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

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.

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.

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