10-Minute Writer's Workshop: NPR's Tom Gjelten

Mar 16, 2016

Long-time NPR reporter and five-time author Tom Gjelten recently visited the studios here at NHPR. We, of course, couldn't resist talking to him about his latest book, A Nation of Nations, and asking him for ten minutes.

Credit Sara Plourde

What's harder to write - the first sentence, or the last?

The first sentence is harder to write. I actually think the last sentence is the more important one. And that comes from my radio experience, because...you know, radio journalism is storytelling. You're telling a story to people, and when you tell stories to people, the last line is so conclusive, so important.

What's your personal worst distraction from getting work done?

Frustration. When I feel like it's not very good, when I've spent a lot of time on a single paragraph, and I throw it out...I start getting discouraged, and then I look for opportunities to distract myself. It's that combination of looking for an excuse, and feeling bad about what you're doing. When I'm writing well, the time just flies.

Do you have to be in a certain place to write?

When I wrote my Bacardi in Cuba book, I did it upstairs in a spare bedroom, and it took me a long time. I was working on that book off and on for three or four years. And my wife got really fed up...she did not like me being up there. She'd have a day off, and I'd be up there clicking away, and it drove her crazy. When I set out writing this last book, she said "you're not writing that book at home." So, I went and found a really great, little room in an office building about five miles away.

What do you think is the most common mistake new writers make?

I think it's a stylistic thing. I think that people get really self conscious about their writing, and deliberately use words that are too big, phrases that are too long. Strip it down...When you write for broadcast, you learn to write simple, declarative sentences. You stay away from adjectives. You stay away from adverbs. You stay away from introductory clauses. You write clear sentences with strong verbs that don't go on forever. I think if you're self conscious about your writing, you sort of think it's somehow better to have florid phrasing and fancy words and metaphors. I don't even like metaphors! I just like really clean, simple writing that is as clear as a bell.

Listen to the podcast for the full interview!