Tuesday, February 12, 2019

On (feature) writing

I spent a fine hour-plus on February 11, 2019, speaking to Phil Eil's feature-writing class at Brown University. Hopefully imparted some guidance these young writers can use to good purpose. Walked through a few of my pieces, including the January 27, 2019 "Redemption: The Fall and Rise of Mark Gonsalves"; the March 2, 2003, "The Station Nightclub Fire Takes an Emotional Toll on Virtually Every Rhode Islander, from Little Compton to Burrillville"; and the November 26, 1989, "Children of Poverty: Behind From the Start. Poor Children, a Vicious Circle."

I closed the afternoon with a list of writing tips. Not big on lists, and not sure if I've ever compiled one on non-fiction writing (fiction's a whole 'nother animal), but it seemed appropriate, a distillation of where an obsession with writing since childhood has left me at this stage of my career. Here it is:

1. Get out.
Out of the office, newsroom, dorm, study, wherever. Into the world. Among people.

2. Find a critic.
Someone who will honestly, if gently, read and critique drafts of your work. And ideas before they are work. Need not necessarily be a fellow writer, just someone with intelligence, taste and perception. And with your critic, leave your ego aside and listen.

3. Kill your darlings.
Time-honored tip. That cute, clever, brilliant turn of phrase? It's not.

4. Read "On Writing." At least twice.
Stephen King's timeless, timely memoir of the craft, as he calls it, is for my money the best investment any writer -- of fiction or non-fiction -- can make. There are numerous writing guides, to be sure, many by teachers and coaches, and those are valuable, too. But only a working master of the language can speak from such depths of the soul. And, yes, adverbs are the enemy.

5. Have heart. 
This is the intangible of the business, the philosophy and belief system of not just the writer but the person that separates the best from the rest, if you'll pardon the cliche (Rule 6: Kill your cliches). And how true. One must empathize, which begins with listening. Whether you are writing about a man whose failed suicide jump leads him to inspiration, as I did in "Redemption," or a frog on the verge of disappearing, as the Pulitzer- and Pell-Prize winning Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker does in "The Sixth Extinction," the best writers care. And possess passion.

There's a lot more that could go on this list, of course (discipline, reading, curiosity, etc. etc.), and I chose an arbitrary number, but these five are a good start. Good luck, Brown students -- and all students and practitioners of the craft! And as you move through your wonderful careers, remember those who helped you, and give back, as I have tried to do.


  1. Good advice. The only thing I would say is that "Kill Your Darlings" isn't always the right call. Writers like Gene Weingarten and David Finkel; novelists like E. Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy all have amazing turns of phrase. Take them out and you make the reader's experience a little drier. Be willing to kill your darlings if your critics hate them. But I worry some young writers read the rule as a command to steer away from colorful or humorous writing. In collection of your old stuff, including the ASNE winning series I bet I could find some wonderful turns of phrase. Just a thought.

    1. Sorry it didn't enter my name. Mark in Milwaukee.