Writing tip: Tell it to Mom

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

4 words can make a huge difference.
When you write, do it like …
… you’re telling it to Mom.

One of our writers had a good story.
She just wasn’t sure how to present it.
She had spent two hours with owners of:
• A “perfectly” restored 218-year-old house.
• 3,000 square foot barn converted to a home.

As her editor, my advice was simple.
Write as if you were telling it to Mom.

Many of us have writing problems.
Me, too, and after all these years.
Writing conversationally is the key.

As fact gatherers, we write like fact gatherers.
The fire that killed 5 comes across as cold.
It reads like a government report.
It needs to be, pardon the expression, warmed up.
It need to be about the lost people, not just the fire.

Some years ago, my son and I visited a friend.
George James had worked with me earlier.
George was a fine writer who cared about people.
He was working at the time as a crime reporter.

He filed a story about a fire with his editors at the NY Times.
The Times prides itself on being a newspaper of record.
It falls a bit short about being a newspaper about people.

George had just written an account of a fire that killed 5 people.
He showed us a printout he sent to the city desk.
It read like a police incident report.
Its 47 words contained who, what, when, where and how.

“George,” I said, “this doesn’t read like your work.”
He nodded and produced another printout
“Here’s what I originally sent,” he said.

It began: “Samuel ___ collected people and furniture.”
It talk about the owner of the building.
It told who else lived and died there.
George had talked with neighbors.
He found the owner furnished it with Salvation Army stuff.
He rented to people who could not afford to pay him.
They weren’t evicted. Samuel ___ had a heart.

The version the city desk rejected was a human story.
We asked George why he would work for such editors.
They obviously had tin ears . . . and no hearts.
“It’s THE New York Times,” he said.
“They usually accept what I write.”
“They pay well, too.”

“Tell it to Mom” is a technique we teach our writers.
It doesn’t have to be a news article.
It could be a sales letter or an advertisement.
The principle applies to whatever you may write.
Make it about people and tell it to Mom.

Think about this:
If you told Mom the story, what would you say?
Would you say “The owner and 4 homeless people were killed in an suspicious apartment house fire in lower Manhattan late Monday night”?
Probably not although that’s what most editors expect.

But you wouldn’t write that if you knew about:
• The big-hearted owner of the building.
• His 4 tenants who could not afford to pay rent.
You might tell Mom something like this:
“Mom, this guy Samuel ___ had a big heart.
“He let people live in his apartment building.
“That was even if they couldn’t pay him rent.
“In a fire last night, he and 4 of them died.”

Tell it to Mom and you can tell it to the world.

Here’s an exercise for you journalists:
Take a news article you have written.
Rewrite it as you would tell it to Mom.
Then boil down the conversational version.
Write short sentences with powerful verbs.
Make Mom see and hear what you saw and heard.

Here another one for you:
Imagine someone from Mars has arrived on earth.
She knows little about us but understands English.
What would she make of your prose?
Could she understand what you writing about?

This helps avoid jargon from police, politicians and others.
They talk in a special code we have learned.
Most of our readers don’t understand it.
Translate. Keep it simple. Help them understand.
By all means, tell it to Mom.

Writing tip – Talk with your readers

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

Your relationship with your readers can be as fragile as friendship.
Think of your readers as friends.
Get to know them, their joys and sorrows.

How do you do that?
They are your neighbors.
People you meet standing in line.
Listen to them wherever you meet them.

My bride sometimes gets frustrated with me.
I will stop and talk with anyone.
I interview servers, clerks, cashiers.
I ask about what they do and if they like doing it.
I ask why they do it.
What they else they might do in their busy lives.

Almost everyone you talk with feels complimented.
Here is someone who even cares to ask about them.
So few people receive appreciation or recognition in life.
Then you come along and show an interest in them.
Of course, they are pleased.

When we started publishing small newspapers, I sold advertising.
My journalistic experience came in handy.
I was used to interviewing people.
I started interviewing advertising prospects.
“How did you get into this business?” I would ask.
They were good for at least 20 minutes on this.
The next question was, “What do you love about it?”

Small town editors sit on the cutting edge.
Anyone can walk into their office or call them.
If they are smart, they are receptive to this.
That’s how you find out what’s on their minds.
It’s how you find out what people are talking about.
What matters to them. Plus the latest gossip.

Big city editors are protected by security guards and assistants.
They live in gated suburban communities far from readers.
They send their kids to private schools.
They associate with others like themselves.
They have become elites with little notion of their readers’ lives.

Living in a small town is like living in a fishbowl.
As an editor, people watch what I do.
It keeps me honest.
It also tells me what no pollster could ever know.
My readers are in my mind when I write.
What will each story mean to them?
How I can tell it to be clear to them, relate to them.
Storytelling and journalism come together.

Talk with, not at, your readers.
Help them see what you see.
Help them hear what you hear.
Help them feel what you feel.

Here is an example of what I mean:

Imagine you are a long-haul trucker hundreds of miles from home.
Bleary-eyed, you pull into a truck stop.
You need a break, coffee and something to eat.
Rested you return to your rig.
An attractive young woman walks up and makes you an offer.
Chances are she didn’t do it because you’re a hunk.
She’s being human trafficked by a pimp sitting in a nearby car.
He lives on the illegal dollars she brings him.

You get the idea. Try it yourself.

Have a writing problem you struggle with?
Please let me know. We’ll solve it together.

Writing tip: Be original

Good morning, fellow scribblers.
Being original, one of our writers – author and journalist Tom Poland – says is hard work.
You bet. It’s hard thinking, too.
Writers who use trite phrases and reader-wearying cliches are lazy thinkers and worse writers.
Our son Mark and I were watching a college football game on TV the other Saturday.
We started counting the sports cliches spewing from the play-by-play guy and the color commentator. On one play alone, Mark counted six cliches.
We suspected the two thought they were doing a great job.
These crafty little critters creep into our writing if we’re not paying attention,
Words and phrases that turn us off are worn smoother than an old saddle.
The first few times they were used was OK.
After that, nothing, nada.
We have become “attention deficit” to these “thoughtless writer” sins.
The biggest problem with cliches for writers is that they are like radio jingles.
They stick in our minds and it’s hard to get them out.
You probably remember jingles you first heard as a child.
Cliches are like that.
They have become familiar with use.
They’ve lost their magic, writer Drayton Bird says. Our minds glide over them.
You see it too often in poorly-written advertising.
Almost all advertisers are passionate about their offers.
They are even more passionate about making sales.
Here are a few cliches worth avoiding like a sore throat:
• A chip off the old block
• A clean slate
• A dark and stormy night
• A far cry
• A fine kettle of fish
• They came to play
The “Be a Better Writer” web site has a list of 681 of them.
If you are suffering from insomnia, go there.
I guarantee you will fall asleep in under 12.5 seconds.
Please feel free to share these tips with fellow scribblers.
They’re from my new book “The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.”
If you would like me to include your comment in the book on the value you find in these tips, email 25 to 50 words to me at jerrybellune@yahoo.com

Writing Tip: Load your gun belt

Good morning, fellow scribblers.
We’re going to discuss bullets today.
The bullets we’re talking about are the list building kind, not the lethal kind.
They are handy devices to help our readers survive a sea churning with details.
They separate items rather than making your reader wade through complexity.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
The mayor said she has fooled her detractors and been diagnosed with a brain tumor, that her doctors have prescribed an initial treatment of chemotherapy, and that she is optimistic about her chances of beating the disease and her opponent Nov. 6.
Instead, a compelling writer would have written:
The mayor said:
• She has fooled her detractors and been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
• Her doctors have prescribed chemotherapy.
• She is optimistic that she will beat the disease and her opponent Nov. 6.
Without bullets to ease our readers through the thicket of the mayor’s syntax, they might become lost and never found again.
Such confounded writing is the bane of those who must wade through academic and scientific papers. We should not make them continue to slog through our own prose in newspapers, magazines and correspondence.
Look for ways to use bullets in your own writing and seize them as if pure gold.
Next week: Those crafty cliches that creep into our writing,
If you want a sneak peek at “The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing” due out next spring, email me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

Writing tip: Grow big ears

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

Do you have big ears? I hope so.
No, I don’t mean ears like our redbone hound Gypsy has.
I mean big as in “attentive” ears.

My longtime friend and fellow editor Bruce Locklin encouraged his reporters to bring what he called the “Big Ears, Big Eyes” approach to reporting.
Any writer can and should use a similar approach.
It doesn’t matter if it’s only a letter to Mom,’
You can even do it in a resignation letter to the Boss From Hell.

By Big Ears & Eyes, Bruce meant to paint pictures for your readers.
Put them in the scene. Let them hear people talking. Let them see what’s going on.
Novelists, fiction writers and top flight newspaper and magazine writers do it.
TV does it with a camera. We can do it with words on paper, online and now video.

During the Vietnam War, one of our best reporters, Roger Bierne, had the sad assignment of interviewing the mother of a young soldier who had been killed.
Roger knew the young man’s mother might welcome a chance to talk about her son.
If not, he would apologize and ask her for just enough detail to give our readers an idea of his loss to her and our community.
As luck would have it, the mother was a strong woman who loved her son and welcome an opportunity to talk about his virtues – and his foibles.

Roger came back to the office with pages of notes.
She had shared anecdotes about her son growing up, falling out of trees, getting sent to the principal’s office, trying out for football, nervously asking a girl to the prom.
These are all the ingredients of a young man’s life growing up in America — and a compelling story for our readers.

Roger was not a fast writer. He was a poet at heart and agonized over each word.
As they talked in the mother’s living room, her younger son was just outside in the drive bouncing a basketball. He kept bouncing and bouncing it.
“He’s frustrated,” his mother said. “He admired his brother. This is hard for him.”

Roger’s painfully but beautifully crafted story used the “thump, thump, thump” of the basketball as a rhythmic break throughout his story.
He put his readers in her living room, listening to her spin her stories about her son and hearing the thump of the basketball in the drive.

In early September 1040, 14 months before Pearl Harnor, reporter Ernie Pyne was in London. Here is what he wrote for his readers back home on the Nazi bombings:

“They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.
“Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart.”

As you tune up your Big Ears and Eyes, you will have opportunities such as Roger and Ernie had. You might not have noticed those opportunities before.

In your reading, watch for examples of Big Ears and Eyes reporting and writing by others. Some great ones to read are the collected World War II reporting of Ernie Pyle, the “On the Road” reporting of Charles Kuralt and the travel writing of Mark Twain (“Roughing It” and “The Innocents Abroad”), John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charlie” and William (Last Heat Moon) Trogden’s “Blue Highways.”

Note: These tips will be published in a book next spring. If you care to send 25 to 50 words about the value you find in them, they will be included in the book and you will receive your own personal copy. Email me at Jerrybellune@yahoo.com