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.

Be obnoxiously friendly

Pat Conroy loved to show visitors around Fripp Island.
He lived on the SC island at the end of US 17.
One visitor was his New Yorker father in law.
Pat waved and spoke to all his neighbors.
He knew all of them by name.
His father in law was amazed by this camaraderie.
Most Yankees are surprised by our friendliness.
“Pat,” he asked, “are you running for mayor?”

The late novelist loved to tell this story on himself.
He called himself “obnoxiously friendly.”
He bowled over fellow writer Cassandra King.
The first time they met, he grilled her about herself.
Cassandra admitted she is “extremely private.” 
But she said she “fell under his spell.”
She ended up marrying Pat.

Pat, she said, quizzed readers at book signings.
He wanted to know about them, hear their stories.
Of course, his readers loved his attention.
Many of their stories ended up in his books.

You’ve already figured out why I’m telling you this.
Being obnoxiously friendly is a great writer strategy.
People are hungry for appreciation and recognition.
They get too little of it at home or at work.

When we show interest, they open like flowers.
Sincere interest in someone is a compliment.

My wife says I “interview” strangers. 
She’s right. I do. 
It’s more than just a journalistic skill.
I’m interested in others.
I hear about their frustrations and problems.
Their likes, loves, triumphs and victories.

It takes little prompting from me.
Strangers enrich my life with their stories.
You’re smart. Let them enrich yours, too.

You will love The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.
It’s full of stories like the one on Pat Conroy.
A $20 advance order is a great investment.
We will have a printed copy to you in a few weeks.
For advance orders only we’ll pay the $4 shipping.

To advance order a copy you can:
1. Call Katie at 803-359-7633.
2. Email me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

Anecdotal lede: Watch for mushroom clouds

I confess to being an advocate of storytelling.
I also favor the anecdotal lede – with caution.
I once taught this to my Seton Hall students, tongue in cheek.
The story is about a Russian nuclear attack:

Mary Jones went to retrieve the morning paper and guess what?
A giant mushroom cloud hung over her neighborhood.
She wondered if it was going to rain.

You may have to overlook my warped sense of humor.

Our friend Denny Hatch is an ace copywriter.
He cautions us to use this technique with grace and style. 
He certainly doesn’t want us to beat it into chopped liver.

“Your 1st 10 words are more important than the next 10,000,” he writes.
“All writers are in the business of selling. 
“Your single objective is to sell the reader in going on to the next sentence, next paragraph, all the way to the end.” 
This is true of every literary form – letter, article or advertisement. 

“The place to start selling is the lede
“What’s a lede
“The introduction to a news article, the first sentence. 
“The ‘lede’ is a deliberate misspelling of ‘lead.’ 
When printing was done with lead type, it prevented confusion.
The lede not only tells what the story is about.
It invites the reader to read further.

Denny believes many of us start by:
• Clearing our throats.
• Rolling up our sleeves.
• Rubbing our hands together.
By then our poor readers have already gone on to Page 2. 
Create a lousy lede and chances are the reader will go no further.

In “Capitol Weekly,” Will Shuck wrote:
“I am sick to death of the anecdotal lede, that annoying habit of news writers to start a straightforward story by painting a quaint little picture.
“If the story is about a bill requiring pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs (just to pick an imaginary example), the anecdotal lead first tells us how much Janey Johnson loves Missy, her cocker spaniel.
“No doubt Janey and Missy are a lovely pair, but a lot of us have jobs and kids and commutes and precious little time to muse about Missy’s reproductive potential.”

My humble advice is to use the anecdotal lede when it makes sense.
Have an exceptionally good one to open your story.
Take a hint from that fabled novelist Snoopy.
He always opened with “It was a dark and stormy night …”
Mine might open with an early morning mushroom cloud.
Pick your own poison.

Advance orders for my $19.99 “Little Red Book of Compelling Writing” are going at a $10 discount – only $9.99.
Get your order in for the eBook today. It will be out in July.
Call Katie at 803-359-7633 or email me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

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…”

What should your obit reveal?

What should your obit reveal?

My Seton Hall University reporting students’ 1st writing exercise was simple:

Write a 250-word obituary you would want read at your funeral.

Bear in mind that it will appear in the local newspaper, too.

Your loved ones will read it and smile.

“He (or she) was sui generis,” they will say.

If you don’t know what sui generis means, look it up.

None of my students had the audacity of Thomas Mathews.

His sui generis obit was submitted by a funeral home to our local daily:

It prompted my wife to ask, “Why don’t we get obits like this for our newspaper?”

Thomas A. Mathews, 51, passed away on Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2019, from total heartbreak due to a severe case of Dallas Cowboys Fan Syndrome.
Thomas was born July 6, 1967, in Washington and traveled around the world throughout his childhood while his father served this great country.
He settled down in South Carolina where he worked as a Corrections Officer at multiple prisons around the state.
He worked part-time as a bartender while competing in local billiard leagues and enjoyed the misery his Dallas Cowboys brought him on Sundays.

Mathews’ obituary inspired me to write this.

I asked my wife to use it when I pass on to that great newsroom in the sky.

Much-feared newspaper editor dies.
After he lost his hair, many elected officials wondered where Jerry Bellune hid his horns.
Utility executives, corrupt politicians
and other miscreants wondered the same thing.
Two of his life’s great tragedies were being a Carolina Gamecocks and Philadelphia Eagles fan.

No sentences longer than 15 words. Short and to the point.

Here’s this month’s challenge for you:

Write your own obituary.

Show you have a sense of humor.

Make it light.

Give your readers a laugh or 2 among the otherwise grim data about your life.

Send me a copy and I will share it with others.

All of us could use a good laugh in these politically-dark days.

If yours makes me laugh, I’ll send you a complimentary copy of my new book.

It’s called “The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.”

It has a few laughs in it, too.

Make Me See

The grey sea and the long black land 
and the yellow half-moon large and low. 
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep.

That’s how poet Robert Browning set the stage
in his poem about young lovers “Meeting at Night.”
You can see what he was seeing.

Editor Gene Roberts tells how his first editor,
a blind man in Goldsboro, N.C. had to have his wife
read him the newspaper each day.
He insisted to all his reporters “make me see” what they had seen.
Among his other duties, Gene covered farming.
His editor insisted that he close his column each week
with “This Week’s Prettiest Sight.”

Gene didn’t like doing it.
His friends kidded him about it.
But the experience and discipline
of doing it made him a keen observer.
That skill led to success at
The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

All good writing, said Saul Pett,
one of the Associated Press’s great stylists,
is two sides of the same coin.
How is this man different from me?
How are we alike?

Does the richest man in the world
have everything he wants?
Does he bother with the prices on a menu?
Or on a yacht?

Tell me the large and tell me the small.
Identify with me. Plug into my circuit.
The eye of the writer is sharper than
the television camera because it is
linked to a brain and a heart.

Here is how award-winning reporter David Waters
of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.,
helped his readers see his subject:

Big Teddy Carr was big enough to have his way
and bad enough to lose it.
Kids made fun of his size until he found out
his size could put a stop to that.
Teddy’s bearlike stature was a source of shame.
Then it become a source of income, mostly illegal.

Journalist Jimmy Breslin wrote of 
the Dublin poet Patrick Kavanaugh:
His tie is loose and the long end thrown over his shoulder. 
He had on two pairs of eyeglasses. 
Both sat cockeyed and were steamed up in the hot pub. 
He sat hunched over in his rumpled overcoat 
with his arms folded and the pint of stout in front of him. 
His shoes were open and the laces caught under the soles.
Breslin makes us see Kavanaugh. 

Here’s an exercise if you’re game.
Write a description of every thing
and every person you can see
from where you are.
Now get up and move around the room.
Add anything else you noted that you
could not see from your desk.

This tip will appear in “The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.”
If you like me to include a comment from you about these tips,
please email it to me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

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: Memorable thank you notes

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

This week’s tip will be unusual 
but appropriate for the 
winter gift-giving season.

Some of our friends put me
to shame. They are ardent
thank-you note writers.
They don’t write by email or
anything looking like a form letter.
Their notes are hand written and
ring of personal authenticity.

I suspect you will need to write
several such notes this month.
This is an almost lost art.
Here are a few tips to help.
At the end of this tip you will find
a masterfully-written example.

1. Use no fancy words. 
You’re not trying to impress. 
Write the way you speak. 
That’s the real you.

2. Write them by hand.
Make sure they are legible. 
No chicken scratching.

3. Be specific. 
Say what you are grateful for.
Use such words as:
Thank you for the …
I am grateful for …
I appreciate the …

4. Tell how they made you feel. 
A few examples:
• You made me feel like part of 
your family during our visit.
• Thanks for sharing your delicious 
cheesecake recipe. It will make me
the envy of all my friends.

5. Close with an old-fashion hug. 
Write something like this:
• Affectionately (and your name)
• Love from your best friend ….
• Fondly as always …

I promised you an example. 
Here’s a small masterpiece of thanks 
as well as of apology. 
It was written by the late President Bush
to a military mother.

Dear Mrs. McGrath, 
Your thoughtful son, Bryan, wrote me a very nice letter 
about you and it appears that I owe you an apology. 
Bryan tells me that during the Gulf War 
when he was serving on the USS Thomas S. Gates,
you wrote me a letter of support which was never acknowledged. 

Belated though this is, I want to, first, apologize for not having written 
to thank you for your letter. I have boundless respect
for the men and women of our Armed Forces.
I was so proud of their professionalism and commitment to duty. 
You must be so proud of your Navy son. 
As a former Navy man myself, I share your pride.

I hope you forgive me, Mrs. McGrath, for not having written sooner. 
Just know that this former Commander-in-Chief, now a happy private citizen, appreciates your family’s patriotism and support.
Sincerely, George Bush

Your thank you letters do not have to be
as eloquent as the late President was.
But they should be simple and sincere. 
They should come from your heart.
Write the kind of thank you notes 
that you would want to receive.

All of us at the Chronicle wish you a memorable holiday.

PS. Our publisher has advised that we are 
burdening our readers and our colleagues 
with too many weekly writing tips. 
Realizing the learning curve is steep, 
I will give you a break between tips 
to let you catch your breath.

This will be your last writing tip in December. 
Watch for your next one in January.

PPS. If you have not yet ordered your copy of 
“Maverick Entrepreneurs’ Million Dollar Strategies,”
now is the time to do it. 
The books make great Christmas or New Year gifts 
for clients, colleagues and friends in business. 
They are a modest $20 each.

The books are to arrive from the printer this week. 
Get your order in by credit card and I will personally
autograph it and pay the $3.95 postage. 
Just call Katie or me at 803-359-7633.

What we can learn from weather forecasters

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

This may sound like a weird formula for
successful writing and communication but
think about what TV weather forecasters do:

In a 90-second forecast they:
1. Explain what will happen.
2. Compare it to what has happened.
3. Advise what you can do about it.
4. Use visual aids to help them.

90 seconds isn’t a lot of time.
It’s 225 words to the rest of us
That’s 9″ of type in many newspapers.
It’s 75% of a written letter page.
It’s 9 times longer than a classified ad.
And a classified ad must sell something.

TV forecasters know they talk to:
1. General viewers who don’t want much.
Will it be hot, cold or rainy tomorrow?
That’s all they’re interested in.
2. Weather freaks who want everything.
They are addicted to it.
3. Fellow experts and climatologists.
These people know if they fake it.
They must satisfy all 3 groups.

Let’s apply that to what we do.

Our readers are the ones who:
1. Want to know what happened.
How does it affect my life?
What should I do if it does?
2. Are news junkies.
They are addicted to news.
They read us cover to cover.
3. Those in the story.
They know what happened.
Or they think they do.
They are checking our accuracy.

Here’s a checklist you might
post beside your computer:

1. How does what I’m writing
affect or interest my readers?
Does it affect their taxes or costs?
Does it affect their family?
Does it affect their well being?

2. How does it affect those involved?
And what can they do about it?

3. Is it factually accurate?
Did we quote sources right?
If we paraphrase what they said,
does it reflect what they meant?

4, How can we illustrate this
with photos, maps, charts, etc.?
Will this improve our readers’
understanding or interest?

You will find tips like this
and others in our new
“Little Red Book of
Compelling Writing.”

Send me 75 to 100 words
about the value of these tips
and we will include them
in the book next spring.