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Archive for the ‘Writing techniques’ Category

Write with structure

In Writing techniques on October 5, 2017 at 3:42 pm

I confess I have never spent much time with the writing of John McPhee. I don’t regularly read the New Yorker and his books always seemed to center on East Coast things that didn’t immediately interest me.

Well, now I’m sure I was wrong. Last week’s New York Times Magazine piece set me straight.

The portrait is of a highly disciplined writer who spends more time on getting the structure right than choosing just the right word. Most of us don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about the architecture of our writing. Too often we pick up the paintbrush and start slinging bright colors on the page before we’ve hung the drywall.

McPhee says his interest in the structure of his work began long, long ago when a teacher made him write an outline before getting on with the writing. My guess is you don’t do that. I myself generally only outline things when I’m contemplating a long narrative. Otherwise, I convince myself that I have already done that heavy lifting solely with my mind’s eye. Most of the time, I’m fooling myself. A quick outline, jotted on a napkin, might be all it takes to make sure your story begins where it ought to and hits the right notes as it careers on to the ending.

The weird snail-shell looking thing at the top of this post is McPhee’s image of a story that became “Travels in Georgia,” an essay he wrote for the New Yorker in 1973. … Read the rest of this entry »

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Once upon a time…

In Writing techniques on July 20, 2017 at 2:57 pm

Have you ever wondered at the enduring quality of, “Once upon a time?” Has there ever been a better way to begin a story?

I got to thinking about the way we begin a story after reading Eric Petermann’s superb yarn about the “kissing bug” in the Sierra Vista Herald. Eric learned there was this woman in Bisbee, Ariz., Lee McElroy, who was driving the effort to learn more about an infestation of these particular bugs in the canyon where she lives. The bugs bite in the night and can cause Chagas’ disease and you don’t even want to think about that!

Anyway, Eric knew the story of the bug as vector for disease was important… but the story of Lee McElroy was better. Much better. So he told it that way, leading with McElroy and her layman’s search for scientific information about these bug bites she was getting.

The first words Eric employed were these:

The story starts just over 10 years ago when Lee McElroy was living in the area of Zacatecas Canyon in the Old Bisbee district of this eclectic mountain community.

Hooked yet? I was. I am a sucker for stories that begin with an everyday Jane whose everyday world is about to be turned upside down. Perhaps that is why I love fiction so much. (“Our story begins” is so good as a literary device that the great Tobias Wolffe even named a short-story collection just that.) … Read the rest of this entry »

Cut it out

In Writing techniques on February 9, 2017 at 4:13 pm

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I’ve known Jay Croft for 30-something years. He is a former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and has worked in corporate communications for Coca-Cola, among other well-known brands. He is now engaged in freelance consulting work. More to the point, he is one of the best writers I know. Among the reasons: he is economical with his words.

I asked him if I could cut and paste one of his recent blog posts because it touches on just that aspect of his writing. Sometimes what you leave out is as important as what goes in. Take it away, Jay. — Clay

Do you want to be a stronger writer?

Of course you do. Everyone writes so much these days — at school, work and home. And who would say, “No, thank you. I don’t want to write better.”

Think of it like this. At the start of every new year, many people resolve to lose weight, so they join a gym, maybe even hire a trainer. Now, what if we decide to cut the fat from our writing this year? To stop using words and phrases that slow down our copy or confuse the reader — or just take more space than is necessary.

So you want to get buff, lose the flab, and strengthen your core? Bravo! But just like physical fitness, this is a commitment to caring about “the little things” over a long period.

Here are 17 words and phrases to stop using now if you want your writing to be stronger and leaner. No matter if you’re in business, the media, school or government, your writing should be clear, compelling and useful. Some words and phrases make that impossible. Clichés, overused jargon and useless words like “very” weigh down any message. … Read the rest of this entry »

Why we get up in the morning

In Writing techniques on February 3, 2017 at 12:25 pm

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If you ever find yourself wondering why you went into this business, I have a recommendation: Follow the work of your colleague, Nogales International reporter Kendal Blust.

She is new to the company, having recently secured a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Arizona. What she may lack in experience and bylines, she more than makes up for with instinct, writing talent and a nose for compelling community stories.

I want to recommend a case in point.

This week, she published a takeout headlined, “Children of waste pickers find a helping hand.” It is the heartbreaking story of children who were living near and living on what they found at a sprawling dump just across the Mexican border. Kendal tells us these kids picked through the garbage the way ours go through the toy department at Target. Except these kids are looking for scraps of metal to recycle and food to eat.

This is what we as journalists were put on planet earth to do: To speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.

I wanted to dissect what makes this story so effective.

Evocative language: Here is the second paragraph of the story. … Read the rest of this entry »

Following up with context

In Writing techniques on January 12, 2017 at 2:33 pm

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Here is one of the most evergreen and ever-true complaints about newspapers: To often they hit a news story and then run in the other direction. What became of that family displaced in the fire? What ever happened to that development plan? What is next for the planned water pipeline?

We’re pretty good at showing up for the news; we’re not so good and following up after the crowd leaves for the next shiny thing.

One of the reasons we shy away is because we don’t understand the context ourselves. In order to go back to that forgotten development plan, you might have to write about a complex series of events that you or your predecessor covered extensively five years ago but haven’t given a second thought in months or even years. In my shop, one such old news story is called “Big Wave.”

Big Wave is a development plan that proposed marrying housing for developmentally disabled adults with a business park to fund it all. Proponents say it’s a progressive idea and a chance to get housing for people who have a hard time getting it; opponents say that is all hogwash and a ruse to build a for-profit industrial park. Whatever the truth, the story has been in — and out of — our paper for years. It has been heard at state planning boards and local coffee shops. But not for a while. It’s been dormant for a year or more and we let it kind of recede from our collective conscience. … Read the rest of this entry »

An uncomfortable call

In Writing techniques on December 15, 2016 at 1:46 pm
Photo courtesy John Green

Photo courtesy John Green

Last week, The Half Moon Bay Review’s Carina Woudenberg found herself on an uncomfortable phone call.

It followed the death of a 77-year-old woman who was killed by a car as she attempted to walk across the street at dusk. Carina drew the assignment and called one of the woman’s many friends in the area. Unfortunately, the woman on the other end of the phone hadn’t heard the tragic news.

Did Carina do anything wrong?

Before you answer, let’s consider how these stories play out in communities like ours. There is a crash followed by police sirens. Maybe you hear it on the scanner or get a press release about a fatality. The initial story is likely to be sketchy. Maybe you don’t know the identity of the deceased. You likely share the news online as fast as you can.

Then, maybe the next day, the coroner or the sheriff gives you a name. You poke around to find whether the deceased is prominent, whether you’ve written about her before. Perhaps you simply update the old story with the name.

Carina did the right thing by trying to make the victim a flesh-and-blood human being. We got a break when someone we knew said on Facebook he knew the victim. Carina talked to him to learn she was a devoted mother and grandmother. A Google search revealed she once worked as a nurse at a local hospital.

That was when Carina called the hospital and inadvertently broke the news to an old friend. … Read the rest of this entry »

Sharing our humanity

In Writing techniques on November 10, 2016 at 3:35 pm

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Hunter Marrow, a reporter at the Ontario, Ore., Argus-Observer, found this prisoner the other day, guy by the name of Michael Johnson. It turns out that Johnson was about to be released from the Snake River Correctional Institution after serving a stint for burglary.

Suffice to say, Hunter saw past that criminal past to something else:

ONTARIO — It’s rare that an inmate gets a parting gift on his last day in prison, but that’s just what happened for one veteran inmate before his release on Tuesday.

Michael Johnson shook hands with Snake River Correctional Institution staff Tuesday morning before receiving his gift. His fiancée, Tina Newson, stood at his side, smiling at the congratulations Johnson was receiving.

It was Johnson’s day of release from the prison, and he received a special farewell gift on his way out: a Quilt of Valor.

You see, there is this group of kind people that makes quilts for returning veterans. Johnson served in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1971. He was wounded and received a Purple Heart in service to his country before his road turned crooked and Johnson landed in jail.

There are undoubtedly a dozen angles you could take to a story about this man’s life. (How does he have a fiancée? What do his victims think of his release? What is he going to do now?) Hunter chose the Quilts of Valor angle, and if you choose to question that decision, look at that photo again. … Read the rest of this entry »

About that em dash

In Writing techniques on November 4, 2016 at 9:27 am
Thanks, writeraccess.com

Thanks, writeraccess.com

Behold, the overused, little understood em dash. It is straight, proud and horizontal — the very embodiment of a lazy writer sure that its use makes his prose sound more magnificent in the ear.

I saw on one of our writers speak of the em dash on social media the other day and it reminded me how much I overuse it. From the bible (also known as Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style:”)

Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.

Who are you to call the venerable comma inadequate? So when do you use this long hyphen thing? To set off an abrupt break and to announce a long summary or appositive. Here are some examples from Elements:

  • His first thought on getting out of bed — if he had any thought at all — was to get back in again.
  • The rear axle began to make a noise — a grinding, chattering teeth-gritting rasp.
  • The increasing reluctance of the sun to rise, the extra nip in the breeze, the patter of shed leaves dropping — all the evidence of fall drifting into winter were clearer each day. …

Read the rest of this entry »

Constructive compassion in difficult times

In Writing techniques on September 15, 2016 at 11:48 am

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Due to recent events in Half Moon Bay, I’ve been thinking a lot about death of late. Don’t mean to be morbid. In fact, the suicides, car and plane crashes and even bear attacks that I’ve covered this month have not left me feeling particularly blue, but they have made me think hard about how to converse with people in various states of mourning.

It’s one of the things that makes being a reporter difficult. It may sound strange, but I also find it life-affirming.

In my experience, more often than not, loved ones want a chance to discuss the lives lived if not the recent deaths, per se. When something terrible happens, and you’re called to report it, the job begins with considering the right source. In the case of the bear attack, I thought that might be the victim’s father. For the plane crash, I went with official sources, but only because the local victim was a bit mysterious and I couldn’t find local friends and family. You don’t want to call the widow before she even hears the bad news, which is something, unfortunately, I’ve done. Now I think two and three times about who is ready to take my call.

If you do call people who are actively grieving, I suggest a respectful professionalism that allows some remove. I tell family and friends I am sorry for their loss. I tell them I am interested in an accurate portrayal of their loved one and that I want to know something beyond the facts of the terrible thing. I ask if there is anything else they want me to know about this individual. I often ask for a photograph that they think captured something special.

I happened upon this blog post, about a family in the funeral business in Louisiana. They speak of “constructive compassion” and the value of doing a job that needs to be done in a very difficult time. This week, I’m using that term as something of a motto. Perhaps you find something in the term too.

Clay

Tell emotional stories

In Writing techniques on August 26, 2016 at 8:23 am

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This is hardly a new concept I’m about to drop right here, but consider it a reminder: Stories with raw emotion are the best stories.

I was reminded of that during the recent Olympic games. What moments do you remember? (OK, forget about that swimmer who lied and a certain soccer goalie who whined more than she won.) Michael Phelps celebrating with a shout to the heavens and his fists clenched. The joy of Usain Bolt every time he ran. Two long distance runners who helped each other finish after tripping in a distance event. Monica Puig, in the photo above, winning the first-ever gold medal for an Olympian from Puerto Rico.

The emotion of the Games transcends the games themselves. Did you know that, in the United States at least, more women than men tune into the Olympics? It isn’t because women are traditionally the largest sports audience in the nation. It’s because each of the athletes have stories of perseverance, sacrifice and family.

And you know what? There are stories throughout your community that combine those elements. I don’t mean to condescend, just offering a reminder. … Read the rest of this entry »