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.
This offer expires in 5 days.

Secrets of storytelling

Have you heard someone drone on and on?
They love their story and tell it again and again.
All of us want to be good storytellers, orally and in print.
If you retell a story, give it a fresh slant.
Share new lessons the experience taught you.
Make the lessons ones that will benefit your audience.

Here are tips from experts, courtesy of Elizabeth Bernstein.
Elizabeth writes for the Wall Street Journal.

  1. Make a point.
    This why you tell stories.
    You don’t have to state it but keep it in mind.
    I tell the story of how we started our 1st newspaper.
    The facts are the same but the way I tell it differs.
    And I draw different points in each telling.

2. Open dramatically.
You need a “James Bond opening.”
One of my favorites is one Charlie Farrell tells.
Charlie was a Marine fighter pilot.
His story is about his 1st landing on a carrier at sea.
The carrier deck looked like a postage stamp from above.
It is a white knuckle run.
Charlie makes you feel what he felt.

Paul Zak, who studies the neurobiology of storytelling, says:
• You must have reasons for us to want to read or listen.
• An exciting opening produces dopamine in our brains.
That helps to focus our readers’ attention.

3. Put flesh on your characters.
What are the people in your story like?
How did they act, feel and look?
Make readers care about your characters
Their brains will produce oxytocin, the bonding hormone.

4. Build tension.
Deepen your story. Create cliffhangers and surprise.
These give a reason to care about your characters.
It will engage them with your story.
When they are emotionally engaged, they bond with you.

5. Make personal disclosures.
Research shows that self-disclosure helps people bond.
But don’t exaggerate. It kills credibility.
You can make yourself the butt of the story.
Readers love those of us willing to show our vulnerability.

Final tip: If you’re retelling a story, admit it.
Research shows repetition makes you look inauthentic.
But if you admit it, it seems to make it all right.
Write or say, “One of my favorite stories is…”

Show rather than tell

Good morning,
Here we are again, thinking about improving our writing.
Today’s topic is geared to feature writing although it will work in news stories, too.

We talk a lot about storytelling in writing.
What we really mean is “Show your readers – don’t just tell them.”

Most of us are aware that it is more convincing to show something through action, behavior or dialogue than it is just to tell it.
Our ability and effort to show may determine if our readers think our story is realistic and that we are credible as storytellers.

This applies more to feature writing than traditional news reporting.
Yet it can be useful in both.

Here are 3 hints:

  1. Describe scenes with real people taking action or talking with each other.
    Let your readers hear what you hear and how you heard it – not only what they said but how they said it. Let them hear the noise of cities and the quiet of mountains and forests, the music of surf and wind.
  2. Let the reader experience what took place and how it made you feel.
    Take them inside the scene and inside yourself.
  3. Use concrete detail.
    Describe what happened as you saw it.

Relate strange places and people to places and people you and your readers both may know.
For example, show them an elderly man who “looked like Winston Churchill.”
Describe sunrise over a peak “like the Blue Ridge mountains.”

Bring your readers into the scene with you.
Think and write as if you were setting a scene in a work of fiction.

A fine reporter, Roger Beirne, was troubled after interviewing the mother of her son killed in combat.
His account told simply what he saw, the neighborhood where the family lived, the look of the house where the boy grewn up, how his mother appeared when she came to the door, what she told him about her son. It was a moving account.
Roger did not need to hype it up. He simply showed what took place.

During the Nazi bombing of London in 1940, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote:
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. They were not too far away.

Australian journalist Helen Garner opens her account of a murder-suicide:
It happened in broad daylight one April afternoon in 2015, while the ciitizens of Melbourne were peaceably going about their business.
A chef on her way to get a tattoo, was driving past Lake Gladman, a reedy, rock-edged wetland, when the blue Toyota SUV in front of her suddenly pulled off and stopped. As the chef drove by, she caught a glimpse of an African woman sitting huddled over the steering wheel with her face in her hands. Kids behind her were rioting. A little one was thrashing in his booster, a bigger one dangling off the back of the driver’s seat.
Minutes later, a passing teacher saw the Toyota “drive full bolt straight into the water.”

These highly dramatic examples show what is possible.
Your story may not be as dramatic as these.
Yet similar human energy is there in most stories.

Here is an example from our newspaper:
It all began with a phone call Chapin Town Councilman Al Koon made on Monday, June 25, to his friend Paul Kirby.
Kirby is editor and publisher of the online Lexington Ledger and a former firefighter and correspondent for the Chronicle.
“Al called me about noon to chat as we often do,” Paul said. “It was unusual for him to call me mid-day as we normally talk in the morning or when I am driving home.
“When Al’s speech changed as we talked, it did so quickly and dramatically. He was completely unintelligible and it was clear that something was very wrong.”

Try it in your next story,
Make us see, hear, even smell and feel what you are experiencing.

Writing tip: Do your darned homework

Research will pay off

Do your homework BEFORE interviews.
It’s vital. You walk in blind if you don’t.
You waste a lot of time asking dumb questions
your research would have already answered.
Here’s an example of what I mean.

John Maxwell could have been a reporter.
He was diligent in his preparation.
He read about his subjects and took notes.
In the age of Google this is easier than ever.
If you don’t research, it’s your own fault.

When he was here last year, John told a story.
He had admired John Wooden for years.
Wooden was an amazing man.
He coached basketball for over 40 years.
In that time, he had 1 losing season – his 1st.
His UCLA teams had 4 undefeated seasons.
They won 10 NCAA championships.
7 of them were in consecutive years.
It is a record that may never be equaled.

Maxwell and Wooden had a mutual friend.
The friend offered to introduce them.
In preparation for a breakfast meeting, John:

  1. Read everything he could find on Wooden.
  2. Read all of Wooden’s inspirational books.
  3. Filled a legal pad with questions.

They met at Wooden’s favorite coffee shop.
After breakfast, Wooden invited him to his home.
They talked throughout the day.
Maxwell said they got to half of his questions.
But as a result, they became friends.

Some of the people we cover aren’t famous.
We won’t find them on Google.
They are local people – just plain folks.
They have written no books for us to read.
But they do have friends we could seek out.

Here’s a story that illustrates this:
My friend Bruce Locklin was a tireless reporter.
We worked together at 3 different newspapers.
In investigating a corrupt lawyer, Bruce talked with:

  1. Lawyers who had opposed him in court.
  2. Judges he had pleaded cases before.
  3. Former clients who would talk with him.

After all that, Bruce called the lawyer.
The man was anxious to give his side.
He knew Bruce had done his homework.

Bruce took 2 recorders to the interview.
He made 2 tapes of the conversation.
He gave 1 tape to the lawyer.
That was Bruce’s sense of fair play.
The tapes also would back up the story.

You may not need this much preparation.
But it’s good to know how others do it.

PS. The above will be in a new 2019 book:
“The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing”
Please email a comment on these tips.
We will include it in the book.
My address is JerryBellune@yahoo.com

Writing Tip: Attention grabbers

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

All of us should write snappy openings.
It may be a news article or a letter.
Even a note to our kids.
Lets grab their attention and hold it.
Is that snappy enough?

Here’s why you should bother to do it:
Short, direct openings command attention.
We don’t want to put them to sleep.
Lets wake the old boys up.
They will thank us for it.

Here’s an example of how we should not write:
Florida’s protracted Senate election proceeded to a manual recount on Thursday, the next phase in an increasingly bitter and litigious fight, while Republicans declared victory anew in the race for governor.

That’s 30 words in a newspaper I enjoy.
It’s also one at which I sometimes cringe.

It could have read this way:
Florida’s drawn-out Senate election rolled to a manual recount Thursday.
It is the next step in an increasingly bitter and litigious fight.
The Republicans also declared victory in the race for governor.

A good rule of thumb to practice:
One thought per sentence.
The Wall Street Journal version had 3.

We aren’t dumbing down the writing.
We’re making it easy to understand.

Here are two examples of what we mean:
First the more traditional 10-word approach:
Two lawmakers wrangled over open public records last night.

There is nothing wrong with this version.
But here’s a snappier 4-word version:
The gloves are off.
A row between Sen. Joe Jones and Rep. Sam Smith erupted last night.

Here’s another example.
Traditional 13-word lead:
State lawmakers agreed yesterday 115-0 to open voting on bills affecting your taxes.

Snappy 3-word lead:
The taxpayers won.
In a 115-0 vote yesterday, state lawmakers agreed to open voting on bills affecting your taxes.
This was a victory for local lawmakers who pushed for open government.

If you’re into exercise, here’s one for you:
Pick at random one of your recent stories or letters.
Rewrite the opening.
Rewrite the opening again – differently.

I coached a magazine writer who wrote 15 openings to one story.
3 of them could have been prize winners.

Try for snappy leads of five words or less.
You’ll find it actually easier than it might seem.
You will even come to enjoy doing it.

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