Writing Tip: Tune up your senses

Good afternoon, fellow ink-stained wretches.
Here’s a little New Year’s gift for you.

Daily life rends to dull our senses.
It should tune them up.

How often have you driven a familiar route on auto-pilot?
You go this way so often you barely pay attention.
Even veteran reporters and writers occasionally tune out.

Bob Greene makes us look at daily life differently.
Bob is a Chicago journalist and bestselling author
He was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room.
That’s a good place to read old magazines or take naps.

While waiting, Bob turned on his Big Eyes and Big Ears.
He saw a woman and her aging father sitting together.
She showed an old magazine to her father.

“Do you know who this is, Dad?” she asked.
Her father studied the cover and said, “He’s an actor.”
“That’s right,” she said with unmistakable relief.

Her tone will be familiar to those who care for aged parents.
They worry about what years do to those who raised them.

“Do you know which actor?” she asked, hope in her voice.
He did not reply though the name was on the cover.
“Brad Pitt,” the daughter said. “They’re getting divorced.”
The cover story was about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The magazine reported their marriage was on the rocks.

The magazine was old.
The couple separated in 2016.
“That’s right,” the father said. “Brad Pitt. I know him.”

His daughter was checking on her dad’s memory.
It was a delicate way to check his recall.
Brad Pitt had no idea how his likeness was used.
Yet he was part of something precious and profound.
His face helped a daughter check up on her dad.
She had improvised a mental diagnostic tool.

She smiled at her father and took his hand.
Then they rose and went in to see his doctor.

Had Bob Green been napping, he would have missed this.
He watched an intimate moment between two people.
He knew neither of them and may never see them again
But he wrote to share with us a profound moment.

That’s what keen observation can give us.
I hope Bob’s story touched you as it did me.
You can witness such magic, too.
Just open your eyes and stay tuned in.

Want more of such clear writing tips.
Order An Editor’s Guide to Compelling Writing.
It’s $9.99 by writing JerryBellune@yahoo.com

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

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.

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.

Writing tip: Dazzle us

Good morning, fellow toilers in the writing vineyard.

Alliteration and assonance should be in every writers’ kit.
That’s particularly true for those of us desiring to dazzle readers.

Merriam Webster defines alliteration as similar sounds in words or syllables.
The sounds are often the first letters or sounds.
“Seven sisters” or “both brothers.”

Alliteration is common in poetry, songs, speeches.
Even journalism. 

Some phrases were once wonderful when first used.
They include:
“pretty as a picture” 
“dead as a doornail”
“wild and woolly”
“babbling brook” 

Now they have become trite.
We should think more originally.

Similarly, assonance is the repetition of stressed vowel sounds.
Examples are “quite like” and “quite right.”
“Free as a breeze” and “high as a kite” owe their appeal to assonance.

Gerard Baker got away with this small masterpiece of overstatement:
Mark Zuckerberg’s headlong fall from epoch-shaping, world-connecting, community-building billionaire to monopoly-protecting, hate-speech-promoting, election-rigging avatar of evil … shows no sign of abating.

Baker was clearly having fun with this sentence in The Wall Street Journal.
What we may be reading, however, could be a slimmer version of his first draft.
His editors could have been humoring the old bird as their former editor.

Or they may have deferred to him for his many years in the trenches.

At the Chronicle, you know what a martinet I am.
We take no prisoners,
Think originally – and dazzle us with alliteration and assonance.

Oh, by the way, do you have your copy of our Guide to Compelling Writing?

It’s still available in its electronic version for only $9.99.

Order yours today at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

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

You are what you read

My wife and I used to pore over out-of-town newspapers.

We went over them like scholars with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We would compare how other:

1. Reporters handled the same story.

2. Editors played those stories. 

We learned a lot from the way they:

1. Edited the stories.

2. Wrote headlines to capture their readers’ attention.
Those were pre-internet days. It is much simpler for any of us to do it now. Just go online and see what the competition is up to. You’ll learn a great deal.

Here is how three reporters handled one story.

It was on the latest female sexual dysfunction version of Viagra.
• CNN, the cable news network, took a traditional approach:
A drug aimed at helping women who’ve lost their sex drive cleared a key hurdle Thursday, winning backing from a Food and Drug Administration panel. (25 words)
• The Los Angeles Times started more conversationally:
This doesn’t sound sexy but trust me it is. (9 words)
• The Wall Street Journal posed a question:
Will there finally be a Viagra for women? (8 words)
Consider these three approaches.

How might you have handled the same news?

What can you learn from the three reporters’ versions?
One of my competitors was a former short-order cook. He told me he taught himself by rewriting newspaper stories.

He was a highly-motivated competitor.

He didn’t want to spend his life in front of a hot grill. His example inspired me. I tried what he had done.

It made me a better reporter and writer.

Next: The Golden Hour of Discovery.
Did you enjoy learning from this?

There’s much more in Compelling Writing.

E-copies are available for $10. Just email jerrybellune@yahoo.com.