Tag Archives: coaching

From the archives: In Praise of Zero Drafts

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Photo courtesy SXC.

Today’s post is a repeat of a popular post from last August related to the joys of drafts that precede the actual structuring of a nonfiction story. Enjoy!

In Praise of Zero Drafts

I’ve been told by freelance writers, when I describe to them my approach to writing, that I write like an editor. Perhaps I do.

One time I was comparing notes with one of my writers, and she told me that producing copy is never an issue for her—but she chokes on editing her own work, to the point that she hires an editor friend to polish her work before she submits it for publication. I, on the other hand, typically have to squeeze out my first draft. But once I have something out on paper, I can edit, rearrange and manipulate the content to my heart’s content—with my own writing, I feel that everything is negotiable once I have a draft to play with.

If you tend to choke on producing early drafts, learning how to write a “zero draft” may be a path out of writer’s block. A zero draft is what you write before you write the rough draft. It’s a no-structure, no-holds-barred, no-one-is-gonna-see-this brain-dump that lets you exorcise the demons (or angels) of this particular story, so you can see what you have and begin structuring your material. It’s the functional equivalent to dumping a box of Legos out on a table to see how many pieces (and what kind) you have before you begin building something.

In their amazing work, “Coaching Writers,” Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry recommend that newsroom editors working with writers who can’t figure out where to begin their stories to write a zero draft in the form of a short note to the editor, describing what information they gathered during their field reporting. The technique gets the focus off wrestling with the structure of the story, and pours it into a format that everyone understands—the personal letter.

For example,

“Dear Liz,

I went to report at the Democratic National Convention, but got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam. I stepped out of my car and talked to Denver commuters about how the convention is impacting their city. Some people loved it and the money it was bringing in, some people hated how it brought the traffic and city services to a screeching halt, but everyone had an opinion about what a mega-event like this one does to a city the size of Denver. By the time I got to the convention, I felt as if this was the story, and not what was going on at the convention center.

Sincerely, A. Writer.”

In just a few sentences, our writer has identified a story line, key points of interest (perhaps useful in the lead or nut graph) and even a bit of a tentative structure (perhaps point-counterpoint, or issue-by-issue debates on the impact of the event?). If he or she had been trying to cook up a great first-person sight-and-sound lead, he/she might have lost track of the other details, or how they would support the flow of the story once their lead anecdote was over.

Another zero draft technique, as I alluded to earlier, is the brain-dump. This could be a list of anecdotes, facts, quotes, descriptions, etc., that you found gripping or which you can’t get out of your head in relation to your story. Do not try to write a lead, a nut graph or transitions that will survive into the rough draft. Just get what you know on paper.

Put your zero draft away long enough to do a load of laundry, mow the yard, drink a beer—whatever—then come back to it. You need time away to let your brain work on the structural part subconsciously. When you’re ready, review your draft, circling repeating patterns, good bits of description or exposition, information that naturally works as a transition, belongs in the lead, etc. You can use your notes on the zero draft to create an outline/mindmap/storyboard for the piece, or you can just refer to it as you do your first real draft—since now have now made your thinking visible, you can sculpt it to serve the needs of your assignment.

Another technique that can get you over the what-to-write hump is known as “scaffolding.” This is useful when you have a pretty good idea what to say but you’re not as sure where to jump into the story. Roy Peter Clark discussed how he used the scaffolding technique recently to write an article about the late Tim Russert; it’s a great way to acknowledge that your story will change from draft to draft, and to write your way into the story.

Learn More about Zero Drafts

Writing Crap & Shitty First Drafts

English professor and writing teacher Elizabeth Kleinfeld holds forth about the benefits of a zero draft on her revisionspiral blog.

Ask the Dissertation Diva: Zero Draft Writing

Another take on zero drafts, from the perspective of academic writing.

List Your Main Ideas in a Zero Draft

This brief article, posted at uliveandlearn.com, shows some ways you can use analog paper-based methods to repurpose your zero draft as a story map or visual outline of your work.

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Twitter as writing coach, part 3: Digesting bite-sized research

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about how the microblogging service Twitter can improve your writing and teach writers a thing or two about creating compelling content . However, there’s one last way in which Twitter can be useful to you as a writer: finding the information you need to write a rich, nuanced and credible story.

Our last post on this subject for now covers some posts that discuss ways to use the service while researching a story. And since talking about using Twitter and actually using it effectively are two different things, these resources provide plenty of case studies and links to nonfiction writers out in the field tweeting away.

Twitter for research: why and how to do it, including case studies
Good basic intro from TwiTip to how Twitter works and how to tag your own tweets for future reference. It points out that the two easiest ways to find something out on Twitter are to ask (and ask to be retweeted) and to search, using Twitter Search as your search engine.

Another useful feature of Twitter explained in the article is the hashtag (#creative, for example) concept. Similar to putting tags on blog posts, hashtags are a simple way for Twitter users to slot their content for later retrieval. You can search hashtags by visiting Hashtags.org.

This post also has a comprehensive list of Twitter tools (many research oriented) and a number of research “success” stories.

How we use Twitter for journalism
Marshall Kirkpatrick gives a breakdown of the primary ways the ReadWriteWeb staff was using Twitter to write their stories: uncovering breaking news stories, conducting interviews (either multiple folks contributing short answer to a question or asking followers to help frame questions), doing QA checks (i.e., asking if people remember the name of a particular software, etc.) or promoting headlines once the story is online or published.

Marshall makes an interesting observation about the relationship with readers that develops as he interacts with them during the story development process (The bolding of the next to last sentence is my addition):

“If we’re working on something we think will be of interest, sometimes we’ll prime the pump a bit and let people know what’s coming up. So far, we’ve heard almost entirely positive feedback on these practices. That’s probably based largely on the relationships we’ve got with our readers, many of which were developed using Twitter. If you had 20 to 50 people that consistently offered feedback on your articles, wouldn’t that be great? That’s what it feels like we get on Twitter.”

If Twitter isn’t part of your online strategy, it should be

Chrys Wu’s Richochet blog is all about good ideas in online journalism, which should be a natural match for tweeting nonfiction writers. This short post, from the end of 2007, focuses mostly on examples of good uses of Twitter by journalists and news media. As Chrys says,

“Perhaps the real power in Twitter is in speed and community. Not only were media outlets able to broadcast breaking news updates (in the examples here), non-media people also sent updated, on-the-scene information. Talk about crowdsourcing…”

Twitter to journalists: here’s how it’s done
Monica Guzman of Eat Sleep Publish taught a class on social media to the (now) online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer last November and gathered the collective wisdom she presented in part by putting out a big public tweet about it. This post shares a lot of the “for journalists, from journalists” tips she got, and includes a number of case studies. Lots of journalists recommend following potential sources and give good advice for how to “come out from behind the byline” without sacrificing any journalistic principles.

Sweet tweets: Journalists using Twitter

Journalists on Twitter – Muck Rack
Muck Rack publishes up-to-the-minute tweets from reporters and writers for many major news outlets.

My Creative Team Wiki / Media People Using Twitter
A long international list of media folks who are active on Twitter.

One more Twitter “tool” (mostly for fun)

Visible Tweets – Twitter Visualizations.
Addictive visual display of current tweets on terms (search operators, hashtags, etc.) selected by the user. Might make a fun background screen for a presentation.

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