In the series, "From The Writer's Desk," I'll describe what I do for a living as a writer and ideas I have for advancing my craft.
Imagine a lounge of celebrated writers and keen intellects from all across history. Shakespeare's there, naturally, and Sartre's off smoking in a corner arguing with Descartes. Think of it as a salon of the mind.
A classic piece of advice in journalism and in writing in general is to write with an audience in mind. As a crime reporter, I sometimes kept the murder victim I was writing about or the family of the victim in my thoughts. When crafting stories for magazines, I know that each often has a very distinct readership they want to reach and so I tailor my pieces to match. Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker noted that one key difference between standard journalists and many bloggers might be the divergent approaches they adopt for the audiences they have in mind — a formal manner for use with professional editors, or the more informal voice one might reserve for friends and relatives.
One problem I face as a journalist is that as a rule of thumb, I generally write to a junior high school reading level. That sufficed for the first 10 years of work, but now that I've settled into journalism a bit, I want my writing to grow beyond constant mental conversations with 8th-graders.
At first I considered writing stories that mimicked the styles of writers I wanted to emulate just as beginning artists often try copying masterpieces to learn. The very idea revolts me, though, as I want to create my own voice, not just ape someone else's.
That's how I hit upon the idea of a salon of the mind. When I write a more ambitious story now, I try running it by them. The aim is to not write like your models, but to write what they might want to read; to learn the voice of others only to learn how to create your own voice.
Don't fill up this salon with your favorite writers, or at least I don't. Fill it up with the most critical writers you can think of to improve your writing in the areas you might be weakest — Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote seem to be among the sharpest critics in my salon.
Don't limit yourself to real people. How about Sherlock Holmes as depicted by Jeremy Brett, or by Benedict Cumberbatch, or by Neil Gaiman in "A Study in Emerald [PDF], or by your own imagination?
If there are certain aspects of your writing you want to improve, draft the best writers you can think of as coaches — work on dialogue with David Simon or Aaron Sorkin, for instance. And consider more than just writers — what might David Hume think, or David Bowie?
And do be careful to keep Norman Mailer from Gore Vidal.
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