Tag Archives: reporting

Write this Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for February 24, 2012

Photo courtesy of SXC. 

Improving your writing by resting | Jeff Goins
Carol Tice, guest posting on Jeff Goins’ blog, presents a convincing case for taking one day off (and she means *completely* off) from writing and engaging via electronic devices each week.

Five Ways That Consistency Matters | Intelligent Editing
Geoff Hart explains why stylistic consistency matters, especially in the case of numbers (two vs. 2), capitalization, and word choice. I love his explanation about capitalization, since my pet peeve as an editor is inappropriate capitalization …

“In Western languages, capitalization indicates the start of a sentence or the presence of a proper noun. Changing from a capitalized form to a lowercase form triggers the reflex to ask whether the author has switched from discussing a named entity to a generic category. Each such hesitation slows reading, impedes comprehension, and increases the risk of an interpretation error.”

This post might come across to some as a little overly technical, but it’s good stuff for writers and the copy editors who serve them.

10 Must-Haves For Your Mobile Reporting Kit
Elana Zak, posting on the 10,000 Words blog, provides a nice summary of the tools that a 21st Century reporter needs to do his or her job. Some are obvious (mobile phone, business cards, a case to carry your gear) but some are not obvious to those who haven’t been out in the field since the rise of the smartphone (extra memory cards, a USB microphone). And her suggestion to bring a mini first-aid kit is just good common sense!

26 Tips for Writing Great Blog Posts | Social Media Examiner
Social media consultant Debbie Hemley takes readers from A to Z with good advice about writing blog posts that get read and shared. I’ve been blogging since 2007 and I learned a ton! Some of my favorite sections are Categories, Descriptions, Original vs. Curated Content, and Valuable Content.

Want to Make Money Online? Here’s What Sells | Online Journalism Review
Online journalism expert Robert Niles discusses five alternatives to paywalls for web content that can generate revenue for journalists. They include advertising, e-books, videos, merchandise and events.

“Write What You Know” Does Not Mean What You Think It Does | Fuel Your Writing
Icy Sedgwick discusses the old saw to write (fiction, especially) from your own experience, and helps readers go beyond the literal implications. Here’s a sample of her advice:

“Don’t take (the directive to write what you know) so literally – I’m pretty sure Tolkien didn’t have to go to Middle Earth, and JK Rowling never went to Hogwarts! The fundamental fact is that what you know is humanity, and how the world works, and human nature is fundamentally the same. While we all have different drives, desire, fears and goals, we have the same basic needs. The setting is just window dressing … characters need to be believable, even if they aren’t based in our reality.”

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Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for June 5, 2011

Photo courtesy SXC.

Everything You’ve Been Force-fed About Blogging Is Wrong

Karol Gajda, travel/lifestyle blogger at Ridiculously Extraordinary, discusses a recent discussion he had with other bloggers about what formulas for success really work, and he comes up with the conclusion that few pre-packaged directions work for everyone, but experimentation among success models can help identify what really resonates with the key audience for a blog.

13 Alternative Ways to Consume Your News

Jennifer Van Grove, writing on Mashable.com, has compiled an interesting roundup of apps and sites designed to facilitate news consumption. Includes everything from StumbleUpon and beyond-the-bookmark sites Instapaper and Read It Later to social news apps News.me, Zite, and Smartr. Anyone writing nonfiction for traditional print media will want to review this list for ideas on how to shape stories for an increasingly online/mobile audience.

Everyone Has a Story « The Artist’s Road

Patrick Ross, writing in the first few days after the U.S. military raid in Pakistan that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden, crafts a beautiful post that emphasizes that the man who pulled the trigger to kill Bin Laden, like the Navy SEAL team of which he is a member, has a story, one which he is eager to hear. The post and the comments that follow are a valentine to the power of story to humanize events with heavy historical importance.

How To Get The Most Out Of Your iPhone As A Reporting Tool | 10,000 Words

Lauren Rabaino provides several great tips for using your iPhone as a serious reporting tool. Most of them apply equally well to almost any smartphone. Some of my favorites: organize your apps, buy an audio adapter, use solid objects as a stabilizer for video.

Reading for Detail: Proofing Tips from our Editors | Beyond PR

The PR Newswire Editorial team frequently catches obvious mistakes in press releases submitted for distribution over the wire  – missing quotation marks, the website that doesn’t end in .com (or .org, etc.).   They also read every release carefully, double checking minute details. In March 2011 alone they found more than 12,000 mistakes. Here are some examples of mistakes that can reflect poorly on an organization – and some tips for fixing them before you hit “send.”

Susan Orlean Explains How Twitter Affects Her Long-Form Writing | PBS Media Shift

An interesting short post by Simon Owens relating how Orlean, who’s written many popular fiction and nonfiction books, has used Twitter to receive feedback, promote her work, connect with writers and editors and stay in touch between projects.

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How to Make the Editor Your Friend, Revisited: Discussing the story assignment

Photo by Mateusz Stachowski via SXC.

It’s been a good long while since I discussed ways to make magazine editors happy. There are some simple rules of the road relating to hitting your word count , meeting deadlines and handling revisions that make writer-editor relations ever so much more congenial if you know and follow them.

One of the most crucial steps in the writing process comes at the very beginning of the writer-editor relationship. For many freelance assignments, you’ll get some sort of written direction about the story that your editor needs you to write. How you follow up after receiving that document, whether it be a memo describing the assignment or a contract with story assignment information embedded it in, can be key to understanding exactly what your editor wants and needs from you.

To make things easier, I’ve crafted a short checklist that you might want to keep by the phone or the computer while you communicate with your editor about your new assignment.

Assignment Discussion Checklist

__ The Basics: Are you clear about the story’s deadline, word length, pay rate, kill fee, the section the article is appearing in, what type of story it is (profile, etc.)?

__ The Angle: The story angle is what differentiates this assigned story from any other story you might write on this topic. Are you clear on what your editor wants? Are you free to research the topic further, and suggest angles?

__ Sources: Is the editor supplying you contact information for specific interviewees, associations or organizations that might yield appropriate sources? Do you need to clear potential sources with the editor before contacting them for an interview? To what degree should you work with publicists to set up interviews, gather research information, etc.?

__ Background information: If the editor has a set structure in mind for the piece, can he/she provide links to parallel stories, esp. in his/her publication? Does the publication have a “dossier” of information available for profile subjects? Are there previous stories in the magazine you should read for reference?

__ No-No’s: Discuss any deal-breakers for you and for the editor (i.e., missing deadline without warning, endless revisions without additional pay). For custom, corporate or institutional publications, clarify any “political” danger zones (topics that must be approached a certain way, protocol for contacting VIPs).

__ Follow-up communication: How does the editor prefer to connect with you? Does the mode of communication change if you need him/her to make an urgent decision about the story?

More story assignment tips

Want More Article Assignments? Tips for Working With Magazine Editors
Tips from Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen’s Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen’s Quips and Tips for Successful Writers blog.

Helping Reporters Improve Stories | International Journalists Network
Tips on how to coach reporters from a story coach/editor point of view. Many of the pointers apply to maintaining happy editor-writer communication related to the assignment.

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10 Ways A Smart Phone Can Make You A Smarter Writer

Photo courtesy of SXC.

I got my BlackBerry phone just before Thanksgiving, and I have to admit, I’m mighty thankful for it.

One of the major reasons I got the phone was because I knew could use it in my freelance writing. And I haven’t been disappointed. Writers can become “smarter” writers by using a smart phone—not better writers, or wiser ones, mind you, but more intelligent in their use of time and resources by taking advantage of the integrated technology packages that these little mini-computers offer.

If you’re considering buying a smart phone, like a BlackBerry or an iPhone, here are 10 ways you can use it in your nonfiction writing work: 

  1. Record in-person or speakerphone interviews (on a land line) in lieu of an audio recorder. I record podcast interviews using my computer and a sophisticated digital audio recorder, but I want a back-up file. Using the voice notes feature on my phone allows me to record a file of respectable audio quality. I have been listening to that file on the light rail as I travel to my day job to create a log of the podcast, which speeds up the editing process.
  2. Fact-check statements on the fly at live events. Phones with Internet access have been around for a while, but the larger screens of smart phones make it a little less eye-destroying to research a speaker’s statements while taking notes at a live event.
  3. Take “reference” photos for descriptive writing with the phone’s still camera. Yes, you should make written notes of the things you want to include to set the scene in a journalistic narrative, but it’s possible to take photos fairly inconspicuously of people, locations and events that you want to describe accurately. Take care if you’re at an event or location that prohibits photo-taking, though.
  4. Use the on-board video camera to record answers to interview questions, create reference footage for descriptive writing (see #3), or produce live “on the scene” reports (or b-roll) for web media integration. More and more phones allow you to upload directly to a site like YouTube, or you can e-mail some smaller video files. Most phones still have prohibitively short maximum file length limits (mine is 15-30 seconds, I think), but with planning, you can get meaningful footage and edit the segments together to create a video that is useful to your writing, or is a credible product OF your writing-directing skill.
  5. Use a combo of photos/video to “storyboard” a multimedia story package. More and more nonfiction writers, particularly those working in journalism venues, are expected to be multimedia producers as well. Practicing developing these rich-media stories, or even initiating projects once research on an assignment has begun, may very well help boost your ability to find work in the future.
  6. Read PDF, PowerPoint, Word or Excel docs on the train on the way to an interview, or in the car before walking into your source’s office. My phone came with Documents To Go apps pre-loaded, although if I want to edit and save changes on documents, I’ll have to upgrade to a paid bit of software. Regardless of whether you choose to pay to edit files or not, if you’re able to review them on the phone, you can be green (saving tons of paper on print-outs), as well as efficient with your research time.
  7. Use that tiny keyboard to write! That way you always have a digital version of your assignment/story available. I’ve taken to typing in lists, short snippets of copy and other text into Google Notebook, which lets me remain platform-agnostic about the copy’s destination until I’m sure how I want to use it.  (Although it looks as if I might have to switch to Google Docs, since Google has recently stopped supporting Notebook.) It’s difficult to type with one’s thumbs for an extended period of time, but it is possible to make significant progress through smart-phone-typing over time. Some writers have been able to write entire books with a smart phone during their mass-transit commute.
  8. Upload blog posts to provide real-time updates for your readers/audience. WordPress has a mobile app for both BlackBerry and iPhone users, allowing updates that include text, photos, video, etc. With some publication start-ups looking at WordPress and other blogging platforms as a content management system, this feature could help reconfigure editing workflow for magazines and news organizations with an online presence.
  9. Research your source’s social media presence via Facebook’s mobile app. If you spend anytime on Facebook, it’s hard not to at least be curious about what’s going on in your newsfeed while you’re away from the computer. But it’s possible to do some actual reporting research if you use the mobile app for Facebook. Visit your source’s profile (if it’s open to all viewers), check out his/her friend list, surf their organization’s fan page, check for outbound links that provide additional details or data for your piece.
  10. Use the calendar/alarm features to keep you on track. Yes, it’s simple, almost pedestrian, and I know “dumb” (non-Internet-accessible) phones have these features too. But given all the other things you can do to move your writing projects forward on a smart phone, it would be dumb not to consider using the calendar or alarms to remind you of interviews, meetings, or personal appointments. BlackBerry, in particular, offers the ability to sync the phone calendar with any number of others (Google, desktop PC, etc.), so you can also put everything in your life on one calendar and not suffer from the downside of Multiple Scheduling Syndrome—which is to say, forgetting an appointment because it was on the “wrong” calendar system.

The questions to you:

How do you use your “smart” phone in your writing work?

Do you feel the integration of so many electronic tools in one device is useful, or a distraction?

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Digital Diets, Information Overload, and Your Writing

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

A lot of people resolve to lose weight at the beginning of the year, but few carry through successfully. I’ve discovered from personal experience that sustained weight loss is possible, but what works for many people is a tough, but attainable, set of practices. There’s no quick fix.

What does this have to do with writing and editing? A lot. It appears that 2009 may be the year when “info-bloat” reaches a turning point and challenges the benefits that many have seen from digital and online platforms and Web 2.0 technologies. Thinking proactively and taking preventative steps can keep your writing from suffering the effects of too much information, available too readily, with no focus to guide its usage or significance.

The incredible expanding information waistline

The fact that the digital universe is in “growth” mode is obvious to everyone, but it may come as a shock that, according to market research firm IDC, by 2011 the digital universe will be 10 times the size it was in 2006. ComputerWorld, the source for that fascinating little tidbit, ran a very good article last August about the consequences of information overload and what companies can do to avoid “data-rich” parts of their businesses becoming data dump heaps.

As reporter Mary Brandel writes,

“Today, ideas and discussions are broadcast not at a prescribed time on a specific channel via a single medium, but all the time, on millions of forums, discussion groups, blogs and social networks. And they occupy a growing piece of our consciousness, thanks to RSS feeds, Twitter messages, mailing list and newsletter subscriptions, instant messaging, e-mail and Web surfing … It’s gotten to the point where information — which should be useful — has in some cases become a distraction.”

Inherent in the explosive growth of information is the rise of user-generated content. Duo Consulting, a group of web content experts, posted an article this month about digital overload, noting that “participatory media is resulting in a nearly infinite supply of content, although the increased fragmentation of attention is certainly an implication” of the shift to many-to-many, mass collaboration types of communication.

Do I look fat in this data?

Things have gotten so bad, Duo notes, that some are considering “digital diets,” limiting their intake of computer and Internet based materials to the bare minimum. Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits and Write to Done blogs, wrote a great post in 2007 on the Web Worker Daily, giving readers 21 tips for dealing with info-overload. Many of his tips work well for anyone considering a digital reducing program:

Map out your day. (Make a time map of what you want to accomplish.)

Allow RSS feeds to overload. (Just because it is there doesn’t mean you have to read it.)

Learn to focus. (In other words, learn to “unitask” and get one thing done at a time.)

Eliminate the news. (Believe me, as a journalist, I can vouch for this one—if something’s truly earth-shattering, you will hear about it at work or from friends.)

Read only 5 posts a day/Respond to only 5 emails a day/Write 5-sentence emails.

Beyond editorial-type content online, Seth Godin also points out that our writing has to compete against marketing in new media, which is rapidly leading to what he calls “social clutter”:

“It’s the clutter of the impersonal. Yes, you want an alert from a friend when it’s really a friend and really an alert. But what happens when it’s an ad that pretends to be an alert? Or what if it’s not an ad, but not really a totally personal tweet either?”

Seth predicts that social clutter will only get worse, so it appears the best offense against digital info-glut is a good defense. I’ve outlined a couple of steps writers can take to avoid the damage that information overload can produce, both from the standpoint of the information we consume, as well as that which we produce.

Tips for writers as information consumers

Resist the urge to try out every new social media tool that comes along. Be a mid-cyle adopter. Read about the promise of the next big thing while it’s in beta testing, sort through the hype and cautionary tales that follow the initial public rollout, then jump on board when you have reason to. Which leads us to the next tip…

Know why you’re online. The Internet is TV on steroids; not only is it possibly to surf endlessly and view passively, you have billions of “channels” to do it on. Before you sit down at the computer, or before you click the next link, ask yourself, “What am I looking for by going to this site?”

Find the 20 percent of social media/Web 2.0 tools that further your writing and learn how to use them effectively. Writers have a lot of uses for social media. Blogging can make you a better writer, Twitter can be useful for getting a heads-up on breaking news stories or doing quick fact-checks on stories and Facebook is so useful to journalists that numerous news organizations have a presence there. But to use each tool effectively, it helps to find out how your fellow writers or editors are using them.

Use content filtering to help the information you really need come to you. The ComputerWorld article offers several useful options for setting up aggregators or feed systems that provide only highly discussed and relevant content on a given topic. The article mentions using Techmeme for technology news, Blogrunner for general news and Wikio for global coverage. It also recommends customizing your iGoogle dashboard to develop a newsfeed that’s unique to your interests, something that I also recommend highly.

Another way to filter your content is to select a circle of Web 2.0 friends and acquaintances who’s online activies mesh with your information-gathering needs and following their “lifestreams” on services such as FriendFeed or Plaxo Pulse. Mark Krynsky, writing on Lifestream Blog, discusses this filtering strategy:

“I’m now leveraging the ultimate human filtering algorithm to bring me the wisdom of the masses. By selectively following those who are sharing bookmarks, Tweets, RSS shared items, and more, for my areas of interest, I am increasing the chance of having creme of the crop content delivered to me. This shift is treating people as a valued commodity ahead of the content.”

Have an “analog” workday and compare your productivity to a typical digital day. Try reporting, writing or editing “old school” style for one day. Travel back in time to, say, 1990 and work with the tools from that era: using a computer to type up your story is fine, but call sources on a land-line phone, take notes in a paper notebook and go to the library for research (it’s OK if your librarian uses the Internet to help you, but you have to interact with her face to face). Then work on a similar project in your usual digital fashion. If you save time doing it the old way, you may want to put yourself on a digital diet for a while.

Tips for writers as information producers

Think of your audience before beginning any project. What is the return on investment your reader will get for engaging with your material? How can you be of value to “digital dieters,” making their brief plunges into cyberspace worth it?

Think pull, not push. The upside of Web 2.0 is that readers can customize their content and have it come to them. Writing seductive headlines, subject lines and blog post titles is a matter of making a provocative proposition, then backing it up with substance.

Distribute your content in non-paying media (blogs, Twitter, RSS) strategically. Offering content for free is sensible if you’re building your brand, creating a platform for later revenue-generating work, connecting with people who may be important to your projects, or if your passion for what you’re doing is your overriding motivation.

Link enthusiastically, but add value. I’ve pruned several bloggers from my RSS aggregator list who simply posted links every day. While the filtering of content that they provided was useful for a while, I longed to understand their take on the topic of their blog and what they had to share with their audience. When you link online, pay at least as much attention to where you’re sending readers as if you were sourcing the material for print.

Pay attention to usability and information design when creating for online distribution. Sometimes, good online content gets buried in a 2-inch-deep paragraph, or simply doesn’t read the same way on a screen as it does on a piece of paper. Learning to optimize your writing for online display can make the difference between your audience taking the actions you want them to and your voice being ignored.

Letting Go of the Words by Janice (Ginny) Redish is a terrific resource for web content producers and is filled with dozens of before-and-after website “makeovers” that focus almost entirely on how the content is arranged, rather than the visual design or the code behind the site.

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What does the rise of “snack-size communication” mean for writers?

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

It’s official—texting has supplanted actual conversation on American mobile phones, according to a new Nielsen survey for the second quarter of 2008. According to the survey, U.S. mobile subscribers sent and received 357 text messages per month as compared to only 204 phone calls.

Unless you have been tied to a chair in front of a typewriter somewhere, this news doesn’t come as a shock. Handwritten letters, typewritten manuscripts, even the well-composed e-mail have given way to “snack-sized” messages that can be digested in 10 seconds or less. Phone texting, Facebook status updates and Twitter alerts have reinforced a new word, or rather, character limit on communicators: if you can’t say it in 140 characters, don’t bother.

What does this mean for writers, especially those who shine in long-form works, such as 10,000-word nonfiction narratives, epic poems, or novel-length, um, novels? Reactions are decidedly mixed, so far.

Journalists who find the digital revolution to be an aid and not a threat seem to like Twitter. The New York Times ran an article earlier this year on the growing popularity of reporters “tweeting” via Twitter at live campaign events and a compilation of Twitter statistics shows that public accounts owned by American newspapers are experiencing a growth spurt. Web consultant and journalist Craig Stoltz over at Web 2.0h…Really? (great blog name!) claims Twitter has made him a better editor:

“I’ve been an editor for 20-plus years. But Twitter—that idiot desktop companion for the work-averse—has become my mid-career editing coach. This may be due to how I use Twitter, at least some of the time: Less for top-of-brain me-spatter and more for tiny reports or editorials.

“Fact is, it’s tough to convey any substance in 140 characters. You have to carefully weigh every word, letter and space. Even punctuation.”

On the other hand, poet Robert Peake writes a rather damning (and well-thought-out) indictment of Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies, especially where the writing of verse is concerned. He asserts, after playing with Twitter for a few days and having it leave him rather cold,

“We care about poetry precisely because it exists outside this frenetic word-space (found in cyberspace). We care about poetry because it represents a kind of necessary antidote to the soul-draining quantification and commoditization of language the information age has brought. All good poems, no matter their style, share this: an enforced attention to language, and some degree of innovation upon it. This runs contrary to the bigger/faster/more pervading everything from network news to the blogosphere.

“….That’s why there will never be a Poetry 2.0. The first version still works fine. And when the new has finally worn off all our technobabble, poetry will still be around.”

However, Tom Watson found poetry in the words of the people he follows on Twitter, often unintentionally:

“This Twitter thing may have legs, but not in the way its founders or a few self-obsessed wired wonksters may think. See, Twitter is a poetry machine.”

He gives as an example the tweets of a friend headed home to comfort his mother after his father has passed away:

Driving down to West Cork used to be a quiet pleasure.
Now it’s a melancholy chore.
Still, the sky is absolutely full of stars.

He also provides several other examples, and a commenter on this 2007 entry also provides a good link to examples of haiku-via-Twitter.

(Another writer whose microblog posts read like poetry is Dave Bonta at The Morning Porch).

Some fiction writers on the Internet have found ways to use Twitter to promote longer works. TwitterLit provides twice-daily tweets of the first lines of novels and other types of literature (memoir, etc.), with an Amazon link for those who want to learn more or (one hopes) buy the book. And tech-savvy English or media history professors may be heartened to learn that Twitter users staged a reenactment of sorts on the 70th anniversary of the radio broadcast of the “War of the Worlds”. No word on if panicked mobile phone users rushed to CNN.com to verify the story.

My take on text-sized communications? While I haven’t used Twitter yet, I have texted for nearly a decade and I would consider microblogging or “liveblogging” an event via Twitter.

I think text-message-sized communications are a double-edged sword. Using tools that enforce the 140-character limit can make you a better editor or poet, learning to choose your words, even punctuation, with much greater care. You can promote great words and links, your own or those of others, with it. It can also reduce your communications to others to your impulsive reactions and meal choices.

As the obscure movie quote goes, “Choose wisely.”

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