A sample briefing

BRIEFING is a short conversation between a writer and an editor before the writer starts gathering most of the information. The purpose is to pitch an idea, get it approved, and think out what it might be about. It begins the production process with everybody on the same wavelength, which prevents misunderstandings later. Here’s a sample briefing.

EDITOR: Okay, what’ve you got?
WRITER: An amazing invention, a new kind of fishing lure. Get this: it projects a hologram of bait fish underwater to attract larger fish and hook them.
EDITOR: You’re kidding me….
WRITER: No, I’m not. I’ve got an interview with the inventor this afternoon to see the actual machine.
EDITOR: What’s this likely to be about?
WRITER: Well, our readers fish, and it might be a tipoff of a great new product coming. Or it might be a business story. The guy actually invented it for the tuna-fishing industry.
EDITOR: Big story? Little story?
WRITER: Can’t tell until I see how real this is, and how close to getting financing. I’ll call you this afternoon after the interview.
EDITOR: Who else have you talked to?
WRITER: A friend at Rapala tipped me off. He gave me some names in the tuna industry.
EDITOR: Got a picture?
WRITER: Not yet, but I’ll see if I can get a snapshot with my phone camera. If this turns out, we’ll need a photographer who can shoot underwater.
EDITOR: I like it. Keep me informed.

Notice that the writer has done some gathering and planning and arranging ahead of the briefing, and that’s the secret:


The editor asks prompting questions about subject, size, sources, and visuals. Done well, briefings are short and launch writers knowing what they’re after, with the supervisor’s approval. Briefings also launch the editor, who now knows what’s likely to happen, and can start thinking about photos and graphics. Freelancers and their editors profit most from briefing.

[Any success stories about briefing in your career?]

Published in: on December 30, 2009 at 12:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

How to procrastinate

I collect techniques for writing, and it suddenly dawned on me this morning that I only collect techniques that work. So I want to find out some techniques that get in the way. Would you please send me via comments your strategies for procrastinating, your tactics to keep from typing? Many thanks, Don

Published in: on December 28, 2009 at 3:32 pm  Comments (16)  

Getting better in one year

Most writers I know feel burdened by the amount of material they have to produce. This load ranges from a Singaporean magazine writer, who asked me how anybody could expect him to write well when he had to produce one piece a month, to some newspaper reporters cranking out eight pieces per day. Nobody can write eight good pieces a day.

Writers who feel overwhelmed often ask me how they can get better under their particular load. Three ways: tune up your writing process, magnify strengths, and selective effort.

This whole blog (and book) show you how to tune your process so that your collection of techniques makes you fast and accurate and powerful and confident. You get rid of bad habits and assumptions, and substitute ways that work for you.

Second, most people think you improve things by getting rid of bad (other) people or mistakes. But here’s the secret of improving anything:


Figure out what you’re really good at, and magnify those things. I’m good at memory and decisiveness, so I ask how to use my memory better. I put a premium on speed, so I ask how to make good decisions faster. Actually, my memory is beginning to fade, so now I’m figuring out how to buttress it by using memory devices, taking more and sharper notes, and devising a faster way to capture ideas and things I want to use later. For instance, I often think up a little bit of a larger piece that I want to incorporate eventually. Formerly, I would have depended on remembering it and writing it later. Now I jot down a quick, good-enough draft and store it.

Third, you can improve your writing over a period of about a year by apportioning effort. Let’s say you have to write one piece a day, five a week. You can probably figure out the week ahead roughly what the subjects will be. Then you decide which one of the five subjects has the possibility of being written better if you devoted more effort to it. Let’s call the stories a, b, c, D, and e. You estimate D will be better if it gets a little more time and effort. So you reduce your time and effort on a, b, c, and e, by ten to twenty percent each, not doing them badly but quicker. Then you invest the extra time and effort in D.

Writers who have tried this trick typically gain about five or six hours added to D. Then the next week you do it again: select the likely candidate and transfer a little effort from the others. At the end of a year, you’ll have maybe fifty better pieces. Actually, you’ll have more than that because the other four stories will gradually get better.

One more technique magnifies this process. At the end of the week, ask yourself why the better story is better, and then ask how to make it better still.

[Got any anecdotes about jumping in quality?]

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 5:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Avoiding anecdotal leads

The anecdotal lead begins a piece with a little vignette or story, or a character doing something. Essentially it begins with a person. Business writers who found their subject matter boring invented the anecdotal lead to hook readers. First, you tell the anecdote, then what the piece is about, and follow with the rest of the text.

Readers begin a piece by predicting its subject. If their prediction comes true, they keep reading. But if they find material other than what they predicted, they feel confused, and drop out.

Anecdotal leads predict that the story will be about the person featured at the top. Let’s try an example:

Carole Blizzo stands in line at her local Commonwealth Bank for 45 minutes, finally reaching Harold Peterson, the man she knows as her “relationship banker.” She’s unemployed and four months behind on her adjustable mortgage, and desperate to find a way to keep her home. Peterson smiles, until he learns what she wants, and then he says, “You should have thought of that before,” over and over.
The Obama administration’s Mortgage Relief Program was supposed to help nine million Americans like Carole, but ….

Readers will predict the story’s about Carole, and they want to know what happens to her. But the story never mentions Carole again; she’s just the hook. Readers resent this kind of “bait-and-switch” tactic, and that resentment means they might skip a story they need to read.

On the other hand, Carole might serve as the spine of the story, weaving in and out of the data and analysis. Then the anecdotal lead is functional and unifies the piece, helping the readers’ understanding by providing someone they can identify with.

Besides confusing readers, they can also turn into “a writing job.” If you consider your subject matter boring and think you need a tricky lead to get anybody to read it, you’re likely to overwrite that lead. Anecdotal leads are so much more fun to write than business or government or swine-flu gibberish. If you consider your subject dull, maybe you need a new subject.

Anecdotal leads tempt copy editors to write anecdotal headlines on top of them. The headline is supposed to tell readers what the story is about. If the lead and the headline don’t tip the readers off, they get hit twice with confusing signals.

Can you make anecdotal leads effective? Sure, pick an anecdote that directly concerns the subject, put an informative headline on it, keep it short and simple, and continue the character in it throughout.

Better, don’t write anecdotal leads. Start with a solid headline, write a short lead that tells the reader what the piece is about, and follow with a brief, relevant anecdote that introduces a character readers want to know about.

Tell stories, rather than trying to fake out your readers.

[Yes, I know you love anecdotal leads. How do you make them effective?]

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 8:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Showing versus telling

Many writing guides advise, “Show, don’t tell.” Bad advice. You tell readers about things, but you show things to them. I can tell you that my mother was the worst cook in the history of the world. Or I can show you:

My mother boiled everything for eight hours, vegetables, fruits, meats, destroying all food value. She used no herbs or spices, except salt. Everything she cooked turned gray. When I was 18, I was served rare roast beef at a banquet. I turned to my companions and asked, “What is this?” I did not recognize it as food, much less meat.

You need a combination of showing and telling; essentially, the telling frames the showing.

David Finkel covered the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, focusing on one family in Los Gatos, beginning like this:

Patty Hermann is leading the way through her house. The kitchen is bad – cracked walls, broken dishes. The dining room is bad, too – more cracks, plaster everywhere. Then comes the living room, the room that two days after the earthquake, Hermann won’t go in.

In this room, there is no longer an outside wall. There is only a wide hole where the wall was, and a sagging, unsupported roof. There is also a TV set, still plugged in, still tuned to the channel showing the World Series, but Patty Hermann is too afraid to retrieve it.

“We are working up our nerve,” Mark Hermann, Patty’s husband, says.

“Sickening, isn’t it?” says Patty. “It was,” she adds, “a spectacular house.”

Finkel shows us the devastation and the family’s reaction to it, with a little telling: “The kitchen is bad – cracked walls, broken dishes. The dining room is bad, too.” Patty tells us, “It was…a spectacular house.” Finkel follows her statement with a little telling of his own, making a transition into context: “It was, indeed, and it is no more. Instead, it is unsalvageable. It is the most severely damaged structure in Los Gatos, and, in its own way, it illustrates how there wasn’t one earthquake in northern California Tuesday, but two.”

Later, he returns to showing: “the cafe next door with the pink napkins still folded on the plates,” and the family camped out on their lawn because they’re afraid of their trees.

Showing has more power than telling, as Finkel shows you above: “The kitchen is bad” versus “ “cracked walls, broken dishes.” Showing hits readers harder.

My favorite essay, Hank Stuever’s “The Couch that Warped Space Time,” switches back and forth between telling about cosmology and showing how to get two sofas up a staircase:

But right now let us turn our attention to the size of the universe. Theoretical physicists would like very much for the cosmos to fit nicely into the mathematical space they’ve calculated for it, only, of course, it doesn’t. There is an indescribable longing to know what we’re dealing with here, and in how many dimensions a tidy “final theory” explaining both the subatomic and the celestial. You could go mad trying. Einstein died without resolving the scale issue, and so the universe goes on not quite fitting. Some physicists have deemed it larger than previously thought; others see it as smaller. One day it is older than they ever estimated; the next day, younger.

This does not mean that occasionally someone won’t come along with another TOE, which stands for “theory of everything” — a superstring theory, for example-to explain away the heavens above and the atoms within. Everyone grabs a corner of the universe and lifts. Papers are presented at Los Alamos.

By now you may have figured out the problem. Neither sofa — the Jennifer Convertible nor the Hecht’s Special — will fit up the stairs of the couple’s three-story row house in Mount Pleasant in Northwest Washington, which was built about 120 years ago, shortly after the supposed Big Bang, when things were small.

The rest of the piece continues this comic alternation of telling and showing, abstract and specific. The most graphics parts show the sofas and people struggling with them.

How do you achieve such power? First, you look for patterns that you can tell, and details that will show those patterns, and you write them in your notes. You might jot, “Shoes too small.” But then you’d look for what made you draw that conclusion: “Wincing with each step.” You might note that the chef’s a bully, and put down: “Screaming ‘idiot,’ throwing bacon, smacked sous chef with ladle.” If your notes only say, “Chef bully,” you have to remember what made you think that.

Then you use specific details to create images, active verbs to capture action, and quotes to convey character. In REVISION, you recast long spells of telling with showing. But you can’t do that unless you GATHERED what you need to show in the first place.

[Know any good examples of showing and telling?]

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 2:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Q&A Drafting

I accidentally invented a new drafting technique while writing this blog, which I call “Q&A Drafting.” I just fell into it on bad days, when I had trouble deciding what I wanted to say and what order to put it in. I typed questions and answered them, mostly one paragraph at a time, although some answers sprawled for a screenful or two. Then I would rearrange the paragraphs and later revise the questions into statements.

Some people use this technique to write leads. They ask, “What’s this about?” and answer the question. Then they write the body text, and later rewrite the lead without the question.

This blog has a number of discussions that start with questions, something I seldom did before. The question-and-answer format sounds conversational and invites readers to think, which is part of my voice.

Then unexpectedly, the technique broadened into a way to organize. I wrote down a series of questions in a logical order, and treated the list as a plan. Then I drafted the answers and rewrote the questions. It turned out to be a relatively fast way to draft, even on good days. Once you start monkeying around with techniques, they turn into new ones.

[Got any good ways to use Q&A in your writing?]

Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (2)  

Devices that create voice, part 3 of 3

Journalists avoid the first-person singular “I” because it makes them sound unobjective. Overused, it sounds egotistical; lightly used, confessional and personal. The first-person plural “we” sounds inclusive; I use “we” a lot in this blog to include you in the fraternity of writers. The second-person “you,” singular and plural, addresses readers directly, and involves them, unless you use it too often or in a commanding way. Third-person is the norm of prose, but has a slight distancing effect.

Most writing involves the past tense, again a comfortable norm. Shifting into the present tense creates a sense of immediacy and presence, but staying in the present becomes mannered and tiresome.

A confident tone creates authority and results from sounding sure of what you’re saying, accompanied by clarity. Have you ever noticed how scientists seldom sound confident? They put a lot of qualifiers in their sentences; they keep telling how they’re not sure, concepts are theoretical, and the evidence is not totally solid. Natalie Angier explains, “By accepting that they can never know the truth but can only aproximate it, scientists end up edging ever closer to the truth.” But that hedging makes them sound uncertain. You can adjust assurance by the number of qualifiers you include. (Just because you know you’re a phony doesn’t mean you have to tell the reader.)

References to works outside the text create a sense of breadth and depth. A persona explaining the reference will come off as helpful, unless the explanation is condescending. Unexplained references imply sophistication and either learning or hipness, depending on the thing referred to.

Natalie Angier says, “Obviously my sense of scale has been out of whack and off the map, a puerile version of Saul Steinberg’s often imitated Manhattanite’s view of the world.” This iconic cover hangs as a poster in millions of rooms, and Angier assumes you know it, although she has not described or explained it. My son drops names of rock groups and websites that I don’t get, and I weave in medieval names that mean nothing to him. Density of references and their explanation or not create a relationship with readers. You can share what you both know, you can bring new information, or you can puzzle them with things they haven’t heard of.

Where you draw references from will characterize your persona. My friend Bill Blundell used masculine references only; he once said, “I went to Houston, and talked to the guy in charge there, and she told me….” I apologize because we’re now in the realm of stereotypes, but stereotypes shared with readers help create voice. Lots of sports or military references imply maleness, while domestic imagery suggests the female. And so on.

Personal names form a large part of reference, and can create the illusion that the persona actually mixes with the people mentioned. Lots of current names suggest a persona who’s an insider, and the familiarity of the reference can increase it. Consider the effect of “First Lady Michelle Obama” versus “Michelle.”

Many authors consciously or unconsciously imitate the rhythms, language, and imagery of recognizable texts, especially Shakespeare and the Bible. Melville often sounds like the King James Version. (In view of our discussion of reference above, notice that I did not spell out Herman Melville or the King James Version of What.) Such echoes give depth and a sense of sophistication. If the imitated passage is recognizable, it interacts with the text.

Imagery functions somewhat like references. Certain images and clusters of images become a signature in voice. My friend Roy Clark falls into images of sex, and I tend toward military metaphors.

Humor is funny, while wit is merely amusing. Humor or the lack of it inform voice. The sophistication of the humor determines its effect, whether it elevates or deflates prose. (A piece of advice: don’t make humor part of your voice unless you’re a funny person. I’m not.)

Point of view is where the persona views the world from, mostly determined by references and names. Columnist George Will always speaks from the inside, Woody Allen from the outside. Point of view can also seem spatial. Some voices see everything from high altitude, others up close. At a larger level, voices can have a world view, essentially a stance toward nature and the human race. The higher the world view, the more remote the voice.

Some voices show enthusiasm for what they’re writing about, and for life in general, and some show the opposite. Cleveland Amory, despite his love affair with cats, was grumpy about almost every thing else. Zest engages the reader, and suggests youth.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Devices that create voice, part 2 of 3

Such clauses delay the subject, and dim the clarity of the sentence. Longer and more complex ones delay it even longer, causing frustration for readers. Lowered clarity lowers authority. I avoid beginning dependent clauses as much as possible, because I’m a clarity freak, and I want my readers to think I sound like one.

Insertions put one unit inside another unit, such as a parenthetical aside. They give a sense of a person thinking, unless there are so many that they become confusing, in which case, they make the voice seem wishy-washy. Like everything else in writing, it’s a balancing act. Insertions, especially those between subject and verb, sometimes with insertions inside the insertion, and even going on for half a page, drive readers crazy, the way this sentence drove you crazy. See?

Repetition has meaning because it ties things together. Used clumsily, it links things you didn’t intend, and becomes confusing. The French novelist Stendhal famously tried never to repeat the same word on a page, depriving himself of a powerful device.

Repeating key words and phrases makes them prominent in the readers’ memories, unless you repeat them too much, in which case readers notice them, and they make the voice tedious. Repetition puts things in parallel, and invites readers to compare them.

Repeating meaningful images sparks readers’ memory in new contexts. Frank McCourt is the master of this technique, constantly taking readers back to his miserable childhood, Ireland’s tragic history, his clotty eyes, etc.

Parallels are repetition in form. A series of clauses or sentences with the same shape creates a compelling rhythm, a sense of unity, and authority. Remember Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” and especially Winston Churchill’s great rallying speech of 4 June 1940:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender.

Variation increases the power of parallels, as we see in the slight changes in form after each “we shall ….” Parallels have the same compelling quality as chant.

Active verbs create a sense of power, mostly by being graphic and specific. Passive verbs dilute the voice, and linking verbs (“to be”) weaken it. On the other hand, American informal speech uses mostly linking verbs, so they create a conversational sound. The active voice used exclusively will sound formal.

Contractions make prose sound conversational, and the more contractions, the more it sounds like speech, unless the readers notice them. Such illusions are like perfume; they work only if the target doesn’t catch on to them. A total avoidance of contractions raises the level of formality.

Remember Strunk and White’s commandment: “Omit needless words.” Wordy sentences sound more conversational because ordinary speech isn’t edited. But if you trim sentences skillfully, they flow better, becoming conversationally friendly. On the other hand, extremely tight sentences come off as formal, distancing, and even huffy, like “Omit needless words.”

I recently ended a post inviting to readers to comment: “Done any experiments with creating a voice?” Let’s add and subtract words to see different effects, moving from tightly formal to loosely conversational:

Ever experiment with voice?
Have you tried experiments with your voice?
Have you done any experiments with creating a voice?
What has been your experience with trying to create a voice?

I wouldn’t call any of those words “needless,” although I could (and would) cut a lot of them in all three of my voices. I might leave some of them in, if I was trying to sound especially chummy.

Rhythms can range from jerky to, as we said of Jefferson, “mellifluous,” which means honeyed and flowing. We’re talking here about the sense of movement, how the sounds lead from one to another. Jerky rhythms make the voice seem disorganized, slightly out of control, even angry. Rolling rhythms create order and unity. Easy flow sounds poetic.

Abstractions make the voice seem elevated, sophisticated, and learned. If you use too great a density of abstractions, the prose becomes remote and tedious. Specific words and images create authority by drawing readers in close. They experience an illusion of “being there,” and a sense of the persona as someone who knows things in detail. For greatest power and authority, use a few abstractions to frame a lot of specifics.

[Stay tuned for part 3 this week.]

Published in: on December 13, 2009 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Devices that create voice, part 1 of 3

Here are the devices that create voice when used consistently, along with the effects they cause.

The first thing a reader will perceive is the level of language in a piece: high, medium, or low. Medium would be the normal wording used in everyday speech by educated people, i.e., conversational but mostly correct. You’re reading medium-level diction now. Let’s change the level for different effects:

MIDDLE: You’re reading medium-level diction now.
LOW: This’s the way people talk.
HIGH: Readers would experience the diction embodying this document as appropriate to the discourse community of university-educated, middle-class speech. (Okay, that’s a parody.)

This first impression, largely based on diction level, helps readers estimate if they’ll understand the piece. If the diction is inappropriate for the context, readers will grow suspicious of the voice. We would say that it violates “decorum.”

Breadth of vocabulary also registers here. Most people use the same 750 or so words in their daily speech, and recognize a few thousand more. Using words beyond that range will make the voice seem elevated, sophisticated, and even stuffy. Using “street language” would imply youth, hipness, and lack of seriousness.

Slang makes prose sound conversational, and lots of hip slang makes it sound young. Slang can shade over into jargon, as any adult can tell you after listening to teenagers discussing the gadgets in their pockets. Extreme use of professional slang and jargon creates distance between persona and readers.

Dialect always creates such a gap, since it is perceived (unfairly) as a mark of someone who does not or cannot speak Standard English. Even a charming dialect, such as Irish brogue, elicits snobbery. If you must use dialect, use very little, except for comic purposes.

Archaic language has the same effect as a wide and unusual vocabulary, and can even lapse into quaintness. Even used in quotes, it makes the voice sound older and odder. Think about words like “wraith,” “vainglory,” and “happenstance.” Take a look at any page in The Lord of the Rings.

Readers don’t have to know much if anything about grammar or usage to assess its formality when they read it. Distinctions such as “that” versus “which” or “who” versus “whom” raise the level of formality. If you write formally and then use “ain’t” for effect, it leaps off the screen. Stricter, more formal grammar and usage create a sense of distance and sophistication, which can be welcoming or forbidding, depending on context. You would use “disinterested” formally in Harper’s and informally (or not at all) in Taste of Home.

Skilled punctuation makes sentences easy to read, and lack of punctuation makes readers struggle. Easy sentences create authority and trust and a sense of friendliness. Hard sentences can give a sense of sophistication, unless they become impenetrable.

Sentence clarity mostly flows from simplicity: short or no left branch, subject and verb together, open to the right, and nothing inserted inside anything else.

Readers do not share that template with writers, but they experience the simplicity or complexity of sentences. Simple sentences seem conversational. Oddly enough, even long simple sentences sound like conversation. Complex sentences, regardless of length, prove daunting. They create distance, and suggest learning and sophistication. In extreme form, we associate complex sentences with intelligence. In fact, it’s much harder and takes more brainpower to write simply. As an editor once advised me, “Easy reading takes hard editing.”

Readers can see sentence length. A lot of long sentences make the page gray; graphics people call it “a tombstone.” Big gray pages make readers want to go read somewhere else.

Long sentences make the voice seem a little tedious, no matter what the complexity. A mixture of sentence lengths creates variety of sound and experience, and moves readers along. A series of sentences about the same length sounds monotonous, and probably is.

[Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 next week.]

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Let’s create a writing voice

First, we describe the personality we want, and then we select the devices to convey that persona. Here’s the personality we’re after: a breezy travel-magazine writer who’s clear, conversational but a little formal, witty and irreverent, speaking to readers as an equal.

The devices would include clear, simple sentences of varied length; light explanation and clear references; slightly loose grammar with medium-level diction, slang, and contractions; occasional second-person address; a sprinkle of wry phrasing; and lots of punctuation. Here’s the first try:

The University of Virginia is modifying a national treasure, the Lawn, a World Heritage site, the Rotunda and ten faculty mansions, called “Pavilions.” Any American child would recognize Jefferson’s signature style: always red brick with white columns and trim. But recent archaeological research suggests that the columns of Pavilion X should be left tan, the natural color of their stucco, and the woodwork repainted taupe. I’d sooner colorize the Parthenon.

Not bad, but the diction and reference have to come down a little. The sentences sound like writing, not conversation. Let’s try again:

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville might mess up a national treasure, “The Lawn.” It’s a World Heritage site, the famous Rotunda and ten “pavilions,” or houses where professors live. You’d recognize Jefferson’s style: white columns and trim, and red brick. But researchers studying Pavilion Ten’s colors say the columns were originally tan, and the trim was painted taupe. Who could envision that?

Close, but stiff. Let’s lighten up the sentences a little more:

The University of Virginia’s messing with a national treasure, “The Lawn.” As a school kid, you probably visited the famous Rotunda with its ten “pavilions,” or professors’ houses. Everybody knows Thomas Jefferson’s look: red brick walls with white columns and trim. But now, it turns out that one of the pavilions had tan columns, and the wood was painted taupe. Taupe? Can you imagine taupe?

And there’s your breezy but clear travel writer voice. We could play with it some more, record it and listen to the results, and keep experimenting.

[Do you think this voice sounds the way I describe it?]

Published in: on December 9, 2009 at 1:56 pm  Comments (4)