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Poynter Q-and-A: Common mistakes and best practices in writing


January 18, 2013

Mallary Jean Tenore is managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, and reports on the media news industry, edits the site’s How To section, and moderates the site’s live chats. She also helps handle the site’s social media efforts, and teaches social media sessions on the side.

Tenore, who has been with Poynter since 2007, is especially interested in how technology is changing the way we tell stories. Here, she shares her thoughts on the craft of writing, including advice for getting started, mistakes she oftens sees and where she finds her inspiration.  —  Amy Jacques

What do you think makes good writing?

Good writing has meaning; it communicates a message that resonates not just with the writer but with readers. Good writers leave readers captivated throughout a piece — not just at the beginning and the end. They don’t ramble just because they can; instead, they cut what’s not essential to the story and focus on what’s most meaningful. Good writers know how to capture dialogue and detail. They show, rather than tell, through their writing by recreating scenes, memories and ideas for the reader.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received about writing?

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark has often said that being a good writer involves four components: writing, reading, and talking about writing and reading. To be a good writer, you need to write a little bit every day, even if it’s just a few lines. You need to read other good work that inspires you, and you need to talk about your writing process — with colleagues, editors and friends who care about the written word. These three components combined will make you a better, more well-rounded writer.

What common mistakes do you see in other people’s writing?

I see people procrastinate to the point where they lose inspiration because they’ve waited so long to write. Writers procrastinate by reporting more than they need to, by reading (“it’s research!”) and by waiting for “the right time.” When it comes to writing, “now” is the right time. E.B. White once said:  “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” 

What are some best practices and tips for writing in only 140-characters?

Twitter is a good tool for writers because it forces them to make every word count. As I’ve written before, “It’s a verbose writer’s friend and worst enemy — a constant reminder that it’s often harder to write short than it is to write long.” As a writing exercise, try writing all of your sentences in 140 characters or less. Pay attention to what words and phrases you have to cut out, and see if you notice any habits you should break free of. For inspiration, follow these writers on Twitter: @JenniferWeiner, @FrankBruni and @SusanOrlean.

What advice do you have for someone beginning a writing assignment?

My advice would be to make sure you find a focus early on in the writing process. Having a focus makes it so much easier to write in an organized manner. Stories that lack focus are hard to read, and they’re not as strong. To find a focus, ask yourself:  “What is this story really about?” Write down one sentence that answers this question. Then, write down one word that your piece embodies — a word that touches on a universal theme that others can relate to. (Hope, love, tragedy, survival...) Look at the sentence and the word to help you stay focused.

What inspires your writing?

I’m inspired by reading the work of great writers. Anna Quindlen and Joan Didion are two of my favorite writers. I’m also inspired by my everyday conversations with people. I’m naturally curious, so I ask people a lot of questions, which sometimes leads to story ideas. When I see other people asking a lot of questions about something, that makes me think: What story could I tell to help answer these questions and shed light on this topic?



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