Saturday, April 2, 2011

Writing tips from Joe Holleman

Have I mentioned the great speakers we attract at Saturday Writers? Joe Holleman, “Life Sherpa” columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shared his unique vision for writing at the St. Peters Cultural and Arts Center last Saturday.

Holleman has been writing professionally for 28 years at newspapers, with more than 20 at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He offered dozens of tips writers can use immediately to improve their work, including what to do when staring at a blank screen.

Starting any article is difficult, but daily newspapers usually have short deadlines. He has often had less than an hour to turn in a story, so he begins by using outlines, and writing the lede first.

Holleman uses outlines because he said writers need some kind of plan. He uses the standard, “Catholic-school Roman numeral version” for long stories, or some abbreviated version of that for shorter pieces. Outlines help him focus his thoughts, which allow him to focus on creativity instead of worrying about forgetting basic points.

Outlines also help by laying out four or five things to include in an article. “It just kind of makes your mind work,” he said. “It also makes your mind clear, which makes it easier.”

Write the lede first
The other technique he uses to get started is to write the lede to his stories immediately, which prevents him from staring at the screen for inspiration. “Boredom and distraction strike before inspiration,” he said. “Just put something on that blank, merciless screen. Sometimes I change my lede, but it gets my mind in that mode of typing, which leads to a story.”

Holleman said he has always taken pride in his ability to write a good lede. When asked about a favorite, he said it would be hard to pick just one, but he did recall a particular lede he wrote for a story about an old delicatessen going out of business: “Dunie’s is done, but it will be remembered with relish.”

Don’t bury the lede
One downfall to writing fast is that there may be a tendency to bury the lede, which means beginning a story with details that aren’t important, while pushing important facts or details to the middle. He believes that getting something down (on paper or the screen) is important to begin the process. Holleman said when writers inadvertently bury the lede, they always can go back and change it later.

Sometimes, good writing is about good editing. He told the group to read their stories out loud from beginning to end. “Don’t just read it in your head,” he said, “because in your head you are reading what you want it to be.”

He claims that reading out loud will catch all those silly mistakes that every writer makes. “When you read it out loud, you are now the reader and no longer the writer,” he said. “You are reading it as a reader would read it.” He then recommended reading it again.

The first problem he notices during the reading process is clumsy sentences. This process helps identify those sentences that bring everything to a grinding halt. “If you read it out loud, you can find out the rhythm of a sentence,” he said. “It can be long and flowing, or short and staccato. The only way you find that is by reading it out loud.”

Every writer writes too much
Holleman said writers need to force themselves to edit their work. “Writers love what they write, and every word is a masterpiece,” he said. “We fall in love with our stories and think every sentence needs to be in there, but it’s not true. Somewhere in your story you have unnecessary modifiers and awkward phrases. Force yourself to cut.”

Holleman always cuts twenty-five percent. For starters, he recommends cutting the words “very,” and “that.” “The more you write, the quicker you write, and the more you can cut,” he said. “Just like reading out loud, cutting becomes a game.”

After a writer has deleted twenty-five percent, he or she should read it out loud again. “I bet it is better,” he said. “Try to cut so much you find yourself putting words back in. That’s when you are done.”

Thanks, Joe for sharing your helpful advice. You make it look and sound easy.

A few quick tips for writers from Joe Holleman:

Use Active voice
Use Outlines
Read your story out loud
As long as we are writing, we are improving (He said he has made every mistake he discussed)
Use strong quotes
There are exceptions to the rules (but just because Faulkner or Fitzgerald did it, doesn’t mean you can do it)
Read Elmore Leonard for dialogue


  1. Nice job summarizing the presentation, Mary! Joe had great tips and is definitely an excellent speaker.


  2. Great summary is right! Thanks, Mary! I was so busy listening and watching the other members and trying to take photos, I never took any notes. I think I'll print your entire post to keep! You take great notes!

  3. Thank you both! I really enjoyed it, and was glad I took notes because he said so many great things that I would have forgotten most of them! (Also, I did email him for clarification on some items, and asked a few more questions, which made it easier to write!)

  4. I totally agree with the tip regarding editing because some mistake can’t be seen until the editing and proofreading is done, especially when writing a thesis paper. Proofreading can help with thesis writing since some people write thesis continuously to avoid the flow of idea, which can leave to mistake. Anyway, this would certainly be a big help for people who are writing their academic paper.