Jack Hart Talks about Wordcraft

Jack HartJack Hart has spent five decades helping writers succeed, working shoulder-to-shoulder with journalists in newsrooms both big and small and with students at five universities. Writers who’ve worked with him have written national best sellers and won prizes that include five Pulitzers and a slew of other national awards.

Hart is the author of Storycraft, now in its second edition, and the newly published Wordcraft, both available from the University of Chicago Press.

Here he talks with Shop Talk contributing editor Carol Saller.

CS: Wordcraft is primarily geared toward journalists and nonfiction writers, but almost everything in it applies to fiction writing as well. Could you say something about that overlap? You’ve written novels yourself.

JH: Actually, I’ve written one book-length piece of fiction: Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014). In part, I tackled the project to prove what I’d always suspected: that the rules of storytelling are universal, that they apply across genres, including both nonfiction and fiction.

That indeed proved to be the case. With a lot of help from my novelist friends, I managed to draft a Pacific Northwest mystery, to find a respectable publisher, to work my way through two or three more drafts with a skilled editor, and to get Skookum into print. It didn’t set any best-seller lists on fire, but it received universally positive reviews. And it certainly proved my original point.

And it taught me a whole lot more. Fiction, which I’d always assumed was easier than nonfiction, turned out to be in several ways a whole lot harder. When you have complete freedom to craft any story you want, everything’s on you.

CS: Good point. In journalism, your basic plot is ready-made. How else is fiction harder?

Wordcraft, by Jack Hart, coverJH: In fiction the rules of storytelling become even stricter. Pose the complication right out of the gate? You bet. In a mystery that means you absolutely must get your protagonist fully introduced in the first few pages with all the background—and not a bit more—necessary to engage him or her in the fate of the victim, who—of course—must be dead by the end of the first chapter. Include only the action that matters? Bet on that, too. Those novelist friends of mine were constantly dinging me for passages describing cars pulling into parking lots or elevators rising through elevator shafts or otherwise including action that simply wasted time and space.

Ditto with scenic detail, which had to go if it didn’t contribute something concrete to the story line. (That rule explains the fate of a favorite chapter, a darling I reluctantly killed about Draft No. 5.)

And so it went. On through the entire list of rules I’d been preaching for decades but applied only loosely because in nonfiction reality limits your control over every aspect of the story.

CS: I understand why rules like that work—but I also see it from another angle. I see aspiring writers robotically following so-called writing rules that were never meant to be absolute. In the Facebook groups I follow, writers instruct one another to delete all forms of “to be” and every possible adverb. However, in fiction writing there are always some contexts where passivity, vagueness, or a long-winded sentence is just the ticket. Especially in dialogue.

After all, not everyone is writing a thriller. Readers of literary fiction have vastly different expectations and tolerances than readers of fantasy or romance.

So how do fiction writers learn which “rules” apply to their work, which rules are spurious to begin with, and when it’s OK to ignore a rule?

Storycraft, by Jack Hart, coverJH: Writing involves lots of rules, of various kinds. I was talking about rules of story, the sorts of guidelines I covered in Storycraft. They include the idea, for example, that you should introduce your protagonist and his or her complication early, or that you shouldn’t delay plot unnecessarily with irrelevant scenic or action details. You ignore those sorts of “rules” at the risk of losing your audience.

And then there are also language “rules,” the kind I covered in Wordcraft. Some of those are indeed spurious, such as the rule against split infinitives. Others are commonsense guides to active, vibrant language, such as the idea that you should prefer active verbs to flabby linking verbs. If you follow that guideline, you’ll indeed avoid the various forms of “to be,” although not with a slavish obedience that causes you to jump through awkward language hoops.

I’ll agree that maybe once in a great while “passivity, vagueness, or a long-winded sentence is just the ticket,” but those occasions are rare indeed. For most writers, passivity, vagueness, and long-windedness are the kiss of literary death. At the least, you ought to recognize each transgression and have a damned good reason for committing it.

CS: I think that’s the hard part for most beginning writers: recognizing a good reason when they see it. I find that reading a lot of books of the kind you want to write helps develop a feel for its “rules.”

JH: Assuming that they’re good books.

CS: In chapter 2 of Wordcraft, where you talk about writing process, you urge writers to draft freely and quickly, and you describe an extraordinary exercise from writing coach Don Fry, who suggests working with a printed outline nearby while typing with your computer screen turned off so it’s impossible to stop and read over your output.

I understand the time pressures in journalism, but novelists usually have more flexibility. Assuming a writer has an outline, why is speedy drafting important? Might not slower thinking and writing get results just as good or better? And in any case, are you convinced that stopping to edit as you go takes much longer?

I won’t deny I have a horse in this race.

JH: I have a horse in this race, too, and it constantly wants to pull up to a slow walk. For years I edited every line to perfection before moving on, and when I finished a piece it was completely finished. But I’m convinced that stopping to edit as you go makes writing much more painful and takes much longer.

I’m also convinced that it produces unoriginal prose that’s much stiffer and more cramped. Your true self, writing that’s rich with your authentic voice, emerges only when you’re relaxed. And as years of research—much of it summarized by V. A. Howard and J. H. Barton in their classic Thinking on Paper (New York: William Morrow, 1986)conclusively demonstrates, you relax only when you write quickly, without constantly pausing over each choice of words and fretting over each turn of phrase. When you finish your draft and shift into editing mode, that’s when you can turn into a stickler.

Buck the black Labrador retriever sitting over a dead pheasant.CS: Well, you’ve persuaded me to dial back the self-editing. But there’s no way I’m going to turn off my computer screen. I mean, according to research we should also be writing by hand, and I’m not doing that.

JH: Don was suggesting only one run-through of the dark-screen exercise, not a regular practice. So you can relax.

CS: Which, after all, is the point. 

One parting question: Dog person or cat person?

JH: Dog person, as the photo of Buck, my beautiful black Lab, demonstrates. No cat could have found, pointed, and retrieved that pheasant. Which was delicious, by the way.

Read the introductions to Wordcraft and Storycraft.


Photo of Jack Hart courtesy Peking University Press.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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