At first, talking might not sound like an integral part of the writing process. Sure, there are interviews and, if you’re lucky, maybe a phone conversation with an editor. But talking about writing—either about an existing piece or one in progress—can improve your work.
Talking about really good writing
In Part 1: READ, I touched on the importance of dissecting exceptional writing to see how good writers do what they do. It’s critical to do the heavy lifting on your own but discussing what you’ve uncovered with others turbo-charges the process.
For a brief period in 2008, we created a SciLance Reading Club. Here’s some of the online conversation that got it all started:
“Recent brushes with editors have me completely doubting my ability to even tell what’s a good piece from trash. I was recently told that I craft nice descriptions and write a pleasant travelogue but the guy’s not at all clear on what I’m trying to say, which made me question what it was I WAS trying to say and made me question once again whether I think deeply or clearly enough for this business.”
“I’ll get something back from my editor that has some organizational changes and I’ll think ‘wow, that really works’ but I don’t slow down to figure out why and to learn from it. So it feels like voodoo. And I often just feel like I’m writing in survival mode—just somehow getting something down on paper, but not really having a clear vision for it structurally.”
“I know I should read more, but I read way too impatiently these days (unless it’s fiction), and whenever I try to do this for myself, my motivation fizzles out before I’ve gotten very far.”
We decided to pick an article, deconstruct it on our own, and then schedule a conference call to discuss it. One bonus of turning it into a group activity: Making a commitment to participate with colleagues was good (but not perfect) insurance against the temptation to blow off the whole exercise. Another advantage came from the range of perspectives—the part that fascinated me was different from what intrigued another SciLancer. By the end of our phone conversation, we all felt like we had thoroughly excavated the piece. The only thing missing was Carl Zimmer; we had theories about why he chose to do what he did but no definitive answers.
That’s why we were thrilled a few years later when our friends Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann created their own, public version of the SciLance Reading Club over at The Open Notebook. In Behind-the-story interviews, they invite science journalists to deconstruct their recent articles. It’s a great tool that has pulled the curtain away from what really goes into the pitching, researching and writing of exceptional feature articles.
As good a tool as TON is, though, it’s no substitute for doing the hard work of article deconstruction on your own or with a writing buddy. You can read about what an author did but until you start to pick the articles apart in preparation for making similar moves on your own, the exercise won’t magically get you out of a rut.
Talking about your current work
Talking also comes into play at various points in the writing process. Early on, it’s helpful to clarify your ideas and sort out the direction of a piece by talking to a spouse or friend. Test the highlights. Look for eyes glazing over or people leaning in. Basically if you can sustain the interest of strangers in a bar, you’ve probably got a story that has a good shot with an editor.
For more focused help, there’s no substitute for involved conversations with trusted writing buddies.
These discussions come later in the process, often when you’re struggling with direction or structure or refinement. They’re not so much about having someone else solve your problems, although that certainly happens, they’re about the opportunity to think out loud and develop the confidence and conviction to pursue a certain angle or take a defined direction.
I discovered the value of talking when I was a fellow in the Banff Literary Journalism program in 2007. For one month, eight writers came together and worked intensely on long form passion projects supported by top Canadian editors, Marni Jackson, Ian Pearson and Moira Farr (editors change: in 2013, one of my cohort, the incomparable Charlotte Gill will be editing a new batch of fellows).
Part of the process included marathon group sessions in which we discussed one of our pieces. When my turn arrived, it felt as stressful as my PhD oral defense. On the other hand, I have never received so much useful, constructive, insightful, surprising, at times combative and passionate commentary, and advice for improving my craft.
Ideally, we would all be able to recreate the Banff experience with our big, important pieces but coordinating that much talent can be a challenge. Fortunately, one or two generous writing buddies can accomplish the same thing. Choose carefully, nurture the relationship, and return the favor.
Ask questions like: What worked? What didn’t? What did you love and why? When did you want to know more? Where had you had enough? When did I lose you?
Do it in person if you can or by Skype or phone. Make sure to talk it out. Don’t resort to email—it’s too static. You need the unfettered back and forth of conversation, the rapid flow of ideas and impressions, the jumps in logic and intuition, the impassioned stances, and lots of brainstorming and excursions down dead-end alleys to move the piece to a level where others will be tempted to pull out their pencils and say, How did she do that?
Coming next week: Part 3 – Write.
Image credits: Steve Sasso (top), Chris Cannon
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