Tag Archives: nonfiction writing

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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Writing in Two Worlds: An Interview with Novelist and Journalist Jessica McCann

Novelist and nonfiction writer Jessica McCann

We have a real treat today: I recently conducted an e-interview with Jessica McCann, a magazine writer and freelance editor whom I’ve worked with several times over the years. She’s also a budding novelist — her novel “All Different Kinds of Free” is due to be published in April of next year.

Her story of how she got her start in nonfiction writing, and how she reclaimed her childhood love of fiction in order to start writing it, is inspiring and contains valuable lessons for any writer would would like to work in both fiction and nonfiction.

Write Livelihood: How did you get your start as a nonfiction writer?
McCann: I’ve worked at least part-time as a freelance writer since I was 17 years old. I started freelancing as a high school senior for an amazing group of women in the communications department at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Each of them mentored me in their respective areas — external communications, media relations, community outreach and employee communications. They exposed me to so many types of business and journalistic writing styles and approaches. I consider the time I spent there to be my formal education in the writing profession.

A few years out of high school I landed a full-time job in communications, then as went on to work as the editor of a regional business magazine, and finally editor for a custom-book publisher. To make extra money and build up my portfolio, I continued to freelance on the side. In 1998, I quit my editing job to freelance full time, and I haven’t looked back since.

What role has fiction writing played in your development as a professional writer?
Fiction didn’t have a role in my professional writing career for a very long time. When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a novelist. In eighth grade, a misguided English teacher told me a short story I had written was lazy and unimaginative — that he expected more (out of me). Maybe his assessment was accurate. Maybe he was hoping to fire me up and get me to work harder. But all he really did was crush my confidence.

It took me 20 years to work up the courage to dabble in fiction writing again. I focused instead on nonfiction and built a successful career as a business writer and journalist. Once you’re on a certain path, it’s pretty hard to find the motivation and courage to wander off into the dark scary woods in search of something different. So for a long time, I stayed with what I knew I could do well, stayed with what was safe.

What inspired you to write your debut novel, “All Different Kinds of Free”?
The work was inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 1842. I first read about it when I was doing freelance copyediting on a book for MIT about Supreme Court justices.  The case  appealed the conviction of a bounty hunter charged with kidnapping Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color who was alleged to be an escaped slave. The court case focused on state’s rights, and the ruling represented the first time a major branch of the U.S. government made a proslavery stand. But I was most interested in Margaret and what became of her.

My original goal was to write a biography, and I spent about three years researching her life — or, at least, attempting to research her life. The sad truth is that Margaret and her fate were irrelevant at the time. The issue for most people in the mid-1800s was much bigger than one woman’s fight for freedom. Yet, to me, it was all about Margaret. When I realized I didn’t have enough facts to write a biography, I was devastated and grudgingly packed away my research. Then my mother-in-law loaned me a book, a fictional biography about George Washington, by Mary Higgins Clark. It was a fun read, and it gave me the idea that a fictional biography might be the only way I could tell Margaret’s story and really do it justice.

At what point did you decide the novel might be publishable?
In its earliest stages, I never really believed it would ever get published. It was just a story I felt compelled to write, and I was enjoying the creative process. Then I entered the first few chapters in  some writing competitions as a novel in progress. I didn’t win, but I received semi-finalist recognition in two respected contests. That’s when I started to believe I might have the chops to actually write a novel that people would want to read. When All Different Kinds of Free was named a finalist in the Freedom in Fiction Prize, publishing my novel was no longer just a fun dream. It became a tangible goal that I wrote  into my business plan.

Does your writing process differ for writing fiction?
Not much. I enjoy the research phase of writing. That’s often what fuels my creativity, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction. The interviews, digging through articles and books at the library, searching online for little-known facts and resources — it’s a process that helps ideas form in my head, helps me arrange the pieces of my story to create the picture I want my readers to see.

How does writing fiction impact your nonfiction writing, and vice versa?
As I mentioned earlier, for many years I was quite literally afraid to try my hand at fiction and was content writing magazine articles and corporate work. Then, after more than 10 years freelancing for the same clients, I hit a sort of road block. I was bored out of my mind, to be blunt. My clients were still happy with my work, but I felt like I was writing the same old articles again and again. I could do it with my eyes closed.

I felt stifled creatively, felt I was doing my clients an injustice, and felt it would soon catch up to me in a bad way. So I started writing short stories based on writing prompts, just to flex my creative muscles and work my brain in a different way. A couple of amazing things happened. One, I remembered how much I enjoyed writing fiction; and two, I realized that good fiction writing isn’t a whole heck of a lot different than good nonfiction. Being efficient with the language, using vivid imagery, telling a compelling story — these are universal to good writing, regardless of the genre.

Going forward, how do you see your fiction writing fitting in your career overall?
I would love to become a full-time novelist. It’s a challenging, slow transition, but that’s the ultimate goal. My debut book releases April 2011 from Bell Bridge Books, and I’m deep in research for my second novel.

What advice would you have for nonfiction writers who’d like to get started writing fiction?
Just get started. Start small to build up your confidence if you need to — write a short story or two, enter a contest here and there, research literary journals and submit your work. As you gain momentum, the fiction writing will start to play a bigger role in your writing life. If it’s important enough to you, it will eventually take on a life of its own.

Any final thoughts or advice for writers who work in both genres?
Be brave. Keep writing. That may sound trite or hokey, but for me it’s that simple. Look to other writers for inspiration, encouragement and motivation.

The following quotes in particular have come to mean a lot to me recently:
“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” ~Anne Rice

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” ~Mark Twain

“The one talent that’s indispensable to a writer is persistence.” ~Tom Clancy

“Forget about becoming a great writer. Work instead on writing great stories.” ~William Tapply

That pretty much sums it up for me. Writing is scary. When you’ve already experienced some measure of success in one type of writing, switching genres and starting from scratch is even scarier. You’re putting yourself out there, vulnerable to fresh criticism, with every new thing you write. Why subject yourself to the hard work, the anxiety and the potential rejection again and again? Because you have a story to tell. So tell it, in whatever genre does it justice.

***

You can learn more about Jessica’s work by visiting her website.

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Take a sneak peek at the new Write Livelihood!

Photo courtesy of SXC.

The initial transformation of Write Livelihood from a blog only to a blog/portfolio site is done. I’ve added an augmented biography tab, as well as tabs for my professional portfolio, a list of services I offer and some helpful resources for writers and editors.

Please take a look around and let me know what you think of the site, what questions you have, and what you think of the ongoing tectonic shifts occurring in media today!

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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 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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Book Review: Leo Babauta’s “The Power of Less”

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Writing is an easy thing to make complicated. Non-fiction writers, in particular, have to juggle ideas, approaches, pitches to competing publications, research leads, interview notes … and that’s just the actual work. Add in para-work activities such as checking e-mail, incessant Googling (how did we do research before Google?), and chatting with writer pals about your assignments on Facebook, and suddenly, it seems like there’s hardly any time left to write.

Author and blogger Leo Babauta offers a common-sense alternative to clutter, both cyber and real-world, with his new book “The Power of Less.” Babauta, who runs the wildly popular Zen Habits blog, offers easy-to-follow advice for getting control of one’s priorities, time and habits, and helps readers achieve more with less effort.

Babauta’s theme throughout the book is very basic: discover what is truly important to you, and let go of the rest. Some of the most important keys from “The Power of Less” for writers are:

Learn how to single-task. Babauta is not a fan of trying to do more than one thing at a time. His approach is do what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, and then go on to the next task. Back in the old days, this was called focus. Whatever you want to call it today, breaking your writing day into a series of things that you work on until they are done can be far more satisfying and efficient than trying to do work on 3 stories simultaneously and getting next to nothing accomplished on all of them.

Learn to multi-project. Staying on-task doesn’t mean you are manacled to one project at a time — which is a good thing, for many freelancers would starve if this were true. Babauta recommends selecting up to three projects to focus on at any one time; that way, if you are single-tasking your way through a project and hit a delay (e.g., a source needs to call you back, you’re waiting to hear if your editor wants revisions), you can go to the next project on your list and hit the most important tasks on that one.

One goal, many actions. This suggestion is a variation of the task vs. project distinction noted above. Babauta recommends having only one major goal at a time, and that it be a fairly ambitious one—one that could take as long as a year to achieve. However, to make it manageable, your “one goal” should be broken down into sub-goals. For example, if you want to be published this year, your first sub-goal might be to research books in the same market as yours and come up with a focus that differentiates your idea. Drilling down even further, Babauta says it’s important to break each sub-goal into daily tasks, so that you are constantly doing something to move toward completing your goal.

Establish a daily routine. I’m a big fan of establishing positive creative habits and it appears Babauta is too. He walks readers through some simple, healthful ways to structure their days. Finding habits and routines that work for you is the first step to building a creative “grid” that grounds you, and allows you to continue writing, even when outside life events create upheaval and drama.

Fans of the 80/20 principle will find some familiar arguments here, but the book is more than just a restatement of that theory. Babauta deals at length with the difficulties of utilizing technology while not being distracted by it and the challenges of making long-term changes and habits “stick.” His book is especially laudable for its simplicity and for not attempting to be a “system” that you have to go to a workshop and buy special equipment to “manage.”

The most useful piece of advice I have taken from “The Power of Less” is continually asking myself as I move through my day “do I want to do X, or do I want to achieve my goals?” The question cuts through all manner of distraction and competing priorities and has helped me, after only a week spent reading Babauta’s book, accomplish several writing tasks in about one-third the amount of time they had taken in the past.

Whether you’re wanting to increase your writing productivity, tackle an intimidating goals such as writing a book, or make some changes to your habits to make your life happier overall, I heartily recommend “The Power of Less.” It’s a quick read that will influence your thinking long after you have set it down.

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Write This Way: Writing and Editing Links for January 12, 2009

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Photo courtesy SXC.

It’s a new year, and time for our first 2009 installment of the writing-related hyperlink-love-fest we feature at least once a month on this blog.

1. Everyone still seems to be taking stock of the old year and setting goals for 2009. One inventive way to sum up 2008 if you’re a blogger, is to create a parataxis entry, which fuses a number of disparate, seeming unrelated fragments to create meaning. Michael Eddy, over at Orange Crate Art blog, used this technique on Jan. 1 by including the first sentence of the first post of the month for every month of 2008 on his blog. Here’s an excerpt:

“Small calendars for the new year, well designed and free. Alas, it’s a parking area that’s reserved. Victoria’s Secret likes to ask in its marketing, ‘What is sexy?’ Whoso would be a G-Man must be a pencil user, as Emerson might have put it.”

And so on. Musician and blogger Elaine Fine also jumped on the parataxis bandwagon, with somewhat different results:

“Daniel Wolf has put together a nifty Winter Album of twelve (and maybe more) piano pieces that incorporate a great range of compositional techniques. Scott Spiegelberg found this wonderful clip that is sure to make you smile. My grandmother kept magazines like this April 30, 1945 Life magazine on her coffee table. Thanks to Anne for this! And music criticism of unusual quality.”

I think parataxis is an interesting technique to experiment with—it can be fun to see if you find a thread of narrative in your varied posts if you blog, or it could be interesting to use the first-sentence/first-entry-of-the-month theme with a writer’s notebook, a poetry journal, or other analog writing tools.

2. Will Web 2.0 tools make us better memoirists or storytellers? That is the intriguing proposition of Kathy Hansen at A Storied Career blog, who asserts that 2008 was the year of the personal narrative, and that “lifestreaming” is the key to understanding why social networking tools will facilitate personal narrative nonfiction.

Lifestreaming, she explains, is the aggregation of personal content (status updates, blog or news item postings, photos, videos, etc.) across a number of services. FriendFeed and Plaxo Pulse are two examples of services that help users follow all their friends’ activities, from their status updates on Twitter or Facebook to their bookmarks on del.icio.us.

As Hansen tells it,

“Lifestreaming is unquestionably a form of personal narrative. It doesn’t provide a complete picture of one’s personal narrative; often the beholder is left to try to fill in the blanks, connect the dots, and assemble puzzle pieces. But in many ways, this lack of comprehensiveness is part of the charm. The little bits of information and media serve almost as story prompts that enable the reader to construct his or her own story about the lifestreaming person. And you can always ask the lifestreamer to fill in details or explain cryptic status postings.”

This assertion is one I’ve pondered privately for a few months now, and I tend to agree. As I determine what to post on my Facebook page, blogs and other places, I definitely think through my audience, how vulnerable I’m willing to be on the page (or screen) and how the items will reflect my experiences when I (or someone else) review them later. I believe that this tension between social media users’ desire to connect and share, and very real privacy and security concerns, will influence personal narrative development (or maybe it should be called “personal broadcasting”?) in the years to come.

3. If you are a mom with a book idea, take a minute to read an interview on Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen’s Quips and Tips for Freelance Writers blog with Iris Waichler, MSW, a member of the Wyatt-MacKenzie Writer’s Co-operative. This innovative publishing group is comprised of 24 stay-at-home moms who had dreams of becoming published authors. Led by Nancy Cleary, the company has a special focus on publishing titles that relate to motherhood.

While Waichler acknowledges that being a member of a publishing co-operative has its drawbacks, the experience has mostly been positive:

“The team helped my book become a reality…My wonderful colleagues helped answer questions I had about a multitude of issues like book marketing, putting together a press release and sell sheet.

“We cheer each other on when something good happens like great publicity or a book award or successful author events.  We cheer each other up if things don’t go well and offer valuable advice about how to tackle writing, marketing, and book challenges.”

4. Finally, business communications expert Bert Decker recently posted his list of the Top 10 Best (and Worst) Communicators of 2008. For those who are interested in the public performance side of communication, Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen (who made Decker’s “good” list) added a few names of his own in a separate posting.

Whether or not you agree with (or like) the people on Decker’s lists, they have definitely all made their marks in the media world, and the list of “good” communicators (which includes Barack Obama, the late Tim Russert, Colin Powell, Mike Huckabee, Tina Fey and businessman John Chambers) provides ample material for discussing what it takes to reach your audience in this media-clogged world.

(P.S. Decker put GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on both the “best” and “worst” communicator lists, which perhaps emphasizes the truism that very few people can communicate in every situation with equal effectiveness.)

Bonus Links

Line Number Your Writing
An incredibly practical tip for those who receive feedback on their works-in-progress from Marsha at Writing Companion blog.

The Six People You Meet in Freelance Internet Writing Hell
Adam Brown details the types of people you don’t want to spend eternity with online in this hilarious post on the Freelance Switch blog.

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How to make the editor your friend (II): Adhere to the word count

When I was in high school, my journalism instructor used to say that I was hard to edit because I wrote so tightly. She meant it as a compliment—emphasizing that I didn’t tend to write fluffy, loose paragraphs loaded with dross—but that tendency of mine did come back to haunt me when I had to cut a piece. One of the hardest situations a writer can face is to over-write a piece, and cut repeatedly, and STILL be over on the word count.

 

Adhering to an assigned word count is like the other two previously mentioned ways to make your editor your friend: it’s just common sense, as well as common courtesy. Despite this, I have received 400 word stories when I asked 2,500 and 1,500 word stories when I asked for 500. The first was from a first-time writer working on a trade magazine article who was in over his head. The second was from a long-time writer, who had also edited the publication I was working at before I did, who just felt he had more that he “wanted readers to know about” that he had to stuff in his op-ed column.

 

Guess whose piece I revised gladly? Guess whose piece completely hacked me off (since this all took place after deadline)?

 

I think most writers, experienced or not, don’t write long or short with ill intent. It also seems to me that the vast majority of writers miss word count by over-writing rather than under-writing.

 

Many writers do as I do when I write an article and over-research, which can lead to writing long if the scope of the article wasn’t clearly delineated when the assignment was made. Plentiful research, as useful as it is for finding the telling detail or confirming speculations made by sources, can also tempt the writer into wanting to find a way to cram everything into the article.

 

One of the most helpful cures when you’ve gone over your word count is to go back to your “nut graph” and strain the paragraphs that follow through that filter. How directly do they relate to the main point of your article? If the content is mostly diversion, can you make a convincing argument that the words must stay—and find other words that can go instead?

 

Other typical easy ways to trim an article:

 

  • If you have a tendency to put “echo quotes” (a second source more or less agreeing with the first person, with little elaboration) in your stories, take them out.
  • Write in the active voice. Passages written in passive voice almost always take more words to say the same thing.
  • Watch for the tendency to engage in “throat-clearing” and write useless set-ups for our quotes.

 

Links to learn more about adhering to word count and writing tightly.

 

Trouble Sticking to Your Word Count? Try These Editing Tricks

Five Ways to Cut Your Word Count

Write Tight! Tips from Chip Scanlan of Poynter Online

Five Myths About Short Writing


 

 

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How to Make the Editor Your Friend, Special Edition: Hold the Phone

Photo courtesy SXC.

The issue that forms the theme of this post wasn’t part of the planned “How to make the editor your friend” series, but it’s come up so frequently lately in my “real” life that I feel it’s important to explain a particular point of etiquette to freelance writers.
In the magazine world, if you’re thinking about using the phone to contact an editor you don’t know to introduce yourself, don’t. As rude as it sounds, don’t call us, we’ll call you.
It’s nothing personal, and editors really, really aren’t on perpetual coffee break. But the typical editor spends a lot of his/her day being a project manager: chasing down articles being edited or being laid out for the magazine, making sure a story has passed through the fact-check process with flying colors, conferring with designers about appropriate photos or accurate captions, leading meetings planning an issue three months out, etc. Another big chunk of editor time gets taken up with actual, honest-to-God editing: reading rough drafts, sending back suggestions, doing line edits and cleaning up sentence-level issues, and of course finally doing copy editing of a finalized manuscript. It is hard sometimes to find the time to field a call from someone who doesn’t have a specific agenda with regards to an article idea or who is waiting for the editor to “find something” for them to do.
Still, editors need writers like they need air to breathe, food to eat and water to stay hydrated. But we like to meet our needs for a pool of qualified freelancers on our terms. Think of it this way—if you were in the middle of a big project, and I kept calling you every other day to let you know that I thought you should write for my publication (without offering you an assignment), wouldn’t you start to get annoyed?
Here’s my advice to the freelancers who call me: send me your resume and some clips via e-mail. Better yet, if you have a portfolio site, send me the hyperlink. I am very impressed by a well-designed site, in large part because it answers all my questions in one place—qualifications (via a resume), clips (via URLs or PDF downloads), specialties (communicated via your selection and arrangement of clips or by a well-written summary of your writing experiences) and recommendations (via testimonials from editors).
If you don’t have the site, your resume and clips tell me a lot. And if you supply me with the contact information of an editor who has enjoyed working with you, I can quickly vet your ability to meet deadlines, adhere to word counts, work on revisions, etc.
Once a writer has worked for me, the phone etiquette changes substantially. I usually still prefer e-mail story pitches, but I don’t mind chatting with my writers by phone when they are on assignment. At that point, communication is collegial and not persuasive “messaging.”
Common sense and empathy go a long, long way to promote happy writer-editor relationships. Put yourself in my shoes and ask yourself if you’d like to receive an unsolicited, unfocused call asking for work from someone you don’t know. If not, don’t make it.

Related Links:

How to Successfully Query an Editor: An Editor’s View

Sample Query Letters That Worked: Real Queries That Landed Magazine Assignments

Amazon.com list of books on query writing

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Welcome to Write Livelihood

I’m the owner of the Creative Liberty blog and I’ve created this new blog to discuss issues specific to writing and editing nonfiction.

I’m a professional editor and have worked for several trade, association, and consumer magazines over the past 8 years. I’m also a freelance writer with more than 240 published articles to my credit. Aside from the print publishing world, I’ve also produced training videos, worked on e-learning projects, edited resumes and done public relations for a public library.

I hope to post instructional material and advice weekly, and look forward to building community with other writers and editors.

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