A writing coach without a red pen

“Writing is learned by imitation; we all need models,” William Zinsser once wrote. He has been one of mine.

Like many writers, I claim Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well as the first book about writing that captured my heart and imagination. I picked it up at the recommendation of a high school English teacher, and Zinsser taught me how to rinse my writing of clutter and make it shine.

This weekend, The New York Times profiled Zinsser, now a 90-year-old man with glaucoma who is still helping writers with their craft. He cannot read the words on the page, so he listens to them read aloud:

“Much that I no longer see,” he says, “I don’t have to see.”

I love what the Times writer shows us about Zinsser, gracious and wise. I hope that when I am 90, I still care about words the way he does:

People come to him in stages of typed-out paralysis, stalled, uncertain whether they have written too much or too little. He tries to help them organize their thoughts by condensing, reducing — learning what not to include.

“By talking to them, by finding out who they are, I bring out their own personality,” he says. “And ease their mind, for God’s sake.”

The whole article is worth reading. When you’ve finished, pick up On Writing Well for the first or hundredth time.


Some good news about journalism

… Isn’t it about time for some encouraging words? A New York Times editor, describing his first days at the paper:

It was a Tuesday in early spring 1993, my second day at The New York Times. I had that nervous newbie look, with a too-pressed shirt and half an expectation that someone would bounce me back onto 43rd Street…

Things turned out O.K. There was a place for me, for the fortunate reason that journalism is a big rambling house with many rooms–not just Foreign Correspondence (trench coats in the closet), but also Graphics, Investigations, Web Video and on and on, all in need of people with special talents and special interests…

To me, my personal newsroom journey proves that if you love some aspect of writing, you need not worry that you are not [Pulitzer Prize winner] John Burns. True, from the outside, which is where I was on that April day, the Burnsian heights seemed unscalable. But the good news for journalistic and literary aspirants is this: when you discover a love for some particular writing thing, as I did, that love transports you to the inside, and the world there doesn’t look nearly so daunting.

– Francis Flaherty, The Elements of Story

[I’ve been reading Flaherty’s book since moving to D.C., and it’s excellent. It’s certainly one of my top three books on writing, in the ranks of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools.]

Church graffiti, medieval and modern


I’m living in Washington, DC until May, and since I’ve already visited many of the museums and tourist attractions, I’m on a mission to discover hidden gems in the city.

First one down: A random link on Twitter led me to this church yesterday. It was worth the trip.


It’s the former building of Friendship Baptist Church in Southwest DC, just a short walk from the Waterfront Metro station (the current church congregation meets just down the road).

Courtesy Wikipedia, Creative Commons use

This is what the building looked like in 2008. (Wikipedia, Creative Commons use)

These layers of paint combined with something dead–abandoned, empty, unnoticed–and made it come alive. I don’t know what the artist’s intentions were, but that’s why I think it’s beautiful.

Atlanta-based graffiti artist Hense painted the church for a private commission last October. The building was built in 1902 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the website Cultural Tourism DC, the church survived when most of Southwest DC was razed in the 1950s to clear the way for new urban renewal projects.

Let’s travel back about 800 years and about 3,500 miles across the Atlantic. I stumbled upon a blog post this week about medieval church graffiti that was recently discovered in Norfolk, England.

Apparently, parishioners wrote names and drew pictures on the church walls throughout the centuries, like an abstract form of prayer:

“It’s social history, contributions of the regular parishioners who attended church but couldn’t afford to leave their mark by sponsoring rich vestments, dazzling stained glass or soaring bell towers… In some of the churches, the lower walls were crowded with graffiti but they did not overlap, suggesting that people made a point of not messing up earlier works, perhaps because they had a devotional purpose.”

I wonder if something similar could be said of the graffiti in DC. There’s something poignant about adorning a church with color, shape and expression. In the case of the old Friendship Baptist Church building, I think the paint signals something about redemption. And I doubt this church’s story is finished yet.

Ira Glass: Harnessing Luck at CUNY

Settle down and listen as Ira Glass shares stories and wisdom at commencement for CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. I love this:

If you can’t watch the whole thing, here are a few aphoristic highlights:

“You’re not going to make any money. You might as well have fun.”

“Being a journalist is about harnessing luck… I wander around in the rain for a long time until lightning strikes.”

“Go into the world. Make something interesting for the people. Make something useful.”

“Don’t wait for permission from anyone to make the work you want to make.”

Sound advice from 1884

Use concise terms; have a choice of words; be anything but commonplace. If you attempt to describe a horserace, put motion into the article; make it so picturesque and full of life that your readers can see the flying animal, the crowd of spectators, and hear the loud cheers that announce the winning heat. Give strength and beauty to the simplest things you describe; use a lead pencil and eraser, and strike out any sentence that is not a picture. Some of the strongest journalistic work in the world has been done by women…

Indeed, the papers to which women do not contribute, and on whose pages they are not employed, are exceptions to the rule. And there is always room for more…

If a woman is born with a talent to write she will write — there is no possible doubt about that.

— Martha Louise Rayne, What Can a Woman Do? (1884)

I went antique shopping with my mother today and found this book in the upper floor of an old Vermont barn. Luckily for me, the whole thing has been digitized by Google and is available here. I’m thankful to Martha Louise Rayne and others like her who wrote intelligently and winsomely about being a woman and a journalist long before I was born.