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Writers and writing

Writing about cancer from the numbers

Pair of dice

Joanne Silberner annotates a George Johnson story and interviews the author about science and statistics in the "War on Cancer." Silberner writes: "I was taught early on that people can’t hold more than a couple of numbers in their heads, and I agree. Johnson’s story uses numbers to illustrate the idea that the reason people think there’s a cancer epidemic is in large part that more folks are living longer lives, and thus to the age when cancer incidence is higher."

One newsroom tries to shorten stories

Printer's type

Washington Post editors are trying to stop story bloat via rewards, Benjamin Mullin writes: "Editor-reporter duos who turn in a front-page enterprise story under 1,000 words are awarded the 'Brevity Cup,' a distinction that comes with drinks out with a managing editor. The first winners, reporter Ann Marimow and editor Mary Pat Flaherty, won for a front-page story about a court battle over a D.C. gun ban." Also, Roy Peter Clark on writing short.

Famous writers confront the blank page

Blank laptop screen

Maria Popova collects writers' quotes on the difficulty of getting down to work, including this from Philipp Meyer: "I don’t think 'writer’s block' actually exists. It’s basically insecurity — it’s your own internal critic turned up to a higher level than it’s supposed to be at that moment, because when you’re starting a work — when the page is blank, when the canvas is open — your critic has to be turned down to zero … The point is actually to get stuff on paper."

What dialogue does in a narrative

Roosevelt and Churchill in conversation

Book coach Jennie Nash breaks down a passage from Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl to show how dialogue "slows things down in a narrative. The author is not making broad generalizations, or sweeping past hours, days, or years the way they do when they write, 'the next day' or 'three years later … ' They are sharing specific information about a specific moment that is playing out in real time. As readers, we lean in and listen, and that naturally makes the reading slow down."

A Robert Caro "lightbulb moment"

Robert Caro

The biographer of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses tells a Pulitzer Centennial audience how an early map of Moses's Northern State Parkway led him to discover how wealthy landowners had influenced the route to the detriment of small farms: "To this day I don’t know why I suddenly decided to find out those names, and to try to find any of the owners who were still alive, and to see if they had any stories to tell about the construction of the Northern State Parkway."

The downside of success as a writer


Maria Popova has quotes from Pulitzer-winning novelist Jennifer Egan on her fear that fame will ruin her. Getting a Pulitzer, Egan said, "is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing. And it’s dangerous. Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be my goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work. I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now."

On reconstructing a lost life

Homeless person on street

Starting with a vague obituary, Cynthia Hubert pieced together the life of a woman who died at 77 on a Sacramento street. Maria Carrillo talks to Hubert's editor about the story's conception and challenges: "It goes back to the elements of that obit notice. The age. The alley. The sleeping bag. How is it a woman of that age was living on the streets? Who had written the obit? If she were loved, how is it she came to die alone in an alley?"

Looking for sources in a small town

Small town street corner sign

Kendall Powell interviews Jessica Wapner about her reporting in the drug-ravaged town of Austin, Indiana: "It wasn’t easy to find people who were actively using drugs. During my first few days there I spoke with a lot of people, but none who were actively using drugs, even though most people knew someone who was suffering from addiction or who had died from an overdose. The nurses running the needle exchange let me accompany them in their car on the Friday I was there."

Robert Caro and the last Johnson book

Robert Caro

James Santel interviews the LBJ biographer — and before that the biographer of Robert Moses — about his research and writing habits, how he learned about the nature of political power, and why his Johnson biography ended up being five volumes: "I wanted to do Johnson’s life in more than one volume because there were things that had been cut out of The Power Broker that I regretted having to cut. I cut 350,000 words out of that book. I still miss some of those chapters."

How writing is like a road trip

Toy car on map

Fiction writer Katharine Britton discusses how she does drafts, using whiteboards and index cards, and the importance of "musing" at the start: "As when I travel, I require both a beginning image and a final image for my stories. My characters get some say in the route we take to get there, and I’m flexible about who gets to come along on the journey, but the adage, 'If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do' holds altogether too much uncertainty for me."