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

You are what you read

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

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

We would compare how other:

1. Reporters handled the same story.

2. Editors played those stories. 

We learned a lot from the way they:

1. Edited the stories.

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

Here is how three reporters handled one story.

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

How might you have handled the same news?

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

He was a highly-motivated competitor.

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

It made me a better reporter and writer.

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

There’s much more in Compelling Writing.

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

Sell stories to more readers

To attract readers, carefully choose your headline and lead sentence words.
Advertising copywriters like legendary Claude Hopkins measured response.
This helped them appeal to people who want or need what they offer.
The same principle holds true to news and sports writing.
To attract readers, entice them with your words.
The Washington Post has pulled this off by combining serious journalism with stories that appeal to the heart. A couple of examples:Orphaned boy moved to his grandparents’ home
Now the homeowners association would kick him out

After his parents died, teenager Collin Clabaugh moved to Prescott, Ariz., to live with his grandparents.

Police thought her husband died from a fall
Then his wife admitted to poisoning him

Lana Sue Clayton claimed that she didn’t mean to kill her husband when she poisoned his drinking water.
The Post uses classic 2-sentence headlines and alluring lead sentences. 
You can see why this technique attracts readers.

Here are a couple of examples of how we can do this.
There’s nothing wrong with the original headline and lead on our site.

The Original:

$1 million lottery ticket sold in Lexington
A Lexington Powerball player is holding a $1 million ticket. It was bought at the Stop N Shop at 1104 N. Lake Dr. in Lexington for Wednesday night’s drawing.
Read more

The Revised:

Do you have the $1 million lottery ticket?
Read on, you may be holding it

The state lottery winning $1 million ticket was bought at the Stop N Shop at 1104 N. Lake Dr. in Lexington for Wednesday night’s drawing.
 Check your ticket as the winning numbers are… 
Read more

The Original:

Dutch Fork hands Lexington boys 1st loss
Gilbert boys win 1st game of season

A 9-game winning streak in Region 5-5A ended Tuesday in Irmo for the Lexington boys’ basketball team. 
The Wildcats were defeated 45-38 by 7th ranked Dutch Fork. 
Read more

The Revised:

Lexington loses heartbreaker to Dutch Fork
Gilbert boys win their 1st game of season

Lexington’s 9-game Region 5-5A winning streak ended Tuesday in Irmo as 7th ranked Dutch Fork won 45-38. 
Read more  Choosing emotional words like “heartbreaker” and naming 3 schools in the 2-sentence headline will draw readers who are fans of all 3 teams.
Of course, we can do this with our print stories, too.

Give it a try. With practice, it becomes a natural way for you to write.

For more tips like this, write JerryBellune@yahoo.com

Off the record

Should you grant a source’s request for “off the record?” What if he asks after the interview is over?
That’s a judgment call. Ask yourself how important the information is.Is it worth a front page banner headline?Is it worth burning a source of reliable information?
Will you get better info later by granting the request.
We’ve found that a few sources will:
1. Tell you almost anything if you don’t identify them.
2. Mean ‘off the record’ if you won’t identify them.
When we covered Washington:1. Pentagon officials leaked defense strategies to us.
2, State Department officials did it, too.
We agreed that they wouldn’t be identified.The President even made an amazing admission.He admitted he had authorized a CIA-FBI operation.They were to kidnap a fugitive who stole millions of dollars.He hid in a country where we had no extradition agreement.
Some asked for answers to be on ‘deep background.’ That meant you couldn’t use what they told you.
It was for your understanding of strategy or policy only.
They implied they were sharing this because they trusted you.
Be skeptical of their motives. They are probably conning you.
They may only aim to mislead you or leak disinformation.
We always suspected their motives were less than honorable. 
We once taped a Congressman off-the-record.
He knew we were taping but said ‘off the record.’
We later played back parts we wanted to publish.
Surprisingly, he agreed to the controversial parts.
In such interviews we agree what ‘off the record’ means.We ask they request it before they answer a question.
Elected officials have told us nasty things about other officials.
Afterward, they realize this could damage their own careers.
When asked not to publish, we did as they asked.
We had already decided against publishing as it was petty.
But we always ask for a favor if we agree to do this,
One official leaked ‘executive session’ secrets to us for years.Our agreement was that we would never:
1. ID him as the source.
2. Publish details that would lead back to him.About 25% of what he told us was worth publishing.
But that 25% led to much other critical information.
We protected another source years later.
He told us of a disgruntled cop’s plot against us. That was quickly quashed after we talked with the mayor.

Such choices are rare. It helps to know you have choices.These kinds of tips are in my “Compelling Writing” eBook.For details 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?