Tonight in Digital Storytelling: Podcast, Podcast, Podcast, Podcast (also, Podcast)


Tonight we’ll be listening to and giving feedback on your podcasts. If your podcast runs a bit long, we may be able to screen only part of it, but don’t worry. I’ll listen to the full podcast when I review your site for grading.

Speaking of which, as we wind down the semester, here are some things to consider in regards to your final grade.

  • Be sure your blog site is up to date and that you’ve completed all assignments.
  • Use our remaining time together to edit, tweak, fanci-fy, and otherwise make your site the best it can be. Remember to use the comments and feedback from workshop as you edit — paying close attention to your written texts. If you have any questions or need additional feedback, I’m here.
  • Remember that this has been an introduction to the art of digital stories. Don’t judge your work against the work of folks who have had more experience. Our purpose here is to get you started and help you experiment with the different forms of digital stories. I will be grading you accordingly.
  • Your grade will depend upon the following:
    • Class participation
    • Blog site (completeness, professional approach, applied concepts like niche and audience)
    • Attendance (tied to participation)
    • Effort (willingness to experiment and try new storytelling techniques, openness to the genre, and so on

Your site should be complete by Wednesday of finals week. You’ll have until 11:59 that day to file your final edits. After that, I’ll review your sites and provide feedback on your progress for the term.

If you have any worries about your grade, or about your work from now until the end of the semester, please make an appointment for an additional conference. I’ve got you.

Podcast night!


After we catch up on any lingering blogs to workshop, we’ll listen to a podcast or two and gather ideas as we listen.

Here’s Vulture’s list of the Best of 2018 so far.

And here’s my personal favorite forever: NPR’s This American Life.

If you have a favorite podcast, or have discovered a new one, please share it with our class and, if it’s connected to your topic, link to it on your blog.


Your Assignment: Due November 28

Create one, 10-minute (or less) podcast on a subject linked to your blog’s niche. Be sure to come up with a great name and cover image for your podcast.

Post the podcast feed to your blog site.

Be sure to write an introduction to the podcast. Your introduction should give readers/listeners a preview, add any additional information not covered in the podcast, and it should include a visual element (photos/illustrations.)

See this example from Modern Love. 

A definition and some examples of great podcasts


Digital Trends defines podcasts like this:  “Essentially talk programs, podcasts have their roots in the early days of the internet when services provided shows to radio stations in digital formats. However, it wasn’t until the dawn of high-speed internet and the rise of portable media players that digital radio shows could be widely distributed. The rise of the podcast brought an unprecedented democratization of programming. Unlike traditional radio, podcast hosts can produce shows in their living room on any topic they choose, without being shackled by FCC regulations. Today there are hundreds of thousands of podcasts flitting about on the web, covering every topic imaginable, including true crime, history, even gastronomy. And although podcasts are still a niche product, they’ve been steadily growing in popularity over the last decade, alongside the smartphone. Some even speculate that this trend may spell the end of traditional radio.”

Here are some popular podcasts:

Here’s Esquire’s list of the 15 Best Podcasts of 2018 so far.

And here’s Digital Trends’ list.

Here’s My Brother, My Brother and Me.

And here’s This American Life.


Tonight in Digital Storytelling: Screenings, then Podcasts

Hi everyone — Tonight I’ll be rescheduling conferences for those of you I missed last week (sorry!). We’ll also be screening your responses to the Questions assignment from last class. I hope you fell in love with the interview process during our past two assignments.


We’ll be moving on to your next assignment — a podcast.


We’ll start with the basics. With big thanks to LifeHacker, here’s how to get started:

You’ll need:

Microphone(s): Any microphone will work for recording your podcast. If you’re planning to podcast beyond our class, you might want to invest in a good one, though. If you’re not sure what to look for, here’s LifeHacker’s  list of the five best desktop microphones. (I have the Blue Yeti Pro and like it a lot.) To keep it simple for our class purposes, maybe stick to a USB mic instead of an analog mic, which would require additional and expensive equipment. Also, if you have a gaming headset or other basic microphone around, you can use that, too.


A Computer: Any Windows computer or Mac should work fine to record, edit, and upload your podcast. Additionally, depending on how you choose to record—directly to the computer or onto a dedicated recording device—your computer will also need the right ports. USB microphones, for example, will obviously need an open USB port.

Audio Editing Software: For the actual recording and editing, you’ll need a Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW). Licenses for professional-grade DAWs like Reason or Pro Tools can cost anywhere between $300 and $900. For our purposes, I recommend a free open source program like Audacity

Pop Filters (optional): Pop filters, while not required, are fairly cheap and can keep your plosives from making a nasty sound on your recording. If you don’t want to buy any, though, here’s Lifehacker’s guide to making your own out of paper.

Find Your Niche

Remember how, when you were setting up your blogs, we talked about finding a niche, that concept that would make your blog different from all the other blogs out there? Same goes for podcasting.

You can probably already find a podcast about just about everything. Don’t get discouraged! While just about every broad topic is already covered, you just have to find your spin on things to make an old idea something new.


Let Lifehacker explain:

“For example, if you wanted to make a podcast about music, ask yourself if there’s an audience out there for what you want to talk about. Maybe you narrow your idea down from music in general to bluegrass specifically. Now your coverage is specific: the music, people, and culture of bluegrass. Once you have your topic narrowed down, it helps to add a spin to it. Maybe you talk about bluegrass music and culture while sipping moonshine with your co-hosts. It’s kind of true that everything has been done before, but it hasn’t all been done the way you would do it. So find an angle that’s personally interesting and you’ll be better off.”

Download Audacity

  1. Download Audacity 2.1.3 at and install it.
  2. Connect your microphone and open Audacity.
  3. See if your microphone is being recognized by Audacity by checking the drop-down menu next to the small microphone icon. If you see your mic, go ahead and select it.
  4. In the top-left corner, you should see the pause, play, stop, skip back, skip forward, and record buttons. Click the record button and talk into your mic to make sure it’s working properly.
  5. Stop recording and playback what you just recorded to make sure everything sounds okay.
  6. You’ll want to export your audio in the MP3 format later on. In order to do that, you’ll need to download and install the Lame MP3 encoder for either Windows or Mac.
  7. Once that’s installed, close and reopen Audacity. Record yourself talking for a few seconds like before, then go to File, then Export Audio, and select MP3 Files in the ‘Save as type’ dropdown menu. Name your file something simple like “test1” and save it to your desktop.
  8. Find the MP3 file on your desktop and try playing it in your MP3 player of choice, just to make sure everything is working properly.

Check Your Mic Levels and Room Tone

Recording is pretty straightforward in Audacity, but there are a few things you should do before you jump into your first show:

  1. Connect your microphone and make a quick recording the same way as before to check your audio levels.
  2. You can adjust your recording volume with the slider right above the drop-down menu where you selected your recording device.
  3. When you’ve found a good level, go ahead and remove your recording test by clicking the small X at the top left of the track. You don’t need it anymore.
  4. Make sure your recording space is silent and record around 5 seconds of “silence.” This is called room tone and you can use this to cut out things like swearing or even cover up some background noise that happens while you’re recording. You can mute this track for now by clicking the mute toggle button on the left side of the track. You can also minimize it by clicking the arrow at the bottom-left of the track.
  5. Go to File, then Save Project As, and choose a name for your project. Keep in mind that this doesn’t export any audio, just saves your progress.


Now you’re ready to actually record the main part of your podcast. Just hit the record button and Audacity will start capturing your audio in a new track. When you’re done recording, hit the stop button. It’s as simple as that. Before you continue be sure to save your work.

Add Music and Edits

Now it’s time to add music and make any necessary edits.

Find free tunes at places like the Free Music Archive and Vimeo’s Music Store:

  1. Go to File, then Import, and then Audio. Locate the music you chose (or your own if you made some), and click Open. The music will get dropped into Audacity as its own separate track.
  2. Now find the Selection Tool in the Audacity toolbar. It will look like a typing cursor.
  3. Drag the Selection Tool over the section of music you’d like to use for your intro and outro music.
  4. With that section of music currently selected, find the Trim Audio button on the Audacity toolbar and click it. You should be left with only the section of music you chose.
  5. While that section of music is still selected, find the Copy button on the toolbar and click it (you can also use CTRL+C or Command+C).
  6. On the same music track, click anywhere to the right of that music section. Then find the Paste button on the toolbar and click it (or CTRL+V or Command+V). You now have your intro and outro music, but it’s still not quite ready.
  7. With the Selection Tool, select one of the music copies. Then go to Effect at the top and choose Fade Out. Do the same for the other music copy, but choose Fade In instead. Your intro and outro music is now ready to go.

Cut Anything You Don’t Want x@#!!%&*


If you need to cut something out of your podcast—like swearing if you’re trying to keep clean, or information that shouldn’t be made public—it’s easy to fix:

  1. Find the section of audio that needs to be cut out.
  2. Use the Selection Tool to select the entire section that needs to be removed.
  3. Find the Cut button on the toolbar and click. Boom, it’s gone. Alternatively, you could also use the Silence button.
  4. Now, remember the room tone you recorded earlier? You can copy a section of that and overlap it with the cut out portion so you have a less jarring silence.


When you get everything sounding the way you want, save your work (and probably save your progress as you work as well).

Export Your Podcast as an MP3 File

  • Go to File, then Export Audio.
  • Select MP3 Files in the ‘Save as type’ drop-down menu. Then name the file (your podcast name and the number of the episode, for example). Click Save.
  • Now you’ll see the Edit Metadata window. Enter all of the necessary information. You can also add and remove sections as you see fit here.
  • Go down to the Template section and click Save. Save this template for future episodes so you don’t have to fill out most of this information ever again.
  • Click OK. Your MP3 should export and be ready for uploading.

Pick a Strong Name and Create Cover Art 

When it comes to people finding your podcast, the name you choose for it is important. John Lee Dumas, the host of the Entrepreneur on Fire podcast, suggests you pick a name that communicates to your audience exactly what your podcast will be about. If we return to the bluegrass and moonshine example, it could be something straightforward, like ”Bluegrass n’ Moonshine,” or something less obvious, but still gets the point across, like “Sippin’ and Singin’: The Bluegrass Podcast.” The title gives you an idea of what the show is about, but more importantly, your show would likely pop up in someone’s search for podcasts about bluegrass music.

You’ll also need an image for your podcast. This is the first thing people will see when they come across your show, so it should look good.

Get Hosted

Getting your podcast hosted is essential so you can start distributing your show to podcast directories and apps via RSS feed. SoundCloud is a great start for beginners, and it’s free. It offers free podcast hosting (in addition to two competitive paid options for when you get a little more serious), and lets you distribute your podcast via RSS. Your podcasts can also instantly publish to SoundCloud itself, which makes it really easy to share your podcast on social media, blogs, and other websites. When you sign up for the service, use the name of your podcast (or the closest thing to it).

  1. Upload a cover art image that is at least 1400 x 1400 pixels.
  2. Fill out all sections of your profile, especially your show’s description.
  3. Upload your MP3 file. Most hosting services let you listen to your podcast right within the site, so give it a listen to make sure everything sounds good.
  4. The file’s metadata that you created before should fill in a lot of the necessary information. However, if something doesn’t look right, now is the chance to make changes and fix it before you submit your RSS feed to any directories.


Tonight in Digital Storytelling: Interviews, Interviews, and Questions That Will Make You Fall in Love

Hi everyone!

Tonight we’ll be screening your interview/stories. I’ll break you into small groups, like we’ve done before, and each group will pick one or two interviews to share.

But first, this.


Modern Love

A while back, The New York Times Modern Love column featured Mandy Len Catron’s essay, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.”  

The essay went on to become one of the most popular Modern Love columns ever. (And Ms. Catron published it in an essay collection last year.)

The column was followed by a video project:


It became a Modern Love Podcast, as read by actress Gillian Jacobs.


It became another feature in the Times, where readers shared their experiences with the 36 questions.

So here we have Digital Storytelling, three (or maybe four) ways.

Some Background

Ms. Catron’s essay is based on a study by the psychologist Arthur Aron (and others) that explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions. The 36 questions in the study are broken up into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one.

The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness. To quote the study’s authors, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another person can be exceedingly difficult, so this exercise forces the issue.

The final task Ms. Catron and her friend try — staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes — is less well documented, with the suggested duration ranging from two minutes to four. But Ms. Catron was unequivocal in her recommendation. “Two minutes is just enough to be terrified,” she told me. “Four really goes somewhere.”

Let’s take a look at those 36 questions:

Set I

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?

3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?

7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?

8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.

9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.

12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Set II

13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?

14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

16. What do you value most in a friendship?

17. What is your most treasured memory?

18. What is your most terrible memory?

19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

20. What does friendship mean to you?

21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?

22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.

23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?


25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “

26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “

27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.

29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.

30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.

32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?

34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?

36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.


Questions for discussion: Based on what we know about interviewing, why do you think these questions are so effective? What can you learn about the interviewing process by studying these questions? 

Assignment for November 7:

Now it’s your turn to go through Arthur Aron’s 36 questions — with a partner, a friend, or a complete stranger. You can record your conversation and edit it. Or, when you’re done, record a short video/vlog, voice memo or write something about your experience. Post this to your blog.

P.S. If you’d like more Modern Love columns that are relevant to college life, check out the winners from last year’s College Essay Contest. You might want to consider writing something of your own for this year’s contest, too.


Remember to sign up for a conference! We won’t be in our regular class next Wednesday (Halloween!), but I will be having conferences next week for anyone who might like one. I’ll pass a sign-up sheet in tonight’s class. The conferences are not required, but recommended since we’re at mid-terms.


Tonight in DS: October 17 — Who’s on First?

Hi everyone!

So since we are a week behind (sorry!), we’ll be playing catch-up tonight. We will complete our viewing of any short videos we didn’t get to last time. Then we’ll move on to a lecture/discussion of interviewing techniques. We’ll begin with the basics: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How.

Speaking of Who, here’s a classic —


I realize there might be some confusion about what’s due tonight. If you went ahead and completed your interview project, that’s great! We’ll take a look. If you didn’t, no worries. You  needed to complete only the checklist and post your interview source to your blog. (See the assignment from Oct. 3 to review the checklist.)

As we review interviewing techniques, we’ll take a look at a variety of interviews. For instance, we’ll look at author/graphic memoirist/ MacArthur Genius Alison Bechdel interviewed three ways:


O.k., let’s make that four ways:  Fun Home Creator Alison Bechdel on Turning a Tragic Childhood into a Hit Musical 

We’ll talk about techniques in each interview that work, or that could work better. We’ll talk about why. Also, we’ll listen in as Studs Terkel, master interviewer and oral historian, works his interview magic for the radio.


As I mentioned earlier in our course, Story Corps was founded on the ideals of Studs Terkel. We’ll go over Story Corps Great Questions List in class and talk about the who, what, where, how, and, most important maybe, why.

As Terkel knew, and as Story Corps goes on knowing, the best interviews are conversations. Here’s a lovely one between Joshua Littman and his mom:

If you haven’t downloaded the Story Corps app, here’s a link with information about it. The app might help you with this assignment and many more.


Keep working on your interviews, applying some of the concepts we covered in tonight’s class.


Tonight in Digital Storytelling: Oct. 3

Hi everyone — Tonight we’ll have a screening of your video shorts. I’m excited to see what you’ve been doing. We’ll talk about any technical or content issues you had and discuss the storytelling techniques you’ve used in your piece.

But First

We’ll start tonight by viewing a TedX Talk on the power of digital stories. This talk features Jim Jorstad, an award-winning journalist and digital storyteller. Jorstad shares his thoughts on how stories can connect us in our common humanity in a way that cell phones and social media do not.

Stories, Jorstad believes, can change the world. They always have.

Let’s give him a listen:

After we talk a little about the Tedx Talk, we’ll move on to your video shorts and workshop.

Things to talk about when we talk about storytelling

  1. Does the story have a clear narrative arc? (A beginning, a middle, an end)
  2. Does that arc feel complete (remember the snake with its tail in its mouth — come on, don’t make me draw it twice 🙂 ) ?
  3. Is the story focused?
  4. Is the purpose of the story clear and does the story have impact? (Emotional, educational, informative)
  5. What is the story meant to do for its audience?
  6. Do the visual and audio elements fit the story? Why or why not?
  7. Does the pacing feel just right (not rushed, not dragged out)?
  8. Does the story have staying power? Is it memorable?

Remember to take into consideration any points brought up in workshop. You can continue to revise all of your projects until the end of the semester. Right now, it’s important that you come to class and meet project deadlines. The quality of your work will continue to get better and better as we go. You will be able to revise accordingly for your final grade.

Your next assignment 

Next we’ll be doing some short-form reportage/interviews.

You’ll need to find a source you’d like to interview. Your source should be someone whose expertise is connected to your story-project/blog. Your source should probably be someone who’s readily accessible. So maybe not this guy:


Here’s what you should have completed for next week:

  1. Choose your source. 
  2. Gather background information on your source/your subject. Research. (More about this in class.)
  3. Contact your source and arrange for a time to meet. Let your source know both why and how you’ll be conducting the interview. Why do you want to talk with this person? How much time will you need? Will you use audio or video recordings or both? Will you be taking a series of still photos to use as part of your story?
  4. Consider all of the above things, too, when you decide where to meet your source. Meet in a place that will add sensory interest to your story. If you’re interviewing a chef, for instance, you probably want to be in that chef’s kitchen and not in the campus library. Plan location, equipment, and so on in advance. 
  5. If you will need help on location (video recording, audio recording, photography), contact a helper who will be available for your meeting with your source.
  6. Draft a series of questions for your interview. Approach your interview like a conversation. Be ready to go off script, but decide in advance what you’d like to cover in the story and why.
  7. Post a teaser photo of your source and a Coming Soon preview (just a few lines), along with a brief bio for your source, on your blog before class next week. 

Your interview piece will be due October 17. When complete, it should be approximately two minutes long (video/audio), or 750 words of text with interactive digital elements or still photos.

We’ll spend next class on interviewing techniques and reportage skills, so don’t worry if you haven’t done this before. I’ve got you.




Tonight in Digital Storytelling: Sept. 19

I hope you all had a great week!

Tonight, we’ll be workshopping your short and longer digital essays. We’ll work in small groups first, then each group will nominate one story to share with the whole class. I’ll be moving from group to group to help and offer editorial suggestions.

Sometimes, when I move from group to group, it can feel creepy. Kind of like this:


Thanks, David Clode, for the awesome shark pic!

Anyway, please remember I’m here to help make your storytelling the best it can be and there are no silly questions, so ask away.

Some things to consider:

  • Is the story engaging and written for the site’s specific audience?
  • Is the writing clear and precise? Error-free?
  • Do the visual or other digital elements serve the story?
  • Is there anything — either text or other elements — that should be cut?
  • Is there anything — either text or other elements — that might be added?
  • Does the story seem to fit the overall theme and goal of the site?
  • Is the storyteller’s voice vivid? Is it compelling for its audience?

Please make sure I have your website address on our main class site. If not, please be sure to tell me tonight when I’m doing my shark-circles so I can add it. I want to be sure you’re getting credit for doing your work well and on time.


About next week:

I will need to be away from campus next week and so we will not have our regularly-scheduled class. However, you will be working on a project that should take you about two weeks to complete. That project will be due in class once we return on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

Here’s the assignment:

Your first short video story. Here’s a great example from the Center for Digital Storytelling:  SOFAS.

Using an app like iMovie/Garageband or something else (here’s WeVideo, for instance), you’ll create your first short video story. Your story should be short, maybe just a minute or two. Here are the steps you’ll take to create it.

  1. The idea. — What story would you like to tell? Remember to keep it simple and specific. The more specific you are — a video about how to make the best chocolate-chip cookies; a video about how to play the cowbell; etc. — the better. Match your story to the overall concept of your site. Otherwise, the subject/approach is wide open.
  2. Write your story. — Try to stick to around 500 words. Make sure your story has a good narrative arc (a beginning, a middle, and an end).
  3. Storyboard — Think of this as a rough cartoon sketch. You should have approximately six to nine panels, depending on the length of your story and how many elements you’ll add to tell your story. You don’t have to be an artist to sketch out your storyboard. What do you want to show first? Sketch that into a frame — stick figures will do. And so on. Here’s a nice, simple video that walks you through all of these steps.
  4. Gather your elements. — Compile video clips, photos, sound bites, background music and more. Use your storyboard to help you dream up the best elements to tell your particular story.
  5. Pull it all together. — Using iMovie or your preferred app, bring your story to life. This will take some experimenting and some time, so don’t stress if it doesn’t come together quickly. Creating digital stories is a process, and the more you play with the tech tools available to you, the better you’ll get at building the elements of your narrative into a great digital story.

We’ll view your complete stories on Oct. 3.

Assignment for September 19

Following up on what we covered in class, please write a slightly longer (up to 900 words) essay about the subject of your choice. Illustrate the essay with digital elements (photos, sound clips, video clips, etc.).

Pay attention to the advice for, and examples of, good writing we covered in class.

Also, here are some tips from George Orwell’s great essay, “Politics and the English Language.”


  1. Never use a long word when a short one will do.
  2. Never use a long sentence when a short one will do.
  3. Always choose the active over the passive voice. (Bill threw the ball = good; The ball was thrown by Bill = not so good)
  4. Never use a foreign phrase or expression, or jargon, when there is an everyday English equivalent.
  5. Never use a phrase or expressions you’re accustomed to hearing or seeing in print (the anti-cliche rule)
  6. Break any of these rules before you do something barbarous.

And here are a few more tips from Kurt Vonnegut, who knew some things about good writing:


Find a Subject You Care About

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Do Not Ramble, Though

I won’t ramble on about that.

Keep It Simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

Have the Guts to Cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like Yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.


I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Say What You Mean to Say

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Pity the Readers

Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

For Really Detailed Advice

For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.