Word play: A top newspaper editor helps demystify the writing process

January 29, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

A shorter version of this article appears in the February issue of PR Tactics.

By Alison Stateman

Jack Hart, managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian, knows a thing or two about what makes good writing. With 30 years of experience helping writers strengthen their craft, Hart has coached reporters to Pulitzer Prize-winning success.  A frequent lecturer at Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, his “A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work” (Random House 2006) seeks to demystify the writing process and take some of the anxiety out of the practice. Here, he shares his thoughts on everything from the most common myths and missteps afflicting writers at all levels to the importance of theme statements.

How do you define good writing?

One of the astounding things to me is how much agreement there is about what makes good writing. Just about any group I ask, “What’s good writing to you?” comes up with the same six or seven items, which was what I used as the basis for organizing the craft section of the book. Just about everybody agrees that good writing is tight, that it’s forceful. It incorporates lively verbs and clean syntax. It’s colorful; it includes descriptive elements that can put you in the scene. It’s rhythmic. Good writing is a pleasure to read in its own right, and one of the reasons is pleasing cadences that the writer has mastered.

So there’s a broad general agreement about what makes good writing. The trick is in figuring out what the specifics are that you must master to achieve those more general goals.

What are the top writing issues that you’ve encountered during your time coaching writers?

Well, the most important thing for any writer is developing a good writing process, and that’s what I devoted the first couple of chapters of the book to. The main problems in writing come from problems in process. So, [there is a need to] learn how to develop and refine a good idea; to plan and execute information-gathering in an efficient, productive way; to find a focus in what you’ve written and then to create a structure that will emphasize that focus and contain what you have produced in your information-gathering.

Then [it’s about] just drafting easily so that some voice can come through and then, finally, polishing, which is what most attention gets devoted to in editing or in books on writing. In some ways it’s the least important part of the process. It’s something that you have to do and do well. It’s a necessary, but not sufficient addition.

Is there a danger in excess polishing of copy versus attention spent elsewhere?

When you’re polishing, you want to be disciplined and do a good job with it. The danger is that you will spend so much time on it that you neglect some of the more important earlier stages. You can polish a piece of writing that’s based on a weak idea, lack of focus and poor information-gathering until the cows come home, but it’s not going to improve the basic underlying value of what you have.

You talk about structure and creating theme statements. Are they always necessary?

I do a theme statement for everything I write. There’s nothing better for figuring out what it is that you want to say.

This makes me think back to junior high school, where you had to map out essays. Do you think many people are resistant to this?

Some people. Remember Mrs. Grundy’s Roman numeral outlines? They’re very elaborate and time-consuming, and they have a connotation of pedantry. That’s not what we’re talking about here.  A theme statement is just a simple statement of what you are trying to say about the world. When I’m talking about an outline, I’m talking about what we call a jot outline, which, in the case of a report, is just a list of topics. In the case of a story, it’s just a list of scenes. So, for a typical newspaper story, guys around here can knock out a theme statement and a jot outline in about 90 seconds if it’s a daily story. It really takes a lot of the anxiety out of what you’re doing.

Aren’t there writers who work more organically and have problems with this?

Well, there are, and we have some working here. [Laughs.] When they stumble across a theme and a structure that works for them they can be wonderful writers, but they’re not productive. They have huge amounts of anxiety about what they’re doing, and they would benefit enormously from getting more methodical about their process.

What are chief among the writing myths?

That it’s some kind of magic, that great writers are endowed with some mystical ability that’s beyond the rest of us. Somehow a muse is going to visit you, and this beautiful piece of writing is going to be revealed as though it was some sort of a religious experience.

It’s much more mundane than that for most good writers, and, therefore, much less intimidating. In fact, the best writers, when you look at the way they work, are quite methodical and produce pretty rough stuff the first few times out on a project.

Why do you think these myths persist?

Well, when we write, we work in isolation. We don’t see the preliminary stages that led to all the great writing, and we think that it popped full-blown from the head of  Thor.

Can that be intimidating?

Yes, very intimidating. I think it’s one reason that so many people find writing difficult and anxiety-producing, or even agonizing. It’s one reason why William Stafford, the former poet laureate here in Oregon, said that the main cure for writer’s block is to lower your standards. [Laughs] Don’t let yourself be intimidated by perfectionism when you’re writing a very preliminary draft, for example, or just trying to shape an idea.

A lot of PR professionals or reporters are assigned subjects they might consider mundane. How do they make their copy, as you write, “radiant with energy” when the subject itself doesn’t excite them?

They need to push the idea harder. All the great literary themes are pretty mundane when you think about them, but they have been developed so that there is what a journalist would call an angle or take that makes them fresh and interesting. That’s one reason I devoted space in the book to developing ideas, pushing ideas and spending time to develop the approach to the topic in a way that can make it fresh and interesting.

Sometimes day-to-day work gets away from innovative thinking.  Are there things that people can do to feed their creativity?

Read something new and different every day, for one thing. We all get stuck in ruts. We have things like YouTube now. Or drive down a different road, talk to a stranger or just do things to get out of your rut. Tickle some new neurons.

Then sit down and write something about it.  A daybook is a good idea for a lot of people, which is just a journal where you’re jotting down thoughts about things that happen to you day by day.

You brought up YouTube. Have citizen journalism and Internet publications helped or hindered business writing and writing in general?

It has made more people aware of how important writing is to their success. One of the ironies of our electronic age is that all these electronic media have made it necessary for more of us to write on a regular basis, even if it’s just a high school kid e-mailing or blogging.

What about the informality of some of the communication on the Internet, e-mail, text messages and in blogs?

I’ve always been an advocate of conversational writing. You want to speak the same language that your intended audience speaks. It never should be stuffy, distant or institutional in American life.

What about basic skills — spelling, grammar, all of those elements of writing? Are those being lost?

[Laughs.] They weren’t terribly widespread ever, at least not in my generation.  A lot of that is false nostalgia. Maybe in my mother’s generation there was more emphasis on formal grammar, spelling and those kinds of things, but by the time I was in school the educational system was already pretty deficient in those things.  A lot of people have to learn that stuff on their own.  Again, that’s a polish stage skill.

Having to study grammar usually makes people run for the hills.

That’s right, but it’s important. I’ve been working with a young PR professional, who’s the publicist for the book, and I have been tremendously impressed by what a mastery of language mechanics she has. There’s nothing in her writing that would detract from her credibility.

In the PR writing that you’ve seen, is this the exception or the rule?

As you might expect, somebody who’s a managing editor of a major metropolitan newspaper gets a lot of PR releases pitched his or her way, and most are pretty good. But some, yes, the PR person responsible for the copy undermines his or her credibility with silly mechanical mistakes.

What about other flaws with press releases? What’s the major thing that you’ve seen that they just don’t get right?

Again, it’s having a strong idea and a well-defined focus. If somebody is expecting me to wade through material that isn’t to the point, then they’re asking for trouble. I’m tremendously busy, like anybody else in the modern world. There should be one clear idea, well-expressed in a release.

Do you think they just don’t take the time to refine their ideas?

The problem is with process. If the problem is lack of focus, then the idea wasn’t particularly well-developed in the first place, and then the material wasn’t particularly well-organized.

Some people see writing as a daunting, as you said, agonizing task. How do you help people overcome that perception?

Break it down into manageable steps. Let’s kick this idea around. OK, now that we’ve kicked it around, what would you say your theme statement is?  And that will help refine things. If that’s your assertion about reality, how are you going to demonstrate that? What sort of information do you need to gather that’s relevant to that? And so on, and so forth. If you do those things one at a time in a logical order, it’s much less intimidating.

So, you just break it down.

Yes.  As Mom always said, “The longest journey begins with a single step.” And then another one, and another one. So you don’t focus on the ultimate destination so much as you do on every step, which is almost always pretty easy to manage.

How do you get people to think of writing as more of an art and not so much of a chore without falling victim to that myth mentality?

There’s a joy of discovery in writing, and, if you follow a good process and don’t get all tied up into knots with anxiety, you can enjoy that discovery.

Is this something you learned from your own experience? I’m sure you’ve had many moments of discovery?

I write every morning from eight to nine. Just this morning I was reading some literary journalism, and I read a John McPhee lead on an old story he did for The New Yorker years ago, and I said, “Boy, look at the fabulous job he’s done with exposition on this,” which is a way of blending back story into the lead and getting the story moving with action right away. It was a bit of a revelation to me, and I took a lot of pleasure in that. It gave me a whole section to write about in the next book that I’m planning.

How important is it to develop a writing routine?

Self-discipline is terribly important. There’s a lot of truth to the old notion that the best advice ever given on writing is that you need to get your butt in the chair. On the other hand, that does not mean you need to sit right down, put your hands on the keyboard and start writing without going through these necessary and important preliminary steps that precede the actual writing.

Do most people not understand that approach?

I think so.  And it’s particularly true where journalists are taught to just sit down and try to write the perfect lead. They’re told that everything else will come tumbling out once they have the perfect lead. If you go through hours of agony trying to write the perfect lead, you will eventually force yourself to do all these things that you should’ve done in the first place.

With all the pressures on reporters to write more copy with less resources, how do you get writers under that kind of pressure to try creative approaches?

The more time you put it on the front end, the more time you save on the back end. There are a lot of newsroom writers — and there are probably a lot of writers in any field that involves deadlines — who think they don’t have time to do a better job of developing ideas, planning information gathering, structuring their work, but who are in fact wasting far more time because they don’t do those things.

You’ve written a guide for writers. Are there any reference books for writers that you’d recommend?

William Zinsser's “On Writing Well” was a very nice standard for writing in clear English that followed up on that old standby Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style." As far as actual reference books that I reach for regularly, I like the Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and, of course, we use the Webster's New World College Dictionary in newsrooms. But I also like the American Heritage, because it has a good usage panel. And I always keep a Viking Desk Encyclopedia handy, even though Google has made it a little less essential than it once was.

What writers had, do you think, the most profound impact on your work, and in what way? Either as a writing coach, as a writer or both?

Well, I'm very interested in narrative nonfiction, and Jon Franklin has had an enormous impact on the narrative nonfiction. He's a two-time Pulitzer winner, and really pioneered the form. He produced a book called “Writing for Story,” which would be the first thing I’d recommend to anybody who wants to write nonfiction.

Folks at the Poynter Institute like Roy Peter Clark, who has a new book out that's also a good collection of writing tips, has been an important influence on me. Bill Blundell, the longtime writing coach at The Wall Street Journal, who wrote a book called “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” — and who is probably as good on idea development as anybody I know about — was an important influence. Don Fry, who's mentioned a lot in my book, is a newspaper writing coach who's been very influential. Don Fry and Roy Peter Clark wrote a book together called “Coaching Writers,” which was very helpful to me in developing my skills as a writing coach.

Is there anything that you’d like to add about the subject?

The main points that I tried to make in the book were: One, you need a good process; two, it is a craft that takes a lifetime to learn; and lastly, good writers are always building on their body of work, and mastery in writing is a lifetime challenge. There’s always something new to learn. I think I learn something new almost every day.

Alison Stateman is the award-winning managing editor of PR Tactics.



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