The TV, magazine, newspaper and book writer will lead a Wintersession seminar on "leaning" in to your writing career.
By Olivia Munk '16
Though Nell Scovell ’82 and I had originally planned to speak at 10:15 on a Sunday morning (7:15 a.m. her time, on the West Coast), she asked that we push back our chat by an hour. She’d been up until 4 a.m. the night before, writing.
I tell her we can do the interview any time, but the lack of sleep doesn’t seem to bother her. “The day I don’t want to stay up late on a Saturday night writing is the day I’m done,” she declared. “It really is.”
As a college student who frequently stays up until all hours frantically writing papers, I found Scovell’s assurance very comforting. Given her career path – which began at her high school newspaper and has included The Harvard Crimson (Jeffrey Toobin and Bill McKibben were members of her comp class) and The Boston Globe, Spy magazine, Vanity Fair, Late Night with David Letterman, as well as her status as co-writer of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and creator of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch – it’s safe to say that one would do well to heed her advice on writing.
For those who share the impulse to write screenplays, novels or news articles, Scovell will offer a workshop this Wintersession on how to approach a variety of writing genres. “There are similarities that run through all forms of writing,” Scovell said. “There’s structure, there’s voice, and then there’s audience.”
Scovell emphasized in particular the importance of understanding the specific audience in creating any form of writing. “The example I always use is when Mother Theresa spoke at my Class Day,” said Scovell. “She said, in her speech, that the greatest gift a woman can give her husband is her virginity,” she recalled. “I turned to my roommate and said, well, she should have been here freshman week.” To best connect with an audience, said Scovell, you have to understand its members. “The Wintersession seminar will be all about what are the things that connect, and what are the things that are different between forms of writing,” she said.
It was through her work on the sports board of The Crimson that Scovell discovered her love for characters. Harvard provided “super-smart athletes [who] would give you great quotes” and entertaining coaches, such as Bill McCurdy, a cross-country coach whom Scovell cites as one of the “greatest interviews” she has conducted.
While Scovell found that she loved the rush of deadlines and the security of earning paychecks that came with working for professional publications such as the Globe, she missed the kind of characters she encountered as an undergraduate. “When I got into the real world, I would hear a lot of quotes like, ‘We said we were going to do it, and we did it!’” recalled Scovell. “And then it became less interesting to me, because what I always liked was characters. And that’s one of the things I’ll talk about a lot in this seminar: how to spot characters and how to develop characters.”
Now she advises students interested in writing to pursue as many outlets as possible. “The Crimson was great for me,” she said, “and in a way, sports, too, because I just wrote all the time.”
She cited the “Hamburg Effect,” or the phenomenon wherein the Beatles, in their earliest days as a band, performed constantly (often for hours on end) at nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany, as an example of how intensive practice really does make perfect.
“You’ve got to log your 10,000 hours,” advised Scovell. “I think that’s true.” She pointed to a piece by Ira Glass, in which the radio personality spoke to the fact that “when you start, you’re really bad at what you do, and that’s fine because it means you have taste, and that your talent hasn’t caught up with your taste yet.”
While musicians such as the Beatles have their Hamburgs to improvise and explore, writers have the Internet to publish anything and everything at the click of a button. “Start a blog, start a Twitter account, just practice, practice, practice,” said Scovell – even if your early material isn’t quite up to snuff. “Whether you’re playing instruments or sports or writing a joke, the more you do it, the better you’ll get, and the more you’ll discover your own voice, and eventually discover an audience.”
For students pursuing comedy writing, however, Scovell noted that sometimes, the first thing that pops into your head is better than the product of time-intensive editing.
“I, like a lot of driven women, want everything to be perfect and just so,” said Scovell. “But one thing I’ve learned from comedy is that sometimes your first thought is your best thought. Even if it’s not grammatically correct, you stick with the way it pops into your head. While I believe in the importance of editing and reworking your writing, I also think there’s a time to let go, and you have to shut up the voice of the obnoxious roommate telling you 'this isn’t good enough, you’re not funny' and all those social and cultural cues we all have internalized. It’s so cheesy, but you just work hard and believe in yourself.”
Nell Scovell’s Wintersession seminar, “A Way With Words,” will take place 4-5:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, Fong Auditorium in Boylston Hall, and is open to Harvard affiliates and the public. Find out about other Harvard Office for the Arts Wintersession offerings and sign up for Scovell’s event here.