Thursday, June 9, 2011

Chip Scanlan: 'We have to write badly to write well'

Writer & writing coach Chip Scanlan wants you to embrace revising your stories, even if you don't think you have time. "You don't have the time not to revise," he said during a webinar.

And he wants you to understand that it's OK to write poor first draft. And editors, he said, "need to let reporters know -- you can write badly, because I know you're gonna write well." 

Chip was one of the faculty members at a writing/editing conference I went to at Poynter years ago, so I knew he was going to be good. I just love his attitude about writing and editing. He understands what's hard about it as well as what's great about it, and understands the work it takes to work through the hard stuff to get to the great stuff. He values the relationship between a reporter and an editor, and much of what he teaches revolves around those two people working together for the reader and for the story. 

A quote he put up at the end of the webinar captures that optimistic attitude: "Accept the flaws of your first draft to find the promise of the final story."

 He also offered fresh, concrete tips on how to do what you do better. Here are some other key points from his webinar:

To revise effectively (and there was more, I'm condensing here):
  • Print out your story and read it. Mark each thing that strikes you as needing work; number each; write a note as to why you flagged it; then go back into your story and take on the changes one at a time.
  • Do you have text-to-speech on your computer? Make it read your story to you. Revise what sounds off.
  • Use 'find and replace' to scrub 'ly' adverbs from your copy.
  • Check word counts of sentences, paragraphs and your lead.
  • Keep quotes to somewhere around 6-20 words.
  • Get rid of is/was/were verbs; they can reflect insufficient reporting. Replace with active constructions.
  • Role-play the reader.
  • Study others' work, dissect it, learn from mistakes (as well as what's good) and bring that to your own work.
  • Find a co-reader who will help you work through your drafts.
  • Budget time to revise early in the process.
  • Never give up.
Here's more on revising, including a great story about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. 


  1. Thanks so much, Scott, for such a generous review and excellent recap of the Mastering Revision Webinar. Coming from a storyteller of your caliber, your post is high praise.

  2. Chip, thanks. Good to (virtually) see you again. You talked briefly about writers "falling out of love" with the first things they put down. I think all of us have been in spots where we really, really don't want to do that. Any strategies on how writers can teach themselves how to do that effectively -- and or convincing themselves that they often need to do that?