Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Writing with Scissors - the Cruelest Cut

According to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Joe Holleman, “A writer can never cut too much.”

On March 26, Holleman, who is known for his popular blog Yakkin' with the Sherpa, shared that observation when he spoke to about fifty members of Saturday Writers at the Cultural Arts Centre in St. Peters.

In his opinion, “writing is a craft, not an art,” and “similar to shooting pool.” To become better, a writer has to write every day. He asserted that “writing should always be about the reader” because “readers are a writer’s customers.”

During his talk, he broke down his writing process into three phases:

* Before writing: Listen to yourself to discover what interests you in a story. Check your facts and research. Make an outline to organize your thoughts.

* Writing: Write a lede first. Do it fast; you can change it later. Put a human voice in the story because people like reading about other people. Arrange your story in chronological order. Although there will be exceptions, written stories are best told from beginning to end. Use active voice. Use strong quotes for powerful impact.

* After writing: Read your piece out loud ("Trust me," Joe says, "this is critical.") to reveal your story's rhythm and uncover clunky sentences and bad grammar. Cut out unnecessary words. Edit about ten percent then cut out another five percent.

It wasn’t until the question and answer session that Holleman shared how he got started as a reporter. After college graduation, he became a disc jockey. He wanted to be like Dr. Johnny Fever on “WKRP in Cincinnati” because being a DJ was “way cooler” than being a writer.

His first radio gig was in Chester, Illinois—the home of Popeye—playing Country-Western music. It didn’t take him long to realize the Dr. Johnny Fever thing wasn’t working in Popeye country. He grew bored reading obituaries on air and playing repeated requests for the song “Swingin’’ by John Anderson.

By chance, he filled in for a writer at the local paper. After his first byline, Holleman was hooked on writing. He worked for a newspaper in Festus then eventually landed a job as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
According to Holleman, “every writer writes too much.” Holleman isn’t alone in his philosophy.

At the end of his talk, he shared quotes from several famous writers. Award-winning fiction writer Elmore Leonard advises writers to “try to leave the stuff out that people don’t read.” On the topic of revising and editing, Holleman read this quote from legendary author Truman Capote, “I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.”

So, next time you're shopping for writing supplies--don't forget the scissors--and when you're rewriting, don't be afraid to cut, cut, cut.


  1. Oh, Donna! What a fabulous post today! You certainly did pay attention to Joe's presentation on Saturday! I'm so glad he was able to speak to us.

  2. Hi Becky,
    My memory isn't what it used to be, but I'm an obsessive note taker, especially when the speaker has something interesting.

  3. After our meeting, I feel like I should read something by Elmore Leonard. Have you read any of his books, Donna, and if so, which one would you recommend?

  4. Good post. I posted about editing and critiquing today. Definitely, read it our loud and check for the flow of the words.I've read some sentences before that were super long and you had to read it several times to figure out what they were trying to say.

  5. Nice summary of what Joe's talk. Thanks for all the links too!

  6. Elmore Leonard wrote a short story titled "Fire in the Hole" which is the basis for an FX series called "Justified". Elmore is also a consultant on the show. Sounds like a great presentation, wish I could have attended.

  7. Good stuff--and I feel the same way. It's hard for me to write descriptive settings, for example, because I almost always skip them in books I'm reading.

    Love Elmore Leonard, by the way. It's been awhile since I've read him, Sioux, but Get Shorty was good!

  8. Hi Sioux,
    I've read Cuba Libre and Pagan Babies and have seen a couple movies based on his books. "Get Shorty" is the one Joe talked about on Saturday.

    Hi Lynn,
    You are welcome. It was good to finally meet you.

    Hi Sally,
    Thanks for the tip.

    Hey Cathy,
    I think Mark Twain was the writer who said, "I would've written less if I had more time."
    Makes sense to me.



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