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Mentors, editors, readers, writers - some thoughts on self-improvement.

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by jgmacg, May 21, 2008.

  1. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    This is the companion thread to Has anyone ever REALLY worked with you? from the J-board.


    I thought I'd start this with my first post from that discussion and let it run on in perpetuity up here in the Workshop.


    In honor of Fenian_Bastard, a writer I very much admire, some thoughts on craft this morning.

    I took a couple of days to think about this thread, and what it meant, before posting anything. Wanting not only to extol the virtues of great editing, or the importance of being mentored or even closely read, I wanted to dream up some actual remedies for those younger writers who are having trouble finding these rare and valuable things.

    Like The Jones, I've been lucky enough to work with one editor for a very long time. I've mentioned him on these pages before. His name is Bob Roe, and anything noteworthy I've done since 1998 in longform narrative journalism is as much a product of his work as it is mine. If anyone's interested, I can detail at some later time the process by which we work through a story. Maybe The Jones would help contrive a Q and A Edit thread in the Workshop. For the moment, though, suffice to say that it's a very close partnership; and that writing, while pursued almost entirely in solitude, becomes collaborative the moment you turn in your copy.

    I want first to untangle a couple of the key things we've been talking about here, because 'mentoring' and 'editing' and even 'reading' are three very different things. Each of the three constitutes a learning opportunity. And every writer everywhere, from the smallest weekly newspaper to the glossiest monthly magazine, needs each in some measure to make their work better.

    Let's stipulate first that the most important editor any writer will ever have is himself/herself. Learning to objectively read, judge and correct your own work is as important a thing as you'll ever do. There's no strict formula by which to master this, but here are a few suggestions:

    - Take your pride out of it. Be humble in the face of the work, and honest in assessing your own shortcomings and mistakes. Learn not only to accept criticism, but to seek it out and embrace it.

    - Read widely and deeply across all kinds of writing. The more you know about what's possible with the written word, the easier it is to hold your own work to a higher standard. To know what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. And a note here specific to our board: If all you ever read is newspaper-style sports writing, you're sunk.

    - Learn to read as a writer must, with a pen in your hand, to mark and make note of what the writers you admire are doing. And how they do it. An object example of this is WC Heinz, who came to his voice through his close reading and study of Hemingway.

    - To become a better writer, despite the grind of daily deadlines, you have to want to become a better writer. This often means extra work, harder work. The moment you stop trying to get better, you're getting worse.

    - Make use of things like the Writers' Workshop board here.

    Which brings me to 'mentoring'. I've been very lucky over the arc of my working life to have had several. These are men and women outside the routine of my paid work who take an interest, not just in my writing, but in my larger ambitions and in the overall conduct of my craft, my career and my life. I've met them all in different ways, and at different stages in my development. The key, I think, is not just to want mentoring, or be passively receptive to it, but to actively seek it out. It is a rare thing indeed to find a mentor in your own workplace, or to be taken up unbidden by someone willing to coach you through a career. So,

    - Put yourself in settings where you'll meet people whose work you admire. By which I mean workshops and classes and summer writing programs and so forth. This may entail some real effort and expense on your part, but think of it as in an investment in your future. Whether you attend the Poynter seminar or the New York State Summer Writers' Institute or the Breadloaf conference or a night extension class at the community college, you have to go looking for people willing to take up your cause. There are literally thousands of events like this across the country every year, and if you aspire to being a better writer, you need to think hard about finding the time and the money to attend them. I can virtually guarantee that just up the road at your state's land grant college, there's an MFA writing program that's going to bring in four or five writers of national stature this year. Try to finagle your way into a masters' class with them. The three hours you spend drinking beer and shooting pool one night with some gray-bearded Great American Novelist might change your life. It changed mine.

    - A couple of folks who've been invaluable to me over the years were editors who rejected work I submitted to them. They were kind enough, though, to reject it personally and specifically, noting what was wrong with it and what had some merit. In these cases I was able to open a correspondence with them. I took note of what I was told and continued to submit further work. I was never a pest, but I was persistent. In some cases it was years before I ever met these people in person. But this kind of long-distance mentoring can arise if you're willing to take the time and make the effort.

    - Keep in mind that most writers are happy to repay the kindnesses they themselves have benefited from. My mentors took me up because someone forty years ago had taken them up. I try to do the same here with the Workshop. The point being, don't be shy about asking someone you admire for their help. The worst that can happen is they say no.

    - As many fine books as there may be about the craft of writing, and as much as you might learn from one, a book is no substitute for the flesh-and-blood give-and-take you'll get from a living, breathing mentor. And a book will never pick up the tab for that sixth round of Guiness.

    Back up the thread a way, someone spoke to the notion of getting some help with how to organize story. One of the quickest solutions to organizational questions - and most importantly, one to which we all have access - is to find a trustworthy reader. And the less they know about sports or writing or sportswriting, the better. These are the folks who can flag your architectural shortcomings simply by saying "I don't get this part," or "I'd like to know more about what happened to him," or "what does this guy look like?" Every writer needs a reliable, disinterested reader. Might be your mom or your dad or your spouse or the guy next door. An "average" reader is the quick litmus test for the nuts and bolts of your story. Find one. And when they say to you, "I don't get this...", use that as your springboard to revision.

    Finally, editing.

    An edit isn't always - or even often - going to be a teaching moment. Especially in daily newspapering. Mostly it's going to be a matter of fixing and fitting your story into the rush of the day's needs.

    The teaching/learning part comes after the deadline is met. But only if you seek it out and open yourself to it.

    When time allows, get in the habit of asking your editors for their thoughts on what was done and why. Ask specific questions. Don't argue in defense of something; rather, listen carefully to their answers. Most will at least give you a sense of their editorial process. A very few will present themselves as willing teachers, if only to make their own lives easier. Fewer still will become mentors. But you can't succeed as a writer, at any level, until you learn to engage the editing process as a positive opportunity for growth. How positive depends almost entirely on you. Again, get your ego out of the way, and take notes from whomever is willing to give them. Turn those notes over in your head, stew on them, and then accept or reject them as you choose.

    The best writers I know - even at 60 or 70 - never stop being students of the craft.

    I believe very deeply that the value in the work we do is the work itself, not what that work reflects on the writer in terms of money or prizes or fame. Value the quality of the work above the result the work produces, and you'll be able to set your vanity quite comfortably aside and learn the craft as it's meant to be practiced.

    There are mentors and teachers and coaches and exemplars and friends all around you.

    It's up to you to find them.
  2. funky_mountain

    funky_mountain Active Member

    outside of my current workplace where feedback varies (but getting back to jgmacg's point, i need to be more active in searching it out).

    the guy who was my sports editor 18 years ago is still a guy i can email/talk on the phone about stories.

    at my first job out of college, i introduced myself to charlie vincent, a columnist at the detroit free press. i sent him five, six stories and about a month later, the stories came back, red-penned from start to finish.

    one poster on this board has helped me -- not with copy but with guiding me through a particular situation or helping me with structure of a story and this person has given feedback after the stories have been published.

    my wife is great. she can spot holes because she doesn't always understand sports. she is great when it comes to pointing out a lack of detail or description.

    a couple of my good friends from college who not sports writers are great sounding boards. i will send them stuff or talk about stories over the phone. they are sports fans, interested in what i do and tangentially, they feel a part of the story's development. makes them feel like they had a hand in something. my dad and younger brother and sister fall into that category, too. from time to time, i'll give them the basics of a story idea and ask them what they want to know. they might not help with the actualy writing, but often they will have ideas that make the story richer.
  3. silentbob

    silentbob Member

    A couple years after I graduated college, I used to email writers (mostly columnists), asking them how they went about writing and reporting certain things I had read. Every one of them responded. In fact, I used to print out their responses and keep them in a folder. (Hmmm. I wonder where that is?) A few agreed to critique my clips, and I think they all did as promised, eventhough it took a couple months.

    Point is: People are willing to help. That doesn't mean each of these writers became a mentor to me. None did. They just told me what worked for them and it was helpful.

    Today, I learn mostly by reading. I am a tremendously slow reader, and my wife makes fun of me for it. I also can't stop reading something once I start, even if it sucks. Wife makes fun of this, too. She tells me life is too short to waste time reading something I don't like. She may have a point.

    Anyway. For whatever reason, I've been reading a lot of memoirs lately. John Ed Bradley's, Roger Kahn's (strongly recommend), J.R. Moehringer's, and Pat Jordan's. I think it's helped establish a stronger voice in my writing. At least that's what I'd like to believe. ... I also try to read books that correspond with the sports season. I'll start baseball books during spring training; basketball during training camp, etc. This helps with story ideas. I usually can come up with at least one per book.
  4. Yes please!
  5. forever_town

    forever_town Well-Known Member

    My big concern is who I have above me in the food chain at my job.

    My publisher is 90 years old and was a M.D. The CEO (his wife) does not have a writing background. To make matters worse, her first language isn't English (though she's been using English for I don't know how many years. She sounds like a native speaker, if that helps.)

    Neither of them have a background in journalism. Even though they've owned the paper for 40-plus years, neither of them have a great breadth of knowledge about journalism.

    There's an experienced editor in our two-paper group, but he runs the other paper. He has enough to deal with at his shop and has enough young reporters to mentor. Meanwhile, I find myself mentoring writers even younger than I, wondering if I'm helping them enough. Or even if I'm helping them at all. Then there's my own relative novice and the sense that I need a mentor in my own right.

    As far as the management end is concerned, I was extremely lucky that the now-former ad director has a wealth of management experience. He could tell me when I was on the right track with a course of action as a manager. Fortunately, I was on that right track frequently, according to him.

    As for the writing end, I read my stuff and I'm unimpressed. I read brilliant prose on SportsJournalists.com from the jgmacgs, the Joneses, the Double Downs, the buckweavers and I feel like I'm lucky to string two sentences together. Even when the stuff I've written here has gotten complimented, it's been the pieces I've written that are unconstrained by journalism style or mores.

    When I've gotten compliments from people, I've wondered if they come with an ulterior motive. Good example: A story I wrote last week about my county's chamber of commerce luncheon with the governor. The president and CEO of the chamber sent a thank you letter and said he wanted to forward it to the governor's office. The county executive once complimented the paper at the governor's inaugural gala.

    For about two months, I had someone working with me who could make my writing better. He may have been 10 years my junior. He may have been my employee. He might have been in his first full-time job as a journalist. Never mind. I trusted his judgment. He knew what to do with my stuff. Even if it was minor. He knew when to rip me a new one. But like I said, he was only there two months before he got another, better paying job. Even so, I still sent him my columns so I could get his feedback.

    The biggest thing I look at when I'm in my frustrated period is seeing my own growth stunted because I don't have a mentor who can point me in the right direction. Or even assure me that I'm already headed there. I can remember how vindicated I felt when the then-incoming dean of the journalism school made many of the same observations I did about the student niche publication I helped to edit.

    I guess that's why I followed the original thread and this one with interest. I still feel as rudderless as a neophyte singer-songwriter searching for a producer to turn raw material into a polished song.
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