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Columbia Missourian

Neuroscientist and music critic discuss writing at Reynolds Journalism Institute

By Doug Davis
March 12, 2010 | 8:08 p.m. CST
Dan Levitin talks writing while fellow panelist Tim Page looks on during a discussion at the Missouri School of Journalism on Friday. Levitin and Page, both professional journalists, brought their respective books for signing: "This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and the World in Six Songs" and "Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger's."

COLUMBIA — If you want to be a good journalist, you need to write, and when you're finished writing, write some more. In other words, you need to practice.

That's the advice of two people who know about writing, authors Dan Levitin and Tim Page, who spoke at MU's Reynolds Journalism Institute on Friday as part of MU's Life Sciences and Society Symposium.

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It's not often you will hear a neuroscientist speak with authority on journalism, but holding a newspaper in front of him, Levitin critiqued a cover article. Reading aloud for the audience, he found information inconsistent with the article in the accompanying infobox.

Then he made his point. Good journalists, Levitin said, get at the heart of things, and that he learned a lot about journalism from editors and publishers.

Levitin said you can always hold to standards of your own, and they will evolve over time. A good way to improve is to compare yourself to a writer you admire, he said.

"Don't settle for copy that just gets by," Levitin said.

Levitin is a former music producer who is now a behavioral neuroscientist and psychologist at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books about musical cognition and the role music plays in interpersonal relationships. He is this year's keynote speaker at the symposium, "From Art to Biology and Back Again."

Page is a Pulitzer prize-winning music critic with The Washington Post and also is on the faculty at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. In 2009, he published a personal memoir, "Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger's."

Page connected two topics he knows well, writing and music, saying the "best prose has a musical quality." His advice to writers is to read what you've written aloud, "with full emotive resonance."

The process of rewriting and editing is critical to making a good story, Levitin said. He said if you look at the first drafts of great writers, they are just OK. Then the "internal editor" kicks in.

"A lot of my students don't understand how many times a story has to be re-written," he said. "If you want your writing to seem effortless, it takes a lot of effort."

Sometimes the process can be a struggle. Page recalled writing an article early in his career. The editor wanted 300 words.

"I couldn't get it out," he said. "I had 35 minutes."

Page's editor recognized he was struggling and told him to free-associate, giving him 1,200 words. He told Page he could write anything he wanted to in the 1,200 words, and that there would be a 300 word story contained in it.

"He was right. It worked, " Page said.