GET ON WITH
Knowing exactly when this moment has arrived is important. There are times when the process of gathering information seems endless, when you'll feel you are becoming a "professional student." Since most writers are curious by nature, research can become a kind of obsession. But if you are going to finish the project in a reasonable length of time you must discipline yourself to stop researching and start writing.
Beginners also experience a sense of apprehension about actually writing the article. Fear can keep you researching far beyond what is necessary. You can, and should, begin writing before you know everything about the subject, because you will never know everything about any subject. While you are composing your first draft, more questions will inevitably arise, but these can be answered as you go along.
For articles less than 1,000 words, your initial research and interviews will usually be enough, except for a few minor points. These can be cleared up with a quick call to those you have interviewed, or another brief trip to the library or Web after you have composed the first draft. For feature-length articles, the second round of research may be more complex. Still, you should guard against researching the subject to death before you sit down to write.
Working on a deadline is a good way to help discipline yourself to get on with the writing phase. At first, you will probably not be given deadlines by an editor. You will, most likely, be working on speculation, rather than on firm assignment, and the editor will not be scheduling your article until he or she knows if it is publishable. So, you should set your own deadlines. Just as query volume is important to keep assignments coming in, prompt fulfillment of assignments is important to assure good relations with editors, and to maintain a steady income. A major complaint of editors is missed deadlines. If you are prompt in getting your articles submitted, even if only on speculation, you enhance your position with any editor.
Of course, everything doesn't always fall into place. Your interview subject may be out of town, or just out of the office. Your car may pick the day you plan to go to the library to break down. There are any number of things that can interfere with quick completion of an assignment, but don't let these deter you from setting deadlines for yourself.
If you have a deadline, and some unforeseen circumstance interferes, set another, but be careful not to create artificial obstacles. Setting priorities ("My career comes before that new film, or my tennis game.") is important, especially when starting out.
We are not saying that everything should come second to your work, but if you do not give your writing career a high priority, you will not be succesful as a freelance writer.
"I begin by transcribing my interview tape or tapes. One of the reasons I tape my interviews is that transcribing them plays a vital role in my writing process. It acts as a review of the story, and allows me to replay segments to assure absolute accuracy.
"Once the transcripts are complete, I gather my research together and read it through, including the transcripts. Using a yellow highlighting pen, I mark those portions I feel will be most useful in composing the story, and the quotes that will best illustrate the points I wish to make. I then set the material aside, and do something completely unrelated.
"This last point may sound odd, but it is a mechanism that works for me. You may be familiar with the idea of clearing your mind in order to remember something 'on the tip of your tongue;' that is, instead of thinking hard about the thing you are trying to remember, you put it aside and think of or do other things. Inevitably, when you least expect it, the name, date or situation you were trying to remember will pop into your head.
"It is this theory that I have successfully applied to my writing process. The 'unrelated' activity could be processing the day's mail, or, cleaning my desk. At times I will even set aside work on the article for a day or two, until it intrudes on my consciousness, more or less asking to be written. When this happens, the first draft comes out rapidly, as if it were already written in my subconscious, needing only to be copied onto the paper.
"Occasionally, I will run into a 'block' on an unusually complex article. In most of these cases, I have found that I don't really have a firm grasp of the subject. Once I realize this is the reason for my inability to continue, I examine the research again, and make a simple outline, noting where there seem to be gaps in my knowledge. I then compose questions that will fill in those gaps, and either return to the library, or call back an interviewee to find the answers."
CREATIVE MEDITATION (More From R. LeBeaux)
"There is nothing mystical about this kind of meditation. It is a simple technique that helps to sort things out in different ways and to release the creative process. It is based on the theory that the brain is capable of performing its different functions with different and essentially separate mechanisms.
"You have probably heard the terms 'right-brained' or 'left-brained' people. This comes from a theory that people have dominant thinking styles: metaphorical, that is people who visualize the 'big picture,' or analytical, those who first see the details and logical facets of a given situation.
"The right/left designation is based on neurological research suggesting that the two sides of the brain may process the same information and experience in two different ways. Although this research is far from definitive, the theory has been useful in distinguishing the two processes-metaphorical and logical-and has led to the development of techniques that make it easier for the two sides of the brain to work together. 'Creative meditation' is a variation on one of those techniques. When you have just finished your research, your mind is besieged with facts, figures and important words. With all this detail to sort out, the analytical, verbal processes often dominate the conscious mind, and try to line everything up using only the 'logical progression' mode. Though this may sound like just the right thing to do, it often swamps the more creative metaphorical capacity of the mind, and may cause you to miss seeing the broad picture. This can sometimes turn an article into a dry catalog of facts and, in some cases, can lead to what is known as 'writer's block,' when the realization comes that you have all the facts, but 'It just doesn't sound right.'
"With creative meditation, you offer the analytical side something else to occupy it, something that has nothing to do with the task at hand. This can give the nonverbal, 'big-picture' side a chance to work on the problem. The technique is similar to giving an ape a plastic banana: it will occupy the animal's time, but will not provide any real nourishment. The plastic banana you offer the analytical side of your mind can take several forms.
"You have probably already experienced one form of creative meditation without realizing it. If you have ever driven a car on a long, monotonous trip, and had ideas for stories, or solutions to problems pop into your head, seemingly out of nowhere, this is creative meditation at work. Driving is a simple, repetitive, almost mechanical process, requiring the attention of the logical side of your mind, without overloading those circuits. This allows release of the creative juices of your other side. Consequently, problems and ideas emerge that may have been dormant for long periods because they could not break through the mass of details you have been concerned with in your everyday life.
"The same thing can happen while doing such things as swimming, running, or even cleaning house. These are examples of the 'do something else theory.' You can accomplish the same end much more efficiently by purposely creating such an analytical diversion in an atmosphere more conducive to targeted creative thought.
"In the yoga traditions of meditation, these diversions are called 'Mantras,' but it really doesn't matter what you call your plastic bananas. They are simply words or sounds you repeat and concentrate on, for periods of 15 to 20 minutes at a time, in a quiet and relaxing setting. You might even use the word 'relax' itself, or pick a few letters at random and make up a word that doesn't really exist.
"Pick a quiet room, preferably with a comfortable chair, or, if you can be comfortable outdoors, a natural setting, such as a park, or forest. Sit, relax, breathe deeply, and slowly repeat your word, either out loud or in your mind. If you begin to think about details of your article just let them drift by and do your best to continue concentrating on the word you are repeating. You will find that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot keep thoughts of your story from intruding, but each time you realize that this is happening, return to repeating your word."
There are some writers who use this simple mechanical process exclusively, and others who find it silly and unnecessary. Whether it will work for you depends upon your needs and your working style. If you do not experience 'blocking,' and have no trouble seeing patterns and ways to organize your facts in a natural flow when you sit down to write, such a practice would probably be a waste of time for you. If however, you find yourself having difficulty getting started, even when you have all the facts you need, it may be just the thing to stimulate your creativity and help you proceed with the writing process.
If you were head of the merchandising department for an automobile manufacturer, and your company came up with a new car that had the headlights on the rear bumper, and the radio in the trunk, you, as merchandising director, would point out that these "innovations" might hurt the car's chances of selling. The same thing holds true with writing nonfiction. Certain aspects of an article must be up front, others should follow, and still others should be at the end. You need to construct your articles in such a way that editors are most likely to buy them, and readers most likely to read them.
FOOT IN THE DOOR: THE LEAD
Unlike fiction (in which you may be allowed to ramble a bit at the beginning of a story, describing the scenery or someone's breakfast), articles must excite, or at least entice the reader right from the start. A good lead will present the most interesting and exciting aspects of your story in the first paragraph-the first sentence if possible. Once your reader is hooked, you can begin to detail the subject in a more relaxed way, elaborating and using anecdotes and explanations. There are exceptions to this. For instance, a good anecdote or quote that will capture a reader's interest can also be used as a lead.
There are many different types of leads. Which you use depends on the material available, the length of the article, the style of a particular publication, and how you want to work the lead. The anecdotal lead derives its style from fiction. It is basically a story, told in few words, with either a surprise ending, or a message that is exciting, dangerous or just plain interesting. Here is an example:
While Steve sets up a raw-bar on the coffee table, Harry puts the finishing touches on the beer batter that will coat the four dozen fresh scallops they bought from a Mexican "truck fisher" on the way home.
By seven o'clock the Saints have pulled off a surprise upset over the Rams, there is hardly enough seafood left to interest the cat, and Harry and Steve are dead! Victims of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning.
Normally, your leads will be short. The example above is at the outer limit of what we recommend for the length of an anecdotal lead. There are a couple of reasons the writer was able to get away with using so many words in this lead. First, the article was a feature of about 2,500 words. Second, there is a word in the title which itself is part of the "grabber." "Toxic" is a buzzword in today's world of environmentally related health problems. The title tells the reader that the article is about something dangerous.
The story that makes up this lead, although not based on an actual occurrence, is still an anecdote. It tells of something that might have happened in Ventura, California. The point of the article is that Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning has killed people farther north, and that the organism responsible for such poisonings is now moving south (thus the word "MIGRATION" in the title).
If you are writing a short article, or if you do not have help from a title, keep the lead down to one paragraph. For very short articles, the title often is the lead, and you can dive right into the explanation, or begin with a little history. Example:
Now, orthopedic surgeon Joseph Sheehan, of Oak Park, Illinois, has a new solution: a plastic zipper.
Because the whole story is described in the title, and, because the title itself is interesting enough to make the reader want to read on, it is acceptable to begin with a little background before going on to describe the new procedure. On the other hand, here is an example of a title that tells little, except that the story has something to do with hearing:
TO HEAR YOU
Here, the title only vaguely hints at what the article might be about, so the subject-an artificial ear-must be presented quickly. The fact that this article appeared in a health magazine, in a section called "Breakthroughs" lets the reader know that it will probably be about some new invention or medical procedure. Still, the article was short (about 400 words) so the lead had to be short.
A word about titles: You should always try to come up with the most concise titles you can. Two or three-word titles are often best, and should be composed in such a way as to be somewhat intriguing. Here, however, you are mainly aiming the title at your editor, as submitted titles rarely survive to see print.
Another way to handle leads is to present them formally as subtitles under the title. However, this is something that is almost always done by the editor, not the writer. If your lead is interesting enough, but doesn't have all the punch an editor wants up front, he or she may simply add a subtitle stating what the story is about. Example:
Trees, those regal Goliaths of the plant kingdom, are generally regarded as non-dynamic and easily susceptible to attack by insects and disease. This view, bolstered by such monumental plagues as the Dutch elm disaster and periodic gypsy moth invasions, has recently been disputed by several scientists. These researchers have discovered that not only do trees possess a quite efficient defense system, but they are amazingly able to communicate with each other over considerable distances when attacked by parasites.
Suggesting subtitles is one way to take care of the problem of having written a good lead that is a bit too long. In some cases the editor will agree, but don't be surprised if your idea is ignored. It is always better to make the lead do the work of grabbing the reader, rather than to hope an editor will consider subtitling the article. Some editors, on the other hand, always use subtitles for columns and features. When working with these editors, you should construct the subtitles and make the lead complementary.
Enticing readers to read on can also be accomplished by stimulating their curiosity. You can do this by stating certain interesting facts related to the story without actually telling the reader what the story is about. It is similar to the anecdotal lead, but does not rely on a story format. Example:
What caused these strange and potentially disastrous events were leaks from shoddily maintained cable TV systems leaks that were in direct violation of Federal Communications Commission rules.
Taking more than one paragraph to get to the point is something that only works when you have an informative title and begin by telling a story, or, as in this case, when you entice your readers with disturbing or interesting facts that make them curious enough to want to find out what follows. This article was aimed at an audience made up of professional pilots, and you can well imagine that facts such as those presented in the first two paragraphs, were sufficient to keep them reading.
A direct quote, whether from a famous person or from interviews you have conducted, can also serve as an effective lead. Consider the quote "Stones have been known to move." from William Shakespeare's Macbeth. If you were to use this quote to begin an article in a science magazine, it would surely pique the readers' interest, suggesting that you are going to relate a scientific view of rocks that move, and why they do so. (The use of famous quotes is covered more fully later in The Writing Process.)
When you are lucky enough to interview someone prone to good quotes, and can extract one that condenses the impact of the story into a few words, you may find that your lead is written for you. Here is an example:
In this case, exactly what the article is about is not stated, though there are hints at a subject that should be of concern to almost everyone.
First, we are told of an experiment that has not yet taken place (we may still be able to stop it!). Second, we are warned that the "global climate" may be "seriously affected" by this experiment. Finally, we are shocked by the fact that the "genetically altered (a buzz word at the time this was written) bacteria" could throw off the "entire ecosystem of the earth."
If this sounds a bit sensational, it is. However, the difference between this and one of those distorted leads you read in the supermarket tabloids is that it did not come from the writer's imagination. It is a direct quote from a prominent figure in environmental activism, and concerns a situation that was still controversial when this was written. In the article, opinions were presented from both sides of the issue. However, without the lead quote, the article may not have been able to command the attention of the readers, or to entice them to read on and reach their own conclusions as to the merit of the opening quote.
It is not often that you will be given quotes containing so many elements of an article lead, but it does happen. Always be alert to the possibility, and when it seems appropriate, do not hesitate to use them.
Recognizing leads is not always easy. The best rule of thumb is to try and find the most concise, informative and exciting aspects of the article, put them together in one paragraph, and use that paragraph as your lead. Here are a few examples:
Creating effective leads is similar to the old door-to-door salesman's ploy of sticking a foot in your door. If you can get the reader to stop long enough to hear what you first have to say, you have a good chance of being invited in to tell the rest of your story.
Consider the competition. Unlike books, which are usually "curled up with" in some nice quiet place, magazines and stories on the Web must compete with, for example: children screaming, dogs barking, the TV blaring, airport confusion, restaurant noise, even attempts by a frustrated spouse to get the reader to "put that damn magazine down (or turn off that computer), and listen to me!"
Writers must never take readers for granted. Every paragraph, every sentence must be crafted in such a way as to hold a reader's attention. It is like deep-sea fishing: hooking a big fish is no guarantee you will land it. It takes a lot of work and not a little skill to reel in half-a-mile of line with sixty pounds of fighting fish on the other end. One slip and it's all over.
So it is with the attention of the reader. One boring passage, one difficult-to-decipher point, one unrelated fact, and zap, your reader has joined the volleyball game outside.
The skill you must develop in order to avoid these pitfalls is referred to as "craft." Craft is most important in the body of the article. By craft, I do not mean talent. Talent is something you are born with; Craft is something you learn. All it takes is persistence-the single most important qualification a person can bring to the pursuit of a successful writing career.
No one is born with the ability to spell, punctuate and compose a sentence. Even if you have not yet learned these skills, dictionaries and style books can be kept within easy reach of your typewriter, and computers have spell checkers, Thesauruses, etc. We have all seen persons of small stature, through a driving desire that leads to diligent practice, outlast more talented athletes. If you want to become a writer badly enough, the skills can be learned and practice can hone them to perfection.
In our opinion, the craft of writing is far more important than any natural talent for creating beautiful prose. One way craft can be learned is by critical reading. This means reading not just for information, but to examine structure, form and style-the way a writer conveys the information. When a story is well crafted, however, you will usually find that you cannot read it critically the first time through. A well-crafted story will keep your attention on what is being said, rather than how the writer is saying it, and a second reading will be required to examine the craft.
Talent, by itself, will not create the same result. If you have a natural talent for writing, so much the better, but it is certainly not the only thing you need. I know many talented people who have wasted a good portion of their lives thinking that talent is all that is required in order to be successful. Sooner or later, they wake up and realize that work, not talent, will get them where they want to go.
Learning your craft need not be drudgery. If you have a strong desire to succeed as a writer, learning can be as enjoyable as any other part of the writing process. You accomplish this by observation, emulation and repetitive exercise.
Several available books concern themselves exclusively with the craft of writing; others discuss the subject in one or more chapters. Read every one you can get your hands on. Opinions vary on exactly what constitutes craft, and they all have some validity. Developing craft is a personal exercise with varying rules. The goal, however, is always the same: hold your reader's attention.
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