For this Week

Hope everyone enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday.

We’re into the final stretch. At this point everyone should have received my feedback, as well as two peer edits. I enjoyed reading the first drafts – I saw passages of beautiful writing and evidence of rigorous reporting. Josh has a near pitch-perfect one paragraph character description. Sara reported from multiple perspectives, deepening her story immeasurably. Jana seamlessly incorporated research and wrote with humor and empathy. Molly has the raw material to produce a gripping narrative. Virtually every piece shows real promise.

Now, the next step: Revision. Many of these were quite rough, which is understandable considering they were first drafts. Some require major surgery and additional reporting, others smaller, stylistic changes. Hopefully this week has been fruitful as you’ve edited and revised.

In particular, I want to highlight three issues many of you displayed in your writing: passive voice, wordiness and backing into sentences. All suck the life out of your writing.

With that in mind, here is the plan for this week and next:

In the interest of making your stories as good as possible, here’s what I’d like you to do. You do not need to turn in your revised drafts on Monday. Instead, please  further revise your stories, per the instructions below. If you’d like to come to the classroom to do it, great. If you’d prefer to do it somewhere else, that’s fine. I know writers work in different ways.

Instead, your new deadline for your revised draft is Tuesday at 8 AM (full instructions below). Before then, however, you must to do the following.

1) Read an excerpt from Strunk & White classic text, The Elements of Style. It’s short but incredibly useful. Click here and read #11 (“Use the active voice”), #12 (“Put statements in positive form”) and #13 (“omit needless words”). If you have a physical copy of the book – and you should, as it’s wonderful and cheap and portable – the numbers will be different, so go by the titles. It’s also useful to read the entry under the heading, “Use definite, specific concrete language” (which isn’t online).

2) Read the adapted excerpt I emailed you from Richard Lanham’s book. It’s a short, step-by-step method to take the fat out of your story (he calls it ‘lard’).

3) Now go through your story and use these tools. They will help not just with this story but everything you ever write. Given the extra day on your stories, I’ll expect to see evidence of it in your revised drafts. We will also be discussing Lanham and Strunk & White on Wednesday.

Then, turn in a revised draft by 8 AM on Tuesday morning and bring two copies to class on Wednesday. Your draft should be no longer than 5,000 words unless you clear it with me first. I expect everyone to read it aloud, then proofread it and spell-check it before turning it in.

Moving forward, I’ll be on campus on this Wednesday, then again the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Take advantage of the opportunity to talk about your story. Email if you’d like to meet this Wednesday. I’ll be available almost all morning and most of the afternoon.

This week we’ll be talking about proofreading, fact-checking and publishing these bad boys. Which means we’re getting close to the really fun stuff. I look forward to seeing all of you. And, as always, good luck!







Deadline Time (It’s fun, really)

First, you all know your assignment for Wednesday. Here are the details:

  1. No longer than 5,500 words (and preferably closer to 4,000). Your peers need to be able to read it and get it back to you, and I want to be able to provide feedback on all 14 as soon as possible, to give you the most time to write.
  2. Email it to me by 8 AM at my gmail address. Please put your name in the file name. Ben, this is directed at you.
  3. Bring in three printed copies.
  4. Before you send it: Read it aloud, proofread it and spellcheck it.


For those who missed class today, we discussed deadline writing strategies and Endings. Some of the major points:


I. ENDINGS (aka “kickers”)

A) Goals:

  1. Resolve unanswered questions/tie up narrative


  1. Sum up the significance of the story/suggest its ramifications (a bit like a conclusion, but only in content, not in deployment)


  1. Inspire further reflection and contemplation, perhaps through symbolism


  1. Make the reader feel something


B) Strategies


  1. Telling Anecdote/Scene – Can be out of order, chronologically. Something that gets at the theme/meat of the story. Orlean, Saslow, Junger, etc.


  1. Analogy/Observation/Moment – You as the writer are summing it up, then leaving us with something. Laskas, Skydive


  1. Looking ahead – Moving the story forward, so that reader feels propelled. Schulz, Mooney


  1. Perfect piece of dialogue (try to avoid a quote but occasionally it works). Mooney goes for this. Sullivan does it, essentially, but paraphrases


  1. Great final line – if you can sum it up with something surprising, or a twist of sorts. Again, Sullivan.


  1. A call-back – like in comedy. Mention something early, often in the beginning, and come back to it, only now we see it through a new prism.


D) Finding Your Ending

– If stuck, you can often look through your story. Your ending may already be in there. Perhaps you just need to lift it out of the chronology and try it at the end

Make a list of your best stuff/scenes/observations/quotes. Use the best to start and the second-best to end.





A) Self-Editing/Writing block

  • An exercise: Force yourself to rewrite the first 500 words from memory. See what comes back. Make it flow. If you’re stuck, this can help. Sometimes it also provides a better tone.


B) Read it aloud


C) Compare it to your structure. Make sure you’re on track


D) Mimic a story you like. You can’t use someone’s words, but mimic the structure/tone/device


 E) Call back one more time – As you go, do you find you need one more piece of information? Are you missing a detail? Do you not understand something?

Call back. This applies to anything in life. If you’ve gone 80% of the way, go 100%. That extra effort will pay off.

Don’t think it’s too late to do major reporting: If you can’t figure a way to write yourself out of a hole, it’s often because you don’t have all your reporting. Rather than fight it, go do more reporting.


The Writing itself


  1. Music? Try one song on repeat. Instrumental helps many. “Mighty Rio Grande” by This Will Destroy You is a favorite of some narrative writers.


  1. Change locations – if you’re stuck, move. Your brain will respond to the new setting. Even into the next room helps.


  1. Move your body. Walk for five minutes. Exercise. Bring a notepad and ride the stationary bike. You’ll be amazed what will come to you. Lots of authors swear by running


  1. Write by longhand – if you usually use computer


If you have other strategies, I’d love to hear them. Finally, best of luck to all. I can’t wait to read the results.

For Monday

Good seeing all of you today. We can now add Ben’s clapping technique to Maggie’s whistle. I will need to incorporate both into my teaching, and perhaps parenting, repertoire.

For Monday, as mentioned:

  1. Read “The American Male at Age Ten“, by Susan Orlean. It will not feel like work. As you go, note her use of tone, empathy and detail.
  2. The six of you who need to, send me your revised structures by Friday. The reason: the sooner you determine your story arc, the more efficient you’ll be in the writing process. I sent back screen shots of my notes earlier this afternoon. Hopefully these, and the peer feedback from today, help as you go forward.
  3. Email me if you want to meet on Monday or Tuesday. Based on when many of you turn in your assignments, I’m guessing Tuesday night will be a long one for at least a couple of you, so get in before then if you have questions/need motivation/want to break down your story. I love breaking stuff down. Sara is booked for 2:30 Monday. Other time slots are Monday from 11:45 AM -12:40 and 2:45-5:30 or so on Monday. I can also be available Tuesday from 10-11 AM and 12:45-1:45 PM if you can’t come in Monday.
  4. Get your reporting done, and get to writing. But that’s obvious.

Good luck. You’re getting closer!

For Wednesday

Hopefully the structural discussion today helped.

What you’re currently going through is the toughest period in the writing process for a story like this. You’ve done some reporting, but likely not enough. You sorta know what your story’s about, but not quite. Chances are, you have a few paragraphs of writing you like, and a lot of messy stuff.

The good news is that it should be hard right now. To make something great, you need to incorporate different streams of information, perspective and insight. You need to wrestle with it. You need to draw larger truths out of all this raw information – the memories and quotes and statistics and scenes. You need to take it from “and then” to “but”, “therefore” and “meanwhile”. That’s the hard part but it’s also the most gratifying part. If you can pull it off, it’s an invaluable life skill.

For Wednesday, I want you to do three things:

  1. Read the following three short articles: this, on using place as a character; this at-times blustery, but helpful, breakdown of  nine rules for creative work from Chris Jones; and this on  three ways to tell your story. Read these BEFORE you do part two of the assignment because, hopefully, they make it easier. Bonus if you want/need inspiration: A first-person piece by George Saunders, one of the best writers alive, about his writing history. Warm, funny, wonderful. An example of tone carrying the day.
  2. Go over all your reporting. Pick out the good stuff. Take notes on your notes if it helps. Make a file with your best material, if that helps. And then write out your current story structure and email it to me by 8 AM. Print it out and bring it to class. It needs to be detailed. Use roman numerals if you like, or accompany it with a drawing  (which you should scan/photograph and email to me). Break it into 250-words chunks, or paragraphs, or sections. We need to look at it and know what your final magazine story will read like. I am emailing everyone an example of what I did on the Costello story (I’m a section guy, as you’ll see). We’re going to be talking about these in class. If you bring in an incomplete structure, you’ll waste an opportunity. If you don’t know your structure yet, now is the time to decide. You don’t have to stick with it, but you’ll be able to test it out on Wednesday.
  3. Print out and bring in a new or revised chunk of writing. Since you’ve all been working on your stories since last Monday, you all have new writing. Bring in a section on which you’d like feedback, between 500-800 words. It can be a scene, or a new opener, or something else. You don’t need to send it to me, though you can if you like. This is for the opportunity to do in-class partner revision, as we prepare for exchanging first drafts next week.

Finally, in case it helps with the structure exercise, I’m embedding a few (very) basic visuals that, hopefully, help as you plan out your narrative. Right now, the biggest challenge facing most of you is that you don’t have a story to tell yet.

So use these for inspiration, if you like. Don’t worry that they are simple. All stories are, in the end, simple in structure.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 4.26.17 PM Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 4.12.43 PM Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 4.12.23 PM

sources: Here, here and here

For Monday

Hope all are well.

I’ll be returning your work soon. In the meantime, for Monday please do the following:

  1. Finish your reporting. Or get close to it. Those of you who are waiting to do some big chunk of it, the time is now. Deadlines exist for a reason; they allow (force?) us to do things we couldn’t otherwise. And your first draft deadline is coming up very soon. Do yourself a favor and get your hardest reporting done now.
  2. Bring your key materials to class (on your laptop or written). We’re going to be talking about how to go through them. You should have enough that you are now sifting the best parts from the rest. If you don’t have enough to be sifting, you need to do more. This applies to you first-person writers too; you’ll be sifting your best scenes and ancedotes that you’ve re-created with the reporting you’ve done.

Have a great weekend. See you all Monday (electronically). The teaching assistant for the day is Alicia.

For Wednesday’s Class

It’s encouraging to see all of you digging into the writing. Some rich material, and I love the chances people are taking. Keep at it.

For this Wednesday, your assignment is:

  1. Keep reporting and writing. This is when the pieces start falling into place and, hopefully, your story is coming together
  2. For modeling and inspiration, read the”The Storm” a 4,700 word story  from Sebastian Junger that inspired the book that in turn inspired the movie “The Perfect Storm.” Then read the annotated version to understand how he did it and watch a very Short preview video and read the brief notes from that presentation. He’s one of the best out there and his advice will be useful to all of you, especially anyone who is re-creating events (which is virtually all of you).
  3. On Wednesday, make sure to bring your laptops to class and, if you want, a cup of coffee, tea or whatever gets your muse going (within legal limits, of course). The remote teaching assistants will be Molly and Jana.