through the bad times (Mr. Brooks’ wife, the actress Anne Bancroft, star of “The Graduate,” died in 2005; Mr. Reiner’s wife, Estelle, best known for her one line in “When Harry Met Sally” – “I’ll have what she’s having” – died in October 2008) as well as the good.

What’s wrong with that sentence?

The author starts simply with subject and verb, “it’s their friendship,” and begins a series of insertions, each of which will add to reader confusion. Inside the phrase “through the bad times … as well as the good,” the reader encounters 38 words and two clauses. The first clause, “Mr. Brooks’ wife … died in 2005,” has two insertions in it: “the actress Anne Bancroft” and “star of ‘The Graduate.’” The second clause, “Mr. Reiner’s wife … died in October 2008,” has one long insertion, “best known … she’s having,” which includes three names and a quote. By the time readers get to “as well as the good,” they’ve forgotten the front end of the phrase, “through the bad times.”

What’s wrong with that sentence? Readers might have to read it three or four times to figure out what it says. The real problem with this sentence is that the writer just kept shoveling information into it, and paid no attention to the readers’ understanding.

[Got any horrible sentences in your collection?]

Published in: on November 18, 2009 at 4:58 pm  Comments (1)  

Pitching stories to editors

Sometimes editors assign pieces, and sometimes writers pitch them for acceptance. The principle of successful pitching is the same as for selling things and writing leads: spark their interest.

Editors’ jobs are repetitive and tend to dull their imaginations, so stories start to sound alike to them. But editors do like to read and publish good pieces. So the pitch must ignite their enthusiasm while fitting the template of what they normally publish.

First of all, a pitch must establish your authority by information. Before you try it out, do enough gathering so you know what you’re talking about, at least a few calls, maybe a little searching and reading, and some planning. The more complex the idea, the more preparation you need.

What are the parts of a pitch, keeping in mind that you haven’t done all the gathering yet?

1. The genre and likely scale of the piece
2. What the piece might be about
3. Who might read it and why
4. A tentative gathering plan
5. Graphic, video, and sound possibilities.

So a pitch might begin like this: “I want to write a short, funny column about clothing myself from stuff that students lose on sidewalks near the University, you know, scarves, gloves, Mets caps, strappy red sandals, underwear….”

“Strappy red sandals and underwear,” you got ’em.

Editors think in pigeonholes of genre and size and subject and treatment, so you aim the pitch at the appropriate slots by talking their lingo. When their eyes start to light up, you talk about what this piece might really be about: obscenely rich students, careless or drunk coeds shedding garments, America’s throwaway culture, etc.

Many writers fail by pitching small and dull; their stuff sounds like everything that’s boring their editors to death. So you get your editor to imagine a photo of someone (not you) wearing everything picked up early Monday morning after a football weekend.

You can tailor your pitches more sharply by knowing your editors’ tastes and quirks. Study what they usually publish, how they played it, what they praise, and their hobbies and obsessions. One top editor I knew hung model planes all over his office ceiling; any pitch about aviation would land (take off?) with him. You also need to know editors’ dislikes; some food editors will not let a brussels sprout near their pages.

Most word people don’t know enough about pictures and sound to make that part of the pitch, although every ambitious writer should be learning them now in our dawning age of electronic publishing. But you can talk about how cracking a lobster might need illustration, or how a map of Fort Hood would help readers, or a possible video of repairing Hubble.

The assured way you phrase your pitch should convince the editor that you’ve done some preliminary gathering, know what you’re talking about, and can deliver the piece, superbly written, on time.

Some stories are harder to pitch and require special techniques. Pitch complicated or controversial pieces with a short memo followed by a chat. The editor may have to consult seniors or lawyers, and your memo will get your words and ideas up to higher levels intact.

Sometimes your pitch fails, which doesn’t mean you should abandon the idea. Editors tend to have poor memories (everything sounds alike to them), so chalk it up to bad timing and try the pitch again later in different form. You can try a different editor unless policy forbids such “editor shopping.” Some editors resent it, so be politic.

If you expect your pitch to fail, and you really want to write the story no matter what, do just that. Write the piece without pitching, and submit it. If you do it well, your editor will publish it.

The bottom line: editors want good pieces, and stories written well make pitching the next one easier.

[Got any good pitching tactics?]

Published in: on November 12, 2009 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Analyzing David Brooks’ voice

David Brooks has a distinctive voice, as in this excerpt:

But unlike the other animals, people do have a drive to seek coherence and meaning. We have a need to tell ourselves stories that explain it all. We use these stories to supply the metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty.

Among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world. Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves.

The stories we select help us, in turn, to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore other things. They lead us to see certain things as sacred and other things as disgusting. They are the frameworks that shape our desires and goals. So while story selection may seem vague and intellectual, it’s actually very powerful. The most important power we have is the power to help select the lens through which we see reality.

How would we characterize the persona speaking here? It’s authoritative and strong, learned but unpretentious, moral, and a bit sad at the human condition.

What devices create this personality? The passage is stunningly clear, which creates the sense of powerful authority. This guy knows what he’s talking about. He takes his time to explain things, rather than jamming heavy concepts into dense, academic prose.

The language is mostly simple, with a mixture of slightly technical words: “coherence,” “metaphysics,” “narrative,” etc., all used in ways that make their meaning clear without explication, setting what sounds like common sense into a philosophical frame, lightly worn.

His sentences are straightforward, with a clear subject and verb, nothing inserted between them, He rarely uses contractions, and repeats “we” and “our” and “us” to personalize his applications.

Brooks unifies his argument by repetition. He chains ideas together by repeating a word in one clause in the next:

“Among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control over….”
“…it’s actually very powerful. The most important power we have is the power….”

He begins related clauses with the same structure:

“…people do have….”
“We have a need….”
“…we do have some control….”
“We do have a conscious say….”

Brooks always injects a wistful note. He has high hopes for the human race, as a man devoted to “individual responsibility,” but is skeptical about whether we actually direct our own lives:

“…metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty.”
“Among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control….”
“We do have a conscious say….”
“The most important power we have is the power to help select the lens through which we see reality.”

The clarity of this voice creates power; his clarity enables our understanding.

[What do you notice about this voice?]

Published in: on November 10, 2009 at 11:20 am  Comments (1)  

Analyzing President Obama’s voice

Let’s analyze candidate Barack Obama’s voice in his victory speech after winning the Iowa Caucuses. It begins like this:

Thank you, Iowa.
You know, they said this day would never come.
They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.
But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.
You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this new year, 2008.
In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and in big cities, you came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents, to stand up and say that we are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.
You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington.
To end the political strategy that’s been all about division, and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.
Because that’s how we’ll win in November, and that’s how we’ll finally meet the challenges that we face as a nation.

He starts conversationally, “You know…,” and uses contractions. He keeps his language simple and direct. His driving rhythm results mostly from repetition of short phrases:

“They said…. They said…. what the cynics said….You said….”
“too divided, too disillusioned….”
“said we couldn’t do….You have done…. You have done….”
“…can do in five days…. can do in this new year, 2008.”
“to move beyond the bitterness …. To end the political strategy…. To build a coalition….”

He revs up some sentences with beginning phrases that delay the subject:

“But on this January night, at this defining moment in history….”
“In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and in big cities….”

The whole passage turns on imagery of time and space, from lines stretching to the nation. He uses contrasting pronouns: “they” versus “you” and “we.” His tone is absolutely assured, without qualifiers.

Most of his sentences are either long or medium length. His longest sentence sets up his two shortest: “We are one people. And our time for change has come.” And those two sentences, emphatic by their short punchiness, are the heart of his message in this speech.

[What do you notice in Obama’s voice?]

Published in: on November 8, 2009 at 8:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Writing with spine

Danish radio producers taught me a trick they call “the motor.” They tie an hour-long music program together by repeating a word or image or theme to unify the broadcast, and that thread keeps the listeners listening. The same trick works in writing, where we call it “the spine.”

David John Marotta, a Charlottesville financial advisor, recently wrote a column in The Daily Progress, “What does a (financial) woman want?” After a lead saying that women need retirement planning, his third paragraph quotes the singer Sophie Tucker:

From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash. I’m saving my money.

Marotta then walks through a typical woman’s financial life, from teaching her daughters how to handle money to living in retirement, citing each of Tucker’s stages and adding material from her own entertainment, business, and philanthropic careers. The piece ends with Sophie saying, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – and believe me, rich is better.”

Sophie’s life is the spine, which appears in different forms: the stages quote, her careers, and two other quotes. The chronology is fun to read, and the readers stay with it to the end.

The 2008 movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” has two spines. The larger is the life Benjamin lives backward, and the smaller one is a minor character who keeps telling Benjamin how lightning hit him seven times. Sometimes in longer works, each of the parts has a separate spine.

This blog you’re reading, which is the first draft of a book, has a spine. I keep telling you in one form or another: “Use techniques that work for you.” The second half has its own spine: “Create your own voice from the devices that create the persona you want to represent you.”

All pieces do not necessarily need a spine, but those that have one tend to deliver readers all the way to the end.

[What spines have you used in your writing?]

Published in: on November 2, 2009 at 12:38 pm  Leave a Comment