Archive for the ‘For Writers’ Category

Ball point pen (Biro) writing

Image via Wikipedia

I know one way to guarantee failure in writing a good story: It’s by not writing it.

Writers and would-be writers often say “I can’t write,” or “I don’t have anything good to say,” or “My grammar sucks.”

Writing is not about great grammar. Often, it’s not about a great event. It’s about telling it, and telling it in your own voice.

If you’re on the fence about your own writing, try the following tips. You don’t have to show your work to anyone; you just have to practice. No pressure — just do it!

Pick a topic. Quit thinking you’re going to write the Great American Novel right out of the gate. You’re not. To write something amazing takes time, skill and practice. For now, write a memory about your grandmother, or think of the world’s most perfect food, or pretend you’re on a date with Jennifer Aniston. Or take one of the following statements and use it as your opening sentence, then just see where it takes you:

  • The room was dark, except for the ray of light creeping through the window from the solitary street lamp.
  • Frank was a quiet man, giving in to outbursts of rage and fury only when he felt a rather important matter was out of his control.
  • Bob was dead, thanks to a series of events that really no one could have foreseen.

(I have tons of these. I make them up all the time for my community writing class. If you want more, tell me. I will keep you busy!)

Plan a time. Once you’ve chosen a topic, make yourself write for 30 minutes, or another time that feels comfortable to you. Or if you’d rather, choose a page count (1 typed page, or 2 handwritten pages, or one whole notebook). Stick to that goal.

Think about the five senses. I heard this a long, long time ago, and it’s a really easy way to make sure you’re adding color and flavor to your piece. The point is to make the reader feel like he or she is there. In case you’ve forgotten them, they are:

  • smell
  • taste
  • touch
  • sight
  • sound

If you’re walking down the street in your story, do you smell hot dogs? Do you see gum stuck on the sidewalk? Do you hear horns honking?

Explain the action. Rather than, “I was arrested and put in jail,” say “The cops threw me against the car, handcuffed me, made me cry. I spent the night in a cold cell, peeing in a steel toilet I shared with Bertha.”

Wrap it up the way you want to. If you’re just practicing and no one’s going to read it, it’s OK if you want to kill off the main character or leave a few ideas hanging or create a musical scene that your friends would make fun of. It’s your story. You can’t find your own voice if you’re going to edit yourself before you get your ideas on paper.

Read it! You’ll love your awesomeness. Or you’ll realize you could do better and you’ll try something different next time. Or you’ll revisit it many months later and think, “Damn, I’m good.”

Everyone has a great voice, and everyone’s voice should be heard. Be yourself in your writing. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And you’ll discover things about yourself you had no idea existed.

Do you have a process for writing you’d like to share? What have you learned about yourself through writing?

–Tyler Reed

Editor, The Sidebar Review

One of the greatest ways to make a story, article or blog post miserable to read is to ramble. Maintain absolutely no focus throughout the writing, and instead spend your time making sure that your article is the longest it can be.

I got a phone call like this earlier today at work. This woman meant well and had nice things to say, but instead of saying them in 20 minutes, she could have gotten her point across in 2 minutes or less. (You know this type of person.) Unfortunately, too many writers do the same thing. But whereas it would have been super rude for me to hang up on the caller, it’s not rude at all for your readers to reject your story once they realize it’s going nowhere — and that’s when they take the opportunity to turn the page or click to the next blog. Here are a few tips to make sure you’re not being “that person.”

Keep it short. This is my No. 1 rule with everything: e-mails, articles, phone calls, novels, conversations. Find the point and spit it out. Ditch the flowery. Give me the meat.

Tailor the message to your reader. Don’t waste the reader’s time with irrelevant diversions that say “Look at how long I can talk!” Make sure the reader knows what he or she is getting and wants to stick with it. If your article is about how to cut flowers, don’t talk about tilling the field. Just cut the flowers.

Even when you’re off track, be on track. You should always tell a story. And if your article is about how to cut flowers, as in the above reference, tell a quick little story or have an introduction that says how Grandma used to do it or what the nice scent means to the nose. So tell the story around the story, but make sure your story relates and gets to the point quickly.

If I may end with a food analogy: Make a perfectly square meal. Have the meat at the center of the plate. Throw in some potatoes, green beans and red peppers for color and interest and flavor. But discard the fat and the hard bits that the diner is going to ditch anyway.

Make your story palatable, and your reader just might stick around for dessert.

–Tyler Reed

Editor, The Sidebar Review

One often-overlooked way to botch telling a story is to … forget to tell the story.

“Just the facts, ma’am,” is a fun little phrase and surely has some excellent uses. But too often, articles focus so much on the facts that they miss the human side of the story. These are a few things you can add to your article by being sure it’s telling a story:

  • Stickiness. While nearly everyone can agree that cancer sucks and should be cured, a list that tells the reader all the bad things about cancer while neglecting to tell the story of 5-year-old Annie who cries every night because her mother just died of the disease is a failure. Teaching someone the facts, textbook-style, without the nugget of a human impact flies out of the brain as quickly as it flew in.
  • Relatability. Statistics excite me, and nothing makes me happier than a chart. But, knowing that 12 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year is much easier than reading that millions of Annies will shed tears over a devastating loss. Make that connection for your reader. Evoke emotion that makes the numbers real and the affected people relatable.
  • Call to action. An active reader is an engaged reader. Create a purpose in each article. If Annie is the subject of your story and you want readers to fund cancer research, tell them how they can help prevent more crying Annies. If the point is to reduce the readers’ own risk, tell them how to live more healthfully and keep their own children from orphanhood. If you expect your readers to volunteer, tell them how giving their time can mean the world to Annie and her mother.

Lists are awesome. Boring facts are not. Find your subject and wrap your story around it. Your article will improve 100 percent.

–Tyler Reed

Editor, The Sidebar Review

An excellent way to ensure your story is not nearly as strong as it could be is to conduct your interviews by e-mail. You never know what story or information a source might have or be willing to share. Unfortunately, I see too many writers composing a list of questions, firing it off by e-mail to the interviewee, and taking the newly canned answers and putting quote marks around them for their stories. What a shame. Here are the things you miss by not picking up a phone or scheduling a personal meeting:

  • Immediate answers. When people are on the spot, they say what they think. If they get the chance to edit themselves via e-mail, they realize that it’s probably not a good idea to mention to a member of the media that the boss was drunk at the company party. Your story just lost its juice.
  • Snickers, sneers and guttural noises. In e-mail form, you don’t know if the interviewee reacts to your questions about aforementioned company party. So, whereas in e-mail, “Describe in a few words the events at The ABC Co.’s party,” the interviewee could simply answer factually, via phone you would have heard him snort when briefly thinking back to Mr. Banks spiraling off the stage while singing “Like a Virgin.”
  • The rest of the story. An interviewee may only feel inclined to type a sentence or two as an answer rather than compose a full-fledged story. You can’t blame them. The writing is your job. Tons of detail might go flying out the window when you’re depending on e-mailed explanations.
  • Pulling them in. Cold black-and-white type on a computer screen hardly gets people to open up. On the phone or in person, you get to warm the person up with the wit and good looks your mother gave you. People are always willing to tell more secrets to people they like rather than people they don’t know. Establish that personal connection!
  • Frankly, my dear … If you’re communicating by e-mail, you don’t know whether you’re talking to Rhett Butler or John Gotti. Accent, inflection, age, background noise — all of these things are critical to your story.
  • Shape, excitement and depth. E-mail interviews show that you’re not willing to give your story the time it needs or your source the attention he or she deserves. The lack of interest and enthusiasm will show through in the final product.

E-mail has a ton of perfect uses. Interviewing is not one of them. Pick up the phone. I guarantee you’ll get a better story.

–Tyler Reed

Editor, The Sidebar Review

10 Mistakes Writers Make

Posted: August 16, 2010 in Articles, For Writers
Tags:

When writing an article for a magazine or newspaper, keep in mind the reader — and thus the editor it must go through first. An editor’s primary responsibility is to manage the tone of the publication and make sure its readers are engaged. Handling that duty often entails cutting numerous words out of an article, changing the flow substantially or calling the writer to understand what he or she intended. Keep your editor happy — and therefore the assignments coming — by thinking about your article through the editor’s eyes.

Below are the Top 10 problems I most often see with the articles writers submit, and they are simple fixes you can make before you hit “send”:

  1. Too long. If an editor assigns a word count, do your best to hit it. Just because the interview with your main source lasted 25 minutes doesn’t mean you need to include 25 minutes’ worth of quotes. Your job is to pare it down to what the reader wants to read.
  2. A buried lead. Make sure the most important part of your story — particularly if it’s a news item — is in the first sentence or two. Never make the reader slosh through extraneous information to find out what your point is.
  3. Misspelled names.Ideally, you won’t misspell any words, but you must triple-check your source’s names because the editor doesn’t have the luxury of a personal relationship with the source like you do. And spellcheck doesn’t fix names. Check every name — even John Smith — because it could be spelled Jon Smythe.
  4. Overuse of personal pronouns. He pushed the legislation through despite her protests and his lack of time. It’s easy to become a little too casual in your language when writing because you can see the players in your head. Don’t let your reader lose who is doing the action.
  5. Passive voice. Look at the verb in every sentence. It is almost always better to have the subject doing the action rather than the action being performed upon something. It makes it more exciting and it clarifies for the reader who did it. Consider the following two sentences: The petition was filed by the group in district court. or The group filed the petition in district court. The second sentence is stronger because it has more impact in fewer words.
  6. A single source. Even if it seems like your source has the whole story, you may be amazed at how differently someone else perceives it. Call or visit at least one other person, every single time. Quote the secondary source(s) if appropriate. If nothing else, it adds credibility to your story from the reader.
  7. Overemphasis. Your words should convey the message without the addition of exclamation marks, Italics, capital letters and ellipses. Unless you’re writing advertising/marketing copy, your article shouldn’t be trying to sell the reader something, so avoid salesman-type language and childlike excitement.
  8. The wrong angle. Understanding what the editor wants for the article is critical. If you don’t understand the assignment, call and ask for a refresher or a more in-depth explanation. If you call the primary source and learn that the story might take an unanticipated turn or could be bigger than previously thought, call the editor and discuss it.
  9. Too complex. Respect the reader’s time and expect that his or her attention span won’t hold out for an overdone story. Instead, wrap up the meat of the story quickly and then go on to give detail. Or try another approach: Create sidebar material or chart/illustration content to give the reader a quick visual or summation so he or she can accurately gauge the interest level for the rest of the story.
  10. Too flowery. Focus on telling the story at hand. If it’s a prose format in which you must describe the setting, give the reader a good idea of what the surroundings look like. But most magazine stories don’t need that and should really dwell on getting the meat of the story out.

You Get to Keep Your Hand

Posted: August 16, 2010 in Articles, For Writers
Tags:
The Crown jewels at The Tower of London

Image by Edgley Cesar via Flickr

All writers who are slightly afraid to put pen to paper should write in memory of John Stubbs.

John Stubbs was a committed Englishman, loyal to his queen, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I. He wrote one little pamphlet challenging a possible marriage between Her Highness and the King of France’s brother.

And with one smack of the butcher’s cleaver, poor John Stubbs’ hand came off.

He’s lucky he only lost his hand; Elizabeth’s original sentence for the opinionated Englishman was the loss of his head.

I draw attention to this story because I know too many people with stories to tell who won’t sit down and write them. They fear failure or criticism, or they think their grammar isn’t good enough or their structure is lacking, or they rationalize that good writing is best left to the pros. Some have even written before and are worried they can’t replicate their previous good work.

To them, I say: Pull out a private notebook, start a blog, or Tweet like crazy. Your voice should be heard, no matter what.

And unlike John Stubbs, you get to keep your hand.

If you dig British literature and stories like this one about John Stubbs, check out my completely nerdy blog about my journey through the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Or, if you just like John Stubbs, his Wikipedia entry is really informative.

–Tyler Reed

Editor, The Sidebar Review