Why I’m Quitting Facebook…

Graffiti in Berlin of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The caption is a reference to George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Actually, I’m not exactly quitting. I’ve been thrown off for “hate speech”: remarking that public restrooms for women are often filthy. Of course, as with most social media, there’s no way of reaching a human being or appealing the CopBot’s judgment.

My long-haul trucking friend Connie — one of the few women in the business — was going on at Facebook about unisex bathrooms at truck stops. She remarked that when on the road, men’s bathroom habits tend to  be (heh) execrable. Many truckers, for example, are given to defecating into a plastic bag or urinating into a soda bottle and throwing the waste out the cab window onto the road’s shoulder. Unisex bathrooms, she reported, are uniformly filthy because of similar habits brought indoors.

I replied that women’s bathrooms are filthy, too, and for the same reason — and that it’s the proprietor’s responsibility to keep the facilities clean.

Forthwith comes a notice from Facebook:

Only you can see this post because it goes against our standards on hate speech.

Women are slobs, too. I’ve been in amazingly filthy women’s rooms. Problem is that the proprietors need to be required by law to keep the facilities clean.

How amazing is that?

As ridiculous as it is, nevertheless I deeply resent it and indeed consider it to be slanderous.

Later this afternoon, in comes yet another machine-generated e-mail from Facebook, noting that I seemed to be having difficulty signing in and instructing me to “click here” to sign in with one click. That instruction returned me to the profoundly mistaken and insulting slap in the face above.

Many of my friends have already left FB because of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, which made it impossible to pretend Facebook’s intrusiveness somehow wasn’t there. I should have left then, too, when I could do so with some dignity. I’ve stayed though, partly out of inertia, partly because it is nice to stay in touch with friends scattered around the country, but largely because Facebook has been my main marketing tool for the P&S Press books.

But y’know…it’s not a very effective marketing tool. And it’s not the only game in town.

More effective marketing? Get off your duff and go give public presentations. Write guest columns for magazines and newspapers. Pay Kirkus to review your books. Make yourself an expert on your subject matter and tell people all about it.

Sitting at home with your feet up while you tap away at a keyboard is just…well…not effective.

Shortly after I published 30 Pounds/4 Months, a diet guide and cookbook, I decided to run a Facebook Ads campaign. A friend who was busily making himself an expert, too — on amateur book marketing — insisted that this was the way to go!

Accordingly, I hired a marketer with glowing reviews of her Facebook expertise. Fantastic sales were guaranteed. We created the Plain & Simple Press and The Copyeditor’s Desk Facebook pages, and after she put them online, we launched a Facebook Ads campaign.

She was sure we would see a sharp spike an Amazon sales.

Along comes the first revenue report from Amazon.

Not only is there no spike, sales went dead flat after the FB Ads campaign went up! On the day our campaign went live, sales dropped off sharply. Then: nothing. Literally, not one sale.

She couldn’t believe it. Surely that couldn’t be possible! I surmised she thought I was trying to get out of paying her, so determined was she to believe that this state of affairs could simply not be true.  Not until I sent her PDFs of the Amazon reports did she believe me.

So…as a marketing tool, maybe it works for some people. But if you’ll do a little googling, look around the Web, check out a few YouTube videos on the subject, you’ll learn it doesn’t work for a lot of people.

I should have left a long time before this. Facebook is as hypnotic as online games. You get engaged with it, and you can’t quit gazing into the cobra’s eyes. Truly, it has become a dreadful timesuck. This morning I rolled out of the sack at 4 a.m., and with nothing much to do sat down in front of the computer. Next time I lifted my eyes from the screen, it was 6 o’clock!

Two hours blown away, with no more awareness of it than if ten minutes had passed.

So. What am I going to do?

Well, first, I’m not going to rejoin Facebook, even if the hard-copy complaint I’m snail-mailing to their Menlo Park HQ gets a rise out of a living entity.

Second, I’m probably going to join Medium, where, a few posts at a time, I will move the *FREE READS* chapters, once I get a feel for how the platform works. I may post chapters for one of the books at LinkedIn.

Third, I’ll join some new groups and offer to give presentations by way of letting people know these books exist.

And fourth, I’ll pitch ideas for guest columns to various publications around town and around the country. Weekly newspapers, in particular, are holes in the office floor into which to pour copy; editors are thrilled to find writers who can compose a simple sentence.

What I am not going to do is have anything more to do with the intrusive, privacy-invading, and arrogant likes of Facebook.

Image:
Wikipedia. By Victorgrigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19886293

The Complete Writer: Telling the Story *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part III
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs

Chapter 14. Telling Story

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears at our here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

My boss, grumbling unhappily, handed me an article we’d assigned to a freelance writer. Reading through it, I thought it seemed competent enough: the language was clear and literate, the facts were decently organized, and the writer had covered the subject comprehensively.

“This story looks all right,” I said. “What’s wrong with it?”

“It is all right, he returned. “That’s what’s wrong with it: I don’t want a story that’s just ‘all right.’ I want a piece that makes me sit up and shout wow!

What makes an editor sit up and shout “wow”? One sure bet is a nonfiction piece that shares some attributes with good fiction.

Accomplished storytellers never bore the listener by unloading the bare facts, by divulging the punch line before the joke is over, or by revealing the key to the plot before the story’s climax. Instead, they unveil the story a piece at a time, by drawing a series of word pictures full of engaging details. The storyteller introduces people, makes them seem real, and involves them in emotions and predicaments that move the listeners. A strong nonfiction writer uses fictional techniques for the same purpose: to hold the reader’s interest.

The elements of fiction are plot, point of view, characterization, theme, and setting (for more on these, see this book’s section on writing fiction). Each corresponds to a nonfictional technique.

Plot is roughly the same as structure, which we examined in the last chapter. You’ll recall the feature article’s classic architecture: a lead, often containing a capsule statement or nut paragraph; development of the facts; and a wrap-up.

Most fictional plots have a similar shape. Think of a movie or television show: if the story hasn’t caught your interest within the first five or ten minutes, you’ll probably leave the theater or turn off your device. A piece of short fiction must win over the reader in the first third of the story. After this equivalent of the lead, the fiction builds toward a climax or resolution of its problem and then falls off in a dénouement.

Plot involves conflict. Not all nonfiction stories lend themselves to this—the only conflict in a new-product roundup, for example, may take place between the editorial and the advertising departments. But many articles do contain this element. Conflict may occur between human beings, between a person and an obstacle or handicap, between an individual and Nature or an animal, between large groups, or within a single person’s mind. Anyone who faces a problem is engaged in a conflict.

You often can set up a kind of opposition within a nonfiction piece that will move the action forward to a resolution, just as a fictional story builds toward a climax that resolves the plot’s conflict.

For example, you might write about a coalition of your city’s small neighborhood associations. Such groups usually form to fight city hall. Leaders may say they exist for local beautification or to sponsor block parties. But sooner or later, they involve themselves in zoning questions, highway development, taxation, crime-stopping programs, or whatever. Knowing this, you would focus on some problem the local groups took on, and you would use that conflict to show members in action. The story’s body would move toward the disposition of the issue, and in doing so, would cover the coalition’s history, function, and methods. For a “dénouement,” the story might wind up with a quote or two on the group’s effectiveness or a mention of plans for the future. An approach like this allows you to hold forth on the issues while you show how they affect real people.

Even when no conflict is inherent in your story, you should present your facts so that they build to a logical, satisfying conclusion. In other words, you should avoid either dumping all your information in a single pile or stringing the facts out at random so they go nowhere. The story should open on a captivating note, move toward some meaningful high point, and leave its readers feeling they have caught its significance.

Point of view, in nonfiction as in fiction, has to do with the perspective from which the story is told. The most obvious approach to nonfiction is to report the facts from the journalist’s equivalent of the omniscient point of view. But that’s not always the most desirable choice. Sometimes it’s better to tell the story through the eyes of one of the people involved, even if that person is yourself.

The trick to relating a story from a specific point of view is to maintain the same perspective throughout. Once you’ve begun to narrate the story from one person’s viewpoint, do not waver by inserting someone else’s observations or your own comments.

Note the difference between point of view and the grammatical term person. By first person, we mean the subject of a verb is “I” or “we.” In the second person, the verb’s subject is “you,” and in the third person, “he, “she,” or “they.” Narrative is most often written in the first or third person.

Marguerite Reiss, in a Reader’s Digest story,[1] reported a bear attack from the victim’s point of view, but writes Rollin Braden’s story in the third person: “Rollin didn’t relish crossing tracks with [an Alaskan brown bear]. . . . The only sound he heard. . . . He knew. . . .” Although she never uses the first-person “I,” the story is told from a single perspective: Rollin’s. Everything that takes place is experienced through him: we hear, see, and feel what he hears, sees, and feels as the events happen to him. We never see any of the story from the bear’s viewpoint, nor through the eyes of his companions on the hunting trip. Had Reiss allowed the focus to slip, the story would have lost its impact.

Good characterization presents a believable word picture of a human being. As soon as you introduce an individual into a story, you should describe and characterize him or her.

Whether the person is real or imaginary, any ink-on-paper portrait is an abstraction. You can never present another human being as he or she actually is; the best you can do is show how you perceive someone. For this reason, John McPhee’s Thomas Hoving is as much a literary character as John Updike’s Roger Lambert. The fiction writer must provide enough detail to convince readers that the characters act as they do for believable reasons. As a nonfiction writer, you have an added problem: you cannot manipulate or re-imagine a real person’s motives or words to make them fit the story.

We perceive a person on several levels. One is superficial: we see her clothes, her physique, the color of her hair and eyes; we observe her mannerisms and hear the cadence of her speech; we sense the mood of the moment. As we come to know her better, we discover a second level of her reality: what she does for a living; where she grew up; how she was educated; what her parents, spouse, and children are like. The deepest level is psychological. She feels; she thinks; she responds to her environment in special ways. Key factors in her life have changed her: divorced parents, perhaps, or an accident, an abortion, a lost lover. These elements need not be dark—they might include a chance to study art coming at a moment of indecision, a special teacher, or a meeting with an admired role model.

Writers draw people just so. A one-dimensional or flat character is lightly sketched—usually with one or two physical characteristics or an allusion to some habit. In describing a courtroom scene, for example, you would fill the spectator’s gallery with one-dimensional characters. The danger in picking out a single trait, of course, is the lurking cliché. Try not to populate your story with good-old-boy businessmen, liberated grandmothers, macho truck drivers, and similar stage figures.

Two-dimensional characters are more carefully drawn, with allusions to their personal background, tastes, and aspirations. You often find them in the standard 1,000- to 1,500-word magazine profile. We meet a young tycoon who at the age of 17 decided he could buy fast cars sooner by selling houses than by attending college, and voilà! Now he heads a multistate real estate empire. The story may interest the reader in passing, but it offers little real insight into the subject’s personality.

Three-dimensional characters result from fleshed-out, fully rounded portraits. They happen when a writer knows a subject intimately, the result of long conversations and much time spent together. This picture tells us what the person looks like, where he grew up and went to school, who are the most important people in her life, and whether in an Italian restaurant she’ll choose spaghetti over veal saltimbocca—and then it tells us why. New Yorker profiles provide outstanding examples of fully drawn nonfictional characterization.

Another literary technique commonly used in nonfiction is dialogue, or, in the language of journalism, quotes. Direct quotation gives life and spirit to a narrative—but only when handled with some grace.

Quotes serve several purposes. In exposition—where you are explaining a subject—quotes allow voices other than the writer’s to comment. This adds interest or authority to what is being said. You might use an expert’s remarks to support a generalization, or have a witness to some event speak about what she saw, heard, or thought.

Expository quotes should do more than simply repeat the author’s assertion. They must add some fact or give insight into the characters’ emotions. Try to avoid constructions like this one, for example:

Fitts, however, [said] he had reservations of his own regarding a constitutional challenge to his indictment because he wanted the opportunity to prove in court that what he wrote about the two politicians is true.

“I want to prove my case,” he [said]. “If this motion is accepted, the case probably will not go to court. I need to go to court.”

Redundant and boring: the writer has Fitts say the same thing three times. By contrast, a quote in Ralph Backlund’s July 1998 Smithsonian story about the Dance Theater of Harlem[2] works well:

People contrasted the energy of the company with the lethargy that sometimes overtakes performances of the Bolshoi Ballet. At a dress rehearsal the afternoon of opening night, there were many dance students. They said that not only could they not maintain the speed and precision demanded by the company, they never imagined anyone else could. Julia Kazlova a student at the Moscow School of Ballet, said, “These are techniques and talents we have never seen.”

That quote emphasizes the point without repeating it, and it adds a fact. Another quote in the same story demonstrates a different use of quotation: to characterize.

Robovsky shouts , stamps, and gives a convincing display of what we think of as Hungarian temperament. He scolds the boys for landing too audibly. “Do I hear noise? Oh, the noise is killing me! You are landing with thuds.” Then he laughs and everyone relaxes.

In writing dialogue, novice writers often stumble over attributions, those words that tell who said what. In “‘I find Paul appealing and Peal appalling,’ said Adlai Stevenson,” the word said is an attribution.

Ordinarily you should start a new paragraph for each new quote, unless the quote supports a point you are making within a paragraph. When two or more people converse, begin a new paragraph with each change of speaker. Attribute as often as is necessary for clarity: you need not attribute every utterance, as long as the speaker is clear to the reader.

Attributions normally fall at the end or in the middle of a quote. If the quote is several lines long, place the attribution where a comma would naturally occur. If it is short, place the attribution at the end. Only when you wish to emphasize the speaker should you begin with the attribution: “John Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .’”

Newspapers often invert the normal word order in attributions: “said Adlai Stevenson,” rather than “Adlai Stevenson said.” Some editors dislike this style. Do not feel you must use one or the other. Listen to the rhythm of the prose and use the order that best pleases the ear.

On most newspapers, too, reporters put attributions in the past tense. This does not hold true for magazines, or on some papers, for the feature pages. If a speaker says something that he clearly means as generally true—that is, he’d repeat it right now if asked—use the present tense: “‘I personally despise them,’ he says.” But if the remark applies only to something that took place once, use the past tense: “‘Hey,’ Darrel said quietly, ‘It’s your moose.’”

Setting reveals the story’s time, place, and social milieu. Drawing a setting requires skill, both as observer and as writer. Description may be vivid, but it must never be purple—that is, florid, overblown, or gaudy.

It’s vital to let the reader grasp early on where the story takes place and how the surroundings look. In establishing the setting for “The Big Dry,” Time’s July 4, 1988, cover piece, Hugh Sidey demonstrates the show-don’t-tell principle:

John Malard sat at a small kitchen table covered with a blue plastic cloth, and with strong, thick fingers stroked the stubble on his chin. His black hair was cropped to its roots, his glasses coated at the edges with the grit of a morning of tilling in his stunted cornfield, which hugs a bluff above the Missouri River between Bismarck and Cannon Ball, N. Dak.

The 93ºF wind scoured the boards of his tiny home, gusting and swirling up to 30 m.p.h., drying, loosening, lofting, trying again to blow him away. The big prairie sun, without a wisp of cloud to soften it, hammered the land as far as a squinted eye could see, which is a long way out there.

Rather than flatly saying Malard is a farmer, Sidey shows us a man who tills a cornfield. In this lead to a story about a drought, Sidey does not use the word “drought.” Instead, he draws a picture: grit, stunted corn, 93º winds, the sun, the squinted eye.

Note how specific the details are and how they add up. We see Malard, who is immediately named. His small kitchen table covered with a blue plastic cloth signals a man of modest means with middle-class, pragmatic tastes. His black hair is cropped to its roots, suggesting middle- or working-class conservatism—he wears his hair like a U.S. Marine’s The words “roots” and “cropped” are connotative. He has strong, thick fingers: a working-man’s hands. The stubble on his chin says he didn’t stop to primp on the way to a hard morning in the fields. That he has been tilling tells us he farms. He raises not just any crop, but corn, the quintessential American grain, and the cornfield is stunted, a sign something is wrong.

In the second paragraph, Sidey uses a literary device known as “pathetic fallacy,” in which Nature is imagined to reflect, sympathize with, or be capable of human actions. The thirty-mile-an-hour winds try to blow Malard away. Of course, the wind has no motive, nor can the sun consciously hammer the land like the Norse God Thor. Other verbs also carry faint suggestions of human behavior: scoured, lofting.

The entire setting is allusive. A man speaking from his small kitchen table in a tiny house hugging a bluff in the harsh vastness of North Dakota evokes a favorite American folk image: the little guy who stands up against massive, primal forces.

The strength of this passage lies in its restraint. Add any elaboration at all—one more windy verb, an extra adjective about the sun, a whiff of pity for Malard—and the writing would turn mauve. But because the details are carefully chosen, very specific, and concise, they paint an effective, convincing picture.

A story’s theme is its sense of meaning: why do the things you’re writing about matter? An article, like a novel, short story, or play, expresses its author’s perception of life. In rare cases, you may communicate your view of the facts explicitly, through direct comment. Usually, you work it into the story through allusion and symbol, and by showing believable characters in meaningful action.

Barry Bearak, in his profile of comedian Sonny Sands,[3] uses a sophisticated literary device to let us know why his subject matters. He manages, through the use of language, allusion, and subtle comparison, to make Sonny a kind of symbol. More than an aging comic, Sonny represents the decrepitude that all of us face, and at the same time he stands for an entertainment era that has passed. Bearak suggests this in his choice of quotes (“Life is like a composition. . . .”; “How much time you think you got in this world?”); by placing Sonny in a historic context; by suggesting that most of Sonny’s audience now live in condominiums for the elderly; and by contrasting the old pro with a young part-timer whose life is radically different from Sonny’s early life. In the stratospheric realms of literary criticism, this technique is called iconography. To find it in journalism is so rare as to be startling—Bearak won a Pulitzer with it.

For many kinds of nonfiction, mastery of the techniques of suspense and foreshadowing is vital. In learning to write for Reader’s Digest, for example, Marguerite Reiss was taught “to get the reader on the edge of his chair.” The magazine’s editors call this “nail-biting,” she reports. “You have to hold him there until he can hardly stand it, and at the very last minute, you give him a little relief.”

Several expedients can help bring the reader to the edge of the chair. Most obvious is withholding information until the end of the story. We know, for example, that Rollin Braden will survive the bear attack—otherwise, the story wouldn’t appear in Reader’s Digest. But we don’t know how he will escape or what will happen to him before he does.

In “Nightmare Hunt,” Reiss builds suspense by dropping hints in the first few paragraphs.

“Thought you told me I’d see some bears,” Darrel chided his friend. . . . Alaskan brown bears forage intensely before holing up for the winter. Rollin didn’t relish crossing tracks with this one. . . . Suddenly Rollin sensed something. . . . there was a rustle. . . . Before long he was 300 yards into the woods, then 400 yards. A chill rippled through his body. He knew that whatever animal he had heard was probably watching him right now. . . . A branch snapped. . . .

All these details foreshadow something ominous. Later in the piece, the suspense resumes when the enraged animals back off momentarily during their attack.

Rollin could hear the bears nearby . . . the seconds ticked by . . . the heavy panting subsided. . . .

Telling the story from Rollin’s point of view also helps create a sense of tension, because it builds empathy. “I learned to put myself in the person’s shoes, in interviewing as well as writing,” Reiss says. “Rather than being objective and standing away, like I used to do in newspaper work, you have to actually get in and almost hurt with the guy.

“You look for tiny bits of suspense, and then some little flavors that aren’t so openly suspenseful,” she adds. Reiss once interviewed a young Air Force sergeant who was accidentally caught on a helicopter’s basket litter above the Bering Sea. He assumed a macho pose about the incident. “I asked him, ‘Did you look down?’ He was being sort of light about it. But when I asked him that, he said, ‘No, I didn’t look down. Once I glanced a little bit, but I didn’t want to look down.’ So he was giving me just a little tincture of what I would call fear. But of course, he wouldn’t call it that.”

Details like this make the story.

A fiction writer may invent details. In nonfiction, you must be absolutely factual. But there’s a reason articles are called stories: that’s what any good writer tells.

[1] “Nightmare Hunt,” June 1986.

[2] “From a Garage on West 152nd Street, a Ballet Company Soars to Moscow.”

[3] “Old Jokes Never Die, Just Retire, Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1986. http://articles.latimes.com/1986-09-13/news/mn-11685_1_piano-player

If You’d Asked Me: My Boyfriend Killed My Dog *FREE READS*

Just for you: a chapter from a book in progress. You can buy a copy of the whole book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. See the collected chapters so far, FREE online at If You’d Asked Me… For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

To follow the progress online, click on the little orange icon beside the P&S Press feed, over there in the right-hand sidebar. ⇒ ⇒ ⇒

SECTION 1, Continued:
God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

18. Should I report to the police that my boyfriend killed my dog?

Please get away.

If this man has not harmed you yet, eventually he will. People who abuse animals will also abuse people.

Killing your dog IS abusing you. This kind of behavior escalates. He is likely to become very dangerous. He could even kill you.

Before you report the man to the police, you must go away to a safe place, without letting him know that is what you plan to do. Contact a woman’s shelter or arrange with a friend or relative to stay at their home. Apply for a credit card and have it sent to an address other than your home—even if you are not living with him, he might come across it in your mail.

If you have a joint bank account with him, go to another bank or (preferably) a credit union and open an account in your name only. Arrange to have statements sent to a different address or emailed to an account he does not know about. If you have a job, have your employer direct-deposit your pay to the new account.

Do not report the man to the police until you are in a safe place. At that point you should file a police report and get a restraining order against him.

This sounds all very drastic . . . but it’s nowhere near as drastic as what a man with this mentality can do to you. This is not an exaggeration. Do not wait to give him a second chance—get away now.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 16 *FREE READS*

Ella’s Story follows people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

16

Well, she could hardly paint Bintje’s wagon black, given her own flair for inflicting headaches on her overseers, back in the younger days. How many times, she wondered, did Bohtil contemplate wringing her neck? And what possessed Vighdi to put up with her at all, much less coax her along through all those lively, duplicitous months and years?

Vighdi. If she wasn’t a saint, then she was truly in love. Misguided love, one could argue.

Surely, though, never as misguided as her own.

By the three-spirited goddess of Dawn, he was a gorgeous thing! Should she have known better? Obviously. Did she care?

Did Bintje care?

She should have picked up the danger signal that day in Takrai when Haidar was introducing her around the freighting and lading offices. Meeting the staff who cranked out the river of requisitions, invoices, and receipts that flowed through her books was useful, even interesting. At some point, after the division superintendent had given them a tour of the cavernous workroom and then the two had paused for a pot of almost flavorless ywird tea, the subject of Lohkeh came up.

“He’s a good man to know,” Haidar remarked. “He’s still in the life.”

“He is?” Ella was startled. “How can that be? How could you stay in the life when you’re locked up here?”

Haidar gave her a look that Ella interpreted as condescending, almost pitying. “Sister,” she said, “your oath doesn’t go away just because you do.”

You’d think I’d have been smart enough to register that, she reflected. She poured herself a mug of iced water and juice from the canteen’s coldbox tap. Young and dumb. Just like Bintje.

Sometimes, though, she thought it was almost worth it.

The Complete Writer: Writing the Feature Article *Free Read*

The Complete Writer
Part III
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs

Chapter 13. The Structure of Feature Articles

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears at our here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Like a work of fiction, an article has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Accomplished writers organize their material up front. Before they sit down at the keyboard, they know how the story will begin, how it will conclude, and what path it will take to reach the end.

If you look closely at published feature stories and at most journalistic blog posts, you’ll see they follow a fairly standard format.

  • The lead, which opens the story with a person, an anecdote, a set scene, or—rarely—dialogue.
  • The transition, often called the capsule statement, bridge, nut paragraph, or “nut graf.” It tells the reader why you’re writing about this subject. The nut graf has its equivalent in the “thesis sentence” of freshman composition.
  • A strong ending, a real gem saved for the last paragraph.

The way the writer develops these elements depends on his or her purpose and material. An effective story is shaped logically to fit its substance.

The story’s architecture

The typical news story is shaped like an inverted pyramid. It starts with a lead that concentrates the so-called “5 W’s and an H” of classical journalistic style: who, what, when, where, why and how. The facts of the event are then presented, as objectively as possible, in descending order of importance.

This structure made it easy for the reporter to call in or submit a typescript that disgorged whatever happened on the scene, and for the copy desk to shorten the story to fit the space available simply by cutting from the bottom—the closer to the end, the less important was the content.

The feature story, in contrast, can take on any of several shapes. The basic structure is what I like to call the “paper doll”:

Here the story opens with an attention grabber. A transition between the striking image or statement of the lead bridges the gap between the lead and the main part of the story, which develops facts and observations in a coherent way. Finally, a strong ending wraps up the narrative.

Without the transitional plateau of the nut paragraph, you get a footed bowl, also a useful structure:

Some feature stories are circular: the ending brings the reader back to the lead.

Others may be Y- or menorah-shaped. In this fairly complex structure, several distinct strands or parallel substories are braided to form a narrative that come together in a rousing conclusion.

The best writers understand the importance of structure. William Howarth, in his introduction to The John McPhee Reader, notes that McPhee, a master craftsman, seeks “to create a form [for a given story] that is logical but so unobtrusive that judgments of its content will seem to arise only in the reader’s mind.” In designing a structure, Howarth observes, McPhee may “either find an idea for order in the material or impose one upon it, selecting what Coleridge called the ‘organic’ or ‘mechanic’ principles of structure.” Levels of the Game, a study of Arthur Ashe and Clarke Graebner’s September 8, 1968, Forest Hills semifinals match, takes up the back-and-forth action of a tennis game, deriving the story’s form from the material at hand.

The structure you choose for your story must give it unity, balance, and coherence. You can point out the facts’ meaning simply by the order in which you present them, sometimes by setting two telling items side-by-side without editorial comment. Search for a structure that complements your story’s theme. You might, for example, write a human-interest piece about someone caught in a bureaucratic runaround: the story could have a circular structure, taking your subject from Point A right back to Point A. This would effectively underscore theme with structure, conveying the victim’s frustration or bemusement without ever preaching or explicitly criticizing.

Writing Leads

The lead’s purpose is to grab the reader’s attention, provide the central idea, and persuade the person to read on. It need not state the story’s point or most important facts. Feature leads are less formulaic than a hard news lead; they give you more room to be creative.

Feature leads for newspapers are necessarily short and to the point. This is true of leads for blog posts, where brevity is often the point in itself. Newspaper and blog editors invariably prefer a punchy opening over the impressionistic lead that may appeal to a magazine editor. Try a magazine lead on a newspaper editor and you’ll hear that you’re “backing into the story.”

In any event, the lead’s information must be related to the story’s main point. Don’t open a piece with a colorful descriptive passage that has little to do with your message. If a catchy anecdote illuminates the story’s point, fine: use it. Otherwise, find a better lead.

Many writers will start a story by focusing on a person whose experience underscores what the story is about, and they’ll try to put a good quote near the top. Bloomberg News focuses on entrepreneur Richard Branson to open this story:

In 2014, disaster struck Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The company’s experimental spaceship tore apart and crashed during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. The crash added tragedy to a string of delays and disappointments for the company, which Branson founded in 2004 to make space tourism routine. This year, Virgin Galactic came back with the unveiling of the beautiful SpaceShipTwo.

Hello World’s Ashlee Vance went to the desert to attend the SpaceShipTwo press event at the Mojave, Calif., airport and to find out how much resolve Branson has left. With his typical flair, Branson brought the spaceship out amid a sea of champagne and celebrities and huge helpings of optimism. Flashing his brilliant smile, he said that the world’s wealthiest people will be able to travel to space soon. Some more of us will follow, someday.[1]

Some of the most effective leads are anecdotal. An anecdote is a ministory with its own opening, middle, and end. When you use it as a lead, its ending should tie into the rest of the story by making a transition into the capsule statement or body of the story, by making a strong point that underscores your story’s subject, or by serving as a capsule statement itself.

The letter arrived on a spring day. It had flown across the Great Lakes, over cornfields, across the Rockies, and out over the Pacific—8,000 miles across the briny deep and up into a satellite somewhere in orbit that flicks emails from one end of the earth to the other. It zipped through the stratosphere above the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, over the sprawl of Guangdong and the rice paddies beyond, to the foothills of the Himalayas. And finally to Kunming, a city of seven million people in southern China. The day it arrived, Jessica was sitting at home, eating dinner with a friend from school.

When she saw the words “Northeastern University” on the subject line, Jessica almost didn’t want to open it. It was clear outside, “but I was afraid of raining in my heart” if the college refused her, she said. Jessica was a high school senior at the time, in 2013. She had grown up in Yunnan, the Chinese province edging on Tibet, Myanmar, and Laos, but her dreams rested in a distant land, the United States. Slowly, she scanned each line of the letter, carefully. Then she turned to her friend with a huge smile and said: “I did it!”[2]

Similar to the anecdote is the single example or series of briefly stated examples. These are often short case histories illustrating a problem the story will address. They are popular in women’s magazines, especially for health-oriented stories.

“Pop had to be put in a nursing home at a cost to my mother of about $2,400 per month,” a man from Cicero, Ill., wrote to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare,” and neither Medicare nor Medicaid could help because my parents had a nest egg. The law is without pity. Had my father lived for just two more years in a nursing home, my mother would have had to spend the rest of her life in poverty, but God called Pop to his eternal rest in one year, instead of two. My mother and I can never forget the terrible feeling of relief we had when Pop died. We can only live with it in shame. We loved him.”[3]

This lead, which appeared in a newspaper’s magazine, begins with a quote. Many editors, especially those with a newspaper background, dislike a lead that opens with dialogue. Although they sometimes go with it if the lead works exceptionally well, beginning writers should avoid leading with a quote.

Similarly, many editors disapprove of leading with a rhetorical question. This approach has become more common, though. The problem with the rhetorical question—posed so the writer can provide the answer—is that it may appear patronizing. Also, it can lead your reader to provide a different answer from the one you’re trying to elicit.

Which freshwater fish weighs an average of between 12 and 20 pounds, slams your lure with a hair-raising jolt, screams line off your reel with alarming speed, splits the air with slashing, leaping runs, and shucks free about three out of five time to leave you with nothing but a memory of it?

The answer is Skamania, a very special steelhead found almost exclusively in Indiana.[4]

The narrative lead opens the story with a chain of events unfolded in a dramatic, chronological way. First this happened, then this, then we get to the substance of the story. Long form nonfiction pieces, such as this one by Siddartha Mukherjee for The New Yorker, often open with a narrative lead.

On a Saturday morning in April of 2014, Nenad Macesic, a thirty-one-year-old doctor-in-training, received an urgent phone call from the emergency room of Austin Hospital, just outside Melbourne, Australia. Lean and taut, with a swirl of dark hair, Macesic resembles an aspiring urban d.j. In fact, by night he spun electronica in clubs around Melbourne; by day he was a fellow in infectious diseases. The call concerned a woman in her late forties who had come to the hospital complaining of a fever, headaches, and an unusual rash.

Travel-related illnesses may be an Australian obsession: foreign contagions brought into the country can spread like, well, rabbits. The woman in the E.R. had just returned from the Cook Islands, an isolated spray of atolls in the South Pacific, where she and her husband had been attending a family funeral. Other people at the funeral had been sick with mysterious fevers, but she hadn’t made much of it. Now that she was home, though, a mild headache had progressed to a full, persistent throb. Migratory pains appeared in her joints, and an angry, blanching rash—the kind that pales when you press it—was now blooming across her torso.

When Macesic entered her hospital room, the woman, a textile worker, looked more medically stable than he had expected she would. She spoke in measured sentences, with no sign of confusion or delirium. But Macesic was struck by her strange rash—vivid raised red dots coalescing into islands—and the color of her eyes (pink, with streaks of vermillion), which was indicative of conjunctivitis, a symptom of certain viral infections.

Was it dengue? Macesic wondered. Dengue—colloquially known as breakbone fever, because of the intense corkscrews of pain that can occur in the bones, muscles, and joints—is caused by a mosquito-borne virus and was endemic in the Cook Islands. But the woman’s symptoms seemed too mild for dengue: the disease can cause catastrophic drops in white blood cells and platelets, but her blood counts were nearly normal. Could it be chikungunya? Another mosquito-transmitted viral fever, chikungunya can leave its victims with months, or even years, of wracking joint pains. But this woman’s joint pains and swellings weren’t severe. It was as if she had acquired a milder variant of those diseases—a more temperate cousin. And the conjunctivitis was a tipoff: neither chikungunya nor dengue is usually accompanied by those blood-tinged eyes.

Macesic decided to consult an online reporting system called ProMED, which tracks infectious diseases around the world. Even surfing the site casually takes a fair amount of fortitude: one day this month, there were eleven new reports on the site, including an undiagnosed measles-like disease that killed forty children in rural Myanmar; anthrax outbreaks among deer in Siberia; food poisoning from cyclospora at a Mexican resort; and a form of strep, normally found in horses, that sickened a woman in Washington State and killed her mother.

As Macesic went through previous entries in ProMED’s database—malaria in Oman, Lassa fever in Nigeria—he found a cluster of cases in French Polynesia, some six hundred miles east of the Cook Islands, that seemed remarkably similar to the woman’s condition: a dengue-like, mosquito-borne viral syndrome, but with a milder course. Those cases had been attributed to a little-known virus called Zika, a member of a family of RNA viruses that includes dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever. (Zika gets its name from the Ugandan forest where the virus was first found, in a monkey, in the nineteen-forties.) Macesic sent the woman’s blood to a specialized laboratory for viral analysis.

The next morning, the woman’s husband arrived at the hospital, enveloped in the same diffuse, blanching rash. By the end of the week, the woman’s blood test had come back positive for the Zika virus. The husband, however, had no detectable virus in his blood: he had seemingly cleared the infection almost completely. In both cases, Macesic noted, the symptoms had also begun to resolve on their own. He figured that the man and the woman had been bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes. (The sexual transmission of Zika had been described in one prior case report, but Macesic did not know about it.) Macesic wrote the case up as an abstruse curiosity—a medical “quiz”—for an infectious-diseases journal. “The illness is typically mild and self-limited, with resolution over 1 week,” he noted. “In a previous outbreak with 49 confirmed cases of Zika, no deaths, hospitalizations, or hemorrhagic complications were reported, but neurological complications . . . have been described.”

Medical students are often taught a piece of diagnostic wisdom: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” But this case, a rare illness that closely resembled common ones, was a classic zebra. Macesic didn’t expect to encounter it again—at least, not anytime soon.[5]

Setting the scene can also be exceptionally effective. To do this, the writer establishes the story’s locale or circumstances and puts the players in place. This gut-wrenching investigation begins in the most ominous way:

Apartment #716

It was a joke among members of the ragtag maintenance crew at the Section 8 housing project, as well as a convenient answer for local fire marshals who sometimes inquired: “Blacks frying chicken with grease, they keep burning down these apartments!”

The London Square apartment complex where the crew worked was an aging misfit in the midst of a well-established middle-class neighborhood in Tulsa, in central Oklahoma. When it was built in 1965, the sprawling complex was considered a jewel in the midtown community, boasting seven private in-ground swimming pools and immaculate landscaping. Fifty years later, neighbors see it as a tinderbox—its aging wooden roofs, dilapidated stairs, and boarded windows a testament to neglect. Numerous fires through the years served to evacuate unlucky tenants, along with the colonies of bedbugs hiding in mattresses of previously burned-out units.

One of those occurred on November 18, 2013.

For Miashah Moses, it began with a plume of black smoke. She saw it rising from her building as she crossed the parking lot. She broke into a run. Her two small nieces were inside.[6]

Sometimes you can lead with a bit of striking, well-written description:

Before me is what looks like a small, serene idol. It is in fact a beautiful child, eyes outlined in black ointments, dark hair gleaming with mustard oil, relieving herself in the street. I try to move but bump into a businessman’s briefcase. Nudging right, I’m nudged back by a bull wearing a necklace of marigolds. Pressed from behind by a piping flute seller, I step over the child as a bus blares up the narrow brick canyon, missing us all by inches. Within its coils of exhaust a man painted orange, carrying a snake-headed staff, takes form, nods at me, then vanishes behind a jostle of teenagers with stereo headphones working out their rock-n-roll moves. Pagodas that writhe with erotic carvings thrust roof upon roof above the trees, where big bats hang like fruit. and above the rooftops pure white snow peaks reach upward toward the stratosphere. At the moment all I’m looking for is the local computer club—somewhere in the magic confusion of modern Kathmandu.[7]

With this tapestry-like imagery, National Geographic writer Douglas Chadwick introduces us to the sights, sounds, smells, and people of an almost unimaginably exotic locale.

Occasionally, you can use some odd, unusual, or outrageous statement:

Hendricks County, Ind.—Detective Michael Nelson is walking a beat with one foot in the Twilight Zone.[8]

So a Wall Street Journal piece led into a story about a cop on the witchcraft beat.

These aren’t all the possibilities, but they should be enough to get you going. Read a lot of the kind of stories you enjoy, and observe how each one opens. Decide which ones work best, and then go forth and do likewise.

Nut Paragraphs

The nut graf or transitional capsule statement, often called the “bridge” by newspaper writers, moves the reader smoothly from the lead, which may be startling, into the body of the story. It explains what the piece is to be about and how the opening ties into the subject.

Many writers compose a one- or two-sentence thesis statement before they begin the story. Some version of this can often fit into the nut graf, but whether or not it does, the habit helps organize and focus one’s thoughts.

In a story about the AT&T break-up, Wall Street Journal reporter Francine Schwadel introduced a customer in the lead, showing him making a snap decision to sign up for the company’s long-distance service. She continued:

Millions of Americans have made the same call. In the big wave of balloting that started two years ago and ends Sept. 1, roughly 75% of the voters so far have chosen AT&T to provide long-distance service to the home or business. And a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicates that feelings like Mr. Seitz’s are largely responsible for the outcome: half of the 1565 respondents who expressed a preference for one of the phone firms cited familiarity with AT&T as the most influential element in their choice.[9]

Though the next paragraph concedes that the then-monolithic telecommunications giant was seeing some inroads from its new competition, the gist of the story is summarized in the nut graf: AT&T was still beating the dickens out of its rivals.

Development

In the body of a feature story, you make your points or discuss the issues at hand. These details must come in a logical order, one leading reasonably to the next. Most writers accomplish this by outlining the information they plan to present, whether on paper, in a computer file, or mentally.

A newspaper or magazine story may be organized along the lines of any of the standard rhetorical approaches. You may compare and contrast issues. You may develop an argument inductively, working from particular facts to a general conclusion, or deductively, reasoning from the general to the specific or from a familiar principle to the unfamiliar. You can build a chronological narrative, presenting events in the order they occurred. You can show cause and effect, or write a story that is an extended definition of some abstract concept.

Your approach to your story’s organization should fit your purpose. Chronological ordering works effectively with how-to stories and straight reports. Deduction—leading the reader from something familiar to new, unfamiliar concepts—is especially useful in science writing, where you may have to present bizarre, difficult ideas. Induction—drawing general conclusions from specific, concrete facts—helps clarify economics, sociology, and business issues, and it also works well in writing profiles. Cause-and-effect and comparison-and-contrast are useful approaches to the report.

One dramatic variety of development involves abutting a series of peaceful or pleasing events against an ironic fact or a stunning change in fortune. A writer discussing feral horses, for example, described the beauty and grace of a wild stallion that eluded capture for many ears. She wrapped up this idyllic passage with a bald statement: “The next year the big black and five of his mares were gutshot in cold blood by vandals and left to die in a meadow where once they peacefully grazed.” This can be a forceful way to make a point.

However you decide to develop your facts, they should hang together coherently. Short but smooth transitions should tie each paragraph with the ones that come before and after it. You can accomplish this by repeating key words and phrases and by using transitional words such as but, and, however, so, or nevertheless. Schwadel leads almost every paragraph of her AT&T story with some transitional device. The story’s second developmental paragraph begins, “AT&T’s success in the balloting,” echoing “impressive victory” in a preceding paragraph. This paragraph ends with “The theory was that people would desert AT&T in droves once federally mandated “equal access” enabled them to enjoy cheaper service without having to dial extra digits.”

Next graf begins, “But the results indicate. . . .” Now we see a steady progression of transitional function words heading paragraph after paragraph:

Another reason for AT&T’s strong showing. . . .”

But AT&T didn’t succeed solely. . . ”

Still, some people didn’t buy. . .

“AT&T’s efforts, however, were clearly. . . ”

“AT&T describes such defectors. . .

Indeed, of the customers that AT&T’s rivals . . .”

“In some parts of the country, meanwhile, . . .”

Although this approach seems mechanical when shown out of context, it demonstrates the importance of everyday transition words. They help your reader follow your train of thought.

Careful, logical ordering of your points so that the reader’s thought moves easily from one paragraph to the next will do the job, although you’ll need an occasional assist from those mechanical transition words. To succeed with this, you lay out a meticulously organized outline before you start to write. If the outline flows logically and the writing is coherent, the article should move logically, too.

The Last Word

Save a strong quote or a striking observation for the ending. It may or may not hark back directly to the lead, but it should summarize what you’ve said in a powerful, colorful, or succinct way. Sometimes you can use an ironic or telling quote for this purpose.

As a prosodic note, some writers try to end a story on an accented beat. That is, the last syllable in the last sentence is stressed, rather than unstressed. About Indiana’s steelheads, Homer Circle concludes,

The dictionary defines mania as “a form of insanity characterized by great excitement.” After you do battle with your first one, you’ll see why Skamaniacs are well named.

Because English usually stresses the first syllable, this reversal subtly catches the readers attention and, like the final flourish in a song, it ends the piece on an emphatic note. It’s not necessary to do this—it’s not always possible—but it’s a nice touch.

Sources:

[1] Bloomberg News, “Virgin Galactic’s Next Big Bet,” July 29, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-29/virgin-galactic-s-next-big-bet?cmpid=google&google_editors_picks=true

[2] Caitlin Dwyer, “Escaping the Gaokao,” September 17, 2015, The Big Roundtable. http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/escaping-the-gaokao/

[3] Daniel Holzman, “Endless Care with Costs to Match,” December 28, 1987, Insight.

[4] Homer Circle, “Skamania: Indiana’s Super Steelhead,” January 1985, Sports Afield.

[5] Siddartha Mukherjee, “The Race for a Zika Vaccine,” August 22, 2016, The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/the-race-for-a-zika-vaccine

[6] Carol Mersch, “A Trial by Fire,” May 26, 2016, The Big Roundtable, http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/a-trial-by-fire/
[7] Douglas H. Chadwick, “New Forces Challenge the Gods at the Crossroads of Kathmandu,” July 1987, National Geographic.

[8] Alex Kotlowitz, January 7, 1988.

[9] August 22, 1986.

If You’d Asked Me… What’s in your daughter’s purse? *FREE READS*

Just for you: a chapter from a book in progress. You can buy a copy of the whole book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. See the collected chapters so far, FREE online at If You’d Asked Me… For details, visit our home page or send a request through our Contact form.

To follow the progress online, click on the little orange icon beside the P&S Press feed, over there in the right-hand sidebar. ⇒ ⇒ ⇒

SECTION 1, Continued:
God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

17. If you had a 16-year-old daughter and accidentally knocked over her purse one evening while she was asleep, how upset on a scale of 1 to 10 (increasing) would you be to find each of the seven worrisome items in the detail below?

Condom: meh! Zero . . . be glad she has enough sense to protect herself.

Loaded gun: 10/10. What is going on in her life that she feels the need to protect herself that way? Or is she planning to stick up the local branch of Wells Fargo??

Heroin fixings: 10/10. Full-blown horror show under way.

Half-full pint of vodka: 8/10. Who gave it to her, where did she consume the first half of the pint, and was she in a car at the time?

Cigs: 9/10. There are better ways to commit suicide; cf. the gun. Is she trying to harm herself? Definitely would seek medical or psychiatric help for a kid who had a nicotine addiction.

Positive pregnancy test: 10/10. Who is the sire, does he know about this, what kind of complications is THAT going to cause, and what does she intend to do about the pregnancy? This could get expensive on top of all the drama.

Ticket to a naughty movie: meh! Sixteen-year-olds are not what they used to be. Your 16-year-old is a lot more sophisticated sexually than you were at that age and way more so than I was. It won’t harm her to learn the facts of life. Just be sure she knows the difference between fantasy and reality.

Ella’s Story: Chapter 15 *FREE READS*

This is a story about people who live ordinary lives as citizens of a vast interstellar empire. Indeed, a galactic empire. Each chapter will be posted individually here at the Plain & Simple Press blog, and then collected at a single page devoted to the book. Come on over to the Ella’s Story page to find all the chapters published so far, as well as the cast of characters and a list of place names.

Ella’s Story

15

Weeds cleared from the planting beds around the garden pond, Ella came to the end of the quiet tasks that made for an occasional break in her sometimes hectic days. Time to get back to work. She gathered the wilting intruders and tossed them into a compost bin.

The garnet blossom lay on the ground near where she had knelt by the water. She picked it up and gazed briefly into its blood-red depth. Its alluring perfume drifted on the air.

Ella crushed the flower in her fist and dropped it into the bin on top of the other debris.

§

Back at the manor house, she checked in with Tabit, Cook Lior’s wife and Skyhill’s chief housekeeper. Work was proceeding, Tabit said, “as per usual.”

That sounded pretty ambiguous, Ella thought. She climbed the broad stone stairway to the second floor, there to begin her own inspection of the morning’s routine activities.

Chadzar, the snow-colored Michaian bodyguard and valet, was not on duty at the station outside the Kaïna’s quarters. Nor, when she looked down the corridor formed when both doors at either end of the central meeting room stood open, could she see him at the station at the far end of the building, outside Rysha’s office and private meeting room. She hadn’t checked the day’s schedule for the mistress – she should have, admittedly – but knew if Chad wasn’t around, it meant Rysha was somewhere else, too.

She knocked tentatively at Rysha’s door. Receiving no response, she peeked in and found yes, the mistress was out.

And no, the bed was not made, draperies were not pulled open, the night’s dishes not picked up, the furniture not freshly polished, the morning’s towels not replaced with fresh ones, the bathroom not cleaned, polished, or reprovisioned. And it was past mid-day.

This was Bintje’s job: second-floor maid service. Where was the brat?

Ella walked through the central meeting room, which occupied the middle part of this floor, and came out in front of Rysha’s private office. The suite had been Suhuru’s private quarters, mirroring Rysha’s at the other end of the building. But after he died, it was converted into a secluded work and meeting space for his daughter, presently the sole survivor of the Delamona dynasty.

Interestingly, this set of rooms had been cleaned. Or possibly, Ella thought, it simply hadn’t been used since yesterday. A faint fresh scent of cleanser told her that wasn’t the case. Bintje had been here, but had failed to visit the Kaïna’s living quarters.

What colorful excuse, Ella wondered, would the girl have this time? She passed her hand over a console on Rysha’s desk, which recognized her and brought up a scheduling calendar. Just now Rysha was in E’o Cinorra addressing the diplomatic representatives of the Sector 5 Governing Council.

Good. It would take Her Eminence awhile to get back to Skyhill, even if she went nowhere else. That would give Ella time to track down the truant maid, sparing herself the task of cleaning the rest of the second storey.

She coded the intercom to signal the kitchen downstairs. Lior’s broad, cheerful face appeared on the monitor.

“Have you seen Bintje lately?”

The cook pulled a blank expression. “Not since this morning, ma’am.”

“How about Dita,” the Kaïna’s personal maid.

“She’s helping in the laundry right now. Want me to call her?”

“Bintje’s not with her?”

“Nope.”

That was middling positive news: those two weren’t up to something together. If they were, it would have been a surprise – Dita was no great chum of Bintje. But Ella knew enough to put nothing past anyone.

“If you see Binnie, tell her I want to see her, will you?”

After bidding Lior a good afternoon, she pulled up the front guard post’s log for the day.

No: Bintje had not left the estate.

She glanced out the office window, which looked onto a large, formal garden of exotic flora. Two of the agricultural crew – both men – were grooming some strangely sculptured plants. They were alone.

Walking up an outside corridor, she checked the north side of the building through a long bank of windows: no Bintje loafing on the patios. Nor could she be seen out the windows of the Kaïna’s quarters.

Inside the slave quarters? Not in her room. Not in the atrium garden. Not in the meeting room with its big stone fireplace.

Near the back end of the building, the servants’ snack canteen separated the corridors along the single people’s and the married couples’ sections. There she found her quarry, parked in front of an active vidspot and munching on some crispy, pungent air-roasted red-vine beans.

Give me strength, Goddess, Ella prayed. With a wave of her hand, she shut off the noise. the vidspot went blank, invisible against the wall’s glowpanel.

What are you doing?” she demanded.

Bintje didn’t even look surprised. “Taking a break.”

“Oh yeah? On whose say-so?”

“I don’t feel good, boss.” Ever so slightly whiny.

“That’s too bad. But it’s not getting the work done.”

Bintje sighed and affected a woebegone look.

“I’m sorry you don’t feel good,” Ella said, though not inclined to relent. “That’s part of getting pregnant. You’ll live through it. And while you’re living through it, you need to finish cleaning the second floor.”

“I threw up,” Bintje protested.

“You did . . . when?” Ella knew the girl had been sick in the morning but expected she should have come past it after a few hours.

“Just now.” The barely perceptible pause and the handful of spicey snack morsels gave the lie to that. Ella had to restrain herself from laughing aloud.

“Did Rizana give you anything for it?” Rizana: the midwife who operated out of the village a few miles to the west.

Maybe the Darl thing wasn’t such a bad idea, she reflected fleetingly. She could hardly wait to foist this one onto him. Think you’re in pain now, brother? Just wait…

 “Some special crackers,” Bintje replied.

“Uh huh. Why aren’t you eating those?”

“I wanted to save them for mornings. Just anything to eat helps. Later in the day.”

Right. “Bintji. I am not going to do your work for you. No one else is going to do your work for you. Do you understand me?”

“Yes’m.”

Was there ever any question? “Back over to the house right now, sister. Get to work cleaning the Kaïna’s suite. And this time do it right. I don’t want to hear her asking me where her face soap is again.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Now. Get going. And don’t miss the corners!”

Bintje dragged herself to her feet as though she were bearing the weight of full-term triplets.

Not until the prospective mother lumbered out the door did Ella permit herself a dry chuckle. The drama in full swing, well short of three months: this was going to be a long opera.

MacBook Keyboard Pain: Is this the aspirin pill?

Gaaah! Have we been here before?

From the minute I bought this expensive new MacBook Pro with the accursed touchbar, I’ve been unhappy with the accursed keyboard. At first it was a kind of malaise that I took for discomfort with getting used to a new machine. It would pass, I thought.

Well, not so much. Soon I realized that I simply could not type a paragraph or even a sentence without sprinkling the copy with typos like pepper on a pile of French fries. What a mess! And why? What was wrong with me? Had I had a ministroke? First signs of dementia? What???

Finally it dawned on me: The new Macbook keyboard is a different size from the ones on the two previous Mac laptops I’ve had. The layout is identical — no change in the position of the keys. But the keys themselves are just a tiny bit wider than before. A fraction of a fraction of an inch…but there it is. And the keys are set slightly further apart. The result is that if you’re a touch typist, when you reach for a desired key in its wonted position, your finger misses and you hit not one but two keys.

Hence, if you try to type a word with the letter “e” in it, you get this: H3ence…. Type a comment in Facebook and it comes up littered with crazy, unpredictable errors.

And yeah: enter corrections or revisions in a client’s copy, and the same damn thing happens. And then you look like a friggin’ idiot.

But that’s not all. Because of the way they designed the keyboard by way of making the computer’s silhouette as skinny as possible, turns out sometimes a key decides not to work. In my case, it was the letter “b.” So every time I would type, say “bubble,” I would get “ule.” Cute, eh?

Well, the issue resolved itself before I could get in to the “Genius” bar, but it certainly did nothing to build confidence.

I have a wonderful ergonometric Microsoft keyboard, very old — dating back to when I used to use PCs. And you know, it will talk to the Mac. In a way. It has its own dialect, and some things it wishes to say are not understood by the accursed MacBook. But today I learned that there’s a way to translate Microsoft keyboard commands to Apple keyboard commands!

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters!

As it develops, Microsoft’s “Start” (Windows) button is read by the Mac as the “Command” key. The “Alt” key in Microsoftese is “Option” in Mackish.

AND…mirabilis!!!! As a bonus, the volume control buttons on the Microsoft keyboard work to control the volume. This frees you from having to fart with the damned touchbar — a true PITA — whenever you want to turn the sound up or down. Or off.

Thus…

This means that the most common keyboard commands will run from a Microsoft keyboard. The “Windows” key is also called the “Start” key — on a Mac, it answers to “Command.” We’ll call it “Start” because that requires fewer keystrokes than “Windows” and is also somehow less annoying…

Copy = Start C
Paste = Start-V
Undo = Start-Z
Redo = Start-Y
Highlight all = Start-A
Delete = Backspace
Make Dictation read copy = Alt-Esc

To my amazement, one really cool feature of OS X somehow works on this dusty old keyboard. That is, you can get a diacritical by holding a key down for a second, thereby evading having to look it up, tediously, in the accursed “Symbols” chart. Thus…

à é í ô (or œ or ø) or ü…and all those

That’s a bit of a godsend when you edit academic copy.

Given the brain-banging cost of a new MacBook Pro, though, it’s pretty damned annoying to have to hardwire an antique Microsoft keyboard (using the ULTRA-ACCURSED dongle now required to make a USB connection) in order to have a keyboard that doesn’t scotch you up while you’re typing.

It’s not perfect — the touchpad is also a nuisance, made more so by having to use a separate keyboard. But it’s one hell of a lot better than having to backspace and correct a typo with every third or fourth keystroke.

Apple computers have a lot to recommend them. My son says the new Windows software comes with embedded ads (!!!!) to which you are subjected whenever you try to use your computer. Using a PC with a lot of anti-malware running is a lot like swimming upstream through molasses. And I’m sorry, but I would be fucking enraged if a computer decided to shut down, upgrade its OS, and reboot when I was in the middle of a project. As I happen to be most of the time. So far, the Mac inflicts none of these quirks on its users.

That notwithstanding…Steve, we miss ye!

The Complete Writer: Introducing the Feature Article *FREE READ*

The Complete Writer
Part III
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs

Chapter 12. Journalistic Nonfiction: Introducing the Feature Article

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears at our here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

A feature article is a piece of journalistic writing whose purpose is to entertain and to inform.

Sir Philip Sidney, famed as an Elizabethan courtier and poet who, among other things, wrote the first novel in the English language, was also a literary critic. He remarked that the purpose of literature is “to entertain and inform.” By entertain, he didn’t have in mind a soft-shoe on a vaudeville stage. He meant that literature should draw the reader into the author’s message and keep the person engaged by entertaining as well as informing. This idea applies fully to the modern-day feature article. Entertaining and informing is what the feature exists to do.

If you were to read a feature out loud, how would it sound? In most instances, the language would sound informal and conversational. Style would follow the Associated Press Style Manual. Sources, for example, would be acknowledged in the flow of the narrative, not in devices like footnotes and references. Numbers under 10 would be spelled out; all others would appear as numerals. The content would fit the purposes and audience of the publication in which the article appears.

Features that appear in newspapers often differ from those that appear in magazines. A newspaper feature is usually shorter, and, because the newspaper reporter works against a tight deadline, newspaper features are often less thoroughly researched than magazine features. The newspaper reporter attempts to take an objective tone and stance, avoiding loaded language and trying to present facts in an unbiased way. Magazine articles may be longer—a typical length is around 800 to 1,500 words, but sometimes they run very long, indeed. Magazine writers use the techniques of fiction to achieve the “entertainment” objective; that is, to engage the reader and carry the reader’s attention through a long and sometimes complex story. These techniques include plot, characterization, setting, and the like. And in many cases the magazine writer is not expected to maintain a façade of objectivity. Depending on the publication, writing may be openly opinionated or biased.

We can picture the feature article in silhouette to consider all the things a feature article is not.

For example, it’s not a hard news report—the sort of thing that used to populate the front page of your daily newspaper. A classic news story presents the facts in the so-called “inverted pyramid” structure. The most important facts, generally the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) appear in the first paragraph. The remaining information is presented in descending order of importance, finally petering out in the last graf. The inverted pyramid structure allowed the editor on the copy desk to cut the copy to fit space available. Knowing the last paragraph or two contained little of lasting importance, the editor simply lopped off paragraphs from the end to fit the article into the paper.

Tone in a hard news story is unbiased and objective. Unlike writers for certain types of magazines, newspaper journalists strive to maintain an objective stance when reporting news.

Paragraph structure is rudimentary. Newspaper editors believe readers’ attention spans are so short they can’t get through more than about one sentence at a time, and so hard news reports consist of strings of short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs.

The feature is not an interview. Interviews appear in question-and-answer format. Although the content may be edited and manipulated, the interview structure resembles a transcript of a taped interview. It is not intended to resemble a story.

A feature is not a newspaper column, which is generally an editorial or a ramble that reflects the author’s opinion or expertise. Newspaper columnists, like bloggers, often engage some of the characteristics of a feature, such as a strong lead, a good wrap, and an engaging story line, but they are not writing features per se.

A feature is not a piece of literary criticism or a review. A few visits to an eatery do not a feature article make. Reviewers often use the feature writer’s tools to produce an engaging article, but a review does not have the same purpose as a feature. A review’s purpose is to recommend (or not recommend) a work of art, a product, or a restaurant. A feature’s purpose is to report news or ideas using the tools of literary nonfiction.

Sometimes blog posts are structured exactly like features; sometimes not. A blog post can be anything from a diary entry to a photo essay to a news article to a feature. Blogs are much looser and less subject to the constraints of a publisher’s interests. An important difference between a blogger and a journalist is that few bloggers have the advantage of an editor or a lawyer. No extra pairs of eyes read a blogger’s articles or advise on content, factuality, and legalities.

The essay is a literary genre in which the author expresses a subjective view of the world. It is highly personal and not meant to be a piece of journalistic reporting. In contrast, the feature article is journalism; its main purpose is reporting.

A “brite” is an ultra-short squib often used to fill space between ads or to populate departments, those regularly recurring sections that appear in the front or at the back of magazines. Some editors regard the brite as a type of very short feature, but it lacks the sophistication and structure of the longer piece.

An advertorial is a paid article designed to mimic a real feature, but its sole purpose is to sell you something. Ethical publications set these apart by using a special font, by marking them with a tag like “Advertisement,” or by printing them on slightly different paper stock.

The feature is generally a fully researched, structured article based on interviews, observation, and legwork. Length ranges upwards of 800 words—long-form features such as the ones you find in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, or at sites like Longreads.com and Medium.com can be several thousand words. The feature engages certain elements of fiction, such as a plot-like structure, narrative, setting, characterization, and dialogue, to draw the reader in and tell its story. Not all news writing, obviously, is feature writing, and not all features are, strictly speaking, news stories.

If You’d Asked Me: My Left-Handed Kid…

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SECTION 1, Continued:
God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

16. My son is a four-year-old leftie. My parents so much want him to use his right hand that they are resorting to threats. What do you think?

Threats? What kind of threats? Are they threatening to strike or otherwise abuse him? If so, then you need to keep the child away from them.

As a matter of fact, if I had parents who tried to dominate me and my child to such an extreme extent, I would move out of the city or possibly even out of the country to get away from them. Do not allow people in your life who bully you or the children.

Forcing a child to use her or his nondominant hand can have adverse effects on the child’s development. It is, in a nutshell, a kind of abuse. As a parent, one of your many roles is to protect your child from abuse. Stand firm on this matter.