Wick Communications

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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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The opposite of clapping

In Online media on August 24, 2017 at 12:08 pm

This week, Medium, the popular blog platform that I have adored since its inception, announced that it intended to pay at least some contributors based on the number of “claps” (which used to be “hearts,” which were essentially “likes”) that a contribution generated.

This is a terrible idea and the reason I canceled my paid membership this week.

Succinctly put, we shouldn’t measure the value of media by the reaction it elicits. While that seems blindingly obvious to anyone who has toiled for newspapers as long as I have, there are apparently those among us who consider any other value proposition a dispiriting holdover of legacy thinking that is dragging our business into the toilet. (Hello, Medium founder Ev Williams!)

This “claps = value” concept devalues the slow clap we should be giving serious journalism. Take the insightful analysis of what is happening today in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which I highlight in Their Best today. It will never be applauded as much as this YouTube video, which I literally found by Googling “dumbest thing on YouTube.” At my newspaper and many, many others, we report on the city administrator’s salary and from the sewer authority meetings and about the school board’s tax proposal not because it is popular to do so, but because doing so is important to the continuation of the democracy. An uninformed electorate is capable of unfortunate things, and I’ll leave it at that. … Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

What to do with rumors

In Ethics on July 27, 2017 at 2:17 pm

This week, a local gadfly emailed me and others around town with a scandal. He says a member of the city council cheated on his wife, got caught and moved out of the city. Even if it’s true, I’m not sure it’s as scandalous as someone making this stuff his business and spreading the rumors.

The question is this: Should the local newspaper care one way or another?

In this case, there are two separate issues and I tried to handle them separately. Hopefully, thinking about this one will help with your next such scandalous email.

First, I decided that what was going on in a local city council member’s perfectly legal home life was most likely not newsworthy. Divorces, affairs, arguments… This isn’t the president; I think local people who are all-but volunteers deserve a measure of privacy, even if they are public figures. I know the line is difficult. Perhaps it helps to think of it in terms of what is legal. If the city councilman was busted for smoking pot, which is still illegal here, I would likely run that. An affair is not a criminal matter.

The second issue is potentially newsworthy. If a sitting city council member moves out of town and continues to hold office, that is worth checking on. My first call was to the city councilman himself to say I didn’t care about the rest of it, but wanted to ask point-blank whether he continued to live in town. Then I emailed city hall to find the rules. For all I knew, it was legal for a member of council to move and continue to serve so long as he was a legal resident at the time he qualified to run for office. (The answer here is sort of complicated and involves the definition of “domicile.”) … Read the rest of this entry »

Quality for subscribers

In journalism on July 27, 2017 at 2:07 pm

If you are looking for encouragement in the 2017 media landscape, look no further than the subscriber model. There is reason to believe, 20 years into our little internet experiment, that readers will pay for quality journalism.

Well, some will. What becomes of the rest of us remains to be seen.

The latest good news comes in the form of “The Athletic,” which must be the worst name for a journalistic enterprise in the last decade or so. It is the spawn of the Y Combinator. It is a Silicon Valley start-up engine that often leads to big funding for good projects. (Reddit, Wufoo and Airbnb are just a few of the companies that emerged from the incubator.)

The Athletic promises premium sports coverage for the discriminating sports fan… meaning someone with the means to pay for it. So far, it’s opened bureaus in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto with more to come. The start-up enterprise has raised lots of money and is poaching some of the best sportswriters in the country to cover stuff. The sites are beautiful. The Athletic wants $39.99 a year for access. …

I have always thought the best model would be the free model. We reach as many people as possible with fine journalism and advertisers feel obliged to pay for those eyeballs. Such a model has the distinct advantage of being democratic. You want as many people as possible to have the benefit of your work.

I was slow to see the benefit of paywalls. I hate the idea that good information is only available to the privileged. Besides, stopping potential readers with a paywall invites them to search for other news outlets and that can reduce a brand that was once ubiquitous. … Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

See the Medium

In publishing on June 22, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Have you used Medium?

If the answer is A) No, or B) What the heck is that, click here. You really should play around with Medium, if for no other reason than to understand this seamless, easy publishing platform that is available elsewhere for your readers and advertisers. In a way, it is competing for eyeballs, but it also represents an opportunity. I bet if you give it a try, you’ll like it.

Medium is a newish blogging platform that I find easier to use than WordPress or other similar things. All you have to do is create a free account, type up some thoughts and drag over a photo or two and you are publishing. I’ve used it to share silly things, to drum up interest in our Half Moon Bay Review coverage, and even to reflect on a plane crash.

This week, the Nieman Lab notes the success The Economist is having with Medium as a way to share insider information and to be more transparent with super-readers of the magazine.

One of the lessons the team at The Economist learned about Medium was that it is qualitatively different from Facebook or Twitter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Medium is a place where sophisticated readers go for quality content. Should that be important to us? … Read the rest of this entry »

The seven-paragraph sports story

In sports on April 13, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Here’s another revelation from our regular editor conference calls: A template for sports stories.

Several of us were discussing how to report sports in the modern era. Most people who care about the games know the result from friends on social media or phone alerts before we get the story online or in print. The day of the regular sports gamer has pretty much come and gone.

Jonathan Clark at the Nogales International shared an ingenious invention that is essentially a sports game story format. It’s a recognition that these things can be pretty rote (in fact, there are now computer programs using machine learning to write high school gamers in the blink of an eye) and that some of us are using inexperienced sports reporters who didn’t grow up at the ballpark.

The format is really a seven-paragraph template designed to get a reporter in and out of the story in a matter of minutes. It could be really helpful when all you know about a game is what a coach tells you on the phone. Simply ask him questions that would fill in the format.

So here it is. It’s not gospel. There is no rule that a quote come in the third paragraph. You can change it. Move up the stuff about upcoming games or format that into a box. Just recognize that it’s a good idea, one that you might manipulate for city council meetings or anything that requires a novice to cover something for the first time. Read on to see the format: Read the rest of this entry »

They is wrong

In Writing on March 30, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Because nothing is sacred and there are no longer any rules whatsoever, the Associated Press has announced that the new stylebook will allow use of the word they in singular constructions. There is no word yet on whether the AP also plans to give up vegetables, spit into the wind and sleep through church services.

Can you tell this one peeves me?

The AP says it (they?) is mostly bowing to societal pressure. You know, like the grammatical equivalent of jumping off the bridge just because everyone is doing it. (Sorry, but I’m steamed.) In other words, people say things like, Somebody left their umbrella in the office,” and “A journalist should not be compelled to reveal their sources.” Well, in 2017, I guess that just makes it right. So go on and do it yourself. Or yourselves. Or whatever.

Actually, my own histrionics aside, the advice is a bit more circumspect. The new stylebook addresses the issue like this:

They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze. …
Read the rest of this entry »

‘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 »