A writing Christmas gift

Good morning, fellow ink-stained wretches.
Here’s a little early Christmas gift for you.

I love periods. They win my vote for the  greatest piece of punctuation ever invented.  They are the sliced bread of writing.

William Zinsser tells us in On Writing Well that most writers don’t reach the period soon enough.  “If you find yourself hopelessly mired in a long sentence,”  he writes, “it is probably because you are trying to make the sentence do more than it can reasonably do.”

One of my goals in everything I write is to use only periods. No other punctuation.  My readers like it. Your readers may not praise you but they will understand you.

Edit your own work ruthlessly.  Look for commas and other pieces of punctuation.  These tend to clutter your writing. Banish them from your sentences.  Turn dependent clauses into their own sentences.

Here’s an example of what I mean:
The world’s big oil producers, flush and powerful just months ago, said they would cut crude supplies by a record amount but found even that couldn’t stop prices from sliding to their lowest level in four years.

Count the words in that sentence.  Hint: There are 37. 

It is not a bad sentence.  Yet the commas set off a dependent clause that injects a separate thought and adds six more words and another idea for the readers to juggle in their minds. 

Here’s a way to solve that:
The world’s big oil producers were flush and powerful just months ago. They said they would cut crude supplies by a record amount. But they found even that couldn’t stop prices from sliding to their lowest level in four years.

Here’s another way to do it:
The world’s big oil producers cut crude supplies but found that didn’t stop a price slide to the lowest in four years.

Now you give it a try.  Pick a long sentence from one of your own stories. Be ruthless. Take a knife to it.

Here’s another exercise for you. Take a long sentence from a book, newspaper or magazine. Simplify and shorten it by removing commas. 

You can break long sentences into shorter ones  as we did in our first example.  Or simply take all the clutter out and streamline the sentence  as we did in the second example.

Want more clear writing tips? Order An Editor’s Guide to Compelling Writing. Email me for details at jerrybellune@yahoo.com

Storytellers think of readers

Good evening to you, my friend.

Yes, it is your ink-stained editor back to nudge you into writing better. Today we’re going to talk about your editing strategy.

When we lived in New York, we read all the daily papers but we had our favorite – the Herald Tribune.

I’m sorry the Herald Trib isn’t here today. You would love it.

The New York Times was an editor’s newspaper. It published reports from its far-flung correspondents around the world. 

It was authoritative. It took its news seriously.

The Herald Trib had a different strategy. It was a writers’ newspaper. It didn’t just report the news. It told it as a  story. 

Each story had a beginning, middle and end, like a three-act play. The characters – real people – came to life in its pages. 

It could be audacious, too. Its writers’ had opinions they were willing to share. They respected accuracy, fairness and truth. But they also told you the story behind the reporting and often what they thought about it. 

They digested the news for you. Analyzed it if it needed analyzing. They made it interesting and intriguing.

On Sunday mornings, I would walk down to the news stand and pick up the papers. Then my wife and I would divvy up the Herald Tribune and read it cover to cover. 

Only then would we turn to the Times and read it.

The Times had reporters. The Trib had storytellers.

I tell you this because you need to think about your own reporting, writing and editing strategies. 

Whether you write online, in print, on the air or some combination of them, what a dead newspaper and one that is on life support did has a message for us today.

It is about how we see readers and what they need and want.

I know who most of our readers are. I talk about it with our writers a lot. They may be bored with hearing me talk about readers but they are who we serve. 

Let’s serve them well.

Writing tip: Vision

Good morning to you, my friend.
Yes, it is your ink-stained editor back to nudge you into writing better.
Today we’re going to talk about vision.

Lloyd Huntington offered me an editing job because we shared a vision. I accepted his offer for the same reason.
Lloyd was editor of a morning and an afternoon newspaper.
This was back when people got most news from newspapers.

Amazingly, the two newspapers were not alike. The morning paper was authoritarian.It was a newspaper of wide influence in the state capital. It held its readers at arm’s length and told them what they needed to know.
The news it offered was important to influential people.
The afternoon newspaper was different.

It was lively, warm and told stories.
Lloyd had asked me what I thought of the two newspapers’ editing strategies.

Well, I said, if you want the truth, I said. Lloyd assured me that he did. Well, I said, if I could only read one, I would prefer the afternoon paper.
It was not only informative but entertaining.
I thought busy readers had short attention spans.
But they would read an interesting newspaper that seemed to care about them.

Lloyd’s face lit up like it was Christmas morning.
We talked for more than an hour about now dull newspapers could be enlivened.
We even talked about such basics s using “you” and “yours” in articles.
We talked about how to embrace readers.
How to show you cared about their concerns.
How to make sense for them of a complicated world.

Lloyd said the publisher didn’t care what he did with the afternoon newspaper.
The publisher was more concerned about the morning newspaper.
He wanted it to thunder.
He wanted it to be respected, even feared at the statehouse.
That was where the politicians divvied up the taxpayers’ money.

I had hoped Lloyd would offer me a job on the afternoon newspaper.
That was the kind of journalism I loved.

Of course, he didn’t. He wanted me on the morning newspaper as a co-conspirator. He wanted me to help warm up the morning newspaper and infuse it with stories.
Like thieves in the night, we set out to warm it up.
We would do as much as the publisher would let us get away with.

Lloyd had infused me with a sense of mission like no other editor had before.
That sense of mission and purpose has gone with my wife and me all these years.

We brought it into newsrooms where we have worked.
We brought it to editors and reporters it has been our privilege to coach.
I hope you are fortunate to work with editors like Lloyd.
Editors who come down off their lofty pedestals and tell it like it is.
If you don’t, I encourage you to find one.

Turn on the lights

How your words appear is more than a design issue.

Short words, sentences and paragraphs are inviting.

Our eyes are attracted to light.

White space in print or on your phone gives light.

White space gives you a psychological advantage, too.

Have you ever looked at dense text? Text like this:

Long, multi-syllable words, archaic and technical terms in long sentences with several dependent clauses and lots of commas and semi-colons and a single period in lengthy paragraphs with no life-saving breaks looks, feels and smells like something someone dragged up out of a sewer and you sniff it and “Ugh!” you say to the sewer dragger about the mess he has laid at your feet, “What in heaven’s name is this you are presenting me, and he says, “Well, it is the best I could do with the remains of Count Dracula; Isn’t that what you wanted?”

You get the idea.

Choose short and simple words,

Put them in short sentences.

Break sentences into short paragraphs.

English is a robust language.

It is easier reading when you give it white space.

White space like this.

Do you think I’m nuts to offer such ideas?

Have your own take on white space?

On simpler uses of a robust language?

Want to defend sewer dragging?

Or arcane abuses of language?

Email me. Please.

JerryBellune@yahoo.com

I’d love to hear from you.

Is ‘good enough’ good enough?

Do you think great writers dash out perfect first drafts?
Do you imagine they sit down and write a chapter a day?
That in only 4 or 5 weeks they have a book ready to go?
Then they toddle off to the south of France on royalties?
Watch bullfights in Spain? Climb the Himalayas?
What an amazing life that must be.
The great French crime novelist Georges Simenon did it.
He claimed he wrote novels in a fury in days, hardly sleeping.
He puffed black tobacco Gaulioses while he did it. 
His family demanded he have a checkup before starting one.
They feared he might keel over with a heart attack.

Frankly, I think his agent or publisher dreamed this up.
It made their best selling author seem larger than life.
Yes, myths help sell books.
We are all mortal – editors, reporters and novelists.
James Thurber admitted his first drafts were crap.
He had to rewrite them to get to a readable story.

Anne Lamott agrees from painful experience.
She struggled with a novel for more than two years.
She submitted it to her editor as her advance ran out.
She hoped to get the rest of her advance money.
Instead her editor suggested more rewrites.

You can read what she did in her book Bird by Bird.

The point is simply this:
First drafts of news or feature stories will be crappy.
Accept it. Live with it. But get it written.
Then, if you have time, leave it alone. Rewrite it later.
If it’s breaking news, do the best you can.
Nothing is ever perfect. Nothing ever will be.
Don’t let the need for perfection ruin your life.
Some times ‘good enough’ has to be good enough.

Did you find this helpful?
Do you have your own anguished first draft story. 
Email me st JerryBellune@yahoo.com
I’d love to read it and share it.

A plodder or a sprinter?

Good morning, fellow toiler in the writing vineyard,

We want to talk about speed vs. craft today.
Bill Fox would never brag about it but he was a sprinter.
Bill taught writing at Carolina and wrote stories and books.
You may recall Southern Fried and The Wild Blue Yonder,
Bill inspired many young writers.

He used to visit my Midlands Tech writing classes,
His formula began with turning your monitor to black.
You could not see what you were writing.
Just write the story that’s in your head in one sitting.
Then save it and walk away. Let it marinate.
Come back later when you can be analytical. 
Correct your typos. Kill your darlings.
Read it aloud. Rewrite it, Make your sentences sing. 

The first sprinter I worked with was our city editor.
He called me at the office at 12:30 one morning.
A cargo plane had crashed at the Air Force base.
Jim dictated a perfect 10-sentence story.
His story made the late city edition.
One day I will be able to do what he did, I hoped.
I learned to sprint. To dictate from the scene.

Bll Zinsser admitted he was a plodder.
His On Writing Well is one of our craft’s best books.
As I grow older, I have become a plodder, too.
I have to write the story in my head.
Decide where it begins and where it ends.
Write a sentence. Read it aloud.
Move the words around. Polish them. 
Read it aloud again. Then move on to the next sentence.

It does not matter if you are a sprinter or a plodder.
You will face times when you need to sprint.
Breaking news demands it. Learn to do it.
With the luxury of time, you can plod along.
Write. Rewrite. Polish. Make every word count.
Either way is right, depending on the time you have,

Are you a sprinter or a plodder?
What are your own thoughts about this?
Please write to me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

PS. I was plodding along on Compelling Writing Volume 1
It took more time than I suspected.
It will be available soon.

Hemingway’s 5 Writing Tips

After high school in 1917, Ernest Hemingway tried to join the army.
He was only 17. The army turned him down.
Through an uncle, he landed a job at the Kansas City Star.
Cub reporters were given a style sheet demanding:
Short sentences.
Short paragraphs.
Vigorous English.
Positive, not negative writing.
Eliminate all superfluous words.

Hemingway observed these rules in his novels.
His reporting shows an ability to convey scenes with sparse details.

“At the End of the Ambulance Run” begins:
The night ambulance attendants shuffled down the long, dark corridors at the General Hospital with an inert burden on the stretcher. They turned in at the receiving ward and lifted the unconscious man to the operating table. His hands were calloused. He was unkempt and ragged, a victim of a street brawl.No one knew who he was. A receipt bearing the name of George Anderson for $10 paid on a home out in a little Nebraska town served to identify him.
The surgeon opened the swollen eyelids. The eyes were turned to the left.
“A fracture on the left side of the skull,” he said to the attendants.
“Well, George, you’re not going to finish paying for that home of yours.”

Hemingway was famous for his terse, minimalist style.
He used few adjectives and got straight to the point.

He once told a story in only 6 words:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Why would you want to write like this? For starters, readers like it. Writing like this gets to the point. It respects readers’ time and busy lives.

Try it. You may like it.

To get more tips like this, email jerrybellune@yahoo.com about his upcoming book, Compelling Writing and to be added to his writing mailing list.

You can see past writing tips by clicking here.

Your Golden Hour of Discovery

Good writing requires good reading. 
Good writers read good writers. 
Think about what they did. 
How did they get their effects? 
What did they do to move you? 
Read them aloud. 
Listen to the pace and rhythm of their words.

Our colleague Roger Beirne used to retype poetry.
Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats and other poets he admired. 
“I want to feel how their words work,” he said.
Roger developed a lyrical style in his feature writing. 

Read good journalists.
The internet is a boon to all of us. 
We can access almost any newspaper or magazine in the world.
Concentrate on those that encourage good writing. 

Read magazines in print or on the internet.
Look for strong journalism, detailed reporting and vivid writing.

Read the novels of great writers. 
In translation, great writers in other languages teach style.    

Read the Bible. Most of the great writers of literature did.
Ernest Hemingway took book titles from Bible passages.
I prefer the original King James version.
The king’s translators had archaic but poetic styles. 
Choose the version you like from many translations. 
All have much to teach us about language.
Joan Beck of the Chicago Tribune says she reads the Bible every day.
“Those cadences get imprinted in your brain,” she said. 
“You tend to write in those kinds of patterns and rhythms.”

Read at least an hour a day. 
Not just duty reading. 
Devour your own and others’ newspapers and magazines.
Rise early and read for an hour while the rest of your household sleeps. 
Make them Golden Hours of Discovery. 
Note in the backs of your books the passages you may revisit.

Here is my suggested reading list:
Journalists: Joan Didion, James Agee, Hannah Arendt, Ernie Pyle, Russell Baker, Meyer Berger, Bob Greene, Jimmy Breslin, David Halberstam, Art Buchwald and John McPhee.

Masters of American literature and poetry: Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Annie Dillard, Robert Frost. Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. 

Modern fiction: Robert B. Parker’s Spencer novels for crisp dialogue, Stuart Woods for his fast-paced plots, and James Lee Burke for his imagery.

Specific Selections:
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. 
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
Growing Up by Russell Baker.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. 
Only in America by Harry Golden.
On the Road by Charles Kuralt (his TV scripts). 
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.

Did you enjoy learning from this?
There’s much more in Compelling Writing.
E-copies are available for $10.
Just email jerrybellune@yahoo.com

Sell stories to more readers

To attract readers, carefully choose your headline and lead sentence words.
Advertising copywriters like legendary Claude Hopkins measured response.
This helped them appeal to people who want or need what they offer.
The same principle holds true to news and sports writing.
To attract readers, entice them with your words.
The Washington Post has pulled this off by combining serious journalism with stories that appeal to the heart. A couple of examples:Orphaned boy moved to his grandparents’ home
Now the homeowners association would kick him out

After his parents died, teenager Collin Clabaugh moved to Prescott, Ariz., to live with his grandparents.

Police thought her husband died from a fall
Then his wife admitted to poisoning him

Lana Sue Clayton claimed that she didn’t mean to kill her husband when she poisoned his drinking water.
The Post uses classic 2-sentence headlines and alluring lead sentences. 
You can see why this technique attracts readers.

Here are a couple of examples of how we can do this.
There’s nothing wrong with the original headline and lead on our site.

The Original:

$1 million lottery ticket sold in Lexington
A Lexington Powerball player is holding a $1 million ticket. It was bought at the Stop N Shop at 1104 N. Lake Dr. in Lexington for Wednesday night’s drawing.
Read more

The Revised:

Do you have the $1 million lottery ticket?
Read on, you may be holding it

The state lottery winning $1 million ticket was bought at the Stop N Shop at 1104 N. Lake Dr. in Lexington for Wednesday night’s drawing.
 Check your ticket as the winning numbers are… 
Read more

The Original:

Dutch Fork hands Lexington boys 1st loss
Gilbert boys win 1st game of season

A 9-game winning streak in Region 5-5A ended Tuesday in Irmo for the Lexington boys’ basketball team. 
The Wildcats were defeated 45-38 by 7th ranked Dutch Fork. 
Read more

The Revised:

Lexington loses heartbreaker to Dutch Fork
Gilbert boys win their 1st game of season

Lexington’s 9-game Region 5-5A winning streak ended Tuesday in Irmo as 7th ranked Dutch Fork won 45-38. 
Read more  Choosing emotional words like “heartbreaker” and naming 3 schools in the 2-sentence headline will draw readers who are fans of all 3 teams.
Of course, we can do this with our print stories, too.

Give it a try. With practice, it becomes a natural way for you to write.

For more tips like this, write JerryBellune@yahoo.com

Pump up your prose

Are you old enough to remember Charles Atlas?
It was probably not the name his family gave him but an apt pseudonym for a man who marketed a muscle-building program he called “Dynamic Tension.”
Without weights or other traditional gym equipment, he turned his 90-pound weakling body into a model of muscular magnificence.
I tell you this story as a metaphor for what you might do with the words you choose, those you discard and the results you get.
With this small volume, you will be encouraged to be ruthless with your prose.
Here are several examples of how a few simple, muscular words can touch emotions and reveal visions far better than long passages, no matter how eloquent.
Martin Luther King, Jr., with a lifetime in the pulpit, used 4 words powerfully again and again during his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. As former Times of London editor Harold Evans wrote in Do I Make Myself Clear, Rev. King invoked the cadences of the Old and New Testaments, “I have a dream.”
Abraham Lincoln stirred listeners at the Gettysburg battlegrounds with words today’s Washington bureaucrats seem to have forgotten, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
While waiting for the isolationist United States to join World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill promised America and his own people, “We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire.” Then he finished a broadcast heard on both sides of the Atlantic and on Nazi radios, too, with 10 taut words of appeal to America: ”Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
This is not literary elegance. It is workmanlike. No tears/ No whining.
Not a single wasted word, Evans writes.
Can we pare down our words? You bet. Make your surviving words stronger by paring away weaker ones surrounding them.
Here is an example from a 31-word news story lead, written and edited by professionals at the Washington Post. They should have been mindful of the simple power of words from King, Lincoln and Churchill.
Newly released data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows a trend in pill distribution that, according to plaintiffs suing the drug industry, can’t be passed off as reasonable therapeutic medical treatment.
Still puzzling that one out? Me, too.
Here is what I suspect they meant to convey to their readers:
Physician pill-pushing can’t be passed off as reasonable pain relief.
That’s what Drug Enforcement Administration data shows and lawsuits against the drug industry claim.
2 paragraphs, 25 simple words, 5 beginning with the letter “p.”
The longest one, “Administration,” has 5 syllables and 14 letters. It was unavoidable in this case as it is in the proper name of the data’s source.
Look at your words. How many can you cut to strengthen the survivors?