Monday, September 9, 2013

Tool #40: Draft a mission statement for your work.

. . .To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.

Today I am featuring another chapter tidbit from Roy Peter Clark's book, "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer," published by Little, Brown and Company. You can find a copy here.

We are now in the fourth and last part of the book, entitled "Useful Habits". . .

In 1996 the St. Petersburg Times published my series "Three Little Words," the story of a woman whose husband died of AIDS. The series ran for twenty-nine consecutive days and received unprecedented attention from local readers and journalists everywhere. . . 

     Good writers turn stories into workshops, intense moments of learning in which they advance their craft.  I learned more about reporting and telling stories from "Three Little Words" than from any other writing experience of my life.  I'm still learning from it.  But I did not learn how much I learned until I stumbled on a strategy I've turned into a tool: I write a mission statement for each story. 

Roy goes on later to say:

I scribbled my mission for "Three Little Words" on two pages of a legal pad.  It covers the content and the form of the story, what I was writing about and how I wanted to write it.  My mission begins: "I want to tell a human story, not just about AIDS, but of the deeply human themes of life, love, death, sorrow, hope, compassion, family, and community."  The mission statement included these goals:

(I've chosen three out of Roy's five)

  • I want to portray my protagonist as a fully human character--and not some kind of cardboard saint.
  • I want to do this so people can identify with and care for her and her family. It's so easy to see people with AIDS as "the other," the outcast, suffering sinners.
  • I want to do this in a form--twenty-nine short chapters--that will give people a chance to know, to learn, to care, to hope.

As for the format:

  • I want to restore the form of the serial narrative to newspapers--using the shortest chapters possible.
  • I want to reconcile the values of short and long writing in American newspapers.
  • I want to write each chapter with (a) a stand-alone quality, (b) a cliffhanger ending, (c) a sense of a new starting point.

I cannot overstate the value of this exercise.  It gave me a view over the horizon as I drafted the story.  This 250-word mission statement, which took about ten minutes to write, helped create a 25,000-word series.  It provided the language I needed to share my hopes with other writers, editors, and readers.  It could be tested, expanded, revised--and it was--during the writing process.

Roy ends the chapter with these words:

     My "Three Little Words" workshop goes on and on as I hear from readers and journalists years later.  From this distance, I see things I would have done differently: reduce the number of chapters; make the reporting and writing methods more transparent; create a straighter narrative line by eliminating one flashback.  By writing that mission statement, I not only kick-started my own learning, but I also created a path where many others could ride along.

Now, use the tool in Roy's WORKSHOP:

1. Write a short mission statement for your next work.  Use it to think about your writing strategies and aspirations.  Share it with someone else, as a reality check, and to get suggestions on how to achieve it.

2. Study some of your old pieces, especially ones you deem successful.  Write a mission statement after the fact, listing what you learned from each.

Check in next week for Roy's 41st tool: Turn procrastination into rehearsal.

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