On Thursday we wrapped up my first magazine-writing class at Wake Forest University. I had such a great group — 19 students from all over the country who walked into class every week ready to learn. I learned a lot from them, too. I learned that students call Wake “Work Forest.” I learned about a hallucinogen I’d never heard of before. I even learned about the inner workings of the Buffalo Sabres’ front office. (Thanks for that last one, Jordan.)
In our last class together, I tried to distill all that we talked about over 14 weeks into the essentials — the things I hope they remember most.
Some of these are tips I’ve borrowed over the years, some are my own thoughts, some are a blend. (For my students: I forgot a couple in class and added them in just now. Sorry.)
One of the great things about teaching a class is that you have to figure out what you’ve learned over the years. If I had to put it all on a couple of pages, it would look something like this.
Pay attention. Simply watching the world around you with curiosity — wondering why things are, and how they got that way — puts you far ahead of most other people.
Do what you say you’re going to do, and be where you say you’re going to be. Make deadlines.
Most stories center on a character you care about, trying to overcome an obstacle, in a quest for something they want or need — their personal pot of gold.
The best stories operate on two levels: what the story’s about (the specific, concrete narrative) and what it’s REALLY about (the deeper, universal meaning).
Ideas come at odd times. Always have something handy to record them — your phone, a notebook by the bed, whatever.
Get off the couch and out into the world. You’ll be a better writer, and more fun to talk to at parties.
Interviews should be conversations, not interrogations.
One of the best interview tools is silence. It makes people uncomfortable. They often start talking to fill the space.
If you hang out with people long enough, eventually they have to start being themselves.
Suspense and mystery are a writer’s friends. If you have cliffhangers, use them. Make the reader wait for the payoff.
Report and write with your heart wide open. Revise with a ruthless eye.
The biggest moments often call for the simplest words.
Endings are more important than beginnings.
Take care of yourself. This job can take an emotional toll.
Be fair, and be tough if you have to. But whenever in doubt, be kind.