Category Archives: The Complete Writer

The Complete Writer: Writing Fiction *FREE READ*

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears 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 of the entire book, 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.

Chapter 25. Where Do Your
Characters Come From?

Athena springs full-fledged from the head of Zeus

Who are the people in your fiction? Where did they come from? Come to think of it, do you even know how you dreamed them up?

I have to admit that sometimes I have no idea. Fire-Rider, the first of several tales of an invented world in the far, far future, teems with characters who bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met or even read about. Homicidal warlords and foot soldiers, powerful ruling women and their sister wives, a boy prostitute and a prosperous madam, a tribe of young refugees unhomed by ceaseless wars, a woman hunter and trapper, the foreman of a vast ranch-like estate, a healer who’s also a warlord, a wandering teacher and bard . . . whence did these people arise?

Well, out of the writer’s mind, obviously. Often I think that each character is a fragment of the writer’s consciousness, some part of her or his own personality in some way hidden until it pops out, full blown from the head of Zeus, and materializes in the form of a new (albeit imagined) human being.

Other times I think, “That is just not possible!” These people do things I have no experience with; they know things and say things that I could never know or say. I have to do hours of research to envision some kind of understanding of their world, their lives, and their loves.

Is there ever a real-life model for such characters?

Occasionally. Just now I’m writing a chapter in the first-person voice of a character who’s a kind of public intellectual, to the extent possible in a time when almost no one can read or write. He’s a wandering teacher and bard. After Hapa Cottrite coalesced in my imagination, I realized that he resembles one of my editorial clients, an international banking CEO and long-time ex-pat with a sharp mind, broad curiosity, and zest for living among foreign peoples. Once that dawned on me, I began to model Cottrite explicitly after this man, to the extent that their moods, outlook, and even physical appearance are similar.

But most times, there’s no visible connection between a character in one of my tales and a real-world human being. They don’t resemble anyone I know, because no one I know lives in a reimagined analog of the European Middle Ages amalgamated with life in medieval Asia.

William the Conqueror and pals

Probably they spring from what I know of life in the medieval period and of the world-view of the people who inhabited that time.

That’s a fair amount: before I first engaged the doctorate in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean English literature and history, I wanted to specialize in the medieval period. So, I took quite a few upper-division and graduate courses in medieval literature (both British and continental works, because my undergraduate major was French). And I still edit scholarly works of medieval history.

Some pretty heady stuff went on during those times. And it was weird. If you or I could magically step through a time warp and come out in 1250, we would feel like we’d landed on another planet. That’s how different the people were from us.

So I suppose you could say the Fire-Rider characters are sort of “modeled” on what I happen to know of a typical medieval warlord, informed to some extent by what I’ve learned about Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s time. That’s pretty broad. And since no two of these characters are the same, it’s hard to say where their individual personalities came from.

The women’s roles, however, are completely re-imagined and warped. Never in human history have women, aristocratic or otherwise, done what Fire-Rider’s women do. In their cases, I’ve had to invent, invent, and re-invent. Even to imagine what they look like, to say nothing of what they get up to, requires a great deal of focused, concentrated work.

Maybe we could say, then, that our characters come out of our experience, learned and observed, and out of our invention, purely imagined.

Or maybe they spring full-formed from the head of Zeus?

Kaybrel FireRider

Kaybrel FireRider, Kubna of Moor Lek

The Complete Writer: A Few Notes on Plot

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears 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 of the entire book, 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.

Chapter 24. Notes on Plot

Plot is the structure of a piece of fiction. When you write nonfiction, you’re building something similar to the fiction story’s plot: an organized narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, whose fact-based rising action leads to a high point and falls off in a resolution. It is, in a word, your work’s organization. A fictional work has—or should have—much the same kind of structure.

In fiction, plot is driven by conflict. Any conflict: could be between two or more people, between a person (or persons) and an external force (Man vs. Nature!), between conflicting emotions within an individual . . . any number of things. But conflict there must be.

Conflict moves the rising action from the beginning of the story up through one, two, or even more difficulties or calamities (often called turning points or complications), until the story reaches its climax. At that point the action is resolved into a dénouement, sometimes called falling action, that leads to the story’s end.

So here’s a question: do you write down a plot outline and dutifully follow it, or do you juggle your story’s direction in your head?

And, as long as we’re posing questions, if you have a written outline, what format does it take?

Some people—many of them prominent writers—claim they have no set outline, and that a piece of fiction seems to take form on its own, as it’s imagined. Others—also prominent writers—insist they must have a formal, carefully written outline, which they follow from beginning to end. Until recently, I tended to hang with the latter group.

For the current fiction enterprise, though, I got in the habit of sketching out ideas for coming action in notes at the end of a chapter in progress or in a separate Word document. It helps for remembering little insights and bright ideas.

But it’s not very efficient.

Recently it struck me that one of those Word docs full of ideas and notes was beginning to resemble a plot outline. So…now I’m about ten chapters in to what probably will be a 25- to 30-chapter novel. The ten chapters in hand aren’t in order—there are gaps, and they represent several subplots.

Those gaps and uncertainties, I suspected, could be wrangled with notecards. This makes it possible to shuffle chapters around, to move them from one section of the line of action to another, and to add or delete items easily.

I ended up with something that I called a “timeline.” It’s not exactly a plot outline, at least not yet: at this point it’s just a rough chronological arrangement of imagined events. The events in the timeline are narrated in the chapters.

One stack of notecards represents parts of the timeline. Each card shows what chapters are related to that timeline—presumably indicating approximately where they should appear in the finished manuscript, if not in what order. A timeline notcard also lists the subplots that would play out in those chapters:

In another stack, each notecard is dedicated to a specific chapter.

Exactly how well this will work for any given writer remains to be seen — by the writer. If it interests you, try it and see if it helps you to organize your scenes, chapter, and plotline. At the least, it should make it possible to keep track of a plot whose complexity seems to be running amok. At the worst, I doubt if it can do much harm!

 

The Complete Writer: Learning to Write Fiction


The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears 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 of the entire book, 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.

Chapter 23. Getting Started

John Gardner

This book is not the place to go into a lot of detail about how one writes a piece of fiction—a short story or a novel. Many resources can help get you started. One of the best is John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction. It’s for people who want to write literary fiction, but the principles he describes apply across the board. You can get a boxed set of all three of Gardner’s influential works on creative writing, in Kindle format. These include The Art of Fiction, On Writers and Writing, and On Moral Fiction.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is extremely useful for genre writers. In many instances, it also applies to more literary efforts. Spinning off the ideas of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, Vogler traces the links between myth and modern fiction and shows how you can engage that understanding in your writing.

For genre fiction, see any how-to published by Writer’s Digest Books, but more important: immerse yourself in your genre. Read a lot of your coveted genre: if you want to be a great science fiction writer, you’ve got to be a great science fiction reader. That’s true of fantasy, romance, erotica, crime and detective fiction, and all the other genres.

It’s amazing how many people who say they wanna be writers don’t read the kind of thing they think they want to write. People who show up at magazine writing workshops and sign up for college courses in magazine writing don’t read magazines. Those who say they want to get rich writing romance novels or detective stories don’t read romances or detective novels. To write this stuff, you need to read the stuff.

It’s much more useful to read and analyze the kind of things you want to read and write than to study how-to books about writing fiction. Joyce Carol Oates’s Telling Stories is a fine way to see how to do this. She provides advice and comment on writing and revising fiction interspersed with a large and entertaining collection of the real stuff. Another excellent tool: Joseph Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings’s anthology, Fictions, contains 1260 pages of high-quality short stories and novellas, along with instructions on how to read and analyze them critically. It also contains an appendix that lists entries by theme, so that if you’re interested in, say, coming of age as a theme for your own writing, you can find examples under the heading “Initiation and Maturation.”

Read a lot of your favorite literature: live your life in it.

The Complete Writer: Ethics for Bloggers

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 22. Ethics for Bloggers

The Complete Writer
Part IV: Blogging

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears 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 of the entire book, 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.

The Sanity Discount: Integrity, Small Businesses, and Bloggers

Bloggers who run ads are small businesses, of course. A couple of ripples in the daily flow of things led me, over the course of several days, to ruminate about integrity and ethics, and about how they should direct the course of the seemingly ubiquitous American side businesses, including our blogs.

Fair play for a client

First, a very nice new client had recently wandered in through the door [his character is irrelevant to the issue, but nevertheless: a very sweet human being he was]. He said he wanted someone to edit website copy for a successful small business in the trades. I sent my rate sheet, which frames my rates on a per-page basis. He wanted to know what I would charge by the hour. I said sixty bucks, not an unreasonable amount in the large scheme of things (twenty years ago a friend here was getting $120 an hour for similar work). He, doing business in a large city far, far away where employees’ and independent contractors’ pay is not throttled by right-to-work laws, didn’t even blink.

So I dove into the project, which was kind of fun. “Kind of fun” because it didn’t entail a lot of technical language or esoteric theory, unlike most of the stuff I do. Mathematical biosciences this was not, nor was it abstruse postmodernist blather. But there was a fair amount of it, and it needed substantial reorganization, rewriting, and new research and writing. I enjoyed this little endeavor over the course of about twenty-two hours. Eventually I wrapped the job and added up my bill, and . . .

Holy mackerel! At $60 an hour, the tab came to enough for me to buy a condo in the guy’s expensive city. It really did seem out of line, given the relative ease and mild entertainment value of the work.

Okay, it’s true that if I based my fees on how much fun the job is, I’d have to edit novels for my favorite genre publisher for free. But still . . . there’s a limit.

Seeking a fairer arrangement, I calculated what it would cost the client if I charged my highest page rate—justifiable, I figured, because of the amount of actual writing I did—and came up with an amount that was enough for The Copyeditor’s Desk to buy itself a couple of laser printer cartridges. Fairly respectable, but not enough to break the bank.

So that was what I ended up billing: about four or five hundred bucks less than the hourly rate would have commanded. But at $60 an hour, the bottom line added up to a figure utterly beyond reason. It didn’t seem right to charge that much for that kind of work.

Call it the Sanity Discount.

Hard on the heels of that exchange, an ongoing conundrum resurfaced.

Black-hat “advertising” in the blogosphere

Funny about Money is large enough to attract the attention of various individuals and groups who bill themselves as advertisers. Almost all of them want me to run paid text links. And they’re willing to pay pretty well for the privilege. I could easily double or triple Funny’s revenues by selling paid text links.

These people and their brokers approach the blogger by saying either that they want to buy ad space on the site or that they are generously offering a guest post, “absolutely free to you.”

Trouble is, doing so puts one afoul of Google’s arcane rules, designed to protect its search engine algorithm. To simplify a complicated story, if Google catches you publishing paid text links (as sooner or later it will), your page rank (a metric that dictated where your site appeared in a Google search but that has, in recent months, been abandoned in favor of “blog authority”) would magically drop to zero.

So, after you’ve worked for months or years to build a respectable page rank, these folks come along and take advantage of it; then when their practices kill your page rank, they of course abandon you.

That particular aspect is not at issue here, though. What we have at issue is the so-called advertiser’s strategy to evade discovery, which is to produce copy for a post that fits the blogger’s site theme. The paid link is then embedded in the post, in such a way that the link appears to point to something relevant to the post’s subject.

It’s important to understand that paid links are not advertising. They’re a device to suck link juice from a site with a relatively decent page rank into the buyer’s own site, as a strategy to cause the other site appear at or near the top of a Google search.

In other words, what looks like a real post is a deceptive device to mount self-serving links whose purpose has nothing to do with the host site’s content. Often it contains a link pointing to some outfit selling a service or product that runs counter to the host site’s reason for being. Why, for example, would a personal finance blogger who urges readers to get out of debt, manage money wisely, and avoid loan sharks recommend taking out a payday loan?

Why? To collect a hundred bucks for publishing two words attached to a live do-follow link, that’s why.

Such a post is, in short, advertorial. Actually, it doesn’t even rise to that level, because the articles are not really intended to be read; they exist to carry the links, which exist to use the host’s page rank to jack up the search engine page rank on the link seller’s site. While they’re billed as advertising, they’re actually a form of black-hat SEO.

Editorial vs. advertorial

Over the years since I started in journalism, I’ve worked for some of the most prominent regional periodicals in my part of the country. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as journalistic ethics, and after some thirty-two years of practicing and teaching, they tend to inhabit your thinking. When I came up, there was a sharp divide between advertising and editorial—in fact, the ad and circulation departments were housed on the other side of the building from where the editors and artists worked.

Magazines did publish crass little “articles” written by highly paid ad copywriters—earning far more than any of us did!—whose purpose was to plug paying customers. This was not surprising: magazines survive on ad revenue. Subscription income doesn’t suffice to support a print publication. However, ethical publishers mark advertorials as such: with a running header or footer saying something like “Advertisement.” Often advertorials are set off typographically and even printed on slightly different paper from the rest of the rag.

To publish advertising or SEO masquerading as a normal blog post without cluing the reader to the fact that the stuff is paid advertising: that’s dishonest, in the same way passing off an advertorial as real journalism is dishonest.

That is why many publications don’t print advertorial at all, and why those who do, if they have any decency at all, label it prominently as advertising.

Times have changed, of course, with the advent of the brave new world that is the Internet. And blogging is and is not journalism, though it has readers who presumably expect some standard of honesty from their writers. Here’s what journalistic webmaster Robert Niles says about the issue, writing at the Online Journalism Review[1]:

The old rule: There must be a wall between advertising and editorial.

The new rule: Sell ads into ad space and report news in editorial space. And make sure to show the reader the difference.

Drawing the line in the shifting sands of ethics

Accordingly, I marked the paid-link peddler’s copy as a Sp0nsor3d P0st! The numerals were intended to throw off Google’s nosy bots, which go around searching for clues to paid links.

This elicited a squawk of dismay. When I refused to remove the notice saying the post was a paid article containing links to the author’s clients’ sites, the deal fell through. Cheerfully, I removed the post from my site, and good riddance to it.

To cope with the practice of secreting paid links in fake stories, Google began to demand that all links to commercial sites be coded as no-follow links, robbing them of the coveted “link juice.” Would-be advertisers hated this, of course—because the link juice is what they were paying for—and usually they would then decline to place a paid link unless it was do-follow. Many bloggers simply take a chance[2] that Google will never catch them, and they justified the potential swat-down by arguing that PR didn’t matter anyway.[3]

Maybe it didn’t, maybe it did. The technicalities of page rank were way above my pretty little head, and so I didn’t trouble myself with them.

But one could argue, with some justice, that Google’s policy on paid do-follow links[4] was hugely unfair, since Google AdSense places plenty of paid links on your site. And because Google pays nothing like what these sometimes sleazy “advertisers” will pay, Google itself takes on a whiff of the exploitive.

About that, I say it is what it is.

Ironically, while Google’s policy is self-serving (its motive has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the way the company’s business model works), it in fact fed into that fundamental journalistic ethic: the effect of the rule was to discourage deceptive content and to encourage separation of advertising and editorial.

Old-fashioned . . . but then so is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

[1] http://www.ojr.org/p1623/

[2] Check out Martin Langfield’s discussion at NiemanLab: http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/03/the-flip-side-of-black-hat-seo-if-your-news-site-publishes-paid-links-you-risk-googles-wrath/

[3] Eventually Google tried to suppress PageRank as a device for assessing a site’s influence. Today an advertiser will ask what a site’s “authority” is. Danny Sullivan discusses this in “RIP Google PageRank Score: A Retrospective on How It Ruined the Web,” March 9, 2016, Search Engine Land, http://searchengineland.com/rip-google-pagerank-retrospective-244286

[4] “Link Schemes,” n.d., Google. https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/66356?hl=en&hl=en&rd=1

The Complete Writer: The Weirdness That Is Adsense

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 21. The Weirdness That Is Adsense

The Complete Writer
Part IV: Blogging

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears 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 of the entire book, 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.

The Weirdness That Is AdSense

I used to enjoy exploring the mazes of Google AdSense’s labyrinthine reports and policies. Every now and again, one would see phenomena that were truly mysterious.

One of the things AdSense could do was to identify the type of computer used to access a page. If you selected “Performance Reports” and then clicked on “Platforms,” Google would tell you how many views of your site were made by people with desktops, mobile devices, etc. This still amazes me. It creeps me out: who needs Google spying on users in quite that much detail?

Over the one week, for example, Funny about Money readers viewed 563 of the site’s pages with “high-end mobile devices.” Some of them apparently clicked on ads, since they generated a couple of bucks that week. The first time I discovered this blandishment, a few people had been accessing the site through their mobile gadgets, but none rose to any advertiser’s bait. Over time, though, some of them began to bite.

Meanwhile, 5,005 pages were viewed from desktops. Unclear whether a laptop is regarded as a “high-end mobile device” or whether a MacBook (for example) is included among desktops.

Equally unclear what is meant by “unmatched ad requests,” a line that appears on the “Platform” page. Whatever it is, it can’t be very significant: it always registers “0.”

AdSense kindly includes a sort of glossary with its reports page—it’s really an agglomeration of FAQs, I think. Look up “unmatched ad request” and you get the answer to some customer’s question about why this item appears in his reports:

An ad request is counted each time your site requests an ad to be served, even if no ad is returned. Unless your coverage[1] is 100 percent, you will have more ad requests than matched requests (ads that are returned and displayed on your site), resulting in some unmatched requests.

Some reports have columns that are meaningful only for matched requests. For example, the Targeting type report shows how ads displayed on your site have been targeted. When an ad request is unmatched, there are no ads to consider, so the request has no targeting type.

This is why unmatched requests appear in a separate row.

Moving on, the Biggest Mystery of AdSense is why some days and some weeks vast lucre (oh, say, $1.95 a day!) comes pouring in, and at other times pay is in pennies. For a few weeks, FaM would crank more pennies than usual (in the dead of summer when readers should be vacationing at the beach!). But shortly thereafter it wouldn’t turn enough to get AdSense off its duff to send a payment. I never did, for the life of me, figure out what I was doing (if anything) to cause AdSense revenues to increase in some weeks and flatten out in others.

It does seem as though spikes in revenues may increase when you discuss certain topics. For example, one spike occurred around the time I was holding forth about credit cards. A bunch of ads for banks, credit cards, loan sharks, and the like came up (at least, they did on my computer—apparently these things are tailored according to what Google can see of your browsing habits as it spies on you). Maybe ads from well-heeled institutions pay better . . . that is, maybe Google charges ING more than it charges some local air-conditioning or pool company and then passes a few pennies of the profit along to the site publisher?

That would explain why some bloggers create whole sites devoted to nothing but discussing credit cards. Boring, but profitable.

AdSense occasionally performed moderately well for Funny about Money. Not well enough to retire to the Côte d’Azur, by any means, but well enough that if I could just be certain it would behave that way all the time (it did not!), the S-corporation could have afforded to buy me a cell phone.

But no.

AdSense is much like adjunct teaching: catch as catch can.

[1] For an incomprehensible definition, check this one out: https://support.google.com/adsense/answer/92360

Image: Shamelessly ripped off from Wikipedia.

The Complete Writer: Blogging for Dollars

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 20. Blogging for Dollars

The Complete Writer
Part IV: Blogging

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears 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 of the entire book, 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.

 Blogging for Dollars

One of my favorite sites is Problogger,[1] a blog on blogging. Alas, I’m guilty of not visiting often enough: I rarely do subscriptions because there’s too little time to keep up with them all, and when it comes to proactively visiting various sites, I get distracted easily. No doubt, though, if a person read the thing every day and blogged every day and studied other blogs carefully, before long the person would become expert at the blogging game and even make some money at it.

One morning, feeling a bit annoyed at Google AdSense, I dropped over to Problogger to see if Proprietor Darren Rowse had any clues to improve one’s relationship with that outfit. And lo! Up popped an article[2] by Todd Fratzl, holding forth on two basic ideas: 1) that you should experiment with ad size and placement, and 2) that with AdSense, less is more.

The first is fairly self-evident: since no two blogs are the same and no two sets of readers are identical, it makes sense that placement, color, and frequency would yield different results for each individual blog. In fact, given the Internet’s fluid nature, it’s also reasonable to expect that blog readership will change as blog content evolves. So it’s probably a good idea not only to try different sizes and placements for your blog’s advertising, but to test new patterns at regular intervals—say, at least once a year.

Personally, I was far more taken by the less-is-more concept. Much as I craved to see Funny about Money make a few shekels, I wasn’t happy about having to mothball its original WordPress design (White as Milk, the most exquisitely minimalist design WordPress.com offered at the time) in favor of a three-column theme that lends itself to ad clutter. The idea of having only one or two ad blocks appealed . . . and it would appeal a lot if Todd was right, that more readers will click on a site’s advertising if fewer ads are offered.

I surely never could claim I was getting rich off Funny about Money. Nor did I expect to: from what I can see, PF bloggers whose sites earn enough to let them quit their day jobs are technologically adept, work at it six to eight hours a day at least five days a week, and are strong marketers. None of those applies in my case. In theory, AdSense caused FaM to earn a little more than other part-time bloggers claim to earn: as a paying hobby, the revenue was just OK.

In reality, though, it was paying nothing. Often the on-paper revenues that AdSense showed the site had earned were not paid, and I began to suspect I’d never see a cent of that money.

AdSense is extremely frustrating to deal with. It has exactly zero customer support. You can not reach a human being. The entire operation is designed to frustrate attempts to get answers to questions beyond the “frequently asked.” The only live people you can reach are equally frustrated fellow customers, who gather at forums so diffuse that you could spend days trying to find someone addressing your issue and still not get an answer that pertains to your circumstances.

And then we have its bizarre payment policies. No money is disgorged until you reach a certain threshold (just now, $100). After your site has accrued that much, you then have to wait upwards of two months for payment. Thus, when FaM became eligible for a payment in June, the payment was not scheduled to arrive at my mailbox until the end of August.

“Mailbox” is the operative word: the direct deposit function wouldn’t work for me. Because there’s no human responsible for addressing customer problems, there’s no way to find out what the problem is or how to get AdSense to deposit funds directly to my bank account. The “help” forums? Full of other people bitching that the direct deposit function doesn’t work.

So the August check didn’t arrive. In that case, your only option is to ask that Google cancel the check it allegedly has issued and cut a new check. Do that, and you delay payment another entire month! So, the soonest I could expect to see money earned in June was sometime near the end of September.

It’s not a huge rip, but it is a rip. What it means is that AdSense is piggybacking free ad space on the blogger’s work. Effectively, I had been providing AdSense free space for the three months (June, July, August), and would continue to do so for at least another month (assuming payment arrived sometime in September). Multiply that by the 87 gerjillion bloggers who publish ads, and you get a clue how much Google profits by taking advantage of customers who can’t get in the front gate because there is no gate-keeper. The longer AdSense delays paying its ad publishers and the more publishers it stiff-arms, the more interest Google earns on ad revenues!

How much was Funny earning in never-paid revenues? Not much. It generated a modest amount each month (or would have, if I could ever get paid). It paid for the server space, more or less. Otherwise, you could say it earned enough to buy a bag or two of groceries each month.

Considering that I would probably blog anyway, the 30 cents an hour that AdSense revenue boils down to amounted to a spoonful of gravy. However, I could do without the hassle, and I could do without the frustration entailed in dealing with a megalithic corporation that sets up impermeable barricades between its employees and the unwashed customers. I began to realize that despite the passive nature of AdSense—after all, once you’ve accomplished the initial set-up you don’t have to do much to earn that 30 cents an hour—it’s probably not worth the page clutter.

Advertising may be the least of the effective ways to monetize a blog. Probably creating a product, such as an e-book or (depending on your blog’s topic) or some physical object that’s related to your content, will generate more profit. Trent Hamm, for example, sold Amazon books spun off The Simple Dollar and offered short spurts of advice, also spinoffs, downloadable from his site. He had to split his print book’s $7.95 retail price with the publisher and the middlemen, but every cent of those $2.00 PDF downloads went direct to his bank account. Since his readership was huge, he probably sold a fair number of self-published e-books and PDFs.

Regular blogging by its nature generates a salable product: copy. If the site is focused on a specific topic—or even covers two or three topics regularly—the blogger should have no trouble coming up with at least one publishable book and a number of DIY e-books. But there again, it’s a matter of marketing: books don’t sell themselves any more than blogs do!

[1] http://www.problogger.net/

[2] http://www.problogger.net/simple-changes-doubled-my-adsense-revenue/

The Complete Writer: The Art of Blogging

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 19. Ars Bloggiendi: The Art of Blogging

The Complete Writer
Part III: Blogging

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears 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 of the entire book, 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.

19
Ars Bloggiendi

As a blogger since 2007, I’m always surprised at the number of would-be writers who say they don’t blog and don’t see why they should. And yet you meet them all the time, at every writer’s group, face-to-face and every online chatfest..

The blog genre started as a kind of online diary or journal: hence the name, web log. An early form of social media, for a time blogging was wildly popular among the techie set. It evolved from a first-person ramble composed of periodic posts to a magazine-like affair dispensing how-to advice, opinion, or information specific to a topic (personal finance blogs, for example, or “mommy blogs” or product reviews) and even to a journalistic genre. Many people monetize their blogs and some have had success in that (Get Rich Slowly and The Simple Dollar much enriched their founders).

There are two reasons writers find blogs attractive:

  1. The blog represents an easy five-finger exercise, a writer’s journal open to readers. As such, it not only helps you to improve your writing skills, it gathers readers.
  2. And, when you have a following, you have.a marketing device.

An active blog allows you to hold forth on subjects related to your scribbling, and it also helps you to build a mailing list. Many writers will tell you their most effective marketing tool is their marketing list. Also in the marketing and publicity department, you can post links to your blog on yeastier social media: Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, FaceBook, LinkedIn, or whatever else is in vogue as you read this. That will call readers to your site, where you can pitch your writings to them.

We’re told the blog is on its way out—maybe it has already been hit in the butt by the door—because humanity so captivates itself with 140-character bursts of “content.” Personally, I like writing blog posts and I like reading them. It’s a lot like writing a Pepysian journal, only with an audience that can talk back.

There’s more to blogging than blurbing. The blog is a perfect platform for various kinds of long-form writing—not only journal-like or epistolary entries,[1] but reportage,[2] investigative journalism,[3] serious essays,[4] even stretches of fiction[5] or poetry.[6] None of these (except possibly haiku) are accomplished in 140 characters.

As for monetizing a website—trying to make it provide a side stream of income or maybe even quitting your day job to become a full-time online writer—that’s questionable and in my opinion largely beside the point. Some people do make a living wage at blogging (or they claim to), but they appear to be the exceptions. For quite a while I sold ad space and affiliate links at my site, Funny about Money.[7] I found that affiliate links for Amazon rarely earned enough to elicit a paycheck—Amazon will not remit payment until you’ve accumulated at least $10, which tells you about how much you earn by peddling Amazon’s products on your website.

Google AdSense did provide a small return—but certainly not enough to quit the day job. Nor, in my opinion, was a hundred bucks a month (when the site was on a roll) worth the amount of effort entailed in setting up AdSense, riding herd on it, and junking up the site with tacky ads. I made a great deal more on Funny by selling handmade jewelry off the site than by letting huge, profitable corporations further enrich themselves by exploiting my readership.

When I say that making money off your blog is beside the point, I mean that the point of writing a blog is to engage your readers in ongoing conversation about something that interests them and to persuade them that what you have to say is worth reading.

From there, it’s a fairly easy leap to persuade them to buy your books.

Funny about Money started as a personal finance blog. At one point, if you believe Alexa,[8] it ranked among the top 100 personal finance blogs in the English language. After a time, it occurred to me that there are only so many ways you can say “get an education or vocational training, get a job, live below your means, get out of debt and stay out of debt, and stash every spare penny into savings.” So, though the site still has a personal finance spin and I do belong to an international group of bloggers on the subject, at this point Funny is largely a lifestyle blog.

My main marketing blog, Plain & Simple Press News,[9] holds forth on topics that range from writing tips to recipes to higher education as I try to sell my literary wares. This site is optimized for Pinterest, under the direction of a marketing specialist[10] who has found that Pinterest is the most effective of the social media at driving traffic toward a blog. Once readers arrive there, of course, they see ads for my products . . . not Amazon’s or Google customers’. And certainly not ads from Scandinavian ladies looking for American “husbands.”

How to start a blog?

The simplest way is to go to one of the blogging platforms such as WordPress.com or Blogger.com. These are free, in exchange for a modicum of advertising, sometimes. I personally prefer WordPress, mostly because if and when you move to a private server, WordPress’s blog templates are readily available or easy to transfer. If you start out at WordPress.com, you get the benefit of WordPress’s Help service and a knowledgeable blogging community. With this assistance, you quickly learn how to use the basic software.

Buy your own domain name. The easiest way to do this is through GoDaddy[11] (again: in my opinion!). There are cheaper services, but GoDaddy has live human beings answering the phone, and if you have a question, these customer service reps are always helpful.

When you’re starting out, owning your site’s domain name makes it possible for you to create a URL that reads

http://yoursitename.com

rather than something like

http://yoursitename.wordpress.com.

The effect is much more professional.

WordPress.com provides a choice of several easy-to-use blog templates. Pick a simple one to get started—bearing in mind that you can easily switch to a new template later on. At WordPress.org, you can download any number of other free and premium templates, some of which are very swell.

As your site establishes itself, you may want to buy server space from a service such as Bluehost or BigScoots, both of which have proven highly satisfactory for my sites. And as your blogging empire grows, you may also consider hiring an IT professional[12] to run the techie back-end details of keeping a larger site or set of sites up and running.

What to write?

Whatever you feel like writing. The topic of your book is a logical subject. From there you can branch out to related topics. How-to topics are perennially popular, as are inspirational subjects, anything to do with money, and specialized topics for identifiable markets—fashion, make-up and the like for young people; recipes and cooking for the gourmet set; travel adventures; pets; kids . . . whatever interests other human beings will find a readership. If you write fiction, book reviews and writing tips always sell.

When to write?

I try to post at least once a day on at least one of my sites. The more content your site has, the higher up in Google’s search ratings it rises. Content, they say, is king. By that, “they” mean that the more original, fresh content you post, the more readers you attract and the better Google’s bots regard you.

How to write?

Typically, a blog post is similar to a short feature article or brite. Some are essentially personal essays or opinion pieces. Posts are usually nonfiction, although occasionally you’ll find sites where people post fiction and poetry.

Brevity is desirable, at least so we’re told. A classic blog post runs about as long as a newspaper column—maybe 800 words, give or take.

One technicality to bear in mind while building a blog post is something called SEO: search engine optimization. There are ways to get Google to notice your posts; they’re fairly simple and fairly rigid.

Pick a key word or phrase that describes the content of your post. Put that key word in the title, and then be sure it appears in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence of your post. Hence, for a post on keeping cool on a hot summer day:

Living Life in a Hot New World

Hot where you’re at, is it? Ninety degrees and you think you’re gunna die before the sun goes down?

On the fiasco that evolved out of Costco’s decision to dump American Express in favor of Citigroup’s Visa card:

Thank You, Costco and Citigroup!

Costco’s move to annoying CitiGroup is going to cut my monthly Costco budget at least in half, and maybe by as much as three-fourths!

On an element of long-term money management:

Pay Off a Mortgage or Invest the Money Instead?

Yesterday at the weekly Scottsdale Business Association meeting, the assertion was again made that you should never pay off a mortgage in advance. If you have the money to do so, we’re told, you’ll come out ahead if you invest the money in securities and keep making those mortgage payments.

Your blogging software will ask you to enter “tags” or keywords before you publish your post. Be sure to include your keywords as “tags,” which helps to bring your post to the attention of people searching for those terms.

Any number of small programs called “plug-ins” will allow you to do various convenient things with your website.

The most indispensable of these, in my humble opinion, is Akismet, a piece of software that blocks about 98% of incoming spam comments. It comes with the package at WordPress.com; if you’re setting up a site on another server, be sure to install this program.

FeedBurner makes it easy for people to subscribe to your site. You want subscribers. A lot of subscribers.

All-in-One SEO Pack or Yoast SEO is convenient—guides you through and simplifies SEO tricks.

Any plug-in that will put links on the major social networking sites: good.

The writing part is not at all difficult. The back-end stuff is pretty simple as long as you’re hosted on WordPress.com or a similar service. If you decide you’d rather be self-hosted (i.e., have your site on a server such as Bluehost), it’s fairly easy to manage if you’re techie; if you’re not, it’s worth hiring some help at a nominal cost.

In any event, if you hope to be a Writer with a Capital W, don’t neglect blogging. It’s a key tool in your writing and your marketing.

[1] Example: Donna Freedman, “Are You Eating Your House”? Surviving and Thriving, April 2, 2015, http://donnafreedman.com/2015/04/02/are-you-eating-your-house/

[2] Kim Brooks, “What a ‘Horrible Mother’: How a How a Call from a ‘Good Samaritan’ derailed these mothers’ lives,” Salon, Aril 19, 2015. http://www.salon.com/2015/04/19/what_a_horrible_mother_moms_arrested_for_leaving_their_kids_in_the_car/

[3] Example: Center for Public Integrity, “How Kicking a Trash Can Became Criminal for a Sixth-Grader,” April 10, 2015, PRI, http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-04-10/how-kicking-trash-can-became-criminal-6th-grader?src=longreads

[4] The Big Roundtable: http://www.thebigroundtable.com/

[5] Jane Friedman, “The Best Literary Fiction Blogs and Websites,”November 22, 2011. Jane Friedman. https://janefriedman.com/best-literary-fiction-blogs-websites-2/

[6] sarahblake, “The Best Poetry Blogs in Town (We Think),” September 9, 2014, Picador, https://janefriedman.com/best-literary-fiction-blogs-websites-2/

[7] http://funny-about-money.com

[8] http://www.alexa.com/; for some idea of what it does, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexa_Internet

[9] http://www.plainandsimplepress.com/news/

[10] http://www.pinterestforbloggers.net/

[11] https://www.godaddy.com/; go here to see if the name you’d like to use for your site is available: https://www.godaddy.com/domains/domain-name-search

[12] My present Web guru is Grayson Bell at iMark Interactive
(imarkinteractive.com). Not being the techie type myself, I’ve found the savings in stress and frustration is well worth the modest cost of contracting with an expert. www.imarkinteractive.com

There’s Been Some Changes Made Today…

So…the bright idea I had to post individual chapters of The Complete Writer here at the Plain & Simple Press blog and then consolidate them in a single web page dedicated to the book…how’d that go?

Fairly hilariously. As it develops, WordPress has its limits. One of them is book-length documents. About the time we got to chapter 19 — all told, only about 33,000 words, a mere third the length of a typical nonfiction book — WordPress set its digital heels in the sand and refused to proceed further. It would not accept any more links to chapters. And it slowed to the speed of a stampeding snail.

Being an experienced Cox customer, of course I assumed this was a connectivity issue. Cox does a number on you every time you turn around, unless you’re a multi-zillion-dollar corporation. Usually, in time these antics pass.

Not so, the Resistance. Finally I had recourse to our Web Guru, Grayson Bell. Aghast at what he found on the TCW page, he explained that there IS, after all, a limit.

So we had to dream up a workaround.

How’s about I post the stuff as a PDF? said I.

As one PDF? Not so much! said he.

Fortunately, the book falls into not one, not two, not three, but nine sections comprising 48 chapters. So, I proposed posting nine PDFs, one after another as each is completed, each PDF to contain one section of the magnum opus.

This seems to work. So far, anyhow. We now have three PDFs online at The Complete Writer‘s page, containing all the copy that had been published as 19 consecutive chapters. The page is un-choked, de-stalled, fully operative once again. Whether it will stay that way remains to be seen. But for the nonce: it works.

You could cause angels to sing, Dear Reader, if you would please go to the Complete Writer work-in-progress page, download one or more of the PDFs linked to the first three sections, and then let me know if they come over to you all right and if they look OK when you open them.

No doubt there are typos and weirdnesses in them. It took two and a half-hours to convert 48 chapters into nine PDFs, and of course during the process Word decided to get weird (as usual), adding still more hassle to a ditzy process of the type I truly hate doing. How any human being can make a living as a computer tech without being driven straight to the bourbon bottle or the meth pipe escapes me.

Presumably, the same thing will have to be done with If You’d Asked and Ella’s Story. But not now. Totally not now…

The Complete Writer: Research Blues *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part III

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 17. Research Blues

You do not want to have to explain yourself to these folks…

So you want to be a nonfiction writer. You think you’d like to be the next John McPhee, flying into the national consciousness astride a copy of The New Yorker. Or maybe you think you want to be a great investigative journalist, to see your byline on the cover of The Rolling Stone.

In that case, you need to contemplate the story of the Philadelphia writer who told The Rolling Stone a sensational tale of rape and mayhem on a college campus.[1] And while we’re at it, take a look at NPR’s report of the incident. [2]

Lest you’ve had your head under a bucket: that notorious journalistic scandal involved an investigative report in Rolling Stone that accused seven young men of committing a brutal rape during a drunken fraternity party at the University of Virginia. A great flap arose—the story quickly spread nationwide and around the globe, aided and abetted by the present widespread concern over sexual harassment and assault.

The source for this story was an unnamed young woman, discreetly given a pseudonym (“Jackie”) and otherwise left unidentified. At the woman’s request, the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, never attempted to contact any of the alleged offenders.[3] People “Jackie” claimed as witnesses were not named, nor (evidently) did Erdely speak with them.[4] In the ensuing uproar, the university suspended all fraternity and sorority activities, and the university came under intense federal scrutiny for its policies.

As it develops, it’s highly unlikely “Jackie” was attacked in the Phi Kappa Psi house on the night of the supposed party, because no party took place at Phi Kappa Psi that night. Reporting at Slate,[5] Atlantic writer Hanna Rosin reveals that the fraternity did not host a party on the evening of September 28, 2012, and that “Drew,” who allegedly took the victim to the party and joined in the assault, told a Washington Post reporter that he had never met “Jackie”—a statement that, if untrue, would be easy to disprove within the gossipy community that is a college campus.

This is serious stuff. You can see, even on the surface, the harm caused by inaccurate, careless reporting. Evidently Ms. Erdely was misled by a source who deliberately perpetrated a hoax. However, she—Erdely—made that possible by failing to do her job properly.

Whenever you do any kind of nonfiction writing, even if it’s reporting on a meeting of the town garden club, a single, overriding imperative dictates your actions:

Every time you encounter a fact that is in any way controversial, questionable, incendiary, or even just mildly odd, you MUST follow up on it by contacting all of the people involved and asking for comment.

This is not an option.

People dispense factoids to reporters all the time. Some of the information you get from sources you think are reliable is true. Some of it, alas, is not: it’s either mistaken or an outright lie.

I have had both of these happen to me in the course of a fifteen-year career. It’s not as easy to identify accuracy as you think. And, given an apparently reliable source, it’s unnervingly easy to get complacent.

Your job, as a writer of nonfiction, is to get the facts right. It means your job is always to question authority!

There’s no leeway in that.

Yes, I do know that one school of thought teaches undergraduate scribblers that “creative nonfiction,” also known as “literary journalism,” allows one to tweak the facts to fit the “plot,” “theme,” and characterization one is playing with. But, my friends, that school of thought is dead wrong.

There is never, ever a time that you are allowed to tweak the facts, to get the facts wrong, to withhold some facts to create an impression you wish to inflict on your readers, to rearrange facts, or to invent facts. That is not what creative nonfiction or literary journalism is.

It’s a firing offense to play fast and loose with the facts in pursuit of a lively story. I happen to know a reporter who was fired from The Arizona Republic for exactly that cause. And yes: he went on to teach “creative nonfiction” at the local university, where he persuaded students and at least one of his colleagues that adjusting facts was part of the technique of writing an entertaining story.

If anyone ever tells you this practice is acceptable, run away.

A journalist’s pen (or keyboard) is enormously powerful. You hold in your fingers the ability to destroy lives, to drive companies out of business, and to bring down governments. And so you are called upon to abide by ethical demands that far exceed the standard applied to most mere mortals.

Consider the potential harm the University of Virginia story could do:

  • You may be sure that within hours after Rolling Stone went to press, everyone on that campus knew the names of the seven alleged rapists. Their reputations were permanently compromised. Some probably left the university. But whatever they did, they may never outrun the calumny: their future careers may affected by what is evidently an untruth.
  • The university’s reputation was compromised and placed under a cloud. Would you send your daughter there?
  • The fraternity’s reputation, already a bit suspect,[6] was further compromised. Would you let your son pledge this outfit? My kid would be paying his own way through school if he made that decision.
  • Rolling Stone’s reputation was hopelessly compromised. If you ever believed anything that rag published before this happened, will you believe anything they publish in the future?
  • In a lawsuit, Rolling Stone was found liable for an enormous figure. The claims that were published, because they were false, are libelous. While a reporter’s duty is to check facts and confirm the truth of negative reports, the final responsibility to protect against libel rests with the editor. Because the reporter did not bother to track down the accused perps and ask for their side of the story—or even to confirm that a party actually occurred—the first thing a plaintiff’s lawyer would do is claim the story was concocted out of malice. And that is very much, very expensively a matter of libel. So, this put Rolling Stone at risk of huge financial penalties. Erdely, depending on her contract and whether she is an employee or a freelancer for Rolling Stone, may also be separately liable for huge claims. Each of those seven guys could bring separate suits, and so can the fraternity itself. We are contemplating more dollars than the human mind can conceive.

So, how can you protect yourself, as a reporter, from being taken in as Ms. Erdely apparently was? No reporter is 100 percent safe from our own errors and others’ deception. However, you can develop a few habits that will help:

  • Always confirm fact. Everything a source tells you should be double-checked through your own research.
  • When a claim is made about a person, call that person and ask for comment. If the person will not return calls or emails or accept visits, state in your article: “Boxankle did not return calls from a reporter from Rolling Stone.”
  • When a claim is made about a company or an agency, call the PR people or someone in authority at the company or agency and ask for comment. Again, if they refuse to speak to you, in your article explicitly state who you tried to contact, how you tried to contact them, and that they would not speak to you or they declined to comment.
  • Record every interview. If you write from your handwritten notes, listen to the interview to be sure your notes are correct.
  • Keep every recorded interview for at least six months. That is every interview, even those feeding some fluffy cheery little piece of froth. If anything even faintly controversial or technical is said, keep the interview permanently.
  • Unless your publication explicitly prohibits it, run the copy past people you interviewed and ask them to check it for accuracy. Do not accept editorial corrections; tell them you are asking only for confirmation of accuracy.
  • Never rely on an editor to check facts. Some publications do not hire fact-checkers.
  • Understand the law on libel and defamation; see chapter 31 for more on this.

All of these things are part of your job.

[1]Samantha Melamed, “Phila. Writer at Center of Controversy over Rape Article,” The Philadelphia Inquirer December 7, 2014. http://articles.philly.com/2014-12-07/news/56783207_1_philadelphia-magazine-rolling-stone-jackie

[2] David Folkenflik, “Defining Narrative Questioned in Rolling Stone UVA Rape Story,” National Public Radio, December 5, 2014. http://www.npr.org/2014/12/05/368768514/defining-narrative-questioned-in-rolling-stone-uva-rape-story

[3] Paul Farhi, “Author of Rolling Stone Article on Alleged U-Va. Rape Didn’t Talk to Accused Perpetrators,” The Washington Post, December 1, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/author-of-rolling-stone-story-on-alleged-u-va-rape-didnt-talk-to-accused-perpetrators/2014/12/01/e4c19408-7999-11e4-84d4-7c896b90abdc_story.html

[4] Hannah Rosin, “Key Player in UVA Rape Story: “Rolling Stone Never Talked to Me.” Slate, December 6, 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/12/06/rolling_stone_uva_rape_story_continues_to_unravel_jackie_s_friend_andy_speaks.html

[5] Hannah Rosin, “Blame Rolling Stone,” Slate, December 5, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/12/rolling_stone_backs_away_from_its_uva_gang_rape_story.html

[6] Wikipedia, s.v. “Phi Kappa Psi,” n.d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phi_Kappa_Psi#Controversy

The Complete Writer: The Joy of Facts *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part III

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 15. The Joy of Facts

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears 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.

Occasionally I revisit one of my very favorite writers, John McPhee. How can I count the ways I love McPhee? His astonishing style, his engaging voice, his eclectic subject matter, his amazing story structure, his mind-boggling erudition, his sense of humor . . . it goes on and on.

One of the things I especially love about John McPhee is the hefty, dense factual content of his prose. To say you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something is to understate grossly. Truth to tell, you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something in almost every sentence.

Some of it is observed fact:

Carol [dissecting a snapping turtle killed by a car] . . . talked to the dead turtle, soothingly, reassuringly, nurse to patient, doctor to child, and when she reached in under the plastron and found an ovary, she shifted genders with a grunt of surprise. She pulled out some globate yellow fat and tossed it into the pond. Hundreds of mosquito fish came darting through the water, sank their teeth, shook their heads, worried the fat. Carol began to move fat from the turtle’s body. The eggs were like ping-balls in size, shape, and color, and how they all fitted into the turtle was more than I could comprehend, for there were fifty-six of them in there, fully finished, and a number that had not quite taken their ultimate form.[1]

In four sentences, we learn snapping turtles contain ball-shaped chunks of yellow fat, that mosquitofish will eat flesh (or at least free handouts of turtle fat), that snapping turtle eggs are as big as ping-pong balls, that a mature female can lay upwards of 56 of them, and that this Carol knows how to dissect a large, hard-shelled reptile.

His prose is informed as much by research as by observation, though:

The purpose of such projects [we’re viewing a type of reclamation project called stream channelization] was to anticipate and eliminate floods, to drain swamps, to increase cropland, to channel water toward freshly created reservoirs serving and attracting new industries and new housing developments. Water sports would flourish on the new reservoirs, hatchery fish would proliferate below the surface: new pulsations in the life of the rural South. The Soil Conservation Service was annually spending about fifteen million dollars on stream-channelization projects, providing among other things, newly arable land to farmers who already had land in the Soil Bank. The Department of Agriculture could not do enough for the Southern farmer, whose only problem was bookkeeping. He got money for keeping his front forty idle. His bottomland went up in value when the swamps were drained, and then more money came for not farming the drained land. Years earlier, when a conservationist had been someone who plowed land along natural contours, the Soil Conservation Service had been the epicenter of the conservation movement, decorated for its victories over erosion of the land. Now, to a new generation that had discovered ecology, the SCS was the enemy. Its drainage programs tampered with river mechanics, upsetting the relationships between bass and otter, frog and owl. The Soil Conservation Service had grown over the years into a bureau of fifteen thousand people, and all the way down at the working point, the cutting edge of things, was Chap Causey, in the cab of his American dragline, hearing nothing but the pounding of his big Jimmy diesel while he eliminated a river, eradicated a swamp. (McPhee, “Travels in Georgia”)

In ten sentences, we learn the following:

  1. Stream channelization is a flood control technique.
  2. It’s used to drain swamps.
  3. It’s used to increase cropland
  4. It’s used to channel water into reservoirs.
  5. It benefits sporting and real estate development industries.
  6. By 1975 (when “Travels in Georgia” was published), the Soil Conservation Service was spending $15 million a year on stream channelization.
  7. The supposed benefits of the projects were often redundant and served to profit those who were already plenty affluent and who had already acquired sufficient wealth through government programs.
  8. Southern farmers benefited from government support projects by collecting money to leave land idle.
  9. Southern farmers benefited from soil channelization when swamp draining enhanced the value of their bottomland.
  10. Southern farmers further benefited by collecting federal dollars to leave this newly valuable bottomland fallow.
  11. The SCS used to be one of the nation’s premier conservation agencies, thanks to programs to prevent soil erosion.
  12. By 1975, the SCS had built a reputation for harming the environment, largely because of its drainage programs.
  13. Drainage projects harm ecological balances such as those involving bass and otters and frogs and owls.
  14. By 1975, the SCS employed 15,000 people.
  15. The operator of the American (brand name) dragline crane engaged in the project at hand was named Chap Causey.
  16. The engine of an American dragline crane runs on diesel.
  17. The crane’s engine was made by GMC.

Think of that: seventeen hard facts in ten sentences. That’s almost two facts per sentence, and it’s not even one of McPhee’s true tours de force.

Being a writer of what today we call creative nonfiction, McPhee uses observed fact (and sometimes researched fact) for literary as well as journalistic purposes. To paint a setting, for example:

A stop for a D.O.R. [“dead on road”] always brought the landscape into detailed focus. Pitch coming out of a pine. Clustered sows behind a fence. An automobile wrapped in vines. A mailbox. “Donald Foskey.” His home. Beyond the mailbox, a set of cinder blocks and on the cinder blocks a mobile home. (“Travels in Georgia”)

Or to perform a deft, swift characterization:

. . . Carol turned on the radio and moved the dial. If she could find some Johnny Cash, it would elevate her day. Some Johnny Cash was not hard to find in the airwaves of Georgia. There he was now, resonantly singing about his Mississippi Delta land, where, on a sharecropping farm, he grew up. Carol smiled and closed her eyes. In her ears—pierced ears—were gold maple leaves that seemed to move under the influence of the music.

Facts—accurate facts, astutely observed details—are the heart of journalism, but they’re also the heart of any writing, fiction, essay, and even poetry included. You doubt it? Count the facts in a random passage from Alice Munro:

That was the time of their being women together. Home permanents were tried on Juliet’s stubborn fine hair, dressmaking sessions produced the outfits like nobody else’s, suppers were peanut-butter-tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on the evenings Sam stayed late for a school meeting. Stories were told and retold about Sara’s boyfriends and girlfriends, the jokes they played and the fun they had, in the days when Sara was a schoolteacher too, before her heart got too bad. Stories from the time before that, when she lay in bed with rheumatic fever and had the imaginary friends Rollo and Maxine who solved mysteries, even murders, like the characters in certain children’s books. Glimpses of Sam’s besotted courtship, disasters with the borrowed car, the time he showed up at Sara’s door disguised as a tramp.[2] (Alice Munro, “Soon,” in Runaway)

  1. Juliet and Sara were close friends.
  2. Juliet has fine hair.
  3. They tried to permanent it.
  4. They ate awful food when one of them didn’t have to cook for a man.
  5. They related stories from their lives.
  6. Sara was once a schoolteacher.
  7. Sara had a bad heart.
  8. Sara’s heart trouble stemmed from rheumatic fever.
  9. Sara’s rheumatic fever probably occurred when she was a child.
  10. Sam drinks, or possibly he’s just clumsy
  11. Sam got into some sort of trouble with a borrowed car.
  12. Sam has done some odd things.

Twelve facts in five sentences. Not bad!

It’s the details that allow the reader to visualize, understand, and absorb your message. So facts, whether they come from research or observation (and the imagined facts of the fiction writer or poet are based on observation and experience) are indispensable. Writing is a process of reporting research.

Every writer needs facts. Lots of facts. Get them. Don’t neglect them.

[1] John McPhee, “Travels in Georgia,” in The John McPhee Reader, ed. William L. Howarth, New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976.

[2] Alice Munro, “Soon,” in Runaway. Toronto: McClelland and Stuart, 2004.