Tips from a pro part 2: On mission statements, voice and negative reinforcement

Much like last week, our class got to visit with a professional journalist. This week, Roy Peter Clark joined us and offered us tips of a range of subject, from writing mission statements, to using voice, to figuring out how to stay motivated to write creatively. In preparation for the discussion, Jacqui had us read an essay he wrote about getting, of all things, a colonoscopy and one story about the scandal involving Joe Paterno. My takeaways:

1. Go big or go home. When talking about mission statements, one of my classmates asked Clark what the most difficult or easy ones were for him to write. He didn’t explicitly answer the question at first, but he did say that for some stories, the best approach was an overt one.

For the colonoscopy story, Clark said he went against a maxim he wrote that advises writers to use understated language for serious stories and overstated language for lighter ones. “Roy,” he told us he said to himself, “Be ready to break your own rules.” Although on it’s face, a personal essay about a colonoscopy seems light-hearted, Clark said he really wanted to convey how important the relatively easy procedure was to saving lives. So he went big. He compared his polyp to Osama Bin Laden and his colon to the Lincoln Tunnel. He said he wanted to find a way to get people to read about things that they are afraid of, and in this case, using more “radical” language was the solution.

“I blame journalists in part for their squeamishness and their inhibitions and their inclination to use euphemisms,” Clark said. He gave his series about AIDS as an example. Using terminology that was vague and ultimately meaningless “led to fear, which led to the ostracism of people who had AIDS.”

2. Mission statements aren’t just for organizing. Clark gave two frames for his strategy of developing mission statements for his stories. In the first frame, they are used to crystallize concepts and are more of a mini-mission to use with daily stories. But in the second, they can be thought of a way to figure out what kind of writer you want to be. They have professional and more specific, personal applications.

For every writer, I think both frames are useful. They are a way to put specific parameters on your work and your development. For all the navel-gazing journalists are accused of doing, I think this is actually something that can help us. Why write if you don’t know what you’re trying to say? Why try to communicate at all if you don’t know where you’re headed? I’m starting to understand what kind of journalist I want to be, and that’s due, in no small part, to the reflections and discussions we’ve had in intermediate writing.

3. Voice is exactly what it sounds like. Clark said he hated the term “style” for the kind of personality a writer puts into his or her work. He said that voice is the illusion that a writer is speaking directly to the reader right off the screen. Just because a story is neutral, Clark said, doesn’t mean it can’t have distinctive voice. He compared it to a grace note, those small musical notes that decorate a larger, more prominent note. It can be just one word or detail that someone else wouldn’t notice, he said.

In this lens, voice seems so much less complicated than I’ve been telling myself it is. I keep thinking that I have to develop some specific personal style that I can’t quite articulate; but really, it’s as easy as picking one word or trademark turn of phrase to get started. “You don’t have to strain yourself to make the work interesting or distinctive. It can be just the slightest touch,” Clark told us.

4. “Force the editor to put in on the front page.” One classmate asked Clark how we could distinguish ourselves at internships that would likely have us writing more news briefs that narrative features. Clark’s advice was simple: make them see what you can do. Give them no choice but to put in on the front page.

He and Jacqui agreed that we should take every opportunity we can to turn small, low-risk stories into the kind of writing we eventually want to do. Include one detail that gets someone’s attention. Get one editor on your side to help shepherd you through the process. That person then becomes your advocate because you’ve proven you have a little something extra. Those high-necessity, low-risk stories are good places to experiment because editors have little to lose by letting you take a different approach, and it’s those moves that help the rest of your stories gain traction.

5. Learn to push past negative reinforcement. We’ve all been the position where, head over heels in love with our story, we winced when an editor cut something we were attached to. In my case, this has tended to happen with what I thought were descriptive bits or “color,” to use the cliché. Because I am a competent reporter and writer, it’s easy to take those edits and decide to play it safe. Safe is easy, and safe isn’t frustrating.

After overhearing this concern of mine, Clark gave us a reprise and said we shouldn’t let negative reinforcement keep us from trying new things. Sometimes, editors have different visions of what a story should be. And sometimes, what we think works well just doesn’t. We should keep at it, learn to identify what the essential creative aspects are and be ready to articulate what our purpose what with those details.

I feel like our class has hit the jackpot lately in terms of professional wisdom and advice. I can’t figure out if it’s their no-nonsense approach to being honest with us about our craft, or the realization that even professionals have things they feel vulnerable about, but whatever it is, I’ll take as much as I can get.