David McCullough: On Writing Well

Esteemed historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David McCullough captivated a crowd of SMU students, faculty and staff during a Q&A-style forum Nov. 18.

Esteemed historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David McCullough captivated an SMU crowd Nov. 18, 2015.

Often called “America’s greatest living historian,” David McCullough visited SMU Nov. 18 not only to speak with a crowd of students, faculty and staff, but also to accept this year’s Medal of Freedom presented by the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies.

During an afternoon Q&A-style forum, McCullough shared numerous nuggets of wisdom, but his writing advice (geared to novices and professionals) was particularly inspiring:

• “Write for the ear as well as the eye. Read it out loud and you’ll immediately ‘hear’ what’s wrong with it. My wife, Rosalee — my editor-in-chief for 50 years — is my partner for that technique.”

• “The ultimate aid to navigation for writers is William Strunk & E.B. White’s book, The Elements of StyleFirst published in 1920, “It’s as good today as it ever was. It’s a must-read for writers, who should refer to it time and again.”

• “Writing doesn’t get easier as you get older. It gets more difficult. Your standards get higher.”

• “Challenge yourself by reading ‘up.’ Harry Truman, for example, read Latin for pleasure.”

• “I think all writers should take a drawing or painting class to learn how to paint with words. As Charles Dickens said, ‘Make me see.’ I try to make you see what’s happening and smell it and hear it. I want you to know what they had for dinner. I want you to know how long it took to walk from where to where.”

• McCullough is looking forward to the American Writers Museum opening in Chicago in 2017. “Up to now, Dublin, Ireland, has been the only other place with something similar. But you’d think that with all of America’s great writers, we wouldn’t still be waiting for something like that.”

• McCullough still uses a 1960s-era typewriter. Why? “Because I can’t push a button and erase a month’s worth of work.”

— Denise Gee

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Valve Software VP Doug Lombardi with the SMU Guildhall

Doug Lombardi, Steam VP, with the SMU Guildhall, 2015Valve Software executive and digital gaming insider Doug Lombardi joined the SMU Guildhall for a spirited talk on growing opportunities for independent game designers and what it takes to get a game ready for the marketplace. The event was broadcast live on Twitch.

During his talk, “Ship Something: The Steam Greenlight Process,” Lombardi shared his wisdom on both gaming and life:

On taking pride in process: “Even if you’re not charging for content, it represents you. When you ship something, you learn something.”

On setting aside egos when dealing with disagreement: “If the product wins, everyone wins.”

On making important decisions, whether about a project or your life: “Step back, take a time out. This isn’t basketball. You get more than five per half.”

On taking risks: “You’re more free now than you ever will be…. Now is your time to take risks…to learn what doesn’t work.”

On making the most of your education: “Be a sponge for info from your professors and colleagues. Someday, their advice could be the best you’ve ever heard.”

— Kathleen Tibbetts

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‘Tough’ Talk: ICE Director/SMU Alumna Sarah Saldaña ’84

Saldana at SMU“I remember you were tough on me. [Audience laughs.] Let me remind you I have national subpoena power now.”

Sarah R. Saldaña, U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Director/SMU Dedman School of Law alumna (’84) kidding her “much admired” former professor/dean, C. Paul Rogers III, as she accepted her 2015 Hispanic Alumna Award May 21. The award luncheon, at Meadows Museum, was hosted by the Hispanic Alumni Association of SMU with support from the Latino Center for Leadership Development.


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Acclaimed statistician/forecaster Nate Silver leans in

“One of the ironies of having more data is having more misinterpretation of that data.” — Nate Silver at SMU

FiveThirtyEight.com founder Nate Silver, who calls himself an “applied statistician-journalist or something like that,” was peppered with non-stop questions during SMU’s Willis M. Tate Lecture Series Student Forum May 5. Here are a few of the most memorable exchanges (his answers italicized).

What issues would you like to explore more on FiveThirtyEight.com?

Education, including higher ed, is ripe for study, especially the U.S. News and World Report rankings. I’d also like us to take a more data-driven approach to healthcare as well as crime.

How might data science transform the healthcare industry?

There are two constraints: One, physicians and others in healthcare tend to be a tight-knit, reticent group and two, there are serious concerns about privacy issues.

What’s something you can tell us about the runup to the 2016 presidential election?

No party has had a long-running advantage because they adapt to changes of circumstances. For instance, some Republicans are de-emphasizing gay marriage and immigration issues – and the GOP has moved from talking about social issues to the economy. It’ll be a long road ahead.

Any advice for SMU students embarking on their careers?

The first thing I’d say: You can’t escape hard work. Another thing: Find problems you’re interested in and the find a way to solve them; you’ll break down your own barriers in the process. Also, be skeptical of the thing that everyone else is doing; keep an open mind.

How do we keep ourselves from just finding facts that “dress up” our own agendas?

Be skeptical of your own belief system.

SMU Meadows Asst. Prof. Jake Batsell mentioned his new media for entrepreneurship class and asked if FiveThirtyEight.com had experienced a “pivot” moment that’s led them to change their approach.

Beyond staying hyper-focused on the long-form pieces we call “jumbo” stories, we’re looking at ways to more quickly and intelligently respond to the news. We’re also spending more time on audience development. We know our subject matter appeals to smart, young people, so we first thought, hey, we’ll publish stuff and those people will just find it. We’re realizing now it doesn’t quite work that way.

How would you re-design a typical university statistics class (typically seen as gruelingly boring)?

I say teach it like a good literature class: Spend 75 to 80 percent of the time focused on great works of writing and don’t have a lot of conversation about syntax.

Dedman Law Professor Emeritus Fred Moss asked, “I want to get down to the nitty gritty. Do you think the Texas Rangers will finish … in the basement?”

Um. Probably.

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SMU Dedman College Dean on Embrey Human Rights Program

DiPiero SMU“Fundamentally what we look at in Dedman College is what it means to be human. I can’t really think of anything more important than the human rights program for looking at ethical responsibilities … and to understand how we relate to each other and our communities.”

Thomas DiPiero, dean of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, in new video about the Embrey Human Rights Program: bit.ly/1FPfqes

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Dedman Law Dean Jennifer Collins on Life ‘Lesson’

A Lesson Before Dying — it helped inspire my passion for social justice.”

— Dean Jennifer M. Collins, SMU Dedman School of Law, naming a book that’s inspired her during her career, to writer Maria Cross in The Daily Campus

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Rick Halperin, human rights leader

“17-year-old Malala [Yousafzai] represents the role young people can play in advancing human rights causes. That should inspire governments everywhere to ensure human rights education begins as soon as possible for future generations of global leaders.”

— SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program director on this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, named the same week his program announced its inaugural Triumph of the Spirit Award winners and Nov. 12 event

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NoViolet Bulaweyo ’07, author, We Need New Names

“Reading should be a labor. We are not here to be pleased all the time.”

– during a lecture and Q&A on her first novel, winner of the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award and the first book by an SMU graduate to be selected as the University’s Common Reading

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Charles Krauthammer, political commentator

“This is going to be one of the dirtiest campaign seasons on record on both sides. So I say hide the children and check the plumbing: You’re going to need to shower several times a day.”

– at the Tate Student Forum

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Santiago Calatrava, architect of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge

“One of the enormous qualities of America is the way it welcomes people. You have welcomed us with your will and your heart. I know so many people in this community,  but my mother, my alma mater, it’s this university.”

– during a visit to Meadows Museum, site of the first large-scale Calatrava sculpture to be permanently installed in the United States

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