Tag Archives: editors

Beyond Comma Patrol: 10 Ways Editors Can Supercharge Your Communications

Photo by Nicole_N courtesy of SXC.

I’ve known for most of my career as an editor that there was a whole lot more to what I was doing than copyediting. Yes, knowing how to copyedit is one of the basics for my profession – like knowing basic principles of balance and proportion if you are a visual artist, or having basic arithmetical skills if you are an accountant.

Yet being a crackerjack copyeditor doesn’t ensure that a journalist will be a good managing editor or editor-in-chief. Editors bring far more to the table than just checking your copy for stylistic consistency, grammatical correctness or compliance with generally accepted rules of punctuation. Here’s a handy list of 10 ways that an editor can improve your writing, whether you’re writing a 200-word report or a 100,000-word book.

1) Content curation – “Curation” has become a buzzword in the past few years, but editors have been evaluating, selecting and arranging content to appeal to their audiences for a long time. As the Internet spews skyrocketing amounts of information at us, an editor’s ability to filter and screen content and present the best/most appropriate materials will become increasingly valuable.

2) Content aggregation – Curation of content focuses on the selection of individual items; aggregation of content focuses on grouping materials together in meaningful ways. Before there were RSS feeds, there were wire editors, piecing together national or international news sections by aggregating content in a way that allowed readers to keep up on developments and remain well-informed citizens. I call my personal approach to aggregation “getting the mix right.” Whether it’s a collection of sports briefs or an entire podcast or magazine issue, my editorial focus is on grouping content in a way that forms a coherent whole.

3) Story organization – Some stories have an obvious structure – chronological, say, or a bulleted list (“5 Ways to Fresher Breath”). For those that don’t, an editor can help you dump out your reporting notebook and research files and build a structure that will help the reader pay attention to the story, not the way it is being told.

4) Story-crafting – When I discovered the story coaching method of editing, I had a major epiphany about what value editors brought to the writing process itself. Practitioners of story coaching, such as Don Murray, Jack Hart, Jacqui Banaszynski and Roy Peter Clark, actively collaborate with the writer, both before and after the story has been filed, to shape the story for maximum impact and readability. This skill, along with #3, are two prerequisites that will ensure content that is worthy of having “comma patrol” performed to provide a final polish.

5) Project management – No small amount of a managing editor’s job is being a traffic manager for a communications deliverable. He or she must ride herd over a small stable of writers, shape and polish the story, AND hand it off to design on time, all while remembering how the content in this issue fits with that of 3 issues down the road, and checking to make sure page folios are right and ads do not contain coupons or other offers that are expired. It’s possible to be an editor and be disorganized, but I am not sure it’s possible to be a good editor without a sense of how to move content through the system quickly and efficiently.

6) UX/usability expert – Not just for web geeks, the concept of UX or the user experience is something editors concern themselves with constantly. We are the reader’s primary advocate. If we can’t make sense of a passage or an idea, how will they?

7) Moderator/listener  – I am not convinced that journalists can be objective, but editors are charged with listening to all sides with an open mind. This assignment makes them good at orchestrating interactions between those who hold divergent perspectives, and also tends to make them good at listening for subtle things, such as that which is NOT being voiced during any given debate.

8) Creative consultant/innovator – Editors spend much of their day working within well-defined parameters, such as budget and the format of their publication. They are constantly challenged to make something novel and engaging out within a defined template. This require an ability to innovate and find a way to pour new wine into old wine skins and make it all hold together.

9) Historian – A good editor makes assignments and revises copy with a keen appreciation for the background of whatever topic he or she is working with. Most issues do not spring into existence with no frame of reference. Editors must understand that frame, and make it visible to the audience.

10) Contextualizer – closely related to #9, this role has the editor make visible all the elements, current and historical, that shape a given story. Readers who understand the full context of an issue will be far less easily swayed by sound bites and polemics.

Another view of what editors do: Who am I this time? Roles editors play

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Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for March 6, 2011

Photo courtesy of SXC.

Are You Too Busy to Write? Seven Ways to Blog More Productively — Chris Garrett on New Media
New media expert Chris Garrett discusses strategies for for increasing the quality and frequency of one’s blogging.

Tweeting from beyond the grave
Russell Working, writing on Ragan.com, discusses the phenomenon of biographers, science center publicists and other history-oriented writers “assuming” the identities of long-dead famous people on Twitter, and offers four lessons that the success of such tweeters can provide to other writers.

Your First Draft is Allowed to Suck! | Fuel Your Writing
In this article, fiction writer Icy Sedgwick reminds us all that a first draft is just that, a draft, and gives advice on how to keep that in mind and improve one’s writing.

How a Writer Can Aggravate an Editor
Meryl Evans, a web content maven and digital publishing blogger, discusses a recent e-mail she received from a writer seeking work at an e-publication that had ceased publishing 3 years ago! A great example of what NOT to do when approaching a magazine (online or off)!

7 Steps to Writing Success | The Artist’s Road
Patrick Ross summarizes the wisdom he soaked up at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2011 Conference and Bookfair. Steps include “write for yourself,” “build an online community,” and “be open to the wisdom of others.”

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Biography of a biographer: Marshall Terrill on writing about the lives of others

Celebrity biographer Marshall Terrill

Today I present my interview with celebrity biographer Marshall Terrill. I happened to know Marshall slightly through my day job at Arizona State University (where he also works), but did not know until recently about his sideline of writing celebrity biographies – or the incredible dedication he has given a craft that is, in his words, an “expensive hobby.”

His interview provides a very candid look at his book writing career, and offers lots of specific advice to writers who are interested in pursuing this nonfiction genre.

Tell us about your professional background and your introduction to writing nonfiction.

My introduction to writing came as a result of unfortunate personal circumstances.  Let’s just say my writing career was as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone else.

In the late 1980s I worked in the mailroom for Phoenix businessman Charles Keating, who was later sent to federal prison as a result of a savings and loan scandal.  At the time I worked for Keating I was attending college, studying business and was in the first year of my marriage.  I had hitched my wagon to his star in hopes that one day I would work in a higher job capacity for him when I graduated college.  When Keating went to prison, I was out work and my future looked bleak.  Because of the stress, my wife left me and so I was very much at a crossroads in my life.  My father called me from Washington D.C. and said, “Well, you just lost your job and your wife left you.  What’s your next trick going to be?”

What I said took us both by surprise. “Actually, I want to move back to Washington D.C. and write a book on the life of Steve McQueen.”  The Library of Congress was not far from my parents’ home, which is where I conducted a majority of my research.  My dad said, “Why on earth would you want to do a thing like that?  I could barely get you to read in high school.”  I told him that I had always wanted to write a book on Steve McQueen and that something had compelled me to do this.  He thought for a moment and said, “Well, you might as well do it while you’re young because if you fail, you can recover.”  So that was it.  I moved back into my parents’ home at the age of 24 and stayed there until I was 28.  “Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel” was published in December 1993 just as I turned 29.

What motivated you to write your first book?

I had read other books on McQueen and felt they focused on the bad-boy behavior, the man on the motorcycle if you will, and zipped through his film work.  They had only covered parts of his life, but largely ignoring his acting.  There was not one all-encompassing biography of his life and I felt the market had demanded it.  I’ve always felt he was a terrific film actor, perhaps the best of his generation, and was greatly underrated in his lifetime. Turned out I was right.  Every co-star I interviewed said McQueen was gifted and that he was the best actor and they had ever worked with and had this incredible screen presence.  What’s amazing to me is that his legacy grows with each passing year. Today he is the most emulated actor in Hollywood and in the last few years, he’s made Forbes’ Top 10 list of dead celebrity earners.  Not bad for a guy who died more than 30 years ago.

How did you settle on biography as a nonfiction writing genre?

Because I think like most non-fiction readers do – if you’re going to take the time to read a book, you might as well learn something.  Fiction to me is more of an escape and if I wanted to escape, I’ll go to the movies or rent a DVD.  There’s so much you can learn about life when you read non-fiction.  You can learn about history, human behavior, psychology, triumph and tragedy, and invaluable life lessons.

What is the greatest challenge in writing a good biography?

The monumental effort it takes to put it all together.  It’s the ultimate jigsaw when you really come down to it, and you never know what challenges or roadblocks you’ll face.  I wrote a book with boxer Ken Norton that I thought would take maybe a year at most.  However, before I met him, he was in a life-threatening car accident and his memory was completely wiped out. So instead of him telling me his story, I went to the library and researched his entire life, which took almost four years.  As I began to outline his life, I had to repeat back to him his life story, which triggered his memory.  It was a very strange experience, but luckily we pulled it off.

Another interesting experience that took me much longer was the seven years I spent “Maravich” (a biography of basketball legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich co-authored with Wayne Federman) but two of those years were committed to transcribing 300 interviews.  That is a very tedious process.  On top of that I spent another few years culling other information that included newspaper and magazine articles, official documents, memorabilia and interviews with people who knew the subject.  When you’re done with the research, you have to assemble all of that information together to tell the story.  It’s a Herculean effort.  Then there’s the post-production process: editing, trying to find an agent/publisher and finally, promotion.  You can write the greatest book in the world but if no one knows about it, you’ve simply wasted your times.  Those are all skills learned along the way that aren’t taught but are self-learned.  You either sink or swim.

You’ve managed to write 15 books over the past 20 years, often while holding down day jobs that involve writing as well. What are your tips for managing one’s writing time effectively?

It all boils down to dedication, which is 90 percent of the battle.  People always ask me, “What’s the secret of getting published?”  I tell them there’s no real secret to writing a book – you get on the computer and you write.  I mainly see two big problems: 1.) People give up way too easily.  Are they willing to put in the time that is required to finish the task?  Sometimes that task is a year; other times it is seven years.  … When I wrote the first book, I worked 8 to 10 hours a day for three-and-a-half years straight.  You have to have that sort of dedication to get a book published or it’s just not going to happen. 2.) The other problem I see is a form of self-sabotage and it happens more often than not.  I’ve seen many writers start a book, write about half the manuscript, then drop that project and start another.  Or they’ll write a chapter and then go back and edit it to the point where they can’t go forward.  They think this is perfectly normal.  I don’t.  I say finish the first book to the point of perfection and then move onto the next project.  I’ve seen so many stalled careers because the writer can’t complete the first project.

Set aside a time each day and write.  What worked best for me was to write an hour a day before/after work and four to five hours on Saturday and Sunday.  Someone who has kids is going to have a harder time, and that’s the harsh reality.  I don’t have kids and a very understanding wife, who made a lot of sacrifices so I could write my books.

How have your day jobs augmented your career as a celebrity biographer?

It took a while for me to get it through my thick head that I couldn’t earn a living at simply writing non-fiction books.  I dedicated 10 years of my life to make it work and I just couldn’t.  I owned a house and took in boarders (that’s a book in and of itself!), took part-time jobs to bring in some sort of income to pay the bills and I was financially treading water the entire time.  That gets old after a while.  Unless you are selling millions of books, it’s just not going to happen because of the way book that deals are structured, which is always in favor of the publisher.  And that’s not a negative – the publisher is putting up the money and taking the risk, so they should be rewarded.  For example, a typical hardback book will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 to produce.  The publisher sells that to the wholesaler/retailer somewhere in the range of $12 to $15.  The publisher makes somewhere between $7 and $10 per book and the royalty for the writer is around $2 to $3 depending on what you’ve negotiated.  Everybody thinks they’re going to get on Oprah Winfrey and sell a million books, but that’s not reality.  It’s like banking your future on winning the lottery.

Most of my books sell somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 copies, depending on what kind of publicity I get and if the timing is good (most of my books are timed on anniversaries and key dates so I have a news hook to pitch to the media).  Realistically, I make between $20,000 to $30,000 a book, and keep in mind royalty checks are spread out six months apart.  It’s not as if the publisher is going to let you have all that money at once.  But if you weigh the paycheck vs. the time I’ve put into writing the book, money spent on editors, travel, postage, research, long-distance phone calls and office supplies, it’s literally pennies on the dollar.  It’s supplemental income at best, but the work is full-time.  I call writing my “expensive hobby” because it costs money to write a book.  Ask any published non-fiction writer if it cost them money to pursue their books and they’ll be able to show you their tax receipts.

After 10 years of writing books from home, I decided it was time to get a job because I didn’t want to be 40, have no pension or a big hole on my resume.  So when an opportunity arose at a local newspaper as a journalist, I took it.  It was a practical decision because it’s what I loved to do and I could continue to write my books on the side.  I would have remained a journalist for the rest of my life but then the economic crash hit our country, and I could see the handwriting on the wall.  Newspapers got hit very hard and so I made the switch to the other side – public relations.  I knew how to get publicity from my books and what made for a good news story, so it was a very easy transition.  I work now for Arizona State University in Public Affairs.

Your website mentions you write your books with Cheryl Hosmer, a developmental editor/writer. How does your partnership work?

I instinctively knew that a big part of my success was that when I turned in a manuscript, it was fully edited.  Many reasons why other writers don’t get published is that their manuscripts needed a lot of editing.  This is where the ego gets in the way.  I’ve talked to many young writers who say, “I’m such a good writer that I don’t need editing,” or they didn’t have the money to pay an editor.   I’ve been in publishing now more than 20 years and most of my manuscripts have at least two editors, sometimes three and four.  If you write a 150,000 word manuscript, there’s bound to be mistakes, typos and grammatical errors.  My first draft always has mistakes, and it’s simply a part of the process to clean it up.  I also like to have input and the very first thing I tell editors is, “Don’t be afraid to tell me when I’m wrong or off base.”  Just because I’ve had success getting published doesn’t mean I’m perfect or can be wrong.

Every finished manuscript will have mistakes.  Publishing houses no longer have line editors who will comb over your book looking for mistakes.  They expect your manuscript to be near perfect, and they don’t have the time or money to help you clean it up.  So that’s why I’ve formed a partnership with Cheryl Hosmer, who has edited several of my books. So we offer these editing services to writers who are serious about getting published.  And of course, they get to pick my brain on the publishing industry. I’ve helped many people turn their manuscripts into books.

What are some benefits of writer-editor collaborations such as the one you have with Hosmer?

Many benefits come to mind.  The first is that I am not alone in the writing process.  I have a sounding board in case I am way off.  The trick is to find someone you completely trust, someone who will tell you the truth but not step on your creative toes.  I recently read a great book called “Starting Over,” a book by Ken Sharp on the making of John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy.”  The producer of that album was a veteran named Jack Douglas.  Douglas said Lennon was such a force of nature that his job was to sit behind the recording console and not get in Lennon’s way.  That’s what a good editor should do.  Stand back, let the author do his/her thing, but be ready to give advice when called upon.

What writing projects are next for you?

None in the foreseeable future.  This last book, “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon,” took a lot out of me in terms of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.  Each time I start a book, it’s like going to literary boot camp for five years.  While I like the end result, the experience isn’t always so pleasant because of the intensity of what I have to go through to get published. I’m not saying I’ll never write again, but I’m taking a very long break.

Any advice to nonfiction writers in today’s unpredictable market?

Know the market, know what publishers are looking for, and know who your readers are.  Publishers certainly care about the writing, but they care more about the number of books they can sell.  Not only do they want you to tell them why it’s a great book, but they want to know how you’re going to sell the book, who is the market, why readers will buy and how many books will they sell.  It’s a tough business and failure is not an option in these fiscally tough times.  Learn how to write a killer proposal and take the guess work out of it for publishers.

Is there anything else we haven’t covered that you’d like to add?

I don’t want to come off as sounding very negative because that’s not my intent.  My intent is to paint a very realistic picture of what a writer goes through in order to get a book published.  Everyone seems to think it’s a glamorous profession or something they can do if they don’t want to get a real job.  The reality is that it is extremely hard work.  People think that writing a book is a warm and fuzzy experience and an easy lifestyle.  If you talk to any published author, you’ll find that’s not the case.  I once interviewed Jackie Collins and I asked her about her work ethic.  She puts in 8 to 10 hours a day on the computer.  I hear Steven King writes 12 hours a day.  And something needs to be explained here –writing is physically and emotionally exhausting.  It’s a serious workout.  When you are finished, you are absolutely wiped out at the end of the day.  Needless to say it’s a lot of hard work, sacrifice and time spent alone.  There were many times when my wife had to eat dinner by herself, or spend weekends with her friends because I was working.  I’ve also had to sacrifice time away from my dog, a bike ride around the lake, or an evening with family and friends.  However, there’s a positive here – my work has granted me friendships and life experiences I would have never otherwise had, and worldly experiences that can be taught in a textbook.

My final piece of advice is to write every book with the idea that it’s going to be a labor of love because most likely there won’t be a financial return.  And if there is any return at all, then it’s all gravy.  The only reason you should ever write a book is because your heart and soul is aching to do it, and you can’t move on in life unless you do.

***

Marshall’s latest book, “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon,” is available on Amazon and at major book retailers.

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Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for July 29, 2010

Photo credit: Everett Guerny, via SXC.

My Reading Notebook
Kitty Bucholtz, writing on Routines for Writers, discusses the paper notebook she uses to write one-page summaries of the novels has read, and how it relates to her fiction writing.

How Media Consumption Has Changed Since 2000
A SlideShare presentation from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Interesting statistics and information on trends in our consumption of all sorts of media.

How to Write About a Boring Topic – 5 Good Writing Tips
Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen discusses ways to dig deeper into a story assignment that you’re not crazy about.

Writers: 8 Alternatives to Magazine Markets
Susan Johnston, writing on the blog Urban Muse, discusses opportunities beyond print magazines for enterprising freelancers. Covers everything from newsletters and catalogs to mobile apps and e-books.

More tips for writing fast | WordCount
Michelle Rafter discusses a couple of ways to cut corners (safely) and get drafts put together quickly without sacrificing quality.

Hire a Journalist | Duct Tape Marketing
The “Duct Tape” folks make the case that journalists, not marketers, should be the content producers in today’s business environment. Good news for unemployed reporters and editors!

Bonus links!

J-Lab | 2010 Knight-Batten Award Winners
The Knight-Batten Awards reward news and information efforts that create opportunities to involve citizens in public issues and supply opportunities for participation. Here are thumbnail sketches of the award-winning projects.

Associated Press: How to Pitch a News Story
This YouTube video, featuring editors from the AP, contains good advice for reporters or PR folks looking to interest editors in a news-oriented story.

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From the archives: Who Am I This Time? Roles Editors Play

Photo courtesy of Jef Bettens via SXC.

(Note: This is a reprint of one of the first posts I produced for Write Livelihood. I reread it the other day and realized how much I still agree with this essay and how much of it still holds true for me. Enjoy!)

I never set out to be an editor. When I pledged myself to the writer’s life (at age 13, flushed with enthusiasm after reading the fictional exploits of S.E. Hinton’s character Ponyboy Curtis in the young adult novel “The Outsiders”), I had the opinion that the role of editor pretty much boiled down to being a copy editor, the leader of the hazardous “comma patrol” that must be run through most stories before they are published.
This opinion was further burnished in college when I got a B+ in a copy editing course. I actually did pretty well in everything except headline-writing, at which I failed miserably because it required that I master the now-archaic skill of producing titles that fit with in a specified “count,” but the course put a bad taste in my mouth for editing. I decided I really was a writer, and should focus my energies on marketing my prose-crafting skills to the world.
That would have been lovely, except for the fact that the world I encountered after j-school graduation seemed to need editors a lot more acutely than it needed writers. Or if they needed writers, they needed authors who could re-write the prose of executives, line managers, degreed professionals, or volunteer retirees.
Despite working at several jobs with the title “editor,” it wasn’t until 2005 that I realized how much of an editor I was, or had become. I attended a conference hosted by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s College and University Editor group, and heard Jacqui Banaszynski describe the story coaching method she used with her writers at the Seattle Times.
Story coach. There was an editorial metaphor I could get behind. I suddenly realized that my view of myself as primarily a proofreader and fact-checker for my publication’s writers had been very, very incomplete.
After my editorial epiphany, I started collecting metaphors for the sort of editing I’ve done, primarily as a managing editor for magazines and other print publications. (I’ve also done quite a bit of multimedia production, but that’s another topic for another day.) Beyond having a good command of language and grammar and style, as a good copy editor does, a managing or assignment editor is also a(n)…
Project Manger. For publications that run more than about 16 pages, and have advertisements, having one person who plans the entire issue’s content, and can monitor its journey from idea to completed draft, is essential. Someone has to be there to work out the kinks in workflow (and even to recognize there is such a thing as workflow!).
Traffic Cop. Knowing where the missing story is for next issue is one thing; having the wherewithal to go find out what’s wrong and how to get if fixed is another. Editors have to advocate for what’s best for their publication—from the quality of the articles to how they are presented in the design to their impact on readers.
Architect. Editors have to be conversant in structure, both on the level of an individual story and the structure of an entire issue of a periodical. They have to be able to help writers construct articles that will withstand reader inspection, and they have to be able to design a space where an entire of “community” of articles can live and play together in a manner appealing to outside visitors (= readers).
Mom. As an editor, I am a professional hand-holder and on occasion, a butt-wiper. I make sure stories have everything they need to thrive, and help clean up the messes that are made along the way. I have to care about my stories and my publication more than almost anyone else on staff. I can never foist responsibility for their development on anyone else.
8th grade English teacher. Ahh, middle school English—in my time, 8th grade was the year everyone drilled on sentence diagramming and the parts of speech. Editors have to care about proper language use—not primarily because we’re the guardians of civilized syntax, but because poorly constructed sentences distract from good thinking and consistency in writing helps the story shine through.
Coach. As I said earlier, this was the metaphor that resonated most deeply for me. I’m thinking of a life coach or voice coach for my parallels, not Vince Lombardi. My job is to help the story—and the writer—be all that he, she or it can be. It’s a collaborative relationship which, if done correctly, provides benefits for everyone.
And while we’re on the subject of roles, there are a few roles I’d rather not be cast in as an editor.
A Sadist. I don’t send stories back for revision to shame or humiliate writers. If you want that sort of relationship with an editor, please find a professional dominant and work out your issues.
A Writer’s Enemy. If the story fails, I fail, too. Period. My aim is to support my writers so that they can provide deliverables that do the job assigned in as few drafts as possible.
A Frustrated, Mediocre Writer. I didn’t become an editor because I couldn’t write. Quite the contrary — and the more I learn about editing, the better able I am to apply it to my own writing. In my mind, an editor who “can’t” write is suspect as an editor.
Miss Priss. I have had some contributors, often less-experienced writers, seem to fear my opinion of their writing, as if I existed as an editor to lacerate their initial efforts at writing. I don’t take joy in marking up poorly written copy (see the I-am-not-an-editorial-sadist statement above); what I enjoy is the challenge of making it better. What I find is that more experienced, confident writers feel the least defensive around editors; they tend to be the most realistic about their writing ability, and trust and appreciate the benefits they receive from collaborating with an editor.

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From the archives: 3 Fun Ways to Map Your Story Ideas

(Note: This post, originally uploaded last August, has proven to be among the most visited of all content on Write Livelihood. Hope you enjoy the re-post. –Liz)

I read the interview anthology The New New Journalism a couple of years ago, and one of the many things that struck me while reading it was how consistently the writers interviewed for the book said they didn’t use an “outline” when organizing the mass of material to write long-form narrative nonfiction. Just as consistently, immediately after that declaration, the writer would describe how they DID organize the material—which was frequently a list of topics, high points in the material, turning points in their pursuit of the story—and their approach would basically be an outline in everything but name.

That’s what reminded me how much most of us, writers included, hate our 8th grade English teachers. In the pursuit of teaching us how to write the perfect five-paragraph theme, he or she was often the one who introduced us to the “outline”—that Roman numeral bit of antiquity that works a whole lot better after the piece is finished than while we’re trying to organize it. (I remember learning how to do an outline by studying the structure of finished writings, most often by professional writers, which just seems to buttress my point.)

So outlines are rarely the tool of choice when organizing material, but there are alternatives to a) making a list (and obsessing over it way more than twice) or b) just plunging into writing without structuring the material, which is a little like trying to do a do-it-yourself home improvement project without measuring anything.

I’ve found 3 structuring techniques that go beyond the humble list method, give your writing a visual boost, and can even prepare your finished piece for a world beyond print.

Tool #1: The Mind Map

Popularized by Tony Buzan, mind-mapping has spawned a cottage industry of software that will take your thoughts and provide a visual display of relationships between ideas and where the linkages are. It’s sort of like a 3-D list.

Mind mapping in action (image courtesy SXC).

Mind mapping in action (image courtesy SXC).

Here’s a link on Tony’s site to a mind-map of a concept from a book by Edward De Bono, Six Thinking Hats.

And here’s a very interesting Flash-based instructional mind-map on how to use mind maps to write an essay.

A related type of mapping is Idea Mapping, based on a book of the same name by Jamie Nast. Her blog has great examples of conceptual maps from a variety of contexts, including maps of books.

The greatest advantage of mind-mapping a nonfiction story is that it makes the whole process less linear, and helps you see multiple relationships between topics and sub-topics in your story. As an editor, I often mind-map as I brainstorm story assignments for my writers; as a writer, it’s been an interesting way to supplement the “list method” of organizing my stories.

Tool #2: Storyboarding

I heard the wonderful journalism instructor Jacqui Banaszynski lecture three years ago at an editor’s conference, and she asserted that the generation coming of age write now has a far more visual, cinematic imagination. She reported that her college students at Mizzou have responded well when she asked them to plot out their nonfiction stories by conceiving each element in a narrative as a “scene.”

Taking that concept one step further is using storyboards to structure one’s writing. Borrowed from the world of filmmaking, storyboards force you to do several things with your writing:

¨ You have to determine a story arc to your material

¨ You have to be explicit about what point of view you are using in your writing, and how and why you shift it during the story

¨ You need to conceive of anecdotes or reportage as scenes, with a beginning, middle and end, that serve to drive the larger story forward

¨ You have to pay attention to the visual and kinesthetic elements of the scenes you are recounting

As one might expect, fiction writers have discovered how useful storyboarding is to their writing. For nonfiction writers, storyboards can help keep a large “cast of characters” organized, reveal gaps in information, uncover points where lesser storylines threaten to derail the main thrust of your article or book, and provide an easy at-a-glance reference for a long manuscript.

This newsletter article from a romance writers group discusses several ways to create a storyboard for a written piece. Lightning Bug’s article on storyboarding is also good, especially because it demonstrates how simple the pictures can be and still be effective. Frankly, spending time creating beautiful graphics isn’t the point—if you can understand what you sketched later, that’s enough!

Tool #3: Wordle/Tag Clouds

One last tool that can help you see patterns in your research is the concept of the tag cloud, which provides a visual representation of the frequency of words or topics in a given piece of writing. Popularized by blogs, tag clouds can be an aid to a user’s search of a site—if a tag that matches their search is big enough, they may be enticed deeper into an online site.

For those of you unfamiliar with tag clouds, here’s one from my delicious.com feed.

A tag cloud on the social bookmarking site Delicious.

A tag cloud on the social bookmarking site Delicious.

Wordle is another interesting tool for finding patterns or repeating elements in your writing. It creates word clouds that look and function much the same as tag clouds.

Here’s an image via Wordle that was created from a newsletter article I wrote a while back about persistence and creativity.

Wordle tag cloud

Wordle tag cloud

My suggestion for using Wordle to structure your story is to do a free-form brain dump on your material, up to 500 words long, then drop the piece into Wordle and see what patterns emerge.

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You can quote me on that

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

Just a quick update to let you know that I was quoted in an article published in the June 2009 issue of The Writer. It’s a wonderful piece for their Market Focus department by Jessica McCann on how to write for college and university magazines.

I was interviewed in my day job capacity as a managing editor for a university magazine, and the article has lots of good advice for anyone wanting to break into that market. Here’s a PDF of the article, “College Mags Welcome Freelancers.”

College Mags Welcome Freelancers

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“10 Golden Rules of Social Media” apply to writers, too

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Illustration courtesy of SXC.

Last week, Aliza Sherman authored a great post over at Web Worker Daily about the 10 Golden Rules of Social Media. Aliza’s been consulting with clients on Internet-issues since 1992, so she definitely knows whereof she speaks. It’s a good read for anyone wanting to understand the zeitgeist of social media at a deeper level.
I was thinking, however, as I read her post, that all of these “golden rules” were also pretty darn shiny for writers, regardless of medium. Here is my take on Aliza’s rules and how they apply to nonfiction writers.

The Golden Rules
1. Respect the Spirit of the ‘Net. Aliza tells readers, “The Internet was not meant for marketing and selling but for communication and connection to people and information.” And it’s true.

Writers can obey this rule by understanding how they fit into the “new media” landscape and where they can add value—namely, by producing stories that facilitate intelligent conversations and fuel connections to people and information. Accurate information, told in an entertaining, enlightening fashion, can cut through the gunk of e-spam and often is what gets passed from person to person via e-mail, Facebook postings, or Twitter “tweets.”

2. Listen. This rule should be second-nature to anyone trained as a journalist, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. Writers need exceptional conceptual skills to help tell a story, but for nonfiction writers, listening must be the foundation that helps them find out what the story actually is.

In her Web Workers Daily post, Aliza says, “In virtual spaces where there are no visual cues, good listening skills become a powerful asset.” Writers should listen for overarching themes, patterns in responses to content, and perhaps most importantly, should listen for what’s not being said, and follow up on that to find out why.

3. Add Value. Many writers struggle with this rule, but it really sums up many of the goals of nonfiction writing that we have been taught: to inform readers of current events, to share our impressions of an event for those not present, to expose conflicts between individual liberty and the common good, etc. Even our self-expressive writings may hold value for others, in terms of connecting with our emotions or our technique.

4. Respond. This rule may seem new for some writers. In the pre-Internet era, responses to one’s writing could be found in letters to the publication’s editor or in letters directed at us, but channeled through a book’s publisher. We didn’t necessarily have to come up with a response within 24 hours!

Aliza warns readers, “Don’t be a dam in a conversation flow,” but it’s important to remember that one’s first response to a reader doesn’t have to be one’s final response. The point is to realize that we are no longer (if indeed we ever were) the “one” reporter/editorial writer/pundit discussing issues and providing insight to the “many” — we are one very skilled voice in a long, simultaneous and ongoing “many-to-many” conversation.

5. Do Good Things. Of course, reporters have reported on things in need of reform for centuries. And there is a proud tradition of service journalism, which focuses on producing articles and story packages that give direct advice to readers on how to solve a pressing issue in their lives.
However, so much is going on in the areas of citizen journalism (aka user-generated content) and activism powered by communication via mobile devices that writers need to keep tabs on how these trends are impacting the way ordinary folks use the articles traditional journalists produce to advocate for change.

6. Share the Wealth. Aliza tells blog readers that she’s often told her Internet clients, “If you’ve got it, share it, spread it around.” She continues, “…I wasn’t only talking about money. I was talking about time, information and knowledge. In social media, sharing is the fuel of the conversation engine.”

As I noted earlier, the urge to determine and share what is of value is part of what makes good writers so important in the online world. Our ability to keep the conversation going, with vibrant anecdotes, context-rich interpretations of data, and perspective-altering interview quotes, expands our audience’s knowledge base in ways that enlarge their capacity to discuss meaningful things in a meaning-filled way.

7. Give Kudos. Aliza notes, “Social media works when you are generous. There is nothing wrong with self-promotion, but things really take off when you give others praise.” Journalism has often focused on problems, scandals and potential disasters (as well as disasters-in-progress). While this has filled a valuable niche in our society, it’s increasingly important for writers to also highlight concepts and projects that work, that better society and that can be an inspiration for others facing similar situations. It’s also a nice counter-balance to the jaded pessimism that can creep in when all one writes about is how messed up everything is.

8. Don’t Spam. Hopefully, your stories are well enough received by their audience not to be seen as spam. I think the take-away for writers in this rule is to not assume you know your audience’s needs—keep the lines of communication open and be willing to alter your research plan if “crowdsourcing” or other reader feedback sends you in a direction different than the original slant for your piece.

9. Be Real. This phrase should be tattooed over the heart of every nonfiction writer. Understand your unique voice, as well as what subjects you can write about with greater authenticity than anyone else.

Aliza tells her readers: “Authenticity is the secret ingredient behind any good and valuable social media marketing campaign.” It is also, I might add, what separates the writers who have almost magnetic abilities to attract followers from those who try to break into the top tier of their profession through technique alone.

10. Collaborate. This rule ties back to Aliza’s first rule—about respecting the spirit of the ‘Net. Writers who understand their work is not just theirs, but is a collaboration with their editor, their publisher, their readers and the community they serve, can find it much easier to tap into the flow of information they need to do their work. They are also much less likely to suffer from the narcissism that can come from perpetually focusing on projects that they believe are their handiwork alone.

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Twitter as writing coach, part 2: The art of the retweet

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Last time I posted, we looked at Twitter’s power to shape our writing by studying Twitter poetry. Today, let’s consider what we can learn by studying what makes for compelling content on Twitter—in other words, what sort of posts get “retweeted” and spread from network to network.

Writing compelling content is something with which every writer—nonfiction or fiction—should be concerned. Even in story forms governed by the rules of journalism, where objectivity and even-handedness are highly valued, being able to package a story and make sure it finds the widest possible audience is an essential survival skill.

One of the most important guidelines in writing compellingly and getting retweeted on Twitter is to consider one’s network of followers. What do they need or want to know?

The good folks over at Cyberjournalist.net recently blogged about super-entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki’s rules for getting retweeted, and had this to say about Guy’s first rule, which is “ask the right question.”

There are pockets of Twitter users who want to bond with small group of people and learn the answer to the original Twitter question: ‘What are you doing?’ These are the folks that enjoy tweets that say, ‘My cat just rolled over’ and ‘The line at Starbucks is long.’

“The question you should answer if you want retweets is ‘What’s interesting?’ for your group of followers. For example, the story that Taiwanese scientists bred glow-in-the-dark pigs is a lot more interesting than what your cat is doing and therefore a lot more likely to get retweeted.”

Another Twitter lesson for writers from the retweet arena is that sharing begets sharing. Social media researcher Dan Zarrella, guest posting on Copyblogger, notes that 70 percent of retweets contain a hyperlink (often shaved down to size using http://tiny.cc or other services). If you’re linking to your own content, it’s a good idea to think about what sorts of writing get passed around online—Zarrella lists how-tos/instructional content, breaking news, warnings (about scams, etc.) and freebies or contests as links highly likely to get a retweet.

The lesson here, I think, is that people want to share useful stuff with those they care about and keep their friends out of trouble. When drafting our stories, no matter the venue, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that this is a huge piece of what drives information passed through online social networking.

The final rule we can draw from what gets retweeted on Twitter is that calls to action produce action. Zarrella, writing recently on his own blog about the 20 words and phrases that generate the most retweets, notes that the phrase “please retweet” appeared very frequently in posts that got retweeted. Other action verbs that appeared in highly retweeted posts included “help,” “follow,” and “check out.”

Obviously, a lot of journalistic non-fiction writing cannot directly order the reader to take action, although it can quote sources about the need for action, the urgency of a situation, etc. However, thinking what frame of mind you want to leave a reader with after digesting your story is still helpful. And for many “service” stories in trade or self-help oriented publications, issuing a clear call to action is part of the package—readers are looking to you to explain how something works, and then recommend ways to use the newfound knowledge.

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Twitter as writing coach, part I: Learn from Twitter poetry

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Photo courtesy SXC.

It seems everyone is doing Twitter these days, from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Microblogging, the art of condensing your thoughts into 140 characters, has hit the mainstream, and many people are wondering what this service, which continuously asks users to post an answer to the question “what are you doing?” is good for.

One thing I strongly believe Twitter is good for is improving the craft and skill of non-fiction writers. I freely admit I am not a “power tweeter” yet (I still haven’t got the hang of the interactivity of Twitter yet), but as an editor, I see many ways in which microblogging can provide opportunities to tune up one’s writing ability.

Less is More
I’ve blogged a bit about this before, and today it’s the main point of my post: non-fiction writers can learn a lot about economy of words through poetry, and one emerging trend in Twitter-land is the popularity of posting poems or lines from existing or potential poems in one’s status line.

The main advantage poets have on Twitter is that they know how to say a lot in very few words, and pack their content with descriptive material that appeals to both the reader’s eye and ear.

Some of my best freelancers have been poets, and I find that poets who write nonfiction tend to be extremely careful and precise with their word choices. Also, along with former advertising copywriters, poets who write for journalistic publications almost never complain about the word count they are assigned—I imagine that after mastering the rigors of poetic structure, meter and rhyme, just having to worry about how many words to use is a snap.

Making your tweets “attractive”
One popular trend in poetry over the past decade has been magnetic poetry kits, and the Twitter Magnets site combines digital renderings of magnetic poem kits with the interactivity of social media. Go to the site, and you’re presented with a set of words and encouraged to move them around on the cyber-fridge to make a poem, which can then be broadcast via Twitter to those following their feed.

While you can choose another set of words to make poems out of, you are limited to using the words and letters presented, and that extra layer of constriction is a great tool for calling forth even more creative effort to make oneself understood.

5/7/5 = the formula for Twitter profundity?
Another poetic form that has built-in restrictions is haiku. Many poetic tweeters have written in the 5-syllable/7-syllable/5-syllable form and made amazingly interesting, compact statements. Here’s one example of what many have come to call “twiku”; and here is a Twitterer bold enough to take the name “Haiku” as his/her handle, who posts mostly funny stuff.

Even writers who work in marketing and other non-journalistic fields recognize the power of Twitter haiku to shape one’s writing for the better. Marty Weintraub, writing on the aimClear Search Marketing blog, posted a couple of months ago about the “imposed brevity” of Twitter and phone texting, and made the haiku comparison:

“It’s nothing short of cultural revolution, as our increasingly plugged-in populace evolves to more succinct communication.  In my opinion this efficiency serves to counter ever-escalating online cacophony … I caught a tweet from respected SEO Michael Gray (@graywolf) which still has me thinking. He tweeted, ‘if you learn to be brief clear and easy to understand Twitter becomes very powerful even with the 140 character limit.’ In the next few minutes as we chatted briefly, he likened the process to skills required to write a Haiku.

“Haiku is an epigrammatic Japanese verse crafted of three short lines with restrictive syllabic syntax. Yet some of the most beautiful poetry on earth flows from within the imposing structural requirements … The core skill necessary for Twitter & texting is brevity. Chatting in bite size chunks forces a writer to eliminate unneeded and voluminous verbosity, a valuable lesson for any artist.” (emphasis in original quote)

Well said. If you want to discuss this Twitter Haiku movement with others, there is even a Facebook group dedicated to it.

Try it yourself
If you have a Twitter account and tweet with any regularity, make it a point this week to post at least one tweet in which you describe your day, your surroundings, or your thoughts about world events in a poetic way. You can try using the haiku syllable formula of 5/7/5 if that suits you, or adapt a more sophisticated poetic meter if you’re familiar with how to do that.

Notice your writing process as you attempt this. How did you decide what to say? How to describe it? What mood or tone to choose?

How might this selection process inform your prose writing?

Additional link
Poetry News
Poetry News tweets about news and events related to the world of poem-making.

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