Your internal persona

In my previous post, I showed you how to use your “persona” to free up your writing. Your persona is the speaking voice your readers perceive as they read, and is not the same as you, the author. It’s a fictionaled version of yourself directed at outsiders.

There’s also an internal persona, how you represent yourself to yourself. It’s also an artifact you create and modify. In sticky situations while you’re gathering information, it can push you through barriers to get what you need.

My son Jason, then 16, attended a summer course for student journalists at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. He liked to hang around Al Lang Stadium, right up the street, where his favorite New York Mets played during spring training. One day, he lurked outside the empty stadium’s gate, staring at the pitcher’s mound. He wanted to stand on that hillock and see what home plate looked like to pitchers, but the sign over his head commanded “No admittance!” He looked at the mound, then at the sign, then the mound, then the sign. Then he asked permission and got it. He swaggered onto the field and stood on the mound.

How did he do that? He thought of himself as a student journalist, rather than just another baseball fan. His journalist persona made him act like one. Put on the face of a tiger, and you’ll be one.

I’ve interviewed many reporters who covered disasters, wars, and mayhem. Each told a story of a moment of extreme danger, and I always asked them how they kept themselves from going to pieces. Every one of them said he just took notes on what frightened him. They let their journalist persona function rather than giving in to their fear as a person.

Many writers never produce deep stories because they hesitate to approach people or ask hard questions. Your mother warned you not to talk to strangers and not to bother people you don’t know. And she might have a heart attack if she heard you asking tough, intrusive questions. My very-Southern mother would disown me if she knew I talked to strangers about that most taboo of subjects: money; even worse, I write about it.

You deal with your mother’s restrictions by defining your own persona, not as a child, but as a writer, and living it. “That’s what writers do, Mom. I have a license to ask questions, dodge hand grenades, and stand on the mound.”

[Care to share stories of defining your persona?]

Published in: on August 31, 2009 at 6:03 pm  Comments (4)  

Your External Persona

Readers perceive someone speaking to them from the page. We call this character “the narrator,” and name the device “voice.” Voice is the illusion that the page speaks. It’s created by the consistent use of rhetorical devices.

I originally typed, “I is created by the consistent use of rhetorical devices.” Indeed, the first person singular “I” who narrates much writing, including this blog post, is one of those devices.

There’s another character involved here, the “persona,” the fictional person who does the talking. You’ve had a persona your whole life, probably without knowing it; it enables your social life.

When you talk with another person, one on one, the “real you” is not doing the talking, nor is the other person’s “real you” speaking. Both of you are using personas, masks, puppets that you hold up between you. This persona is the fictional you that you create and control by what it says and does, and how it looks. It’s an artifact; you made it, and you spend your whole life remaking it. Life is an act, your persona is the character you play, and you are the actor. Most people have several personas, at the simplest level, public and private.

Writing is a form of acting, in that we impersonate the voice speaking from the page. The author is not the persona; authors position their personas between their real selves and their readers.

That distance frees the author from the prison of sincerity. When Joan Baez sings, “I am a man of constant sorrow,” she does not expect her listeners to assume she has changed her gender. The author is always the author, but the author can make the persona speak as a man or a woman, a whaler, Pontius Pilate, worms on Noah’s Ark, whatever.

When Gail Collins writes a column in the New York Times, the persona Gail Collins does the talking. In non-fiction, we’re seldom as sure of what we’re saying as we sound on the page. The persona enables irony.

Isn’t the persona a form of lying? Yes, just as the mask you hold up in front of you when you talk with your mother is a form of lying, even for good social purposes. You seldom say what you really think or mean. (Mothers get problematic when they say what they really think.) Rather than call this handy device “lying,” we could better think of it as fiction. All writing is a form of fiction, in that it rearranges reality to represent the world, just as a map is a form of fiction as it flattens the round Earth.

You’ve perfected this powerful device all your life, probably unconsciously, and now you have a name for it: my persona. Now let it free you to write what you want to say.

[What sort of persona do you use? How did you create it? My next post will discuss your internal persona.]

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 8:57 am  Comments (2)  

Picking up material

Someday you’ll be writing a story about an event, say, a trade show or a conference, and you’ll notice someone walking in front of you picking up everything available. When you look closer, you’ll discover she’s gathering anything with a picture, logo, map, diagram, or list on it. Congratulations, you’re about to meet one of my students, who’s doing something we call “vacuuming.”

The swag has two audiences and two purposes. It’s for the writer to help make the story visual, and it’s for graphics people to use for illustration.

Most writers can’t draw and forget their camera, so they have trouble taking notes on visual things, such as the layout of rooms, details of machines, arrangements of objects, or the look of art works. If you don’t take notes on things, you’ll have trouble recalling them later when you need them. Visual materials spark your memory, and allow precise description. And if you’re working online, you need original objects for illustration, not just downloaded video, which may or may not fit.

Sometimes you can’t take objects with you, so take a picture or a photocopy of it. You don’t necessarily need a good copy if you’re only using it for notetaking. Ask people sitting nearby if you can get a copy elsewhere. Here’s a little secret for you: most people sitting behind tables in the halls of hotels want you to carry stuff off so they don’t have to lug it back to their office.

You also bring things back for graphic artists to turn into visuals. My Poynter colleague Pegie Stark Adam taught me not to worry about the condition of stuff; artists can do magic with almost anything. Matchbook with a coffee stain on it; no problem. Half a map, no sweat. Just bring it back.

If possible, brainstorm with the graphics people, explaining what you want to say and how. Because they don’t think like you, they come up with terrific ideas. Think for a moment about trying to describe the uniform of a Vatican Swiss guard in words. Piece of cake with one photo or a drawing. Graphic artists can save you and your readers many hard paragraphs.

So vacuum the scene and lug it all back. Such treasures will make your stories rich.

[Got any anecdotes about bringing back visual materials?]

Published in: on August 28, 2009 at 4:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Using business cards

Ask everyone you interview or talk to for a business card, and give them one in return. They not only contain information; they also contain messages and images that suggest the character of the owner and the organization. My first business card from the Poynter Institute had gold lettering; get the message? It also got my title wrong.

Study the card immediately, and ask if everything on it’s correct. Sounds like an obnoxious question, but half the time, the answer is no. The commonest mistakes are the title and the e-mail address, which tend to change often.

Now you have the person’s full name, full title, full spelling of the organization, its address and logo, its phone number and that of the source, the e-mail address, maybe a fax number, and, if you’re really lucky, the home phone. You’re ready for any Stylebook requirement copy editors ask for.

Some writers staple business cards into their notes; very efficient and accurate storage. Others have files of business cards, organized by name, story, business, city, somehow. I love annotation, so I tend to write notes on business cards to remind me who the person was and anything distinctive. Needless to say, if the card has errors, correct them.

Several writers I know keep business cards in no order at all, usually in a drawer, and pull them out at random to get story ideas. My friend Dele Olojede would call up people from his unorganized pile and ask them what’s going on.

Why would you give a source your card? It helps to establish your image in an interview as a reliable professional. It allows the source to call you the next day when she figures out what she really wanted to say. And it gives the source a way to find you much later when she wants to tip you off.

[Got any neat tricks with business cards?]

Published in: on August 27, 2009 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Your writers’ group

Writing is hard, and everybody who does it needs help. But most writers don’t get any help, even if they work on a magazine or a newspaper staff. No matter where you work, even alone, you know some other writers who want help. So start a writers’ group.

You need three things for a writers’ group: two writers and something written to discuss. The most helpful sessions use work in progress; simply talking about it at all will usually improve a piece. You can also do post-mortems on your own published pieces or on classic works, such as those in various “Best of …” anthologies, like the Poynter Institute’s Best Newspaper Writing annual.

The usual way to discuss works is to “tear them apart,” listing everything that’s wrong. This kind of critique makes writers afraid and despairing, and should be avoided at all cost. Savage critiques do not improve writing.

The better way is to ask, “What works, and what needs work?” The first question says that parts of this piece are under control or finished or evidence that the writer is not hopeless. The second question implies that anything can be made better with more effort, which is mostly true.

You don’t get substantially better as a writer by getting rid of what’s wrong or bad. You get better by magnifying strengths. You figure out what you’re doing well and improve that. The bad stuff tends to go away when the effective parts get better.

In any writers’ group I join, negative criticism would be forbidden.

You can also have more than two writers, even a club meeting regularly. To start one, just announce it. I was eating lunch with a group of reporters on a paper that wrote badly, where nobody helped anybody. Two writers told me they wanted to start a writers’ group, but they were afraid nobody else would join. I stood up and announced the group, and everybody joined. If you build it, they will come.

Some writers’ groups are official, sponsored and financed by the publication, and meet regularly. Usually they involve staff lunches, sometimes with visiting speakers. The best one I attended featured two firefighters explaining what to look for at a house fire. The success of official groups depends on the quality of the program.

Writers get better not just by writing better, but also by talking about writing. So call a friend and create your own help.

[What’s your experience with writers’ groups?]

Published in: on August 26, 2009 at 12:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Imagining your reader

In a previous blog, I said it’s usually not a good idea to write with an actual, specific reader in mind. Let’s explore that advice a little deeper.

Actually most authors do write for a specific person, themselves. Remember the title of this blog and the book it will become: “Writing Your Own Way, and in Your Own Voice.” What could be more egocentric than that?

We’re not talking about who will actually read the piece, but whom you picture as you write it. Here are some imagined audiences:
1. Yourself, when you’re writing notes or a diary
2. One person, or a few, such as for a business letter to your department head, who may share it with other staffers
3. A specialized group, such as the 27 other scholars in the world who study Old English riddles
4. The general public, the hardest audience of all to picture.

You would imagine the audience to gauge what they know already, and what you have to explain. You assume you know what they know, but you don’t. My wife Joan drives me crazy starting conversations in the middle, when I don’t know which of the myriad subjects we talk about she’s onto this time. We assume that what’s in our heads is in the heads of our pictured audience. Wrong.

Suppose you’re right about what your pictured reader knows, but except in letters, the audience is usually larger. Your specific targeting may exclude the rest of the audience.

If you’re afraid of the person you picture, you’re likely to write mush. Many writers try to weed out anything their editor will question. They picture him (it’s usually a him) blowing his stack, and they avoid the imagined conflict by writing as blandly as possible. Then they wonder why writing bores them.

[Attention, any editor reading this. If you yell at your writers, they’ll turn in mush and bore you to death.]

Picturing your imaginary reader’s reaction may also make you write nothing at all. Many writers plan to produce a memoir, but they’re waiting for their parents to die first. They imagine how their mother will react when they reveal that she was the worst cook in the history of the world (mine was), or that their father will be offended when they tell how he terrified the family with his determination to pass every other car on the road (mine did). So you don’t even start your autobiography. You may even pre-decease your parents, unpublished.

Someone asked the tennis star Jimmy Connors if he pictured each shot before he hit it. He replied that he pictured himself accepting the trophy. So if you must picture someone as you write, imagine yourself opening an acceptance letter from The New Yorker.

[Whom do you picture as you write? Why?]

Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Cleaning up quotes

With quotations, you have four choices: paraphrase, clean up, fragmentary, or verbatim. Actually verbatim quoting is rare because most sources don’t speak clearly enough for prose.

Sources mostly tell us things in conversation, and we have to convert what they say to make it work in prose.

In conversation, the audience is present with the speaker, so you can use informal grammar, pronouns, and gestures, both physical and vocal. I can point to a member of an audience and say, “He’s the one to lead us out of this mess.” If you see the one I pointed at, no problem, but if you’re not present, you have to guess which male I meant. Or I might have said, “Our leader,” as I pointed him out; people who aren’t there will get confused by the sentence fragment. And I might have rolled my eyes as I spoke and pointed, but you weren’t there and didn’t catch that I was mocking him.

In prose, the audience is not present, and we have to turn gestures into description, substitute nouns for pronouns, use more formal grammar, etc. So most quotations have to be messed with, so readers can understand them. Verbatim quoting rarely happens, despite the rhetoric of American journalism that everything between quote marks is exactly as spoken.

Take fillers, for example. We routinely delete fillers such as “well,” “um,’ you know,” etc. They’re really a form of oral punctuation, and we don’t notice them in conversation. But they jump off the page or screen if you leave them in, especially a lot of them. Sometimes we leave one or two in, especially “you know,” just to keep the quote sounding conversational. But if readers notice them, you lose the effect.

Writers routinely and silently clean up quotations, correcting grammatical errors, deleting obscenity, etc. Your source says, “That goddamn pack of thieves up there, you know, are in bed with them.” Problems: swearing, subject-verb disagreement, unclear geographic reference, and an unspecified pronoun. So the quote will probably get manipulated into something like this: “That pack of thieves up there [in Washington] is in bed with [the health-care industry].” And your editor will question the sexual slang of “in bed with.” The messed-with quote is still a mess. So what to do?

First and foremost, you can paraphrase it. In general, if you can write it better than the source said it, you should. Two dominating principles: you have to get it right, and your readers have to understand it. So it might come out like this: “Smith said that Congress is collaborating with the health-care companies.”

Or you can clean it up a little, taking out the filler and the swearing, correcting the grammar, and clarifying the groups involved. And it comes out like this: “Smith criticized both the Congress and the health-care industry: ‘That pack of thieves up there is in bed with them.’” We usually make grammatical changes silently (“are” to “is”) because it might take too much apparatus to tell readers what we did.

Or you can shrink the quote to a couple of fragments, like this: “Smith said that Congress, ‘that pack of thieves,’ is ‘in bed with’ the health-care industry.” You gain in clarity, but the quote is hard to read, and readers will wonder what you left out.

Or you could leave it verbatim and indicate all the changes you made, like this: “That … pack of thieves up there [in Washington] … are [sic] in bed with them [the health-care industry].” See, the more you have to do to make a quote work, the worse it gets, although it’s clearer.

All of these tactics, even verbatim quoting, are a form of fiction. What you publish is not exactly what the person said or how it was said. You have to judge just how fictional you want to be. In hard cases, consult your editor.

You have one other option: leave the quote out. Faced with a problematic quote, ask yourself, “Will this quote add to my reader’s understanding, or do I just want to put it in because I like it? Is it worth all the apparatus I’ll need to make it intelligible?” More often than not, you’ll delete both the quote and the problem.

One other tactic happens much earlier, during interviews. You hear what could make a good quote, but it’s a mess. So you lean forward and say to your subject, “Oh, stop, that’s good, but I didn’t get it all down. Could you say it again?’ And it comes out better the second time. I once asked a source to repeat what she had just said, using nouns for the pronouns. It worked.

[Got any anecdotes about struggling with quotes?]

Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 1:30 pm  Comments (2)  

Your own quiet zone

All my best ideas happen in the shower, and I write my best sentences in my head while driving. Essentially I create a kind of quiet zone. (The idea for this post occurred to me while driving to a hotel one night, and I composed this lead in the shower the next morning.)

Writers tend to frazzle themselves chasing information, and you need ways to slow things down so you can think and plan and compose. Slowing down speeds you up overall.

For example, Sam Stanton covered agriculture for The Sacramento Bee, which involved long drives back to the office to write. He would plan his story at 70 miles an hour by asking himself questions aloud, and then just steer “until the lead formed on the windshield.”

California Zen has nothing to do with this technique. The secret lies in shedding distractions so you can see larger patterns., and the chief distractions are fear of failure and drowning in detail. These problems happen whether you work in an office or alone.

Quiet zones range from simple to complex, and can involve space as well as time. The great editorial writer Richard Aregood would slowly circle the newsroom as he composed a piece in his head. His colleagues would leave him alone, and quipped that they knew Richard was about to type when he passed the water cooler. I don’t work in an office, but I got a similar effect by writing in my head while mowing the lawn.

An editor friend of mine wears a red baseball cap when she wants total seclusion to write, which she does right in the middle of her six demanding writers, who temporarily respect her privacy, and then deluge her when she takes the cap off. They can only interrupt her if the building’s on fire. Her isolation in a noisy room consists of not being spoken to.

In your busy office, you can create a quiet zone simply by holding the phone to your head and moving your lips; no one will interrupt you.

Gathering information almost always involves sitting around while nothing is happening. In a library, plan while you wait for your book orders to arrive. If you’re reviewing a restaurant, you can think between courses. You can jot down ideas during ceremonial parts of an event, for example, while the chair blithers about the organization’s history. Interviewers can plan in waiting rooms, after they’ve surveyed the walls for clues to their subject’s personality.

You can create a moving or a static quiet zone. When I worked at the Poynter Institute, we used to improve meetings by walking around together. You can walk up and down a hall, or sit in your car. A friend of mine thinks in a bathroom stall; this technique works better if you don’t talk to yourself aloud.

[Where are your quiet zones?]

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 6:15 pm  Comments (6)  

Planning by rehearsing

A famous psychology experiment showed that people who rehearse what’s about to happen handle it better. You sit in front of three closed doors. When one door opens, you have to perform complicated tasks using controls revealed behind that door. Psychologists then interview you.

They found that those who imagined what might be behind the doors performed markedly better, even when what they envisioned had nothing to do with what actually happened. The process of rehearsal itself enhanced their actions.

A writer can use those findings at the beginning of Gathering. Writers who rehearse what they are about to find out see more and hear better. Those who imagine multiple scenarios discover even more.

There’s a problem. Some writers streamline their gathering by deciding exactly what they will find out, and they set out to find just that, nothing more. A young reporter once told me that when she had her facts and a quote, she had enough. I asked her if she liked her stories, and she replied that she “found them kinda thin.”

Imagining the piece helps, no matter how you do it. Imagining multiple stories makes the process rich.

How would you imagine multiple stories? Let’s say that you’re writing about a company in California that lets wealthy clients create their own wine. As you drive to the winery, you start spinning scenarios on what you’re about to discover:

1. A legitimate operation that caters to rich connoisseurs
2. A fraudulent outfit that creates illusions for suckers
3. A well-meaning business that compromises a lot, etc.

As you arrive and start to gather, other scenarios pop up. A very efficient writer might simply push aside all but one and dig up enough to prove it. Very efficient writers tend to settle too early and miss a lot. They write fast, but “kinda thin.”

Comedians have a slogan that helps them with timing: “Wait for it.” So when you’re about to pounce, say to yourself, “Wait for it, wait for it.” And gather more.

Rehearsal also helps in the Organizing phase. Instead of trying to find THE way to do the piece, sketch out several and see which one fits what you want to say and the information you have, or can get. Our wine story might go several ways:

1. Track one client through the whole process
2. Focus on the marketing campaign
3. Describe the winemaking process in terms of options
4. Let the clients talk about the wines as you taste them, etc.

A friend of mine actually wrote this story after making his own wine. (I don’t drink, but my wife Joan judged it pretty good.) He not only spun out several scenarios, but also drafted three versions. Eventually he and his editor settled on one approach, modified it a little, and produced a fourth, final version. That sounds slow and cumbersome, but it did produce a deep story.

Rehearsal actually doesn’t take long. Just take off your earphone and imagine what you’re about to experience or write.

[Got any anecdotes about your version of rehearsal?]

Published in: on August 19, 2009 at 9:38 am  Leave a Comment  

Interview structure

Interviews enrich writing by giving you access to information you can’t get otherwise. They add human touches with quotations and anecdotes. We spend our entire lives learning to judge human character from how people say things, not just what they say. Interviews give us access to character as well as information.

What do you want from an interview? Information, understanding, and some quotations, in that order. Proper interviewing techniques and structures enable you to leave with the information you need and understand, with some quotations to enliven it.

Interviewing, like writing, has its own process:

Preparation includes everything you do before the interview proper, and Annotation happens after it ends, when you assess and correct your notes. The interview begins with a long session of Base, where you establish a relationship that allows you to gather facts. Close In, which does not necessarily happen in every interview, involves asking difficult, even uncomfortable, questions. Close Out cleans up unresolved issues, confirms statements, and gets material onto the record.

The more you know going into an interview, the better you listen. Good listening allows you to ask good follow-up questions, where the best stuff lies, as we saw in Katie Couric’s interviews with Sarah Palin in 2008. Preparation includes reading documents, especially on the person you’re about to interview. You should also schedule difficult interviews later, so you can learn a lot in the easier ones.

And while you’re in the waiting room before the interview, look around. Waiting rooms express the personality of the person who owns them. For example, you notice a signed photograph of your subject fishing for tarpon with George H. W. Bush, so you start with, “I noticed a picture of you fishing with George Bush.” And your subject talks volubly, and you’re off.

Asking about basic information takes up most of any interview, but it also creates a relationship between you and the source. We use body language to encourage subjects, convincing them of our professionalism and fascination with them as persons:
· Lean toward the subject.
· Maintain eye contact
· Nod your head and say, “Uh huh.”
· Smile and laugh at jokes.
· Take it slow.
· Keep saying, “Tell me more about that.”

Sounds like dating, doesn’t it? Well, interviewing and dating use many of the same skills.

“Now wait a minute,” you object, “television interviewers don’t act like that. They ask hard questions right away, and stay in the subject’s face.” Right you are, but most television interviewers are after faces and conflict, not facts.

Here’s the hard part: you have to react sincerely, or the subject will spot you as a phony and a manipulator. End of interview. If you think of yourself as a manipulator, you’ll look like one. So think of yourself as a professional forming a bridge between this subject and your reader. Treat both fairly.

Close-In happens at the end of Base, when you realize that you and your subject can handle tough questions. Many writers fail to write deep stories because they can’t ask hard questions. They either don’t know how, or they’re afraid. But proper techniques and attitudes will get you there.

You don’t want to ask hard questions until your subject’s ready to answer them. But how do you know the magic moment has arrived? Watch the subjects’ body language:
· Enjoying the conversation
· Telling you things you didn’t ask
· Hands and arms away from the body
· Leaning in and smiling, etc.

So the subject’s ready, but are you? Your mother taught you not to ask rude questions, and here you are sitting with an important person, about to ask him why he added melamine to baby formula. Your mother yells in your ear, “No, no, no, don’t ask him that! Be nice!” You say to yourself, “Quiet, Mother. I’m a professional writer, and I have a license to ask hard questions.”

Then you say, “This next question may seem a little harsh, but I have to ask it. Why did you add melamine to the baby formula?” Then you just sit there maintaining eye contact and wait. And wait. And wait. And keep your mouth shut and wait. And the source will either throw you out or answer the question.

If you’re still in the room, the next few follow-up questions will probably yield the treasure. Listen, ask the follow-up, shut up and wait, listening.

Close-Out is the mopping-up phase. Anything you’re unsure about, now’s the time to review it. The little questions that didn’t fit before, ask them now. And ask the source if you can call back later in case you need to check something. You might say you work at home at night, so would she mind if you called her at home.

See how you create trust? By coming on slow and easy and unthreatening.

At the very end of Close-Out, something magic often occurs. You close your notebook and stand up to leave, thanking the source. Suddenly she starts talking about something you didn’t ask about because you didn’t know about it. You open your notebook and ask good follow-ups until this phase runs out.

Why does this wonderful revelation happen? The source has something she wants to talk about, but you didn’t bring it up. So always prompt for it, like this: “Thank you for being so open with me. By the way, is there anything I didn’t bring up that you’d like to talk about?”

As soon as the interview ends, if possible, sit down and annotate your notes. Expand contractions and abbreviations. Inventory what you got and what you missed. If you’re still on site, you can probably get what you need in a document, right there.

[I learned much of what I’ve just said from John Sawatsky. Thanks, John.]
[Care to share your interviewing tricks?]

Published in: on August 17, 2009 at 4:01 pm  Comments (5)