By Hood River, Oregon Freelance Writer Stu Watson
As someone who has been a professional writer for more than 40 years (yes, I’m no longer 18), I’ve learned a few things that might help people who are just starting out, or who find themselves struggling with story and language.
Start with Solid reporting
Good writing starts with good reporting. Learn as much as you can about your subject. In Ruralite magazine, our subjects are often people, not things or issues. Talk to the story subject, but also talk to their customers, family, investors, or others who can shed a different light.
Thorough reporting is easy, if you are genuinely curious about the subject. If you’re not, you might ask yourself why you are doing the story. If there isn’t a good hook, something unusual or remarkable about it, why bother?
Ask Good Questions
I worked with someone once who called the subject of a story and said, “I called for a quote.” Then he was silent, waiting for the person on the other end to say something. Anything, apparently, would have worked. I was horrified. Good quotes and stories come from good questions.
Join your Community
Finding good stories can be hard, especially if you do not live close to the people of your community. If you are shy, or hole up in your office, you will never hear about people, from people.
Immerse yourself. Join service clubs, the local chamber of commerce, or other business groups. Look for interesting events to attend. Public hearings are great, even if unrelated to any story you’re working on. People stand up and tell their name, where they live, what they do and why they do or do not like something. People who attend hearings often are passionate about life and their community. They might make a good story.
Read the classified ads in local papers. Look at the small ads (placed by small businesses or service providers). Go to your secretary of state’s web page and look at new business filings from your area. Riches abound; just look around.
Writing is Craft
Having a firm grasp of grammar and syntax will help you look analytically at what you have written, and see the flaws. Read William Strunk and E.B. White, “The Elements of Style,” ($5.50, Amazon) and William Zinsser, “On Writing Well” ($9, Amazon). Each book will add sharp tools to your kit, of great value only when you are willing to use them.
Spew, then Edit
When it’s time to write, spew first, edit later. By spew, I mean to just get it all out. If you try to think it all into the perfect sentence, you’ll constipate yourself and your prose. Instead, act like you’re writing a letter to a close friend.
Start where you would start any tale you find worth telling. It may read like this:
I met a guy today who writes computer code but really likes making beer in his garage and having friends over to sit around and share and talk.
On editing, it might read like this:
Computer programming pays John Smith’s bills. Cooking grain and malt and hops and adding yeast until it all boils over, then letting it sit around for a while until it chills and he can drink it? Now that’s living.
Good writing is self-editing. Spew first. Edit later.
Speaking of editing, don’t be afraid to play with language. Discover new words. Use fresh word combinations to say something tried and true. And think about pacing. If every sentence is the same length, you have no rhythm.
Long sentences go with a slow and undulating flow. Short sentences can move the action along briskly. Simple subject-verb constructs tell a lot.
Fragments are ok, if what precedes them helps the reader appreciate why you are offering them as fragments, instead of in a series.
Look at every sentence and ask yourself if you could have said the same thing in fewer words. Or shorter words? Or better words? Or more precise words? Do the pronouns make sense? Do the subject and verb agree? Could dependent clauses go independent? Would a more liberal use of the “period” help the goal of clarity and flow?
I hope these ideas help your own discipline and embrace of this lovely craft.