Articles about "Writing tips and techniques"


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How to turn hard facts into easy reading

I was recently hired by a department of the federal government to conduct a workshop on how to write reports that were short and clear. The director of the department who hired me pointed out the problem in her own official title. It was 29 words long.

I am “vice-president and senior scholar” at the Poynter Institute. I am embarrassed that my title is too long — and it’s only five words. What could I possibly do with 24 more?

“Bureaucracies,” I moaned, “is where language goes to die.”

The sixty policy wonks in the room collectively rolled up their sleeves. They understood the problem. They knew that they worked in a language club where jargon and thick information were king and queen. But they were stuck.

They wanted to know “how” they could change. They wanted to know “how” in the world it’s possible to take very hard, very complex, very technical, very academic, very abstract elements and turn them into easy reading.

To find out what I told them, and to air your own tough writing problems, replay the chat anytime. You can find every chats we’ve hosted at www.poynter.org/chats.

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Details ‘are what make people connect’ with stories, says student who wrote about Waffle House closing

Jessica Contrera’s “The End of the Waffle House” begins on the morning when a big change comes to a small square of Bloomington, Ind.

“Tap, tap, tap. Bud Powell’s aluminum cane led the way as he circled the floor of Bloomington’s Waffle House. His Waffle House. That Wednesday in September, the owner didn’t know what to do with himself. The smell of frying oil, the same greasy perfume that had greeted customers for 46 years, wafted into his nose as he wandered past the vinyl booths. He sat down, then stood up again.”

Contrera had never been to the old restaurant surrounded by new student apartments before, but when the senior from Akron, Ohio, started her semester at Indiana University, she saw the sign reading “We will close Sept. 4.” And she wanted to tell the story.

Her piece ran last week in the Indiana Daily Student and was produced as part of a class at IU’s journalism school called Words and Pictures, which brings together reporting, photography and multimedia. Contrera worked with photographer Anna Teeter and multimedia reporter and designer Emma Grdina, she told Poynter in a phone interview.

Contrera visited the Waffle House a week before it closed, when she met her three major characters, as well as the day it closed and the day it was torn down. She also spoke with about a dozen other customers and staff who didn’t make it into the story, but did help her understand what the business meant to the community. In her reporting, Contrera’s professor of practice, Pulitzer-prize winner and Poynter writing fellow Tom French, pushed her to find details.

Fifteen drafts later, those details include many small things that help readers feel what the closing of the old restaurant meant to its regulars, the owner and the community.

Contrera met customer Rose Thomas on her first visit, but only discovered why the restaurant was significant to the aging woman while visiting her at home. There, Contrera saw a photo of Thomas’ late husband. And she asked about it.

Contrera at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she interned this past summer.

From her story: “Other than her church, the Waffle House was about the only place Rose felt comfortable going alone since Stan, her husband of 65 years, passed away last year. They used to eat at the restaurant together. From time to time she’d retell how the two of them met, a long and winding story involving a Ouija board and a flirtatious secretary rival. Now going on two years without him, Rose still talked to Stan’s picture on the wall above her piano.”

After the story ran, Contrera said, French asked her what she’d learned from telling it — and she laughed when Poynter asked her the same question.

Her answer: “Those little details that some people would just call color? Those are what make people connect with it.”

For example, the wife of Dr. Dick Leyda wasn’t simply hoarding as Alzheimer’s settled in: “Without Dr. Leyda ever really noticing, his wife had begun filling up their children’s old bedrooms with newly bought items. Shoes still in their boxes, beautiful shirts and dresses from Talbots in the closet, never worn.”

Contrera will graduate at the end of next semester from IU’s School of Journalism, though she’ll be among the last class since the school announced a merger with other departments.

The more she’s learned about that merger, the better she feels about it, she said: “The most important thing to me is that the New Media School keeps journalism and your core reporting skills at the center of its focus.”

It’s great if reporters can code, she said, but if they can’t report the story, then they can’t do the work.

After graduating, Contrera hopes to find a job as a beat reporter, with time for enterprise stories on the side. When her Waffle House story ran, she said, she heard from other reporters but also from people in the community, including a Bob Evans employee and someone who works at the library, adding that such interactions showed her the value of these stories and the small details behind them.

Good storytelling, she said, still matters. Read more

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Tips for Storytellers: How to polish your writing

Lucky me. My office is two doors down from one of the world’s best writing coaches. I go to Roy Peter Clark often when writer’s block hits me. Here, you’ll find a few particularly helpful tips. Part of a series of graphics with tips for storytellers, think of this as bite-sized inspiration. Next Friday: How to make your photos better.

Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Polish your writing
Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Polish your writing

For a PDF: Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: How to polish your writing

Related: How to make the most of your tweets | How to shoot great video Read more

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Have you lost that writing feeling? Is it gone, gone, gone…?

The dialogue with a stranger on a plane often goes something like this:

Stranger:  “What do you do for a living?”
Me:  “I’m a teacher.”
Stranger:  “What do you teach?”
Me: “I teach writing.”

The response from the stranger is almost predictable. Odd looks. Nervous laughter. Usually followed by an admission that he doesn’t like to write, or that she tried to write in school once but it didn’t work out, or that he has to write as part of his job — but hates it.

Even professional writers will confess their loss of passion for their craft.

So do we hate writing? Or does writing hate us?

This feeling has many different names: writing anxiety, writing apprehension, writers’ block, paralyzing procrastination, aversive conditioning. The best description of the problem comes from the international reading scholar Frank Smith, who once described literacy as “a club.” Usually, something bad happens in school that persuades people that they are not fit to become members of the “writing club.”

This is a very sad state of affairs. And more important: it doesn’t have to be this way. If writing is hard or frustrating to you. If you once loved writing but have now “lost that lovin’ feeling,” as the Righteous Brothers once sang, there is something you can do about it.

 

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Why stories need a focus … or do they?

If there is one writing lesson that Poynter has taught for more than three decades now, it’s that good stories need a sharp focus.

I once heard my friend Chip Scanlan say that all parts of the writing process amount to these three words: focus, focus, focus.

We focus the:

  • Story idea
  • Reporting
  • Structure
  • Ending
  • Language
  • Revision

And, yes, we probably even focus the focus.

I have compared focus to the way that the eyedoctor tests you for new lenses. The image is supposed to get sharper and sharper with each slight correction.

But there’s always a big but, isn’t there?

How do we account for great works of art that defy all attempts to declare a focus? Does Hamlet have a focus? Or Moby Dick? Or Huckleberry Finn? What makes these works great (and perhaps flawed at the same time) is a certain recklessness on the part of the writer, a sense that the story cannot be easily defined or confined by theme or “focus.”

It is OK to face the question: “What is your story REALLY about?” and answer, “It’s REALLY about a lot of things.”

 

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Are we heading for a post-apostrophe society?

Time | Slate | The New Republic

The apostrophe — the punctuation mark, not the parenthetical form of speech directed at one person — will never die as long as copy editors and auto-correct programs value it, Katy Steinmetz argues. (Happy National Punctuation Day, Katy!) Losing the punctuation mark forever would require a “revolution in thought and relaxation among gatekeepers of the written word,” she writes.

Copyeditors are still changing donut to doughnut, after all. “Language is constantly changing, but predicting what will happen next is notoriously challenging,” [Oxford University's U.S. dictionary honcho Katherine] Martin says. “It is difficult to believe that copyeditors are going to stop distinguishing between its and it’s in the near future.”

But at this point in publishing history, throwing one’s lot in with gatekeepers seems as sound as larding your pension with media-company stocks. The American Society of News Editors’ annual surveys of copy editor jobs show there are about half as many copy-editing positions at newspapers than there were a decade ago (though that category has also included layout editors and online producers at times in the survey).

And auto-correct? I’d like to think I’d go to the trouble of inserting apostrophes while texting if it stopped popping them in for me, but I kind of doubt it.

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How to write longform stories

You knew it was only a matter of time until the author of “How to Write Short” would turn his attention to “How to Write Long.”

It turns out that long and short writing are not necessarily in conflict. Think for a moment about your favorite magazines. Compared to newspapers, the long stories in magazines are longer, and the shorter pieces are shorter. It’s the combination of short and long that make a publication versatile for readers.

Although I’ve met some writers who tell me “I want to write shorter,” that is the exception.  Most writers I know — including me — want to go longer. The daily beat reporter wants to do a Sunday feature. The Sunday feature writer wants to do a series. A series writer wants to do a book. The book author wants to do a trilogy.

If you have had any of these aspirations and want tips on how to write longform pieces, replay out chat:

 

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Take chances, Pulitzer-winning reporter urges young journalists

Gangrey

Lane DeGregory, a reporter for Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, wrote an email to a journalism student who asked her: “Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself when you were as inexperienced as us?

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, it’s okay to not know — it can even be endearing,” DeGregory, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for this series, writes about boning up for interviews. In another section, she suggests taking risks: Read more

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Introduction to ‘How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times’

(Editor’s note: “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” is the fourth in a series of writing and language books written by Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark and published by Little, Brown, beginning with “Writing Tools,” “The Glamour of Grammar,” and “Help! For Writers.” The Introduction to his new book is reprinted here with permission of the publisher. The book just came out today.)

Cover of Clark’s new book.

Introduction:  When Words Are Worth a Thousand Pictures

At this moment, the right pocket in my jeans contains more computing power than the space vessel that carried the first astronauts to the moon. My Apple iPhone 4GS stores all of Shakespeare’s plays, a searchable source I can use for quick reference. More often, I use my mobile phone for access to what are no longer being called “new” forms of information delivery: blog posts, e-mails, text messages, YouTube videos, 140-character tweets, and Facebook updates, not to mention games, weather reports, Google Maps, coupons, the White House, Al Jazeera, NPR, dozens of newspapers, music sites, an electronic drum set, an app that imitates the sounds of Star Wars lightsabers, one that turns your photo into an image of a zombie, and yet another invaluable resource titled Atomic Fart, which turns your mobile device into an electronic whoopee cushion.

Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. In fact, we’re soaring high above Oz, looking down like a Google Earth search. We’re high on technology, but adrift in a jet stream of information. All the more reason to write short — and well.

I’ve written “How to Write Short” because I could not find another book quite like it and because in the digital age, short writing is king. We need more good short writing — the kind that makes us stop, read, and think — in an accelerating world. A time-starved culture bloated with information hungers for the lean, clean, simple, and direct. Such is our appetite for short writing that not only do our long stories seem too long, but our short stories feel too long as well.

The most important messages are short, after all: “Amen, brother.” “Will you marry me?” “I do.” “Not guilty.” “The Giants win the pennant!” (That message was so exciting in 1951 that the radio announcer Russ Hodges repeated it five times.) “Score!” “You’re fired.” “I love you.”

In his book “Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little,” Christopher Johnson writes, “Messages of just a word, a phrase, or a short sentence or two — micromessages — lean heavily on every word and live or die by the tiniest stylistic choices. Micromessages depend not on the elements of style but on the atoms of style.” To which I would add, “Not just the atoms of style but the quirks and quarks of style as well.”

The New York Times reported the death of Osama Bin Laden with a two-tier headline of fifteen words. On the other hand, Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times chose a single word for its headline — DEAD — but printed it in letters that were five inches high.

More than four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare built his fame on the construction of thirty-seven plays, more or less, at least half of them masterpieces. But he also penned 154 love poems called sonnets, each exactly fourteen lines in length.  The Bard demonstrated how long and short writing can coexist. For the first fourteen lines of “Romeo and Juliet,” he composed a sonnet that summarized the key plot elements, including (spoiler alert!) the news that “a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”

To cut down the number of words we moderns use, we could revert to Sumerian cuneiform on clay tablets or Egyptian hieroglyphics on papyrus scrolls. They say, after all, that a picture is worth a thousand words. I have seen some pictures that were worth a thousand words, but being a man of the word, I remain open to the idea that some words may be worth a thousand pictures. Consider these historical and cultural documents:

  • The Hippocratic oath
  • The Twenty-third Psalm
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
  • The preamble to the Constitution
  • The Gettysburg Address
  • The last paragraph of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

I once exchanged messages with NPR’s Scott Simon, who shared this important idea, which he learned from his stepfather: If you add up the words in these documents, the sum will be fewer than a thousand, 996 by my count. Show me any number of pictures as powerful as those seven documents.

Now meet Joanna Smith, a young reporter for the Toronto Star. Picture her, early in 2010, hitting the ground in Haiti, a country rocked by earthquake. She will file dispatches by the minute using Twitter. Smith posts dozens of short reports in the form of tweets, each limited to 140 characters: “Fugitive form prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.” One by one, each post is a vivid snapshot of natural and human disaster. Together they constitute something akin to a serial narrative with short chapters, or a “live blog.”

Writers who complain about a 140-character limit are, shall we say, shortsighted. But consider this array of sentences, expressed easily with the tight boundaries of a tweet:

  • “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
  • “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
  • “Take my wife, please.”
  • “Where’s the beef?”
  • “I like Ike.”

That list include a famous line form a political pamphlet by Thomas Paine, a telegram from Mark Twain, a joke by Henny Youngman, an advertising campaign for Wendy’s, and a presidential political slogan. When I add them up, I get 122 characters. We still have room for Saint Paul’s “faith, hope, love.”

So the culture turns: short, shorter, even shorter, abbreviation, acronym, emoticon.  Maybe explorers from a future generation will discover that our discourse devolved to the point that combinations of smiley and frowny faces could be used as the binary elements to express everything from love poems to eulogies to State of the Union addresses.

Now for the good news: writing in short forms does not require the sacrifice of literary values. The poet Peter Meinke talks about the power that comes from focus, wit, and polish.  Focus in the unifying theme. Wit is the governing intelligence. Polish creates the sparkle that comes from careful word choice and revision.

The demand for good short writing is not an innovation. That need can be traced, through countless examples, back to the origins of writing itself. Here for example, is a list, not exhaustive, of forms of short writing that users of the Internet have inherited in one way or another: prayers, epigrams, wisdom literature, epitaphs, short poetic forms (such as haiku, sonnet, couplet), language on monuments, letters, rules of thumb, labels (as on poison bottles), lyrics, ship logs, diaries, journal entries, bumper stickers, graffiti, advertisements, news dispatches, pieces of dialogue or conversation, wedding and other announcements, headlines, captions, summaries, telegrams notes, microfiction, insults — and the list goes on.

From the analysis of these traditional short forms, writers and readers can learn the essential elements of good short writing, everything from word order, ellipses, and slang to levels of formality and informality, details, and parallel structures. These same strategies and more can be used to great effect in the new forms that have emerged with the development of digital technology: e-mail, instant messaging, text messages, blog posts, hyperlinks, website writing and navigation, commentary, feedback loops, updates, headlines, summaries, search engine optimization (phrases that will get you high up on Google searches), Q&A’s, slide shows.

My study of short writing over the centuries reveals that while technologies, genres, and platforms evolve, the purposes of short writing remain intact:

  • To enshrine: gravestones, monuments, tattoos
  • To amuse: jokes, insults, one-lines, snarky comments
  • To explain: museum texts, recipes, instructions
  • To narrate: micro-fiction, live blogs, diaries
  • To alert and inform: text messages, tweets, telegrams, status updates, news bulletins, signage
  • To remember: notes, summaries, lists, ceremonial texts (such as wedding vows)
  • To inspire: proverbs, quotations, prayers, aphorisms
  • To sell: graffiti, adverts, resumes, bumper stickers, T-shirts, dating sites
  • To converse: Q&A, social networks, feedback loops, blogs, speech balloons

You can detect from these partial lists that the craft of short writing applies to all forms of expression, not just the techie ones. Most writers will be as concerned with practical, job-related forms of short writing — from letters of recommendation and complaint to job postings, pitch notes, product descriptions, and classified ads — as they are with positing on social networks.

How short is short? Common sense dictations that length is relative. I am about five feet eleven inches tall, a little above average for American men. That means that I am too large to ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby and too small to play defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

A short story can be more than three thousand words long, which might be the length of a substantial essay or the longest story in Sunday’s New York Times. A three-hundred word piece of writing is short by most standards, but not if you are writing a tweet. Still, for the purposes of this book, three hundred words seems a reasonable boundary for learning how to read, write, and talk about short writing.

I’ve divide this book into two sections, the how and the why of the short writing craft.  The how comprises the rhetorical strategies that make a short text tick. The why reveals the practical uses of short writing over centuries, the ways in which writers use short forms to fulfill their aspirations, from the quotidian to the eternal.

This introduction turns out to be about sixteen hundred words, twice the length needed to print the Ten Commandments, the Hail Mary, the first stanza of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the Emma Lazarus poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow,” and the words recited by Neil Armstrong when he stepped on to the surface of the moon. I guess I’ve got a little more work to do to master the exquisite craft of how to write short — especially in these fast times.

Related: The secrets of how to write short (Time) | Confessions of an editor: a review of “How To Write Short” (Washington Post) | A long, loving look at writing short (Visual Thesaurus)

Related training: News University’s Writing Short training package. Enter the promo code 13SHORT50 for a discount. Read more

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Elmore Leonard

Remembering Elmore Leonard & his writing advice

Assuming that Elmore Leonard would be unimpressed with the imperatives of Search Engine Optimization, I will retitle this essay: “My Dinner with Elmore.”

I’ve read just enough Elmore Leonard to know that he was a brilliant writer with a distinctive American voice. Now that he has passed away, I plan to read more of him, so his words can teach me more about the craft.

Elmore Leonard

I believe it was in March of 2010 that I met the man. The occasion was the Tucson Festival of Books, one of the great literary weekends in America, and I was one of more than 300 authors invited to spread the gospel of reading and writing. An opening event at the University of Arizona brought together hundreds of authors, sponsors, community leaders and volunteers.

Picture me on one of the long buffet lines, hungry for the penne pasta. In front of me are two short men, one of whom looks vaguely familiar with a grey crew cut and owlish glasses. “Where do I know this guy from?” I thought, and then saw his name tag — Elmore Leonard.

“You’re Elmore Leonard,” I blurted, proving only that I could read. I introduced myself.  He said something in return that shocked me, “Oh, you’re the writing guy.” I knew right away that he was not familiar with my work but had noticed my book poster or my place in the program. Still, it was amazing to hear the author of “Get Shorty” say “you’re the writing guy.” If I had had my wits about me I would have responded: “I may be the writing guy, Mr. Leonard, but you are the writing MAN!”

He would have disapproved of my use of that exclamation point. I know this because we spent about 10 minutes on that buffet line in friendly disagreement over the permitted frequency of that mark of punctuation in the work of a serious writer. I knew one of his 10 writing rules prohibited overuse of the exclamation point.

“Keep your exclamation points under control,” he wrote.

What did he mean by “under control?” I wondered. Just as we reached our destination — Italian food — he offered this calculation: “You are allowed only three in every one hundred thousand words of prose.” Hmm. For me that would mean one exclamation in every other book. That would be like making love to your wife once every other year.

I wound up devoting a chapter of “The Glamour of Grammar” to use and abuse of the exclamation point: “After a brief revival during the New Journalism of the 1960s — during which punctuation often looked like an LSD hallucination — the exclamation point was eschewed by serious writers. That little phallic bat and ball exposed itself mostly in children’s literature and romance novels …The secret message broadcast by the likes of Leonard is that the exclamation point reveals a flighty or playful personality.”

To see an example of an author whose exclaimers were out of control, we need look no further than L. Ron Hubbard, science-fiction and adventure author, and founder of Scientology. I picked up a copy of one of his stories “Danger in the Dark” and opened it at random to find this passage of dialogue:

“You fools! Your island god doesn’t live! He never did live, and he never will! Give me this week and I’ll stop this plague! Obey my orders and it will take no more of your people! Tadamona! Damn such a rotten idea!”

OK, for the record that’s seven exclamation points — in one paragraph! There are three more on the page. And five more on the previous page. Why is everyone in this story shouting?

If L. Ron Hubbard had written “Get Shorty,” it would have been titled “Get Shorty!”

It must be said that Elmore Leonard was not preaching abstinence with the exclamation point, just artistic control. He acknowledges “If you have a knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

That’s my kind of writing advice: “Don’t overdo it …. unless you know how to overdo it.”

My “dinner with Elmore” ended at the buffet table. The pasta was delicious, by the way.  As was the conversation with a famous writer who cared so much for the craft that his process of writing and revision included his counting exclamation points. Read more

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