“You know how to find a good story and write it in a way that captures and commands the readers’ attention; but do you know how to write a story that really stands out as the feature attraction in your publication? A story that really tells a story, with all the drama, action, pace and shading of a motion picture? A story with rhythm, pace, and flair, that lingers in the memory like a song?” Gus Silber does.
Write with your heart and soul. Writing is not just an intellectual exercise or a mechanical process. It is emotion given shape and form, through the weaving together of abstract symbols – the 26 letters of an ancient alphabet – that combine to paint pictures in the reader’s mind. All writing should strive in some way to move the reader: to tears, to laughter, to thought, to action. So don’t just write it like you mean it. Write it like you feel it, and the reader will feel it too.
Write with your blood. Put yourself into the story, even, and especially, if the story is not about you. It’s your story. You are the master, you are the guide. Be bold. Be clear. Never say “arguably”; argue. Only computers can write with dispassion and cold objectivity. Be a human with a point of view, a way of looking at the world, a way of trying to make sense of the things you see. Every story is born in chaos. The job of the writer is to find the meaning in the chaos, or at least, to make the chaos sing.
Writing is dancing about architecture. “Writing about music,” somebody once said, “is like dancing about architecture.” They were trying, of course, to discount the craft of the music critic, but in the process, they made an invaluable point. All writing is like dancing about architecture. It’s like dancing: putting one foot in front of the other, heeding the rhythm, leading the way. It’s about architecture: drawing up a plan, laying the groundwork, putting the bricks and mortar in place. The difference with writing is that you can build the roof first, and then work your way down to the mezzanine. Whatever it takes to tell your story.
Don’t just tell your story, sell your story. A good salesperson, the kind that wins commission and trophies and goes on to start a company, will set out to seduce you by telling you a story. If you hesitate for just a fraction of a second to listen, you’re sold. You’re hooked. Even if you don’t buy the product, you’ve bought the story, and sooner or later, you’ll be back. A good storyteller has to do the same thing. Sell, from the very first line. Your story is a commodity. What can you do to make it an irresistible proposition?
Every story is a human interest story. What makes somebody read a story? Somebody, that’s who. Good stories are not about issues or abstracts, they’re about people. Put a human at the heart of your story, and it will make everything in your story come alive.
You can learn a lot about writing by listening to music. Which is not to say, listen to music while you are writing; rather, listen to the way good songwriters are able to tell stories and evoke emotions, with economy and grace, to rhythm and meter, in the mere fleeting minutes of a pop song. Norwegian Wood by the Beatles. Desolation Row by Bob Dylan. Stan by Eminem. Grandma’s Hands by Bill Withers. The best songwriters are journalists of a kind, in the way they journal, observe, chronicle and report, and in the way they can turn the personal experience or view of the world into the universal. Listen, and learn.
Don’t count the words. Make the words count. Ask yourself whether every word in your story has earned its right to be there. If not, backspace it into oblivion. Writing is a ruthless business. The streets are full of abandoned words, awaiting redeployment.
Talk to your writing. Argue with it. Yell at it. Banter with it. Bargain with it. But more than anything, when all is said and done, listen to it. Print it out and go somewhere quiet and read it out loud to yourself. You will immediately hear where the tone is wrong, the voice is off, the volume needs to be adjusted. Writing is not a monologue. It is a dialogue with your reader, and you want them to hear the sound of your voice.
Writing is a verb. It’s not an art, it’s not a craft, it’s not a science, it’s not a calling, it’s not a vocation. It’s a thing that you sit down and do. Up until that point, it is all vapour and good intention. A stockpile of invisible building-blocks, waiting to be assembled, packaged, and shipped. Writing only becomes writing, by some mystical, magical process, when you write. So write. And when you have written, be happy, and write some more
Gus Silber is presenting a course on The Magic of Feature Writing at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. It takes place from Wednesday 14 August 2013 at 08:45 to Friday 16 August 2013 at 16:00.