Heighten suspense and other benefits of making sudden detours in your story

Photo by Jacob Meves on Unsplash

I’m bleary-eyed as I write this. Late last night, I finished several weeks of binge-watching “The West Wing,” all 156 episodes of the nostalgic political series, which ran on television for seven seasons between 1999 and 2006, dramatizing the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff.

The show has become a kind of televised comfort food for many Americans as the country is swamped by partisan bickering.

The plots are captivating, the dialogue, like its characters, is whip-smart. But while I watched the…


Plagued by typos?. Meet Moira, a digital proofreader that will help you avoid those pesky gremlins that bedevil your copy.

Lately, I’ve been plagued by gremlins, those mischievous sprites that cause problems when you’re trying to get something done without fault.

Just recently, I submitted a freelance article that, after several revisions, had finally been accepted for publication. I copyedited it. I ran spellcheck. Several times.

I hit send and then — it’s always the case, it seems — gremlins popped up, smirking, their job done.

A missing article.

A misplaced quotation mark.

A word repeated twice in the same sentence: “that that”

Minor stuff, sure, but the kind of errors that keep writers up at night, worrying whether they…


Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

Sometimes the most memorable stories you write are the ones that you, not an editor, assign

Before turning to teaching, I made my living as a journalist for 22 years, while freelancing for magazines on the side. As a professional writer, most of my stories were pieces that an editor wanted.

But there have been other stories, a precious few, that taught me more than any others about writing and myself. They too, were assigned by me. They were written on “spec,” launched hoping for success but without any specific commission.

In the days before electronic submissions when manuscripts were printed and submitted in manila envelopes, this was also known…


An interview with award-winning poet Patricia Smith

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a poet?

I’ve learned the inherent worth of small stories. I grew up thinking that poems had no chance of becoming iconic unless they were grasping for huge unwieldy concepts, unless they were somewhat blurry and confounding, unless the reader was armed with a sharp shovel to burrow for meaning. Now I know there’s a community that craves mirrored lives and new ways to move sanely from day to day. There’s nothing that can’t become a poem, and that poem can be clear, accessible, and as lyrical as our lives are.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I am constantly astonished that people want to read what I…


Photo by Kent Rebman on Unsplash

When a friend asked us to find World War II grave in France, we didn’t understand it would send us on a long-ago pilgrimage through America’s past

The Mercedes taxi sped along the country highway. For the tenth time since we left Paris that June morning, I looked at the piece of paper in my hand.

U.S. Military Cemetery.

Marigny, France

9 miles west of St. Lo.

Pfc. John Juba Jr. Inf. 4 Div.

Killed Aug. 4, 1944. 20 years old.

That was all I knew about the man whose grave my wife and I were on the way to visit. Kathy and I were on a delayed honeymoon in Europe, a month-long trip that had already taken us to Germany, Holland and Paris. …


When the writing blues have you done, ask yourself why you chose this life in the first place

Why do you write?

What brings you to your desk every day?

Do you seek fame?

Fortune?

The Pulitzer Prize?

There’s nothing wrong with these goals.

But sometimes, the going gets rough and your dreams seem far out of reach. Your latest story just got its tenth rejection, an editor just turned down your pitch, an agent said try elsewhere. Or you’re supposed to be writing but are just spinning your wheels,; you hate your latestsdraft but you don’t know how to fix it.

At times like this, it can be useful to consider why you chose this life in…


Tired of rejection? (No, not that kind. Here’s some wise counsel how to cope the next time a manuscript comes back with a big fat “No, thanks!

Whenever I received a rejection letter for a short story I’ve submitted to a magazine or literary journal I have had this fantasy.

After receiving theirs — “Thank you for your submission. We are sorry that it does not meet our editorial needs at this time.” — I would send back one of my own boilerplate replies:

“Thank you for your rejection. …


In the world of newswriting, leads get most of the attention, but endings are equally, if not more, important

The quote has become the default ending in journalism and readers and writers are all poorer for it.

The other day I randomly picked some news websites, clicked on stories, and scrolled to the bottom. Try it yourself. Open a story, and let your eyes drift to the end. There they are, those disembodied voices that bring way too many news stories to a close.

“It’s just an interesting old building.” “People are scared,” Covington Allison said. “County government should make sure all people are taken care of. … Do the the right thing.”


Time for work, to pick up the kids, but no time to write. Here’s a clue how to find those moments to create and achieve your dreams

“The muse has to know where to find you.”

Billy Wilder

Writing may start in your head, but it has to come out of there, onto the page or the screen.

For that to happen, you have to sit down with a pen and notebook or in front of a computer.

Not everyone recognizes that.

Jericho Brown, a poet and head of the creative writing program at Emory University, posed this question to…


The power of listening, empathy, and the “dark mirror” of crime reporting.

Noelle Crombie/Photo by Beth Nakamura

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a reporter?

Listen. Sounds basic but in the hustle to get out the news, sometimes it gets lost. It’s OK and even a good habit to allow long pauses in an interview. Quiet moments give the subject a chance to reflect. It’s hard to stifle the impulse to fill that space with a follow-up, clarification or comment, but sometimes that moment produces a deeper response. I learned this essential lesson while working with my colleague, Dave Killen, a film editor…

Chip Scanlan

Writer/Writing Coach. Blogs @ https://chipswritinglessons.com. Award-winning former journalist, former director of writing programs, The Poynter Institute.

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