Style & PolishingTips
Book Writing Tips
Writing for the Web
Corporate Writing Tips
Planning your article
If you expect to catch fish, you put a hook on the end of your line. If you expect to sell an article, you need a "hook" at the beginning of your story. Let the reader know, within the first two paragraphs, where the story is going and why he or she should read the whole thing. Then give the reader an article interspersed with examples and quotes that fulfill the promise of the opening hook. Finish the article by telling the reader how what he has just read will help him accomplish what you said it would.
When quoting your experts, use only those quotes that will add to your manuscript´s theme.
Double-check that all your facts are accurate — don´t rely on someone else´s research.
When an editor calls . . .
How many times, after an editor or client has called you with an assignment or go-ahead, have you hung up the phone — and only after the rush of excitement has ebbed, remembered what you should have asked her? If it hasn't happened to you, you simply haven't been called.
To keep from calling back, and looking a wee bit less professional, or worse — tackling the assignment without knowing the answers — print out these questions and post them near your telephone. Next time an editor or client calls about an assignment, go down your list and make sure you understand and agree to every answer:
- How much will I be paid?
- When will I be paid?
- When is the deadline? How strict is that if I run into a research problem?
- What expenses will I be reimbursed for, and when?
- Do I need to invoice for payment and/or expenses, and to whom do I address the invoice? Is there a job number needed on the invoice?
- What rights are you requesting?
- Am I responsible for photos? If so, what format; black and white or color; how many?
- What is your preferred length for the material? Does that include or exclude any sidebars?
- Will I receive a byline or author listing? Do you want a bio blurb; if so, how long?
- Whom should I contact if I have questions or run into problems? What is that person's direct line and email address?
- Will I receive a tearsheet or copy of the magazine containing my article; or writer's sample (for brochures, reports, etc.)?
- Will I receive a letter of agreement outlining the assignment? If not, may I send you a letter describing what I understand the assignment to be, and will you or another editor approve it and return a copy to me?
And with email assignments - same situation: Go over these questions and get answers before accepting or starting the assignment.
Article Scheduling Tip
Most editors will give you a month to complete your article. A good schedule for most articles:
First week: Make phone contacts, line up interviews, do any library or internet research
Second week: Do interviews (telephone or email or in-person)
Third week: Write first draft. Recheck and verify and missing or questionable material. Do necessary any photo retakes.
Fourth week: Edit the first draft, rewrite where necessary, triple-check numbers. Submit manuscript.
Information is the nonfiction writer´s inventory. Even though I embrace computers and technology wholeheartedly, I still find the old-fashioned way of collecting information the best. On the tabs of manilla file folders, list the topics of interest to you or on which you write. File these alphabetically in a metal file cabinet, a desk drawer, or a cardboard box the width of a file drawer. As you read newspapers and magazines, clip out articles pertaining to your topics, then file them immediately in their appropriate file folders. (I also print out articles and news items I find on the internet and file them in the folders.) Then when you are working on an article, column or book chapter, you can pull out the folder for that topic and you will have a head start on your research.
- Go for geography. Talk to people from all regions of the country to get a true cross-section of opinion.
- Use the "long-day technique" for telephone roundups. If you live on the East Coast, spend the morning interviewing experts from the East Coast, the afternoon talking to Midwesterners, then call the West Coast sources after 5 pm, when it is still midday there. This way, all the interviewing can be done in one full day of work. If you live on the West Coast, start real early in the morning calling the East Coast, then work westward until you´re calling West Coast sources during the afternoon.
- After each interview, transcribe the interview and print out single-spaced. Make a list of the key topics for your article, allocating a different color hi-lighter for each topic, then go through the transcribed interview, highlighting important passages according to topic color. The added time this takes is more than made up for when it comes time to write — with no frantic flipping through pages of handwritten notes searching for a particular quote.
- Accumulate material from various sources when working on other articles and later work into a roundup-style article. Over a six-month period, you may well have a story's worth of information on one idea. All that needs to be done then is to verify that each source is in the same position, and that all companies cited still exist. Checking on sources is crucial.
Interviewing by Email - Online interviewing is exactly like traditional interviewing. The first email should be exploratory, introducing yourself and your publication. Use the same formality register as you would in any other circumstance; email doesn't give you a license to be casual. Do not contact a subject by email and begin firing questions press-conference style, which is the online equivalent of kicking down their office door. State your intentions and ask for permission for the interview first – then follow up with a few questions. A barrage of questions in one email is off-putting and will make the subject feel he or she is writing the article for you. It's best to bounce to and fro and build up an iterative picture. Print everything out or save it at least until after publication. Be sure to send a thank-you email and contact sources again when the article comes out.
Email interviewing is a skill worth acquiring to bring your writing business into the 21st Century, principally because it widens and enriches the range of contacts you can make. It is possible to develop meaningful email relationships – and indeed writing skills are paramount in making those relationships work. Only the written word can convey every nuance of what you want to say, so you need to think more carefully about it, where ambiguities may cause offense or lack of clarity may mean you have to keep rephrasing the question.
Written by Jane Dorner, author of The Internet: A Writer's Guide (ISBN 0 7136 5192 X - A & C Black).
Voice mail is an unavoidable evil when tracking down sources for information or interviews. To better your chances of having your calls returned:
- Repeat your name and telephone number at the end as well as the beginning of the message.
- Speak slower and more distinctly than your usual pace when leaving your telephone number.
- In addition to your phone number, leave your email address. Today's business person and professional is likely to have access to email when on the road, and will usually respond quicker to email than to long-distance phone numbers.
- Avoid "telephone tag" by telling them the best time to call you back.
Source: Peggy Morrow, author of Celebrate Customer Service—Insider Secrets.
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Style & PolishingTips
Try not to use more than two commas in a sentence. It keeps you from saying too many things at one time. Also, it prevents the overuse of adjectives.
Be specific; avoid generalities (blue instead of colorful, Ford instead of car, and so on).
Vary lengths of your sentences and your paragraphs.
Arranging the elements of a series from short to long, from simple to compound, helps comprehension. For example:
- Place longer words at the end of the series. Example: Change "oranges and pears" to "pears and oranges."
- Place phrases at the end of the series. Example: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" flows better than "liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and life."
- Place compound elements at the end of the series. Example: "He made the bed, mopped the floor, and washed the glasses, dishes and silverware" is far more readable than "He washed the glasses, dishes and silverware, made the bed and mopped the floor."
Exceptions: When chronology dictates the order of a series (breakfast, lunch and dinner) — When familiarity dictates the order (peaches and cream).
from Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson
In his essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell offered guidelines that are even more pertinent today:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech you're used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
To be able to recognize a good story idea requires self-awareness. Surprise, shock, outrage, anger, disgust, squeamishness, embarrassment, nervousness, anxiety — all are signals that a story may be at hand. Otherwise unpleasant feelings can be recognized for their potential as inspiration. — James B. Stewart in Follow the Story
Next time you're working on a book proposal, or brainstorming whether or not your book idea is viable, use the on-line booksellers as a research tool. At amazon.com, for example, you can search by keyword for the type/topic of book you're proposing. Their search engine will immediately bring up a list of titles. By clicking on the titles that appear to be similar to yours, you will learn more about the content of each book, the authors' names, publishers of those books, number of pages, and price of each. Within minutes you will know whether what you have in mind is different-enough from what's already out there; positioned differently because of depth, target audience, or price points; and whether there is an audience for your book (because there are other similar but different books like it). Best of all, if you decide to go ahead with queries and a proposal, you will have a tightly-targeted list of potential publishers. Why? Because they're already reaching out to your audience, they will be most receptive to follow-up sales to their customers.
An excellent way of finding marketable ideas is to talk with people and find out what they want and need to know (that isn't readily available in one place), then write a book to satisfy that information need. — Bob Bly, author of Getting Your Book Published.
Coming up with good ideas is a challenge. A couple of the best sources I´ve found over the years:
1. Newspapers - For example, a newspaper article talked about poisonous plants in a very general sense. One paragraph mentioned toddlers chewing on poisonous houseplants. So I concentrated on that part of the subject and sold an article to a parenting magazine.
2. Conversations - Listen to what people are talking about. When a writer friend (in a restaurant, no less) overheard a table of seniors discussing how they were losing touch with their distant grandchildren, she proposed and sold an article to a retirees´ magazine on how to stay "close" to distant grandkids.
Where does a nonfiction writer start? The very first step in nonfiction writing is to start with a good idea. You will want to systematically collect possible ideas. Just as a photography loads up on film in order to select a few good shots from dozens of pictures taken, the writer collects ideas. Ideas are a writer´s film — they won´t all turn out to be as good as you thought at first, so you need many in order to work on the very best of them. Set up an idea-storage system: perhaps a simple file folder or index cards or a notebook or a computer file. Be sure to note where they come from, so you can track YOUR best sources of "selling" ideas.
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Book Writing Tips
Chapters should be approximately the same length, because that's the current style for nonfiction books. Let's say your book is contracted to be 70,000 words — the most popular length for contemporary nonfiction. You have ten chapters. Divide 70,000 by ten and you'll see that every chapter needs to be about 7,000 words. Further, if you have seven subtopics per chapter, divide 7,000 words per chapter by seven, and you'll know that every subtopic must be approximately 1,000 words, or about the size of a short magazine article. No, all chapters and subtopics will not be exactly a certain number of words, but you'll want to come close. And if you ever feel overwhelmed about the amount of material needed for your book, think of it in pieces, like small magazine articles grouped together. From Writing the Nonfiction Book by Eva Shaw.
When taking pictures of the person you're profiling, go ahead and waste the first 10 or 12 shots on terrible poses and expressions if doing so will loosen up the person. When he or she begins to relax, be ready to get the good shots.
Writing for the Web
Most people have more difficulty reading from a screen than from the printed page. So writing for the Web means writing for easy readability. Hit your reader with the main points at the top of the page — because people are reluctant to scroll. Be concise: The overall length of a radio or television piece is about a third of a print article; a Web page can be even shorter. Cut every word that doesn't contribute. Then use interior pages to unfold details and complexity. Once readers delve deeper into a site, their acceptance of more discursive reading matter increases. Once they are committed to the subject material, you can write "normally" and assume they will print out and read from paper. Written by Jane Dorner, author of The Internet: A Writer's Guide (ISBN 0 7136 5192 X - A & C Black)
Before using that anecdote you picked up in an Internet chat room to illustrate a point in your article or book, be sure to get permission. Quoting from the New Jersey Law Journal: "Each Internet user owns the email he or she composes and sends into an online system or network. As with public messages, the text of an email is considered a 'literary work' for copyright purposes. … Chat rooms and bulletin board features allowing users to post messages or upload files create the greatest potential for infringement liability."
Corporate Writing Tips
Avoid common brochure mistakes: Do you make these common mistakes when you create a company brochure for yourself or a client?
- Not using a headline, graphic, or photo to draw the reader into the rest of the brochure
- Too much text, not enough benefits (bullet points)
- Not including a partial client list with brief testimonials
- Too much jargon (industry-speak)
- Using old or dated information
- Not including all contact info (address, phone, email address, URL, etc.)
- Not complying with postal regulations
Source: Markus Allen's $10,000 Marketing Tip of the Day (available free via email) www.markusallen.com
No matter which field you write about, if you can sell magazine articles or books, you possess the ability to communicate with words — a skill not that many people possess. And people will pay you to write material for them: brochures, letters, ad copy, booklets, company histories, newsletters, columns, Web content, and so on. Example: If you are writing about gardening for magazines, begin to develop clients in the gardening field (suppliers, retailers, manufacturers, growers) who need material written.
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