What I’ve Learned About Writing

I spend a small but significant part of my day writing. Every day

I’m fortunate enough to write for several publications that engage me in interesting topics and assignments. I’ve been at this for five years now. So what have I learned about writing?

I’ve learned that you need a good editor in the same way that an aspiring pianist needs a piano teacher. Sorry, books and blogs are not enough — not even this one. A good editor fills the role of hard-nosed teacher, and deadlines are not to be missed. Granted, the professional writing world is not forgiving. When I started at the Fort Worth Weekly, I knew I was in over my head, writing-wise. I knew I’d make mistakes, but I also committed to not making them twice. Every time I saw a red line or bracketed harangue I made a mental note of what mistake I had made. It takes conscious effort to fix bad habits, at least at my age.  

I’ve learned that Google is my friend. The AP Stylebook helps, but Google brings up major publications’ past usage and is a window into common usage. Our language is constantly evolving.

Keep it simple. The “less is more” mantra always wins here.
Develop a system for editing/proofreading your work. I recommend that you continuously read through drafts as you write. By the time I finish typing this, I’ve read it over several times. Then I type it out and do hand edits. Then I make corrections, and voila. And if you make a typo, be more careful but forgive yourself. To err is human.

Making it Sound Interesting

Growing as a writer generally encompasses two trends: learning to simplify and finding new ways to express yourself creatively. This blog post will focus on the latter skill. Let’s look at a few examples from articles I’ve published.

Generic sentence: The Fort Worth Opera Festival opened with a performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires for the second time.

Recast sentence: The Fort Worth Opera Festival kicked off last Friday with a ravishing performance of Astor Piazzolla’s operetta María de Buenos Aires, marking the second time the sultry and multifaceted work has met Fort Worth audiences.

The first sentence is fine enough, but it lacks energy. The recast sentence replaced “opens” with “kicked off” and added adjectives like ravishing and sultry.

Generic sentence: The set of FWO’s Maria is simple. Pieces of dirty metal separated the front of the stage from the background.

Recast sentence: The set of FWO’s María is drab. Vestiges of graffitied sheet metal partition the viewable stage from the blackness beyond.

Drab is a more interesting and less common word than “simple.” Vestiges evokes emotions better than “pieces” does. And “the blackness beyond” adds a feeling of ominous foreboding. (Makes it sound spooky.)

In general, look for more creative ways to express yourself without getting too “wordy.” I love the line in Of Mice and Men when a large waterfowl “labors into the air.” Steinbeck turns a common noun into a verb because it better served the function of conveying the great effort the bird put into flying.

And finally, read great writing and don’t be afraid to use the author’s creative word choices. Professional writers often freely borrow turns of phrases and other creative word choices.

The Interview

Over the past five years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of fascinating individuals. Anyone worth writing about has an interesting story to tell, whether they are artists, community leaders, or everyday folks who have done something extraordinary. Getting their story on paper, of course, requires an interview. I’ve compiled some advice that I’ve learned over the years.

I’m assuming in this blog post that this is an in-person interview. Phone interviews are fine, of course, and sometimes necessary if the contact is traveling. Basic equipment for an interview includes: a voice recorder ($30), list of questions, notepad, and pencil.

Why a pencil and paper? Even though the voice recorder is doing the heavy lifting, I like to take notes as I conduct an interview. I often come up with questions in the course of chatting that I scribble down and ask between breaks. The most important part of an interview is done before meeting. Learn about the subject’s background and develop insightful questions. The interviewee will appreciate thoughtful questions over generic ones. Interviews should be more conversational and relaxed. The less formal you are, the more relaxed he or she will feel. If you have questions that may be seen as controversial, save those for last. It would be a shame for an interview to end prematurely because you started off with the “hot button” topic.

For a short article, I general set aside 30 minutes. For a cover story, an hour will suffice.

Transcribing the interview is an important step. Personally, I’ll notice things I didn’t during the first interview. If I type what I think will be an important quote, I usually bold it or add exclamation marks that make it easier to find later on.

And finally, have fun. Many of the folks I’ve interviewed have become friends later on. Interviewing people is great way to learn about your community and grow as a person.

Punctuating Rhythm

The purpose and frequency of punctuation use has fluctuated drastically over the past few hundred years. Its most basic use was to demarcate pauses that may not have been obvious otherwise. That basic function is sometimes overlooked in the blur that is our modern world of hashtags, exclamation marks, and emojis. But punctuation’s power to control time and rhythm has not diminished in the least.

Take these two examples:  

The man, weary from a long day, labored down the hall and, finally, collapsed on the bed.

The weary man labored down the hall and collapsed on the bed.

Which example took longer to read? Probably the top one. The commas act as small speed bumps, slowing your eyes as they read from left to right. Sometimes, we as writers want to slow the reader down in order to prepare him or her for an important moment.

The door, rusted over with time, slowly creaked open (as Tom watched, horrified) before a slimy, gooey hand reached in — and grabbed him!

That probably will have more of the desired effect than: The rusty door opened to reveal a slimy and gooey hand that grabbed him.

Whether employing a heavy or light use of punctuation, simply be aware that it will affect the readers’ experience

Lede On!

Your article’s opening sentence can mean the difference between enticing a reader onward or losing his or her attention. In the journalism world, we call this sentence the “lede.” It can also be spelled “lead.”

The lede should hint at the material to follow while being compelling. Easy right? In practice, ledes are often the most time-consuming part of the writing process but I have some tips and tricks to offer.

Let’s start with a few examples from my published articles.

Fleeing her dangerous ex-husband left Tonja with little choice but to live out of a car with her two children.

That is the opening line of a cover story I wrote for Fort Worth Weekly. What followed was an account of how a single mother eventually received help from the city through its Directions Home program. Her story was harrowing, and it was important that I didn’t sugarcoat her plight. The lede captured the dire state of her life, and it (hopefully) enticed the reader to read the entire story.

Ledes can also be lighthearted. For a recent beer blog, I played with the fact that my beer column and the bar I was reviewing had similar names.

No, On Tap in Fort Worth (the Fort Worth Weekly’s craft beer column) and On Tap DFW (the newish growler fill station in Arlington) aren’t related in any way, other than the fact that we both have a knack for great branding.

This was my attempt at a little humor. It is a beer blog, after all.

A friend of mine used this funny lede once: Like J.Lo’s love, these family friendly events don’t cost a thing.

Try to be creative while staying on topic. If the article is serious, strike a serious tone from the onset. In a sense, the lede needs to capture the following story in one sentence. When reading the newspaper or other publications, start noticing the thought that goes into the first sentence.

As the TCU motto says, Lede On!


Brevity in Writing.

“Complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression.” —
George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan as appeared in American Scientist in 1990.

The question this raises is: To what extent are artists and writers obligated to communicate their message plainly and simply? I largely agree with this quote. I know others will disagree. The hardest melodies to write are always the simplest. Brevity is the soul of wit in writing as in most things. The most insightful math equations are often elegant and simple. I’m not saying that being verbose in writing or esoteric in music is wrong. But the art that has survived (and more importantly, proven impactful) has distilled its insights down to its bare bones. I think we can learn something from that.

The Humble Outline.

Outlines are the scaffolding on which stories and articles unfold. They organize your thoughts, clarify how different sections relate to each other, and act as reminders of sections that need to be further developed. All my articles begin as outlines. Here’s an example.

Urban Gardening

Lead: Recreate visit to Botanic Research Institute of Texas.

Nutgraf: What’s new with urban gardening.

Graf 1: Describe role Blue Zones has had.

Graf 2: How has city policy shaped urban gardening?

Quote: BRIT staffer comment on the trend.


Once the outline is done, and you have presumably done the research, you can work your way down the topics. Or, you can start on whichever line you want. The sections act as placeholders so you don’t forget anything. If you are not sold on the idea of using outlines, I suggest you at least give it a try. The vast majority of journalists and freelance writers begin with this humble technique.

Tips from a Writing Tutor: College Application Essays

This article first appeared on TanglewoodMoms.com

Sometimes, the simplest questions can be the most anxiety inducing. That’s never more true than when your child’s future is at stake. I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded essay topics of the Common Application, which over 750 colleges and universities, including TCU, use. Parents with kiddos in 12th grade are in the thick of college application chaos right now. I can’t assuage all of your uncertainties, but I do have tips you can use while guiding your teenager through the minefield that is the college admission essay.

First, let’s look at two of the essay prompts.

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.

The topics are intentionally bland: They are a coloring book waiting to be filled in with your child’s life experiences. Every college will have unique guidelines for what they are looking for, and we can’t predict what individual admissions directors will like. But we can safely assume that providing a unique, insightful story while articulating that narrative clearly will give your child the best chance of impressing the college admission officers who are tired of reading the same essay over and over again.

I’ll use a personal example. My piano student Cameron is a senior at Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts. She is academically high-achieving. She also has ambitious plans to attend top-tier colleges like The California Institute of Technology. I recently helped her with her essay for the Common Application. Her article was well written, describing her longtime interest in chemistry. We both noticed that the topic was fairly generic, though. So we began to brainstorm some new topics. We decided to write two more essays. I told her to have fun with one, and the second one could be more school-related.

Cameron likes to take long walks through her neighborhood. It’s a way for her to clear her head and nurture the creative part of her mind. There’s a neighborhood cat she greets every day. At first, she named the feline “cat.” Later, she began calling him Octavius, because it seemed a very un-cat-like moniker. When she asked the owners what the cat’s name is, it turn out to be, well, “cat.” The coincidence would make for a colorful ending to a story about her love of taking walks, I told her.

Cameron also developed a unique way of memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements. She turned each element into a fictitious character in her mind. Again, I told her that would make for a fun essay topic. It related to school and academics, but it was a unique story that I’m sure few college applicants would share.

My advice is to be authentic while standing out. Don’t be afraid to be original or even a bit quirky. The final draft needs to be solidly written. If you are lacking in the grammar department, reach out to friends and family or hire a writing tutor who can help edit your child’s essay and provide feedback.

Tips from a Writing Tutor: Redundancy

This article first appeared on Tanglewoodmoms.com

Written and spoken language are related but distinct disciplines. Just because a child is witty and articulate in speech does not necessarily mean that gift will translate to prose. That is the reason English and grammar are continuously taught from an early age through the end of college. Mastering the pen takes years, but here are several common mistakes that you as parents can watch for in your children’s writing.

The most common mistake I find as a writing tutor is the use of redundant words. As a general rule, if you can write it with fewer words, the results are easier to read and comprehend. Here’s an example.

“I said hi to the young child.” A child, by definition, is young. You can simply say, “I said hi to the child.” It’s like de-cluttering your house. You have to ask yourself if you really need that word in there. See if you can spot the redundant words in the following examples.

“The old octogenarian walked slowly toward me.”
“The dead zombie rose from his grave.”
“I nearly went broke purchasing the expensive Ferrari.”

Following this line of reasoning, entire sentences may need to be shortened for clarity. Again, ask yourself if there is a simpler way to state what you are trying to say.

“As we reached the train station after a very long protracted ride, I began to notice that I hadn’t eaten in several hours, and my stomach was beginning to make its hunger known through groans and hunger pangs.”

Couldn’t we just say the following?

“As our train ride ended, I was becoming increasingly hungry.” This second sentence basically conveys the same information. Maybe we have lost a little color (groans and hunger pangs), but we have gained far more in clarity. One danger with overly wordy sentences is that you will lose the attention of the reader. Don’t make the reader work to understand what you as the writer are trying to say. State it clearly and concisely.

This last section will cover word choice. Often, children will use the most common verb, adverb, or adjective when they could benefit from the use of more colorful word choices. Consider the following sentence.
“She spoke to us.”

Blah. We know the word spoke connotes some form of communication, but it is a very bland word. Depending on the situation, why not say she “berated” us. Or she “informed” us. Those words come wrapped with color and emotion. With so many wonderful words at our disposal, why not use a word that has more personality.
I chose these mistakes because they are both common and easy to fix. Writing can and should be a fun subject for your children. With a few adjustments, your child can be just as witty in his or her writing as they are in speech.

Being your own worst (best) critic.

Being your own worst (best) critic.

The role of “critic” has been unfairly jabbed as of late. Actually, it’s had a bad rap for while. Just ask the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who wryly noted several decades ago that, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

True. But unfair.

The aphorism of “Don’t kill the messenger” comes to mind here. Critics have long held the awkward and oft-underpaying job of relaying impartial and informed observations to the masses. Such warnings could include advice on bar or concert halls to avoid. In writing, thinking critically doesn’t mean you have to “criticize” your own work. It simply means you are stepping outside of yourself to objectively view your creations.    

As writers, we need to develop an eye for common mistakes. If I’m in a hurry, I know that for some reason I’ll duplicate a word from time to time. Once I have finished a draft, I’ll print it out and look it over with a pencil in hand. Then, I’ll read it out loud. The best piece of advice I have is to set your article aside for a day. Coming back to edit when you are relaxed gives you a fresh perspective. Treat your prose as you would anyone else’s. Remember, we all make mistakes. Looking at your work critically means what you are going beyond looking for typos. Your ultimate goal is to reach the level where your writing is insightful and elegant.

It’s no easy feat, but you can help yourself greatly by taking on the role of critic in addition to writer.