Sharing the writing life with Chip Scanlan.

The Best Writing Tip of All Time: Sit

Having trouble getting the writing done?

I faced that familiar problem a few days ago. I had finished a chapter of my journalism textbook, patted myself on the back, and promptly felt myself shutting down. Starting the next chapter felt like standing at the foot of Mount Everest and contemplating the climb.

Fortunately, the block didn’t last too long. I cut it short by turning to the single best writing tip I know: Just plant your butt in your chair.

I did just that; problem solved.

How can such a simple action be so difficult? Why must there be all this thrashing around? Why do I keep forgetting the power of this habitual behavior?

I found an answer in “The Mechanic and the Muse,” my former blog that I visit weekly for posts worth updating.

I came upon a brief post, entitled “It’s a bird, it’s a plane; no, it’s Super-Scientist/WriterMan.” In it, I had linked to a Nova episode, the PBS science show, that profiled Karl Iagnemma, an MIT roboticist who also happens to also be an acclaimed fiction writer.

Okay, I admit, I was inclined to hate him — young, gifted and knowledgeable about math — until I listened to him talk about the discipline that both of his fields demanded:

“A lot of people, when they think about writers, probably imagine people wasting time in cafés, drinking a lot and smoking too many cigarettes, and working when the inspiration — whatever that is — seizes them. But writing is rigorous. Writing, for me at least, takes a lot of concentrated work and effort. It takes dedication and the willingness to do the work even when that feeling of inspiration isn’t there at all.”

It was comforting to hear that from a scientist-writer. But he’s just one of a long list of writers who embrace the posterior-to-chair maxim to get their writing done.

Here are a few others from “Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers,” an inspiring collection of writing quotes compiled by Donald M. Murray.

“A lot of young writers wait for inspiration. The inspiration only hits you at the desk.”
Robert Anderson, “Tea and Sympathy.”

“Rituals? Ridiculous! My only ritual is to sit close enough to the typewriter so that my fingers touch the keys.”

Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer

“It’s a job. It’s not a hobby. You don’t write the way you build a model airplane. You have to sit down and work, to schedule your time and stick to it. Even if it’s just for an hour or so each day. You have to get a babysitter and make the time. If you’re going to make writing succeed you have to approach it as a job. You don’t wait for inspiration. The Muse does not do your work for you.”

So, writing isn’t brain science after all. Or maybe it is.

The brain has to stop generating pessimistic thoughts that block us, that chorus of downers whining in our heads: “You suck!” “You’ll screw up this chapter.” “You’ll never finish your story, and even if you do, it will bomb.”

Attitude follows behavior — that’s what we need to tell ourselves. Once we start typing, the sound of our fingertips on the keyboard will drown out those voices.

We lose a lot of time waiting for a Muse to show up. Time that could be spent drafting, organizing, rewriting and re-reporting. And in that process, we start to hear a voice that says, “You know, this isn’t so bad.”

Truth be told, there’s a very good chance that when I finish this next chapter, I will find myself in the same motivational pickle.

I’ll just have to re-read this, imagine I’m playing musical chairs, and get my butt in my chair as fast as I can. Wish me luck.

Got a single best writing tip? Share it here.

An earlier version of this “M&M” post appeared Oct. 7, 2006, on “The Mechanic and the Muse,” a now-defunct blog I maintained from January 2006 to March 2007. I am updating and re-posting these items once a week.
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Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2008

No time for The New Yorker?

CORRECTION APPENDED

Unread New Yorkers have been gathering dust lately — sprawled on the coffee table in the living room, perilously stacked on the bedroom bureau and resisting gravity in unstable columns on every unclaimed office surface.

Why am I foregoing the pleasure of one of my favorite pastimes? I’m certain there may be deep psychological reasons for this literary self-abnegation.

But discovering the reason doesn’t demand much analysis. I just don’t have enough time.

Fortunately, there is “emdashes: The New Yorker Between the Lines.”

It’s been nearly two years since I stumbled across this fresh and imaginative blog created by Emily Gordon. She has dedicated herself to exploring where the em dash (a punctuation mark the length of the letter m) goes: in this case, between the lines and behind the stories of The New Yorker magazine.

emdashes, as with all good blogs, is fueled by obsession. “Like me, you read The New Yorker. With interest. Loyally, actively, critically. Ardently,” wrote Gordon, an editor at PRINT magazine with an impressive freelancer’s pedigree.

Two years later, she still fits that profile, and she has added a raft of new features for New Yorker aficionados. For the time-pressed, she provides a welcome service: sifting through the week’s New Yorker for the best and brightest fact, fiction, criticism and poetry.

This week, emdashes points the way to a Huffington Post piece heralding the National Magazine Award finalists. Huffington Post provides links to the finalists, including The New Yorker‘s dozen. Among the magazine’s finalists is its vastly improved Web site.

A cool addition to emdashes is Gordon’s “Rossosphere,” the blogroll of her favorite blogs that she named in honor The New Yorker‘s legendary founder, Harold Ross. It includes a link to a fascinating description of The New Yorker records collection at the New York Public Library. (Ever wanted to know who was J. D. Salinger’s agent?)

emdashes also refers readers to the new Web site from Ben Yagoda, who relied on the New Yorker archive to write About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. (He’s also a favorite writer and teacher of mine.)

Perhaps now that I have Emily Gordon as my guide, I will find time for a magazine that rarely disappoints.

An earlier version of this “M&M” post appeared July 23, 2006, on “The Mechanic and the Muse,” a now-defunct blog I maintained from January 2006 to March 2007. I am updating and re-posting these items once a week.

This post was published with the incorrect name of the founder of The New Yorker. It has been corrected in the text. Read more

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Monday, Mar. 24, 2008

Can Chess Make Us Better Writers?

I’ve never played chess. It always seemed too hard to learn. But a story in last week’s New York Times has me thinking about giving the game another shot.

The story focused on plans to introduce chess into every second- and third-grade classroom in Idaho next fall. That move, the Times‘ Dylan Loeb McClain reported, “will make Idaho the first state to offer a statewide chess curriculum.”

“One of the things that we hear is that too much of what we do is based on rote memorization,” Tom Luna, the state’s superintendent of education, said in the story. “The part I really like about this program is that kids are thinking ahead.”

The United State is several moves behind the rest of the world. Chess is part of school curricula in
“nearly 30 nations around the world, include Venezuela, Iceland and Russia,” according to the nonprofit America’s Foundation for Chess.

The chess in schools program, called “First Move,” is the brainchild of the chess foundation. Here’s a good summary of research into the value of chess in education, which supports the benefits cited by America’s Foundation for Chess.

Among the information on the foundation’s site is a list of 25 answers to the question, “Why Play Chess?” As I read the list, it struck me that, if true, just half of them would be a boon for writers. boon for writers. Chess:

  • improves concentration
  • develops critical thinking
  • inspires self-motivation
  • helps you plan ahead and foresee consequences
  • develops self-confidence
  • develops memory
  • is cheap
  • helps you live a longer, healthier life
  • promotes imagination and creativity
  • teaches that success rewards hard work
  • builds self-esteem
  • increases patience
  • encourages respect for ones self and others

Could it be that easy?

What impact does chess have on your writing?

Should I learn and play more?

Your move. Read more

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Tuesday, Mar. 18, 2008

The Smell of War

We know all about the fog of war, but what about its smells?

In newsrooms I’ve visited I usually offer a bounty to anyone who can locate a story with sensory details that require the nose. I’ve never had any takers.

But Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, must know their value. My nose for olfactory news sniffed out a pungent line in a story from Beirut, where a war between Israel and Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Islamic political and paramilitary group, had been sparked by the capture of two Israeli soldiers. Shadid quotes a Lebanese victim of an Israeli air strike:

“They don’t want to strike civilians? Then why are they doing it?” asked Mohammed Fathi, a 37-year-old resident of south Beirut. He stood outside Harkous Chicken, the restaurant where he works as a chef. The smell of peppers mixed with the reek of cordite, and workers swept shattered glass off the street near a bridge destroyed in a pre-dawn airstrike. The facades of nearby buildings were sheared off, and cars with broken windows sat parked along a street strewn with debris.

Not a pleasant combination — peppers and smokeless gunpowder — but coupled with visually vivid details, it helped Shadid put readers on the scene.

Our olfactory sense is arguably our most evocative even though it takes up a minuscule amount of space in our brains. For instance, I can’t catch of whiff of patchouli without being drawn back to 1974 when I was in Quebec, learning how to speak French in preparation for a Peace Corps assignment in French West Africa.

And why else would real estate agents advise sellers to have cookies baking when prospective buyers arrive, other than to evoke pleasant childhood memories? (Some have found that a couple of drops of vanilla on a burning light bulb will trigger the same memories.)

Yet newswriters rarely take advantage of this powerful sense.

“Smell is the stepchild of the senses, the one that many think they could do without,” writes Robin Marantz Henig in “Something’s Off,” a 2004 essay in The New York Times Magazine that eloquently chronicles two years of odorless life following a bad fall. “But when I couldn’t smell things, I couldn’t fully inhabit the world, and my movements in it were somehow, almost imperceptibly, more clumsy.”

For more on the subject, see my column “Writing with Your Nose,” featuring the olfactory writing of novelist Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland), various ways to use smells in your writing and a brief explanation of how smells work.

For your next story, put your nose to your notebook, and to your keyboard. When you note how the scene looks, sounds and feels, keep your nostrils attuned for a detail that conveys what it smells like, too.

When Marantz Henig lost her sense of smell, she employed a “smell therapy” regimen suggested by a neuroscience-savvy colleague:

Her advice was to expose myself to strong, distinctive fragrances, asking the person I was with to tell me exactly what I was smelling even if I wasn’t conscious of smelling anything at all.

I began sticking my nose into everything that seemed likely to have a scent — the cumin in the spice cabinet, freshly ground coffee, red wine. I interrupted friends midsentence if we happened to be walking past a pizza place or a garbage truck and asked, stupidly, ”What are you smelling now?”

What smells trigger responses in your mind?

How have you used smells in your stories?

M&Ms are updated posts first published on “The Mechanic and the Muse,” a now-defunct blog I maintained from January 2006 to March 2007. I’ll post from the collection once a week. Read more
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M&Ms: New Life for Old Lessons

On January 17, 2006, I launched “The Mechanic and the Muse,” a blog that would, I hoped, track my continuing quest to master the writing craft and share the lessons that every act of writing contains — from fact-gathering to revision.

There were other, more personal reasons, why I felt compelled to replace “Chip on Your Shoulder,” my weekly writing advice column, with a blog. I laid these out in “Why I Blog,” an essay that will reappear in “The New Writer’s Handbook 2008.”

Fourteen months and about 120 posts later, I was ready to put “The Mechanic and the Muse” to rest and return to writing “Chip on Your Shoulder” — first as a column and now as a blog. I never knew how big the audience for that blog was, but now I realize that once a week I could glean a useful post from that collection.

I think of them as “M&Ms,” an allusion not only to the blog’s name, but to that chocolate candy encased in a rainbow of sugar shells. My aim: refresh these “Mechanic and the Muse” posts with new lessons and links — fresh, colorful shells — and share them with the larger audience of Chip on Your Shoulder.”

Today’s post, “The Smell of War,” is the first in the series of M&Ms. Read more

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Monday, Mar. 17, 2008

Talent vs. Endurance: A Message of Hope

Every day a writing quote appears in my inbox from The Writer’s Lifeline.

Sometimes it strikes a chord, sometimes not.

The one that chimed its arrival late Thursday is one I will keep close. The quote is attributed to Donald Hall, America’s Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2007 and still a working writer as he enters his 80th year:

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.”

I often say, and sincerely believe, that if I thought my best work was behind me, I’d be devastated.

Instead, I try to behave as if every writing day is the beginning of my career, not another fleeting 24 hours closer to its end.

Until Thursday night, I never thought of it as endurance, just simply the way that anyone who’s lucky enough to enjoy working with words spends the days.

I guess that’s why Hall’s observation jumped off the screen — a message of hope as twilight heralded the close of another writing day.

If you have a favorite quote that keeps you going, please share it. Read more

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Wednesday, Mar. 12, 2008

Widgets for Writers

Read a text version of Chip’s podcast.

Enroll in the “Get Me Rewrite” course.

Combine the World Wide Web and a software gadget and the result is a widget: a mini-application designed to do one or two things really well.

Widgets for every purpose one could imagine are available for computers, Web sites, and even mobile phones. There are hundreds, if not thousands, out there, free (or nearly free) for the downloading and appealing to every niche from Sudoku to “The Baby Countdown Pregnancy Ticker.”

Lately I’ve been thinking that there’s another way to look at these byte-sized helpers.

Just substitute “writing” for Web, and widgets take on a new meaning, as programs tailored for writers.

Here are some of my favorites:

Countdown timer
Designed to remind people to deal with “single events, lunch breaks, weekends, paying your monthly bills or birthdays and holidays.”

I’ve found it ideal to set the date and time of deadlines, whether for writing, teaching or consulting trips. One of my timers tells me I have just 8 days left to complete an interview for the “Best Newspaper Writing” anthology; another gives me 85 days before I teach time management at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

Word counter
Sure, you can use the word count feature in Word, but this widget offers writers much more beyond word, character, paragraph and line counts. It also tallies:

  • Instances of particular text in a case-sensitive or case-insensitive manner. Ideal for someone like me who often repeats the same word in a paragraph.
  • All words or only words above a specified length. Consider this the digital version of a writing maxim attributed to Mark Twain: “Never use a 50-cent word when a 10-cent word will do.”

Other widgets I rely on

Wikipedia search

Enables me to scan this user-generated encyclopedia, and more important, look for the primary sources the entry relies on.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Pronounces words as well as looks them up.

Note: The Countdown timer and Word counter I use are Mac-only, but Windows widgets are also available.

So, what widgets help your writing life?

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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Eye to Ear: From Newspapers to Public Radio

David Folkenflik spent more than a decade as an award-winning newspaper reporter at The (Baltimore) Sun. In 2004, he says, he “took a leap of faith across media platforms,” taking a job as a National Public Radio correspondent. He’s NPR’s media correspondent, now based in New York City.

Folkenflik says he “seeks stories that haven’t been widely told, such as the multimedia innovations of a small Kansas company and the decision by the owners of a crusading Alabama paper to make it not-for-profit.” He’s a digger too, breaking stories about the Chicago-based Tribune Co’s financial woes, and a skillful profiler of figures in the media world.

I’d long been a fan of Folkenflik’s media coverage at The Sun, and curious when he surfaced on NPR. I wanted to find out more about his decision and the lessons he’s learned from the transition — matters not only relevant to those who make such a change, but also to print reporters who contribute audio storytelling on their Web sites. What follows is our e-mail interview and links to some of his favorite stories.

Chip Scanlan: When did you move from print to radio?

David Folkenflik: I left The Sun in October 2004 and joined National Public Radio late the next month.

Scanlan: Why did you make the move?

Folkenflik: Perhaps the central reason has to do with NPR itself. I’ve been a listener — first involuntarily as a child, then by choice — for as long as I can remember, so I have a strong affinity for it.

Once I learned NPR was creating this position, it seemed a natural way for me to continue covering an intriguing beat while adopting a completely fresh approach to the job. And that held a strong appeal.

But I might not have had the confidence — or the imagination — to take this leap of faith across media platforms had it not been for the presence of my former editor at The Sun, Bill Marimow, who was a senior editor here at NPR at the time and is now the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. It assured me that this very different kind of medium can adhere to the fundamental principles that drew me to journalism in the first place.

Scanlan: What did the transition entail? What did you have to learn and master to report and write the news for radio? What’s the difference between writing a newspaper story and a radio story?

Folkenflik: Joining NPR from the world of print was a little bit like entering the Marine Corps at Parris Island. You’re completely stripped down and then built back up.

The journalistic tools and techniques I relied on for articles often help advance the reporting of my stories here — but they’re not enough. The basics are the same. But the way you structure stories on radio is very different.

For one thing, you give the host who reads the introduction to your stories many of the best lines. In the body of the story, you really need to guide listeners by the hand — there are a lot of external distractions as they hear the stories. So you have to convince them this is worth listening to and you can’t expect them to remember everything as the story moves along.

You need to think very consciously about sound. You want to minimize or avoid the noises that interfere with your ability to hear people’s voices — the refrigerators, flourescent lights, computers, leaf blowers, and so on. And yet you want very much to capture the clatter and chatter that make up the soundtrack of real life.

You need to honor the way people speak, to let their cadences unspool and thoughts unpack, more than I did for written articles. You have to learn to get out of the way more. And I had to cast aside my ignorance of (and relative lack of interest in) technology to recognize its importance in conveying the stories I want to tell.

Because you simply have fewer words in which to tell stories, you have to economize. In a newspaper article, you might include all five damning episodes or illuminating anecdotes. This is much more like haiku. You generally have to choose one or two.

“In a newspaper article, you might include all five damning episodes or illuminating anecdotes. This is much more like haiku. You generally have to choose one or two.” -David FolkenflikFor many of the same reasons, it’s been a complete blast. It’s fascinating to have to learn a new form of journalism. It’s been great to try to use the medium to give my stories a little turbo boost; when I did a piece about a small paper in Alabama that’s going to be owned by a not-for profit foundation, I interviewed people at a general store — the sound of the owner (a county commissioner) bantering with customers as he scooped beans out of a barrel evoked small-town life of the Deep South far more powerfully than my hitting listeners over the head with it.

In the hitting-listeners-over-the-head category, I did a story on CNBC’s bombastic Jim Cramer that allowed him to explode through the microphone. But in another piece, about former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, the power came simply from allowing Eichenwald to speak at length about his struggles.

One last point about that: I think the learning process continues, and the mastery lies a ways off.

I’ve also found I can leverage material online in interesting and different ways. On longer stories, I try to include expanded excerpts of interviews with key players. I think it allows listeners to hear them in their own words in greater depth — and as a practice I think it gives listeners who take the trouble to access those links enhanced trust that we’re representing people fairly.

Also, on weighty stories where I can’t include all the relevant stuff I’ve learned on the air, I’ll incorporate that into a lengthier Web version. We can link to related material — including the controversial stories that are at the heart of some of my reports. And periodically I write an online column for NPR.org that allows me to indulge my previous incarnation as a media critic and columnist. Others are also podcasting — an area in which NPR seems to be doing pretty well — but I haven’t done that yet.

Scanlan: How does working for public radio compare to working for a major metro?

Folkenflik: I worked for two newspapers — one pretty big, the Baltimore Sun, the other much smaller, The (Durham) Herald-Sun in North Carolina. (I also had an internship at what was then called The News and Courier in Charleston, S.C.) I love newspapers. I had a great time and learned a lot reporting for both.

“I love newspapers. … Yet when you met people socially, and they asked what you did and who you worked for, you’d as often as not get an earful. … These days, if people ask what you do, and you tell them, you hear, ‘You know what I love about NPR?’ That’s a gratifying shift.” -David FolkenflikYet when you met people socially, and they asked what you did and who you worked for, you’d as often as not get an earful. And that earful would start like this: “You know what’s wrong with your paper?” or “You know what I hate about your paper?” I don’t see people doing this to dentists or utility company employees.

These days, if people ask what you do, and you tell them, you hear, “You know what I love about NPR?” That’s a gratifying shift.

The reach is also pretty amazing. We have listeners all over the country, in big cities, small towns, red states, blue states — all over. People are always surprised to learn our audiences are a lot bigger than those of cable news channels, and often rival the networks.

As a reporter, I find sources are more accustomed to dealing with newspapers, on a few levels. The sources figure they reach more people by going to one of the big newspapers — even though any story we do is likely to be heard by far more people than would read it in, say, The New York Times.

And there’s the inhibition factor — when you talk to someone in person or by phone, all you need is a pen and a pad. To make a story that really leverages the power of radio, you need sound — and so you have to whip out a microphone or ask if you can call back once you’ve arranged for time in a studio. Even if it’s only a three-minute hiatus (we have booths set up for quick-and-dirty phone interviews), that can give sources a bit more time to second-guess their decision to talk. And people, especially lawyers, are nervous about talking on tape. I imagine if they misspeak, they feel it’s harder to step away from those comments. It also makes it tougher for them later to claim they were taken out of context.

Scanlan: What was the greatest surprise?

Folkenflik: The pace is pretty different. On the whole, the days are more manageable — but the deadlines for breaking news are like full sprints. “All Things Considered” kicks off at 4 p.m., so a developing story that I could have finished at 5:30 or even 7 p.m. for The Sun has to be done and ready to track — that is, to record in studio — by 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. at the latest. That means your reporting has to be done at least an hour before that. Your days can be really compressed.

On the flip side, because “Morning Edition” doesn’t start until 5 a.m., you can spend long nights reporting and recording stories on things that happen too late in the day to turn for “All Things Considered.” And, it means the show’s producers can (and occasionally do) call you at 3 a.m. to update stories that are about to run with new developments — or at 11 p.m. or even 5 a.m. to come into the studio to match someone else’s piece. It doesn’t happen very often — but it’s very much a round-the-clock mentality. Newspapers aren’t so Web-crazed that they feel as much need to do that yet.

It is also a relief not to be worrying as much about newsroom budgets.

Scanlan: What role do producers, editors and others at NPR play when you are producing a story?

Folkenflik: It’s an exceptionally collaborative place. I still do the loose-knit kind of consultations I used to favor with trusted colleagues at The Sun. But I’m in frequent discussion with my direct bosses, such as Laura Bertran, Steve Drummond, and Ellen Weiss, my arts desk colleague Sara Sarasohn and my fellow New York bureau crazies Robert Smith, Mike Pesca and Adam Davidson about possible approaches to the story. And that’s been great fun.

So far, I haven’t worked much with producers in the field; instead, I record the interviews and sound in the field, Alison Bryce and colleagues from the news operations desk help me identify and gather sound from public events (say, press conferences or speeches); either Laura or show producers “lay up” the piece, which means putting together the constituent sounds of the piece, from my narration to the voices of the people I’ve interviewed, to the background sound we use to represent life as it actually sounds when you’re there. The sound technicians, the engineers, make sure the levels are strong enough to hear clearly but not intrusive — they can work magic to make it all flow together. As digital technologies have become more sophisticated, though, reporters are taking on more production tasks and show producers are taking on more technical duties.

Scanlan: Did you have teachers or mentors who helped you become a radio journalist?

Folkenflik: I’ve found NPR to be an astonishingly collaborative and gracious place. Even aside from my bosses, experienced reporters such as Danny Zwerdling have gone out of their way to offer constructive tips on how to tell stories more simply but no less completely. Others such as David Kestenbaum have offered pointers on incorporating humor, or simply encouraged things they thought worked. That helps too. People here seem to genuinely revel in one another’s successes and little grace notes. Jonathan Kern, a former executive producer of “All Things Considered” who’s been an in-house coach, has been particularly patient with me. So has our former national editor, Ellen Weiss, who’s now our vice president for news — although I was initially not one of her reporters.

And you learn just by listening to other stories -– such as those by foreign correspondents like Rob Gifford or the dispatches of StoryCorps, with its incredible initiative enabling people to tell their own tales.

Scanlan: What advice would you give someone who wants to make the transition from print to public radio or to a print reporter who wants to add radio skills?

Folkenflik: You have to be willing to overcome your own inhibitions about hearing your voice, and dealing with slightly cumbersome equipment. You have to be willing to collaborate to a greater degree. You have to tell complex stories more tightly — but without losing any of the sophistication or vital context. You should be eager to have fun along the way. Read more

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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007

We Stand Corrected: When Good Journalists Make Stupid Mistakes

Want to see a journalist wince? Publish a sentence that begins this way: “In yesterday’s edition, it was inaccurately reported…”

Want to make a journalist squirm? Post these two words above an online story: “Correction appended.”

Ouch!

Corrections are journalism’s equivalent of Puritan-era stocks, clamping a wrongdoer’s feet, hands or head inside heavy wood frames, on humiliating display in the town square.

As painful as corrections are to journalists, the screw-ups they reflect do damage on a far greater scale to the news organizations they work for.

“Each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabeled map erodes public confidence in a newspaper’s ability to get anything right,” a 1998 study commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors concluded. “Even seemingly small errors feed public skepticism about a newspaper’s credibility.”

Enter Craig Silverman, a Canadian freelance journalist and author who decided that the best way to make the case for accuracy was to expose mistakes and efforts to — or not to — correct them. In 2004, Silverman created “Regret the Error,” a Web site focused “on media retractions, apologies, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the press.”

On his site, and in a new book, “Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech,” Silverman presents an often hilarious collection of media mistakes and the corrections they engender.

My favorite from his 2007 list of Media Errors and Corrections is this one from The Sentinel-Review (Woodstock, Ontario):

In an article in Monday’s newspaper, there may have been a misperception about why a Woodstock man is going to Afghanistan on a voluntary mission. Kevin DeClark is going to Afghanistan to gain life experience to become a police officer when he returns, not to shoot guns and blow things up.
The Sentinel-Review apologizes for any embarrassment this may have caused.
He highlights other really funny mistakes like this one from the Dallas Morning News — “An Oct. 19 article on songwriter John Bucchino incorrectly stated that he doesn’t read. The sentence should have said he doesn’t read music.”

Yucks aside, Silverman is serious about mistakes. He sometimes takes a scholarly approach as well, tracing mistakes from “the 2 of December” that appeared in the oldest surviving English-language paper to the rise of external fact checkers. These include the bloggers that went after CBS and Dan Rather about the “60 Minutes story” on President Bush’s National Guard record that ended with Rather�s ouster. 

I recently interviewed Craig Silverman by email. Our exchange follows.

Scanlan: What was the genesis of “Regret the Error”?

Silverman: It was a combination of wanting to start a media blog and noticing that corrections in particular were a fascinating and un-mined part of journalism. I came up with the idea of tracking errors and corrections early in 2004 and was inspired to move ahead after I saw this July correction from the Lexington Herald-Leader: “It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.” That told me there would be a lot to say about corrections and errors. So I launched in October 2004.

Scanlan: How much time do you devote to the site? Why do you do it?

Silverman: “Accuracy is a key that can unlock innovative, investigative journalism.”Silverman: I spend between one and three hours per day. I started the site because I thought it would be a worthwhile addition to the media landscape, and a good way to raise my professional profile. I have to admit that there’s now a larger mission: to help journalists see that accuracy is an enabler of great journalism. Aside from being an essential nuts and bolts aspect of how we do our job, accuracy is a key that can unlock innovative, investigative journalism. It can help us forge a stronger bond with the public and with our sources. When we dedicate ourselves to preventing and correcting errors at the highest possible level, we open up the door to doing great journalism. If I can help spread the message about what accuracy can do, and why it is more important today than ever before, then I’ve done something good.

Scanlan: What kind of traffic does your site get?

Silverman: It’s usually about 1,000 people per day, but it spikes into the tens of thousands when I do my year-end roundup.

Scanlan: You don’t have any advertising on your site. Why is that?

Silverman: I made a conscious decision not to seek out or accept ads. The site is supposed to be a service to both the public and the press. I also don’t want to appear to be making money off of the mistakes of others. The site is more of a mission than a business, and not having ads is a way of communicating that.

Scanlan: How do items come to your attention?

Silverman: The majority are discovered by me via my database and Web searches, and by checking the online corrections pages of different organizations on a daily basis. I read probably about 150 to 200 corrections a day. But readers also play a role. Many people send me corrections or errors, and I’m always grateful for that. A lot of working journalists send in their organization’s corrections — or those of a competitor.

Scanlan: How significant is the problem of inaccuracies?

Silverman: There has been a lot of scholarly research aimed at discovering the level of error in U.S. newspapers. It began in 1936 and has continued since then, with people like Scott Maier and Philip Meyer doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Overall, the research suggests that between 40 and 60 percent of newspaper news stories have some type of error, be it factual or something of a more subjective nature. So that’s the frequency. But here’s the other part of the equation: Research from Maier published this year found that only 2 percent of factual errors were corrected. So we have a relatively high error rate, and that is compounded by an anemic correction rate. Errors are not being prevented, and they are not being corrected.

In a media environment where stories are often published in a paper, placed online and then loaded into various databases, the issue of uncorrected errors becomes even more urgent. The errors of today become the errors of tomorrow when they are accessed online or from a database at a later date. As much as we are creating the historical record, we’re also polluting it with errors. Errors can then be blogged, cited in research, used in press releases … they go farther, faster than ever before. In many cases, they exist forever. So we have a responsibility to do everything we can to prevent and correct them. It’s part of our job as journalists. Stories don’t end once they’re published; we are responsible for correcting and updating them.

The other piece, of course, is the effect that errors have on the public’s perception of the press. Put simply, errors erode credibility. The public notices mistakes, and they notice when we don’t correct them. A survey of newspaper readers by the ASNE found that over 60 percent of readers said they felt better when they saw corrections. They don’t expect perfection; they expect us to work hard to prevent errors and to correct any that occur. When we don’t do that, they punish us by tuning out.

Scanlan: Regret the Error has a global reach on errors. How did that come about?

Silverman: I initially planned to only focus on North America. But then I discovered the Guardian‘s wonderful corrections column and the astounding apologies of The Sun tabloid and I realized I should do my best to cover all English-language media. Readers are very helpful in this regard.

Scanlan: What are the most common errors?

Silverman: “Between 40 and 60 percent of newspaper news stories have some type of error … only 2 percent … were corrected.”Silverman: Common errors include misspelling names and titles, typos, incorrect calculations or incorrect numbers, and misquotes and misidentifications. The vast majority of factual errors are accidental. We know or can easily obtain the correct information, but something goes awry at some point in the reporting, writing, editing and production process.

Scanlan: What are the classes of errors you’ve identified?

Silverman: Errors fall into two main categories, as defined by Donald Norman in “The Design of Everyday Things” – slips and mistakes. Slips are what I previously described — errors that occur in spite of us knowing or having access to the correct information. Mistakes are the result of a conscious decision. The Chicago Daily Tribune declaring Dewey the winner in the 1948 presidential election (“Dewey Defeats Truman”) was a mistake. They made the wrong call.

Here’s the good news: Slips are highly preventable.

Scanlan: How can news organizations curb the problem?

Silverman: I wish I could say there was a magical accuracy machine that could be installed in newsrooms, but it’s not that simple.

The first thing to do is create an organizational culture that values error prevention and accepts that corrections are an important part of journalism. Get rid of the stigma of error that causes people to want to hide their mistakes and not learn from them. Then take that culture and make it real through training, effective technology and good processes.

It all starts with an attitude — a passion for accuracy and a recognition of the importance of corrections. I don’t doubt that within most newsrooms there are people who have devised their own great little way of checking and verifying information. Find a way to capture and share that information, and you’re already on your way.

Scanlan: What are ways that individual reporters can avoid errors from creeping into their stories?

Silverman: I think one of the easiest things to do is to use a checklist. I know many people roll their eyes when I say that, but remember that airplane pilots use checklists. They can work. Create a list of the most common facts in any story (names, titles, numbers, dates, etc.) and then also add a few items that you personally have had trouble with. Do you always misspell a certain word? Make yourself go through that checklist before finishing every story. I suggest getting it laminated so you can use a dry erase marker to check off each box as you go down the list. And leave space for a couple of write-in items that are specific to a particular story.

Also, remember that memory is unreliable. If it’s not on paper or in a definitive source, take the time to make a call or send an e-mail. Just a few extra minutes of time on the phone or e-mail can be the difference between a clean story and one with errors.

When in doubt, make the call. And when you think you’re done, run the checklist.

Scanlan: You’ve done some training in newsrooms. Can you describe how you try to help them with the error problem?

Silverman: I’m only just beginning to work on training, so I think I’m learning as much as I’m teaching, which is not exactly a bad thing. Right now I’m trying to go into newsrooms to present about error and correction rates, and explain the larger issues around mistakes: culture, process, technology, human error. I’m hoping to shift organizations away from the culture of shame and help them embrace the reality of error and the ethic of meaningful correction. I also try to inspire them to innovate when it comes to prevention and corrections. I show some of the great things different organizations are doing. So it’s more educational at this point. I hope to add more elements of hands-on training.

Scanlan: If you could change anything about news organizations’ response to errors, what would it be?

Silverman: “The vast majority of factual errors are accidental.”Silverman: There’s the larger issue of the stigma of error — that we think only bad reporters and editors make them. Then there’s the lack of data capture and knowledge sharing that ensures we aren’t learning from our mistakes. Finally, we need to be innovative about correcting errors.

Scanlan: If you were to design the perfect correction for today’s media world, what would it look like? How do we ensure our readers/viewers/listeners get the correct information?

Silverman: I probably sound crazy, but that strikes me as a wonderful, exciting challenge. Imagine the message we could send to the public if we began unveiling vastly more effective prevention and correction programs.

Scanlan: How well do newspapers deal with corrections? How about TV and radio outlets? Web sites?

Silverman: There are some bright spots, but for the most part I have to say that corrections are ignored and taken for granted. They are a core part of our contract with the public — that we will be accountable by publicly correcting our errors — and yet there is, for the most part, a lack of commitment to the meaningful act of correction.

 
That means creating a culture where reporters and editors are encouraged to own up to mistakes and get corrections issued. It means making it easy for the public to report errors, and thanking them for doing so. And it means presenting corrections in clear language and with a placement that ensures people will actually see them. A correction that is vague or hidden is a hollow act that only serves to absolve a news organization rather than actually correct the record and inform the public. Read more
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Tuesday, Dec. 04, 2007

Battling the Curse of Perfectionism

Benedict Carey is one of my favorite writers at The New York Times. He writes, with clarity and grace, about human behavior, neuroscience, cognitive science and other topics that hit me where I live.

It’s a psychic territory bounded on one side by the compulsion to be perfect in every way and by a wistful hope that what I do might be good enough.

This is familiar territory for many – or who knows, maybe for most of us.

Carey’s latest report, “Unhappy? Self-Critical? Maybe You’re Just a Perfectionist,” heads the list of today’s most e-mailed stories. No wonder. His story debunks prevailing thought about the importance of perfectionism.

Carey begins by listing the kinds of things perfectionists are told, tell themselves and, in a toxic hat trick, pass on to the next generations of perfectionists:

“Believe in yourself. Don’t take no for an answer. Never quit. Don’t accept second best.”

Sound familiar? It sure does to me.

In Sept. 2003, I wrote a column titled, “When Good Enough Is Good Enough,” offering help to someone with advice that I hoped would help me. I’m not a behaviorist (nor do I play one on TV), so I could only rely on my personal experience.

Perfectionism, I’ve found, creates writers block. For the longest time,
I hit send with bile in my throat, convinced my story hadn’t made the
grade. Perfectionism’s shadow darkened my writing life, in and out of
the newsroom. In journalism, perfectionism is particularly dangerous.
It’s the reason we don’t start writing until 30 minutes before deadline
so we can tell ourselves, “It’s not my fault it’s not better. I didn’t
have enough time.” It’s why we spend so much time on our leads,
operating under the delusion that our openers must be perfect — catchy,
newsy, a hook to snare the reader — or we’ve failed.

Perfection was like quicksand — it dragged me and my writing dreams
down. “We make a mistake when we’re younger,” Saul Pett, legendary
Associated Press writer once observed. “We feel compelled to hit a
home run in the very first sentence. So we spend a lot of time staring
at the typewriter. I’ll settle for a quiet single, or even a long foul,
anything that gets me started. When I talk to young writers, that’s the
most sensible advice I can give them.”

But perfectionism can be overcome with will power. Instead of agonizing
over your prose, hit the send button. Read the printout aloud, or to a
friend, spouse or your editor. (That’s a common practice at the
The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer.) Notes will sound off-key, sentences will seem too long,
paragraphs will need to be moved. Mark all these changes and without over-thinking, make changes. You can repeat this process infinitely, but
don’t. Once, maybe twice, will suffice. Then you must perform an act of
courage. No matter how bad you think it is, hit the send button. Fight
perfectionism by telling yourself that what I wrote today is what I was
capable of at this moment.

The day I could hit send was the day I realized that no matter
how much I craved perfection, I was not perfect, and that pursuing perfection was
holding me back as a writer. From that day on, writing and submitting
my work became easier, and successes came more frequently (so did
rejections, but at least I was in the game). I learned a lesson I wish
for all of us trying hard to write well. I may want to be perfect,
but that’s impossible. I’m a human, with strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and a hunger to be heard. Being human opens
us to the world. Perfectionists close off the world. I’ve learned what
I want to be and what I want to believe.

Thankfully, Carey’s piece offers scientific support for what perfectionists want to believe — that it’s OK to lower your standards. (Heck, no one has higher ones for you; others are absorbed by their own standards.)

Carey writes:

“…several recent studies stand as a warning against taking the platitudes of achievement too seriously. The new research focuses on a familiar type, perfectionists, who panic or blow a fuse when things don’t turn out just so. The findings not only confirm that such purists are often at risk for mental distress – as Freud, Alfred Adler and countless exasperated parents have long predicted – but also suggest that perfectionism is a valuable lens through which to understand a variety of seemingly unrelated mental difficulties, from depression to compulsive behavior to addiction.”
Science aside, we can also use common sense to bat away those perfectionist maxims. For instance, consider this rewrite:
“Never quit” can become “Worse than a quitter is he who is afraid to begin.”

Read the piece. E-mail it to friends and family. And make sure you read the kicker.

It’s good … good enough. And so are we.

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