Scanlan came to that wisdom the hard way: by learning it on the job. Before joining Poynter, he spent 22 years as a reporter. A significant stop on his career train was at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, during the era that it was a pioneer in the use of narrative in newspaper work. Along the way, he came under the wing of Don Murray, whom many consider the godfather of journalistic writing coaches. (This tribute from Scanlan’s former Poynter colleague, writing guru Roy Peter Clark, will tell you why.) It is rare to talk to Scanlan about writing when he doesn’t reference something he learned from Murray.
Scanlan left Poynter in 2009 to freelance, explore fiction, teach workshops and coach other writers. We exchanged Christmas cards and the occasional email, but even those fell off after awhile. I was teaching by then, and I missed his column and our random conversations about craft.
So it has been a joy to have all that back. Scanlan has been a strong contributor to Storyboard in recent months. And he recently resurrected “Chip on Your Shoulder” as a blog, which you can access by subscribing to his newsletter, “Chip’s Writing Lessons.” (The image above anchors a landing page on his website.) It’s a mix of short essays on craft, musings on things Scanlan is reading, and get-in-gear quotes from name writers. My favorite part is “Four Questions With …” Scanlan digs through his enviable Rolodex and sends out four questions to various journalists he knows. They are the same four questions each time — an approach I was skeptical of when he first told me about it.
The creative force of strong structure
But as I scanned it each week, I was again reminded how a reliable structure can actually release creativity. I think of it as the blueprint of a building. The foundation needs to be sound, and often is familiar; it informs, to an extent, the building that is erected. But how that building is designed and decorated — its voice, if you will — varies greatly. Maybe another way to think about it is as a painter’s blank canvas. The tools don’t vary much: brushes, palette knives, paints. But each artist tells a story on his or her canvas that has never been told before.
I began to look forward to Scanlan’s “Four Questions With…” It reinforced classic lessons in reporting and writing, and introduced new ones. I also felt I got introduced to the personality of writers I had only known by their bylines.
Then Scanlan asked me to answer the Four Questions. I shrugged and said sure. I figured I could riff for 15 minutes and be done. After 45 years in the biz, I’m well practiced — maybe too practiced — in talking about my process.
Not so now. I wrote, and deleted, and wrote some more, and deleted some more. Those formatted questions challenged me to think at a level beyond plug-and-play. They were framed in the kind of superlatives — most important lesson, biggest surprise, best piece of advice — I often warn against when I teach interviewing. “Most” or “best” or “favorite” are, at one and the same time, too vast and too limiting. Can I name my “favorite” all-time movie? Depends on my age, mood and genre. “Favorite” book or bylined piece? There have been too many. “Favorite” food… OK, I can come close on that one.
Scanlan was on to something when he posed these simple-seeming questions to a range of writers. They serve as prompts to really zero in on something they each considered essential, and thus worth passing on. They probe for the bedrock. Even writers who probably can riff their wisdom in 15 minutes, without my tortured process, get to concretes that teach as well as inspire.
Scanlan posted my answers to his Four Questions in his blog this week. he gave me permission to republish it here. I do that not because I think what I said is worth more attention than what has been offered by other writers, but as an example of how it works, and what you might gain from his blog. I also offer it because I think it’s a worthy exercise for you to try in the safety of your own mind. Better yet: write your answers in a notebook and look back at them time to time. They might return you to a valuable touchstone — and/or be markers of your progress.
Craft Lessons from Writing Coach Chip Scanlan
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
There are no small stories. Every story is important to the people it’s about, and every story should respect the people it’s for.
An extension of that: Don’t confuse the size of the masthead, the circulation or the assignment with the value or quality of the work. People in a small community deserve the same level of journalistic care as those in the big-dog markets — and they probably need it more. And the only real limit to your aspirations is you.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing (or editing) life?
- As a writer: Good writing comes from good reporting. Great writing comes from great reporting. This came as a happy surprise that revealed itself over years of struggle (late-night tears and insecurity that would have been debilitating if not for my belief in answers to No. 1 above and wiring for No. 3 below.) I have never been, and am still not, an easy or eager writer. Insecurity travels with every keystroke. But I’ve learned to let that be, and trust that if I have the right goods in my notebook, and am determined to communicate clearly and effectively with readers, I can find my way through the writing.
- As an editor: No one wants me to be the editor I had always wanted or needed; they want me to be the editor they want or need — even if it’s not me. And nothing much good comes of pulling punches. (See reference to “brickbat” in No. 3 below.)
- As a teacher: I can’t teach anyone anything. All I can do is put knowledge in their path, try to light the way and clear the rocks a bit, but then accept that they will — or won’t — pick up that knowledge when they need it to go forward.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer (or editor), what would it be?
I don’t trust that how I see myself is how others see or experience me. Isn’t that why we resist the one-interview profile? So I crowd-sourced this one. (It was a small crowd.) Responses ranged from Fairy Godmother to Story Whisperer to Story Doctor to Xena Story Warrior to Brickbat. For now, I’ll go with one that I hope is true:
ER doc. Which means (I hope) I am calm, focused and effective under pressure. I care about the patient — or why would I do this work? — but don’t fold in the face of blood or chaos, and don’t indulge in my emotions to the extent it gets in the way of the work that needs to be done — which is never about me. The same person, who knows me well, says I could probably land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in rough seas. I think he said this knowing we would never have to test that theory. He also knows I love to fly, and have always wanted to be in the cockpit. Alas, both metaphors are challenged by the reality that while I’m OK with blood, I puke at the smell of puke. And I get seasick.
A funny variation on the above: An editor-boss once told me that one of the reasons he valued me was because “You’ll do dishes.” The feminist in me bristled — but I knew him well enough to know it was meant as a compliment: He could count on me to do what needed to be done and not feel I was above the mundane work. That allowed me to push back a bit for a discussion on what higher-level work I could/should be doing, and how he could support it.
What’s the best piece of writing/editing advice anyone ever gave you?
- Every story prepares you for the next story. So quit obsessing over the story someone else is doing, and give your best to the story in front of you. (Longer backstory here, but that’s a large part of how I did “AIDS in the Heartland,” the project that won a Pulitzer. I couldn’t have done that series 10, or even two, years before I did.)
- Hit the send button. This wisdom came to me back in the early ’80s, when I was busting deadline as I obsessed over some basic civic story, probably from a planning commission meeting. So many planning commission meetings! The AME (Thank you, Steve Ronald.) stopped by and told me to put a period at the end of my next sentence, peel out the process BS, and hit SEND. The story was going inside the B section no matter how it was written. It needed efficiency and clarity — not gothic prose.
The second answer above may seem to contradict the first. But it doesn’t. What I learned from this is to pay attention to the purpose of a story, and let that purpose guide the prose. An informational story needs to be just that: direct and utilitarian. It can open the door to follow-up enterprise pieces, but it shouldn’t ask the reader to wade through my writerly ego. And it shouldn’t ask the copy desk to wait through my angst.
This taught me not to fall in love with “creative” structures when the best thing for the reader is a quick list or Q&A or, yes, inverted pyramid. It also helped me get more efficient, and save time and creative juice for the stories that called for them.
That lesson has informed all my writing, editing and teaching — and reminded me of one of my mother’s many no-nonsense wisdoms: Don’t dress up a pig. Bacon is fine on its own. (If she were alive today, she would scoff at the trend of bacon bits in muffins and ice cream. She wouldn’t be wrong.)