Writing With Passion

A friend sent me this question a few days ago: "I seem to have a group of very apathetic and passive writers. How do you bring in some passion?"

My response: Get them to write about what they care about. Forget covering the school and timely issues and all of that. Ask them, 

"When was the last time you were really angry at someone?" 

"Have you had a big argument with a friend or family? Over what?"

"What do you worry about the most?"

Let them come to you with a topic, then say, "OK,  how do we make this interesting for all of our readers?" It can't be a rant or an off-the-top-of-my-head moon trip. It has to be relevant and it should be timely, but keep in mind, the human condition is always timely. 

For example, a few years ago, I was teaching a class of mostly underclassmen, and an older girl — a senior, I learned later — sat in the back, bored stiff. So I approached her, and I rolled out all of my tricks. None of them worked. Finally, I asked her, "When was the last time you cried?"

And she told me this story. 

A year ago, her grandmother was admitted to the hospital. The girl had volleyball or basketball practice and wasn't able to get to the hospital before 8 or 9 p.m. When she got there, her father told her, "She's asleep. You can see her in the morning."

"No, I want to see her tonight," the girl said. 

"We're not going to wake her," Dad said. "You can see her in the morning."

Her grandmother died that night.

She said she was still angry at her dad, and then she began to cry.

This is a true story. 

By the way, around 2 that next morning, the phone in my hotel rang. I'm an insomniac, but I was asleep and very upset that the front desk or some drunk in another room had misdialed and awakened me. 

"What???" I snapped.

"It's me," she said. "I want to read this sentence to you. I want to make sure it's perfect."

So, she read the sentence. And it was perfect. It said what she wanted and needed to say, in her own voice. 

The next morning, she read the entire piece to me. I got a little misty-eyed and gave her a hug and told her, "You absolutely must let your dad read this." 

I wish I could say that she did. But it doesn't matter. All that matters is that she wrote it. With passion.

Much obliged. Too much, in fact.

I read a story recently about a girl who was a Teen Jeopardy finalist. It wasn't a horrible story, but it reminded me of one of the biggest bonehead journalism myths ever: "All stories must contain quotes from two or more sources." 

This is not true. The story above should have focused exclusively on the girl. What was the best moment? The worst? How did she prep? Has the experience changed her, and if so, how?

Instead, the reporter devoted quarter of the story to the parents. He asked them, "How do you feel?" and "How proud of your daughter are you?" I was hoping Mom and Pop would respond, "We feel with our fingers," and "Proud? Are you kidding? She's a royal pain most of the time. Thinks she's Queen Elizabeth. We just want her to clean her room once before she's out of here, which can't come soon enough."

But they didn't. They gave obligatory quotes to obligatory questions. "We feel so blessed to have such a smart daughter," and "We're so proud of her amazing accomplishments." And blah, blah, blah. So, now that I think about it, the story was horrible. 

 

In Your Own Words

     My air conditioner went out, so I called a local company that handles such things, and a couple of hours later, two guys showed up. One crawled up into the attic. The other stood in a hallway next to my office, and we began to chat.
     "Are you a writer or something?" he asked me.
     "Yes. I'm a writer, or something," I replied.
     "I hate to write," he said, shaking his head. 
     And I said, "Let me guess. In high school, you were forced to write about things you didn't care about, in a voice that wasn't your own."
     He thought for a second, then answered, "That's exactly right."
     So I said, "Back in high school, if you could have written about anything — age appropriate — what would it have been?"
     And he said, without hesitation, "Motorcycles."

     Of course, he didn't mean "motorcycles" as a thing. He meant motorcycles as an experience. So, I told him, "If I had been your teacher, and if I had had the liberty to permit it, you would have read and written about motorcycles — in your own voice — and we both would have learned something.
     Point: Knowledge comes from experience far more quickly and profoundly than it does from reading. Granted, it is easy to misunderstand or misjudge an event or experience. Understanding comes from discussion, reading, comparison and guidance.
So, before you teach "Romeo and Juliet," consider asking your students this question: Have you ever had your heart broken?
     Then ask them, "Tell me about it. In your own words."  

Improve Your Writing: Verbal Abuse

Years ago, I was chatting with an English teacher, who told me he had warned his students, “If you use a passive verb, it’s an automatic ‘D.'”
I replied, “Congratulations. You would almost fail most of the great writers I know.” For example:

James Joyce: “There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.” The Dubliners.

Joseph Conrad: “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.” Lord Jim

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The large room was full of people. One of the girls in yellow was playing the piano, and beside her stood a tall, red-haired young lady from a famous chorus, engaged in song.” The Great Gatsby

Herman Melville: “Upon searching, it was found that he casks last struck into the hold were perfectly sound.” Moby Dick

Even Ernest Hemingway: “Catherine Barkley was greatly liked by the nurses because she would do night duty indefinitely.” A Farewell to Arms

One of the most powerful opening lines for a breaking news story in the history of American newspaper journalism was four words long, and one of those words was a passive verb: The President is dead.

So, rules exist, but exceptions to the rules exist as well, and the trick is knowing when and how to break the rules. Speaking of which, here are a few rules:

Eliminate unnecessary passive verbs

weak: He is a banjo player.

strong: He plays the banjo.

weak: The squirrel was run over by the garbage truck.

strong: The garbage truck ran over the squirrel.

stronger: (although a bit insensitive, especially if you’re a squirrel): The garbage truck pancaked the squirrel.

Use specific verbs

• get | grab

• put | plop

• talk | jabber

• walk | traipse

• look | glare

• carry | lug

Eliminate unnecessary adverbs

• walk slowly | slog

• talk quickly | jabber

• write messily | scribble

• pull aggressively | pluck

Eliminate “ing” verb phrases

weak: The band will be performing Friday.

strong: The band will perform Friday.

weak: The volleyball team will be competing in the Midwest regional tournament.

strong: The volleyball team will compete in the Midwest regional tournament.

Eliminate verbs disguised as nouns

• secured an acquisition | acquired

• had an admiration of | admired

• in anticipation of | anticipated

• made a projection of | projected

weak: The car wreck provided her the motivation she needed to stop drinking.

strong: The car wreck motivated her to stop drinking.

Do you read the newspaper?

The adviser is young and talented and ambitious, and he’s building a first-class high school journalism program, so I was more than willing to speak to his newspaper class — 20 or so teens of all stripes. Geeks. Whip-smart girls. Smart-ass boys. Kids just trying to find a place and a purpose.

I liked them immediately. At first, they had a hard time figuring out why this old guy wanted to talk about himself so much but they warmed up to my humor and occasional use of profanity and, toward the end, even asked two or three intelligent questions, which is rare. Typically, asking an American high school student “Do you have any questions?” is like asking porch dogs “Did you enjoy King Lear?”

At one point during my presentation, I casually mentioned a story in our local daily newspaper and, as an afterthought, added, “Did any of you read that?” No one had.

“Do any of you read newspapers?” No, they did not.

“Really? You’re in a newspaper class and on a student newspaper staff, and you don’t read a newspaper?”

I compared it to choir members who never listen to music, to film critics who never watch movies. So, I instructed them to read or at least read-through a newspaper occasionally, though I doubt many of them will. It’s not in their blood. All this chatter about administrative censorship and budget shortages and such is a lot of silly hand-wringing compared to the real threat to scholastic journalism, and that is this: Most kids don’t read. Those who do don’t read enough. You can take it from there.

It’s so easy to identify a young person who reads. They know stuff. They understand tone and pace and flow. They know how to use dialogue and how to describe a scene. They understand irony and satire. They can use sarcasm without offending their readers too much.

So, your New Year’s resolution should be to read a good daily newspaper at least once or twice a week. You don’t need to read the entire thing. Just look for a story or two that piques your interest, then study the lead, pay attention to voice, and notice how the story is woven together. The more you do this, the better writer you’ll become.

Here’s a little example: I found this story in the Dec. 2, 2011 edition of The New York Times. It’s by James Dao, and it concerns military veterinarians who are treating combat dogs for post-traumatic stress disorder.

SAN ANTONIO — The call came into the behavior specialists here from a doctor in Afghanistan. His patient had just been through a firefight and now was cowering under a cot, refusing to come out. Apparently, even the chew toys hadn’t worked.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, thought Dr. Walter F. Burghart Jr., chief of behavior medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. Specifically, canine PTSD. If anyone needed evidence of the frontline role played by dogs in war these days, here is the latest: the four-legged, wet-nosed troops used to sniff our mines, track down enemy fighters and clear buildings are struggling with the mental strains of combat nearly as much as their human counterparts.

Is that great or what? First, it’s an entirely original story. It doesn’t regurgitate information I got eight hours earlier on ESPN or MSNBC. Second, it’s beautifully written. I can picture the German shepherd, cowering under the cot. Third, it hooks me with this sentence: “Even the chew toys hadn’t worked.”

I feel for that dog. Also, I’m going to remember this story. Down the road at some point, I am going to be working on a story, and I’m going to need help because my piece won’t be coming together quite right, and I’m going to employ some of the tone and pace and flow in James Dao’s story about military dogs with post-traumatic stress disorder.

That’s why I read newspapers. It’s why you should too.

Q&A: Social Media, Writing and Reporting Tips

Two years ago, I met a young woman while teaching at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s summer newspaper workshop. She was a student at a high school in Seoul, South Korea, and I totally adored her. (Note to self: avoid meaningless adverbs like “totally.”)

She returned to South Korea and gushed about me to her newspaper adviser, Carolyn Brown, with whom I’ve enjoyed an e-mail relationship with since. Each semester, she has her students write me letters in English that are as delightful as they are a slightly clueless, inasmuch as her students tend to think I’m important.

The students politely express shock that, despite my advancing years, I still retain a sense of humor and most of my hair. They’re sweet and naïve and utterly charming. More importantly, these students ask really intelligent questions about reporting and writing. (Note to self: See comments above regarding adverbs.)

Here are my responses to a few of their queries.

• “How did you decide to use humor in your book when so many textbooks are boring and humorless?”

First, my book isn’t about names and dates and places. That gives it a slight advantage out of the gate. Secondly, the important point about the Radical Write is the emphasis on honesty and voice. From the first chapter of the first edition, I wanted the writing to sound like me, and it’s always satisfying when someone says, “You write just like you talk.” That’s my intention, and it’s what I emphasize to students. Write like you talk, and trust your voice.

• “How do journalists use blogs, iChat and other social media?”

My answer: just like my generation used encyclopedias and back issues of Time magazine. Research is crucial, but research isn’t journalism. People want to read stories, not research papers. Second, it’s not important where you get your facts as long as they are credible. Third, it doesn’t matter where the story is to be published — a newspaper, yearbook, blog or bathroom wall. A good story is a good story, whether it’s printed or broadcast or digitized. The bottom line is that Facebook and Google are tools, a means to an end. They’re a resource, not a source.

• “I always seem to pick the wrong angle for my story, and it becomes boring. How do I avoid that?”

Here’s how: Life is like war. It’s 59 minutes and 30 seconds of predictable, repetitive boredom and 30 seconds of ecstasy, agony or Hell. As a reporter and writer, concentrate on the 30 seconds. Ask questions about the highest, lowest, most, least, best, worst. This will provide material from which you can select a powerful angle.

• “I want to write shorter stories but I feel that I need to use all of the information I’ve gathered, so my stories tend to be long and boring. What can I do to correct this?
Here’s how: Be prepared to kill your babies. That’s a rather blunt way of saying you should never use all of the information you gather. Sometimes, people make boring, irrelevant statements. Don’t use them. Remember: Less is more. Keep your story tight, efficient and focused. As soon as readers feel the story begin to rattle and ramble, they bail.

• “I’m never sure in what order to present my information. Is there a formula to help with this?”

Aside from the antiquated inverted pyramid, there’s no particular formula. However, there is a philosophy. Just tell the story in a logical order, as if you were talking to a friend. In that case, where would you begin? Where would you end? For example, you wrecked your new car last weekend. You weren’t injured, but the car was totaled. How would you tell the story to a friend? Would it sound anything like this?

Many students in this country drive automobiles. They use their cars to go to work, to visit friends, to go shopping and to do other chores. Occasionally, a student will become involved in an automobile accident. Sometimes, the accident is a result of bad luck or of negligence or of mechanical failure. In my own instance, I became one of the thousands of young people across the nation who has been involved in an unfortunate vehicular incidents.

This is how this event transpired: I was texting and looked up and ran into a motorcycle owned by a member of the Hell’s Angels. His name was Steve. He and a couple of other of his buddies chased me down and beat me with a baseball bat, thus explaining why I am communicating with you from my hospital bed. I am in great pain and misery. I have a broken leg and a cracked skull. My car has been since taken to the junk yard. Well, that’s my story. Gotta run. The neurosurgeon is here. He doesn’t look happy.

Is that how you’d tell the story? If not, then don’t write it that way. Write it the same way you’d tell it — and in the same words, the same voice.

I’m in the hospital. My leg is broken. My skull is cracked. My car is totaled. And why? Because I needed to answer a text message, or thought I did. I looked down, looked up and then piled into a Harley, owned by a guy in a black leather jacket named Steve. I soon learned how he got his nickname, “Tire Tool.”

• “How do you end a story? My stories always seem to trail off, and I hate the way they end.”

I often find my best quote, paraphrase it and use it for my lead. Then, I look for the quote that takes the reader from the present and moves him or her into the future. This gives the story a kind of timelessness.

Hawthorne said he’d never again text and drive.

“I learned my lesson,” he added. “I survived my first bout with Tire Tool. I don’t intend to have a second.”

• How do I keep my story interesting from the beginning to the end?”

Focus on the narrative. Don’t bog down in data. Don’t  print boring, predictable quotes. Often, writing becomes tiresome — cliché — when it answers questions that readers can figure out themselves or information the reader has no interest in. For example, I was interviewed not too long ago, and the reporter asked me who my mentors were. I wasn’t trying to be rude, but my answer was, “Your readers won’t know any of them.” So why publish a list of my mentors. If she’d asked me, “What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and who gave it to you,” then I could have told her an interesting story.

• Which writing books do you recommend?

All of them. If you find a book — any book — that’s well written, interesting, powerful, then study the author’s writing. Fiction. Non-fiction. Doesn’t matter. Pay attention to sentence structure, the nouns, the verbs. Which literary devices are used? What is the tone? What’s the imagery? And if the book you’re looking at is the Radical Write, send me a note saying, “You write just like you talk.” It’ll totally and utterly make my day. Really.