Mark Bowden is the author of 13 books, including Black Hawk Down and the riveting new true crime book, The Last Stone, about fiercely dedicated police detectives working on a cold case that began in 1975 involving the disappearance of two sisters from a shopping mall in Maryland. Bowden shares five writing tips, plus two bonus tips.
Many years ago I asked the novelist John Barth for some writing advice. He told me always to end a writing session in mid-sentence.
“That way you’ll know exactly where to pick up the next day.”
That has proven useful, so I pass it along. It applies equally to all forms of writing. My own work has been nonfiction, so my tips below may be more narrowly helpful, but if you have a true story to tell, here are five tips—and a bonus one at the end. That makes seven. They are paying me fifty bucks for this, so that’s $7.14 apiece.
1. Know something.
When I taught nonfiction writing, the first assignment I gave was to go someplace new and interview someone you don’t know. This is both the essence and the pleasure of reporting. Try coming up with 800 words when you have nothing to say; then try when you have just had a new experience. When you’ve learned something—anything—you’ll struggle to stay under the word count. Pushing yourself past the familiar isn’t always easy, but it is always worth it. As a writer you are otherwise trapped in your own head, and your writing will be what we in the newsroom used to call “thumbsucking.” Some people are very good at it, but most are not.
Reporting is also fun. Perhaps the greatest pleasure in my professional life has been going places I would otherwise have never gone, and meeting people I otherwise would have never met. The internet puts so much information at our fingertips that young people in particular think they can research and report without leaving their chair. Where’s the joy in that? And, by definition, whatever you find online has already been reported. If you want people to read you, tell them something new.
Reporting is also a great cure for writer’s block.
2. Understand what you are trying to do.
This goes both for your overall objective all the way down to choosing the right words. If you don’t know what you are trying to say there’s no chance your reader will. Are you telling a story? Delivering a report? Making an argument? Each objective has its own set of requirements.
When I was writing for a newspaper the answer to those questions clarified the task enormously. If I was writing a report, then the goal was to do it as clearly and concisely as possible. Telling a story, writing a narrative, demands more reporting time and more space. It calls for characters and setting, action, dialogue, a sense of motivation, and a beginning, middle, and end. Stories need room to breathe. Argument has its own requirements: a review of the facts, a clear statement of opinion, a presentation of counterarguments and refutations, an appeal to reason or fairness or emotion, and so on.
So to be clear about your intention before you start. Then make an outline, even if it’s only very rough, and revise it continually. The question most in my mind when writing is: What exactly are you trying to say? A clear answer to that question will help you avoid confusion and cliché.
3. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more.
I had the great good fortune in my life to work with a number of fine editors, most of whom, in my youth, I fought. I was butting heads one time with the ever mild, all-wise Charles Layton at The Philadelphia Inquirer, who always found plenty to improve in my early drafts. I felt scourged, and writhed and moaned accordingly.
“Mark, I thought you liked to write,” he said.
“I do!” I said,
“Well, this is writing.”
Editors have taught me important tricks, like squeezing my prose. Imagine closing your fist around a wet sponge. She would array my story in a narrow column on the computer screen— five or six words per line—and then remove a word or two, effortlessly, from nearly every one. It was appalling how many unnecessary words spilled out. The end result was clearer and more concise. Almost any sentence improves on second or third thought. Another suggested that I try to avoid beginning sentences with the word “the,” not because there is anything wrong with it, but because “the” is the most commonplace way to begin one, and avoiding forces you to rethink. Try any exercise that encourages a more original cadence.
My drafts are cleaner today, but I still listen closely to my editors and usually take their advice. They are your first readers, and they get to talk back. They can tell you if your prose is confusing, boring, boorish, or simply wrong. A writer who doesn’t listen is a fool.
4. Be Yourself.
The most common mistake new writers make is to adopt a voice that is not their own. The best way to develop an original voice is to use your own. Write the way you speak. Use your own vocabulary, and simple, clear sentences, unless there’s some strong reason not to. And never write a sentence that you would not quite naturally say.
Young writers in particular try to sound more learned or sophisticated or official. It’s the fastest way to make a fool of yourself on the printed page. Trying to sound like someone else usually leads to mangled syntax and the use of vocabulary beyond your reach —playwrights have been dining out on the malapropisms of foolish characters for centuries. Once your skills are more developed, you can use other voices to great effect, but first make sure you are comfortable writing in your own.
5. Scenes are Gold.
No matter what you are writing, try to employ scenes whenever possible. Think about your experience as a reader. Pages turn swiftly when we’re reading action or dialogue, while exposition and description can slow things to a crawl.
Of course, serious writing demands description and exposition, but be sensitive to the demands they make. Screenwriters love to embed exposition in dialogue—“When I was born back there in 1951, you know, the year the first hydrogen bomb was exploded ...”. Movie director Ridley Scott, redlines such passages and scribbles “Irving” in the margin, short for a character he calls “Irving the Explainer.” He hates Irving. Stories, essays, and reports can accommodate more than a movie script, but if you want readers to stay with you until the end, keep Irving on a tight leash.
When writing nonfiction, where you are bound by the truth, scenes are not always easy to come by. The modern world has gifted nonfiction writers with audio and video. Years ago, writing a series of stories about police corruption in Philadelphia, I built a long story around the FBI surveillance video used to build the case. I didn’t have to explain what the accused cops were doing, I could show it. In Black Hawk Down, I found transcripts of all the radio traffic during the battle, which gave the story unimpeachable accuracy and great immediacy. My most recent book, The Last Stone, is constructed around more than 70 hours of videotaped interrogation. Where there are no recordings, learn to elicit what you need from interviews. If some tells you, “Bob was a funny guy,” ask, “Tell me something he did that made you laugh.” There’s a scene in there somewhere. And once you recognize something that could be a scene in your story, dig in hard. When I wrote Finders Keepers, the story of a Philadelphia longshoreman who found $1.2 million that had fallen off the back of an armored car, I forced the main character, Joey Coyle, to recreate that moment from his memory second-by-second—What clothes were you wearing? What time of day was it? How heavy was the bag? What color was it? How was it sealed? How did you open it? And so on. Joey thought I was crazy, but I knew I needed as many details as I could find to properly recreate that moment on the page.
One bonus tip:
6. Ignore any advice that gets in your way.