Specifics and Abstraction

Specific detail engages readers and moves their emotions. But we can’t write everything at that level; we need abstractions to frame the detail. S. I. Hayakawa invented a wonderful scheme to describe the interaction between the specific and the abstract, called “The Ladder of Abstraction.” It involves a vertical spectrum with specifics at the bottom and abstraction at the top. Here’s an example using my cat; read from the bottom:

IDEA IN THE MIND OF GOD
ALL CREATION
THING
CREATURE
ANIMAL
MAMMAL
FELINE
CAT
SHORT-HAIRED CAT
SIAMESE CAT
TORTOISE-POINT SIAMESE CAT
Don Fry’s tortoise-point Siamese cat named “Thebesy.”

Thebesy occupies the bottom rung of this ladder because there is only one such cat. We could go into smaller detail, such as her pointy ear tips or her habit of hiding dead lizards under the rug, but she remains unique. As we move up the ladder, she starts to get abstract, reaching a Platonic ideal at the top. As we write, we try to stay near the bottom of the ladder to keep the readers engaged, but we move up and down, like this:

Our beloved cat died, so Joan and I wanted to replace her immediately. Our local breeder, Joan Bernstein, showed us a variant of Siamese we had never heard of: a Tortoise-Point. One look at Thebesy, who had just rolled over onto her back, and we were hooked. Ms. Bernstein threw in Thebesy’s grandmother Cairo to sweeten the deal.

We start partway up the ladder with “our beloved cat” and move down to Thebesy playing on a rug. You can go higher up the ladder to capture an abstraction like “pet,” or further up to “companionship.”

Why don’t writers stay at the most attractive end of the spectrum, the specific bottom? Some writers avoid the foot of the ladder to keep from making mistakes. Editors instruct their reporters to “get the brand of the beer, the make of the car, and the name of the dog.” But if I tell you my cat is named “Thebesy,” you might worry about misspelling such a queer name, and leave it out. So you call her a “Tortoise-point Siamese,” but you’ve never heard of a “Tortoise-point,” so you leave that out. Keep up that kind of timid thinking, and you’ll call her a “pet.” When you find yourself thinking defensively, say, “Go down the ladder.”

Sometimes you don’t know enough to be specific, and you can’t find out. Take this example: “An object pierced the windshield of the Volvo S-50 and struck Harold Panko in the right temple before ricocheting out the passenger window.” We rise up the ladder to “object,” because police haven’t found it yet. But don’t give up too fast; keep digging for the specific.

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 8:32 pm  Comments (3)  

Submitting perfect copy

Smart writers submit perfect copy because it allows them to maintain some control over their work after they turn it in. In the previous century, writers could depend on copy editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers to back them up, but all three groups either vanished or became so overburdened that we have lost much of our safety net. Some book publishers no longer copyedit manuscripts, and even The New York Times, formerly the bastion of accuracy, has slipped.

Readers perceive flawless prose as a mark of authority. When they spot errors, such as a misspelled name, they start doubting the information and the author. Writers who take responsibility for their own typescripts end up publishing fewer errors. So how do you achieve perfect copy?

Every word must be spelled right, especially names. Spell checkers catch things hard to see on a screen, like two words run together without a space between them. But they do only a rough job of catching misspelled words. Spell-checker software compares the words in the text with words in its vocabulary. If it finds the word in its list, it declares it spelled right; if not, it highlights it. Unfortunately, this software doesn’t allow for words that sound alike, so it will endorse this sentence: Their hiss know weigh two sea you’re feat. (There is no way to see your feet.) Don’t trust, and do verify.

Reading aloud makes most spelling errors jump out at you, because you have to read every word. Dedicated writers who spell poorly should correct that deficiency, by mastering a book on spelling, reading good fiction, and using devices like word-a-day calendars.

Some software will check grammar and usage, but only in crude ways. I told my word-processor to check this sentence, “Writing are fun.” No problem, it said. Again, you can best learn grammar and usage by handbooks and reading good prose.

How do you check names? My name is spelled simply: “Don Fry.” Half the writers who mention me in print spell my last name with an –e, “Frye.” They make that error by assuming. You get names right by careful gathering in the first place. You ask everybody you talk with for a business card; then you ask them if everything on the card is correct. Half the time, it isn’t, usually titles and email addresses. You ask people to spell their names, even Mary Smith, who replies, “M-E-R-R-Y S-M-Y-T-H-E.”

In final proofreading, you might check names with a phone directory, or Google. If you use the same name more than once in the same piece, compare them for consistency. If in doubt, call people up or send them an email query. You might feel stupid, but the person will admire your persistent accuracy. Finally, if you can, check names in photo captions, on maps and diagrams, and in back-of-the-book lists.

Numbers are harder to check, but you can mislead readers with just one too many zeros or a misplaced decimal point. Check them against the best sources, beyond the person you got it from. Do not trust previously published sources, such as newspaper clip files. Assume that numbers are wrong until verified. To check a phone number, call it.

Many publications have “Stylebooks,” sets of rules, mostly having to do with format. Baseball players observe the rules of their game, and you should follow the rules of our game. Perfect copy honors those templates; otherwise copy editors start changing things. If you must violate the Stylebook, add a note explaining why.

Fact checking goes beyond verifying things from your notes. Use directories, Google, and phone calls. When I write very tricky technical things, I often call the source and ask if I got it right. By the way, they usually tell me some new things I didn’t know.

The most careful writer I know, Bill Adair, is the most thorough checker I know. He prints a copy of his finished piece, and then reads it with a red pen in hand. He asks if each fact is correct and each name is spelled correctly, and marks a check if it is. He will often check the spelling of names he has written dozens of times, just to be sure. Borderline overkill, but Bill has rarely printed corrections. (By the way, I sent him this paragraph to confirm it. He did, whew.)

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm  Comments (15)  

Beating the Deadline

Except for blogs, publication involves people working together in production teams, mostly end to end. Your success as a writer depends on the editors, graphic artists, photographers, copy editors, etc. who turn your text into publishable form. You need to help your colleagues by submitting copy on time, by making the deadlines.

Some prima donnas pride themselves on violating deadlines. They fantasize that they’re showing their creativity by not playing the game of the management types. They think they’re so important that others can wait. They’re missing one key factor they would never think of: people who turn things in on time get better editing and better visuals and better play.

The secret is not just making the deadline. The secret is turning things in early.

First of all, there has to be a deadline, and it has to be exact and understood. As a consultant, I’m often surprised by daily newspapers that don’t have deadlines, in my experience, about a third of them. When I ask their reporters to tell me their deadline, I get answers like this: “We don’t have one.” “Sixish.” “In the evening.” “Just after I go home.” (By the way, they’ve usually hired me because the paper keeps coming out late.) In such an organization, you have to create your own deadlines.

Good deadlines are exact dates and times. If your editors don’t specify a deadline, you ask them for one. If they don’t set a deadline, you set your own. Writers without deadlines write too long in both space and time.

Sometimes you can’t make your deadline, for perfectly good (but rare) reasons. So you put up a warning flare early, alerting the rest of the production team to adjust their time scheme. Sometimes editors can modify the assignment to maintain the deadline.

How do you finish pieces early? First of all, you use the methods in this book to tune your writing process. Many of the techniques you have learned in the past actually make you slow, so you change them. Your new effective sequence of techniques, once you get used to it, will speed you up. And you keep tuning your process throughout your career to get even faster. The assignments get more complex, and you get more efficient. Bill Blundell, the fastest writer I ever met, told me, “If I write fast, I can report longer.”

Here’s a magic technique for speeding up complicated pieces, which works especially well for books. You divide the project up into parts, such as the chapters of a dissertation. Working back from your overall deadline, you set individual deadlines for each of those parts. Then you draft as fast as you can toward the first deadline. If you make it earlier than scheduled, you move all the other deadlines that much closer. For example, you’re writing a five-part book, and you schedule five section deadlines and a final deadline:

Drafts: February 1, April 1, June 1, August 1, October 1.
Final: December 1.

All goes well, and you make your first chapter draft deadline on January 24th. Then you move all your other deadlines one week closer. Students of mine have cut their drafting time in half using this technique.

By the way, as a writing coach, I can tell you that fast writers have fewer problems than slow ones. And freelancers who make deadlines get invited back.

Published in: on January 27, 2009 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  

Attributing Information

Readers judge the validity of information by knowing where it came from.

Books, scholarly articles, and some magazines can tell them in footnotes. Sometimes we inform the readers in an editor’s note at the end, or in a background passage, but mostly we attribute in the body text right next to the information. That way, the readers get information and attribution together without having to look elsewhere. Here’s a simple example:

“To be absolutely politically correct,” Janice snapped, “you’d have to call a man named Norman Goodman, ‘Norperson Goodperson.’”

The attribution, “Janice snapped,” identifies her as the source, and tells us how she said it. Many writing handbooks advise against using any attribution verb except “said.” But I don’t want to give up such a valuable tool for characterization. How speakers say something, not just what’s said, tells readers a lot about them.

On the other hand, waxing too poetic or using too many different attribution verbs gets tiresome to read. Avoid attributions that call attention to themselves, such as “she snorted” or “they blithered” or “he pompoted.” (I made up that last verb, meaning “to speak pompously.”) The greatest exception to this principle comes from Ring Lardner’s dialogue of a father and son:

“Are you lost, daddy,” I asked tenderly.
“Shut up,” he explained.

Notice the adverb “tenderly” modifying the verb, telling how the son asked. Some verbs have manner built in, such as “mumbled” or “shouted.” So you wouldn’t duplicate the action with an adverb, “shouted loudly,” unless maybe you’re as arch as Ring Lardner and write something like “shouted under her breath.”

Where do you put the attribution for a quote? It depends on what you want to emphasize. Traditionally newspapers put it at the end: “‘I’m sick and tired of being mayor,’ said the mayor.” But the end of a sentence is its most emphatic point, followed by the beginning. Only rarely would we want to emphasize the attribution.

NEXT MOST EMPHATIC
NOT EMPHATIC AT ALL
MOST EMPHATIC

“Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we’re free at last,” said Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King said, “Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we’re free at last.”
“Free at last, free at last,” said Martin Luther King, “great God almighty, we’re free at last.”
Here attributing in the middle puts the two strong elements in the two emphatic positions.

We also attribute facts to let readers judge them by where they came from. How would we attribute the two sentences quoted above from Ring Lardner? We could say in the text that the quotation came from Ring Lardner’s 1920 novel The Young Immigrunts. We could write a footnote: Lardner, Ring W., jr. The young immigrunts. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, [circa 1920], 78. I found the reference on the Internet at http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/21226.html, like this:

Quotation #21226 from Rand Lindsly’s Quotations:
Shut up he explained.
Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrants, 1920
US author (1885-1933)

Now for an object lesson. If you stop digging when you find an easy Internet source, you might miss things and make mistakes.

ASSUME THAT EVERYTHING ON THE INTERNET IS WRONG UNTIL PROVEN OTHERWISE.

Quotation #21226 above has misspelled the title of the book, which has “immigrunts,” not “immigrants.” The whole book, allegedly written by a four-year-old, captures the child’s erratic spelling, and so does the book title. Pursuing the original source, the book itself, I discovered that I had changed the spelling and punctuation of the exchange. “Picky, picky,” you’re thinking. “Accurate, accurate,” I’m thinking.

Journalists tend to say that every fact must be attributed, which leads to an annoying and dishonest practice. In a police story, for example, they’ll stick in “police said” or “according to police sources” after every sentence. The repetition annoys readers, puts them to sleep, and adds nothing to their knowledge or ability to judge validity. Even worse, some copy editors will add “police said” if the reporter left it out. A journalist friend of mine was involved in a huge traffic accident and added details to her story that she had witnessed herself. The next day, she discovered the desk had added “according to police sources” in the eyewitness part. Police didn’t say it, and it’s dishonest to put it in if they didn’t. Newspapers are not in the fiction business.

One way to deal with this urge to attribute everything involves what we call “umbrella attribution.” You start a section with “Police gave the following account,” and the readers know where it all came from. You never want readers to wonder where something came from, because a wondering reader is not paying attention. The test is not attributing everything. The test is giving your readers what they need to know about your information. This transparency also enhances your authority with your readers.

Finally, attribution thanks the people whose information you borrowed. Do unto others….

Published in: on January 22, 2009 at 9:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Listening Well

The key to effective interviewing is asking good follow-up questions. But most people don’t listen well, and many interviews fail because of poor listening skills. Listening well is a skill you can learn and perfect.

Your brain is the problem. We listen four times as fast as people speak, so your mind can go wandering off. Good listening involves riveting your attention.

First of all, decide that you want to hear everything the person says, whether it’s interesting or not. Most human speech has low information content and aims at tending social relationships. Think of listening as information mining. You need to gather lots of spoken data to dig out the good stuff.

Second, do not think about what you’re going to ask or say next while you’re listening. Then you’re not paying attention to the subject, but to yourself. In fact, don’t think about yourself at all during an interview.

My pal Ed Miller uses this trick: “I stare intently at the person’s eyes while envisioning a little sign on his forehead that says, ‘Please listen to me!’ …. Every time I look in their eyes, my peripheral vision ‘sees’ that reminder to concentrate.”

Third, wait a while before evaluating the accuracy or truth of what the subject is saying. If in doubt, put a question mark beside that item in your notebook. Otherwise, you may start arguing with the subject in your head while she keeps talking. Again, you’re not paying attention. Later, you can ask a dissenting question. And what you thought was wrong may turn out to be valid when you’ve heard more.

Fourth, avoid comparing yourself with the person you’re listening to. Again, your brain loves to keep score and distracts you. Your subject rambles along, and you start thinking, “What a dodo. I’m a lot smarter than this guy. Why am I wasting my time with him?” And he just said, “I stole my grandmother’s trust fund,” but you weren’t paying attention.

Your brain knows two things: it’s smarter than anybody else, and you’re a phony. So it can also start undermining you, like this: “Geez, this guy’s smart, a lot smarter than I am. He obviously thinks I’m a dunce. Oops, was that a yawn? I’m boring him to death….” And he just said, “Astrophysics is all crap,” but you weren’t paying attention.

Fifth, take good notes. Writers who take effective notes listen better. They’re tuned up not just for the good stuff, but also for the clues to the good stuff. In a future blog, I rant against tape recorders. Here I will say simply that taping encourages lazy notetaking and lazy listening.

Published in: on January 20, 2009 at 10:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Finding Ideas

The best ideas are your own, rather than assignments from others, because you wrap your ego around your own, and ego drives writers. Some writers are terrific at coming up with story ideas, and you can learn their techniques here.

One day I watched Roy Clark stand on a sidewalk in St. Petersburg surrounded by a gaggle of beginning students. Roy wanted them to understand that they’re living among ideas ripe for picking. He turned slowly in a circle for 30 minutes, pointing and asking questions:

· What are all those antennas on top of Woolworth’s?
· Why are people standing in line in front of a tax preparer in July?
· How do these trees get water when they’re planted in a sidewalk?
· Who shops in that wig store, and what do they buy?
· Why are the concrete blocks in this sidewalk hexagonal, and what’s inscribed on them?

Roy taught our students to question the world around them. If you see that world in terms of stories, basically people interacting for reasons, you’ll find all the ideas you’ll ever need.

Curiosity, attention, a little bravado, and a willingness to break routines lead to great story ideas. You lurk, listen, ask questions, and find experts. You can prowl the Internet, but the best ideas come face-to-face with real people.

The best ideas are subjects that other writers haven’t written about, or haven’t noticed. The following techniques work because they break you out of your routine ways of thinking and dealing with the world.

1. Think larger and smaller at the same time. Enlarge the context to find the larger story in a wider perspective or a longer time scheme. Narrow the context by finding people who exemplify something large. For example, explain a bank merger in terms of its earlier mergers and acquisitions, or explore the effects on stockholders and employees. Find out if any bank merger ever actually improved customer service.

2. Ask experts to explain how ordinary things work, preferably things invisible to the public. For example, how does your city’s water purification system work? What really happens to recycled trash? Why do bee stings sting? How does a wine aerator work?

3. Find the people who operate prominent objects and processes in your community. For example, interview the operator on top of a T-crane. Search out the person who controls traffic lights before and after large events. Talk with football trainers about how they deal on the spot with injuries. Find out how college students game the registration system.

4. Explore your own emotional reactions. If something bothers you or puzzles you, find out why by interviewing people with similar reactions. You’ll discover you’re not alone in your fear of high bridges, stupidly opening junk mail, buying lottery tickets, or wondering if you’re adopted.

5. Think about things, such as a monument, a hangout, or a photograph to find the past continuing to influence the present. After my father died, I looked through all his Navy stuff, and discovered that everything I knew about his role in World War II was wrong. A picture of your mother at your current age will lead to thoughts about what we inherit, and what we don’t.

6. Buy a different magazine every week at random. I learned this trick from Don Murray, the first writing coach. Picture Don as a tall, fat man with a Santa Claus beard, dressed in shorts and shower shoes, facing away from a newsstand rack and reaching back to take the first magazine his hand touched. You pay particular attention to the fringes: little ads, personals, letters to the editor. The randomness leads you to worlds you haven’t imagined, such as the thinking behind professional wrestling, families who shelter strangers’ dying babies, or how grocery stores position candy in the checkout line for maximum profit.

7. Develop a storage system for ideas awaiting their moment, such as a drawer full of 3X5 cards, a notebook, a miscellaneous hanging file, or a computer cache. Encourage yourself to browse in it by not organizing well. Roy Clark calls this “composting,” turning over the trash until it matures. I often bring back great quotes that have nothing to do with what I’m writing, so I write them on a card and toss it into my future drawer. The stash also includes clippings, tapes, jottings, pictures, and parts of machines.

8. Take alternate routes to normal destinations, and try out different modes of transportation, especially slower ones. Leave your car at home and walk to work or ride a bike. Climb stairs instead of taking elevators, take the service elevator, and enter through back doors. The best idea guy I ever knew was Mike Foley, managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He jogged five miles every morning before work, taking a different route every time, and jotting down things he saw. I once rode on a bus behind two teenage girls. One girl turned and surveyed the passengers, turned back to her companion, and lamented, “No movie stars here.” Bingo, several story ideas about fame, vanity, and expectations.

9. Your mother taught you not to talk with strangers. Good advice for children, bad advice for writers. So strike up conversations with people you don’t know, even cultivating weirdos. Introduce yourself to airplane seatmates, anybody carrying a sign or wearing a nametag. Wait a minute, you object, I’m too shy for that. I am too, so I say to myself, “I’m a writer, and I have license to talk to strangers,” and just barge ahead.

10. Accept any piece of paper handed to you on the street. Read junk mail. Watch awful TV shows and ask why they appeal to people. Get beyond easy condescension. Ask yourself why some people watch the Weather Channel all day. Why do teenagers who don’t cook watch the Food Channel? Attend get-rich-quick workshops, and pay attention to the audiences. Buy TV gadget offers, test them, and try to get your money back.

11. Lurk in busy places and eavesdrop to find out what people are doing and thinking. High school cafeterias, malls, and baggage-claim areas all have diverse mixtures of people. In a lecture or business presentation, concentrate on members on the audience reacting, and interview them later. Many Silicon Valley companies have a favorite hotel where they lodge candidates for jobs; you can grab scoops in the breakfast room just by listening.

12. Role-play the lives of people with viewpoints different from yours or your readers’. I once spent half a day in a wheelchair, and learned about hazards I never imagined. Bob Graham, the former governor of Florida, used to do manual labor one day a month to understand his public.

13. Extend your personal life outside your writer friends and your own economic group. You might join a Civil War re-enactors group, take a course in blacksmithing, or sing in a chorus. My sister Sandra sampled all the churches in her town by attending services over a year.

14. Make a list of things you fear, and find a way to experience them safely. For example, you might spend a Saturday night in the hospital emergency room just observing. You could design a dinner party that includes a dish that might flop, such as a souffle, and write about the disaster, or about cooks’ anxiety, or about culinary triumph. I’m terrified of damage to my eyes, but I once wrote an article on blinding giants.

15. Move around at any event to get as many viewpoints as possible. Stay far away from anybody jotting in a reporter’s notebook, even if you’re a reporter. Don’t be satisfied with what you learn in the pressbox, or a corporate skybox; get out with fans. Find the staging areas for a parade.

16. My friend Dele Olojede taught me a great technique. He asked for a business card from everybody he met and kept them in a random file. Later, he would pull cards out at random, and call people to ask what they were up to. It’s flattering to get such a call, and you’ll hit about half the time.

All these techniques have the same aim, to dynamite you out of your normal ways of seeing and thinking. Using them, you’ll develop x-ray vision that enables you to see through the noise of everyday life.

But we also need to keep our eye on that ordinary life because it’s just as rich and interesting as some of the oddities above. How do you find stories about ordinary people and ordinary events? How can they be ordinary and yet interesting?

Jim Nicholson of the Philadelphia Daily News used to write a daily 20-inch obituary on ordinary Philadelphia citizens who had two characteristics: they were dead and not important enough to have an obit in the rival paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. He told me he chose them by closing his eyes and poking his finger onto the list of that day’s dead. I objected, “Wait a minute, you write a feature obituary on an ordinary person chosen at random! How often do you fail?” “I don’t, he replied, “if you’re a good enough reporter, everybody’s interesting.”

“Everybody’s interesting.” Tattoo that on your forehead.

Published in: on January 19, 2009 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Active versus Passive Voice

Some books on writing advise that “the passive voice should be avoided.” Bad advice. Both voices have their uses.

Clauses can have one of two “voices.” In the active voice, the subject acts. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon.

Active: “Rover bit the man.”
Passive: “The man was bitten by Rover.”

In the active sentence above, the subject (Rover, the dog) acts, biting the man. In the passive version, the subject (the man) receives the action, is bitten.

Active sentences have more power, first, because they’re shorter and therefore punchier; second, because they emphasize the actor acting; and third, because the reader knows who did what. You choose the active or passive voice depending on what you want to emphasize. Take these two examples:

Active: An unidentified motorist hit a crippled nine-year-old girl yesterday.
Passive: A crippled nine-year-old girl was hit by an unidentified motorist yesterday.

The active sentence puts the emphasis on the actor, on the motorist hitting, while the passive one emphasizes the recipient of the action, the crippled girl. Which you choose depends on the situation, what you know, and what you want to say. If the girl wasn’t hurt badly and the police chased the motorist for 45 minutes, finally losing him, you might choose the active version, because that story is about the driver. If the girl had serious injuries and the motorist sped away unpursued, you might want to emphasize the victim by choosing the passive construction; it’s her story.

Passive sentences are longer because they need some form of the auxiliary verb “to be,” and they have a phrase at the end starting with “by,” followed by the agent, the person or thing that performed the action (“by an unidentified motorist”). And here’s where passive sentences can become sinister. If you leave off the agent phrase, the reader doesn’t know who did it. Remember President George H. W. Bush’s explanation of the Iran-Contra scandal: “Mistakes were made.”

And that’s why the passive is the favorite construction of bureaucrats and executives. They can avoid blame by hiding their actions, as in this sentence: “The funds Congress appropriated for the bailout have been depleted.” Depleted by whom?

When the Allies were about to invade Normandy in World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower realized that the operation might fail, and he would have little time to write a communique saying so. So he drafted this first version: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.” Then he changed the second clause to read: “….I have withdrawn the troops.” In this second version, he takes responsibility for the withdrawal, for his failure. Fortunately for him and us, the invasion succeeded. Choosing the active voice took courage.

Sometimes we choose the passive because we don’t know the agent. Take this sentence: “Eighteen minutes of the Oval Office tape were erased.” Who did it? We may never know. Writers are in the business of finding out, so we’d only use that construction after exhausting all other means. Otherwise, you leave your readers wondering. Even better, tell your readers that you don’t know.

Sometimes but rarely, we hide information we do know from our readers. A writer I coached included this sentence in a story about a heroic rescue: “The house burned down when the kitchen curtains were accidentally set ablaze.” I asked her if she knew how the curtains caught fire. She blinked and replied that the mother had carelessly lost control of her gas stove. I asked her why she didn’t write this sentence: “The mother accidentally ignited the kitchen curtains, and burned down the house.” She said she felt the mother had suffered enough without getting blamed in print. Very nice, but think twice before you use the passive voice to hide things, especially causality, from your readers.

For maximum power, use the active voice as much as possible, keeping the passive in reserve for special emphasis.

[QUESTION: Do you know any good examples or anecdotes to help explain the different uses of active and passive? I’d like to hear them. Thanks, Don.

Published in: on January 16, 2009 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  

Enough

How do you know when you have enough? How do you know when to stop gathering and start typing? Well, you need a test, otherwise you’ll just keep gathering .Here are some tests for moving to the next step:

1. You never have enough, but you have to type anyway. So stop already.
2. You have enough when you reach your deadline. Bad test, because then you’re going to turn the piece in late. The deadline means when your article has to come in, not when you come in. To make it a good test, calculate tasks against the time left to deadline. Let’s say it’s 2:00 p.m., and your deadline is 5:00. You’re an hour’s drive from the office, and you need one hour to type your piece. So you have to finish gathering by 3:00. Actually, you need to figure in a little slack.
3. You have enough when you’ve got good answers to all your questions. I like this test because I do it this way. I write down questions I have to answer, and I add questions as I learn more. When I’ve got the right questions and good answers, I’ve got enough. If you can’t think up questions ahead of time, this may be a bad test for you.
4. You have enough when you can fairly represent all sides of the question you’re writing about. Usually a good one, especially for political writing.
5. You have enough when you can prove your thesis. Also common in political writing, but not a good test unless you honestly try to disprove your thesis.
6. You have enough when you can’t think of anybody else to talk to. A bad test, because you can always thinks of somebody else to call up. This test increases the misery for procrastinators.
7. You have enough when you can explain your subject fully in two minutes to smart people who know nothing about it, and they understand it. (Journalists call this “telling it to mother.” If you’re reading this, you have a smart mother.)
8. You have enough when you’re tired of it, bored to tears, fed up. This bad test afflicts features reporters, researchers doing large projects, and book writers. This debilitating test comes too late; you want to type when you love the subject, when you’re hot.
9. For visual thinkers, you have enough when you can imagine the sections of your piece as boxes, and those boxes are full of the information needed for each one. This test works for me because I think in pictures.
10. You have enough when you have a beginning, middle, and end; and you have the information to fill in between them. A good test because it considers both form and content.
11. You have enough when you can answer any question your editor asks you. This paranoid test leads to compulsive overgathering. It also suggests you suffer from a bullying editor, and should try to transfer to a new one.
12. You have enough when you can fill the space. A bad test. We’re in the explanation business, not space filling. In early 20th-century American newspapers, reporters had enough when their notes covered two sides of a sheet of paper.
13. Some people have enough when they can fill the holes in a draft. They stop midway in their gathering, write a draft, see what’s missing, and then gather material to fill the gaps. This method sounds slow, but some of the fastest writers I know use it.
14. Many journalists say “their gut tells them” when they have enough. This is a bad test because most reporters fear they’ve missed something. If you wait until your gut tells you that nothing’s missing, you’ll wait forever.

Some people combine tests. For example, I have enough when I can answer my questions, see full boxes, and have an ending. If you don’t have a test for enough, you’ll always start typing late. So pick the test(s) that might work for you.

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Avoiding the Dash

I’ve waged a 25-year campaign against the dash, and I want to enlist you in it. What’s wrong with the dash? A reader coming upon a punctuation mark asks two questions unconsciously: what does this mean, and what comes next? So let’s test some punctuation marks against these two questions:

A period [.] means the sentence has ended, and a new, unrelated sentence begins next.
A semicolon [;] means the clause has ended, and a new, related clause will begin.
A colon [:] means a list follows, and then the list begins; for emphasis, it might have one only item.
Ellipsis […] means something is left out, and the sentence will resume.
An open quotation mark [“] means a quotation begins, and will end with a close quotation mark.
An open parenthesis [(] means something is inserted next, and the insertion will end with a close parenthesis.
A dash [--] means, well, you don’t know, and you have no idea what comes next.

The dash is an ambiguous sign, and the reader doesn’t know what it means or what comes next. Most readers interpret a dash as an open parenthesis, and wait for the closing parenthesis. But the writer may have meant it as a pause or just used it out of habit. The reader ends up confused.

There’s one place I might think about using a dash, because there’s no other punctuation mark to cover it. I like to indicate in quotations how the speaker said it, and the dash is the only punctation mark I know to indicate a pause. You can’t use ellipsis because the reader will interpret it as something left out.

Okay, I know you love the dash, and I don’t expect to win this campaign against it. But if you want maximum clarity for your readers, avoid ambiguous signs.

Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 6:14 pm  Comments (3)  

Using Lists

Lists allow us to include a lot of information in short space in a way that readers can understand it. At the simplest level, they save space by not putting items in sentence form. They also save room by reducing the “white space” around things, although some lists prove more legible by adding white space via bullets.

Here’s my favorite list, a masterpiece from the St. Petersburg Times, which explains the plight of modern women:

“The first handbook of the Girl Scouts of America, published in 1913, was a self-help book of amazing scope. It told girls how to stop a runaway horse, splint a broken leg, prevent frostbite, recognize poisonous snakes, start a fire, tie knots, send a message in Morse code or by semaphore, tie up a burglar with 8 inches of cord, tell time by the stars, discourage mice, prevent consumption, rescue a person who has fallen through the ice, exercise to develop strength, scrub and polish floors, read a map, patch a hole in a dress, cure a ham, take a pulse, test milk for butterfat content, clean wire window screens, play various games, be observant, sew on buttons properly, poach eggs, use sour milk to bleach linen, make a ‘really good rice pudding,’ bathe a baby, put a child’s stockings on, stop a nosebleed, remove a cinder from an eye, put out a fire, rescue a person drowning and give artificial respiration.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Superwoman. Look how much information you absorbed easily in just one paragraph. Lists have some hierarchy, in that the first and last items are more memorable, simply by position. But everything in the middle is equal, creating lots of possible irony by juxtaposition. For example, “make a ‘really good rice pudding’” has the same value as “tie up a burglar with 8 inches of cord.” (Actually, I’ve always used at least two feet of cord to tie up criminals.)

Lists can appear in the paragraph form above, but they’re easier to read with bullets. Let’s remake the top of the list. Watch how bullets open it up:

The first handbook of the Girl Scouts … told girls
· how to stop a runaway horse
· splint a broken leg
· prevent frostbite
· recognize poisonous snakes
· start a fire
· tie knots.

Long paragraphs look dense and intimidate the reader; graphic designers call them “tombstones.” Of cource, a bulleted list as long as our original paragraph might look awkward.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 3:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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