Unmemorable lists

Elsewhere I said that lists allow us to include a lot of information in short space in a way that readers can understand it, and perhaps remember it. But some lists convey impressions rather than material to be recalled.

This passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink gives us a window into the thinking of experts by using their terminology, but is too dense to remember:

Jam experts, though, don’t have the same problem when it comes to explaining their feelings about jam. Expert food tasters are taught a very specific vocabulary, which allows them to describe precisely their reactions to specific foods. Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along six dimensions of appearance (color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles), ten dimensions of texture (adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on), and fourteen dimensions of flavor, split among three subgroups – aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth); basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet); and chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).

Readers could remember some of those terms as they taste mayonnaise, but would probably have to study the passage to recall the structures.

This selection from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News capture the variety and wacky ordinariness of life in a seaside village with a pellmell rush of terms:

He had never seen so many ads. They went down both sides of the pages like descending stairs and the news was squeezed into the vase-shaped space between. Crude ads with a few lines of type dead center. Don’t Pay Anything Until January! No Down Payment! No Interest! As though these exhortations were freshly coined phrases for vinyl siding, rubber stamps, life insurance, folk music festivals, bank services, rope ladders, cargo nets, marine hardware, ship’s laundry services, davits, rock band entertainment at the Snowball Lounge, clocks, firewood, tax return services, floor jacks, cut flowers. truck mufflers, tombstones, boilers, brass tacks, curling irons, jogging pants, snowmobiles, Party Night at Seal Flipper Lounge with Arthur the Accordion Ace, used snowmobiles, fried chicken, a smelting derby, T-shirts, oil rig maintenance, gas barbecue grills, wieners, flights to Goose Bay, Chinese restaurant specials, dry bulk transport services, a glass of wine with the pork chop special at the Norse Sunset Lounge, retraining program for fishermen, VCR repairs, heavy equipment operator training, tires, rifles, love seats, frozen corn, jelly powder, dancing at Uncle Demmy’s Bar, kerosene lanterns, hull repairs, hatches, tea bags, beer, lumber planing, magnetic brooms, hearing aids.
He figured the ad space. Gammy Bird had to be making money. And somebody was one hell of a salesman.

The breathless pace is dizzying, but the writing is clear, although no one would expect to remember all the details.

Take a look at my previous post for Garrison Keillor using a similar technique.

[Need suggestions for a term for this kind of list.]

Published in: on September 29, 2009 at 5:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Garrison Keillor’s voice

Here’s a familiar voice that most of us listen to rather than read. Actually, Garrison Keillor’s radio and writing voices are close, because he writes for reading aloud. This selection comes from a whimsical survey of six state fairs in National Geographic He expands the third item in a list of “Ten Chief Joys of the State Fair”:

Of the ten joys, the one that we Midwesterners are loath to cop to is number three, the mingling and jostling, a pleasure that Google and Facebook can’t provide. American life tends more and more to put you in front of a computer screen in a cubicle, then into a car and head you toward home in the suburbs, where you drive directly into the garage and step into your kitchen without brushing elbows with anybody. People seem to want this, as opposed to urban tumult and squalor. But we have needs we can’t admit, and one is to be in a scrum of thinly clad corpulence milling in brilliant sun in front of the deep-fried-ice-cream stand and feel the brush of wings, hip bumps, hands touching your arm (“Oh, excuse me!”), the heat of humanity with its many smells (citrus deodorant, sweat and musk, bouquet of beer, hair oil, stale cigar, methane), the solid, big-rump bodies of Brueghel peasants all around you like dogs in a pack, and you — yes, elegant you of the refined taste and the commitment to the arts — are one of these dogs. All your life you dreamed of attaining swanhood or equinity, but your fellow dogs know better. They sniff you and turn away, satisfied.

How would we characterize the personality speaking to us here? We would judge it as wry and comic, ironic, edgy, hip, suburban, uncomfortable, and vigorous, as well as homely and sophisticated at the same time.

What devices create this familiar voice? First, you notice the long, sprawling sentences. Despite their length, they’re clear because Keillor gives you the subject and verb early, and keeps expanding to the right of that unit. His parenthetical insertions fall at places that don’t impede the flow. Read on the radio, with the voice punctuating, these sentences are even easier to follow. The effect is a rich, compelling, clear explainer.

We think of state fairs as rural, but the world-view here is suburban, with the sensibility between the farm and city. The first-person plural pronoun “We,” beginning with “We midwesterners,” really refers to all Americans.

Keillor propels the reader with strong verbs and rolling sentences. He uses mostly simple words, mixed with more sophisticated vocabulary: “tumult and squalor,” “scrum,” “corpulence,” “bouquet of beer,” “commitment.” He even makes up words: “swanhood or equinity.”

He tosses off a reference from the fine arts (“solid, big-rump bodies of Brueghel peasants”) without explicating it. He presents all the imagery of the state fair without explanation; he assumes you know what he’s talking about, and probably experienced it. Even if you haven’t, he makes you experience it vicariously.

Garrison Keillor, this very American voice says, is our representative, our point of view, immersed in something that characterizes us.

[Does this explication of his writing voice square with your experience listening to him?]

Published in: on September 24, 2009 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Restarting after interruptions

You’re typing along, and the phone rings, and three hours later, you’re about to resume. How do you get your momentum back? Here are some tricks. Some will work for you, and some won’t.

1. When the phone rings, stop in the middle of the sentence you’re working on before you answer. When you restart, the rhythm and meaning of the half-sentence will propel you forward.

2. When you restart, read what you’ve already written aloud from the top. “Top” means the beginning of the unit you’re in: chapter, article, paragraph, etc. Reading aloud will get you back into the swing, but stopping to fix things will bounce you out of the flow.

3. My friend Steve Lovelady would inspire himself by typing a few paragraphs of someone else’s writing that he admired. He said he liked to see admirable sentences emerging from his typewriter platen. (A typewriter was an ancient device that used a keyboard to print letters directly onto paper.) Then he would type admirable sentences.

4. You may need to refresh your grasp of details, especially after a longer time lapse, by reviewing your notes for that section. This technique especially helps people who close their notes and write from memory.

5. Here’s the most extreme technique: erase from the top of the unit and start typing from there. Don’t even think about this method unless you’re decisive and have a terrific memory.

6. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you can guess how I restart. I ask my favorite question: “What’s this about?” I ask it about every half hour throughout my whole writing process anyway, and it refocuses me after a hiatus.

[How do you restart?]

Published in: on September 19, 2009 at 9:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Not debating with editors

Finally you finish a piece and turn it in, only to have your editor announce that he wants to “talk about it.” And you’re locked into a debate over how to do this and that. If you consider it a debate or a contest, you’ll lose, because editors outrank you. By the way, if the editor “wins,” you both lose.

How do you discuss changes with editors without losing your voice, your mind, and your soul?

(First, a disclaimer. You can’t write risky without a good editor to ask you sharp questions. I write risky without any editors, which scares me to death.)

There are good and useful debates between writers and editors that get down to real issues, but many such discussions turn into “It doesn’t work for me” versus “Well, I think it works.” The ranking editor wins.

The likes and dislikes of the two of you are irrelevant. You need another person in this discussion: your reader. All debates over copy should keep the target reader in mind, and that target reader is never the editor or the writer. So instead of debating what you like or dislike, you talk about what your readers need.

First of all, you build on a baseline of quality. Ask “What works?” and “What needs work?” That first question usually removes 95% of the piece from the discussion, the part that you both agree works. By asking “What needs work,” you acknowledge that the rest can be repaired.

The magic question is always “What’s this about?” That question refocuses both material and thought. If either of you can’t answer it, the piece is not finished, and is not organized. The writer should take it back and rework it. In a newsroom, an alternative version of the same question might be “What’s the headline?”

Individual passages should be discussed in terms of the readers’ understanding. Does the reader have enough information at this point? And here we run into a problem of humility. The writer understands the passage, so what’s wrong with the dopey editor that he doesn’t get it? The problem is often that the key information is still in the writer’s head, but not on the screen. At this point, I read the problematic passage aloud, cover it up, and ask the writer, “What did that say?” And the writer says so and so, and I uncover the text and ask, “Where does it say that?”

Keep your focus on the text and not on the personality of the two players. If you say something like “Maybe you just don’t like description,” you’re now debating character, not the writing. Focus on the screen and the readers.

With ethical questions, you need to ask first, “Do we know enough?” Many apparently ethical dilemmas are solved with one phone call. Then you ask each other, “What’s our professional reason for doing this?” The key word here is “professional.” Ethical debates often stray into emotion, especially fear, not professional practice.

Wording questions often turn around voice. If you think a suggested change violates your voice, read the paragraph aloud to the editor and see if it sounds like what’s around it.

Now for the real secret of not debating. Debates assume that one side is right, and the other is wrong. In good decision-making, usually the right answer, the useful answer, is an amalgam of both sides. By talking about what readers need, you escape your egos and find common ground.

When you resolve the problem, thank each other. The way to get editors to discuss rather than argue is to thank them when discussion reaches a good conclusion.

[Got any good tactics for discussing text without spilling blood?]

Published in: on September 17, 2009 at 4:19 pm  Comments (4)  

Interviewing in intimate space

Where would you interview someone for maximum impact? The more meaningful the site is to your subject, the better the interview. We call this principle “intimate space.” The closer you get to your subject’s heart, your subject’s real self, the more information and insight you gain, a principle especially important in profiles.

Important people have all sorts of screens and defenses to keep you out of their intimate space. So you have to work your way in, often over a long period of time, a series of interviews.

What’s the least intimate space? Written answers to written questions. Two problems: you can’t see the subjects or their surroundings, and the answers are probably written or vetted by staff. The source controls everything, and you can’t ask follow-up questions..

Next is telephone interviewing. Again, you can’t see the subject, and the subject can’t see you. Visual clues play a huge role in establishing a relationship of trust, the key to deep interviews. Some interviewers are terrific with just aural clues, but most of us aren’t.

You want to interview, if possible, on site. For a while, let’s stipulate that the subject is the male CEO of a company. You want to interview inside his building, which has different levels of intimacy in different places. A corporate meeting room reflects the culture of the company, not the subject. It was designed by decorators to reflect corporate values. And meeting rooms tend to be rather bare, lacking in clues to your subject.

Corporate board rooms have the same problem, but are more intimate in that they have more signals on the walls, such as portraits, awards, certificates, prizes, etc. The décor makes statements about the company, but probably says little about your subject, beyond his approval.

His office is more intimate; it’s where he works. Again, it will be professionally decorated, with corporate iconography, but it will also include personal touches, such as diplomas, pictures (especially signed ones), trophies, etc. The subject’s desk is a gold mine of information, and you need to see it. What’s on it, and what isn’t?

Subjects tend to decorate their offices with their hobbies. When I interviewed two newspaper publishers in their offices, one had model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, and the other had animal heads glaring from the walls. You develop such clues to character during the initial chat.

Some subjects have two offices, one public and the other a private retreat. Thomas Jefferson had a large house all to himself at Poplar Forest in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he could escape family and visitors. These private lairs are more intimate still.

Some CEOs manage by wandering around, sort of moving intimate space. You’ll learn a lot by simply following them, watching not only what they do and say, but also how others react to them.

Now for a leap in intimacy, into private life. Interviewing at home may be more intimate, and the house has levels of closeness: living room, parlor, office, etc. Julia Child’s kitchen combined the intimacy of a home and a workplace. I know one reporter who interviewed in a bedroom and noticed a key detail on a pillow.

What could be more intimate than a bedroom? Interviewing inside the sources’ passion, such as next to their model train layout, in their peony garden, or on their sailboat. (Remember Sally Field on Paul Newman’s boat in “Absence of Malice?”) If you want to get really close to me, we’ll talk inside my sculpture studio.

[Got any anecdotes about penetrating intimate space?]

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 9:44 pm  Comments Off  

Selecting characters

In my previous post, I said that you have to select characters ruthlessly to keep from jamming up storytelling and explanation. How do you choose characters, people, and names to include?

“Characters” are people who are developed enough so that readers experience them as real. “People” remain flat and undeveloped; they’re bit players or part of the scenery. “Names” often appear as attributions. In terms of jamming up the piece, place names also count.

First of all, you include characters because readers need them to understand what you’re talking about. The cast would include the main actors in an action, plus minor players required for explanation.

Some people, usually commentators, appear in a piece because they deliver a key quote, although they don’t participate in the action. We try to keep their Stylebook requirements light. And you should always ask yourself if you really need that quote.

A lot of stories get cluttered because writers believe they have to quote everybody they talk with, both as a courtesy to the sources and to show their editors they reported deeply. You don’t owe sources a mention, and smart editors judge stories by quality, not quantity of phone calls.

Sometimes you include a character or quote somebody for purely political reasons. You massage them by naming them. For example, a smart city hall reporter will mention the mayor and every member of the city council at least once a week. Keep ‘em short.

You don’t include characters because you like them, or because they deliver a delicious quote, which actually has nothing to do with what you’re writing about, but you like it. That’s a good test of rigor: can you chop a great but irrelevant quote and the person who said it?

It helps to discard characters and people and names before you type. Once you’ve put them in, you’re less likely to take them out.

[Got a test for who’s in and who’s out?]

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 6:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Unblurring the characters

Characters make reading interesting, but every new person you add to a piece makes it heavier, more confusing, and harder to read. The shorter the piece, the more difficulty each added character causes. So we select the people to include in a piece ruthlessly; they must justify their weight. And we use techniques that make the characters work.

First of all, we avoid what I call “blurs of names,” too many characters introduced too close together. Read this passage, from John Gardner’s novel The Secret Generations, and see if you can make sense of the cast:

So it was with General Sir William Arthur Railton VC KCB DSO – known to all within the family simply as The General.
The entire family had spent the Christmas of 1910 at Redhill, as was the custom. The General’s younger brother, Giles, had been there with his naval officer son, Andrew, who brought his wife, Charlotte, and their three sons — Caspar, and the twins, Rupert and Ramillies. Giles’ second son, Malcolm, had traveled from Ireland with his recent wife, Bridget; while Marie – Giles’ only daughter — had come with her French husband, Marcel Grenot, from Paris, together with their two children, Paul and Denise.
The General’s own two sons were present — Charles, the younger, with his oddly dowdy wife, Mildred, and their daughter, Mary Anne; and John, the Member of Parliament, proud with his young second wife, Sara, and the son of his first, tragic, marriage — James.

Could you follow that hurricane of names? Of course not, and Gardner makes it worse in the next two paragraphs:

It was the happiest of holidays, for this was a special time at Redhill, and the General was in excellent spirits.
On the Tuesday after Christmas they had gone their separate ways, leaving the General to celebrate the New Year at the Manor with his staff — Porter, his old servant; Cook; her daughter, Vera the head maid; the two undermaids; Natter the groom; Billy Crook the odd-job boy and the others.

Those 222 words contain 24 personal names and three place names. Luckily for readers, he didn’t name the “two undermaids” or “the others.” This passage occurs early in the novel, and later, many of these characters have nicknames, titles, code names, aliases, etc. Readers don’t stand a chance of following the plot.

So we introduce characters slowly and separately, developing details so readers can picture them. When characters reappear after some time, we give readers enough detail to remember who they were. If Natter walks in, we remind readers that he’s the groom.

In short pieces, we tend to focus on several players, surrounded by names in attributions to the quotes. Again, we select without pity. The shorter the piece, the more ruthless you have to be. Every character, every name, every quote must justify its weight.

[My next post will discuss how to choose (or reject) characters.]

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 9:04 am  Leave a Comment  

Starting in the middle

Classical epics begin telling their stories “in medias res,” in the middle of things. Homer’s Odyssey starts like this:
“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.…
From some point here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.”

The ten years of the Trojan War are over, and Odysseus is in the middle of ten years of wandering back to his wife Penelope. The muse begins this retelling at that point.

Why begin there, instead of at the beginning of the war? Each story defines the chronological spread of actions it covers, and the storyteller chooses where in that action to begin. Where you start determines how your readers read.

Starting at the beginning of the action, a perfectly valid way of telling a story, involves all sorts of background exposition. Starting in the middle, at a high point in the action, hurls the readers into the plot. The telling starts fast, and stays that way.

Homer and his audiences had an advantage: they knew the plots and details of their traditional stories. Our audiences need background, and you supply it just before the readers need it in flashbacks, references, and digressions. The Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov put it this way: “Tear your story in half and start in the middle.”

We can use this technique in non-fiction as well as epics and plays. My friend Wilbur Landry, foreign correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, revealed his secret for explaining complex events in short space: “Start as close to the end of the action as possible, and stop as soon as possible.”

Here’s an example by Robbie Brown and Carl Hulse of a quick start from the middle:
“In Washington, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina was sharply criticized by both Democrats and his fellow Republicans for shouting “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care address on Wednesday. But here in his strongly Republican Congressional district on Thursday, he was celebrated by many of his constituents for his outburst.”

We’re right in the middle of the action as it develops because the authors get it onstage in two clear sentences.

Notice the effect of a more leisurely approach:

Since the earliest origins of deliberative bodies, members of the audience have expressed their disapproval, sometimes politely and sometimes not. In Parliament, legislators heckle each other mercilessly. In our more polite Congress, senators and representatives jab at each other now and then, but nobody, nobody calls the President of the United States a liar to his face in public. But on Wednesday night,…

Sounds more like a column or an editorial, doesn’t it? Starting slowly has its uses, but it creates the expectation in the readers of slow and extended explaining. Let’s try a really fast start:

“You lie!” shouted Rep. Joe Wilson at the President, and the entire Congress turned toward him and scowled.

Very dramatic, but it assumes the readers know what happened, as in the Homeric epics. We have to balance the immediacy of starting in the middle with the potential for confusing readers. Remember that confused readers tend to stop reading. They feel dopey and assume they’ll stay confused, and decide to read something else. So the trick to the fast start in medias res is a first paragraph that orients the readers quickly, gives them the basic information they need, and pulls them into the action.

For more, see Adair Lara, Naked, Drunk, and Writing (San Francisco: Scottwall, 2009) 124-127.

[Know any terrific examples of starting from the middle?]

Published in: on September 11, 2009 at 10:19 am  Comments (7)  

Jumping the boundaries

Readers are aware of the boundaries in your writing, and they think about quitting reading at every one. What’s a boundary? The end of a paragraph, the end of a section, the “jump” from one page to another, the bottom of the screen where they have to scroll, etc.

How do you keep your readers reading? Well, obviously, by writing brilliantly. Frankly, I’m not brilliant, and maybe you’re not either, but here are some techniques we can use to lead our readers.

First, write with authority. At the beginning, readers size up the voice speaking to them from the text, and decide whether they trust it or not. They’re less interested in whether they like you or not. If they trust you as a reliable guide throughout the piece, they’re more likely to read all of it.

You create such authority at the top by telling readers immediately what the piece is about and why they should read it. You write as clearly as possible so your readers will think, “I understand this; I trust this voice.” To be extra clear, you write a little simpler just to ease readers in.

You maintain authority by this same assurance and clarity all the way through, but especially at the boundaries. If your readers think, “How did I get here,” or “Where are we going,” they’re about to bid you adios.

Readers who start wondering about the information also start thinking about leaving. So you supply what they need to know just before they need to know it. Otherwise, they feel stupid and depart.

In a longer piece, you put either a cliffhanger or a gold coin at major boundaries, such as a jump. A cliffhanger is a bit of suspense, named after a technique in early movie serials to get viewers to watch the next segment. The heroine clings to a branch over a thousand-foot drop. Can she hang on until the hero arrives?

Here’s a cliffhanger: “The finger pointed at her wasn’t a finger. It was a pistol.” Here’s another: “Margaret looked at her fiancé as the minister asked, ‘Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?’ and thought, ‘Do I?’”

A gold coin can also keep readers moving. It’s an intriguing anecdote, a fascinating new character, a clever turn of phrase, a funny bit, etc. Gold coins refresh the readers, and make them predict that more gold coins lie ahead. Here’s one from here in Charlottesville about a fox that bit two students and stole a sweater. “There’s also no way to be sure that a fox that’s trapped in the area is the fox that was acting aggressive,” said Ed Clark, “unless it’s wearing the sweater.”

Guide your readers cleverly, and they will follow you to the bottom.

[Got any compelling techniques for leading your readers?]

Published in: on September 9, 2009 at 6:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Using the notes mode

Many publications have what we call “the notes mode.” This handy feature allows writers to send messages to their editors inside their texts. The software prevents these insertions from printing or appearing on readers’ screens. Unfortunately, sometimes the system fails to block them.

The commonest message is “CQ,” which means, “I have checked this, and it is correct.” We use it to mark names, phone numbers, URLs, etc. CQ essentially tells the editors that they don’t have to check this item; smart editors take that with a grain of salt. The passage might look like this, depending on the system: “The latest blog post appears at http://donfry.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/never-trust-spell-checkers/ [CQ] and at http://tinyurl.com/ktp8bu [CQ].”

Any violation of the publication’s stylebook, profanity or obscenity, or deliberate misspelling should be marked and explained. When copy editors encounter such variants without explanation, they tend to chop them out.

For example, the “Second Reference Rule,” honored by many publications, says that names lose their titles when they appear for a second time in a piece. So “Circuit Judge Henry Smith” on first reference becomes “Smith” on the second. If you violate that rule, you explain it in the notes mode, like this: “BOTH THE DEFENSE ATTORNEY AND THE JUDGE ARE NAMED ‘SMITH,’ SO I HAVE USED THE JUDGE’S TITLE IN LATER REFERENCES.”

You might indicate deliberate misspellings, as in this sentence from my recent post on spell checkers: “For instance, I type ‘orginization’ every time I mean ‘organization,’ and spell ‘chairman’ as ‘chariman.’” The note might read, “NOTE TWO WORDS MISSPELLED ON PURPOSE.” If you put “CQ” on the misspelled words, the desk would get confused.

You can indicate potential cuts in the notes mode, a trick I learned from Dave Barry. Knowing that your editors might have to shorten your piece, you help them by marking passages to cut, including the sequence of removal. Before the cuttable part, you put “BEGIN POTENTIAL CUT ONE.” At the end, you say, “END POTENTIAL CUT ONE.” Paranoid reporters assure me that anything you mark as cuttable will get whacked out. My experience is the opposite. Editors don’t cut me; they cut people who write long and don’t help their colleagues on the desk.

WARNING. Since the software sometimes fails, particularly when a print piece is posted online later, do not include anything in the notes mode that you don’t want to appear. Like this: “I DON’T HAVE A RESPONSE FROM THE RESTAURANT OWNER BECAUSE THE ASSHOLE WON’T RETURN MY CALLS.”

As a freelancer, I don’t have a notes mode, so I create my own. I put messages in brackets and all caps, like this: [[[I CAN’T FIND THE PRICE OF THIS BOOK]]].” I hope my editors will take that out, but just in case, I’m very careful what I put in my jury-rigged notes mode.

[Any adventures with the notes mode you’d like to share?]

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 8:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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