Tag Archives: story structure

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 April 24, 2010

Photo courtesy Mike Homme via SXC.


The Importance of Words in Multimedia Storytelling – Nieman Storyboard
Jacqueline Marino discusses the tension in journalism between focusing on usability and brevity in online projects and using words along with multiple media to tell a long-form narrative in web-based projects.

The Most Important Job for Writers – Being Sticky, Concrete, Memorable
Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen, writing on her Quips and Tips for Freelance Writers blog, demonstrates why stories help nonfiction articles be sticky, concrete and memorable–and why those three qualities are invaluable for any piece of communication a writer might undertake.

How to Use Evernote to Organize Your Writing | Fuel Your Writing
Suzannah Windsor Freeman discusses how she uses this note-digitizing tool to simplify her writing and organizing.

AfterWORDS: The Art of the Start
From Creative Nonfiction, Issue 38. A sampling of first lines from nonfiction books shows there are as many possible approaches as there are stories to be told.

Creative Nonfiction (cnfonline) on Twitter
This is a daily Twitter contest hosted by Creative Nonfiction magazine. Participants should use the hashtag #cnftweet.The publication will print winners of its daily contest in forthcoming issues, and daily winners are posted at the account’s “favorites” page: http://twitter.com/cnfonline/favorites.

The Editor and the Curator (Or the Context Analyst and the Media Synesthete) | Tomorrow Museum
Joanne McNeil explains the differences between curation and traditional editing and why she thinks that calling online journalists who edit “content curators” is a misnomer.

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Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for February 10, 2010

Photo courtesy SXC.

I’ve had just a few moments this week to search out links… but the blog-o-sphere is positively ablaze with non-fiction writing news!

TALK: The Future Journalist–Thoughts from Two Generations

Sree Sreenivasan and Vadim Lavrusik present a savvy, rich talk about what specifically journalists and editors need to do to adapt their profession–with all its ethics and standards–to today’s technological and social media environment.

News Site in a Box

A helpful toolkit from J-Learning.org that helps citizen journalists (or start-ups) create a credible news site using free or low-cost tools.

The Digital Book in Practice: Valentine’s 14 Languages, Multiple Formats, Wireless Delivery

Alex de Campi discusses the digital graphic novel she is collaborating on with artist Christine Larsen. Every month, readers pay 99 cents and get 70-75 screens of action, adventure and suspense. VERY COOL IDEA!

Better User Experience With Storytelling – Part One – Smashing Magazine

Deep, detailed post on traditional storytelling notions and how to employ them to improve user experiences on the Web. (And elsewhere.)

Welcome to the Virtual Antique Typewriter Museum

A cool online tribute to what the curators call the “ultimate writing machine.”

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Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for February 2, 2010

Photo courtesy SXC.

Bury Books, Inspire Reading : The World :: American Express OPEN Forum

Author Jonathan Littman declares that “the truth is that it’s time to bury books,” arguing they are reaching the end of their usefulness. The future belongs to the “immersion” experience of Kindle and other digital reading devices.

Goals for Writing: What and why?

First of a three-part series on goal setting for writers, by Marsha of Writing Companion blog.

Blogging and Podcasting for Writers

SlideShare presentation by Britt Bravo from the Feb. 2009 San Francisco Writers Conference. The title actually refers to writers “test marketing” their work using social media channels such as blogs and podcasts.

Climbing Mt. Story: How to Survive the Creative Journey

Larry Brooks of Storyfix guest posts on Write to Done and uses a mountain climbing parable to explain how different storytellers work.

The 8 Elements of Contagious Ideas

Social media marketing guru Dan Zarrella discusses what makes ideas sticky and repeatable. Includes novelty, intuitiveness, relevance, etc.

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From the archives: In Praise of Zero Drafts

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Photo courtesy SXC.

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

In Praise of Zero Drafts

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

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

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

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

For example,

“Dear Liz,

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

Sincerely, A. Writer.”

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

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

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

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

Learn More about Zero Drafts

Writing Crap & Shitty First Drafts

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

Ask the Dissertation Diva: Zero Draft Writing

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

List Your Main Ideas in a Zero Draft

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

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Begin at the Beginning: Thoughts on autobiographical material and story structure

30 years worth of diaries, 1979-2009

30 years of diaries, 1979-2009

A dear friend of mine, Rachel Hile, contributed a very insightful essay to the inaugural issue of The Revolving Floor last month—one that touches upon a number of issues that writers of nonfiction, particularly those who write about their own lives, deal with when working on a story.

The article, “Ab Ovo, or, How Not to Begin a Story,” is worth reading in full. Rachel has an interesting perspective on the personal-writing topic, as she works as an assistant professor in the Department of English & Linguistics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. She’s also has edited a collection of essays, Parenting and Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career, which, by their very nature, touch on autobiographical topics.

In her Revolving Floor essay, she begins by challenging the storytelling advice that first-century BCE poet Horace famously gave to begin in media res, in the middle of the action. For Rachel, this can present a problem, as she has a sharp interest in finding out what happened at the start (ab ovo, Latin for “from the egg”), or even before the start, a given story.

“Horace seems not even to consider that someone inquisitive like me, someone more interested in excavating beginnings than weaving an action-packed plot …

“I’m surely not alone in finding value in all this egg and pre-egg business, in believing that examining origins leads to worthwhile insights about motivations, people, as well as the ways people use religion to explain the inexplicable.”

She discusses the different literary formats and their structures in regards to how they view story beginnings.

“In what sort of alternate literary universe would starting at the beginning be prized, and what values would it express? … It didn’t take a new world, but a new genre, which Michel de Montaigne kindly invented for us at the very moment that some historians have dated as the genesis of the private self. The essai—an attempt, an effort at understanding that uses a different kind of thinking than plot-driven narratives, is well-suited to the practice of going back to the egg to try to understand oneself.”

I asked Rachel to share a couple of thoughts about autobiographical writing after the “Ab Ovo” story came out. Here’s the transcript of our (electronic) conversation.

Rachel Hile

Rachel Hile

Write Livelihood: You’ve kept your journals from the past 30 years and in your essay you address the concept of self-shame and its role in writers destroying their letters/journals. How does shame about past attempts at self-expression inhibit finding one’s narrative?
Hile: I distrust personal narratives with a triumphalist arc, and that’s what you get when you steer clear of the memories and events that give you that feeling of shame. On the other hand, I also distrust personal narratives that try to excise pride and always instead take an ironic, deprecatory stance toward the actions, thoughts, and motivations of the self.
I don’t think that the answer is for writers to attack moments of shame head-on, self-consciously and for their own sake, because memoir is not just about rehab, rock bottom, etc. I think that if you discover a memory that fills you with shame while you’re in the process of working out your ideas in writing, if you work around that memory, a note of falseness will enter the piece.
Easy to say, hard to do. This week I abandoned an essay I was writing because I remembered something that was key to the point I was trying to make, but that I am still not ready to write about publicly.

Write Livelihood: One of the things that I found interesting about “Ab Ovo” was that both your parents had a dream before you were born about who you would be. Do you think a parent’s prenatal dream about their child, if communicated to the child, shapes the young one’s narrative in the same way a culture’s “creation myth” shapes the way a society conceptualizes its beginnings?
Hile: Yes—not just dreams, but birth stories, stories from infancy, etc. My children love to hear the stories of their births, stories of how I knew (without sonograms) their genders before they were born (and I use the word “gender” advisedly, because it really was a sense of gender), stories of what I noticed first about them. I think children are hungry for details and stories that will make them feel that they know who they are. I think children need stories about identity from adults who love them. The power to shape a child’s sense of self is, of course, a responsibility that should inspire caution.

Write Livelihood: Any thoughts on the best way to mine one’s journals and letters for autobiographical  or memoir-related material to write about?
Hile:
I only sat down with my diaries one time with the idea of writing a memoir, and it was a non-starter. I was going to write about my experiences with depression, (yet) a little voice was asking me, “Don’t we have enough serious, introspective memoirs already about ‘Times When My Life Sucked’?”
I have found my diaries most helpful when I am writing about an idea, not an experience, and a memory or personal anecdote seems like it will be effective in illustrating that idea. Then I go back to read what I wrote at the time in order to strengthen my memory and create a more vivid impression.

Write Livelihood: What advice would you give to a writer interested in writing memoir?
Hile:
I myself feel more comfortable writing essays that draw upon autobiographical material than writing actual memoir, and that’s because of a basic distrust of self-revelation for the sake of self-revelation.
The memoirs I most enjoy reading are the ones in which I believe that self-revelation is in the service of illuminating important ideas that are broadly relevant: I’m thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as memoirs I’ve read recently that did a great job of finding this balance.

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Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for September 7, 2009

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

How Citizen Journalists Can Learn from Work of ‘Citizen Scientists’

This post is an excellent piece on PBS’s Media Shift Idea Lab about the alliance between professional scientists and citizen or amateur scientists, and what journalists could learn from this.

Post author Dan Schultz notes that he was tuned into scientific community’s attitude towards the contributions of non-professionals by an article on Carnegie Mellon University’s website that documented efforts by Eric Paulos, an assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, to equip “everyday mobile devices” with sensors used to collect reliable scientific data. The point of all this effort is to create “a new generation of ‘citizen scientists,’ connected both to the environment and each other.”

That story, combined with several other stories he read about recent astronomy discoveries being initially reported by amateur scientists, made him think about how journalists could learn from this friendly, if structured relationship between professional and non-professional scientists:

“All three types of scientists (professional, citizen, amateur) have beautifully compatible relationships.

“Professionals can safely focus on daunting tasks, knowing that amateurs are ready and willing to take on the smaller stuff (like keeping tabs on Jupiter). The community standards are clear and ultimately bound by cold hard observable fact, so amateurs can make meaningful contributions without diluting the knowledge base. Meanwhile, citizens are being empowered by professionals to help the scientific cause in a way that informs individuals and improves their lives.”

Shultz makes the following recommendations for journalists based on this.

    • Professional journalists can take the lead by clearly defining expectations, explaining best practices, and implementing an accessible infrastructure.
    • If amateur journalists do a good job of covering a smaller scope of topics or areas, then professionals can focus on the deeper, otherwise inaccessible issues.
    • Professional journalists are responsible for creating and maintaining the citizen network if they want it to meet their standards. (Emphasis mine)
    • Citizen networks need more than a host – they need to be explicitly empowered through tools and guidance.
    • A symbiotic relationship between the professional, the amateur, and the crowd is not just possible, it’s socially optimal.

      This article is the first one I’ve seen to turn the typically contentious and negative “real” journalist vs. blogger/citizen reporter debate on its head and posit citizen journalist work as a positive benefit to professional journalists. Definitely worth reading, considering, and discussing.

      Start With A Promise

      A great reminder on what the beginning of each story must do by veteran writing coach Jessica Page Morrell, guest posting on the Editor Unleashed blog.

      Morrell reminds us that, “Story openings are like job interviews, and if the words on the page entertain, you get the job. If they don’t, somebody who writes better gets the job.” She asserts that the easiest way to have your story get “hired” by editors (whom she correctly defines as “highly discerning reader(s) … connoisseurs who love the written word”) is to make a promise consistent with the genre you’re writing in, and then keep that promise.

      She takes readers through the various sorts of promises one might make in a memoir, in a science-fiction story, a romance, etc. These genre-specific tips also could apply to the tone of a nonfiction magazine article, and her general tips on matching the promise to the overall story should be taken to heart by nonfiction authors, who sometimes (in my experience as an editor) mistake a dramatic opening anecdote as a cure-all for a lack of feel for the true tone of the story they’re writing.

      As Morrell says,

      “An emotional opening prepares the reader for a heart-rattling journey, just as a philosophical opening promises a thoughtful exploration of themes, an action-packed opening promises a bronco-breaking ride, and a quiet beginning usually promises an intense exploration of characters’ lives.”

      Amen. Her post is a great reminder of the pact we make with the reader when we ask them to listen to our story, and our responsibility as writers to live up to the promise we make to them.

      Multimedia Magazine ‘FLYP’ Finds New Ways to Tell Stories Online

      From Poynter Online’s E-Media Tidbits section. Author Vadim Lavrusik reports on FLYP magazine, a New York-based publication that uses an innovative palette of online tools and Web 2.0 user functionality to cover topics from politics and science to art and music.

      FLYP augments traditional reporting and writing with animation, audio, video and interactive graphics. One of the major differences between FLYP and other magazines that have ramped up their digital/online versions is how the publication approaches news-gathering and production.

      “(Editor-in-chief Jim) Gaines said the production process at FLYP is different from any of the ‘old media’ publications he has worked for. At many publications there is a pyramid structure; at FLYP the production process is flatly distributed across teams. Everyone gathers and each medium is considered for a particular story. At magazines, on the other hand, the text is the primary medium. Even for Web sites multimedia elements are often an afterthought.”

      Another interesting point raised in the article is how FLYP is packaging rich media ads, which may help tease out the true profitability of using online ads as a mainstay of a publication’s business model. Currently, the publication is being privately funded by multi-millionaire Alfonso Romo, but Gaines would like to create a limited supply of “engaging” rich media ads which readers seek out, but which are not so commoditized that advertisers won’t pay top dollar for them.

      For writers and editors keeping tabs on where online media is going, especially how content and revenue will interact in the “everything should be free” web era, this article is required reading.

      Bonus Links!

      Promptly

      A fun little blog on the Writer’s Digest site that offers writing prompts for readers 3 times a week. Readers can upload their written response to the prompt in the comments section of each post!

      From Telegraph to Twitter: The Language of the Short Form
      Roy Peter Clark gets into microblogging and writes about its historical roots on Poynter Online’s Writing Tools blog.

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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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      Telling the story of your career: An interview with Kathy Hansen, Ph.D.

      Katharine (Kathy) Hansen, Ph.D.

      Katharine (Kathy) Hansen, Ph.D.

      Most non-fiction writers and editors have some confidence in their ability to weave a good story out of the raw material of real life. It turns out that this skill has a very practical application outside of writing articles or producing videos, podcasts and other media—it can help you secure a great job!

      Today I’m interviewing Katharine (Kathy) Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers. She is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits its newsletter QuintZine, and blogs about storytelling at A Storied Career. Her most recent book, “Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career,” was published by JIST Works in April.

      Hansen, who earned her doctorate from Union Institute & University, has also authored a number of other books on career-related topics, including “Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates,” “A Foot in the Door,” and “Top Notch Executive Resumes.”

      How did you come to write this book?

      Early on my Ph.D. program, I took an organizational behavior class that emphasized postmodernism. While researching postmodernism, I came across the discipline of organizational storytelling, which I had never hard of but instantly resonated with me because I’ve always loved stories. I immediately knew that storytelling should be the centerpiece of my dissertation research.

      My Ph.D. program encouraged dissertation projects that were outside the norm — such as artistic endeavors and book manuscripts. I decided to write a book about storytelling in the job search. Since the book was directed at a mass audience, I was also required to write a “contextual essay,” the scholarly research version of the book.

      Between the beginning and end of my doctoral program, a number of forces combined to make my school’s requirements more rigorous, and I was encouraged to turn the contextual essay into a full-blown dissertation. So, I ended up writing both the book manuscript and the dissertation for my program. I felt really fortunate that the book was published.

      Why are stories such powerful tools in career marketing? What can stories do that traditional approaches cannot?

      • Stories establish your identity and reveal your personality; they satisfy the basic human need to be known.
      • Stories help you know yourself and build confidence.
      • Stories make you memorable.
      • Stories establish trust.
      • Stories establish an emotional connection between storyteller and listener and inspire the listener’s investment in the storyteller’s success.
      • Stories help you stand out.
      • Stories illustrate skills, accomplishments, values, characteristics, qualifications, expertise, strengths, and more. Stories paint vivid pictures.
      • Stories explain key life/career decisions, choices, and changes.
      • Stories told well help you portray yourself as a strong communicator.

      TellMeCoverCorrect

      Based on your professional experience, are people in general aware of how to tell stories about themselves? Why or why not?

      Definitely not! Based on my observations, most people are both uncomfortable telling stories about themselves and flummoxed about how to do it.

      I think the discomfort element is because most job-search stories necessarily focus on accomplishments, and people are wary about talking about their accomplishments because it feels like boasting. They probably also have not thought enough about their accomplishments or catalogued them as they moved from job to job. Asking them to tell stories about their accomplishments is like asking a non-writer to write an article. That’s what my book is for — to help non-storytellers learn to tell their stories in the job search.

      Most people are both uncomfortable telling stories about themselves and flummoxed about how to do it … Asking them to tell stories about their accomplishments is like asking a non-writer to write an article.

      How do stories told in the career search differ from stories that nonfiction writers might compose in their day-to-day writing for publication?

      They are not so very different. Stories in the career search by necessity are shorter, of course, than articles non-fiction writers produce. I also advise particular structures for job-search stories, such as situation (or problem or challenge), action, result, etc.

      Do you think the pre-formulated story frames (SMART, STAR, etc.) given by career experts to structure interview questions are useful? Are there instances in which they get in the way?

      I do think they are useful; however, I’m trying to expand the concept of the storytelling structure for the job search. If I do another edition of the book, I will likely present more expansive ideas on story structures. For example, at a storytelling conference I attended earlier this year, a presenter suggested that the situation-action-result formula is boring and that a better approach is to describe what was at stake.

      What skills do career seekers need to learn to tell compelling stories as they look for work?

      First, they need the ability to identify their skills and accomplishments and to discern which of these are most relevant to a given job. Then they need to compose or construct their stories effectively. And finally, they need to be able to tell stories well in an interview. These are all skills that anyone can develop with practice.

      How can people “tell stories” on their resumes and cover letters? How can they provide a well-told tale without taking up excessive amounts of room?

      The resume is the trickiest component in career-marketing communication in which to tell stories because the clipped, bulleted format we’ve come to expect of resumes doesn’t lend itself well to storytelling. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when creating a story-based resume:

      • A commonly used section at the top of the resume, a Qualifications Summary or Professional Profile, provides an excellent vehicle for telling the story of who you are professionally. Imagine that this section begins with the phrase, “I am a(n)…” and let your bullet points tell a story of who you are and how you qualify for this job.
      • Tell stories of accomplishments, not duties and responsibilities. Susan Britton Whitcomb, author of “Resume Magic,” one of the most highly recommended resume books on the market, calls accomplishments “the linchpin of a great resume.” Accomplishments are best communicated in story form. Think about what would have been different in each situation without your actions? What would not have happened if you hadn’t been there? How did you leave each organization better than you found it?
      • Accomplishment stories are among the easiest and most satisfying to craft. Career experts advise job-seekers to use any one of several similar “formulas,” especially in job interviews. But you can easily use these formulas in resumes. The formulas are generally three steps long, and the last two steps are Action and Result. In a resume, however, tell these story in reverse order – results, action, problem/situation/challenge. Why? Because, the employer spends only 2.5 to 20 seconds looking at your resume. Example: “[Result:] More than doubled Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) scores from 40 percent to 88 percent in four months [Action:] by initiating phone campaign [Situation:] to proactively resolve issues.”
      • Humanize and personalize your resume. The trend in resumes has been to eschew personal information and interests. But this type of human-interest information can work for you as long as you relate it to professional skills. It also helps to reveal more of your story to the employer and portrays you as someone he or she would like to get to know better.
      • Remember that you don’t have to tell the same stories on every resume you send out.

      Cover letters offer the job-seeker significant latitude to tell stories because letters are quite compatible with the narrative form. You can engage the employer, make an emotional connection, show results, and become instantly memorable by writing at least one paragraph in the form of a powerful story. Here are some guidelines:

      • Make it as concise. Employers are spending less time than they used to reading cover letters. Ideally, your letter should be about four paragraphs, and one of those should tell a story.
      • Tell only the stories that are relevant to the employer’s requirements, the problems you can solve, and the results you can achieve. If the relevance isn’t immediately obvious from your story, help the reader make the connection by pointing out the skills and qualifications the story illustrates.
      • Work some of the employer’s own messages and language into your story. Pick out buzzwords and phrases from the employer’s Web site or print publications about the organization. Play these back to the employer in your story.
      • Don’t neglect the “storyline” in the rest of the letter. Even if only one paragraph in your letter is in story form, try to integrate the story’s theme throughout your letter and tie the letter together by briefly referring back to the story in your final paragraph. Here are three examples of story-based cover letters:

      Example 1 | Example 2 | Example 3

      • Make your stories specific and quantify results whenever possible. The reader can more easily picture you succeeding on the job when you describe a specific situation.
      • Avoid lengthy stories with too much detail.
      • Don’t overlook the story-fueling potential of job postings and want ads. The principle here is similar to the language-mirroring described above. In his book, “Don’t Send a Resume,” Jeffrey Fox calls the best letters written in response to want ads “boomerang letters” because they “fly the want ad words – the copy – back to the writer of the ad.”

      While I don’t necessarily think of myself as a great storyteller, I do find myself mentally editing when I hear others telling a story — thinking to myself about how the story could be better. I mentally edit myself, too. I choose words carefully and tend not to speak until I’ve edited what I plan to say.

      Do you think editing is an important skill for would-be career storytellers? Why?

      This is a fantastic question and one I have not been asked before. Not surprising that it would be asked by an editor!

      I just wrote on my blog recently that, while I don’t necessarily think of myself as a great storyteller, I do find myself mentally editing when I hear others telling a story — thinking to myself about how the story could be better. I mentally edit myself, too. I choose words carefully and tend not to speak until I’ve edited what I plan to say.

      That’s a good cautionary note for telling stories in job-interviews: Before responding to a question, take just a quick moment to gather your thoughts before blurting something out. Editing also comes in with resumes and cover letter because you obviously must tell your stories in a small amount of space, so you must continually hone and refine your stories until they are not only the right length but also convey exactly the right message.

      What advantages might professional writers and editors have when using the story-based approach in the career hunt?

      In theory, they should have an advantage because they know how to compose stories and how to edit themselves and choose the right words.

      But, again, in using myself as an example, I’m a writer who has done a lot of writing — 8 books — yet I don’t consider myself a stellar storyteller. I would be interested in learning the thoughts of you and your readers. As writers and editors, how does this approach feel to you? Do you feel it should be easy for you — or is it somehow more difficult?

      Is there anything else we haven’t covered you think is relevant?

      On my blog, A Storied Career. I talk about applied uses of storytelling that are a lot broader than just the job search, but I do write regularly about storytelling for career advancement and the job hunt.

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      Cool Tools: 3 Fun Ways to Map Your Story Ideas

      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.

      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.

      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.

      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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