They’ve been there, done that: Learning from writers who forged the path ahead of us

They’ve been there, done that: Learning from writers who forged the path ahead of us

They’ve been there, done that: Learning from writers who forged the path ahead of us

Howard Coffin Annalisa Parent Writing a book Writing tips CoachI love talking to other writers. I especially love to hear about their writing process, how they’ve found success and overcome struggles. Sometimes when we see a published book, or a series of published books, we think, that could never be me. But once we talk to a writer up close and personal, we see that we are all human, all struggling with the same insecurities, doubts, and finding the right word.

This week I had two visiting writers in the university writing classes I teach: Howard Coffin, author of Nine Months to Gettysburg: Stannard’s Vermonters and the Repulse of Pickett’s Charge and Tom Bowman, NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

We all garnered a lot of wisdom from these seasoned writers, and I wanted to share some of it with you. 

Howard offered many aphorisms on writing and the writing life, which I share with you here in no particular order. If you like them, share them via twitter by simply clicking on the bird. Tweet!

tweet able writing tipsChanneling Frost, whom he met here in Vermont, Coffin said “The completion of the creative act is the receipt of the check.” 

tweet able writing tipsReferencing a recent lunch with another Vermont icon, Jodi Picoult, Coffin said “The hardest thing about writing is going up those stairs every day.” 

tweet able writing tips“If you’re going to write, you need courage.” 

tweet able writing tips  Sometimes to make a living as a writer, you can’t do exactly as you please.” 

tweet able writing tips “Lincoln is one of America’s 10 best writers.”

tweet able writing tips“This writing business can drive you crazy, but there’s no feeling the in world like having someone hand you the first book you write.” 

tweet able writing tips“Always hand your writing to someone else. You cannot edit your own copy.” 

Tom Bowman and me during his visit to my writing class

Tom Bowman and me during his visit to my writing class

Tom Bowman talked about his extensive experience as a reporter, embedded with troops in the Middle East. Paraphrasing an editor at his former position at The Baltimore Sun, Boman said “With writing, I want to smell the camel dung.” It is true that any time we can bring in sensory information to our writing, we are providing a full experience for our readers.
tweet able writing tips

Bowman also compared his work in newspapers to his current job at NPR. “With newspapers it’s prose. With radio, if it’s done right, it’s poetry.” tweet able writing tips

What advice from writers who’ve been there, done that has shaped you into the writer you are today? Tell me about it in the comments section below.

More Writerly thoughts

I edit an online journal on writing and the writing life called Chair and Pen. Here are some of the articles published this week.

Got an idea for an article on writing or the writing life? Send your pitch here to see your words in print.


Are you gratuitously thesaurusing? STOP IT. NOW. I mean it.

Are you gratuitously thesaurusing? STOP IT. NOW. I mean it.

There’s this idea, in writing, that you have to sound English-y, pontificating, official, in order to get your idea across. In reality, the opposite is true.  Specific words and labels help us to understand the world around us.  (You need only to think of the difference between flower and tulip to know this is true.)

That said, wordiness detracts from meaning.

Many writers reach for the thesaurus to give their writing an air of authority, or to make it sound the way they think writing should sound. As Stephen King once famously said, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”


I call it gratuitous thesaurusing– using a thesaurus to sound official while not really enhancing or improving the meaning.


Writing is meant to communicate– whether it’s a memo or a story, your point needs to come across.

Writing that becomes difficult to understand due to five-syllable words for the sake of five-syllable words is not fulfilling that purpose.

So, yes, use tulip instead of flower, if you mean tulip.  But, don’t use tulip when flower would have done as well. Don’t try to fluff your point to enhance your message, because it actually detracts.

Label something specifically when needed–whether it’s an object or action. Otherwise, try to explain your ideas in the simplest, most direct way possible.

The best way to improve your writing and to get this concept down is to practice, practice, practice.

Do you feel that you often reach for the thesaurus? In the comments below, please share with me how you resist this urge? Or give my company a call, and we can discuss in more depth how to avoid the tempting call of wordiness. 

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