Category Archives: Writing

A Plagiarist and Proud of It!

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26. I was accused of plagiarism for an original work I wrote. I feel honored that someone thought my writing was that good. What do you think?

Strange response: to feel honored because someone thinks you’re dishonest?

First, you need to know why: what specific passages or characteristics caused the reader to believe the copy was plagiarized? If (and only if) you can prove everything that you based on some source was properly cited and documented, then demand to know what passages the accuser believes were plagiarized and also that the person produce the source and highlight the allegedly plagiarized passages.

Second: consider the context. If you’re an undergraduate or graduate college student and some professor decided you must have plagiarized something in a paper, you may be sure the person will tell his or her colleagues, giving you a fine reputation for dishonesty. If (and only if) you can prove your paper was not plagiarized and if the paper was marked down or you were failed out of the course because the professor unjustly believed you plagiarized, file a formal complaint against the person. This will raise he!! and put a block under it, but sometimes that’s what you have to do to defend yourself.

If you’re in a job setting, you probably should go to your boss (or, if the accuser is your boss, to HR or to the boss’s boss) and present your defense. To do this, you’ll have to couch your argument in conciliatory terms, not accusing but saying an unfortunate mistake was made.

Writing, Editing…Editing,Writing

Tireder than all my tribe…

Ran out of copy for Ella’s Story, so this week had to write the chapter that will go up at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning. And so I suppose it will be, until I come to the end of Ella’s part of the Varnis ramblings. It really is just a side story…there’s more, a great deal more, focusing on a different but related set of characters.

But meanwhile an editing job came in the day before yesterday. Haven’t even looked at it, because I’ve been so focused on trying to get Ella, Chapter 23 out by tomorrow ayem. This is an R&R (“revise and resubmit”) of an article I’ve edited before, so I’m hoping (against hope…) it won’t be too difficult to read.

Speaking of the crack of proverbial dawn, one would be a lot less tired (and get a lot more work done) if one’s dogs did not develop the habit of demanding to be let out at three in the morning.

This has gotten to be a nightly thing.

First Ruby starts to squirm — corgis are small dogs, exquisitely cute dogs, dogs that are smarter than humans, and so succeed in taking up residence on the human’s bed. She makes her musical whining noise, which is not really “let me down” but means something more like are you awake?

This works well to awaken Cassie, who having an aging digestive system has not done her thing before bed-time and so now is taken by an embarrassing urgency. If the human does not get up and let her off the bed, something even more embarrassing threatens to happen. From there, it’s race to the back door and shoot out into the backyard in search of satisfying relief.

Dogs go back to sleep forthwith.

Humans…not so much.

So by 4:30 or 5, time to roll out of the sack for a doggy-walk before it gets too hot, the human is in full zombie mode.

I’m thinking tonight I’ll take them for a walk as soon as it’s dark and the sidewalks have had time to cool off a bit. That will be soon — it’s already 8:00. If I can wring them out before bed-time, maybe they won’t roust me in the wee hours.

The scribbling for free and the editing for dollars projects are seriously complicated by the absence of the MacBook Pro. Apple, faced with at least one lawsuit (to which I happen to be a party now) and with a cacophony of more than the usual number of angry, bellyaching customers, decided to replace the machine’s defective keyboards for free.

Since mine intermittently declines to type a letter “b” or recognize the action of the “return” key, last week I dragged it down to the Apple story and turned it in to be fixed. I hope.

“Fixing” a computer, I’ve learned over the years, usually means “screwing it up in new and creative ways.” So as you can imagine, my enthusiasm for this process knows plenty of bounds.

The contraption is not supposed to be returned before tomorrow (Monday), and probably later than that.

In the meantime, I’m working and playing on an ancient iMac desktop, a big old thing that I use as a substitute television, streaming videos from Amazon and YouTube. And lemme tell you: that frikkin” HURTS!

Another function of old age, in addition to a certain tendency to insomnia, is hurting joints. Especially hurting hip joints. When I sit in an office chair — any office chair, for any length of time (even just a few minutes) — my hip starts to hurt so much I can barely limp around. The laptop brings a stop to that by letting me sit in a soft easy chair with my feet up on an ottoman. In its absence, I get to enjoy extravagant pain. After a couple hours at this desk, I have to perform a series of physical therapy exercises just to walk the dogs around the block.

Welp, I cannot write another word, and if I don’t get up from this bone-crushing chair now I will not be able to walk to the bathroom, to say nothing of a mile into Richistan and back to Normal Acres. And so, away…

The Complete Writer: Writing a Nonfiction Book *FREE READS*

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 18. Writing the Nonfiction Book

The Complete Writer
Part III

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.

18
The Nonfiction Book

“Writing a Nonfiction Book”? I could write an entire book on the subject—as many others have, to ill effect.

Go to Amazon and search this string:

how to write a nonfiction book

Stay away from the ones that purport to teach you how to write a book in thirty days. There’s even one that claims you can write a book in twenty-one days! Avoid.

Make your way past the obvious frauds (sure, you can compile a book in a month: if your copy is already written) to texts that look like they make sense. There aren’t many.

Anything by William Zinsser is good. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is not a how-to but should not be missed. Stephen King’s On Writing is useful. Otherwise, well . . . My best advice is to learn by trial and error. Sit down, write the book, read it with a jaundiced eye, rewrite it, repeat.

You can apply most of the principles described in chapters 12 through 17 about writing feature articles, at least to chapters if not to the entire book-length document.

Of course, the nonfiction book is much more than just a long feature article. For that reason you need to think it through and map it out before beginning

Preliminary steps

First task is to consider who will read your book and why. What do you have to offer readers, and what might interest them most? This is where you need to lay your emphasis.

Consider who these readers are: What’s their reason for picking up your book? What is their reading level? In what context might they read your book—that is, would they read it on the job as something that will help them with their work? Or as a guide for a hobby, or as self-help to deal with a personal challenge? Are they looking for inspiration or facts or . . . what?

These and related issues will determine the content of your book, the kind of language you use to convey your content, and the book’s organization and slant.

Decide what information your readers need to know, and focus on that. Omit ephemeral material or, if you must, put it in an appendix.

Then organize carefully. It’s best to write an outline upfront, before you begin to write. True, some people don’t like to work this way, but with a book-length manuscript, it’s really not an option. You can always change the organization before your final draft. But at the outset, you need to know where you’re going.

Research carefully. Double-check your facts. Don’t assume it’s right just because you’ve known it half your life. The Internet puts the biggest library in human history on your desk, and Google gives you humanity’s most versatile indexing system. Use them.

Cite sources for everything that’s not common knowledge. Be careful to avoid accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s work—all words taken from some other source should be put in quotation marks and cited; any ideas that are not your own should be acknowledged.

If you decide to write a book based on your blog, bear in mind that blog posts are not book chapters. Much of the material in this book comes from posts on various blogs, but to make them fit, I’ve had to rewrite extensively. The language of book publishing, by and large, is not bloggish. Create a convincing voice and style for the book, and use it throughout.

Organizing your research

Research for a nonfiction book can be extensive. For a book in progress on DCIS and low-level noninvasive breast cancer, I have three huge three-ring binders filled with articles and notes. The information in those binders is organized and indexed on hundreds of index cards.

To get a grip on that much information, I use a fairly simple system:

  • Print out all source material, including interview transcripts, articles downloaded from the Internet, web pages, and everything else. Use three-hole punched paper, or get a paper punch and punch holes in the printouts.
  • Organize the printouts roughly by topic, trying to get the material in the order of the planned chapters, as best as possible.
  • Place the printouts in one or more binders.
  • Number the pages.
  • Reread the material from beginning to end, noting keywords relevant to the book’s planned content and organization in the printouts’ margins.
  • Get a large stack of notecards.
  • Go through the printouts again, from beginning to end. Enter each keyword on a notecard with a note about what is said concerning the topic. Also enter the page number on the notecard.
  • Organize the notecards by the book outline’s sections and, within those, by keywords.

Now you can use the notecards to guide you through your research material to write and organize your book’s content.

Budget time for the job

This is not something you’re going to accomplish in a month or (as one cheesy book on Amazon proclaims) a day. It will take weeks and probably months to write a book. Occasionally a writer spends years on a book. So don’t expect to toss it off in a short time.is not something you’re going to accomplish in a month or (as one cheesy book on Amazon proclaims) a day. It will take weeks and probably months to write a book. Occasionally a writer spends years on a book. So don’t expect to toss it off in a short time.

The most efficient way to work on a book is to schedule a set time and number of hours per day or per week for the project.

Don’t let other people or distractions interfere with that schedule. The only way you can get the job done is to do it. If you’re not doing it, you will never finish the book.

If your family’s demands interfere to the extent that you can’t break free the time needed for the project, hire a babysitter for the little ones and take yourself, your laptop, and your research materials to a coffee house or a library. Many people find they work best when they’re away from home, even if “away” is at a park or a restaurant.

By the same token, however, don’t overdo it. Limit the amount of time and attention you dedicate to the project to your scheduled work times. Otherwise, the thing will expand to fill all corners of your life, and you will be come a very dull boy or girl. As you make time for your writing, also make time for your family, your social life, and some physical activity. Time spent away from writing is psychologically as effective for your work as time spent on the writing.

Keep publishability in mind

As you’re writing the book, don’t forget that you have to peddle it to a publisher and you have to peddle it to readers.

Bear in mind who your readers will be and how your book will differ from and improve on others on your subject. As you’re writing, keep thinking about what will engage your readers’ interest and reading skills. Never lose sight of your market.

Get someone else to read it

Consider feedback from the sort of people who might be your readers to be a non-negotiable part of the process. Your book is not finished until someone else has read it, told you what they think of it, and suggested what might make it better. It’s not finished until you take that advice into account and revise accordingly.

Hire or “volunteer” a beta reader, as described in chapters 7 and 9. Give this person some specific tasks to think about: don’t just hand over the manuscript and ask “whaddaya think?” Most people are afraid to hurt your feelings and so will answer “it’s fine! I love it!” This is not helpful.

Chapter 9 offers some strategies to help elicit useful feedback. Reassure your reader that your heart will not be broken if there’s something she or he doesn’t like, and that in fact, being straight with you will help you write the best book you can. Having made this promise, behave yourself professionally if the response contains some negative or disappointing commentary.

Hire a professional editor

Beta readers usually know nothing about the exigencies of publishing a book-length manuscript. You need professional editing help to prepare the manuscript for submission to an agent or for self-publication.

Many universities maintain lists of editors for graduate students completing dissertations and for faculty members who must publish or perish. Call the graduate college at your nearest university or, failing that, the English department or the university’s press office for referrals to experienced editors. There also are professional groups of editorial specialists, such as the Council of Science Editors; often they maintain lists of members looking for freelance work.

You can contact The Copyeditor’s Desk (http://thecopyeditorsdesk.com) through the contact page at the website, or through the P&S Press contact page. We may be able to help with your manuscript, or refer you to someone with expertise in your subject matter.

The Complete Writer: Journalistic Research *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part III

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 16. Journalistic Research

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.

The first step in research is at once the easiest and the most difficult: Think.

Any information-gathering project, whether it’s heavy on interviews, Google, and personal observation or whether it requires lots of legwork in public records, archives, and libraries, starts with a systematic, organized approach. Before you begin, you should consider where you will find your material and how you will dig it out.

The basic steps to journalistic research are three: first, gain a broad overview of the subject; second, learn about it in some depth, and third, find and interview knowledgeable people.

Before we begin discussing these techniques, here’s a caveat: this chapter reviews important, easily accessible reference works and information sources suitable for most feature-writing. Before you undertake an investigative article, though, you should take a course in investigative journalism and work on-staff with an experienced editor. Investigative reporting is not for amateurs.

Getting Started

Seasoned reporters will tell you the key to a successful interview is simple: do your homework first. Learn enough about your assignment to speak intelligently with your sources. Nothing turns an interviewee off faster than a writer’s total ignorance of the subject.

Thus, while the interview is the journalist’s most important research tool, it comes last. It’s the culmination of your research, undertaken only after considerable reading, legwork, and thought.

Be aware, by the way, that researchers divide sources into two broad types: primary and secondary. A primary source is a person who has direct knowledge of an event. Among primary sources are witnesses whom you might interview, letters or reports by people who were on the scene, and depositions or court testimony of witnesses. A secondary source is a report from someone who knows about the subject or event but did not actually witness it. Take, for example, an airplane crash. Primary sources are the survivors, the people who saw the crash, and data from the plane’s black box. Secondary sources are Federal Aviation Authority reports; comments from other aviation experts; writing about air safety in general; interviews with friends and relatives of the victims; and newspaper, television, and magazine accounts.

Does this mean that any one-on-one interview is a primary source? No! You could, for example, talk to someone who speaks from hearsay. If the individual was not at an event, did not witness it firsthand, then he or she is not a primary source. But if the person is an expert on a subject—say, a scientist explaining her experiments in killer bee biology—then she is a primary source. So, among interviewees, primary sources include witnesses, participants, and experts directly involved in an action or study. Secondary sources include gossips, people who know someone who was involved in the action, and experts speaking in general about other experts’ findings.

Beginners sometimes jump to the conclusion that anything printed is a secondary source. Again, the distinction depends on whether its writer is “on the scene” of the subject at hand. For example, an article on killer bees written by our entomologist and based on her research would be a primary source. A story written by a reporter, or even by an expert whose article is a reprise of other people’s research, would be a secondary source. Diaries, letters, and journals are largely primary sources. An autobiography is a primary source. A witness’s statement is a primary source; a report by a police officer who came upon an accident minutes after it occurred may contain primary and secondary material.

Often, you must weigh the credibility of your sources. Let’s say you need to understand the latest developments in superconductivity. That has something to do with physics. But because it is a specialized and fast-changing subject, just any physicist won’t do. You must be sure your physicist has real expertise about your subject.

How do you find out? First, ask! What is your specialty? What expertise do you have about this specific topic? What have you published about it, and where? Then verify the person’s credentials with colleagues: ask other physicists about his or her reputation. Remember, too, that most people have some ax to grind: try to identify your expert’s biases and keep them in mind as you consider what you hear.

Given a project about which you know little or nothing, you should first get the answers to a few key questions:

  1. Who knows about this subject and cares enough to publish an article or book about it?
  2. Where can I find these articles or books?
  3. Will this story have a local or a national slant, and how will that affect my choice of sources?

Who Knows?

The answer to this question may be less obvious than it seems. Suppose, for example, you’re asked to write a story about senior citizens who keep their jobs past the traditional retirement age. Your editor wants you to focus on two or three successful individuals, weaving in lots of solid information about who hires them and why; why seniors continue to work; the issue’s political aspects; and the advantages and disadvantages to the worker, the employer, and the larger society.

At the start, all you know about the subject comes from a McDonald’s television ad highlighting the company’s experiment with senior workers. You make a note to call someone at McDonald’s national headquarters, whose telephone number you may obtain from the company’s webpage.

First, though, you consider which organizations might be involved with the subject. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) comes immediately to mind. This group concerns itself with anything that affects senior citizens economically. You hazard a guess that something on older workers has already appeared in the AARP Magazine.[1]

Your state has a governor’s commission on aging: this will be a good source of local information. The National Council on Aging is another likely source, as is the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which has both national and local agencies. Naturally, you contact the Social Security Administration’s Press Office.[2]

Come to think about it, you recall legislation eliminating the mandatory retirement age. This means various government agencies have heard testimony on the question of whether older people should be permitted to continue working indefinitely. It also means the subject has some “hot” topics that probably have attracted academic sociologists and psychologists. And it means that at some point the subject surely has been in the news.

If the government started telling business it can’t force workers to retire, then various industries searched out ways to respond. Business and trade publications must have reported on their solutions.

Older workers may have higher health-care costs. This means group insurance providers will have a vested interest in your subject. You make a note to call several major insurers.

Speaking of health, folk wisdom tells you that people who stay active as they age stay healthier and happier. You wonder if that’s so, and if it is, what are the implication for America’s aging Baby Boomers, for industry, and for our society in general. This is the subject matter of sociology and psychology.

Now you have a good idea of where to begin:

  1. With national newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Christian Science Monitor
  2. With special-interest consumer magazines targeted at older readers
  3. With business and trade publications
  4. With government publications
  5. With sociological or psychological journals

These are arranged in order of descending accessibility and ascending difficulty. To gain the quick overview you need before you begin speaking with sources, start with the first two or three sources. More detailed familiarity will come from professional journals and congressional testimony. For a light story, you may not have to dig that deep. If you’re doing a long, serious piece of a book, you’ll go to all these sources and more.

Later—after you’ve done your preliminary reading—you’ll search out:

  1. Executives or public relations representatives for companies that hire older workers, who may refer you to . . .
  2. Workers willing to let you highlight their stories
  3. Employment counselors experienced with older workers
  4. Spokespersons for senior citizens’ groups, such as AARP
  5. Other experts, academic, governmental, and other
  6. Spokespersons for insurance carriers, if you decide that aspect is relevant to your story

Finding Overview Articles

Magazine, newspaper, and journal articles are easily accessible through Google. Choose your keywords carefully, keeping in mind Boolean structure (“x and y” vs. “x or y” or “x not y”). Try to think from general to specific. Break the subject into several main concepts, and then come up with some synonyms for each. For example, “old” means “aged”; “worker” can mean “employee.”

For the story on working senior citizens, then, you might come up with these key words:

  • Age discrimination
  • Aged, employment of
  • Employees, aged
  • Employees, senior
  • Employees, older
  • Older workers
  • Senior citizens and work
  • Senior citizens and employment
  • Working in retirement
  • Mandatory retirement

A search of these keywords will bring up a bonanza of general-information articles, websites, and blog posts. Use some discrimination: try to identify sites and publications that are well established and likely to be fact-checked.

Books

These are always good, Google notwithstanding. Take yourself to a decent library: a city, college, or university institution. Don’t be shy about talking to the librarian: helping the customer is their job.

Use the library’s databases to seek out your keywords, those that you’ve brought with you and any suggested by the librarian.

Again, look for books by experts. Those published by university presses are likely to be reliable, as are some that are published through mainline, traditional publishers. Look at the sources; check for endnotes or footnotes, and examine these carefully for credibility.

Scientific and Scholarly Research

Back to Google. You can cut out most but not all of the woo-woo that comes up in a Google search by using Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/

This search engine focuses, mostly, on articles in academic journals. Enter your search terms here and you’ll call up a number of scholarly articles in various relevant disciplines. The “older workers” keyword search, for example brings up things like “Job Loss and Employment Patterns of Older Workers,” by Sewin Chan and Ann Huff Stevens, in the Journal of Labor Economics.

Three problems with Google Scholar:

First, indexed articles tend to be out of date. The Chan and Stevens study, for example, is dated 2001.

Second, the most interesting studies tend to be stashed behind paywalls. This effectively makes them inaccessible for anyone who has to do a lot of research.

And third, you would be surprised how many phony academic journals are out there: fake studies are published all the time by ersatz or dishonest “scholars” in fake journals. These are known as “predatory journals.” Many of them are open-access, and the numbers of these frauds grow exponentially every year, increasing the chance that you’ll find yourself reading a phony study. You can find lists of these predatory publications in Scholarly Open Access’s List of Stand-Alone Journals[3] and in Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers.[4] It’s important to check on any title that is not obviously associated with a well-known publisher or university.

Important to know: The original Beall’s List was taken down when one of the crooks threatened its founder and operator with a lawsuit. A follower, however, downloaded contents that were current at the time and republished it in a wiki, adding more titles to the original and inviting readers to participate in the Wiki. Thus you need to go to the site published on Weebly to access this invaluable resource: https://beallslist.weebly.com/

For serious, in-depth research once you’re beyond the first-pass stage, you’re best served by visiting a university or at least a good community college library, where you can obtain articles free of charge.

How to Find Experts

A convenient place to start looking for experts on topics large and small is, of course, the Internet. If your subject involves a service or a product, some company no doubt provides it in your area. Do a search for the product or service and simply call the president of a local firm and ask for an interview.

If your subject is a social issue, some nonprofit undoubtedly addresses it. Nonprofit directors are often more open to talking with the press—they like getting free publicity—so, they can be very helpful.

You may have to get past a gatekeeper. Explain who you are, what you’re doing, and what publication you’re writing for. Usually you’ll be directed to someone who knows the subject. If not, move on to the next company.

Trade groups bring together business people with similar concerns. Google “trade associations” or “professional organizations” plus your topic’s key terms, and you’ll often find a lead to an interviewee.

City, county, and state commissions are good local sources of experts on public policy issues. Call the mayor’s, county supervisor’s, or governor’s office for leads.

Elected representatives keep abreast of public issues that affect their constituents. Google a state, city, or county plus terms such as “governor,” “representative,” “senator,” “commissioner,” “mayor,” “city council,” and the like.

State or local governments staff certain departments with experts. Fish and game departments, for example, often hire ecologists knowledgeable in regional conservation issues. The highway department may have an engineer who can talk about safe bridge construction. Experts on corrections, child abuse, the handicapped, real estate, the environment, communication, transportation, education, tourism . . . name a subject, and you’ll find someone who knows about it somewhere on the public payroll.

Chambers of Commerce collect information on tourism, economic development, and various civic projects. They often have in-house specialists or can refer you to private-sector experts. Here again, though: watch their comments for bias.

Universities and colleges are full of people who know what they’re talking about. On controversial topics, you may get a straighter story here—scientists and other academics are less likely to speak from pure self-interest than are politicians, public-relations reps, and bureaucrats. But bear in mind that academics have their own hobbyhorses, chief among them concerns about promotion and prestige.

Find academic experts by calling the college’s press bureau or public information office. Explain what your story is about, who you’re writing for, and what specific information you need.

One expert is an excellent source of another: each time you interview someone, ask for a reference to someone else who might help you.

Watch local newspapers and city magazines for clip-and-save listings of consumer advocates, elected representatives, points of interest, and the like. Local business journals often run annual lists of the areas biggest companies, complete with officers’ names and phone numbers. Keep a file of such material in print form if it’s unavailable on the Web. If it does appear on the Net, bookmark it.

How to Find Manuscript Sources

Much unpublished material rests in state and national archives, university libraries, and various private collections. Historical societies invariably keep documents, letters, and memoirs that cast light on modern topics.

The Library of Congress publishes the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, which is online and largely searchable.[5] Tens of thousands of manuscript collections in hundreds of U.S. repositories are catalogued.

If you write regularly about your state or city, make it a point to familiarize yourself with the state’s official archives, local museums and historical societies, and university manuscript collections. Introduce yourself to the librarian, and if you don’t have a specific assignment, spend some time browsing.

Public records are by definition “public,” meaning you or anyone else can see them. Much of this material is online, though in some cases you may still have to go to a government office to view them. For a fee, you can do a pretty comprehensive online background check on just about anyone. Be careful, though: online results are not always accurate.

How Do You Know When You’ve Finished?

It is possible to get so involved with the research that you never get around to writing the piece. In reporterese jargon, this is called “over-researching the story.”

At some point, you’ll have to stop, if for no other reason than the editor’s snappish reminder that you have twenty minutes to deadline.

When people start repeating things you’ve heard elsewhere, you usually have done enough. When you’ve covered all the bases with an interviewee and he answers the final “is there more I should know?” question with “no,” you’re probably safe in quitting.

Think over your angle or focus and ask yourself, “Do I have enough material to cover this fairly? If the issue is controversial, have I investigated all sides? Do I know the most current developments?” If the answer is yes, you might as well stop.

You should finish with several times more material than you can use. Before you begin writing, you will sift and organize your notes, picking out the most germane points, while the rest serves as background that makes you an informed speaker.

[1] http://www.aarp.org/magazine/

[2] https://www.ssa.gov/news/press/

[3]http://research.shmu.ac.ir/files/aeeinname%20entesherat/LIST%20OF%20STANDALONE1..pdf /

[4] http://beallslist.weebly.com/

[5] http://www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc/

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.

The Complete Writer: Get to Know a Style Manual *FREE READ*

Chapter 11
Get to Know a Style Manual

The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Even if you hire a professional editor—which you should, if you’re self-publishing and want your writing to look professional—you still should familiarize yourself with the style manual relevant to your type of writing.

The standards are The Chicago Manual of Style, the American Psychological Association Style Manual, the Associated Press Style-book, and Modern Language Association style, outlined in the MLA Handbook. There are also specialized style manuals for the sciences and the professions, among them the American Medical Association Manual of Style; The Blue-book: A Uniform System of Citation and the Association of Legal Writing Directors Citation Manual; and the Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format. There are others.

Each of these serves a different purpose and a different market. Chicago, for example, is the standard for the book publishing industry. Almost all publishers of fiction and nonfiction follow Chicago style. APA (American Psychological Association) is used by writers in business, education, psychology, and the social sciences and is the standard for scholarly journals in those disciplines. MLA style is used almost exclusively by journals in English and foreign languages; most college students learn to use it because research writing is taught in freshman composition courses, which are based in English departments and taught by English faculty. AP (Associated Press) style is used by newspapers, magazines, and public relations professionals. And obviously, AMA, Blue-book, and CSE style are used by doctors, lawyers, and scientists. AP is not APA is not MLA is not AMA . . .

They’re all different from each other!

For that reason, the MLA style you learned in college will not suffice for the book you hope to self-publish. Nor will it do for a manuscript to be submitted to a traditional publisher, since typesetting and formatting are now foisted on the author: your book will be typeset from the manuscript you submitted, and so your copy will need to be correctly formatted, no matter who publishes it.

Consider a passage describing research done by the eminent Professor Boxankle. APA style would format first the passage and then the reference to its source like this:

Content:
Boxankle (2017) found that the salinity of water in which baskets were woven “is the critical factor in determining outcome” (p. 143).

Reference Section

Boxankle, O. Q. (2017). “Underwater basketweaving: Key components for success.” Journal of Comparative Basketry 11(2), 140–50.

In Chicago’s author-date system, the same information would look like this:

Content:
Oliver Boxankle (2017) found that the salinity of water in which baskets were woven “is the critical factor in determining outcome” (143).

Reference Section

Boxankle, Oliver Q. 2017. “Underwater Basketweaving: Key Components for Success.” Journal of Comparative Basketry 11 (January): 140–50.

Chicago’s notes-and-bibliography system would elicit these:

Content:
In a 2017 study, Oliver Boxankle found that the salinity of water in which baskets were woven “is the critical factor in determining outcome.”3

Footnote:

  1. Oliver Q. Boxankle, “Underwater Basketweaving: Key Components for Success,” Journal of Comparative Basketry 11 no. 4 (2017): 140–50.

Alternatively, after the first reference or if the full references were listed in a bibliography at the end:

Second end- or footnote:

  1. Boxankle, p. 143

And that, let me re-emphasize, is from just two of the many manuals in use.

Few authors come to know these manuals in exquisite detail—research and writing are quite enough to take up one’s time and attention. That’s why authors and publishers hire copyeditors.

However, it’s wise to have at least a working knowledge of the manual your publisher wants you to use. First, obviously an acquisitions editor will be more impressed by a manuscript that looks reasonably clean than by an amateur production.

Second and less obvious is that a sincere effort at formatting your work according to the desired style can save you money. Editors set their rates to account for the difficulty of the job.

Some editors charge by the hour. Clearly, a task that takes six hours because the editor has to do extensive reformatting will cost you more than a job that takes four.

Others charge a page rate based on the editor’s estimate of the copy’s difficulty. This is especially true if English is your second language, since the challenge of editing ESL copy varies wildly according to the author’s facility with the language. My rates, for example, range from $4.50 to $15 per page. If the client asks for an hourly rate (some business executives prefer this), it will range upwards of $40 an hour, depending on how complex and demanding the job will be.

So, even though you needn’t be an expert in every style manual on the market, it’s in your interest to build a working acquaintance with the manual your publisher uses. If you’re self-publishing, get a current edition of the Chicago Manual and use it.

 

The Complete Writer: Revising with Reader Feedback

The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 9
Revising with Reader Feedback

Many professional and would-be professional authors work with a beta reader: a nonprofessional reader who agrees to review and comment on a work, for little or no pay. Ideally, the beta reader should represent a fairly typical member of the work’s audience: she or he should share cultural values, interests, and socioeconomic status with the kind of people who could be expected to read the story or book.

One advantage of using a beta-reader or friend—as opposed to an editor or a teacher—is that you can control the amount of feedback you get and when you get it. If you have plenty of time and you have the temperament for it, recruiting someone to read and comment on your work early on can be very useful; it also provides you with comments during several stages of the process, as you work through your thinking on a subject.

You don’t have to restrict yourself to one reader—Peter Elbow recommends two or even three people. It’s important to bear in mind, though, that you may have to coach your reader by asking very specific questions, and sometimes by interrupting him or her at set points in the reading and asking for certain responses as they proceed. This is time-consuming.

Who can these readers be? Some people would never allow their spouses to read their work; others would never let anyone other than a spouse read an early draft.

A writer’s workshop can be a source of beta readers—people who are committed to writing have enough interest in the process to enjoy reading and replying to you.

If you take writing courses, classmates may be helpful, since they allegedly understand an assignment; if you find willing readers in a college course, make friends now and don’t lose track of these folks! Adult children, if they’re far enough beyond adolescence to see you as a human being, may be helpful. And you might consider trusted friends, co-workers, or brothers and sisters, assuming the subject doesn’t treat certain issues in a way that might blindside or hurt them.

Parents are a lot like spouses—too close to you, and you have to keep on living with them.

Whomever you select, the advantage of talking the story over with someone else is that it gives you an opportunity to re-envision the subject and its treatment in a new light—to see it through someone else’s eyes.

Your needs, your temperament, and the time available to you determine how much feedback you will seek:

Minimal feedback: At the very least, get some help in eliminating errors in grammar and usage from a final draft that needs to be very polished.

A little feedback: You don’t have much time, or for whatever reason you don’t need a thorough critique You ask the reader to look for spelling, grammar, and usage errors, and for any awkward or unclear sentences. Though you don’t want to involve yourself in ornate discussions, you’d like to know if there are any places where you sound like an idiot. You get one round of feedback at the end, and that’s it. In spite of this determination, you can still benefit:

This kind of feedback can help you revise clumsy language or language, restructure ideas, clarify or explain points; change tone of voice; insert transitions or introductions to help retain the reader’s attention.

Medium feedback: You don’t want to rethink your whole position, but you’re willing to consider major revisions of structure and strategy. You take the opportunity to understand what is confusing or bothersome to a reader and revise accordingly.

Lots of feedback: Everything is open for discussion, from start to finish.

Decide how much of this process you want to buy into.

Working with a reader who is a friend and not, like a teacher or editor, an imagined “adversary,” can build confidence and clarity, and help you cut through the abstraction.

Elbow describes two kinds of reader feedback: what he calls “criterion-based” and “reader-based.” Let’s review the high points of these

Criterion-based response

This is the schoolmarm stuff: basic qualities of content, organization, language, and usage. Solicit comments in these four basic categories:

  1. The content of the writing: Ask the reader about quality of the ideas, the perceptions, and the point of view. Is your basic idea or insight valid? Do you support your point by logical reasoning and valid argument? Does the reader feel your support includes evidence and examples, and are you’re really making good points ?
  2. The organization. Ask about the work’s unity, whether the parts are arranged in a coherent or logical way, whether the beginning, middle, and end hold together, and whether paragraphs seem coherent and logical.
  3. Effectiveness of the language: Ask whether the sentences are clear and readable, and whether the word usage seems correct. Does it sound like correct English?
  4. The correctness and appropriateness of the usage: How are the grammar, usage, spelling, typing, and style?

Reader-based response

In Elbow’s world, eliciting a response to writing boils down to three basic questions designed to test how your words affect the person who reads them:

  • What happened to you, moment by moment, as you were reading the writing?
  • Summarize the writing: what does it say or what happened in it?
  • Make some images for the writing and the transaction it creates with readers.

It’s important to know what is going on inside the reader’s mind and heart. Some people have enough insight to recognize and articulate their reactions as they read a work. But many people find it difficult to describe what’s going on in their minds as they’re reading.

So, you need to elicit these reactions by careful questioning. To find out what was happening to the reader, ask him or her to read just a couple of paragraphs. Elbow posits these questions:

  • What was happening as you read the opening passages?
  • What words struck you most?
  • What impression did you get of the writer?

Have the person continue reading, maybe marking the manuscript with notes or lines. Half or three-quarters of the way through the piece, ask again what is happening with the reader, with questions like these:

  • Please narrate your response to everything in detail, even if it seems irrelevant.
  • Has your attitude has changed since you began reading—for example, were with the writer at the start and now opposed? Why?
  • Please point out passages that you liked and ones you didn’t understand or resisted.
  • What do you think will happen next?

After the reader has finished the document, again ask what is happening:

  • What is your reaction?
  • What seems the most important thing about the piece?
  • How would you describe the ending—is it abrupt, warm? unnoticeable? other?
  • What aspects of the reader does the piece bring out—a contemplative side? curiosity? helpfulness? other?

Finally, ask the person to reflect on the piece and talk about its implications. If you can, get the person to read it again and report the differences between what happens on the second and the first reading.

Ask the person to give a very quick, informal summary, and then to summarize what she thinks the writer is trying to say but not quite succeeding. A reader’s summary of the writing gives you a lot of insight into how well your meaning is understood.

A third useful exercise is to ask the reader to devise some images for the writing and for the way it affects him or her. Don’t push the person too hard to explain or interpret the imagery; take it instead as a clue to the direction and effect of the writing.

A variety of questions can elicit this kind of response. Ask the person what other writing it reminds you of—what forms of writing: film? departmental memo? journal entry? love letter? Ask the person how someone else might respond to it—how would his mother like it, or some mutual acquaintance. How does the person view the relationship between writer and reader—familiar? distant? reading from a stage? shaking his fist? Is the writing trying to do something to the reader, like beat her over the head or trick her or make her like the writer? Ask the reader to describe the tone or voice—is it intimate, shouting, jokey, tense, other? Try asking the person to describe the writing in terms of other media—does the camera move in, fade back, create foreground or background, other? Draw a picture of what you see or think.

Working with a beta reader has a number of advantages:

  1. Because you have to give the reader time to think about the copy, it forces you to start on the work well in advance of the deadline.
  2. It makes you slow down and think about your work carefully before you consider it “finished.”
  3. It lets you see how well your message is understood by a real reader.
  4. It allows you to think of your work as open to change.
  5. It gives you new insights.

The Complete Writer: Two Kinds of Revising *FREE READ*

The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 8
Two Kinds of Revising

In his classic guide to nonfiction composition, Writing with Power, Peter Elbow describes four kinds of revision: quick revising, thorough revising, revising through feedback from a reader, and cutting-&-pasting. Let’s consider the techniques and merits of the first two, which you can do in the solitude of your garret, without anyone else’s help.

First: quick revising

  1. Consider the audience and your purpose in writing to the audience.

Visualize the audience; strive to produce a piece of writing that is good for your purpose with this audience

  1. Go through the draft and find the good parts.

Mark them in the margin. Don’t worry about criteria for choosing these—your assessment may be intuitive. If the passage feels good, mark it.

  1. Figure out the main point, and then arrange the best passages in the best order to support that point.

For a short piece, you may be able to number the supporting passages in the margins.

For a longer work, make an outline: express each of the points as a complete sentence with a verb.

  1. Write out a clean but not quite final draft of the whole piece, which may exclude the beginning.

If you don’t yet see how to start, just begin writing with your first definite point. You can even start with your second or third point.

Do the same if you haven’t identified exactly what your main point is. The lead and the main point will probably come to you as you write the draft.

As you’re writing, you should be led to think, “What I’m really trying to make clear to you is. . . .” That’s the main point.

  1. Now that you have a draft and a clear statement of the main idea, write whatever is needed for an introductory paragraph.

This should almost surely give the reader a clear sense of where you are going—that is, of what the main point is.

  1. If don’t have it by now, write the wrap: a satisfactory conclusion that summarizes things with clarity and precision.
  2. Next, read the draft not as a writer but as a reader. Read it out loud. Clean up places that are unclear or awkward or lacking in life.
  3. Get rid of mistakes in grammar and usage.

This eight-step process is essentially an act of cutting. You leave out everything that isn’t already good or easily made good. You’re not creating a work of art: you’re building a product that contains the best of what you can produce on a deadline.

Thorough revising

The first three steps are basically the same:

  1. Get your readers and purpose clearly in mind.
  2. Read over what you’ve drafted and mark the important parts.
  3. Identify the main point.
  4. Think more about who will read the words. Look not for a general point but for the best emphasis that will get through to those readers.
    Moving on…
  5. Summarize each of the good points in one sentence, each of which asserts something. This may help clarify ideas.
  6. Write more draft content, as freewriting or timed writing.
  7. As a last resort, invent a “false” main point or take the opposite point of view. Make up an outline of assertions supporting this. Sometimes this kind of distorted summary will produce the idea you want.
  8. Take another vacation from the stuff.
  9. Make a draft. Sometimes you can cut and paste large chunks of the original draft; you usually have to write a fair amount of new material. Here, the goal is not perfect language but to get the thoughts out.
  10. If you have a mess, deal with it.
  11. Take a break
  12. Think of opposing arguments
  13. Write more material
  14. Pursue an apparent contradiction to its logical end
  15. Describe the apparent confusion and proceed with the essay.
  16. Tighten and clean up the language

Goals: precision and energy

Look for correct words, and zero in on precise meaning.

Energy is usually gained by cutting. This saves the reader’s energy and keeps her or him from giving up.

Read the copy aloud.

Cut through extra words or vagueness or digression. Listen for places where the words get boring.

  1. Say the sentence aloud. It must sound strong and energetic.
  2. Think in terms of energy. Cast sentences so the syntax emphasizes what is important or most interesting.
  3. Simplify. Break long sentences into shorter ones; make verbs active and lively; cut out extra words; keep sentences from dribbling to a flabby end.
  4. Use active verbs; avoid the passive verb and too much of the verb “to be.”
  5. Keep Strunk & White’s Elements of Style in mind.
  6. Get rid of mistakes in grammar and usage.

Obviously, the second strategy will be far more time-consuming. If you’re not tossing off a blog post or newspaper squib on a deadline, if you’re writing something that matters or that needs to impress someone, then you will need to factor in enough time to do the job right — which requires twice as many steps as the quickie approach.

The last two elements — reaching for precision and energy and reading the copy (listen to it!)  — apply to any writing process, whether you’re cranking out hack copy or trying to write the Great Document of the Western World.

 

The Complete Writer: 6 Steps in Revising & Editing *FREE READ*

The Complete Writer is a work in progress, published a chapter or two at a time here at Plain & Simple Press. To read all the chapters online so far, go to the Complete Writer page. You can buy a copy of the whole book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. 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. ⇒ ⇒ ⇒

The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 7
Six
Steps to Revising and Polishing

In my universe, revising consists of a half-dozen steps. It goes like this:

1. Reflection

Now go away. Do something else. If possible, let the material sit for a day or so. If that’s not possible, go to lunch or get a cup of coffee and, for a short period, let it be. You need some transition between the process of putting words on paper and the process of thinking about those words.

If your work is coherent enough to present to another person, this is a good time to ask someone you trust—preferably not a spouse, unless it’s a very unusual spouse—to read and comment on it. More to come, in the next chapter, about how to get the most useful responses from a reader.

2. Returning to the Draft

At every step along the revision road, you need to listen to the prose. Reread what you have written. Preferably, read it aloud. If you are going to have someone else read it and comment, you may want them to read it here, or you may want to wait until you have done a preliminary revision—when the work is a little closer to presentable.

At this point, consider two things: what you have left out, and what you can get rid of. In other words, at this stage there are two kinds of revision you can do: revising by adding and revising by cutting.

3. Revising by Adding

As an editor and writing teacher, I’ve found that beginning writers, in particular, tend not to say enough. We tend to be abstract, to leave out specific details.

Have you said the forest was full of trees? What kind of trees were they? What did they look like? Were they leafed out? Were the leaves green or frosted orange and red? Were they young trees or old? Crowded so they blocked out all the sun from the forest floor, or logged out so that no two trees were close enough to string a hammock between them? What did they smell like? How did they feel? Who was there to see them? How did those people respond to them? When did this happen? What time of day? What time of year? What time of life? Where exactly was this forest? How high, how low? How far from civilization? Why were you there? Why are you telling us this? How did you get there? How do you expect to get out of there?

One way to get at these details is to ask yourself the classic journalist’s questions: who what when where why and how. The answers to those questions will usually contain the specifics you need to fill in the details that paint a vivid, accurate picture in the reader’s mind. You want to use language and details that allow the reader to visualize exactly what you’re talking about.

We’ve looked at Hayakawa’s abstraction ladder as a way of thinking about how writers clarify ideas in their readers’ minds. You should make a practice of running up and down the abstraction ladder—be sure to bring your reader as far down to earth as possible, particularly when you must explain a difficult or new concept.

So, one phase of revising is to look at your work and ask yourself what details you can add. Remember, though, that the details need to be significant. They really need to add to the reader’s understanding, and not to fill space with puffery or irrelevant chatter. They need to be relevant and meaningful. If you sense that the copy lacks solid content, go back to the library or Google to find some concrete, credible facts.

Usually, though, you can give examples that illustrate an assertion you’ve made. Ask yourself, too: Can you show how some abstract principle or procedure you’re explaining applies to the life of a real human being? Have you used the most specific term for the thing you’re talking about? Have you said how it looks? How it feels? How it smells? How it sounds? How it matters? Go through your work and add to clarify, as needed.

3.a. Digression! On the all-important verbs

One way is to produce more concrete, less abstract copy is by using strong verbs and nouns.

First, as we’ve seen in chapter 1, a good writer uses verbs that show action and that carry a lot of meaning. Often one word will do the job of two or three words. Consider a young woman who is perambulating, at her leisure, across a college campus. Your first impulse might be to say:

She walked slowly across the campus.

That’s all very nice, and…plain vanilla. It doesn’t tell us enough.

What single word means “walk slowly”? When a group of thirty people brainstorm for answers to this question, we find terms like these:

Notice the vivid difference between “she ambled across the campus” and “she trudged across the campus.” These more specific terms not only give us a clearer picture of how the subject looked as she proceeded, they even give us a clue to her state of mind. This is what is meant by the rule to use strong action verbs.

While we’re talking about verbs, let’s mention four principles remember about verb use:

1. Let your verbs and nouns carry the weight of your meaning. Many people are fond of hiding their verbs in long, wordy constructions:

Be simple: simplify

Use simplicity: simplify

As a teenager, I was barely cognizant of the Vietnam War: As a teenager, I barely knew about the Vietnam War.

2. Look for hidden verbs. Whenever you see a long wordy construction that appears where a verb should stand in the sentence, look for a single verb that will take its place. Chapter 1 describes this concept. Review it and keep it in mind while revising.

3. Avoid the passive voice. If you don’t recall the discussion in Chapter 1 or didn’t understand it, look up it up on Google.

4. Use action verbs, not verbs of being, whenever possible. Avoid, too, those verbose constructions like “there is and there are,” or “it is x that blah blah”

There are many hard-working adults enrolled at the Great Desert University.Many hard-working adults have enrolled at the Great Desert University.

Many hard-working adults attend the Great Desert University.

It was Oliver Boxankle who wrote our textbook.

Oliver Boxankle wrote our textbook.

When you’re adding details—and when you’re revising the material you’ve already put on paper—use these principles to strengthen your prose.

4. Revising by Cutting

You’d be amazed at how much immaterial stuff people put into their writing. One cause of this: the teacher or professor who asks you to write three pages or five pages or ten pages on whatever subject. What do you do when you’re assigned to write a ten-page report and you only come up with eight? Naturally, you pad, pad, pad! This trains you to fill space with inconsequential material, irrelevant remarks, and the like.

So—the first thing to do is get rid of that stuff. If necessary go back to the library or the Internet and find some material that is relevant.

Another source of unnecessary verbiage is redundancy. In conversation, we routinely repeat ourselves. But in writing, that’s unnecessary. Look over the entire piece and notice whether you’ve said the same thing twice. Often, writers will make a remark in the opening that gets repeated deeper in the story. Get rid of it. Sometimes a writer may introduce a quotation by writing, for example, Oliver Boxankle says things are tough all over. In the next sentence, Boxankle is quoted saying, “Things are getting very rough for everyone these days.” Let quotation carry the content, if you’re going to use it, and delete the redundant comment about it.

Some material may not be strictly relevant to the subject. Ask yourself: does the reader really need to know this?

You do not have to unload everything you know about a subject onto the reader. Indeed, you should not. Ideally, you should know a great deal more than you let on. In most instances, a piece of nonfiction will contain about a third of what the writer has learned in doing research on the subject.

Even in a piece of fiction: if you have fully visualized your characters, you have imagined each person’s childhood and the lives of his or her parents and the things that have molded the personality. But you don’t recite all this background to the reader: you simply show the fully thought-through character in action. Many of the character’s actions will be predicated on what you know of his or her background, but you don’t have to detail all the ancient history on paper.

Share with the reader what she needs to know, and stop at that. Do not unload a lot of irrelevant material that doesn’t help the person to understand your message.

On the sentence level, you can cut a surprising number of words. One way to do this is to change passive verbs to the active voice. Look for verbose constructions—search for hidden verbs, for example, and get rid of those “there is/it is” structures. Cut adverbs. You rarely need an -ly verb—let it stand only if you really need it. Words like “very,” “quite,” and “rather,” which modify adjectives and other adverbs, can almost always go. And often you can cut adjectives, too. If an adjective doesn’t add much to the message, get rid of it.

One final fillip at this stage of revision: be sure you have the facts correct. If you’ve shot from the hip, look up the basis of your assertions in an encyclopedia, in a source at the library, or on Google Scholar. If you’ve used numbers, be sure they add up. Once, in writing about a hike through Aravaipa Canyon, I said, “The terrain has three types of paving: loose, polished river rocks in dry floodplain; loose, polished, slimy river rocks underwater; ankle-deep mud with the lubricating power of axle grease; and ankle-deep sand.” Add these up: 1) loose polished river rocks; 2) loose, polished slimy river rocks; 3) ankle-deep mud; 4) ankle-deep sand . . .

If you’ve said there are 4,831,244 people in Zambia and 4,910,003 people in the Congo for a total of 9,741,247 people, get out your calculator and double-check. If you’ve claimed that you can drive across Arizona from Prescott to Kingman on State Route 89A, look at the map to be sure you have it right. If you’ve remarked that the Pilgrims brought three copies of the King James Bible over to Plymouth Rock, be sure the King James Bible was in print when the Pilgrims crossed the ocean blue.

5. Reconsideration

Now is an ideal time to get someone else to review your magnum opus, especially if it’s a book or a research document to be published in an academic journal. Chapter 9 describes some strategies for eliciting useful responses from volunteer readers, sometimes called “beta readers.” However, for short, informal pieces, that’s not always feasible. In the absence of a reader, you’ll need to give yourself some intelligent feedback.

Remember, the essence of professionalism is willingness to change and revise what you’ve written. Your words are not your babies. They are not graven in stone with a diamond stylus. Even after they go to print, they are not necessarily set into the collective consciousness for all eternity—indeed, they most likely are on their way to the recycling plant.

Don’t be shy or vain about recasting and revising your stuff, or even about throwing some of it out. After you’ve revised by cutting or adding, as appropriate, it’s again time to set the material aside and let it cool off. Go away. Do something else. Go to the state fair. Watch a baseball game. Have dinner. Deflect your consciousness in some way from the intense activity of focusing on the piece.

Come back to it later. Print out a hard copy—most people find it easier to recognize flaws in copy that’s on paper than in copy that’s on screen.

Now read it aloud. Listen to it. How does it sound? Does it sound like English? Is it coherent? Does it contain any redundancies or repetitiousness? Is it verbose? Does it paint a clear, concrete picture of what you’re trying to say? Is the point clear—if you were reading this for the first time, would you understand why its author thinks the material is important?

Look at its organization. Is it logical? Can the reader follow the argument from one point to another without getting lost? Have you left anything out? Have you left the reader with an opportunity to say, “Hey! What about this?” If so, fix it. Have you been fair?

Does the piece have an effective beginning and an effective ending? Is the material in between interesting and coherent? Does it carry the reader along?

Have you said anything inane? Out with it! Have you made a broad generalization that cannot be supported by facts? If so, either get rid of it or support it.

Are there any organizational redundancies? Have you said anything more than once? If so, tighten.

6. Editing for Grammar, Spelling, Style, and Syntax

The final step is to clean up the surface errors. Be sure it sounds like English and that you have written in the tightest possible style. Then run the spell-checker.

After that, proofread with the brain! This is a crucial step. Do not leave it out! Your brain is smarter than the computer, no matter what Bill Gates says. You can bet you’ll find something the computer missed in the final read-through.

 

The Complete Writer: Stages of Revising & Editing *FREE READ*

The Complete Writer is a work in progress, published a chapter or two at a time here at Plain & Simple Press. To read all the chapters online so far, go to the Complete Writer page. You can buy a copy of the whole book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. 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. ⇒ ⇒ ⇒

The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 6
The Importance of Revising and Editing

Reviewing, revising, editing, and polishing your work form a huge part of the process of writing. In fact, revision and editing are key to successful writing. A glance at the steps in the writing process reveals the large part revision plays. Everything above the §§§ section break §§§ represents the initial drafting. Everything below it represents the steps successful writers take to produce good copy.

Fact and content gathering

  • May entail research, interviewing, exploring, observing, remembering, thinking, reflecting, imagining

Considering the facts

  • Checking your facts for accuracy
  • Organizing them, listing or placing them in some reasonably logical order
  • Considering the audience, debating what is of interest or importance to readers
  • Reflecting on the tone, organization, language appropriate to audience and subject

Composition

  • Organizing
  • Putting the material into words

§§§ Cooling-off Time §§§

  • Rereading the document
  • May involve discussion with an advisor or editor; may be interior discussion
  • Taking notes, marginal notations, etc.
  • You may want to do a “quick revision” here and then have a trustworthy reader review and comment on the draft at this point.

§§§

Returning to the draft: Revising

  • Rewriting the material with the reconsideration and discussion in mind.
  • Reorganizing
  • Recasting language to make it more understandable, more appropriate, or more engaging
  • Adding material
  • Deleting material
  • Fact-checking

Reconsideration and discussion II

  • Reviewing the draft again
  • Discussing it with a trusted reader, if you have not already done so
  • Revising the organization and making changes suggested by reader

Returning to the draft: Revising

  • Rereading and listening to the composition
  • Incorporating new ideas from discussion, reflection
  • Polishing language, style, organization
  • Editing
  • Polishing, getting grammar, spelling, punctuation right
  • Sometimes minor reorganizing

As you can see, gathering or inventing material for the content and drafting the basic composition amounts to about half—at the most—of the whole job of writing. In other words, at least half and often more than half of the job involves revision and polishing!

Most people find it easier and more workable to separate the revision and editing processes, since they require two different kinds of thinking. Let’s start with revising, then. I will share with you some of my techniques, and then I’ll offer some ideas described by Peter Elbow in his book, Writing with Power.¹ If you are seriously interested in writing, you should read this work.

¹Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Coming up: Six Steps to Revising and Polishing