With the Intercultural Center Auditorium on Georgetown’s main campus almost packed to capacity, rows of eager audience members lined up along the back walls, found seats along the steps and even perched on tables in order to get as close as possible to the star journalists. It was 9 am on Saturday, October 1, and everyone was gathered to hear Roy Peter Clark, author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer", kick off the "Write Your Heart Out, Washington" seminar organized by The Washington Post, the Poynter Institute and Georgetown University’s Master’s in Journalism program.
Clark made use of his keyboard to punctuate points as he broke down the parts of the writing process patiently and enthusiastically. He covered each piece, from the basics like activating verbs to the more personal aspects like reading out loud to "tune your voice." Every now and then, he would reach down and tinker the keys to accentuate the creative process. Clark also shared key insights, such as what he called "seeking original images."
"You don't always have to follow the cliché," he said. "If I see one more headline about Tom Cruise freaking out, using some variation of the phrase 'Cruise Out of Control', I'm going to scream."
The crowd laughed and listened intently, scribbling notes onto yellow pads. These people had come to learn at the feet of some of the country's best writers and instructors.
The expertise and personal engagement continued as Keith Woods, NPR's vice president of news and operations in diversity and author of "How Change Looks in America," joined Master’s Journalism program faculty member and Washington Post reporter Lonnae O'Neal Parker on stage for the workshop's next segment, "The Art of Personal Essays." Using their own examples to illustrate success in narrative essay writing, Woods and O’Neal Parker treated the audience to stories about New Orleans, motherhood and the intricacies of everyday life as working writers. Both journalists emphasized the importance of finding the heart of a story, which is often only apparent after one has begun reporting. The art of reading aloud was once again emphasized as Woods said his stories often passed through his lips well before being committed to paper.
"I tell my story many, many times before I write it," he said.
Roy Peter Clark returned after lunch to interview Washington Post legend, Gene Weingarten, for a segment called "Writing With Humor." The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's column "Below the Beltway," has been a mainstay of the paper for ten years and was the primary focus of the interview. The exchange produced some invaluable professional advice that the audience eagerly scribbled down, such as using one's own life for inspiration.
"The most important words are the ones you don't write," said Weingarten. "The ones that you get to pop into the reader's head."
Weingarten also stressed that humor and important reflections can be found every day. He joked that no one in his family is safe from being included in his columns and that personal experiences are the ones that are most translatable to a larger audience.
Anne Hull, a Washington Post writer and Pulitzer Prize winner well-known for her September 11th reporting and coverage of the Walter Reed Army Hospital, then conducted "Writing With Detail." Although Clark earlier used the "setting a character" angle as one his most abhorred clichés, Hull stressed that understanding one’s environment and being careful to observe all aspects of a situation are crucial writing tools.
"Place can be a character," she said. "Immerse yourself in the place you're writing about."
The presentation of the Pulitzer Prize winners continued as Eugene Robinson and Kathleen Parker led the final segment, "The Science of Opinion Writing." While the journalists approach the writing process differently, both stated that their role as columnists is to provide human views on issues and give unsolicited advice. They acknowledged, however, that their work can be controversial, as was Robinson’s column encouraging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to lose weight.
Clark returned to the stage to wrap up the all-day writing workshop, thanking the Georgetown University Master of Professional Studies in Journalism program and The Washington Post, both essential partners to the Poynter workshop.
"And remember a story has the power to transport the reader,” he said. “Stories make us feel human."
Other notable quotes and take-aways from the workshop can be found in MPS Journalism faculty member Steve Buttry’s Storify piece.