I Took A Course With Susan Orlean From The New Yorker. Here's Everything I Learned.

All creative non-fiction is a dance between two forces: facts and style.

I Took A Course With Susan Orlean From The New Yorker. Here's Everything I Learned.
Photo by Marcelo Cidrack / Unsplash

"IT HAS TO BE TRUE. IT HAS TO BE GOOD." As soon as I hear those words I open Obsidian in a new window and start typing notes.

I had a feeling this course would be something special. At first, while browsing Skillshare, I was charmed by the title: Creative Nonfiction: Write Truth With Style. But what draws me in deeper is Susan’s passion for her craft.

She has this warm yet surgical way of speaking. She uses incisive words like elemental, cellular, and analog that, in the hands of the uninitiated, might sound sterile and robotic. But Susan uses them to paint warm, vivid pictures. As a business writer, I’m enraptured. I’m not used to hearing this kind of language.

Aside from her vocabulary, Susan has a natural presence that matches her writing credentials as a veteran staff writer at The New Yorker and author of eight books.

She’s passionate. She develops themes as she speaks. She delivers on promises. The longer you listen to her, the greater the payoff.

I’m learning that writers make excellent orators. Despite one or two stumbles, her presentation is immaculate. Susan’s words flow. She's smooth. She’s wise but never condescending. A consummate professional at the height of their craft, inviting us to join them in their world.

Susan Orlean, Staff Writer, The New Yorker. Source: Skillshare.

The Foundation Of Great Writing

"WRITING WELL, IS WRITING WELL," Susan declares, smirking to herself. What she means, is that whether we’re writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, the principles that make great writing are transcendent. The essence of writing is about creating a narrative and pacing a narrative.

All creative non-fiction is a dance between two forces: facts and style.

Facts alone won’t make you a great writer. Facts are robotic. Facts are sterile. But a charming piece without facts is a contradiction in terms. It’s a piece devoid of meaning. Writers find their voice when they bring facts and style into balance. When they learn to harmonize both the sizzle and the steak.

The “elemental requirement” of great writing is curiosity. If we can pique the curiosity of our readers, we’re halfway home. How can we expect to arouse curiosity in others if we aren’t curious about a topic ourselves?

Great Stories Find Great Writers

One of the main impediments to great writing is topic choice. Most topics are too broad, or too niche. Will other people care about this? Can they apply what they learn from me to other areas in their lives?

Susan is a big advocate for passion as a writer’s secret ingredient. To demonstrate. we’re asked to imagine a loud dinner party, perhaps in downtown Manhattan. Imagine one of the party guests suddenly smiles and shouts over the din: “Oh my god, you won’t believe what happened to me in Indianapolis!”

How would you feel at that moment?

This isn’t a place people associate with excitement, but the passion of the speaker has us eager to learn more. This is a great analog for the mindset of the writer. If you bring grace, passion, and curiosity to a story, you will naturally pull people in with you.

Great writers help stories find them. Like treasure hunters, they are combing, collecting, sifting and absorbing info. Susan laughs when she says, “You’ll be convinced after you complete a story that is no other stories in the world,” an allusion to the writer’s block we all must face from time to time, but as long as you stay open to new experiences, new stories will find you.

Reporting & Research

Susan likes going into a subject unprepared. For example, if you were a travel writer documenting Paris, perhaps it’s best to go in clean and figure things out when you get there. There's a sharpness of mind that comes when experiencing something the first time.

For Susan, notes are a form of self-expression. Deciding what needs to be captured and what needs to be left out, is a writer's first chance to leave their signature style on a piece. Perhaps that's why she hates tape recorders during interviews. Not having a safety net keeps you focused on the conversation.

A great way to set yourself apart from other writers is going a level deeper than your audience is expecting. If you interview a CEO, you might speak to their employees, their customers, their friends and their family. You might also consider speaking to academic researchers and marketing experts who’ve studied them.

How do you know when you’ve done enough research?

With new topics, there’s always a bit of a learning curve. You know you’re at the end of your research when you’re consulting the same resources for the 2nd or 3rd time and not gleaning new insights.

Susan believes a writer should know “much, much, much“ (yup, three times) more than what they end up sharing with the reader. Much of the beauty in writing is what the reader never sees.

How To Organize Your Thoughts

Just as taking notes is our first opportunity to find meaning and filter out what we don’t find interesting, typing up our notes, or highlighting and organizing them is our second filter. We can develop a relationship with our notes as well as our stories.

Another great way of finding which parts of a story speak to us in the early stages is when we talk to friends or family about the pieces we’re working on. We’ll include or exclude certain details of a story depending on how they resonate.

I share Susan’s dislike for outlines. I don’t know about her, but I find them too inorganic and forced. Top-down thinking stifles my creativity.

Susan prefers to extract the individual “scenes” (the smallest discrete chunks or units of thought in her story) from her notes and put each one on index cards. She does this so she can lay them flat on a table and get a holistic perspective on her story. From there she’ll zoom in and out, shuffle and re-order the notes until she finds a structure she likes.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

The Elements of a Great Story

I almost blush when Susan shares her secret to writing a great lede. writing is competing with a million other distractions. The lede/introduction must be terrific. It doesn’t have to be a capsule summary. Think of it as a striptease.

If the stripper removed all their clothes right away, the crowd might tune out.

Rhythm is a major focus of Susan’s. By varying sentence length and the “speed” of the piece, a reader can hold onto the author. The natural monotony of a piece is broken with variety.

We can zoom into a piece so close that we disappear from the reader’s view. Like when we report facts or use direct quotes without any extra context. This is an excellent tool to help the audience or reader experience a situation the same way we did.

Susan polices description in her work. It’s “sludgy” and threatens to consume the reader whole if not employed well. An alternative she recommends is sketching a scene and respecting the reader enough to allow them the autonomy to fill in the blanks for themselves.

Revising & Editing

Susan has a secret. She loves editing. She breaks into a smile every time she mentions it. She sees editing as an opportunity.

An opportunity to polish your piece. An opportunity to connect with other people and learn more. About your topic. About your craft. About your audience.

About yourself.

She’s a fan of daily habits like writing targets and word counts, but her favourite tool is reading a piece aloud.  She makes a ritual of it. Giving a piece a day or so to breathe is a great way to get some space. Particularly if you’re trying to “solve” a challenging section in your writing.

All you need to do is pull up your writing from the previous day and read it aloud. In Susan’s eyes, this is the first time a story comes alive.

When we read out loud we hear the timbre of a piece. We experience its texture. We get dragged down by rough patches and rush through sections that don’t hold our attention. Armed with this firsthand knowledge we can start polishing.

There are some cues you can use to evaluate your writing:

  • How confident does this piece sound? Does it wobble or lose steam at certain points? Can you smooth those areas out or is it easier to cut them?
  • How's the pacing? Is it varied enough to keep readers engaged? Does it rush through certain sections? Which areas need more time to breathe?
  • How does it feel? What are the mechanics of the sentences? Do you change up your sentence length? Is your writing textured, varied, and compelling?

Susan reiterates that a piece begins to take shape once it’s been read by other people. This makes me uncomfortable. I’m still possessive of my writing. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of opening my writing up to a committee. However, Susan sells me on the merits of this approach. Why do we write? To be read.

Beautiful island Visovac
Photo by Hrvoje_Photography 🇭🇷 / Unsplash

Nobody writes on an island.

Readers are the best way to ensure thoughts are coherent. That a piece has an internal logic. She laughs as she recounts a piece she wrote about the Super Bowl. She recalls sitting expectantly in front of her editor as he leaned forward and mumbled: “You forgot to say who won.”

Another set of eyes are worth their weight in gold.

Susan has a maternal fondness for her writing. She recoils at the idea of deleting chunks of text from her drafts. She prefers to copy them into an “orphan file” in case she needs them later. Rarely does she go back and pull them, but it makes her feel better about the editing process.

Conclusions And Ending Stories

So often, writers see the conclusion as nothing more than an opportunity to restate everything that has come before.  A sort of “capsule summary” that recaps the entire piece for a reader and sends them away in awe of your ability to write.

In certain contexts, this is advisable. But Susan sees it as disrespectful to your audience. If they’ve hung with you through the entire piece and followed your curiosity and excitement the entire way, chances are they’ve already connected the dots and kept up with you. Respect that.

The main error Susan observes is that writers work themselves into a stupor by trying to generate this emotional crescendo that closes the piece with a bang. When she was starting out, that’s what Susan did. Then a strange thing happened. Her editors would always give her pieces back with the final paragraph cut out. Just in case that doesn't speak for itself: rich stories don’t always lend themselves to clean conclusions.

A great question for generating conclusions is: what emotion do you want to leave our readers with? Triumph? Joy? Completion? Sadness? Uncertainty? Oftentimes we think a conclusion demands finality, but in Susan’s words, leaving a reader with longing for the story to continue is a delicious way to sign off.

Another tool you can employ here is waiting until the very end to deploy the most precious moment of your story. The nugget you’ve been hoarding the entire time. Here’s mine. When telling a story, Susan loves the magic of the ordinary. The poetry of fact.

The Ongoing Work of a Writer

Susan shares a few words on how we can reflect and grow as writers. In her eyes, the key to growth is asking ourselves why we write. What is it we love about writing? Why did we choose this story? Why do we choose any story?

You might never be able to answer and your answers will change over time, but in this case, the journey is the destination.

Writing for an audience is a two-way relationship. In private anything goes. But when you’re writing for an audience, you’re a conduit. A guide. What does your audience need from you?

Writing is both an art and a craft. The science and practical side of writing helps open you up and gives you space to be more creative.

As if on cue, she smiles and repeats her mantra that editing is an opportunity. Embrace its power rather than viewing it as an onerous process. Like lifting weights in the gym, you get better over time the more reps you do. Be open.

Become a love of words. Collect words like treasures. Get to know them. Write them down. Keep a word journal.  She loves her thesaurus and thinks fear of them is overblown. Of course, be accurate and don’t use words you don’t know. But never be afraid to spice up your writing with new, evocative words and vivid language.

The Bliss Of Learning.

And just like that, the course is over. As the screen fades to black I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I never anticipated learning this much from an internet course. I’ll conclude my work with a final word from Susan on the art of conclusions:

"No story is ever finished, they end."


Williamsburg Bridge . NYC
Photo by Matteo Catanese / Unsplash