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Faculty experts share writing tips with academics

March 04, 2010

When Joel Garreau was an editor for "Outlook," the opinion section of the Washington Post, he and his colleagues knew exactly how to “shape up” anything sent in by an academic who had “a germ of a good idea.”

“Before we even read it, we would go to his last paragraph and move it up to the top, because we knew that’s where he’d buried his lede,” Garreau said.

Garreau, now the Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture and Values at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, was one of four panelists at an event titled “Rethinking our Writing, Rewriting our Thinking,” designed to help ASU faculty bring their work to larger audiences.

The workshop was presented by the Initiative for Innovative Inquiry, Hugh Downs School of Communication; Institute for Social Research; Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes; and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Other panel members were David Fugate, president of LaunchBooks Literary Agency; Melissa Pritchard, professor of English and women’s studies; Stephen Pyne, Regents’ Professor, School of Life Sciences; and Edward Sylvester, professor, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The moderator was Lee Gutkind, who is the Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes; a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Communication; and founding editor of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction.

Gutkind told the packed gathering in the Alumni Lounge that though the future of publishing looks bleak, the exception is for “those who write creative nonfiction.”

To successfully write creative nonfiction, academics, who on the one hand know a lot about subjects such as genomes and robotics, need to “close the gap,” Gutkind said.

“We need to get you to tell us what you know in ways we can appreciate and understand. But we don’t want to dumb down the material.”

Gutkind cited the most recent edition of the New York Times Book Review as evidence of the growing market for creative nonfiction by academics. Six of the 12 fiction and nonfiction books reviewed were by authors with an academic affiliation, and three of the reviews also were academics, he said.

For faculty who jump into the creative nonfiction arena, “I don’t promise you fame and fortune,” Gutkind said, "but I promise you satisfaction.”

Fugate, the literary agent, said academics who want to write creative nonfiction must “broaden their work, show the implications of their work.” He cited the book “Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People” by Jon Jeter as an example. For this book, the author collected individual stories of how the globalized economy has affected them.

According to the Web site (a paid site), publishers bought at least 150 creative nonfiction books by academics last year, on such subjects as surfing and shopping (“Attention Shoppers: A Manifesto Arguing for the Importance of Consumption in Driving the Economy, Forming Identity, Creating Meaning – and Saving the World,” by intellectual historian James Livingston).

“Why is there such an interest in academics books?" Fugate asked. “Because you’re the experts.”

Fugate said as an agent he looks for “deep, deep expertise, and a passion to leave your mark on a topic. You want to invite the reader into your world and share something with them.”

Some tips and thoughts from the panelists:

Melissa Pritchard, author of short-story collections, novels, a biography and numerous magazine articles (including one slated for the June issue of O!), said she started her journalism career when she was invited to write an article for the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. When her story on the Lost Boys of Sudan was published in Metro Magazine, she realized what a difference she could make with her writing. She has traveled to numerous countries to write about volunteerism and the U.S. Military.

Edward Sylvester, who teaches science and medical journalism, is the author of several books about brain surgery and the brain and cancer – whose research involved spending hours in the operating room observing surgeries at Barrow Neurological Institute.

He is also co-author of “Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure,” co-authored with Lynn C. Klotz. Sylvester said working with a co-author can be challenging. “You each have to have a niche, and be able to fight and go back to work and still end up talking to each other,” he said.

Stephen Pyne, who has written numerous books about and fighting fire, including “Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter's Season at the Grand Canyon,” goes back and forth between trade publishers and university presses. He teaches a class on literary nonfiction at ASU. Pyne stresses ethics in his work. “You can’t make up incidents, and you don’t invent composites," he said. "You can’t slight the source to make something read better. We can, however, use characterization, set scenes and animate our work.”

Pyne said he began writing about fire during the winter of 1977 just after he earned his doctoral degree and was working as a volunteer at Grand Canyon until he could be rehired for the North Rim fire crew.

“I realized that I ought to take the training I had been given as a historian and apply it to fire. No one had written about fire in this way. The outcome was not creative nonfiction (as Lee defines it) so much as big-screen history, but the effect was similar,” he said.

Garreau, whose books include "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier” and “Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and What It Means to Be Human,” said he routinely writes about subjects where there is “a tall cliff between what the academic understands and my mother.” He writes so that his mother – his image for anyone who is interested but has no idea about the subject – will understand the story.

Garreau said he had one great editor who would draw a line down the edge of his copy when her mind started to wander.

He also offered these tips:

• Never tell someone when you can show them.

• Reading your story out loud is a good discipline.

• Have a special person in your mind as a target audience as you write.

• Be passionate about your topic.

• Don’t be afraid to throw away 98 percent of your research.

Recommended books:

“Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get it Published” by Susan Rabiner.

The next event in the four-workshop series will be from 4 to 6 p.m., March 8, in Coor Hall, room 5536. This workshop, titled ”The Importance of Narrative and Telling Your Story Vividly and Responsibly,” is for ASU faculty and staff only.

For more information about the series, go to or contact