Tag Archives: writers

A Writer’s Guide to Blogging

It seems a little silly to call blogs new media, since they’ve existed since the late 1990s. Still, they are a new way for writers to engage with an audience and have been viewed with suspicion by mainstream journalists for far too long.

Blogs represented the vanguard of the social web, a place in which unfiltered (or lightly filtered) give and take between writers and readers — not to mention the informational cross-pollination that hyperlinking adds to the mix — has reshaped the expectations of the people formerly known as the audience. Ignoring blogging as a writer is possible in 2010, but it doesn’t seem very smart.

If you’ve never considered blogging before, there are a number of ways in which it could enhance your writing career.

  • A blog provides a readily available sample of your writing style, tone, range, etc.
  • Blogging can encourage daily writing and stretching oneself to create fresh content.
  • Blogging can provide useful feedback from potential readers for test marketing your story ideas.
  • Blogs are a good way to claim your expertise within a specified niche and connect with others who share that interest.
  • Creating a popular blog can help you build “platform” for a book or film project.

There are entire sites dedicated to how to write well for blogs. I happen to like ProBlogger and Skelliwag. Here are a few tips for nonfiction writers who are ready to take the plunge into blogging.

Tips for creating a must-read blog

1. Start reading blogs if you don’t already. I can’t stress this enough. I have been amazed, when discussing blogging with folks in the corporate world, how many of them are all ready to fire up a blog without having ever read one in their life. While Web 2.0 technology has made the barrier to entry for tools like blogs non-existent, it doesn’t ensure that you will produce content anyone wants to read.

In this post, I include links to some good writing blogs. Visit some of them and see if you like them. Leave a comment on a post if it moves you. Once you’ve got 5-10 blogs you want to read regularly, pick an aggregation service, such as My Yahoo, or Google Reader, that will bring RSS feeds from the blogs to you. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to keep up with your favorite bloggers this way.

For further instruction in how to set up a blog aggregator system:

Creating a passion dashboard | Creative Liberty

When you care to aggregate the very best | Guy Kawasaki

2. Claim your niche. Even if you’re planning on writing a free-wheeling blog about your personal literary adventures, recognize that your posts will have a personality and tone that differentiates them from everyone else’s blog. I often liken writing a blog to writing a column in a newspaper or magazine–people rarely read columns just because they want to know “about cars,” or “about” humorist Dave Barry’s improbable life. They’ve connected to the specific type of content delivered, the style and column’s offerings over time.

If you’ve been reading blogs for a little while before starting your blog, you’ll probably get a good idea where you fit within the section of the blog-o-sphere in which you want to become known. If not, ask yourself what you want to write about, then narrow it several times by subtopics, demographic groups (old hippies vs. Generation Y professionals), or your skill level or role in relation to the blog topic (passionate hobbyist, skilled teacher, detached documentarian).

3. Let your hair down… The best blogs read like a conversation. The blogger talks to readers like he would to his friends or colleagues, and commenters reply in the same spirit. The conversation can be serious, technical or even contentious, but it doesn’t become pedantic or bureaucratic.

Corporate blogs have to work hard to achieve this sort of authentic dialogue; if you are able to connect with other bloggers and blog readers (through linking or commenting on other blogs  or other methods), you, as a solo blogger, may have an easier time expressing yourself with your authentic voice. And as a writer, being able to express in a style that is clear and genuine should always be your goal.

4. …But have some boundaries. Mostly, use common sense. What would you think if your post was printed in a magazine or newspaper?

Privacy is one of social web’s biggest battlegrounds. Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg reportedly doesn’t think much of privacy. And we’ve all met contacts on social media who commit other over-sharing faux pas. But even if you’re legitimately revealing intimate details in the service of a post that showcases your writing abilities, keep in mind that the reader won’t have the same investment in the minutae of your life as you do. (But identity thieves might!)

More quick tips for successful blogging

  • Plan ahead. I make a blog post calendar every month. I often deviate from the posts I say I’m going to write, but it does make me think through my content and research posts ahead of time.
  • Break a long post into a series of posts. I’m not really following my own wisdom in this post, but if your post is more than 1000 words, consider parceling it out over 2 or 3 posts.
  • Understand, but don’t abuse, visit-boosting strategies. You should put your best posts on sharing sites like Digg and StumbleUpon. It’s OK, while you’re reading the blogs of others, to link to relevant posts on your own blog in your comments to them. However, if your entire life online looks to a third party as if all you do is seek blog visits, it will turn people off.

Bonus links on blogging

Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2009 | Copyblogger

Here are 10 great blogs to visit for information on writing and blogging.

Nonfiction Tweets: 70+ Authors to Follow on Twitter

Many of these tweeting authors also have excellent blogs.

How to Decide What Blogs to Read (4 Steps) | American Express OPEN Forum
Author Rohit Bhargava gives four great tips for figuring out whose blogs to follow — and how.

10 Pathways to Inspired Writing | Copyblogger
Power blogger Matthew Cheuvront offers 10 somewhat surprising tips on how to perk up your blog posts. He makes such heretical suggestions as reading actual (paper) books and listening to entire music albums from beginning to end!

How to Keep Your Readers Coming Back to Your Blog | Social Media Examiner
How to use the CODA (Content, Outreach, Design and Action) system to improve one’s business blog.

9 Ways People Respond to Your Content Online
Great post on the Lateral Action blog that sketches out how people respond to material online, and how to truly engage them with your stuff.

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10 Ways A Smart Phone Can Make You A Smarter Writer

Photo courtesy of SXC.

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

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

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

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

The questions to you:

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

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

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Gifts Writers Love

Photo courtesy SXC.

It’s only a few days before Christmas, but plenty of folks are still making crucial buying decisions for writers and editors! In this light, I asked friends and members of my social networks what they desired most for a holiday gift.

The answers reflect the lifestyle of a writer, often touching on the need for solitude and concentration, or the need to replenish oneself after a period of writing in solitude.

Enjoy peeking at their wish lists!

Gifts with muscle

“A gift certificate for an hour-long massage is always a good choice, especially for artists who spend many hours hunched over their keyboards.”
Sarah Quigley, author, “TMI”


Out and about
“I may not be the norm here, but a lot of writers, like myself, work alone out of their home. The gift I would love is something that gets me out of the house and away from my computer — a little break in the action.

“(I’d love) a gift certificate for a spa treatment, manicure/pedicure, cooking class, wine tasting, or yoga/Pilates class. Even just a gift certificate for a local coffee shop (would be nice), so I can work away from my house and at least be around other people!”

— Kami Gray, author of “The Denim Diet: Sixteen Simple Habits To Get You Into Your Dream Pair of Jeans


Handmade is heart made

“If someone has made something creative (written a book, put out a music CD, sewn pillows, whatever), I would love to have one of those things, of course!

“Otherwise, any gifts I receive, I love to be handmade . . . not mass produced in China. (I love Chinese people, so handmade authentic Chinese things are OK!)”

— Margaret Scheirman, copywriter and ESL professional, Twin Cities (Minn.) area


A laptop of one’s own

“My inner writer would like her very own red laptop so she can take it to the bathroom, lock the door, put in earplugs, and write for 5 whole minutes STRAIGHT!  I also want that pen set that’s been advertised in the wee hours of the night … the one you can throw at a dartboard and then write with.

“I’d also like some good article ideas.  And all regional parenting magazine editors could give me the gift of publishing any of my reprints in 2010 and also pay me $1,000 per article! (I can dream, right?)”

—   Kerrie McLoughlin, freelance writer and author of The Kerrie Show blog


Time after time

“What I really want as a writer is the gift of time to write, and the mental space to do so. I can think of nothing so precious as time spent diving into writing my novel.”

Beth Barany, writing coach and author of “The Writer’s Adventure Guide”


Mentor me

“My ‘inner writer desires for the holidays this year’ would have to include time, for sure, and the creation of an all-in-one place to do my writing, since we’ve been under construction and I had the election and stuff has just been EVERYWHERE so it’s been very chaotic.

“But what I think I most desire as a writer would be to have a mentor-mentee relationship with another writer who could help me put together and pursue some ideas I have for larger writing projects. It’s not so much that I don’t have the confidence to do it, but I’m all about the research before the jumping off the cliff and rely on the experience of others to help me understand what I’m getting into. If I knew that at least once a month, a writer I admire who has succeeded in the past would spend an hour or two with me and help kind of coach me, that would be a great gift to me at this point in my writing.”

Jill Miller Zimon, freelance writer, author of  the “Writes Like She Talks” blog, and newly elected city council member in Pepper Pike, Ohio


Reaching for “the remote”

“I would like three days/nights at a remote cottage near a stream so that I could focus completely on my writing. NO internet, NO television, just a plug for my laptop, a bed, and a rock in the middle of the stream for sitting and pondering. A hot tub would be okay for nighttime soaking.”

Bill Konigsberg, sports journalist, blogger, and author of the young-adult novel “Out of the Pocket”


The Question to You

What does your inner writer or editor desire for a holiday gift? Tell us in the comments field below.

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6 Tips for a Perfect Writer’s Staycation


Photo courtesy of SXC.

It’s a tough year for planning R & R – despite the fact that travel bargains abound – and given all the economic uncertainty, it seems foolhardy to plan a big, expensive out-of-town vacation. But what to do with your time off this summer? Isn’t there something to do that can get you out of the daily grind and not cost a fortune?

Of course there is. I’ve compiled a half-dozen tips for creating an enjoyable writer’s “staycation,” the sort of stay-at-home (or stay-close-to-home) vacation that will bring you back to the keyboard rested and ready for your next writing project without producing worry about its expense.

1. Tell a story in pictures. Whatever you choose to do with your days off, take a small digital camera with you, or use your mobile phone’s camera. Try to take enough pictures that you can create a “filmstrip” about your day, one that needs no captioning to get the message across. In addition to getting you in the habit of documenting your life photographically (which is fun and useful in and of itself), this tip also teaches you how to frame anecdotes and think scenically.

If you need some inspiration for what you can do with a cel phone camera, you might check out the My GPS Camera Phone blog. Blog owner Pete always amazes me with the photos he gets out of a humble mobile phone.

2.  Tell a story in sound. If you’re doing any driving around on your staycation—or even if you’re going on a long bike ride, run or hike—create a mix CD or a playlist on your MP3 player to honor your journey. The idea here is to create a soundtrack to your down-time that expresses your feelings, as well as give you experience in using subtle factors to set an anecdote’s mood and tone.

3. Buy 5 magazines to read for recreation. The trick here is to buy five that you don’t ordinarily buy, perhaps even five you’ve never heard of or would never even glance at otherwise. The farther the publications are from your ordinary reading, the greater the chance that they will creatively cross-pollinate your thinking about your writing projects or help you generate ideas for fresh, new works.

4. Keep a “vacation journal.” Even if all you do is stay home and weed the garden. If you look at the letters and journals kept by people before the invention of the telephone, they often described “ordinary” events in great detail—dinner parties, conversations ‘round the fire, walks they took in the woods. Deprived of other means of being intimate at a distance, writing about their day helped share it, and themselves, with readers of the journals or the recipients of their letters.

Being able to write about what you’ve done helps you see the value in how you spend your time, and also strengthens your ability to write interestingly and cogently in the first person.

5. Live like a Spaniard for a day. Or an Italian, Greek, or French person. If you’re mimicking the Spanish, you should definitely take an afternoon siesta, but the idea here is to make time for the Mediterranean ideal of “the sweet life,” one that includes plenty of good food, heart-to-heart talks over meals with friends and family, and a pace of living that doesn’t feel rushed.

The benefit to living this way is that it can free up your subconscious to incubate writing ideas with which you may be struggling. Plus, it’s fun and renews social ties that are easy to put on the back burner in the heat of a project. By focusing on your writing challenges before you go on vacation, then letting go while you’re taking time off, you may just come back to your work with solutions that work better than whatever you might have come up with by “forcing” an answer to appear.

6. Have at least one plan-free day. Most writers who are successful know how useful goal-setting tools and systems can be. However, if you can’t have a change of geographic scenery to shake you out of your routine (and thereby spark some insights about how you are living day to day), make it a point to build in at least one staycation day where schedules and planners are tucked away, and you set out (physically or mentally) with a few simple intentions: to explore public art in your city, for example, or to bike to the next town and see what there is to see. The idea is to be open to how the day develops, following one’s nose as it were, and receptive to what is experienced, rather than trying to cram it into one’s pre-planned blocks of whatever.

Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits blog and the book “The Power of Less,” recently discussed this approach as an aid to simplicity. This is what he had to say about his stepping away from excessive planning:

Don’t try to force outcomes — let them happen. Be open to what emerges.

This is a change that I’ve been trying in my life over the last year or more — slowly, gradually, because it’s not always easy. You have to learn to let go of the need to achieve certain outcomes, to embrace the flow, and that can be very difficult. So I’ve learned to embrace it slowly, and it has been wonderful.”

He asserts that this approach focuses one in the moment, and that can be very liberating.

“The lesson I learned (from my experiment): you don’t know what will happen, or what opportunities will arise, until you arrive at that moment. You can plan and plan and plan, but there is just no way to know how things will turn out…. Instead, I have forgone the need to define outcomes, and have focused on enjoying the journey. That doesn’t mean I’m not motivated to do my best … It means that I’m motivated by the work, that I enjoy the activity, not by the destination, goal or outcome.”

It’s a great lesson to learn, but as Leo points out, it can take a while to internalize it. Since vacations are the best time for most of us to experiment with new routines without the outside interference of daily pressures, why not try living a day or two by intention, instead of a strictly defined plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tool #1: The Mind Map

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

Mind mapping in action (image courtesy SXC).

Mind mapping in action (image courtesy SXC).

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

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

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

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

Tool #2: Storyboarding

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

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

¨ You have to determine a story arc to your material

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

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

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

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

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

Tool #3: Wordle/Tag Clouds

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

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

A tag cloud on the social bookmarking site Delicious.

A tag cloud on the social bookmarking site Delicious.

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

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

Wordle tag cloud

Wordle tag cloud

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

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You can quote me on that


Photo courtesy of SXC.

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

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

College Mags Welcome Freelancers

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


Illustration courtesy of SXC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo courtesy SXC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How might this selection process inform your prose writing?

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

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Do-It-Yourself Story Coaching (II): Two essential keys to coaching


Image courtesy SXC.

One of the main differences between “editing” a piece of writing and “coaching” a story is the attitude toward the process of revision. When you’re in a purely edit mode, revision is interventionist, something that’s done after the writing—the “real” work of creating. Approaching your work as a story coach calls for an attitude of collaboration between the part of you that’s writing the piece, and the part that will polish it.

To become a good self-coach, there are two skills that you will want to acquire or improve upon to get the most out of the process: learning to speak the language of structure and learning to frame (and ask!) useful coaching questions.

Becoming a story architect

It seems like common sense that a writer should be able to explain how he or she has built a story, but many very competent writers, even ones who have degrees in journalism or creative writing, struggle with this.

Writing a story that doesn’t fit the inverted-pyramid news style, and can’t be sliced into a series of tips or how-to points, requires a familiarity with the structure of narrative. Nonfiction writers have a number of sources they can tap to learn the lingo of fiction-like storytelling:

Coaching Writers by Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry devotes an entire chapter to building a structural vocabulary, explaining their take on terms such as “scene,” “characterization,” “cinematic reporting” and so forth.

Clark continues the structural education in Writing Tools, in which he devotes an entire section of the book to learning how to develop “blueprints” for your stories, with tips on how to use dialogue to advance the action, how to work from an outline or structural plan, etc.

The journalism program at the University of King’s College Halifax in Canada has a neat checklist page related to structure, which outlines a number of key elements to using narrative structure in nonfiction writing.

Why is learning structural language important if you’re self-coaching? Two reasons, really: one, if you do choose to discuss your work with another writer or an editor, you’ll be able to ask for feedback on the structure in a more precise way; and two, it will improve your understanding of how you build stories and allow you to rework stories in a way that preserves the integrity of the overall piece.

Questioning the answers

If I were to teach only one skill to would-be self-coaches, it would be the ability to frame relevant questions about their work. Questions outstrip criticism (even constructive criticism) in their power to improve a piece of writing because they draw the writer into the process of looking at their work from the outside, rather than placing them in the position of defending their choices (as often happens when our editor is in a “critic” mode).

There are three criteria for crafting coaching questions, whether aimed at one’s own writing or that of someone else.

  1. Coaching questions should be constructive. (e.g., “What other approaches did you consider for the lead?” not “Don’t you think leading with this quote is a little weak?”)
  2. Coaching questions should be aimed at generating insight. Again, the idea is to generate options and consider alternatives, not to spark a defensive battle about existing choices employed in the story. A good example of an insight-generating question might be, “What surprised you the most when you were researching this story?”
  3. Coaching questions should be forward looking. After answering a series of well-designed coaching questions, a writer should have some idea how to revise his or her work.

Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute has written a series of brief articles about framing excellent coaching questions. His “big 2,” applicable to just about every writing situation imaginable, are these:

  1. What works?
  2. What needs work?

His order on the big 2 list is also important. By starting with an inventory of your stories assets, it’s much easier to determine which of them you can use or retain as you work on the aspects of your story that aren’t quite there yet.

Putting the 2 Keys to Work

Once you’re able to sharpen your use of structural language when thinking or talking about your story and you are able to get in the habit of shaping useful coaching questions for yourself as you move through researching and writing your piece, it helps to have a framework from which to view the story-creation process itself. Just as learning the structure of story will make you a better writer, learning the structure of story-creation will make you a better self-coach and ultimately a better self-editor.

I’ve studied a number of models for coaching the writing process and developed a six-step model that I think covers the most important moments in the writing of any type of nonfiction piece, from a brief anecdote to a book-length manuscript. Next week, we’ll introduce this six-step coaching model, and discuss the first two parts of it—the assignment and the research phases—in depth.

Next Week: Self-coaching the assignment and story research phases

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