By Tracie Powell
Whether writing for an established magazine or a little-known blog, if writers want to engage readers or get more ‘hits,’ it is imperative to write well.
Writing is an ongoing process that gets better with practice; even those who have been at it for years strive to improve their craft, often rewriting the rewrites without ever achieving perfection.
There are a few tricks of the trade that can help develop writing skills. With assistance from fellow members of the National Association of Black Journalists, I have compiled a list of books, and words of advice, to help the novice and the veteran alike.
- “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” by Anne Lamott
Shauna Rhone advises that “Bird by Bird,” is good for learning “how to write expressively and descriptively…”
- “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” by Natalie Goldberg
- “The Gang That Couldn’t Write Straight,” by Marc Weingarten
- “And It Don’t Stop,” by Raquel Cepeda
Critics should read other great critics, suggests Jamila Bey. For example, music critics should read Nat Hentoff, John Murph and Nelson George. “Then there’s that annual ‘Best Music Writing of X Year series…,” she says.
R. L. Nave echoes Bey. He adds pop music critic Randall Roberts and Sasha Frere-Jones who writes for The New Yorker to the list of names. Nave also suggests anything by James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, “to get a sense for style,” he says
- “The Word,” by René J. Cappon
Sonya Ross of the Associated Press describes “The Word,” as the best guide to news writing ever. “It basically teaches you how to tell it straight, make it plain, and give beauty to your words,” she says. “If you follow the advice in this book, you will write everybody else up out of the room. The Word is pretty much out of print now, but some ancient used copies can be found on Amazon.”
- “Words Worth: A Handbook on Writing and Selling Nonfiction,” by Terri Brooks
Kim Pearson, a journalism and interactive multimedia professor at The College of New Jersey, believes that copies of “Words Worth,” may be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Words-Worth-Handbook-Writing-Nonfiction/dp/1577660951
- “Strictly Speaking,” by the late NBC writing guru, Edwin Newman
- “The Writer’s Art,” by the late James J. Kilpatrick
- “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser
- “The Elements of Style,” by Strunk & White
Journalism Professor Wayne Dawkins, ’2011 Teacher of the Year’ at Hampton University, calls ‘”On Writing Well” and “Elements of Style,” gold-standard books.
- ”America’s Best Newspaper Writing: A Collection of ASNE Prizewinners,” by Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan
NABJ Student Representative Wesley Lowery suggests:
- “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” by William Blundell
- “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer,” by Roy Peter Clark
Some common sense advice:
Reading to mothers can help ensure writing makes sense, according to Denise Clay of Philadelphia. “… I know this sounds funny, but one of my journalism school professors gave me this advice,” says Clay. She adds that this technique does not require a relative, but at least someone who is not in the journalism business. “Since this is who we’re trying to reach as writers, we should see if we’re being effective.”
Kimberly Hayes Taylor suggests following amazing writers. “For me, two favorites were Isabel Wilkerson when she was The New York Times‘ Chicago Bureau Chief and Patricia Smith, former Boston Globe columnist,” recounts. “I drank their words, and when I understood what they did and learned how to do it, I began winning award after award for feature writing, but I was a Metro reporter.” Hayes Taylor says writers should study their favorite writers’ articles. “Try to figure out what makes their words sing,” she adds. “For inspiration, read some good writing just before sitting down to write. Whenever I felt insecure, that always helped me. It makes a big difference.”
Tracie Powell is Vice Chair, Education and Policy, of NABJ’s Digital Journalism Task Force