Learning to Write: Doing It On the Job

By Harry Jaffe

I suspect I learned to write by reading, but Ms. Hay, my 11th grade English teacher at Lower Merion High outside Philly, drilled home the basics: use active verbs, write narrative, draw characters with words. Writing essays and research papers at Dickinson College helped me hone my thinking and writing. When it came to journalism, I taught myself. Dickinson didn’t offer any non-fiction writing or journalism courses.

I didn’t try to write in a journalistic style until I walked into the Rutland Daily Herald newsroom in Vermont—as a photographer. Editors asked me to write stories to go along with my photos. I studied the New York Times, dissected articles, mimicked the best. Once I got the hang of it, I loved the hunt for scoops and became addicted to a byline.

When it came to writing feature articles, I studied the best magazine writers and attempted to match them. Editors helped, but I consider myself essentially self-taught.I am still learning.

Harry Jaffe is a senior writer at The Washingtonian

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By Mary Clare Glover

My first job after college was as a researcher at a big company that taught me terrible writing habits—lots of jargon, lots of big words, and not a lot of substance. When I started at The Washingtonian a year later, I was so relieved to be surrounded by writing that made sense.

During  my first six months there, I brought home back issues of the magazine and read feature articles at night. I read great stories by Drew Lindsay, Nick Kotz, John Pekkanen, and Cindy Rich. The office was full of books and magazines, which I’d also take home and read. When I found a writer I liked, I’d search for other stories he or she had written. Some favorites are Gene Weingarten, Anne Hull, Atul Gawande, and J.R. Moehringer.

I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to copy any other writer’s style—and I’d never put myself in the same category as those greats—but I do think the only way to become a good writer is to read good writing. You start to see patterns emerge, and you try to emulate them.

Two of my favorite books are Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen. Although they are very different, I came away from both wanting to become a better writer.

Mary Clare Glover is a senior editor at The Washingtonian.

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From Jack Limpert: I asked about a dozen journalists I’ve worked with the “How Did You Learn to Write?” question and have posted their answers. If you have a story about how you learned to write, send it to [email protected] along with a line or two about your writing background and I’ll post it.

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