Sharing the writing life with Chip Scanlan.

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How text-to-speech technology can help journalists avoid copy errors

You’ve run spell-check and closely studied your story. Your editors have done the same and the copy desk — the last line of defense against mistakes — has scrutinized every word and line to ensure error-free copy.

And then the worst happens. You pick up the newspaper or open your online story. A mistake, perhaps several, jump out: misspellings, repeated words, missing ones, sources’ names spelled differently on second reference, any of several embarrassing screw-ups have made their way into publication.

You’re not alone.

Spell and grammar checkers are designed to flag misspellings, dangling modifiers, misshapen clauses and run-on sentences, but they’re far from infallible. Mistakes are easy to ignore on the page, but even more elusive on the screen where everything seems pixelly perfect.

There’s another, much more valuable, tool to cut down on creeping copy errors: Text-to-speech. TTS, which converts text into synthesized speech, adds another sense — hearing — that improves your chances of catching mistakes that your eyes miss. Read more


Monday, Mar. 04, 2013


How journalists can become better interviewers

Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook or turn on a recording device. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.

Interviewing is the heart of journalism. Yet too few journalists have ever received education or training in this critical skill. “No one ever teaches the journalist how to conduct an interview,” Courtney Herrig, a student at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, complained in a 2007 blog post. For most journalists the only way to learn is on the job, mostly through painful trial and error.

How do you walk up to strangers and ask them questions? How do you get people — tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed — to give you useful answers? Read more


Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013


How brain science can make you a better writer

A TV ad for features an unscrupulous doctor manipulating a patient’s exposed brain, turning him into a puppet who flails away at a keyboard hunting and pecking for online travel deals. It’s funny to some, offensive to others, but it illustrates a larger point that is important for writers. The brain influences the way readers respond to words, for better or worse.

A growing body of research reveals that different parts of the brain respond to language in unique ways. Neuroscientists learned this by observing brain scans as subjects read. Writers can take advantage of these findings to connect with readers in deep, intimate and lasting ways. And you don’t have to be a brain scientist to do it, just apply the same kind of techniques that writing teachers have been preaching for years.

The science of  “this is your brain,” “this is your brain on stories,” is relatively straightforward. Read more


Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012


A multimedia journalist’s holiday wish list

Technology has filled the journalistic toolbox with an array of innovative gadgets that enable journalists to gather and deliver the news with speed and sophistication. But which ones does a multimedia journalist need? It’s an apt question to ponder given the time of year. That way, if family, friends, perhaps even a wise boss, ask, “What do you want for the holidays?” you’ll be prepared.

In the spirit of gift giving, and receiving, I asked three leading multimedia journalists and a college professor who teaches multimedia journalism to build a “holiday wish list for multimedia journalists.” Their admittedly subjective suggestions for hardware and accessories range from the reasonably priced to the wildly extravagant. Note: Prices vary. In this post-Black Friday market, these experts advise hunting for bargains but always stick with reputable sellers. Be sure to read customer reviews.


Smartphone. With still photo and audio/video capability, wireless access and the right mobile apps, a smartphone is the Swiss Army knife for multimedia journalists. Read more

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Monday, Jan. 09, 2012

Storytelling on Deadline: A Bookbag for Reporters and Editors



A Bookbag for Reporters and Editors
Suggested by Chip Scanlan, The Poynter Institute




“Aim for the Heart: A Guide for TV Producers/Reporters,” by Al Tompkins. Bonus Books, 2002.


“The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on the Wall Street Journal,” by William E. Blundell. New York, NY: New American Library, 1988.


“Becoming a Writer,” by Dorothea Brande. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981. (reprint of 1934 edition published by Harcourt Brace.)


“Best American Sports Writing series.” 2002 volume edited by Rick Reilly. Boston: Houghton Mifflin).


“Best American Sportswriting of the Century,” edited by David Halberstam (Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


“Best Newspaper Writing,” edited by Roy Peter Clark, Don Fry, Karen F. Brown, Christopher Scanlan, Keith Woods, Aly Col�n. St. Petersburg, FL: The Poynter Institute and Bonus Books, 1979-2004.


“Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together Across Media Platforms,” second edition, by Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry. Read more


Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011

President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Rhetorical inventory of Obama’s budget, deficit speech reveals talking points, strategy

The torrent of news stories, analyses, editorials, columns and blog posts about President Obama’s speech on his budget plan focused, appropriately, on the numbers.

But there’s another way to look at it: analyzing the speaker’s words in ways that reveal as much about the content as the dollar signs that pepper its paragraphs. This approach employs a tool that linguists rely on in their study of human language. It’s a concordance, an alphabetical list of the principal words in a text that can be sorted by the number of times they are used.

President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Before computers, generating these rhetorical inventories was such an arduous, time-consuming project that they were limited to literature’s big guns: The Works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Koran and the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Read more


Tuesday, Oct. 07, 2008

Putting Voters in the Analyst’s Seat

Political analysis of campaign debates has long been the business of the chatterati: news analysts, commentators, spin doctors. That won’t change, at least not in the ’08 presidential campaign.

But now the digerati — computer wizards — have teamed up with journalists to put voters in the analyzer’s seat, too. The vehicles are innovative, with interactive features that include:

  • Debate video and transcripts, posted in near real-time
  • Keywords that enable voters to leap into the debate to see and/or read candidates’ stands on issues ranging from “maverick” to “surge”
  • Fact-checking pop-up windows
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I know of four such offerings, which I’ve listed in the sidebar to the right. unveiled its “Debate Analyzer” for the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 as part of its “Decision ’08 Dashboard.”

The analyzer “really gives users the ability to explore specific concepts within the context of the entire debate with a level of detail previously unavailable,” Paige West, director of interactive projects at, told me in an email interview last week. Read more


Friday, Oct. 03, 2008

Diagramming Palin’s Sentences

Forget politics. Anyone who’s interested in clarity should study this post on by author Kitty Burns Florey: “Diagramming Sarah: Can Palin’s sentences stand up to a grammarian?”

In her post, the novelist and copy editor says:

“There are plenty of people out there — not only English teachers but also amateur language buffs like me — who believe that diagramming a sentence provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator,”

OK, it’s political, since she’s taking on Sarah Palin’s tortured sentences from interviews blamed for a drop in her approval ratings. But a return to the lost grammar school torment of diagramming sentences — illustrated by sentence maps that look like an incomprehensible equation — is an enlightening journey.

Read more


Thursday, Sep. 18, 2008

Train Crash Leads LA Times to Create Django Database on Deadline

At 4:40 p.m., Friday, Sept. 12, a Metrolink commuter train collided with an oncoming freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles. The crash, the Los Angeles Times reported, was “the worst in modern California history,” killing 25 and injuring 135.

The following afternoon,, the paper’s Web site, posted an interactive database of the first fatalities who were identified. The database enabled readers to learn more about each victim with fields sorted by name, age, gender, hometown, hospital, marital status, number of children, occupation, reason for riding, and the train car they were riding.

As the coroner began to release names, the database grew. It now includes all 25 people who died in the crash. A separate Web page is devoted to each victim, featuring a photograph, a quote from a friend or relative, a brief portrait and a link to the paper’s obituary. The database also accommodates poignant tributes from family, friends, even strangers soon followed. Read more


Friday, May 30, 2008

Whose Journalism Is It?

Journalists work hard to report the news and tell the stories of our time. They contribute creativity, energy, passion, critical thinking, doing their best to reflect their community’s diversity and behave in an ethical fashion. I’ve heard people making comments reeking of disdain of our profession, “It’s not brain surgery.” And I want to say, “Yeah, it’s harder.”
These critics should try covering an eight-hour council meeting or staying on top of a fluid election and producing a story that is accurate, fair, balanced, solidly reported and written with compelling clarity. News writing, as veteran author David Von Drehle once put it, “especially on deadline, is so hectic and complicated — the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure.” Given those realities, it’s no surprise the process is called “The Daily Miracle.” It’s understandable, given all this hard work, that a sense of ownership takes over.
Especially when a book publisher or movie producer expresses an interest in buying the rights to reproduce a photograph, a graphic, or publish a magazine or book based on the journalist’s work. Read more