3 ways to become a better writer by reading good journalism

betty ming liu Inspiration, Writing how-to's 9 Comments

Forgive me if I sound a little sentimental on this early Sunday morning. But I’ve been sitting in my pretty kitchen with some hot tea and the Sunday paper. The TV is tuned into the white noise of a local news station as I read stories that make me fall in love with journalism all over again.

Even though everyone says that print is dead, I still feel comforted by the familiarity of holding paper and rustling newsprint pages. Yes, I also feel guilty about the dead trees that go into making this old-fashioned product. And no, I can’t really justify my guilty pleasure.

While I am addicted to news websites, I simply can’t let go of  “real” paper — yet. The print reading experience always leads to random encounters with stories that I never would have found in the hyperfocused search culture of online reading.

My Sunday paper of choice is The New York Times. This morning, I found three stories that inspired me with their art and craft. None of the topics was actually on my radar. Long live serendipity! Since I will be working today on my own reporting and writing, reading these Times pieces reminded me of my goals.


How to tell a story that readers will remember


Nothing beats a beautiful, thoughtful sentence: I usually skip the Sunday Review because it’s often filled with blah-blah opinions. But the lead piece by noted novelist Jhumpa Lahiri is “My Life’s Sentences.” In it, she quotes from James Joyce: “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” So vivid — can’t you feel the scene?! Lahiri’s essay marks the debut of a new online NYTimes series on the art and craft of writing.


A pro knows how to condense difficult facts and figures: Right below the Lahiri essay is Nick Kristof’s reporting on the horror of  “Where Pimps Peddle Their Goods.” It’s about Backpage.com, which is owned by the Village Voice’s parent company, and the website’s role in fostering sexual slavery of American girls. I especially admired the concise informational power of a line in the fifth paragraph. While the result ain’t James Joyce, there’s a utilitarian elegance at work. It takes extraordinary skill to read a jargon-y, data-filled report and crunch key stats into a single  summarizing sentence:

Backstage accounts for about 70 percent of prostitution advertising among five Web sites that carry such ads in the United States, earning more than $22 million annually from prostitution ads, according to AIM Group, a media research and consulting company. 


Carefully-chosen specific details will hook readers: Getting these two story goodies would have been enough. But just as I was finishing my tea, I hit on the latest “Modern Love” essay in the Sunday Styles section. “Moving Through Grief, Chair by Chair” by Avery Corman covers a relationship situation that I’ve never faced. But as I read, I ached all over again with my own memories of losing marital love. It reminded me of how hard I’ve worked to create a new home for the new me. I won’t say more because you need to go along for the storyteller’s ride.  ;)


Well. That’s it for quiet Sunday morning reflections. I can go on with the day, fueled by the emotional caffeine of good stories, the perfect cup of tea and the body memory that comes from creating supportive daily routines.

Time to move now, from the kitchen to the home office desk. Gotta start working on some my own stories. Wish me luck!  xoxo


Comments 9

  1. Post

    i really like my new routine of starting off the morning with breakfast, the local TV news and a quick perusal of my home-delivered new york times and the wall street journal. they’re filled with info that gets me organized before i move on to checking various national and local news websites. how about you — what are your mornings like?

    btw, i’m interested in your reaction to the times pieces that i’m recommending in this post. when i was teaching journalism, i was always foraging for quality professional reporting and writing samples to dissect in class. but 8 times out of 10, the students would trash my selections. usually their comments were spot on too. i used to get a kick out of that teacher/student learning process.

  2. Post

    it’s such an old-fashioned thing to do, isn’t it shirley? but such a pleasure. maybe reading newspapers in their print format is like reading a book on paper as opposed to on a kindle. i’m just starting to get the hang of reading e-books. there really are pluses to it — a different kind of book-reading experience.

  3. I have always wanted to write something good some day. This is mostly motivated by comments made by my third grade teacher. Since I read mostly math and science books, neither of which are known to be literary master pieces, I doubt I will learn much. I am related to Sir Walter Scott, so I guess someone in my family was a good writer, so maybe there is some hope.
    After reading the article “Moving through grief chair by chair” I am struck by a stark fact about my own failed marriages and relationships. Losing anyone to whom I was once close to has always been a period of grief. The most poignant was a missionary companion from Norway. We were not getting along before he left so I didn’t wake up and “say good bye”. When I woke up, it was to an empty room and things he left behind. Each time I saw something he didn’t want it really hurt. More than anytime before, or since for that matter. He was gone forever and I never had a chance to say good bye.

  4. So interesting that Corman was able to write about divorce, dating and infidelity while being happily married to Judy for 37 years. Perhaps being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes made him more thankful for his own. Thank you for sharing Betty…

  5. I agree. I love magazines and papers. I also think that if you want to be (or are) a writer/journalist, you should love to read, which I do. It makes you a better writer.

    1. Post

      nice to have the company of you all on this post! jenni, what a great way to look at creative writing. getting into our characters can make us appreciate our lives more. i like the idea of getting energy from our characters. and charlotte, i definitely need to read more….! brian, so sorry for your loss. it’s amazing, the things that writing can make us think about.

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  7. I love reading the New Yorker. It really engages me as a reader and a writer. The length of the articles teaches me a lot about deeply developing a topic, which is totally counter to what we hear about blogging – keep it short.

    I love this post and the cozy Sunday NY Times scene you painted. Thanks for linking to your faves from this week!

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