Getting unstuck

You’re typing along, and suddenly you’re not typing along. You’re stuck. Nothing is falling out of your fingers into the keys. How can you unjam yourself?

It helps to know where you’re stuck in the writing process: Idea, Gathering, Organizing, Drafting, Revising. Let’s say you’re in the Gathering stage, what journalists call “reporting.” And you’re typing notes, but they don’t add up, no patterns. What’s wrong? You don’t know what you’re after. You need to back up to the Idea stage and ask developing questions, such as “What is this likely to be about?” or “Who are the players?”

Or you’re in the Organizing stage, but you can’t type an outline or a point statement or even a list of important things. What’s wrong? You can’t organize because you don’t have the right materials. You haven’t Gathered enough, or you don’t understand what you do have.

Or you’re Drafting, and the next sentence won’t come. What’s wrong? You don’t know what you want to say. So you back up to the Organizing stage and ask focusing questions: “What’s this about? What are my main points? What do I need to tell my readers?”

Or you’re Revising, and you keep retyping a sentence that just won’t land. What’s wrong? You’re trying to say something you don’t believe or can’t prove. In this case, you back up two stages and reorganize with focusing questions. You may need a little more Gathering. Then ask, “What do I really want to say?”

The writing process shows you not to look for the problem where you are, but in an earlier stage.

Asking yourself why you’re stuck tends not to work, because now you’re thinking about yourself instead of what you want to say. And that’s often the problem. Your Internal Critic offers up a whole repertoire of distractions:

Why can’t you type the next sentence?
Your editor will hate this.
If you submit this crap, everybody will know you’re a fraud.
Maybe your 10th-grade teacher was right about your being too stupid to become a writer.

Here’s a basic principle for staying unstuck:
Wait a minute, how do you NOT think about something? By thinking something else, something more productive, like “What do I want to say here?” or “It’s the content, dope.”

You can always take a break, as long as you don’t turn it into one more distraction. For example, don’t read email, but you might look up your Amazon rankings.

My friend Russ Parsons, star food writer at the LA Times, has a method for getting back underway. He says, “When I get stuck, I mean really stuck, sometimes I’ll jump ahead to the next section, one I know I have a good plan for, and start from there. That kind of unlocks the gears.” Some writers jump out of a jam into an easy part. And a few writers just type whatever falls out of their fingers until it turns into sentences.

[How do you unstick yourself?]

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Reading aloud

Revision goes faster if you know what you need to revise, and you can find out by reading your draft aloud. Simply print a copy and read it aloud with a pencil in your hand.

By “aloud,” I do not mean under your breath. You want your words leaving your mouth and entering your ear, because you’re recreating the experience of the readers as your voice rings inside their heads. When you read silently, you bounce along the phrases, not individual words. When we read aloud, we have to pronounce every word. And many problems in clarity and rhythm result from little words colliding with big ones.

Make a tic in the margin as you read aloud beside anything that bumps you. Don’t stop to fix it. Bumps include running out of breath, sounds clashing in your mouth, misspelled words, grammar and usage lapses, sentences that don’t make sense, missing stuff, rough phrasing, etc. Also put a tic beside things you want to check or phrase better. When you finish reading, the tics in the margin will show you everything you need to change.

Reading aloud also gives you some idea of your readers’ experience to come. They don’t read aloud, of course, but you’re sampling how your own voice will sound in their heads. You would tic the margin for anything that doesn’t sound like you.

Remember that this induced voice is an artifact, created by the devices you use consistently. You’ll notice breakdowns in the artifice as you read aloud, and you can repair them. This constant tuning makes your writing voice consistent.

Here’s an example. Two paragraphs back, I typed: “but you’re approximating how your own voice will sound in their heads.” “Approximating” is a fine word and accurate, but it’s a higher level of diction than my blog voice normally uses. I read aloud as I type, so I bumped on that word before I finished the sentence. I tried several rephrasings: “edging up to,” “closing in on,” “testing,” and finally “sampling.” I chose “sampling” because of its associations with sound and music. Then I thought of “tasting,” a nice metaphor, but maybe too tricky.

Reading aloud will also allow you to experience the readers’ pace and expectation of length. You’re droning along and find yourself thinking, “Hmmm, this seems long.” It feels long to you because it is.

[Anybody got an anecdote of discovering something while reading aloud?]

Published in: on May 28, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (2)  

Writing edgy

Writing with edge is easier to do than define. You manipulate your voice, slanting it toward a particular personality. That persona is a fiction, an adopted pose, not necessarily the real you. But it’s easier to pull off if you’re an edgy person.

We could define edgy as “writing with attitude,” as opposed to objectivity or neutrality or evenness. That attitude tends towards smartness, even “smart-ass-ness,” to make up a word. It involves sophistication, even worldliness beyond the normal and the daily. It usually includes wit, bordering on wickedness. The smartness implies a sense of superiority, even snobbishness, and on to arrogance and downright meanness.

That spectrum could describe the range of restaurant and book reviewers, specialties noted for edginess. We associate edgy talk with certain cities, such as Berlin, Toronto, and New York.

Let’s look at an example, David Brooks’s lead on a review of two new restaurants:

“The great thing about being in Washington, D.C., at the dawn of an administration is that there are so many new backs to stab. Every four or eight years, fresh faces come in from all over America, and some old faces come back after having piled up mountains of private-sector cash. All of us who live here permanently have to figure out how we can welcome these people, how we can befriend them, help them, and then suck them dry before sending them back to the miserable little places from whence they came.”

This edgy voice assumes the point of view of the Washington insiders, superior to the newcomers and to everybody else. This piece appeared in Food & Wine, not in the Washington Post. The reader (you) is not included among the superiors. The voice is talking down to you, while mocking others. And that’s the paradox of edgy writing, its tricky stance toward readers.

Let’s look at some of Brooks’s techniques. First, he plays positive language against negative: “the great thing” and “dawn of an administration” against “backs to stab.” “Welcome these people… befriend… help” versus “suck them dry.” Comedians would call juxtaposing contrasting things “setup.” Juxtaposed things interact in the readers’ heads.

Brooks uses “slant vision,” violating expected points of view to show readers a new and surprising way to look at things. The paragraph begins with newcomers to be welcomed and ends with them exiled to their “miserable little places.” Notice the closing phrase “from whence they came,” archaic language asserting old superiority.

Brooks uses irony, saying the opposite of what you mean, to show readers his slant vision. We’re not sure he means it (he just might), and that ambiguity makes us wonder whose side we’re on. His witty phrasing makes you see it from his side, even siding with him against a target that includes yourself. He’s also satirizing the snotty attitude of people who live inside the Beltway, as opposed to the newbies. Consider the attitudes in my word “newbies” (rhymes with “boobies” and “babies”).

He uses exaggeration to show you the insiders’ point of view, while parodying it: “some old faces come back after having piled up mountains of private-sector cash.” And all this heavy lifting in a three-sentence lead paragraph atop a restaurant review.

You run two risks in writing edgy: overdoing it, and being misunderstood. It’s hard to know how far to go, how awful you want to be on the spectrum from kidding to vicious. Edgy drafts tend to get edgier because they’re so much fun to write. You need a good editor to write risky.

You have to assume when writing edgy, especially satirical, that a quarter of your audience will take it straight. Your edgy persona is not really you, but a lot of your readers will not make that distinction. Many people still think Jonathan Swift advised eating Irish babies.

[Any adventures in writing or editing edgy you’d like to share?]

Published in: on May 22, 2009 at 5:37 pm  Comments (3)  

Writing leads

What’s going on in your readers’ heads as they start to read a piece? They make predictions about content; is this something they want and need to know? They predict whether they’ll understand your prose; if not, they feel stupid and drop out. They estimate how long the piece is and if they have time for it. They start imagining a personality speaking to them from the page, what we call “voice.”

All of this subconscious calculating happens in the “path” (photo > title > caption > lead). By the time they finish your first sentence, they have a fairly clear picture of what to expect. Fairly clear if all these elements are crafted well and fit together, leading readers in.

Imagine a piece as a journey through unknown territory. Readers need a map and a guide. All of those devices at the top add up to a map, and the lead creates the guide. As readers start to read the text, they start judging the voice to see if they trust it. If they think the persona talking to them seems reliable, they keep reading. You have established “authority.” But if they don’t trust the voice, they don’t expect skilled guidance, and they drop out.

What establishes authority? Clarity and power. If the voice of the lead speaks clearly, the reader expects to keep understanding it. The reader expects not to get lost.

Readers are not up to speed on your voice at the beginning, so you start simply. You don’t write sentences like this:

In an effort to disarm recent allegations of ordering torture of prisoners in murky foreign settings, members of the former Bush administration, including some at the very top, who have kept silent on the subject until recently, have begun, in ways that suggest a coordinated campaign, to use friendly cable-news and talk-radio shows to create the illusion of widespread foiling of sinister plots.

Roy Clark calls that “a suitcase lead,” too much stuff crammed into too small a bag that won’t quite close. For maximum clarity, you begin with simple sentences with simple structures to ease your readers in. You don’t have to tell readers the whole story in the first paragraph. You predict the whole story, the whole journey, and readers follow you if they expect to keep understanding you.

You achieve power by certainty of tone. Simple, clear sentences imply you know what you’re talking about. Saving qualifiers until later simplifies early statements. You use strong verbs and avoid adverbs, etc., all the devices of clarity we’ll discuss elsewhere on this blog.

I think of myself as saying subconsciously to my reader at the top, “This is a tricky journey. I’ve been there; you haven’t. Take my hand, and we won’t get lost. Okay? Here we go. First, let’s….”

[You probably weren’t taught anything I’ve said here. Let’s hear your thoughts on lead writing.]

Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 9:23 am  Comments (6)  

Photo, Title, Caption, Lead

Every writer knows that readers look at their first sentence first, and that lead determines the success of their piece. They try to come up with a great lead to hook their readers.

Actually, readers enter the top of a story in this order:

If the package includes pull-out quotes, sidebars, graphics, or boxes, some readers may enter through any of these. Ten percent of readers skip the caption, but the sequence is always the same: photo(s), title (or headline), caption (or cutline), text. The only person who reads the lead first is its author.

Now you’re thinking, “Nonsense, I don’t read that way. Nobody does.” But all research confirms this pattern, which I call “the path.”

Notice where the lead falls in that sequence: fourth, last. Something in a fourth position isn’t a hook. The photo is the hook, and the headline or title does a little more hooking. Captions bridge, but don’t hook. The lead is too late in the sequence to hook anybody.

Now it gets more complicated. Whatever the reader reads first sets expectations. Readers immediately begin to predict what comes next, the content of the whole piece, and the likelihood of their understanding it. If their expectations are met, they feel smart and guided, and keep reading. If their expectations fail, they feel stupid and don’t trust you, and they stop reading.

Readers scan the photo and headline first, and those two set the expectations, not the lead. To manage your story’s success, you need to get involved in everything above the beginning of your text, where writers normally don’t tread: photo, title, caption.

First of all, help the photographer. That relationship succeeds when you work as equals, not as THE WRITER and some other guy who decorates your fabulous text with pics. If possible, gather materials with the photographer present, trading suggestions and discussing what you find and how you might use it. Failing that, make sure the photographer knows what the story is about and its content and style. Help the photographer (or photo chief or designer) select the pictures that best bring the reader into your story. Remember that photographers select aesthetically (color, composition, focus, etc.) while you want the best predicter. After the piece appears, thank photographers for good work.

Second, always suggest headlines and titles. An editor will finish them, but may not think about the title as predicter. I submit suggested headlines with everything I write, often half a dozen of them. No editor has ever published a single headline I wrote; I’m just not good at it. But I get great headlines because my suggestions supply them with key words and ideas.

Third, volunteer to write picture captions, or just submit them anyway. Captions bridge between the photo and headline into the text, often providing an enticing piece of information for the reader.

Let’s look at an example of path thinking. The photo shows a banker catching ducklings that have hatched on the façade of his bank building, and are leaping out of the nest toward the sidewalk. The photo doesn’t include the name of the bank or its logo. The headline reads, “Banker Rescues Fledglings in Mid-Air.” (I told you I’m not a whiz at headlines.) The caption reads, “Joel Armstrong, a senior loan officer at Sterling Savings Bank in Spokane, snags a mallard duckling on its maiden flight.” (Not so hot at captions either.) The caption supplies the name of the hero and his bank. See how the photo, headline, and caption work together to deliver the reader with enough intriguing information to read your wonderful lead?

Sometimes path thinking gets us out of tricky situations. A New York Times story on the Taiwan Computer Show has a photo of a touch screen. A strange shape perches on the fingertip poised over the P-key. Readers are likely to read the story wondering about that fingertip device and become confused when it does not appear. The caption solves the problem: “A model’s floral fingernails tapping a computer with Microsoft Multi-Touch software, one of many touch-screen devices shown.” The caption saves readers from distraction.

So if the lead doesn’t hook readers, what does it do and how do you write them? That’s my next blog. Stay tuned.
[Got any anecdotes of struggling with the top of a story?]

Published in: on May 20, 2009 at 4:19 pm  Leave a Comment