Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

“Nose to tail”—saving extra versions and outtakes

March 10, 2015

While some writers are meticulously organized, there’s a stereotype that we’re disorderly pack rats who never throw anything out because “it might be useful someday.” I admit to falling into this category. And I’ll have you know that some things I’ve saved have indeed been useful someday, and I was glad to have kept them for just that use.

This idea extends to words. Pieces I’ve cut out of article drafts—from phrases to whole sections—have come in handy later. The soonest was the very same story, when the editor asked whether I happened to have run across any information on X. I had, but as it didn’t fit the assigned themes, I’d cut it. Luckily, I’d also kept it … just in case. Another time, I simply realized that some research would make a good sidebar. I suggested it to the editor, who agreed, so I wrote it.

Other times, I managed to use research in other stories—or in story pitches. A source for a Scrap article last year went on about ways to recycle electronic goods. I couldn’t use that depth of information in the immediate article but was sure there’d be another opportunity. Recently, another editor requested queries on the theme “green living.” Bingo!

(And then there’s my future files, or ticklers, where I keep bits and pieces that might turn into articles or parts thereof. Every class hears the tale of someone’s Washington Post profile of Heloise, which I tore out and kept in my vegetarian file on the basis of half a sentence buried in the middle. Two years later, I was poking through the file in search of inspiration. The result: a back-page Q&A with the famous hint-meister in Vegetarian Times, one of my favorite clips.)

“Save Your Content!” was the slug on a recent discussion in LinkEds & Writers, the online group I’ve found so useful. This time authors and book editors debated where and how to save their draft deletions. There wasn’t any discussion of whether to save.

Several authors add and delete scenes throughout the writing process, saving the pieces in a file labeled “outtakes” and reviewing it for subsequent books. Some do this in longhand.

Another edits as he goes along to the proper word count—a habit developed as a news reporter—but creates a “save as” copy (Story.1, Story.2, etc.) if an editor asks him to make revisions. He also saves files containing notes, research, edit directions, and so on. “I can always go back to the original file to retrieve copy if I need it, and I’ve always got a backup in case my ‘final’ version is lost for any reason,” he says. (Smart man.)

In a variation on this, another writer saves a baseline copy of every version as a pdf. Then he starts over on the Word file from the beginning. “With this method, I only ever have one Word file in the folder, and it’s always the most current version,” he notes. “I incrementally number the pdfs so I have a retrospective of the development of the story, and I can always recover the last draft if there’s a disaster with the Word file. Periodically I burn everything to a CD for backup.”

So writers save their versions and outtakes in various ways, often with an eye to using them in a future article, book, or query. And then there’s what an assignment editor does with his: “On a slow day when things aren’t coming, I look back through the printed snippets and may pick up an idea for something entirely new. Must write something every day!” Sounds like my tickler file.

Which brings me to the title of this blog entry: nose to tail. It’s the concept of waste not, want not, whether in hunting or general frugality. Use everything, or at least think in terms of everything’s use. It really might be useful someday.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

“Broadcast News” and the demise of Brian Williams

February 17, 2015 week, as so many commentators have noted, was a big one in media. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart announced his departure after 16 years. Acclaimed foreign correspondent and 60 Minutes star Bob Simon and New York Times media critic David Carr (late of Washington City Paper) both died suddenly.

From a CNN Money column: “So much about journalism can be learned from this week: hubris from Williams, wit from Stewart, consistency from Simon, and ferocious eloquence from Carr.”

By coincidence, this weekend a local station was showing Broadcast News, a film I hadn’t seen since its debut. Billed in part as a romantic comedy, it’s also about the rise of blow-dried TV anchors who are all style, no substance, over less-glamorous reporters steeped in knowledge that informs their work. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Actor for all three leads.

NBC Nightly News was my newscast of choice—less for its anchor than, I admit, for its lead-in, the voice that said, “This is the NBC Nightly Nooz With Brian Williams.” The voice said “nooz” twice, which reminded me of where I came from, which was worth a smile every night. So I saw the January 30 broadcast where Williams thanked the embarrassed Army veteran whose platoon protected him in Iraq, after Williams’ helicopter supposedly was hit.

What had been whispered about for years suddenly came to the fore, assisted by Facebook, a service member who wrote there, “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft…,” and a Stars and Stripes reporter who saw this and followed up with a story. Quite a few times, Williams had either lied about or “conflated” the facts about his helo ride—plus the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and maybe even a puppy rescue in New Jersey.

Was it “conflation,” which is real and understandable in regular humans? But Williams knew better; his own blogs and past recordings held differing versions of the same stories, versions that were later used to cut his career short. Why didn’t he fact-check himself? Was he such a big shot that no one would call him on his many retellings as they grew?

“LYIN’ BRIAN” was the harsh assessment of the New York Post’s front page, showing Williams on air with a Pinocchio-like extended nose.

Which brings me to the climax of Broadcast News. Holly Hunter’s producer character is drawn to and repelled by William Hurt’s empty, pretty-boy newsreader character, who confesses that he’s not smart, can’t write, doesn’t know current events, but interacts perfectly with a camera. He’s everything Hunter can’t stand about where the news business is headed.

Director James L. Brooks sums up Hunter’s dilemma by having her confront Hurt about a (cursory and shallow) segment he reported on date rape. A real Hunter would have caught the problem with the segment right away, but in the movie, not until the end does she point out that he faked a tear for the camera. It’s a firing offense, she says. He either doesn’t care or doesn’t see her point. So she dumps him.

Brian Williams has never, to my knowledge, been accused of faking a news segment—only of exaggerating several events outside of his anchor chair. But it’s a matter of credibility, and that’s what he’s “selling” when in that chair. As Hurt’s character puts it, “Just remember that you’re not just reading the news, you’re narrating it. Everybody has to sell a little. You’re selling them this idea of you, you know; you’re sort of saying, ‘Trust me, I’m, um, credible.’ ”

Just like that, Williams wasn’t credible anymore. This new thing called social media inflated his conflation to the point where NBC couldn’t ignore the outcry and suspended him for six months. “You can’t have an anchor on the air while his judgment and credibility are being questioned on every front page in America,” said an NBC insider. Rumor has it the brass wanted to fire him outright, but as the highest-rated news anchor, he was too valuable a commodity.

My guess is that like Stewart, Simon, and Carr, Williams will not return to his post. At 55, his career may not exactly be over, but anchoring the evening news was probably its apex. It’s fun to imagine, as some wags have suggested, him and Stewart switching jobs. In the end, though, there’s nothing funny about the end of last week and the end of a career for a man the Washington Post calls “an anchor with a relatively thin reporting resume who was eager to cement his journalistic bona fides.”

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

More people (other than Larry King) who don’t make a lot of sense in public

January 27, 2015

Last year I called out people and institutions for messing up the language in ways big and small. Once again, I’m not elbowing ordinary folks for mistyping an email. Instead, they’re either public figures who should know better or institutions that have editors, PR experts, or other professionals to make sure they communicate properly. Or both.

You’re role models, and these errors are preventable, folks. Please, care enough to prevent them!

“It’s Regency Furniture’s 25th silver anniversary.” Really? The furniture company has been around since 1389? Listening to the radio in the car one January night, I responded, “You did not just say that!”

Advertisements for Ford vehicles have been using the tagline “Go Further.” I guess we can assume the company is talking metaphorically rather than literally about the vehicles’ ability to drive a long distance on whatever fuel they use. Because that would be “farther.” Wrote, “The new slogan, ‘Go Further,’ is intended in part as a warning against complacency after three years of profits, executives say.” Oh. Then maybe it’s not a grammatical mistake….

On January 6, the sports page of the Washington Post Express told us about this year’s “parody-filled” NBA conference. That it may be. Also parity-filled. But I like it the first way better.

Did you gift this to someone for the holidays? “ ‘The Art of French Gifting—La Vie est Belle’ Holiday Soirée Purchase with Purchase ($89 Value)” by Lancome. I love what the Atlantic said about this abuse of the English language: “Would you ever say ‘gifting’ out loud? Would you ever, without a sense of irony or shame, ask someone the question, ‘What can I gift you for your birthday?’ No, most likely, you would not. Not only because you are not (I am assuming) socially awkward, but also because, more to the point, you are not—or you would very much prefer not to be—a stooge of Madison Avenue.”

Scott Pelley, anchor, CBS Evening News: “There’s the First Lady in the First Lady’s box with several guests that have been invited.” No, no, Scott. A journalist of your experience should know that people and named animals are who; objects and unnamed animals are that. (This is the second time I’ve dinged Mr. Pelley for a grammatical bugaboo.)

NBC’s Anne Thompson, on the eve of January’s blizzard: “New York’s streets will most likely shut down by 11 p.m. tonight.” Not to single out NBC; Thompson’s hardly the only reporter to inflict this redundancy on us.

Penguin Press, which is touting a very political memoir by the very political David Axelrod, just put out a release with a whopping mistake in it. As Foreign Policy wrote, “Can you ‘C’ the typo?” “… I’m reaching out regarding BELIEVER: My Forty Years in Politics by David Axelrod, which we are proud to publish on February 10th (exactly 8 years after Senator Barak Obama stood on the steps of the Old Capitol Building in Springfield and announced he was running for president of the United States). … No other person, except perhaps for Barak Obama, knows exactly what it took to make that announcement possible ….”

I count seven errors (not just style quibbles such as hyphenation) in this story from WIOD Radio about an embarrassing government typo:
“Advertising Error Forces Miami-Dade County To Re-Approve 2015 Budget”
“Deja Vu for Miami-Dade County as commissioners are being forced to re-approve their 2015 budget.
“The Florida Department of Revenue says the county has to re-adopt it’s property tax-rate and budget again because of a numerical error that was detailed in a September newspaper advertisement about the tax rate.
“Residents’ rate won’t be changed as a result, and the notices sent out via mail were correct and do not have to be re-sent.
“But Commissioners are expected to hold it’s new hearing early next month. They have to hold another public hearing, re-issue the newspaper ad, and hold its vote.”

And now a promising note: “Report a Typo or Grammatical Error”
“FOX40 takes accuracy in our writing very seriously, but errors can sometimes slip through. If you notice a typo or grammatical error, please let us know.
“Using the form below, let us know which story you found the error in and we will promptly correct it.
“Thank you for reading”
Hey! Thank you, Fox40, the Fox affiliate station in Sacramento/Stockton/Modesto, California. I hope people take you up on this—or rather, don’t, if it indicates you’re doing a good job on this front.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

On compound modifiers and when to use a hyphen

January 6, 2015 Walsh, the Washington Post’s chatting copyeditor, has rendered an opinion on several grammatical (and other) issues that have grabbed my attention lately. One is when to use a comma in a compound modifier and when not to.

Way back in the 1970s, compound modifiers had hyphens: ice-cream cone, three-man spacecraft. In the 1990s and 2000s, a succession of editors and I imposed the same rule at The Washingtonian. We got some pushback from people who called the magazine “hyphen happy” (“hyphen-happy”?). As hyphen use fades away, it’s hard to tell where to draw the line—and stylebooks seem almost arbitrary on the matter.

That’s the background on Walsh’s first chat question recently. “It seems arbitrary to me: no hyphen for ‘grand jury investigation’ or ‘revenge porn law’ but ‘mineral-rich region’?” he or she asked. “And what are your thoughts on hyphenating ‘simple’ compound nouns (e.g., real-estate agent, high-school student). Thanks!”

I come up against this one almost daily. Since leaving my last magazine job—and my role as arbiter of grammar and style among people who actually care about such things—I admit becoming less hyphen-happy. But while some phrases read fine without a hyphen, others can be misread or just look wrong. If a stylebook is silent, do you just guess?

Here’s Walsh’s interesting reply: “That’s probably where my work practices and my personal practices differ the most. The Post would write ‘grand jury investigation,’ whereas I would write ‘grand-jury investigation.’ I even hyphenate the simple ones. Post style does not, and one of my problems with that philosophy is that it’s hard to draw the line. We’re not always consistent, and one of my goals is to come up with an easier-to-follow rationale for those pesky hyphens.”

Good point. We editors thought being called hyphen-happy was perfectly fine when we had a plain and easy-to-follow rule to follow that made the meaning clear and obvious to all. Once you start saying, “Well, not always,” editors won’t agree among themselves, and noneditors will have no idea. And there goes the neighborhood, grammatically speaking.

(Of course, we editors can stick our fingers in the dike only so long. Language changes, and eventually it will change around us. Which brings up that age-old question, should you be a prescriber or a describer?)

A commenter suggested that if the compound noun stands alone in a different context (“They eat ice cream; the grand jury will convene”), it doesn’t take a hyphen when modifying another noun. If it doesn’t otherwise stand alone (“mineral rich”), it does (“mineral-rich region”). Maybe that’s the rationale behind the Post stylebook?

I asked him those questions. Here are the answers:

“That’s a good way to decide when something like ‘mineral-rich’ absolutely must have a hyphen. It’s not a good guideline for deciding when not to hyphenate, because it takes the most anti-hyphen stance possible.

“Others will disagree, but I think it looks sloppy and unprofessional to leave ‘ham sandwich’ unhyphenated in something like ‘That was a good lunch, but it wasn’t ham-sandwich good.’ Or ‘beer gut’ in ‘One of those beer-gut dudes from Cleveland.’ You get the picture.

Post style, I’m afraid, reflects the fact that others will disagree.”

Speaking of disagreeing, here’s how yet another commenter responded: “Use them when not using them may confuse the reader. In the phrase ‘old money family,’ a hyphen isn’t needed because there isn’t such a thing as a ‘money family.’ The phrase ‘small-state senator’ needs a hyphen because there is such a thing as a ‘state senator.’ No need for the hyphens in ‘beer gut dudes’ or ‘ham sandwich good’ because the meanings are clear without hyphens.”

Yes, not confusing the reader is a main reason we have grammar. So I have to disagree with this commenter. No reader should have to spend even a second figuring out whether ‘money family’ or ‘state senator’ is a thing in those sentences. A hyphen makes it clear right away; no figuring or rereading needed.

And that is why we have (ahem) hyphen-use rules.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

How to stay productive during the holidays

December 12, 2014
christmas holly clipart

It’s holiday time, when too many of us go into paroxysms of busyness. Since mid-November—heck, since October, even—certain people have told me they won’t have time until January because of the holidays. It’s our all-expansive, all-excusing excuse for losing our calm and clawing hold of control. (No, I don’t believe either that anyone whose fiscal year doesn’t end December 31 is that busy or that “the holidays” is the cause.)

But let’s stick to getting through this period ourselves as communications professionals. Especially when we depend on those other people to answer questions or supply part of our work or keep deadlines moving along.

The members of the LinkEds & Writers group see planning as the answer whether they expect a holiday rush or not. Planning, they say, is the key to coping with any situation, including too much work or too little.

Some members see more assignments this time of year as offices empty and deadlines pile up. “There are always a few clients who look around and panic because the end of the year is coming,” says a health and medical writer. “I start gearing up in the fall because I know there is always going to be a rush around the holidays. I try to finish assignments before Christmas so I can have the holiday and the week before New Year’s Day free. Most of the time I manage it.”

On the other hand, several group members experience fewer assignments and responses late in the year because editors and managers are distracted or away. How best to use the extra time? Some answers:

–Recharge. You may not want a vacation, but if you’re forced to take one, make the most of it. “I plan for downtime and at least a week off,” says one writer/editor. A friend of mine arranged her work to take three weeks off and get out of town with family.

–Get organized to organize. “I’m making a daily schedule with time for book promotion, writing, revising, and chilling in my easy chair with a great book,” says one writer. “Reading puts me in the mood for writing.”

–Update your website. “All year long, I put my stories and photos in Dropbox for my editors. Now at the end of the year, I would like to take those stories and assemble them,” writes a farm writer.

–While you’re at it, clean out your Dropbox, too, along with email and so on.

–Clean and perk up your workspace. This one comes from Shon Bacon of the Blood-Red Pencil blog. “Create a beautiful, bright, active atmosphere that will spark beautiful, bright, and active writing,” she says.

–Start on your taxes. When winter starts in earnest, you’ll find me at the dining-room table, surrounded by calculator, receipts, financial statements, and so on. It’s got to be done, so why not spend these dark, cold hours when you’re not otherwise working rather than a beautiful spring weekend or two when the pressure’s on?

–Find an accountability partner. Also from Bacon: If you need a kick in the pants to get work done, “hook up with your accountability partner (AP) now, each of you telling the other what you’d like to get done between now and the week after the first of January. Be reasonable and realistic. You know how much holiday work you have to do, so don’t overtax yourself—but do keep creativity in your life. Make weekly check-ins with your AP to make sure the creative work is getting done.”

Bacon is thinking about more creative, self-generated work than the outside assignments most of the LinkEds & Writers do. Nonetheless, we can probably all benefit from some of her year-end advice: “Use [the] first and last moments of your day to get in touch with your creativity.” Happy productive or relaxing holidays!

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

The do-it-yourself book tour

November 21, 2014

By now most writers have heard about the death of book publicity. The pyramid for authors has gotten ridiculously misshapen, with advances, publicity, payoffs, even editing increasingly going to the tippy-top and nothing or near nothing going to the rest of the hill.

So how are the rest of us supposed to get our wonderful words out to a public that doesn’t know about them? Websites, begged and pleaded reviews, radio interviews, guerrilla marketing, social media …. And with no one to do it for us, we have to create our own book tours.

I was delighted to keep tabs on my colleague Beth Baker as she made her way across the northern states to flog With a Little Help From Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older. Her website describes the book this way: “an award-winning journalist tells the story of people devising innovative ways to live as they approach retirement, options that ensure they are surrounded by a circle of friends, family, and neighbors.”

The site also includes a blog called “My So-Called Book Tour,” a friendly, personal tracing of Beth’s fall 2014 travels to promote the nonfiction book. Naturally, the blog was a bit of promotion in itself. It’s also instructional and enjoyable.

When you make your own tour, things don’t always go as planned. Starting in Oregon, Beth promoted the book on KPOV radio, which she called “really fun.” Less fun was a bookstore event where turnout could be counted on two hands. “We fled back to Bend and ate great Thai food as a consolation prize,” she wrote.

Then on to well-attended discussions in Portland in collaboration with Making Oregon Vital for Elders, Villages NW, and AARP Oregon. In Seattle, the star of her previous book organized three events and even hosted Beth and her husband. See, Beth was making vital connections for her book just as she advocated in the book.

This pattern continued at Vashon Island, then on to Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Columbus. For each stop, Beth added a photo or three to the blog. In contrast to the early experience, the tour ended this way: “We had hoped for maybe 20 folks, but 50 showed up. Most then trooped over to the Celeste’s for wine reception and book sales. An unusually enthusiastic book-buying bunch!”

My book, Innkeeping Unlimited: Practical, Low-Cost Ways to Improve Your B&B and Win Repeat Business, came out before blogs really got professional and photo-friendly. Otherwise, I would have followed Beth’s example! Because touring the country a bit at a time, working with the very people who helped with the book itself, is ideal for a blog. Other similarities and differences:

  • Instead of being a weeklong stretch, my tour was here and there over a longer period. With a full-time job, I fit in nationwide visits on long weekends and multiple vacations.
  • My book, like Beth’s, had a specific focus and a narrowed audience (mine more than hers)—something you need to promote your own book. You just can’t appeal to everyone. By reaching out to specific interest groups—the older crowd and alternative housing interests in her case, mostly regional and state B&B associations in mine—you can spread the word to the people most likely to want your message.
  • The more advance work you do, the more chance you have at success. But sometimes there is none. Like Beth, I had a bookstore failure. At the late Travel Bookstore in Bethesda, a grand total of six showed up for a discussion and signing. Three bought the book. Bright spot: 50 percent sales!
  • The tour itself should be fun. We’ve all heard about the exhausting pace of big-time authors waking up who-knows-where, riding a limo to yet another interview or store signing with crowds lined up out the door. We no-name authors don’t have that. But whether we stay with family or with sources or with friends of friends, our tours are fun. We can make time to see sights. We’re discussing our issues with people who care. We’re learning. We’re probably even collecting material for the next book or article.
  • And then there’s the rush no author ever forgets: when someone nervously, hesitatingly, holds out his or her copy of the book and says, “Would you—sign this for me? Thank you!”

No, thank you!

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

American social media and me (an infographic!)

October 31, 2014

TV’s badly written press secretaries (and a good one)

October 10, 2014

Naturally, you don’t expect exact authenticity from TV entertainment shows. That’s not the point. But the most prominent fictional spokespeople too often suffer from fakery.

If someone of modest experience as a spokesperson or press secretary can spot the missteps in TV portrayals of these jobs, I wonder, what good are the shows’ consultants? It’s the rare TV production that gets it right. Granted, they’re rarely trying to get it right; when the main characters are someone else, the press secretary or spokesperson is a prop, a second or third fiddle. But can he or she be a little more realistic?

Trust me, the following descriptions of the purported ultimate truth tellers are at least as much from multisource Internet research as from any studying of episodes. (Please don’t assume my viewing habits!) Moore, NYPD deputy commissioner of public information, Blue Bloods. It’s a plum job, being the top communications guy / PR flack / ghostwriter to the police commissioner of the City of New York, but who would want to stay? First, Garrett suffers from the show’s holier-than-thou, the-Reagans-are-saints-and-everyone-else-ain’t mindset. More specifically, Commissioner Frank Reagan may be a standup guy, but he also blocks Garrett at nearly every turn. He’s a grouch. He refuses to comment. He goes off script. He shuts down professional counsel. He does frequent end runs and doesn’t tell Garrett a thing, leaving his entire press staff in the dark. The media should roast Frank when Garrett can tell them little or nothing, and eventually that would lose him the mayor’s confidence. The client is not letting the contractor serve him, which results in bad service, which results in conditions that should leave Garrett a frustrated, angry, marginalized news-release writer with a high salary. Find another job, Garrett! Novak, White House press secretary, Scandal. James was much more absurd. First he was White House correspondent for a Washington newspaper, worried that his badge would be stripped because his conniving husband kept slipping him information / denying him information / giving him a snog in the office. He quit after getting himself embroiled in a (gasp) scandal. A year later, he was back at work, instantly interviewing the First Lady for some national news broadcast. (As if!) Then he was fired. The next week he was a magazine freelancer with a prime assignment. Then suddenly he was White House press secretary, fielding questions from national and international media—oh, come on—right up until he and two women were shot on the street outside the gate. And no one noticed, no Secret Service, no one of a dozen other Washington police and security forces, no passersby, even though the killer sat around on the pavement waiting for poor James to die. This show gets four eyerolls on the eyeroll scale. Cregg, White House press secretary, The West Wing. Yay! They got C.J. much more right, within the bounds of TV. Of course, The West Wing was a much better show.

Not that it was 100 percent realistic. There is no 18th and Potomac, and you don’t turn west on Key Bridge to get to George Washington University Hospital. And since when does a press secretary become chief of staff? But the show benefited from having a real White House press secretary as a consultant:

—C.J. went from high-flying private-sector PR operative to jobless to campaign press person at less than 10 percent of the pay.

—She was shown at work behind the scenes, talking to reporters about stories she wanted done and talking them out of other ones. It’s not all standing in front of the press room.

—She was shown being screwed over when her colleagues left her in the dark about a major issue. See, Blue Bloods, that’s what happens! (And what did happen to former press secretary and show consultant Dee Dee Myers.)

—A bit of the real world came in when C.J. showed a documentary filmmaker the flak jacket she inherited from her predecessor and that she’d pass on to her successor with a note in the pocket. That’s a tradition started by Ron Nessen in 1977.

—The show also gave viewers a glimpse of how easy it is to do the job wrong. When C.J. had dental surgery and arrogant Josh Lyman went to the podium with an “anyone can do this” attitude, he got his head handed to him in less than 30 seconds, causing trouble for both POTUS and C.J. “You compwetwy impwoded!” she yelled at him afterward. “You are not evew awowed in my pwess woom again!”

Equivalent characters on House of Cards, Veep, and Homeland are reportedly less prominent. Not having cable to check, I can’t comment firsthand on those portrayals. Do they follow the West Wing model? I wouldn’t bet on it…. What do you think?

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Editing: How not to “waltz out … in your underwear”

September 20, 2014

“There are two typos of people in this world: those who can edit, and those who can’t.” —Jarod Kintz

For once, today, I have no great issue in mind, no point to make. I was thinking about editing, about being both writer and editor and therefore not taking sides, one against the other; I was remembering having posted here some quotations about writing and thought it was time for a counterbalance.

There are, after all, two types (typos?) of editors: line, copy, or proofreading editors and the big-picture kind—substantive editors, senior editors, commissioning editors, whatever title they go by. Both are needed in publishing. Most editors specialize in one sort of work or the other, though plenty of us can do both.

Most quotations about editing are about the second kind. That’s because the writers most likely to be quoted are authors, who are more concerned with substantive editing than with line or copy editing. Maybe their eyes are too blurred with tears from the first to be able to see the second.

  • “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” —Patricia Fuller

Oh, so true. You can be done—I won’t say writing is never complete—but what you write always benefits from a going over, even if it’s only an email.

  • “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” —Shannon Hale

Exactly. Just get something on the page. I’ve learned to go for the big point and leave blanks for individual words if they don’t come with the flow. I can always fill them in later—from a thesaurus if necessary. But losing the butterfly, that would be a problem.

  • “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” —Stephen King

The difference between getting ideas out and honing them to say what you mean in every word.

  • “Editing might be a bloody trade, but knives aren’t the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.” —Blake Morrison

That’s the kind of editor you want to have.

  • “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.’ ” —Mark Twain

Mark Twain. Funny man.

  • “Editors are still the world’s readers. And thus the eyes of the world.” —Betsy Lerner

Gatekeepers, like it or not. Some like it, and some sure don’t.

  • “The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?’ ” —James Thurber

Both sides of me agree fully.

  • “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs / is making a chore for the reader who reads.” —Dr. Seuss

So true! Or, even pithier(!), “Omit needless words.” Thank you, Strunk and White.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

From unpaid to paid—and warning others

August 29, 2014

Early this year, I agreed to write a short article for a magazine. It’s nationally distributed but not one I’d done business with or even looked at before meeting an editor. She didn’t offer a contract, so I asked for one—then, because the terms were so bad throughout, I consciously opted not to sign it. With a one-page article, could anything really go wrong? This one time?

The magazine didn’t pay on acceptance. Then it didn’t pay on publication—cash-flow problems, I was told. In all, it took three months, 10 emails, one phone call, and one letter through the U.S. mail before my little check finally arrived. For me, this was as much about the principle as the principal.

What worked? Persistence, politeness, and appealing to the higher-ups’ better nature rather than resorting to threats. This was a practical matter on the part of David here: Small-claims court wasn’t worth it, and I didn’t even have a contract to wave. So I fell back on some clichés from childhood …

—Don’t promise more than you can deliver.

—You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

—If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Turns out this was the same method advised by some Reddit users, one of whom suggested resending “the exact same, polite e-mail. Don’t change a word, don’t make threats, just inquire as to when you’ll be receiving payment. It’s always worked eventually. But, be prepared to just never see the money. At least you can be annoying for a while.”

What’s next? Naturally, much as I like the clip and am happy to add the title to my resume, I will never write for this magazine again. (Not that I’ve been asked.) Now comes the obligation to warn fellow writers.

First, I sought advice at an SPJ chapter meeting. This led to a discussion of SPJ’s need for an online assembly of “bad guys,” clients and companies that members have had trouble with. As usual, the problem with this idea is legal liability. Members brought up a business that got a bad review on Angie’s List; the business fought back and won, and apparently now it’s harder to tell who the bad eggs are. Potential customers have to read between the lines and think the worst of businesses that aren’t listed.

The Editorial Freelancers Association often sees warnings come up on its members’ Yahoo discussion list. Also, if the miscreant was an advertiser on the job bank, administrators want to know. (The same was true of the late Washington Independent Writers.)

ASJA long had a service called Contracts Watch, which I recommended to students. Some of its warnings and other information, such as what some outlets are paying and what their contracts are like, are now in the members-only section of the ASJA Monthly. The group’s Grievance Committee can help with problems as well; errant publishers may respond better to a whole organization than to one freelancer.

The Absolute Write Water Cooler has a section called “Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check.” At present it has more than 200 pages of threads, most with gripes about agents, publishers, and publicists. These threads have thousands of views apiece.

If you belong to a writers group that meets in person, you’re unlikely to run into the legal-liability problem when discussing a problem client. Your warning won’t go as far as it will online, but it will get through to fellow writers who can ask you for details and share their own stories. As other pithy sayings advise, a word to the wise should be sufficient—and offers a warning to others as you would want them to offer a warning to you.

Addendum, October 28. Aha! The magazine has just announced its bankruptcy filing and plans to concentrate on its online presence. Guess that editor wasn’t lying about cash-flow problems. A story in The Root quoted a writer’s tweet, which said in part, “I did 3 stories for them 3 months ago. Now they say they are bankrupt and can’t pay me!” I’m glad I persisted and got my minuscule check in time.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.