#AuthorInterview: Meet Author Marcia Riefer Johnston.


When Marcia was 12, American Girl magazine printed her eight-paragraph story, “The Key,” and paid her $15. She has been writing ever since.

She studied under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Syracuse University creative-writing program. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University. She has done writing of all kinds for organizations of all kinds, from the Fortune 500 to the just plain fortunate.

Marcia has written for the scholarly journal Shakespeare Quarterly, the professional journal Technical Communication, and the weekly newspaper Syracuse New Times. She used to write letters by the boxful. She has contributed posts to her daughter’s Peace Corps blog, texts to her son’s Droid, and answers to her husband’s crossword puzzles. Her words have landed on billboards, blackboards, birthday cakes, boxes of eggs, and the blurb you’re reading right now. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

To share her love of writing, she has collected some one-of-a-kind essays into a book, a #1 best seller on Amazon under “Writing Skills”: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them). Published in April 2013, Word Up! has received 108 reviews to date from Amazon customers alone, averaging 4.9 out of 5 stars. Word Up! has received multiple awards, including an IndieReader Discovery Award, a Foreword Reviews IndieFab Award, a Next Generation Indie Book Award, a Readers’ Favorite Award, and a Kindle Book Review Award.

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How did you get into writing?

When I was maybe nine years old, my best friend, Shannon Wood, gave me a blank book. I had always loved reading books. Suddenly, I was inspired to write one. I sat down to do just that, only to discover that I had nothing to say. But I clung to the notion of myself as a writer. When you believe long enough that you can do something that you can’t do, lo and behold, you discover that you can.

What do you like best (or least) about writing?

What I like best: The pleasure of getting it right—finding the perfect word, crafting the ring and rhythm of a sentence, discovering the structure that a given piece needs, nailing an ending. And then I love hearing from readers when they experience those pleasures for themselves. For example, fellow tech writer and self-professed grammar geek, Jennifer DeAngelo, writes, “I find myself forcing others to listen while I read ‘this great part’ out loud every few minutes. My dogs will soon be English experts!” That’s what drives me to write—getting to have, and then share, those moments of earned joy.

What I like least: The time required to get it right. Even the best writers have no shortcut to good writing.

What is your writing process? For example, do you outline? Do you stick to a daily word or page count, write every day, etc.?

The writing I do for myself fits around my technical-writing contracts. When I’m on a big job, I might not do any of my own writing for months. I have no word-count or page-count goals. Inevitably, something comes along that sparks the urge to write on an age-old topic (all topics on language usage are age-old) in a way that strikes me as unique and fun. Once that flame gets going, I’m a moth that can’t stay away.

Someone asked me recently how many revisions a typical essay goes through. She reported that her husband revises a typical piece five times. Five! I didn’t know what to say. The concept of countable passes brought me up short. I don’t revise in discrete iterations. For me, writing is editing and vice versa. Each essay evolves continuously, one change after another, over and over. One essay might take the better part of a day; another might take weeks.

When I’m working on an essay, I wake up each day with ideas for additions or deletions. I keep pads of paper everywhere—next to the bed, in the bathrooms, in the office, in the kitchen, in the car. I don’t advise scribbling while speeding down the highway. Just saying.

In between bouts of writing, ideas come unbidden. A lot gets worked out for me while I sleep. I don’t mean that in a mystical way. Good writing requires many kinds (and many repetitions) of thinking, critiquing, weighing. It’s a rush unlike any other when your brain is processing processing processing, and the thing you didn’t even know you needed SURFACES. Aha! Quick, get me to a keyboard.

Who are some other writers you read and admire, regardless of whether they are commercially “successful”?

Hemingway was my first inspiration in terms of craft. My book, “Word Up!” includes my two favorite quotations from him, both classics. Here’s one:

If a writer … knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows … The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Here’s the other:

The greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel … was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. The real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion … would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always.

A writer could do a lot of fine work following nothing but those two principles.

I also admire Ray Carver and Toby Wolff. I had the privilege of studying with both of them in the creative writing Masters program at Syracuse University. What an opportunity! Ray and Toby made us, their lucky students, feel that our words mattered. Their affirmation meant as much as any lessons I learned from them. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet discovered Ray Carver’s short stories “A Small, Good Thing” and “Cathedral,” stop right now and go find them. And if you haven’t yet read Toby Wolff’s memoirs This Boy’s Life and Old School, do you ever have a treat waiting for you.

I also love Barbara Kingsolver, especially her essays. Her Small Wonder and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle take my breath away—in terms of both what she says and how she says it.

And Mary Karr … beware. Reading her is enough to put you off considering yourself skilled or entertaining. Her Liar’s Club tops my list of books to recommend.

Should the question mark in the previous question be inside or outside the quotation marks?

That question mark goes outside. If you were quoting a question, you’d put the quotation mark inside.

I wish that American usage (like British usage) treated commas and periods with similar logic. When you have a word in quotation marks, like “this,” who on earth decided that the comma belonged inside? If I put a word in italics, like this, how am I supposed to get the comma inside the italics? I mean! Ooooh… Do. Not. Get. Me. Started.

What’s your stance on the Oxford Comma?

Ha! Okay, I’ll take that on. I, say why bother with that extra, comma in fact why, do writers care so much, about commas anyhow since, they just take, up space and readers, can figure out what we, mean right? Those sticklers who insist, that the Oxford, Comma creates clarity, while taking, up hardly any, space well they are, just a bunch, of curmudgeons! Writers should put, commas wherever they like or not just let their words flow as nature intended straight from the brain and let the natural rhythms emerge organically who needs commas when you get right down to it writers who need to lean on crutches like commas can’t hardly call themselves writers now can they and no in case you’re wondering no I am not serious I figure if you’ve read this far you surely have your own opinion on this question and have heard it discussed enough times to have yawned at any straight answer I might have given.

In case you’re still wondering, and if you haven’t come to terms with this question for yourself, and if you don’t have a style guide forced on you at work making the decision for you, then let me give you a straight answer after all and say yes, I cast my vote adamantly in favor of the Oxford comma (aka serial comma, aka Harvard comma, aka the comma before the last item in a series). I just used the Oxford comma in the previous couple sentences. Did you notice? Probably not. That’s the beauty of these handy little curved marks of punctuation: they make reading easier. Why leave them out when they’re so darn useful?

I know, I know, newspaper columns, etc. Save that snippet of space if your style guide says you must.

I couldn’t put it better than Bryan Garner, whose big, fat Garner’s Modern American Usage, by the way, every writer needs. On page 676, he puts it like this: “Omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.”

What is Word Up! about and why did you write it?

Ah, back to a serious question. Actually, I love all of these questions. Bring them on!

I’ve had a passion for the English language since I was deprived of it during my year as an exchange student in Austria in high school. I also credit my English teachers for teaching me writing skills that too few people get these days. Lots of people are hungry for better writing skills. And these skills are teachable. I realized that I had something of value to offer and could have a blast doing it.

For a longer answer to this question, see “Tribute to a Teacher Who Put ‘Word Power’ in His Students’ Hands.”

Who or what inspires you to write?

Inspiration comes from anywhere language can be found: a hospital-hallway sign, a snippet of song, a Tweet, a book, a bakery cake, a billboard, the back of my brain.

Is there anything you’d care to add?

Yes! I’d like to give you, dear reader, a sense of why I bothered to write yet another book on writing. The world already has too many writing books. If you piled up all the books on writing, you’d have a precarious, weird-looking stack reaching … way up there. But the world can’t have too many writing books of the kind I like to read, the kind I set out to write. This book doesn’t say the same old things in the same old ways. This book follows its own advice. Practices what it preaches. Shows what it tells. This book uses powerful writing to talk about powerful writing.

Powerful writing entertains, heals, motivates, sells, enlightens. It marks the biggest and smallest occasions of human existence. Powerful writing changes things—for a person, a classroom, a country, a planet.

This book could be used in the classroom—I’d love for teachers and students to discover it—but it’s not a textbook. It’s not exactly a style guide either, although it does get into grammar and style. I think of Word Up! as an inspiration guide. One reviewer (content strategist Rahel Bailie) says, “You rarely get this kind of knowledge in such an engaging way. Read the book like a collection of short stories.”

That’s the kind of experience I wish for you in reading Word Up!

Where can people find you and your book online?

On my website, How To Write Everything, many chapters are available as free PDF downloads on the “Excerpts” page. To find out all the ways you can purchase the book, click “Buy.”

If you get the book, please let me know what you think of it. Better yet, let the world know: write a brief review on Amazon or whichever bookseller site you prefer. Writing a review—an honest review—is the best thing you can do to help a book find its audience.


  1. Great interview. I like the way Marcia asks us right in the interview to review her book. We writers really do need to be more clear in asking folks to review our books, or at give them a rating on one of the major sites. It really does help get the word out! It sounds like a very worthwhile read.


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