Writing

February14,2011

Awesome Displays of Journalism–My Favorite Stories from the Past Year

We talk a lot about bad writing and the decline of journalism–and that’s important. But sometimes it’s nice to highlight good journalism.  In fact, it’s more than nice, it’s imperative. There are lots of great writers around and we should share their stories. I think it helps to read a lot of good writing that way you know shitty writing when you see it.

Those “better” writers weave the details of stories together seamlessly. They find and get solid sources and excel at choosing when to use a direct quote and when to paraphrase. They choose good stories and present them in an organized manner successfully playing with chronology and expertly using even the trickiest writing techniques (for example, flashback). And most of all, those better writers make you wish the story would never end. And, in many cases, when the story does end it can leave the reader with a sense of longing.

There were four stories that I read over the past year that immediately came to mind when I decided to write this post. Just to note, I do a lot of reading, so there are definitely other stories besides the following four that impressed me. But again, I remembered the four below right away.

I read a lot of sports stories, and the first two articles I want to highlight are from the world of basketball and football. Yahoo sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski’s account of how the Miami Heat came to sign then Cleveland Cavaliers Forward Lebron James is very compelling. Wojnarowski manages to cover and explain the perspective of almost every party involved with the James trade.  And, for ESPN, Tom Friend writes an exciting piece on former football defensive lineman William “Refrigerator Perry.” This piece was so heart-wrenching and smartly written I had to take two breaks before completion.

The other two pieces also share a common link–both are stories about con men. For the NY Times David Segal profiled Vitaly Borker a Russian owner of an online eyewear store. Not only was Borker selling faux products, he bullied and threatened customers who complained. This piece starts out as a simple profile of a bad businessman, but Segal builds the story slowly and by the time he arrives at Borker’s house you are on pins and needles wondering how the conversation will go, or if Segal should even be there. (I should mention that Borker was eventually arrested as a result of this profile.)

The final story is an old one that I just read about three days ago in The Atlanta Magazine. Its title is “The Debtor” and it profiles a man whose murder may go unsolved due to the amount of enemies he made conning an array of people out of money–including the daughter of late soul singer James Brown, a woman he actually married.

If you read any or all of the stories, be sure to let me know what you think. And do not hesitate to share other well-written pieces and why you loved them.

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February8,2011

Huffington Post, AOL, And Why You Shouldn’t Write For Free

When Huffington Post founder Ariana Huffington and execs at AOL announced that AOL would be buying Huffington Post for $315 million dollars a lot of people were surprised. In the media world, people wondered if this was a good investment for the Grandaddy of the internet, and whether HuffPo would lose its original appeal of being disassociated with media giants.

To address those two issues, in my opinion, this is a great deal for AOL, and HuffPo has been connected to large media industry for at least the past 2 years if not more. The change to HuffPo’s original “value” was made a long time ago when Huffington decided to expand her core set of leftist writers beyond an original hand-selected few. From there HuffPo became a breaking news and tabloid paper no different from TMZ or any other scandal-driven site.

The reason this is a good deal for AOL is because 75-80% of AOL’s current profits come from people who have had AOL mail for a long time and believe that they still need to pay AOL $25 a month to continue to be able to access it. For many subscribers, that’s $25 a month on top of whatever they’re paying to their internet service provider—Comcast, Time warner etc.

Unfortunately, relying on customer ignorance isn’t really a failsafe plan, and HuffPo provides a pretty cutting edge route into the future—free aggregate content distributed through multiple channels, high click rates, and aggressive pursuit of ad dollars. As you can see, there’s every reason to believe their business strategy will still rely on ignorance, just contributors instead of customers.

What the hell am I talking about? I’m happy to explain.

Huffington has built a $300 million media empire off the backs of people who write for free. The excuse that many bloggers and writers give when writing for free is that it gives them exposure. I certainly am aware that “exposure” can be a form of payment, but there are limits. You have to be choosy especially if your eventual goal is to freelance write fulltime.

On a site like HuffPo which is crowded with content, readers rarely click through to links contained in posts or their skimpy author box. When you visit HuffPo it feels like you’re being attacked with information. If you follow my pattern when I visit the site you click from article to article paying little to no attention to who wrote what. Some exposure that is!

If you’re interested in reposting your work on HuffPo or anywhere else for free, that’s not a terrible idea. Reposting can bring some benefits (for example, it can increase the number of sites linking into your blog which can improve your traffic ranking) and it takes precious little time to send a few quick pitches and pastes text.

But to maximize your time and impact, I still say cling to old rugged Writer’s Market book. As a writer, your biggest concern should be two things: 1. Building a strong byline and 2. Making money.

If I’m trying to decide between submitting original content or altered reposted content to Huff Po OR some local or small magazine that pays $50, I choose the magazine. Most people know by now that almost anyone can be published on a site like Huffington Post while even small magazines have editorial standards and require some bit of expertise in the area in which you’re writing. Further, that $50 that you get from the magazine can be used to buy ads on blogads or some other site. There’s more exposure to be had advertising on a low traffic but relevant-to-your-niche blog than there is by having a couple posts on a crowded site.

Besides, if you plan to live off your writing you need to be submitting to publications that are likely to reject you if you suck. Rejected pitches and articles can be signs that your writing isn’t progressing. You don’t want to spend a huge amount of time blogging for free for other sites only to find out that when you want to be published your writing just isn’t there yet.

Plus, when you’re building your byline keep this in mind: Most of the people you need to “impress” with your byline are pretty aware of how to tell a publication or web site with editorial standards from a blog that lets anyone post provided they have a controversial topic or a lot of twitter followers. Whatever your goal is, pursue a byline that helps you get there. Don’t just go for what appears like a valuable idea.

You know the old saying, time is money? Well, it really is to writers.

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February1,2011

Fuck Being A Journalist…And Other Revelations About Journalism

From 9th grade on I planned to major in Journalism in college–broadcast journalism to be exact. Where I’m from, being on a local TV channel and reading the news is big shit! I thought I’d be perfect for a job like that, I could write and speak well, I have a great voice, and the camera loves me like a sister.

I show up freshman year of college, declare my major as Journalism, Public Relations and Advertising with my concentration being broadcast journalism. By the 3rd class I realized a few things.

1. I don’t give a damn about going out to get a story.

2. I really just wanted to be on TV.

3. I prefer giving my opinion to just presenting facts (even if I order them in a leading manner).

4. “Sacrificing” and “paying dues in a small market” really wasn’t “my thing.”

5. I didn’t like or fit in with the other JPRA majors.

I had decided early on that political science would be my minor. But I noticed that in those classes I felt more at home. Debating back and forth with arrogant white male preps who wore suits and carried briefcases and laptops to class was more my speed than discussing ad implications with a bunch of over serious introverts. I’m generalizing here, but this was the culture at my alma mater.

Continue Reading…

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January2,2011

Media Strut New Year’s Resolution: In 2011 More Points and Less Snark

I’m old enough to remember when snark in the mainstream was a fairly rare occurrence. In fact, the Queen of snark, Maureen Dowd, was often the only snark meister published regularly. But now snark isn’t just a tool of the talented, it’s a tool of those who are incapable of making a coherent point. It seems every Dick with a keyboard has a know-it-all-if-you-don’t-agree-with-me-it’s-clear-that-you’re-stupid approach to prose. I think it’s indicative of the expert-at-everything society we now live in where people know just enough to make them assholes.

Quite frankly, I’ve had quite enough of dork snorts and nerd smirks. I’ve had my fill of condescension and mocking. It’s time for America to collectively grow the fuck the up and learn to make a point without denigrating the other side.

Let’s be real, no one likes to be challenged on a point. We express an opinion after thinking we’ve considered all possible sides. Then suddenly, to our dismay, someone responds with a superior, or at least just as valid, contradicting opinion. There’s two ways to handle it–with or without class. Lately, too many are choosing the latter.

I’m guilty of it myself. And I don’t think that snark is the best part of my writing. In fact, it’s very rarely the best part of anyone’s writing–or commentating for that matter. Even Dowd’s column has lost its luster in recent years.I think the biggest problem with snark is that once people begin to gain some popularity for it the stakes heighten and suddenly it becomes a shtick. And I know some people think their snark is funny…but making fun of everything all the time isn’t funny, it’s negative.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say much of the media has become generally negative and therefore unproductive. Snarky personalities seem to be all the rage right now much to my chagrin.

In 2011 I plan to pursue and support more maturity in myself and the information I consume. I already do a good job of this by avoiding cable news like the plague and being a choosy reader.

But less snark doesn’t mean blunted edges. In the spirit of my idol the great Christopher Hitchens, I plan to maintain my reputation as a contrarian and keep with it my dry and prickly writing style. Like Tina Turner I’m keeping my name–I worked too hard for it.

jd

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December8,2010

5 Big Ass Lies About Writing

I hate “listed” blog posts…10 ways to please your man…8 things men hate about women…it’s just corny. So I’m not going to count these things out. But since people like numbers I did use it in the headline. Catchy huh?

There are lots of pieces of advice that get floated around–whether from writer to writer or by well-meaning teacher to writer. Obviously, there can be no real right or wrong about many aspects of writing, but that won’t stop me from sharing my opinion.

Here are some of my biggest advice pet peeves (I’m sure more will come in later posts).

Use commas where you would naturally pause in a sentence. Where who would naturally pause? You? How am I ‘pose to know when you would pause? This is bad advice all around. Punctuation usage isn’t like word usage. Words usage is flexible, punctuation has purpose. Would you put a question mark at the end of declarative statement just because you felt like it? Commas have purposes that I think are worth learning. Depending on what style guide you’re using there may be some variations, but here is a simple post on commas that I really liked.

Don’t begin sentences with “And.” Better advice is to think about why you’re beginning a sentence with ‘and.’ Beginning sentences with conjunctions can make your writing choppy. You’re essentially taking something that’s meant to connect and disconnecting it from its relative. There are many reasons to do this–to draw a contrast, to be ironic, to set up syntactical juxtaposition…take your pick. Overdoing it is bad. And doing it just because you can is also bad. Or is that what I just did?

If you can’t spell a word or don’t recognize it “sound it out.” This one is ruining lives. Every time I see someone on twitter say “minus well” instead of “might as well” or “waist” instead of “waste,” I note that they’re probably a victim. Sounding out words probably only works in Spanish and Latin when it comes to spelling. As it pertains to usage, it may not work in any language. Any linguists out there?

The person who decided to start telling people this should be taken the entire fuck out of life.

Here’s a hard reality: There is simply no substitute for reading. The best way to learn English (including spelling) is to read. To embed the look of words into your brain. To note the different usages. I still remember when I found out how that facade = fah-sod and epitome = e-pit-oh-mee. Who knew! So much of good language use is simply a product reading over time.

The problem is, especially in urban and rural schools, kids are not reading up to their grade level. And when you read slow, you read less. I mean, if it takes you 10 minutes to read and comprehend one paragraph, are you going to read a lot of books? Who has that kind of time?

Anyway, when kids find words difficult to pronounce when they’re reading, I think teachers should tell them what the word is and move on. I’m no expert but I can’t see how “sounding it out” is doing anything beyond embarrassing people on social networks. Plus it makes kids lazy because they think that they can go through books just sounding things out and never stopping to grab a dictionary and look at the phonetic spelling. Children (and adults) need to be encouraged to commit language to memory. Plain and simple.

Oh…and in case you’re wondering how people can use words and phrases and not realize how they are written (for example, saying for all intensive purposes instead of “for all intents and purposes” is because we learn language through a variety of means and people draw inferences. Language doesn’t have to be written to be shared. You can hear something once and know how it’s (or at least it’s sound) is used without ever seeing it on paper.

Writing makes you a better writer. I suppose this advice is not wrong…but it’s certainly incomplete.  Writing alone doesn’t make you better. You can write and write and write and get worse and worse and worse. Getting better at writing requires you to supplement your actual writing. Supplements include reading more, taking classes, getting feedback from friends/blog readers, and learning how to self-assess. In other words, practicing writing is great, but you need to think what else you need to do to improve.

Don’t Change Your Writing Style for Anyone Girl what? This is one of those pieces of advice that I mostly hear from people who receive some feedback they don’t like. It’s usually followed by some statement akin to “if people don’t like what you’re doing, then EFF them.” Well…it’s okay if you feel that way. Just don’t expect to make a living off of your writing if you do.

Listen, as much as writing has deteriorated in the mass market from a content standpoint, for the most part the most successful writers and columnists are really, really good. There are not a lot of hacks at even the smallest newspapers and magazines. If you want to be competitive you have to consider the criticism you get. Sure some writers will make it because they have a following and publishers need to move units, but those people are the exception–not the rule.

Altering my writing style is something I do from project to project. I don’t write the same way on Media Strut that I do for my other blog Player Perspective. I don’t write the same for Player Perspective as I do when I’m speechwriting or writing a training guide or any number of things that I have to write in a day, week, or month.

When you get that kind of criticism resist the urge to dig your heels in the sand. Quick story: When I was in high school, I was ALWAYS complimented about my writing. I was the best writer in all my classes–I was also one of the only people that took classwork seriously. When I went to college I quickly found out that my writing had potential e.g. I had a great ‘voice’ in my writing, but it actually wasn’t very good.

I had two professors that pretty much ripped my work to shreds. I was devastated, because at that time my intellectual and academic identity was wrapped up in my writing. I felt like if I wasn’t a good writer then I what was I good at, if anything? I sulked for a bit, but then I took a look at the comments my professors had made and began to implement them. By the time I was a sophomore in college I was writing scripts for a political campaign, making As on all my papers, and working as a writing tutor. During that same time period I ghostwrote manuscripts and edited dissertations.

I came along way, baby.

And you can, too.

The point of this anecdote is that there is a point in all of our careers where we realize we might not be as great as we thought we were. Those moments should be viewed as opportunities to become greater –not excuses to maintain the status quo.

Feel free to comment on these gems I dropped (hahahah) and add your own advice pet peeves for discussion.

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December6,2010

A Screenwriter (and good friend) Shares His Tips for Success

First let me say, I am so glad to have media strut up and running again. I have now switched hosts, deactivated some troublesome plugins and everything appears to be working fine. I hope I have some readers left???

Today is the first of many guest posts by writers. As I said before, I think it’s good to have others contribute to Writer Mondays because this is an opportunity for all of us to learn together.

Today’s post is by one of my favorite people, Samuel Jean.  Sam is a veteran business development and legal consultant. After getting his law degree from  Boston University’s School of Law, he did a whole bunch of impressive things that are too many to list here. While he still runs an entertainment/technology/philanthropy consulting company in LA, screenwriting has become his passion.

Among other projects in development, Sam is currently working on two book adaptions–one about cocaine smuggling in the late 60′s the other a WWII POW story. He has also co-written one movie that is slated for release this year and another currently in production.

With that said, here’s his post. TAH DAH!

—–

In my previous career I used to get scripts all the time for my clients. Since, they HATED reading them, the job fell to me to read the scripts. While I liked writing short stories in my spare time I never thought I would have a career as a writer, let alone a screen writer. Fortunately for me, all that changed.

Our company paid a writer to develop a script. The final product was awful. We paid another writer to fix the first writer’s script. That product was even worse. I finally said to myself — I could do a better job than any of these guys and do it cheaper. That’s how I started writing.

I’ve been screenwriting for a few years now, and I have a few tips (in no particular order) about breaking into and being successful at screenwriting:

1.LEARN THE RULES. The “hows” and “whys.” The structure of screenwriting has rules. As a writer, you don’t get to flaunt or ignore those rules . They exist for a reason. I write for film my friends who write for television have a different set of rules that they have to adhere to. Read any screenplay and you will see that it follows a particular pattern. There’s a reason. Learn the reasons.

I would suggest that every aspiring screenwriter invest in the following books and manual:

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Screenwriting 434 by Lew Hunter

The Complete Screenwriter’s Manual by Bowles, Mangravite and Zorn

Genre Screenwriting: How to Write Popular Screenplays That Sell by Stephen V. Duncan

A Guide to Screenwriting Success: Writing for Film and Television by Stephen V. Duncan

2. START WRITING. Once you learn the rules, WRITE. Having an idea isn’t enough. WRITE. Even when the script is “finished” you will find that producers, directors, agents, managers and even actors will ask you to rewrite and edit. The writing process is rarely FINISHED. There is a big difference between a person who has an idea and a person who puts that idea into words. The streets are littered with people who have ideas for movies. What will distinguish you from them?

Continue Reading…

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October25,2010

Writer Mondays: Why Grammar and Spelling Snobs Get No Love

If you are heavily into the writing blogosphere (which, if you want my humble opinion, if you want to be a writer you absolutely should be), then you’ve probably already heard or read the Stephen Fry piece on grammar and spelling snobbery.

All of my favorite websites -from Executive Communications blog to Vital Speeches of the Day– have posted this video. I thought I’d do the same.

I think a lot of us who have written for years and taught others to write can appreciate Stephen Fry’s frustration with people who seem to live to correct the grammar of others as though that is the most important component of being a great writer.

He says:

“[Language pedants] whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences, and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings. But do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it.

They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe.”

This sentence… “Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?”…is EVERYTHING AND MORE TO ME AS A WRITER. One of the greatest joys in my life is putting together words in ways less traveled.

But back to the point…

Not only is grammar NOT most important, proper grammar can interrupt the rhythm of a sentence or even cause parts of it to become superfluous. In corporate America and government, style books take grammar and twist it to make it into something consistent and convenient more than correct. There’s standard grammar, and there’s grammar that we use.

Fry gives the example of grocery stores using “5 items or less” when, grammatically speaking, the correct phrasing is “5 items or fewer.”

There are lots of other examples like this where phrases not grammatically correct have been woven into our linguistic landscape and most of us are none the wiser of their grammatical deficiencies.

If you follow me on twitter, you know that seeing people correct (or mock) the grammar of others agitates me. I mostly try to ignore it and I’ve never really explained why. I suppose here is the place to do so.

When I was a tutor at Temple University, I helped people improve all sorts of texts–from freshman composition papers to dissertations to grants to book manuscripts. When I would sit down with the tutee and ask them “What do you think I should focus on? What do you believe you need to improve?”

The most common answer was “grammar.”

Unfortunately, once I would begin to delve into the piece, I found that grammar was the least of their concerns. In fact, for most people this holds true. Most of us speak to other Americans enough to mimic the general flow of the language. And most grammar problems really come down to word usage (which extends beyond grammar) and verb usage. These are things that can be very easily corrected by native speakers.

Continue Reading…

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October11,2010

Better Writing Series Vol. 1: Only Mediocre Writing Develops Naturally

A few months ago, someone (a blogger whose twitter name I honestly don’t remember) tweeted that there’s no reason for writers to take writing classes. She said, no one can “tell you” how to write. I saw lots of people agreeing with the tweet and it’s not a sentiment I haven’t heard before.

I’d been wanting to blog about this statement for a while but thought if I covered all my thoughts, it wouldn’t be a blog, it’d be a feature article. I plan to tackle the subject of becoming a better writer using multiple strategies–courses being ONE–in a series of posts over the next few months. This is a sort of introductory post.

You can tell by the headline that I use here that I don’t agree with the blogger who tweeted against taking writing classes. In fact, not only do I disagree, I find anti-writing course rhetoric appalling. I’ve written for lots of people…from lobbyists to political appointees and I’m pretty confident in my writing. But I’m still learning and still taking advanced writing and thinking courses here and there.

This weekend, I went up to Philadelphia to take Joan Detz’s “Business of Writing” Class (will blog effusive praise for it at a later date). Not only am I still learning to write better, I’m also learning how to treat my writing more professionally and to think more fully about its quality.

For most people, solid, reliable, trustworthy, and helpful feedback on their writing is hard to come by.

Even if you write professionally, you’ll find that supervisors and colleagues aren’t always a good source of feedback. Sometimes the reason is because they write badly, other times it’s because companies and organization’s often have a particular style they use for communications materials, and it’s not up for debate–even if it’s really, really bad.

Taking a writing course provides an opportunity for you to get feedback from someone accomplished, further, if it’s a peer review/workshop class, you can get a variety of perspectives on your work. Others will note deficiencies and places of concern you never noted. In particular, places where you’ve failed to prove a point or construct a readable (notice I emphasize readability not understandability) sentence.

These sort of discoveries can mark the difference between a good writer and an effective one. For example, I know lots of scientists, academics, and lawyers who are awesome writers–in their fields. I also know fantastic regulatory writers, policy writers, and ad writers who are only great insofar as that type of writing is concerned. For a lawyer to learn to write like a columnist, or for an academic to start writing speeches, there’s going to be a learning curve. Being effective is meeting the needs of the audience, not simply having good grammar and organization.

Final notes on peer review: when you’re given a set of parameters and specific things to look for when you’re reviewing the work of others, it is an opportunity to see the construction of pieces in a different light. Plus there’s something great about walking into a room and NOT being the best writer there. For me, it’s a thrill, and I immediately want feedback from the person most celebrated.

I’ve emphasized peer review because over the years I’ve found it most beneficial. BUT! That could partly be because my writing has been consistently challenged on the job and I’ve been forced to write in different styles at every stop in my career. For those who’ve not had the benefit of such constant criticism, single-purpose courses can be helpful. Courses on grammar (yes even if you think you have good grammar), writing for _____[insert purpose here], fiction writing are some examples.

Perhaps people are anti-courses because what constitutes becoming a “better writer” can be subjective. But what’s not subjective is bad organization, syntax, grammar, purpose, voice and style. Those are all things that do NOT develop naturally. Or, should I say, do not develop well naturally. Lots of people, through ignorance or overconfidence, develop into solidly bad writers who lack in one or more of the aforementioned areas. It’s sort of like someone who works out using bad form. Sure they do great for a while but injury is imminent.

One last “introductory” thought on this issue. This comes up a lot in the blogosphere, and I assume it’s because if someone’s only “published” writing is on blogs, they’re not familiar with publication standards. It takes a lot more than natural talent to build a chorus of bylines for your work. Further, many times when readers comment on your blog to tell you that you wrote a “great post” what they really mean is they’re glad you brought the subject up so they could comment and agree–not that you’ve put together a great or even coherent piece.

In the course I took over the weekend, one of my classmates said to me of her quest to be published more often, “How I do know if the rejection letters I’ve received from publications are because the odds aren’t in my favor or because I’m a bad writer?”

This was a woman who has written for many years for prominent people and been published a few times in the past. However, after years of working in the government her perception of her writing was in limbo. My recommendation? Peer review.

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