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What writers can learn from Hamilton

Playbill cover for Hamilton

Tracy Hahn-Burkett discusses lessons for writers from a book about the Broadway hit "Hamilton," written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator, and cultural critic Jeremy McCarter, including this on the careful use of detail: "Hamilton flirted with his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, via the placement of a comma in a letter he wrote her. Flirting via comma! This detail, so specific to the time and place of the story, blew Miranda away, and he made sure he used it."

Mary Roach picks five funny books

Mary Roach

Megapopular science author Mary Roach lists books by Dave Barry, Amy Poehler, and others among her favorite humorous books: "I’ll say that I consider myself a non-fiction writer who is sometimes funny, so I do associate myself with humor in that way, just in case your readers aren’t familiar with my work and are wondering why the hell someone who isn’t a humor writer picked humor books." Also, Roach talks about her latest, Grunt, reviewed here.

A story about western landscapes

Mountain forest

Tom Yulsman interviews Cally Carswell and annotates her High Country News story, “The Tree Coroners,” about climate change and dying forests in the western U.S. "It was definitely a challenge to figure out how to structure a story with no real central character, and with multiple settings. My editor, the one and only Michelle Nijhuis, suggested using scale as a structural device, starting with a local story, then going regional, then going global, then back to local."

How famous writers deal with criticism

Eyeglasses on page of text

Some writers never read their critics. Others take them to heart. Maria Popova writes that handling criticism is "one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit" and quotes from a George Plimpton book with writers' advice on how best to achieve that, including this from Thornton Wilder: "The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work."

Max Perkins on what makes good writing

Maxwell Perkins

A soldier asked Hemingway's legendary editor Maxwell Perkins for some advice on a writing career. Jack Limpert provides excerpts and background: "I should think you had seen plenty by now, but I do not think you need be impatient to put it into writing. I think, in truth, that the best writing of all is done long after the events it is concerned with, when they have been digested and reflected upon unconsciously, and the writer has completely realized them in himself."

Ida Tarbell and the birth of muckraking

Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell biographer Steve Weinberg explains what made her the progenitor of investigative reporting: "Her appetite for documents was never satisfied. She located Congressional hearings and transcripts of debate, regulatory agency initiatives, railroad contracts with shippers, records of Rockefeller’s philanthropy, filings about previously mysterious Rockefeller family members, and more … She convinced both current and former Standard Oil executives to talk with her."

How Shakespeare was like a journalist

Shakespeare portrait

Michelle Nijhuis examines the evidence and concludes that the bard was one of us: "Journalists — and all kinds of writers, fiction and non — are constantly borrowing authority, becoming temporary experts on a place, or a field of knowledge, or a group of people. We learn as much as we can as fast as we can, mostly by asking lots and lots of nosy questions … We’re serial experts, and professional amateurs. I suspect Shakespeare was too." Also, some words he gave us.

Mary Roach on the value of disorder

Mary Roach

James Sullivan reviews Mary Roach's keynote at the Power of Narrative conference, where the best-selling science author described her reporting as purposefully chaotic: "She does do research, though she doesn’t like to be too thorough. Instead, she’ll let the circumstances dictate where her questions might lead … To her, the work is almost like making a documentary film: as the writer, you choose the people and the setting, then let the situation go where it may."

Steinbeck on writing letters for exercise

John Steinbeck

Even before he finished their first drafts, John Steinbeck's novels were steeped in his journals and other writing, including letters excerpted by Maria Popova: "In January of 1951, as he was setting out to write East of Eden — a book he considered the most difficult he ever attempted, the ultimate test of his talent and discipline as a writer — Steinbeck decided to loosen his creative ligaments by writing a daily 'letter' to his dear friend and editor, Pascal Covici."

The art of the outlaw poets

Merle Haggard, image via Shutterstock

Max Nelson surveys the work of "outlaw poets" ranging from François Villon to Merle Haggard, whose writings balance defiance with shame: "starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art. Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up — when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject."