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Can you teach writing?

In Books on August 3, 2017 at 2:42 pm

There is a fascinating discussion of the art of teaching young students to write on the New York Times website at the moment. It’s prompted by the fear that young people are worse writers than young people of the past. Among the startling figures: three-quarters of both eighth- and 12-graders lack proficiency in writing, according to one educational study.

Not that this concern is anything new. The Times story asserts that more than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874.

The question is how to promote better writing, particularly at a time when there is so much distraction and seemingly so little attention span.

Some suggest working at the sentence level. Line editing with students. To me, that feels like advanced work and not much fun for people who aren’t really all that invested in being better writers.

The Times story opens with a teacher trying to get student juices flowing by reading Anne Lamott’s classic writing inspirational “Bird by Bird.” You could do worse that that. If you haven’t read it, you really should. As another teacher says, “You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.”

There is a certain osmosis that goes on when you read. You could read all of Dickens’ work and never create your own “Great Expectations,” of course, but I bet your expectations would be greater nonetheless. Reading gives writers a sense of rhythm, a look at proper grammar, a feel for storytelling. Reading might not make you a great writer, but you won’t be a great writer unless you read. … Read the rest of this entry »

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‘High-keyed and ill-strung’

In Books on February 23, 2017 at 4:31 pm

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I’ve been reading a lively story by a dead guy named Charles Willeford. That’s the book cover up there. As you can probably tell, Willeford and his publisher were not political correct.

Please bear with me while I attempt to make him relevant to you and your work today.

“Pick-Up” is about a suicidal drunk named Harry Jordan who attempts to strangle that lush up there and, as a result, finds himself being interviewed by a jailhouse psychiatrist. The good doctor asks Jordan about his sex life and Willeford’s character doesn’t care for that line of questioning. “I was as high-keyed and ill-strung as a Chinese musical instrument,” the protagonist thinks to himself.

That phrase literally stopped me. I mean I loved it. I dropped the book and scribbled it into a notebook. It struck me as incredibly evocative and I instantly knew exactly how that character felt. I was completely mesmerized by that image of the “ill-strung” Chinese instrument. I could actually hear that feeling.

The next day I thought it might be a little racist. Is it OK to compare your own dissonance to the sound of another culture’s music? The day after that, I concluded that the phrase was just right for that book at that time, but perhaps wouldn’t work in any other context. … Read the rest of this entry »

If No News, Send Rumors

In Books on January 7, 2016 at 4:01 pm

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The first journalism book I’ve read in 2016 is a hoot. It’s also 30 years old – before online commenters, Facebook and even websites. It’s called, “If No News, Send Rumors.” It will crack you up.

It’s a collection of anecdotes from our trade. Stephen Bates’ book is also evidence that, while change has touched everything we do since the book was published in 1988, some things aren’t much different from 1690 when the continent’s first newspaper, Publick Occurances Both Foreign and Domestick was grappling in its very first edition about whether to report a suicide. (It did.)

Among the tidbits:

  • White House staff are said to have regularly passed out amphetamines to reporters in the press room throughout 1955.
  • Cops in New York gave influential columnist Walter Winchell his own lights and sirens for his car.
  • James Gordon Bennett of The New York Herald is purported to have conducted the first newspaper interview in 1836. His interview subject? A madam at a brothel where a prostitute was brutally murdered.

Taken as a whole, the book provides a sense that journalism – for all it’s pronouncements of professionalism and somber sermonizing – is largely about winging it. Ethical judgments are made on the fly. Walters Cronkite and Winchell had the same travails as you have today. And competition has always been mother’s milk to journalists.

It is also a testament to the literate and profoundly funny people who have practiced the tradition of journalism through the years. Some of the quotes and ledes remembered here are laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll leave you with one, from F.H. Brennan, late of The St. Louis Dispatch:

“One answer to the problem of how to treat reporters is to treat them frequently.”

Clay

On Writing Well

In Books on November 20, 2014 at 4:40 pm

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A Facebook friend reminded me of a gem of a book from the past. Actually, I glance at it every day. It’s on the shelf, right at eye level above my computer, as I type these words. It’s called “On Writing Well,” and it is William Zinsser’s ode to the practice of writing. My copy was assigned reading when I was in J school in the Reagan years.

It’s a lot like the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style. It’s pretty sleek and terrifically readable. It’s preachy in the same way the Declaration of Independence is preachy: We hold these truths about writing to be self-evident.

Zinsser offers advice like this, in a chapter on punctuation:

There is not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough. … There is no minimum length for a sentence that is acceptable in the eyes of man and God. …
Read the rest of this entry »

A lesson from Pixar

In Books on May 22, 2014 at 3:12 pm
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Courtesy Pixarpost.com

Have you ever noticed that some things look the same regardless of vantage? A small branch from a tree, held in a certain way, looks itself like a tree. A coastline looks like a coastline whether seen from the beach or outer space.

Those examples come from Ed Catmull’s book, “Creativity, Inc.” and are used to describe a mathematical principle known as stochastic self-similarity.

I know, right? When is the last time Clay Lambert pretended to understand a concept rooted in math? But this one I think I get and it relates to the way we all deal with stressors in our lives.

The book was recommended by Wick Communications CEO Tom Yunt, who has made it a point to pass along interesting management tracts and I’m grateful for material I wouldn’t normally crack. Catmull, the author, is the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. He has a Ph.D in computer science and a world of experience working with creative people.

In the midst of a discussion of randomness and dealing with the unexpected, Catmull throws in couple pages on stochastic self-similarity. (Actually, the passage occurs in the exact middle of the text. How random is that?) He uses the concept to make a point about the problems we all experience. Some of them are small: You can’t find that letter to the editor, a reporter calls in sick, you spill coffee on your keyboard. Others are bigger: A reporter substituted the name of a local teacher for someone accused of a crime, your photographer quits, the newspaper’s biggest advertiser goes belly up. Then there are terrible life events: A death in the family, your child hospitalized, a fire sweeps through your home. … Read the rest of this entry »

Finding your elusive style

In Books on June 28, 2013 at 7:34 am

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If you are reading this, you know that The Elements of Style is the bible of American journalists. E.B. White (famed as a children’s author) and William Strunk (a long-dead English professor) penned a rational, readable and brief outline for anyone wishing to be a better writer.

If you haven’t read it lately, you should.

I’m particularly fond of the final chapter, called “An Approach to Style.” It begins with the authors’ acknowledgement that they are stepping off of firm grammatical ground and into the squishy turf of subjective sentence structure.

The advice is simple, obvious and ignored by writers everywhere. Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that comes naturally. Work from a suitable design. Use nouns and verbs. Revise and rewrite. Do not overwrite. Do not overstate. Avoid the use of qualifiers. Do not affect a breezy manner. Use orthodox spelling. Do not explain too much. Do not construct awkward adverbs. Make sure the reader knows who is talking. Don’t use fancy words. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good. Be clear. Do not inject opinion. Use figures of speech sparingly. Do not take shortcuts at the expense of clarity. Avoid foreign languages. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

While we hold these truths to be self-evident, there is ample evidence that we don’t think much of the truth. We ignore clarity and overwrite. We seek to impress with adverbs, of all things. We try to write like our heroes though we know we can no more write like Henry James than dunk a basketball like LeBron James. … Read the rest of this entry »

Is this writing?

In Books on March 7, 2013 at 2:42 pm

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This thing we do, is it writing?

I guess it is, at least in the strictest sense of the word, because we form letters into words that together become sentences that we attempt to string into some coherent logic. But newswriting is also something different than many other forms of writing.

At least Bob Baker thinks so. He is a former reporter, editor and writing coach for the Los Angeles Times. Back in 1981 he wrote a book that still sits on my shelf. It’s called Newsthinking: The Secret of Great Newswriting.

It’s a slim volume that I highly recommend. He argues for many wonderful things in his book, including the need for what he calls a “perspective paragraph. These are so often missing in our journalism. The perspective paragraph tells readers why what they are reading is important. It provides context and sometimes can be done in a single sentence.

Anyway, in the introduction to Newsthinking, Baker forwards the provocative notion that newswriting is not the same as writing: … Read the rest of this entry »

The back of the stylebook

In Books on September 20, 2012 at 10:49 am

When I was in journalism school, sometime between the Paleolithic Era and the iPod, the Associated Press Stylebook was the bible. It was emphasized in any writing course and open on every desk at the college paper. I’m not sure that’s true any more and it makes me sad.

Everyone reading these words knows it is the place to go for fairly arcane style questions – whether you need the president’s first name on first reference, how to handle military titles, etc. You know it even if you ignore it. But the more up-to-date versions of the stylebook also have sections for particular subjects and if you haven’t cracked the book in a while you might not know they are there.

Weather terminology. My 2011 version has five pages on weather style. You should take a look as we head into winter. For instance, there are specific definitions for “heavy snow.” “Severe blizzard” requires winds of 45 mph, visibility near zero and a temperature of 10 degrees or lower.

Web, Internet and Social Media Guidelines. Under “Web,” the stylebook lists five tips for reporters who use the worldwide web in their reporting. It’s basically a plea to remain skeptical. The “Internet” entry discusses domain names. And the Social Media Guidelines at the back of the book join Business Guidelines and Sports Guidelines and everyone should be familiar with that back section of the book.

By the way, you can now subscribe to web-based versions of the stylebook and there is even an app for your phone, if that’s easier. There are also AP-led chats over particular subjects. (There is a Twitter chat over football style set for 2 p.m. ET, Sept. 27.)

I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to take another stab at explaining why using the stylebook is important. Professionalism is hard to quantify. You know it when you see it. And one of the things you look for – whether you’re talking about a professional quarterback or a professional truck driver – is consistency. Good newspapers are consistent and being on the same page with respect to the stylebook is a part of that consistency.

Clay

Political convention theater

In Books on September 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

On Wednesday, a colleague and I were discussing the political conventions and the scripted events they have become. That discussion brought to mind one of my favorite “journalism books” of all time, Norman Mailer’s brilliant “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.”

Well, the book critic of the Los Angeles Times was thinking the very same thing.

The book is a first-person, New Journalism-style peek at the 1968 political conventions. The Republicans took their swing first in Miami and then the Democrats ran amok three weeks later in Chicago.

The book grew out of separate pieces Mailer wrote for Harper’s Magazine. His idea was to get inside the conventions and write about who we were as a nation by gazing at our reflection in the electoral machine. It was a heady time, of course. The Vietnam War was raging. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated. And our politics were anything but made for TV. Real things happened at the conventions. Delegates argued over the party platform. There was literally fighting in the streets.

Here’s what made that book special for me: Mailer didn’t pretend he was a dispassionate observer. He was an everyman standing in for all of us. And he saw our America coming apart at the seams. … Read the rest of this entry »

10 steps to better stories

In Books on August 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm

R.B. Brenner is a Stanford University journalism instructor, a former metro editor of the Washington Post, and a good friend of the Half Moon Bay Review. He keeps a blog that provides insight into the pressing journalistic issues of the day and also some educational stuff suitable for anyone looking to be a better writer. What follows is one such post. Here, R.B. draws on the work of Samuel G. Freedman and suggests the 10 steps that a reporter should attempt in order to get the most out of a meaty story. R.B.’s post is republished here with his permission. Clay

When you are starting in journalism, it’s easy to think in terms of a three-step process. You report. You write what you have. Someone else edits it.

Drawing upon a book I admire, Samuel G. Freedman’s ”Letters to a Young Journalist,” I encourage 10 steps:

  1. Exploring — This is journalism’s equivalent of the topographical survey. It involves reporting with your senses (sight, sound, smell, even taste) and doing your best to pass what my friend Phil Bennett calls “the presence test.” Preliminary research by phone and online is fine but will only get you so far. Reporting is better when based on primary sources, ideally observable reality. Go there and see it for yourself.
  2. Deeper reporting — You’ve surveyed the landscape, considered possible themes and, even at this early stage, tried to find “the heart of the matter” — what makes this story special, why will your readers care? Now you are ready for deeper reporting that combines observation, examination of relevant documents and many interviews. … Read the rest of this entry »