What to type first

Where in your text should you begin typing? At the top, of course, and then wend your way to the bottom. Actually, that’s an assumption, often coming from the idea that you have to have a perfect first sentence to write the rest, which is also an assumption.

You can start typing anywhere. You should start wherever works best for you, and it may vary from day to day, piece to piece.

You can start at the beginning, type through the middle, and end at the ending. Most writers who do it that way don’t know any other way. If you’re developing an argument by writing it rather than planning it, straight through may help you.

My colleague Roy Clark doesn’t like to start writing, so he begins with whatever’s easiest, just to get going. He says it’s “all downhill from there.” I tend to start with the hardest part, usually the core of an argument, because for me, it’s all downhill from there.

I know some writers who begin with what they know best. By the time they get that part written, they’ve figured out how to handle the part they know least. I’ve never met any writers who start with what they know least. [Anybody know one, or do it that way?]

Some writers organize by typing a draft of what they do know, and read it over to discover holes in their knowledge. Then they do some more gathering, and rewrite the draft. This technique works best if you draft without revising; otherwise, it tends to be slow.

A friend of mine invented a method he called “From-Through-To.” He thought of the ending (“To”) as a target he shot at from the beginning (“From”). So he wrote the ending, the beginning, and the middle in that order.

Some people, sometimes including me, write the framework and then fill in. I often write the answer to the question “What’s this about,” then the first sentence of each section, and finally the ending. Then I fill in the rest. A copy editor told me he did his best work in big type. So he wrote a headline and the subheads, and then filled in between.

If you’re a plunger and figure out what to say by typing it, it doesn’t matter where you start. You just write a lot of paragraphs until you think you’ve got it all down; then you rearrange it to make sense.

Writers who work for online and print at the same time under deadline tend to write an online brief first. After the short version, they have a better idea of what they want to say.

I know what you’re thinking: some of these methods sound nuts; nobody would do it that way. But real writers do use these methods. I use most of them myself at one time or another. Today, I started typing this blog in the second paragraph.

That’s what this blog/book in progress is all about. Do it your way. To find out your way, try different ways.

[Do you start pieces in ways that differ from the above? Let’s hear them.]

Published in: on April 30, 2009 at 2:46 pm  Comments (4)  


For maximum understanding, we organize material into sections, each containing related subject matter, and arranged in logical order. Transitions (from Latin, “across + go”) lead readers from the end of one section to the beginning of the next. They provide bridges and keep readers moving forward.

I was taught in school to put “seamless transitions” between sections so readers would not notice them. But we want readers to notice the sections. We tell them at the beginning what the piece contains, and as we change sections, we mark the new subjects. In other words, we keep reminding them of the map so they’ll feel guided.

Here’s the transition in the middle of a two-part column, organized around two paradoxes about torture:
“This is why torture is at its heart a political scandal and why its resolution lies in destroying the thing done, not the people who did it. It is this idea of torture that must be destroyed: torture as a badge worn proudly to prove oneself willing to ‘do anything’ to protect the country. That leads to the second paradox of torture: Even after all we know, the political ask at hand – the first task, without which none of the others, including prosecutions, can follow – remains one of full and patient and relentless revelation of what was done and what it cost the country, authoritative revelation undertaken by respected people of both parties whose words will be heard and believed.”

The author has buried the shift of subject to the second paradox in the middle of a paragraph, where readers will probably miss it. Remember that the beginning and end of a unit, such as a paragraph, are emphatic, but readers seldom notice or remember anything from the middle.

So how do we make effective transitions? They can be as simple as a word or phrase beginning the next section: “Meanwhile…,” “On the other hand…,” “Before the flood…,” “Third…,” “After your soufflé flops….” They can be as long as a short paragraph, or just a sentence, like this: “But official American definitions of torture may not have much valence offshore.”

Subheads enhance the power of transitions in drawing readers across section boundaries. Readers see them in their peripheral vision as they read down and begin thinking about whether they want to keep reading. Subheads should point forward. You could think of them as bait or cliffhangers.

I mostly write for publications and websites that don’t use subheads. I include them anyway to make sure that editors understand my structure.

You can write transitions that take up no space at all. You make the last sentence of a section sound like an ending, and the first sentence of the next section sound like a beginning. Here’s an example:
….So Jane swore off the male of the species permanently.
Looking around for something to do instead, she picked up her wicked pen.

Transitions help your readers understand by reinforcing structure.

Published in: on April 29, 2009 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Eye Contact

Anybody who’s ever dated knows the value of eye contact in conversation. John Donne says to his beloved, “Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread/ Our eyes upon one double string” [The Ecstasy, 7-8]. In interviews, we watch the eyes for signals, and use our own eyes to keep the source engaged. But as my friend John Sawatsky of ESPN says, “It is important to maintain eye contact during the interview, which is hard while actively taking notes.”

You could fire up a recorder and not take notes at all. If you have a source who pays no attention to the machine and talks normally anyway, if you can pay rapt attention and ask good follow-up questions, and if you have a recorder that never never never fails, that’s a good (but dangerous) tactic.

Where do you hold your notebook while maintaining eye contact? Some people think notetaking makes subjects nervous, so they hide it, keeping the notebook in their lap so the source won’t see them jotting. They write without looking, which means they get only a few notes on a page, and they’re hard to read. The notebook also contains notes to yourself, such as key questions, annotations, etc., and you can’t see them in your lap.

The other tactic is to use the notebook as a prop, letting the source see you taking notes avidly. Done properly, it creates an atmosphere of intense interest. I take notes on yellow pads, and write with lots of elbow. I want my sources to see me getting their words down and asking further questions to get them right. It’s part of turning interviews into conversations.

My sources see me writing down their words, and smiling and nodding and saying, “Um huh.” But in fact I may be inventorying the desk and the walls, looking for clues to character: “Bust of John Wesley?”

The equivalent for telephone interviewing is letting the source hear you typing notes. Some writers want the source to hear them getting down every precious word, while others hide the key clicks. You can turn the click sounds on or off on most computers.

My colleague Ed Miller has a tactic for riveting attention: “I have a mental trick that I play on myself…. I stare intently at the person’s eyes while envisioning a little sign on his forehead that says ‘Please listen to me!’ I know it’s silly, but it works. Every time I look in their eyes my peripheral vision ‘sees’ that reminder to concentrate. All I have to do to trigger this device is do what comes naturally – look at the person who’s talking to me.”

Like any other interviewing technique, don’t overdo it. If sources notice your tricks, they start feeling manipulated, and you lose the atmosphere of trust.

[How do you use your eyes and notebook in interviews?]

Published in: on April 26, 2009 at 6:49 pm  Comments (4)  

Multiple Endings

For maximum power and memorability, you need a simple ending. A piece with multiple endings sounds wishy-washy.

We use a technique called “The Hand Test” to discover multiple endings. You scroll to the end of your piece and cover everything but the last paragraph with your hand. You read the last paragraph aloud and ask yourself, “Does that sound like an ending?” If the answer is “yes,” you move your hand up one paragraph, read the next to last aloud, and ask again, “Does that sound like an ending?” And so on until the answer is “no.”

Try this technique on the following passage, the bottom of a story about a man who bowled his first perfect game and dropped dead:

“Don was on cloud nine,” after the perfect game, Mick Doane told well-wishers. “And he liked it so much that he didn’t want to come down.”
As the story was related on Thursday, Linda Doane turned to him.
“He was halfway to heaven when he hit the floor, wasn’t he, Dad?” she said.
The ring ceremony lasted only a couple of minutes, about as long as Doane had to enjoy his perfect game after his 12th consecutive strike.
It was almost 6:30. Someone, somewhere, pushed a button, and the stoic silence of the bowling alley was interrupted by the sudden rumble and whir of the automatic pin-setting machines.
A moment later, the room filled with bowling’s familiar clatter; the thunk of balls hitting hardwood, the hum as they spun down the lanes, the crack of the impact.
Pins were falling. But nobody got them all.

I count five endings. How many did you find? See how using all those good endings erodes the power of each one?

Having discovered your multiple endings, you decide which one leaves the readers with the thought you want to emphasize. Remember that whatever the readers read last is what they remember most. Then you recycle the other endings into appropriate places above, or cut them.

Published in: on April 21, 2009 at 12:00 pm  Comments (2)  


Readers can remember what they’ve read in general outline if they have a sense of closure. Without a sense of ending, readers can’t remember much of anything you said, except maybe the funny bits. So endings are not decorative, but functional. They can take many forms:

Simply stopping leaves readers with no sense of closure.
EXAMPLE: Pomegranates will also attract songbirds to your feeder.

Ending with a piece of context too boring to put anywhere else does not give closure.
EXAMPLE: Pine saplings are especially valued for their fast growth.:

Trailing off uses poetic language for a movie-like finish.
EXAMPLE: And so the Juangs plodded on, toward a sunset bright with napalm.

A quote needs to be relevant to the subject and sound like an ending.
EXAMPLE: “If all the economists were laid end to end,” said George Bernard Shaw, “they would not reach a conclusion.”

A telling anecdote needs to be relevant and short.
EXAMPLE: John recalls the day his wife left him. His father Sam waved goodbye as she drove away, and said, “Treat her like she’s dead, son.”

An information block or link helps interested readers find out more.
EXAMPLE: For further information, see http://www.savethepeccary.org.

Pointing to the future suggests ways readers can act on the information.
EXAMPLE: You can sit tight on your nest egg, you can lose it by getting back in too early, and you can watch and wait. Just don’t bury it in the backyard.

A call for action, common for opinion pieces, gives readers a way to participate.
EXAMPLE: If you don’t like the mayor’s plot, here’s his phone number: 555-555-5555.

Echoing the lead, which classicists call “ring-composition,” repeats a word or image from the lead to give a sense of closure and unity.
EXAMPLE LEAD: Sarah Palin’s supposed appeal to red-meat hunters never happened.
ENDING: A roof over your head perhaps counts more than venison on the supper table.

A returning character, usually from an anecdotal lead, closes the loop.
EXAMPLE: Meanwhile, Jane has nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep.

Answering a question posed at the beginning gives a sense of completion.
EXAMPLE: So to survive an airliner crash, sit over the wing, keep your seatbelt fastened, and get out fast.

A twist sideways can introduce a new and often ironic note.
EXAMPLE: These techniques may prevent your employees from burning out. But to make them work, you may have to deal first with your own burnout.

Restating your point cements complex arguments into readers’ memories.
EXAMPLE: No matter how tempting derivatives look, investing in core businesses lets you sleep at night over the long haul.

A summary glues long and complex material in the readers’ memory precisely.
EXAMPLE: So who rules the world? People who can read, write, think, and talk.

“Stopping at now” can end a piece organized chronologically, where “now” means the end of the action.
EXAMPLE: Serve with Ruffino Serelle Vin Santo del Chianti for a great finish to a perfect meal.

Stopping at the destination closes a piece organized as a journey.
EXAMPLE: The soldiers, despite their wounds, fell to their knees and kissed the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base.

An epilogue tells what happened to the characters later, and shows that the story continues.
EXAMPLE: Harold became the model father he had always wanted.
Jane served a 10-year sentence for child abuse.
Little Hal wrote his bestseller, “How to Divorce Your Parents.”

Zooming to a detail lets a small thing represent larger issues, a device called “synecdoche.”
EXAMPLE: “Some will always be poor, and some will always be rich,” sighed the bishop, offering his golden ring to be kissed.

Forward spin, invented by Congressional Quarterly, points to what will happen next..
EXAMPLE: The Senate will vote (again) on Tuesday, hoping to break the deadlock.

Return to normality lets readers down slowly after horrendous events.
EXAMPLE: Carla’s restaurant has reopened. The waitresses still fold the napkins into little birds. And regulars still order “my usual.”

We speak of “a sense of an ending,” which has to do with sound. Take, for example, this ending of a highly technical article on memory: “In general, one deals with internal representations (of behaviorally relevant objects, of a syntactic structure), which can be provisionally labeled by appropriately defined symbols σ, even though their relationship to the underlying neural activity variables {ri} is yet to be determined. The grand goal of elucidating this relationship is a fascinating challenge for cognitive neurosciences, and for the science of memory.” Notice how the voice changes in the last sentence from scientific diction to an elevated, enthusiastic, and a slightly florid style, creating the sense of closure.

The need for an ending also applies to sections, so here’s my ending to this section:
Which ending technique should you choose? You select the one that helps your reader understand and remember what you’ve just said.

Published in: on April 21, 2009 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Using Boxes

Moving some information into a box or sidebar creates room in the main body text. For example, instead of cluttering up a profile with details of the resume, you can put it into a sidebar and devote the main bar to capturing the person. Some types of information, such as lists, can be easier to read in a box than in a paragraph.

Boxes allow readers who want more information to get it when they want it and return to the main text. For instance, you can put the full text of a document in the box and quote from it in the main bar. A printed box is the equivalent of a link in online, although linking has no space limitations.

Most writers and editors assume that readers read the main text first and boxes later; why else would we call them side-bars, as in “beside” or “aside?” Actually, readers are just as likely to read the box first because it’s shorter. So the contents of the box must make sense if read first. The box needs a good headline that tells the readers what the box is about.

Some people read only the box, so it must stand alone, make sense without the main bar. Readers should not be required to read both parts to understand either part. Readers tend to sample the box and not read it straight through. The secret is to keep boxes simple, perhaps using more than one.

Since they may be read first, charts, graphs, and graphics must make sense without reading the body text. A photo and its caption will be read first, and must not depend on the main text. Careful labeling solves these difficult problems of clarity.

You can put signals in the main text that point to the box or to other apparatus, like this: “(See box).” You can duplicate some of the information in the main text and the box so each makes sense.

Many publications assume that editors will break out boxes from the writer’s submitted text. But you want to do it yourself to make sure it comes out right. If you don’t know how, ask friendly editors to teach you. It’ll save them time later.

Published in: on April 18, 2009 at 4:39 pm  Comments (4)  

Recording Interviews (Again)

I’m getting feedback (and flak) on my rant against recorders. I get dogmatic about this subject because, as a writing coach, I constantly deal with writers hobbled by them. But, as my friend Tom Berner reminds me, “The fault lies not with the recorder, but with the person using it.”

There are good ways and bad ways to use them, depending on your memory, listening and notetaking skills, intensity of the interview, and time schemes. An investigator writing a book may have time to transcribe a whole tape, but a city-hall reporter on deadline does not, although they may be the same person.

Tom told me he always uses a recorder to write his bi-monthly newsletter pieces. Taping means he “can actually listen to the person and not fret about getting everything on paper. I can also frame follow-up questions rather than following my script.”

Later, he explains, “I download my interviews to my computer, type my modest notes, then listen to the interview and fill in the blanks. I’m listening for the salient quote, not the run-on sentence, and for the interesting fact I missed in my handwritten notes.”

They key phrase here is “not fret about getting everything on paper.” Many writers fail because they try to bring back everything the source says. If that’s what you need, perhaps for a Q&A format, you use a recorder, and you need to transcribe it. But in general, taping and transcribing are the tools (and the downfall) of procrastinators.

My friend John Sawatsky called up to berate me about my aversion to taping. He’s a former investigative reporter and biographer, the world’s best teacher of interviewing. He looks for concentrated moments of news, and finds that heavy notetaking takes too much energy and attention away from what he calls “big themes.” But, when writing news or on deadline, he “takes notes as if I didn’t have the recorder.” He always writes down the counter numbers of key quotes.

He shared his technique for using a recorder on fast-breaking news. He would take notes, including counter numbers. He’d mark up his notes, transcribing key moments from the recording, write the first two sentences, and then dictate the story on the phone to a rewrite man using his notes and selected transcriptions.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so snarly about transcribing as a waste of time. But notice that both Tom and John transcribed only key quotes, not the whole recording. Tom Berner is right; it’s how you use your tools and techniques that counts.

[Want to get into this debate? Let’s hear what you think.]

Published in: on April 15, 2009 at 9:35 am  Leave a Comment  

Off the Record

We attribute quotations to the speaker so readers can judge the validity of the information. But sometimes sources want to tell us things without their names on it. They might fear being fired, for instance, for revealing secrets. The off-the-record process allows us to grant them that privilege, but it harms the readers’ understanding and reduces our credibility. So we use the technique sparingly, only to protect the source and because the information has compelling public importance.

Everybody knows the phrase “Off the record,” but few agree on what it means. Professional journalists would agree that everything a source says is available for public quoting and attribution, unless the writer and the source agree ahead of time that it is not.

Several technical terms govern sourcing agreements: “Off the record,” “not for attribution,” and “on background.”

Casually used, “Off the record” usually means that the writer may quote statements but not attribute them to the source, in other words, not for attribution. Others think that it means the writer may not quote or attribute the statement, but can use it to obtain the same information elsewhere. A strict definition would say that the writer cannot use the information at all, even to follow it up; this version is often called “On background.”

Unless the publication you write for has specific policies on these terms, I recommend the following procedures. When a source wants to “go off the record,” i.e., say something without attribution, you reply something like this: “By ‘off the record,’ you mean I can use this information, even quote it, as long as I don’t put your name on it? We call that ‘not for attribution?’ Okay?” If the source agrees, you write, “Not for attribution” in your notes, and record the time. As soon as possible, get the source to agree that you’re back on the record and write, “On the record” and the time. Years later, perhaps in court, you can document exactly what was and was not on the record.

Here’s a magic technique to get off-the-record stuff back onto the record. Near the end of an interview, try something like this, coming on slow and easy. “I’d like to use some of the things you said off the record. Could we review them and make sure we agree?” The source agrees. Then read some fairly innocent thing said in confidence, and ask if you can use it. The source agrees. Then read some less innocent thing said in confidence, and ask if you can use it. The source agrees. Then ask if you can use the part about the axe murder. Be ready for follow-up questions.

This trick succeeds about half the time. Why does it work? Sources tell you something in confidence because they’re afraid or not sure what you’ll do with it. Later in the interview, particularly after hard questions, if you’ve created an atmosphere of trust, they worry less, and will reconsider passages.

What if the source tells you something terrific, and then announces it’s off the record? You don’t accept that condition; you negotiate. You might also ask why the source wants the information off the record. If you play hard-ass (“You said it, bud, and it’s goin’ in my piece.”), the interview is over, and you can’t ask follow-up questions.


There are also legal and ethical aspects of this process. Going off the record is a retroactive corporate decision. Such agreements, even oral ones, are legal contracts between the source and the publishing organization, which may or may not be the writer. Be prepared to identify your sources to your editors.

I believe we have an ethical obligation to protect unsophisticated sources with a warning. A shrewd interviewer can get an innocent to say almost anything, but that doesn’t mean you should publish it. The warning might go like this: “Your mother is going to read this. Are you sure you want to say that in public?” Sometimes being ethical can lose good quotes, but you can live with yourself later.

Finally, never violate off-the-record agreements, which are promises based on trust. You won’t get to talk to that source again, and that source will no longer talk to me. Once bitten, always bitter.

[Want to disagree with this skeletal view of off the record? Let’s hear what you think.]

Published in: on April 12, 2009 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Running Copy

Have you ever wondered how sportswriters produce stories so soon after the game ends? The Toronto Sun could get articles and columns on the street by 1 a.m. about a hockey game that ended after 10:30 p.m. They didn’t write it after the game, but during the game, using techniques called “running copy.”

You write a continuous narrative to capture a developing event, such as the championship game of the Final Four, a chef preparing a miraculous dessert, or a problematic birth. You draft action paragraphs as events unfold, without worrying too much about significance until later. The problem is that you don’t know until the end what was really important for the outcome. So running copy is like taking notes, only in a more finished form. The techniques work best when you can predict the overall shape, actors, and conventions of the event, such as a Senate hearing.

Themes develop as you go along, and you can revise key paragraphs during breaks in the action. If leads or endings or key sentences pop into your head, you type them in. You can select or revise or delete them later. Some writers take separate notes, while others simply type notes into the running copy.

When the event ends, you may want some reactions from the actors, and it’s easy to poke them into the existing frame. You make final decisions about beginnings and endings and structure, do a quick revision, and submit it. Although I’m emphasizing speed here, these techniques work well for handling a lot of fairly predictable information seen from a limited vantage point.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? They key sentence in that previous paragraph is “predictable.” Sometimes the event is running smoothly on rails, and you know exactly how it’ll all turn out, and you start revising toward that end, just tidying up. And suddenly, the patient dies. Luckily you don’t have to write from scratch. You re-select what you’ve written, re-cast the order, compose a new lead and ending, maybe grab a few new reactions. See why screenfuls of pre-written paragraphs pay off?

In a related technique, you compose running copy and file it as fast as you type it, usually by some sort of electronic hookup, such as the Internet. An editor receives it, and edits each bit as it comes in, awaiting the writer’s final decisions. In some cases, the editor actually writes the story from what you send, reminiscent of early days of newspaper rewrite men. “Hello, Sweetheart, get me rewrite.”

Like all methods that try to get things out as fast as possible, running copy risks publishing errors by not being properly edited. Copyeditors may not have time to check facts outside the narrative, such as sports statistics. For example, the writer might say from memory that this is the worst loss in 15 years, when it isn’t.

Now, you’re thinking that you don’t cover events, much less sports, so running copy is irrelevant for you. But you should try it, even on a few pieces you don’t submit. You’ll be surprised how it improves your normal notetaking and speedy decision making.

[Know any running-copy techniques? I’d like to hear them.]

Published in: on April 7, 2009 at 9:57 am  Comments (2)  

Mid-Process Consultation

Writers generally talk to somebody official at the beginning and end of writing a piece. They take assignments and brainstorm at the front, and answer questions when the piece is edited. Debriefing involves talking with an editor just before typing, and we’ll talk about it elsewhere.

Different specialists help in different ways in different parts of the middle of the process. At the very beginning of gathering information, librarians and researchers can enrich your materials and save you lots of time. They listen to what you’re up to, and tell you which parts they can get for you, usually online. They can suggest sources you don’t have or know about. They can find things in back files and previous issues of periodicals faster than you can. A good librarian is a godsend , and you should cultivate at least one. I collect them.

Photographers make great companions while you’re gathering materials. Many writers discover that their best quotes were spoken to their photographers, and photographers know that they see more and better with another set of eyes to spot things. A photographer will make you more likely to see visual information, and just one photo may save you and your readers three hard paragraphs. Driving to the scene, brainstorm with your photographer about what you’re after and ways to treat it. Driving back, map out the piece with the photographer. Television crews do this planning on the fly routinely.

Graphic artists are great brainstormers simply because they don’t think like a writer, like you. They can package complex information into graphs, charts, diagrams, videos, and pictures that explain things better than words. Think for a moment about the internal structure of your wrist; now imagine it moving, and then broken, and then repaired surgically. Impossible with words alone.

We think of copyeditors as late in the process, but they’re also helpful in the middle, particularly with questions of format and usage. You flatter them when you ask them for advice early, and they will treat your copy better later. Copyeditors know everything, not just the rules of publication, but also the corporate memory of treating the subject. A skilled headline writer can pop a disorganized article into focus, and you want that clarity while you’re still typing. Copyeditors can perform magic on key sentences that need work.

Here’s a copyeditor trick you can do by yourself. When you have a problem, cover the screen and ask out loud, “What am I trying to say here?” Answer the question orally, and the solution will pop into your head. This technique works even better and faster with two people.

Why don’t writers ask for help in the middle of their writing process? They don’t want to seem stupid. They think that only weak writers need help. They don’t have any helpers. They don’t have time to save time. Lame; ask for help.

You may not have access to any of these helpful specialists where you work, especially if you’re a freelancer. But sometimes you will, and you should get their best help from them while you’ve got them. Seek them out and cultivate them; they’ll make you better.

[Anybody care to contribute anecdotes about mid-process helpers?]

Published in: on April 6, 2009 at 6:31 pm  Leave a Comment