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

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.

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.

Magical stories

Good morning, fellow toiler in the writing vineyard,
We want to talk today about magic in reporting and writing.
Do you remember the old Polaroid cameras?
How magical it was to watch the images emerge?
You may be old enough to recall photo darkrooms.
The thrill of images emerging in the developing tray.
That’s the way some stories happen. They emerge.

I recall covering a worship service at a small rural church.
The congregation was celebrating a victory over evil.
Vandals had wreaked havoc on their sanctuary,
With unpaid volunteers, they repaired the damage.

On the 30-minute drive, I imagined what the story might be.
I started writing it in my head. But that wasn’t the story.
From my vantage in a pew, the real story began to emerge.
I could see where it really began and where it really ended.
The story I had written mentally landed in the middle.

Anne Lamott had a similar experience.
She wrote about it in Bird by Bird, a book you should read.
At the Special Olympics, she met a self-described “cool man.”
He had Down’s syndrome yet starred in the basketball game.
She saw a girl on crutches inching toward the finish line.
Her story began to emerge but not about disability’s tragedy.
It emerged as a story about the joy of participation.

My point is this: It’s OK to think about what a story may be.
But be open to the experience. Let the real story emerge.
It will be magical. It will almost write itself.

Have you experienced such magic in reporting and writing?
What are your own thoughts about this?
Please write to me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com
I would love to share your experience with others.

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.

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

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?

Find the shattering moment

I once thought there was a story in everyone. 
Silly me. But I still believe it.
All of us have moments of triumph and tragedy.
It’s what life is about – one test after another.

Once I thought I had met my match.
A good friend of ours called with a story suggestion.
One of his employees was retiring.
Would a feature story about her interest our readers?
He gave me her name and phone number.

We sat down in her living room.
I asked her the 20 questions I often ask.
(For all 20 questions, email me.)
I started with softball ones, then harder ones.
She blew me off. 
Her life had been tranquil, she said.

Bull, I thought, and asked:
1. What is the worst thing to happen to you?
2. What do you most regret about your life?
4. If you could redo anything, what would it be?

She was evasive. She shook her head.
No worst moments, no regrets, nothing to redo.
I finally left without a story.
She had a story. She just didn’t want to share it.

Interviews aren’t always disasters.
A reader recommended interviewing a friend of hers.
I called and arranged a meeting.
We sat down in her garden and talked.
She, too, was evasive about her own life tests.

I finally asked the biggie;
“What was the worst thing to happen to you?”
She was silent but I could see it in her eyes.
The videotape was running in her mind.

“It was about this time 12 years ago,” she said.
“My husband was across the road on his tractor.
“It was growing dark and he was heading home.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw headlights.
“My husband did not see them.”
That night a truck hit and killed him.

We talked about what it had been like for her.
How it changed her life, left her feeling abandoned.
She seemed relieved to be able to talk about it.
Tragic as it was, she gave me a story people would read.
They could relate to it. All of us lose loved ones.

Am I only looking for tragedies in life?
No. Readers love stories of triumph, too.
Particularly if the odds of success are slim.
What makes good stories are these 2 elements.
Without them, we don’t have much of a story.

Suspense writer James Scott Bell preaches this:
“A short story is about one shattering moment.”
He’s not just talking about fiction.
Stories of life’s shattering moments are powerful.

His theory works in newspaper feature stories.
“The characters will never be the same.
“Life for them has been ineluctably altered. 
“That’s what a shattering moment does.”

My recommendation is to find those moments.
They come in tragic as well triumphant form.
Give your readers a story that will move them.

Did you like this writing tip?
Here’s another: Order a copy of my new book:
“The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.”
It’s filled with tips to help you write better.
Email me at jerrybellune@yahoo.com and I’ll notify you when it’s available.

Properly pacing your prose

What did popular newspaper advice columnist Ann Landers and World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle have in common with journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway and journalist-turned-politician Winston Churchill? She, like they, wrote an average sentence length of 15 words.
Here is her reply to a philandering husband who asked advice on changing wives and merging families:
Time wounds all heels—and you’ll get yours. There are five children involved in your little racetrack romance. Don’t be surprised if you wake up and wish you had your wife and sons back. You are flirting with a muddy track on Black Friday and, the way you’re headed, you will get exactly what you deserve.
Ann wrote four no-nonsense sentences of 56 words. Her longest was 22 unsparing words. She averaged 14 words a sentence.
Here is a brief example of Hemingway at work:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving in the courtyard. It rained hard.
Four sentences, 41 words, 10.25 words a sentence.
Note the absence of commas or other forms of punctuation. Only periods. Not all of Hemingway’s writing is this staccato. But he sought an effect. 
Here is a brief example from Winston Churchill:
It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is an admirable work and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts.
3 sentences averaging 12.3 words. No commas. Only periods.
Here is Ernie Pyle’s moving account of the death of infantry company commander, Capt. Henry Waskow:
The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.
Four sentences, 60 words, 15 a sentence.
Here one of mine in covering a blizzard that trapped hundreds of families in the mountains of western North Carolina.
They could hear the whir of helicopter blades. It came over the ridgeline and hovered over the house. A soldier in parka and boots was lowered with a metal stretcher. His sons helped their crippled father into the stretcher. Then the copter pilot winched them up and soared off into a chill blue sky. 
Five sentences, 55 words, average 11 words a sentence.
Try it. It takes work to pare your sentences down. But the more you do it, the more you are conscious of it. You will begin automatically to pare down your sentences as you write them.
Your readers will love you for it.

My “Little Red Book on Compelling Writing” gives you inspiring tips such as this to enrich your own writing.
For a $9.99 electronic copy for only $4.99, please call Katie with your credit card at 803-359-7633, Monday – Friday, 9 am – 4 pm, or email me at JerryBellune@gmail.com.
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