How To Write

Recently, I’ve been asked by a few people what advice I would give someone who wants to be a writer. They assume because I have a blog and once, as a full-time journalist, I wrote for a living, that I ought to be able to tell others how to do it. It’s a fair assumption. But the truth is, I’m still and always learning!

Asking me how to write is like asking directions from a blind man with a guide dog; I don’t know how to tell you the way to get there. I just follow the dog.

That said, here are a few tricks the dog keeps trying to teach me.

First, write about what you know, the thing that’s right in front of you, the thing you’ve been given to write about, the thing you can’t seem to get off your mind. Read a lot and, in particular, read everything you can find by the writers you like best; if you like them, it’s probably because their voice speaks to the voice in you. Develop that voice. It’s yours.

Write like yourself, the way you talk. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t sound like you, rewrite it until it does. Learn the rules of writing and stick to them a long time before you dare start messing around.

Write between the lines; say more with less. And be prepared to suffer, not because writing invites heartache, but because it always insists on examining it. Never pretend to be what you aren’t, or to know what you don’t know. That applies more to life than to writing, really, but the two are not so different. And as for inspiration, I don’t need it to write. I just need a deadline. It’s the surest cure I’ve ever found for writer’s block.

If you want to write, if you feel called to do so, you should. And you will. Maybe you won’t earn a living at it. Few writers ever do.

But you can write cards to encourage the downhearted; and notes of condolences to comfort those who suffer loss; and crisp, compelling business letters that clearly explain why the item you received was not the item you ordered, and what exactly you will do if you are not reimbursed. You can write job applications and memos to colleagues and letters to the editor, or to your MP, or to God, to shed light and right wrongs and make the world a better place, or at least, to get stuff off your chest.

You can write for posterity the stories your grandparents told you, stories that will be lost if you don’t write them before you die.

You can write love letters to your children or to anyone, really, to say all the things that you could never say with your mouth.

You can even write in a diary or journal, if you are so inclined (and a lot more disciplined than I am) to get to know yourself better.

That, of course, is the real reason we read and write — to know and to be known. It has been that way a very long time and I expect it always will. It works like this:

You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and your heart, and occasionally from your soul, and you fashion them into words.

That is called language.

You put the words on paper, or perhaps on a computer screen, using lines and circles, marks and symbols, until you trust them to carry your meaning.

That is called writing.

Then someone — who perhaps has never seen your face or heard your voice — sees your lines and circles and symbols and marks, and recognises them as words.

That is called reading.

Sometimes, unpredictably, the words hold the power to recreate the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader.

That is called communication.

Some do it for love. Some do it for money. And some of us, if we are lucky, get to do it for both.

And that’s where I will stop for now. The dog has gone to sleep.

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In an age of 24-hour news, how do we know what’s right?

In recognition of World Press Freedom Day 2012

How good is the media? Which branches of it can I trust? Where will I find balance and substance instead of trash and sensationalism? How believable are the anonymous sources on the Internet? How can we trust the media amid the rapid pace of technological change and the apparent erosion of journalistic ethics? How, in other words, do I find truth?

These are always important questions, especially since no industry has felt the impact of technological change more significantly than the communications industry.

In the early days of journalism, reporters used to write their stories on typewriters. A long, unwieldy editing and production process followed before the final product appeared — a printed newspaper. Today, reporters and photographers produce their work on laptops and transmit them electronically and instantly to their offices. There, it moves from computer to computer, undergoing the editing process, getting headlines and captions written, and flowing into pagination ready for printing with the touch of a computer button.

In TV news, too, technology has made for instant coverage of major events around the world, and even in space.

Because news is now transmitted instantly, the consequences of getting it wrong are more serious. The responsibility for getting it right is much greater. The war in Vietnam was said to have been the first conflict that brought the horrors of war into people’s living rooms. That was true, but back then several days still elapsed, during which there was time for reflection and editing, before the footage actually appeared on TV screens.

By the advent of the first Gulf War, technology had changed all this. Correspondents, using relatively portable transmitting equipment, were able to broadcast from the middle of the desert live, and appear instantly on television screens. Thus we saw a network correspondent reporting that Scud missiles, reportedly carrying chemical agents in their warheads, were incoming. The initial report was false. There were Scud missiles, but not with chemical warheads. By the time the erroneous information was corrected, millions of viewers may have missed it.

The roles of reporter and editor are even more critical today in the rush to publish or broadcast without forfeiting integrity. While the media can be a significant force for good, there are also lapses from professional journalistic standards that are disturbing.

Any journalism student should have heard of Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her moving story about a child crack dealer. It read beautifully. It seemed well documented. There was just one thing wrong with the story — the child crack dealer she wrote about didn’t exist.

You’d think such a scandal would put a serious crimp in journalistic invention but, sadly, such transgressions are still with us. Manipulation of the news is a problem, and an embarrassment to journalists of integrity.

Within hours of Osama bin Laden’s death being announced last year, some media organisations ran a picture showing his bloodied, lifeless face with a bullet-hole in the head. The picture was very quickly proven to be a hoax. Who was the source of the image? Was it checked or challenged? Or did media houses, in the rush to beat their competitors, simply accept at face value whatever was thrown at them. Worse yet, was it a news organisation that created the false image in the first place?

Take The Mirror’s 2004 account of British soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq, for example. The abuse apparently did take place but, to illustrate their story, The Mirror staged photos at a Territorial Army base in Lancashire and offered them to readers as the real thing. Rightfully, it cost then-editor Piers Morgan his job.

Too often we have tasteless intrusiveness: the cameramen up a tree, shooting through windows families who have pleaded for privacy; the TV reporter who holds a microphone in the face of an 11-year-old AIDS victim and asks how he feels knowing he’s going to die. And don’t even get me started on the scandal of phone-hacking!

When it comes to public figures, their private lives are not off-limits to reasonable scrutiny by the media. That’s the price that must be paid by those who seek our votes, demand our trust, and make significant decisions. However, this scrutiny by the media must be reasonable and purposeful, not merely prurient.

Around the world, thousands of journalists work honourably at their profession, striving to be fair and responsible, often under deadline stress. But the errors of others are used to impugn them all.

The Internet has also contributed to problems. Anybody can get on it, pretend to be a journalist, and publish a scurrilous rumour. There’s a 1993 New Yorker magazine cartoon I came across recently. It shows a dog tapping away at a computer keyboard and saying to the dog on the floor beside him: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s funny, but it makes a serious point. The Internet is often an anonymous medium. So while we embrace it and recognise the increasingly important role of the “citizen journalist” we still need to test the credibility of those who tell us things on it.

Even the best news organisations made mistakes and are often obliged to make retractions. But if we look for the real cause of media transgressions, we see that they were caused by inventing, manipulating, overstating, or misinterpreting the facts.

Why? In large part, it is because of the intense competition between media organisations. Hundreds of new cable channels are competing among themselves and challenging the traditional networks. TV news magazines are in fierce combat for audience supremacy. Print newspapers are competing for readers against supermarket tabloids, weeklies, and throwaway freebies. The Internet proliferates. Talk radio jousts with everybody.

All journalists should consider journalistic lapses and the effect they have on their credibility as a whole. Standards need to be constantly criticised and reassessed. News organisations need to ensure that mechanisms are in place to permit readers/viewers/listeners to air their complaints, or to rebut perceived misstatements and inaccurate reporting. The role of the Internet as a reliable news source needs to be questioned.

If all this adds up to a wake-up call for the media, and leads to better self-policing, that’s good. Journalism today could do with a little more attention to principle, a little more concern about ethics.

As a reader, you may be asking, “What can I do about all this?” You are on the receiving end of a torrent of information that will guide many of the decisions you make in life. Therefore, you must make intelligent judgments about what you read, listen to, and watch. You have a responsibility to determine the truth about what is going on around you in your local community, and the nation, and the world.

When some elements of the media offer up material you think is inaccurate, distorted, or distasteful, there is an opportunity to be heard. Editors listen. The good ones, at least. They get a daily flood of letters from the public on all kinds of subjects. They don’t always agree, but they pay attention to public reaction to what they published. And when mistakes are made, they generally correct them. So call or write your newspaper or TV/radio station when you think they’ve got it wrong.

The saving grace of the media is its incredible diversity — from the sleazy supermarket tabloids to The Times, from TV news magazines to Oprah. The media can often be very good, indeed. It sheds a spotlight on dark corners of our society. It topples public officials found unworthy of our trust. It is the voice and protector of those who would otherwise have no voice.

But when it is not so good, it needs individuals like you to help it be better, to hold it to higher standards.

Pants on fire!

I lied to a journalist last week. It was not a sneaky misdirection, not a subtle not-quite-the-whole story, wink, wink. I flat-out, bald-faced (where did the expression “bald-faced” come from, anyway? As a 30-something-year-old who looks a lot younger, I’m pretty much bald-faced all the time), between clenched teeth, lied. Bore false witness. A falsification, a fib, a pulling of leg.

Now, as a journalist myself, I’m aware that if there’s one profession you don’t want to lie to, it’s a journalist. When they’re not piss drunk, those guys are crafty buggers, and they’ll find you out. It’s a tough game, interviewing people, being interviewed, and to survive it, you need powers of manipulation that I’ll never have.

Mind you, it’s not like we were discussing cancer research or nuclear fission here; my lie didn’t hurt anybody, and it was inconsequential enough that I shouldn’t even be worrying about it. She probably knew I was lying, and she probably didn’t care. Yet still it bothered me. She was nice, had written something nice about me in the past, and I thanked her by lying to her, even making up details to cover it up.

My mother loves to tell the story of the first time that she realised her darling boy was, in fact, capable of lying to her. I was about five, and we were having a family get-together at my grandfather’s. There was this cat, you see, and this cat was bothering me, meowing too loudly, biting too harshly, scratching too fiercely. Sitting next to this cat was, of all things, a can of white paint, open, with a brush lying tantalisingly just to the side. When you’re five, you don’t think, oh, shit, this jar of goo is something I shouldn’t mess with, and you certainly don’t consider the possibility that taking that brush and spreading it all over the cat is the type of matter that might potentially displease someone. The idea must have dawned eventually, though, because when the cat came stumbling out of the garage, smelling of paint and more than a little petrified, and the mothers came out accusing their own and each others’ kids… the one no one’s eyes were trained on was me, because I said I didn’t do it, and Mum knew I could never lie to her, and she told all the other mothers so and that was that and that was all.

Of course, when my mom’s sister-in-law noticed a certain white substance dripping off my trainers and a certain embarrassed downward glance from a totally busted 5-year-old, the game was up. Mum says she cried for two days afterward, and she never quite looked at me with same trusting innocence again.

I’m proud to say my lying-to-my-mother skills improved considerably as the years went on. (No, Mum, honestly, I was pulled over by violent, drooling scumbags who forced me to put those condoms in my pockets. Seriously!)

One of my least favourite claims people make about themselves is that they’re terrible liars, as in, “I tried to lie, but I’m just rubbish at it. I couldn’t keep a straight face.” This is supposed to, in their eyes, clue us into the fact that they’re essentially honest people and just couldn’t mask their inherent sincerity. This is, of course, total bullshit; the only difference between them and everyone else is that they’re incompetent fibbers, not that they’re reluctant ones. We all lie, often, daily, most likely to the people we care about most and listen to us closest, because we’re human beings and, with the possible exceptions of nuns, human beings are amoral, hedonistic, self-serving arseholes.

This calls into question even our most dear friendships, because the people who are supposed to know us best, the ones we pour our hearts out to, have probably been lied to by us more than anyone else. They’re probably little lies, harmless ones, I got a 30 rather than a 27 on my scores, that sort of thing. No, I didn’t sleep with her until the second date, small stuff. We tell our friends lies because they like us, and we want them to continue to. We try to paint ourselves in the most positive light, because, well, it’s hard to find people who like you, let alone like you the way you actually are. It comes to the point sometimes that I’m more honest with you, the reader, in this blog, than I am with my closest friends. I already know you don’t like me; no need to try to impress you.

Yet one of the most common questions I’m asked about this blog is, “Is all that shit you write about true?” Now, ignoring the fact that such a question accuses me of the most base of journalistic ethical breaches — I mean, we’re talking about writing something that is not true — but, well, wouldn’t that take all the fun out of it? I mean, what’s the point of writing a blog about my own life if I’m going to make shit up? What kind of depraved, desperate-for-attention human being would fabricate stories about being an idiot? How unbelievably pathetic would a person have to be to scream for help in such a primal, degenerate way? (Don’t answer that.) Of course this is true.

But where do I draw the line? In one article some months ago, I mentioned being selected one of London’s “20 Most Eligible Bachelors” by GQ magazine. Now, that’s obviously not true, since I threatened them with a lawsuit if they published my name. What single guy wants to be considered one of the city’s top eligible bachelors, anyway? But you knew I was joking when I wrote that, right? Do I have to make that clear? Do I lose credibility?

I was thinking about all this after I hung up with the journalist. I just fibbed to her. If she knows I’m capable of lying on the phone, doesn’t that call everything I’ve written into question? How can she believe anything I say again? Plus, I started feeling quite guilty. It’s not fun to lie to people; it leaves that nasty ashamed aftertaste, like sleeping with a girlfriend you just broke up with. Like that keys-and-phone song from Britain’s Got Talent, I couldn’t make it leave my brain.

So I called the journalist to make amends. After leaving a message, at last I got hold of her.

“Hey, listen, Leah… you know that thing you asked me about earlier? Listen, I’m sorry, I wasn’t completely honest about that whole thing. I was trying to keep our secret going, but I didn’t have to lie to you to do it. I just feel like an idiot. So, outside of this interview, friend to friend, I’m just really sorry.”

“OK.”

“Oh, but, um, everything else I said… that was all true. Honest.”

“Yeah. I understand. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”

Sigh. I haven’t read the story Leah wrote yet, but I hope it makes me look like a real prick. I figure I deserve it.