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Writers' Workshop (2008 and Beyond, now with Updated Updates)

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by jgmacg, Mar 27, 2006.

  1. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    In the spirit of the design thread, here's a place to post, read and comment on writing.

    Post your own writing; post good writing from a contemporary or competitor; post great writing from generations past. Ask questions, suggest answers. Newspapers, magazines, books - the purpose of this thread is to create a workshop online in which we can talk solely about the craft and the practice and the value of the written word.

    No questions about how to get published or get a job or win an award or who might be an effin stud. Just the art and the architecture of writing. Sentence by sentence.

    No personal attacks, no scores settled, no grudges played out. We're here to talk about the work. So please, honor the work by keeping things civil.

    Know, though, that if you post your work on a message board - even one as smart and devoted to craft as this one - you risk hearing some nasty things about your writing. Like the truth.

    I thus ask participants to be vigilant about policing themselves and the thread.

    And I applaud, in advance, our first contributors. Tell us a little about yourselves as post your stories and your critiques.


    To set our sights as high as possible, I offer three must-read links and a quick suggestion.

    The first is Norman Mailer's groundbreaking magazine piece, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," Esquire 1960


    The second, Gay Talese's brilliant "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Esquire 1966


    Sadly, his Dimaggio profile is unavailable online. You can find it in Best American Sports Writing of the Century, however.

    UPDATE: The links above are both dead as of April 22, 2007. One can still root through the Esquire archive, but it seems they've hidden the historic stuff behind a firewall of some kind. I'll post new links on the Professional Readings thread.

    Here's the third link (still operative) and a further suggestion. If you have a question about writing, take it to the best writers in the world. You can find out how they did what they did by searching the online archives at The Paris Review. Its fifty-year series of interviews with the best writers of our age is an invaluable resource for writers of every kind. It can be found here:


    There's also a terrific interview with Joan Didion in the current issue, as yet unavailable online.

    Any questions that she - or Capote or Bellow or Hemingway or Thurber - can't answer, we'll be happy to try.

    Good luck.
  2. Chi City 81

    Chi City 81 Guest

    Re: Writers' Workshop

    I guess I'll bite the bullet and be the first to post here. As far as giving a little info about myself ... I'm 24 years old, with almost seven years in the business. Started out writing for a chain of weeklies, moved up to SE of that chain when I was 22, won 12 writing/section awards in my two-plus years there, including an SNA. Moved on to a daily last October, and I'm posting the first two features I wrote there. The first was my foray into the now-overdone "Murderball" world, the second was a feature about a 6-foot-8 freshman basketball player who's already on the radar screens of some top Division I programs. I guess I have to post jpegs of the stories because of the 5,500-character limit (if someone has a better idea how to do this, let me know). So critique away ...  ;D




  3. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Re: Writers' Workshop

    I'm really excited about the possibilities of this thread. It's one of the things I hoped for when I first stumbled upon SportsJournalists.com -- this can be a real resource for writers who want to get better.

    Full props to jgmacg for starting this thing up. And after a quick catch-up on life here: Chi City -- it looks like you haven't gone out of your way to make friends -- but way to get this thing started in earnest. That takes some sack.

    Now I'll try to do justice to the concept.

    Chi -- I'm assuming you didn't post these just for a stroke. Of course, these are solid stories, but I have a couple of ideas on how they might be better; I offer them humbly and in the spirit of helping out.

    Three things that strike me:

    1) Every so often -- and it's hard to escape this sometimes, but you should fight against it -- you fall into a little bit of a quote-line-quote-line pattern, most often in the middle of your stuff. I've always believed that most readers tend to skim quotes, especially when they aren't placed in a lot of context. Readers would rather read writing. And because you can write, you shouldn't be afraid to treat the middle of the story the way you might treat the beginning or the end. Put some scenes in there. Stretch a little. In other words, don't be afraid to be creative. One of my first editors always talked about having "cookies" thoughout a feature, little tidbits that keep the reading trucking through until the next one. Too many quotes, strung together with one-liners from the reporter, and you risk losing folks, I think. Section breaks are a good opportunity to wave the smelling salts, if you know what I mean.

    2) Not often, because you're clean, but every now and then, there's a graf that I think makes more sense to you than it does to the reader. What I mean is, you know what you're trying to say; and if we think about what you're trying to say, we get it; but you shouldn't be asking your readers to do that much heavy lifting. Say, for instance, toward the end of the wheelchair rugby piece:

    "Pate already knows he's on borrowed time as a 44-year-old in a game full of players young enough to be his sons. Heck, he has two daughters from a previous marriage, Jennifer, 23, and Angela, 20."

    Now, I know what you're saying here -- that he's literally playing against guys who are younger than two of his kids. But the link is not quite tight enough. Read someone like Tom Carson in GQ to get a real feel for the flow of ideas. Each of his sentences flows seamlessly into the next. That's the trick.

    3) And last, appropriately enough, I feel like both of the endings don't do justice to the rest of the story. I've always believed that endings are even more important than beginnings. It's what readers leave you on. Sometimes, I write my endings first -- not only so that I don't use up my best stuff before I get to them, but also to give me a destination. The basketball ending -- the airball -- is the right idea. I just feel a little like you didn't get the most out of it. And the wheelchair story ends on a bit of a fizzle. You're introducing characters in the last graf, and that's it. Sometimes you're tired by the time you get to the end of writing a long story, but you should try to pump yourself back up for it. (Again, writing it first relieves that problem.) With a feature, you usually know how much space you have, and you don't have to worry about the finish getting dropped. You can craft a full story, beginning, middle, and end, each as important as the next.

    There we go. Just to start things off. I hope this thread becomes everything I hope it might be.
  4. Chi City 81

    Chi City 81 Guest

    Re: Writers' Workshop

    Thanks for your feedback, and I definitely agree with your points, especially with your conclusion on my conclusions; they've never been my strong suit, whether on college term papers or features. I can only hope they improve with more experience. On the Murderball story, I wrote it at the tail-end of a 10-hour shift and finished it after 1 a.m. because I was going to be 300 miles away the next day covering a playoff game; by the time I finished I was stuggling to stay awake, let alone remain coherent. As far as not making friends, I talked in person with a long-time poster and got some info on the people with whom I've quarreled lately; and I'm just going to ignore whatever they post no matter how infuriating; it's just not worth it. Take care.
  5. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Re: Writers' Workshop

    Chi City, first let me aplaud your bravery for posting your stuff here. That takes guts. More guts, in fact, than putting them in the paper.

    As far as a critique, I'll echo some of what Jones said. The story about Pate is very good, especially if you were writing it all in one stretch under the pressure of a deadline the next day. But when you're asking readers to invest themselves in a big story like this, reward them for making it to end. One scene I thought you could have flushed out and perhaps even made your ending was the scene where Pate is flat on his face while the team in celebrating after he caused the turnover that won the game. It's not an easy thing to do, because obviously that happened at the last Olympics, and the theme of the article is him looking forward to this time. But in many ways, he's not just looking forward to making the next Olympic team, he's chasing that feeling of euphoria when he's flat on his face, listening to the whole team go nuts. That's the athletic thrill he's chasing, and it's a powerful scene. Instead of really describing it, you kind of let him just talk about it in a quote. I wanted a little more there.

    One of the things that bugs the crap out of me at my paper is the section breaks our "style" requires. I hate freaking subheads. I think they're corny and stupid. But you have to break up the page somehow, so that it doesn't look like a giant blob of text. So use those places where subheads have to go to your advantage. One of the things reading countless magazine profiles taught me is that you can treat every section like its own little chapter of your story. Sometimes it's the best place to do real WRITING. I've posted this many, many times before here, and I'm sure some people will just ignore it, but this piece by Tim O'Brien from the New York Times magazine about going back to Vietnam and losing his girlfriend, I think, nails the "chapter breaks" better than any story I've ever read. They pull the story along, and leave you wanting a little more.

  6. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Re: Writers' Workshop


    Many thanks for being the first to post your work. It's a terrific start for us.

    It's late for me, though, and I want to go through both stories in greater detail tomorrow to give them the reading they deserve.

    But because I started this, I feel I should kick in a few thoughts on our opening night.

    First let me qualify everything I'm about to say by stating that I'm almost entirely a magazine writer these days. I've written for newspapers over the years, certainly, but only longer-form feature material and op-ed. That means I've never had to crank out a profile overnight. I have the great luxury of abundant time when I work. Thus I commend you, and everyone in the field, who can deliver this sort of solid work on a tight, hard deadline.

    But I would add this: readers don't care how long it takes us to do anything. Overnight, or two years of work - the only thing that matters to them is how it reads. How the sausage gets made is of no interest to anyone but the butcher.

    If you're having trouble with your endings, spend a little time trying to figure out what the piece is really about. "What's the big idea?", as I used to say to students. Meaning, what's the central literary theme. Downfall? Redemption? Second chance? Tragic hero? There are a million ways to express these, but you need something human, dramatic, mythological to get at the real greatness of any story - even a quick turnaround newspaper profile. I'll do something more on this in a day or two.

    Line by line in a quick reading of your first piece, I'd say you're too smart a man and too good a writer to dampen your prose with turns of phrase like "few and far between", "flood of emotions" or the "welling up" of tears. And that's just what I saw up near the top. You can tighten your work considerably simply by replacing cliches like these with the words they're meant tor replace, i.e., "rare", "overwhelmed" "wept/did not weep". Teach yourself to recognize weak descriptive language. Once you realize how solid and original your writing can be if you shun cliche, you'll be a better writer overnight. Try going through all your pieces and mercilessly weeding out the dead phrases and you'll be amazed how much pace you can put back into your work.

    And pace is profoundly important in the long form, because it, as much as or more than content (see "cookies" above), is what carries your reader through a piece.

    Okay, enough for me tonight, it's late. I'll revisit this tomorrow in greater detail.

    But I thank you again for getting us started in such fine style.
  7. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Re: Writers' Workshop

    I put this on one of the other threads just a minute ago, but this may be a more appropriate place for it if you like narrative journalism. It's a series that Ken Fuson (now at the Des Moines Register) wrote about, of all things, a high school drama club putting on a play. Obviously most reporters don't have the time to completely imerse themselves in a subject like this, but you can still learn a lot about, I think, how to pull a reader along and build suspense throughout your story. Check it out if you have 40 minutes to kill.

    Part 1:


    Part 2:


    Part 3:


    Part 4:


    Part 5:


    Part 6:

  8. Re: Writers' Workshop

    wow. i haven't read the stories. but i enjoyed the hell out of reading the feedback.
  9. Rhody31

    Rhody31 Well-Known Member

    Re: Writers' Workshop

    Ok, I'll go along, but I don't have my A-game stuff on file for links. It's probably better that way. I'm just desperate for feedback from people I'm not directly working for.
    These stories came from the weekly I'm at. I try to write them the night of the game, then touch up before I send them a couple days later. The first two are hockey gamers, and hockey isn't my strongest sport to cover. The last is a basketball gamer.
    So here goes ... gulp ...



  10. Chi City 81

    Chi City 81 Guest

    Re: Writers' Workshop

    Some of the earlier critiques got me thinking of some questions I had. I'm posting another feature about the rest of the starting line-up from Osweiler's team, and I had two questions. 1. Is this a better example of what Double Down referred to as "using subheads to my advantage"? 2. I remember being told once to write my stories for those with a sixth-grade education (or seventh-grade, can't remember), so was I way too wordy with my lede here?

    Again, thanks for the help, and this will be my last story post for a while; I don't want to monopolize the board, and I'll be sure to give constructive critiques of other pieces when I can.

    p.s. I love the quote from "The Wire" on your sig Double Down.


  11. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    re: craft

    The Talese/Mailer/O'Brien reads are fine, but if we're gonna start linking those beasts without the expectation (specifically in the Talese and O'Brien stories) that the mere subject matter (Sinatra, Vietnam) overwhelms what lessons can be gained, I might as well tell young writers so to go buy a Raymond Carver book and "The Great Gatsby" - a novel which, I might add, is a crucial read to apply the usage of adverbs and similes (both of which Fitzgerald employs).


    Chi City, here's what I got. Mostly about the beginning. Won't be Jones' pearls. And my thoughts are vague, cryptic and fragmented. Overall the story's fine.


    1. Say I polled ten people about which scenes would come before and after the phrase "flash forward." Does this hypothetical affect your view on using said template a week from now?

    2. So let's look at the hospital scene. In the bed, may die, can't open eyes, world of shit. That's a hospital montage. Instead of a list, pick one detail. Ask your next hospital scene source: "Okay, when you eat out of a straw and you can't even open your eyes to see it, what the hell does that feel like? What it like to be pumped full of morphine? Like you have gum for blood?" It ain't a court of law. Lead the subject. (Whatever their faults "hip-hop" journalists do an excellent job of matching their interviews, being human, and grabbing quotes).

    3. On top of all that rags-to-riches opening was obvious. Again, fine, but what if the story had begun with even quads discriminate? Guy nearly dies, has rare disease, gets shit for the fact that he can walk with severe pain. Gets dogged for having limbs.

    4. Tighten. Already mentioned. "Making him prone to constant falls" becomes "he falls a lot."

    5. God material is just shoved in as obligatory cripple's props to God. I say this as a Christian. Gut or more effectively weave future stand-alone testimonials.

    1. I like the idea for the lead (yeah I spell it normal). Others may not. Could be tightened.

    2. You wisely allow your subject to boast in the "Houston, Orlando, LA" quotes and others. Smart on ya for not paraphrasing - like a lot of writers would have done - and reducing your subject's personality. You've done well to reveal him because he's insightful for that age, a sentient adult will recognize that from your story, and they won't know you didn't hog it, but they'll know the subject better for the fact that you didn't.

    3. That said, some of the late quotes (about free throw percentage, having a game like KG) can and should be paraphrased.

    A question for you - when you read your own stories, what do you think of your own language usage? A bit above the average reporter? Do you aspire to it? Curious.

  12. Chi City 81

    Chi City 81 Guest

    Re: Writers' Workshop

    It's hard to critique gamers really, because it's all a matter of form, i.e. lede, nut graf, body, conclusion, but there were a few things. One, try to avoid ever using a number to start a graf, let alone a story; generally a no-no, with few exceptions. Here, it wasn't necessary; you could have simply said "More than 40 minutes" or "Almost an hour". There were a few typos that I'm not going to mention, other than the basketball story, where you said he hit 8 of 18 ... 8 of 18 what? I know you meant shots, but avoid leaving it out. Other than that, not much to say other than I'm happy to see someone at a weekly make proper use of the "source before said" rule. It's an absolute pet peeve of mine when it's ignored; and I've seen people with 30 years in the biz do it.
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