Wick Communications

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

‘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 »

Where do ideas come from?

In Ideas on February 16, 2017 at 6:37 pm

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When I asked last week for each newspaper to come up with a single editorial project in the second quarter of 2017, I knew that it was a simple ask that would prove hard for some of you. That is because we are all consumed by doing what we do every day and sometimes the daily grind obscures vision.

So today I wanted to offer a couple of ideas. Both of them I stole, fair and square. One was an exhaustive project in the Washington Post that examined the “life” of a single Baltimore block due to be demolished. It ended up telling the story of the city. The other is simpler imagine: telling a story through a series of Instagram posts.

Both are fun. Remember fun? Trying something new is often the most life-affirming part of any day or week. Trying something new is often its own reward — even if it doesn’t increase the bottom line.

And that is another thing to remember about this assignment. The vast majority of America’s workforce is engaged solely in the quest of making more money for shareholders the workers don’t know. How freeing is it that your bosses have asked that you follow your passion and produce something you can be proud of, regardless of whether it makes a red cent?

Take a look at the ideas shared today. And then think outside the box.

Clay

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 »

Crowdsourcing a story

In Innovation on December 15, 2016 at 2:00 pm

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Savvy news organizations are using an evolving, blog-like, approach to coverage of rapidly changing events. The way it works most often is that you post a lede to breaking news and then top it in tick-tock fashion with new information as it arrives. I suspect we will all adopt this approach at some point in the coming year.

The latest incarnation might be the way The New York Times has covered the tragic fatal fire in Oakland earlier this month. It’s interesting work and I’m excited to see how it’s received.

In the old days, a Times staffer would have parachuted in to the fire scene, talked to the mayor, the fire chief, the guy who owns the next building over and a survivor or two. Then she would have written a 35-inch takeout with a clichéd lede reading something like, “City officials, artists, musicians and the rest of Oakland’s shocked residents are struggling to reconcile support for a quirky artists’ community with the need for a safe place to sleep after 36 lives went up in smoke in the Bay Area’s other city on …”

You know that story. You’ve read it a million times. Well, not this time. In a story front and center on the newspaper homepage, the newspaper announced:

We are going to share regular updates on what we uncover as we do our reporting.

We’ll tell you about the interviews that our journalists conduct, the documents we obtain and what we learn as we learn it — as part of our effort to piece this story together. …
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

Driven to distraction

In Writing techniques on August 4, 2016 at 4:14 pm

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“I’m addicted to my smartphone.”

In a compelling presentation before the Stanford Graduate School of Business, MBA student Desiree Peill confesses that she used an app to track her cellphone usage and was appalled to learn that she unlocks the thing 130 times a day – every seven minutes over the course of her waking day. Think you are different? Research indicates that the average working American checks the cellphone 120 times a day.

“Our phone is like a slot machine,” she says. “We never know what new reward awaits us. And the result is that we lose our focus.”

We have been sold a bill of goods about “multitasking.” Friends, I am here to tell you that no such thing exists. What you mean when you say you are multitasking is that you are serially focused on several things for short bursts of time. You work on your story for 3 minutes, 23 seconds. The phone rings. You talk for 41 seconds. You look at your story again for 1 minute, 2 seconds. The sportswriter wants to ask you about the Little League tournament. That takes 6 minutes, 52 seconds.  You take in all that stimuli, but are you producing anything worthwhile over that time?

Peill, who by the way is a German journalist who went to work as a management consultant for McKinsey and Co., says this sort of thing precludes her best work

“At work,” she says, “I am present, but absent.” … Read the rest of this entry »

Where and when to write

In Writing techniques on July 22, 2016 at 8:31 am

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As journalists, we don’t always get to choose our writing circumstances. We write at home, at our office desk, at press conferences and ballgames. We write at a phone while dictating back to an editor. We write on airplanes, in press boxes, at city council meetings. It may be the quiet of midnight with no one around; you could be surrounded by shouting schoolchildren.

It seems a bit greedy to wish for perfect conditions in addition to a job we all love.

Nevertheless, Maria Popova’s collection of writers’ habits on her site, brainpickings.com, is enlightening. She draws from a 1994 book called “The Psychology of Writing,” by Ronald T. Kellogg, as well as the experiences of many well-known writers.

As you might imagine, they are all over the map, from writers who say they can work anywhere to those, like Thomas Mann, who insisted on a wicker chair out in the open near a beach. (Good grief!)

Kellogg notes that some people can write in a crowded bus and that others find a slowly dripping faucet in the other room maddening. It has to do with the ability to tune out distractions rather than the nature of the distraction itself. There is research to suggest that working in one- to three-hour blocks, and in the mornings, may be most conducive to creative work. That certainly is my experience. … Read the rest of this entry »