|Writing strong leads: How to hook the reader(What follows is an excerpt from material presented in the Journalism for Freelance Writers class.)
Do you read every article in a newspaper or magazine you happen to pick up? Probably not. If you’re like most readers, you focus on the articles that hook you and pull you in.
In journalism, the term “lead” refers to the opening of an article. Also called the “hook,” or “grabber,” the lead is in many ways the most important part of an article. It also can be the most difficult to write because it requires the reporter to summarize the content of the article in a way that conveys its tone while enticing the reader.
Leads come in various types, including anecdotal leads, which include a story to illustrate a point, and delayed-suspense leads, which withhold information until later. Whatever the type, effective leads have three traits in common: brevity, clarity and relevancy.
Finding the lead can be the most difficult and time-consuming aspect of writing an article but once nailed down it makes writing the article simpler. In that sense, the lead functions like an outline. Once you determine the opening, the article falls into place.
Journalism for Freelance Writers
Dates: Saturdays, Sept. 27-Dec. 6, 2014. No class Nov. 29.
Time: 2-4 p.m.
Cost: $200/10 weeks
Limited to 5 students
Location: Hollywood district of Northeast Portland, Oregon. Exact location provided upon registration.
Learn the skills professional reporters use to write features, human-interest articles and small-business profiles. Become the freelance writer every editor wants to work with. Learn the dos and don’ts of the publishing world. By the end of the class you’ll have completed one feature article that is 650-800 words in length. Along the way, you’ll learn how to:
To register: Mail payment to Nancy Woods, P.O. Box 18032, Portland, OR 97218. To pay by credit card call (503) 288-2469.For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org or (503) 288-2469.
Capitalization After Colons
Understandably, many editors are confused about when to capitalize the element directly following a colon. The strategy I happen to use is pretty brain-free, which is to say that it follows AP style. Lucky for us, AP and Chicago agree on one thing before they part ways.
AP (p. 366): Lowercase the first word unless it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.
- These are some of my favorite things to have for dinner: ravioli, Ethiopian food, and breakfast.
- She told me her secret ingredient: It was butter.
Chicago (6.61): Lowercase the first word unless it is a proper noun or the start of at least two complete sentences or a direct question.
- I finished reading my friend’s first draft: it was painful.
- We can do several things this weekend: We can watch King’s Speech. We can do our taxes. Or we can have a tequila party.
In my work, I come across some pretty bizarre colon usage which I’d like to eradicate. Therefore, please commit the following to memory:
- Don’t use more than one colon in the same sentence.
- Don’t add anything else to a sentence after you’ve finished introducing the element(s). For that, I prescribe a pair of em dashes to set off the element(s) instead.
- Lose the colon before a subtitle, or secondary title, when the title is displayed on a book cover (or movie poster); by convention, the colon is understood.
- Don’t use a semi-colon instead of a colon to introduce a clause. It’s like mistaking a man’s body for a woman’s body. Yes, men look like semi-colons . . . spread the word.
A note about colons and spaces: Although I, too, was raised to use two spaces after periods, colons, exclamation points, and question marks by a typewriting teacher who was alive during the Great Depression, it is no longer correct to do so, especially in this age of beautifully typeset materials. The fastest way to clean all these extra spaces from your copy is to use Microsoft Word to “find” two spaces and “replace” them with one space, and then repeat until two spaces cannot be found.
Though AP only gives the colon a scant 7 column inches of space compared to Chicago’s 2 pages’ worth, it goes out of its way to tack on a little note barring the combination of a dash and a colon. I guess emoticons can’t have noses anymore.
Many of our excuses for not writing might sound convincing, if we don’t think about them too much. But when it comes right down to it, the only person we’re hurting is ourselves. Check out this list and see if any of these excuses for not writing are ones you’ve ever used.
- I’m too tired.
- My back hurts.
- I have to have the extended family over for dinner.
- My kids need help with their homework.
- I have tickets to a concert/play tonight.
- My fulltime job keeps me too busy.
- My boss needs a big report done by Friday.
- My volunteer job takes up too much time.
- I’m too hungry.
- No one helps me with the housework.
- I have to look after a sick family member.
- I keep getting interrupted by other people.
- It’s too noisy.
- My mind goes blank whenever I sit in front of the computer.
- I have too many social engagements.
- I don’t know what to write about.
- I don’t have enough big blocks of time for writing.
- I need to call my mom back.
- I don’t feel like writing.
- I haven’t checked Facebook in the last 30 minutes.
- I’m expecting an important email and I need to know if it’s arrived.
- I haven’t finished the research yet.
- My computer is frozen.
- I had too much to drink last night.
- My phone rings too often.
- I can’t concentrate.
- I have allergies.
- My desk is messy.
- I had to take in the drycleaning.
- Who am I to write about this?
- I kept meaning to do it but other things kept getting in the way.
- I’m too busy looking for an agent.
- I’m trying to find the writer’s guidelines.
- My eyes hurt.
- My grammar is bad.
- No one cares what I think.
- I’m too busy reading books about writing.
- I’m afraid that what I write won’t be any good.
- I have the flu.
- I had a bad sleep last night.
- My car broke down.
- My boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse and I had a fight.
- I have to take my cat/dog to the vet.
- I’m looking for my lunch receipt otherwise I won’t get reimbursed.
- My income tax is late and I have to finish it.
- The playoffs for my favourite team are on TV today and I NEED to watch them.
- My writing will never get published anyway, so what does it matter?
- It’s too cold.
- It’s too hot.
- I have other work to do.
- I need to finish this computer game, first.
- It’s my birthday.
- I don’t know enough about this subject.
- I’m too stressed.
- I have to clean the house.
- I have to clean the garage.
- All the good ideas have been taken.
- It’s too late to write.
- I have plenty of time to write; I can do it later.
- I need more time to relax.
- I can’t write under pressure.
- I can’t write without a deadline.
- I haven’t been inspired yet.
- There’s a plumber/electrician in the house and I need to be ready to talk to him.
- I’m too depressed.
- I need to post some more tweets.
- I don’t have enough coffee.
- No one will understand me.
- I need to print out new auto insurance cards.
- My parents didn’t encourage me to be creative enough when I was young.
- It takes too long to learn how to write well.
- I don’t like criticism.
- I don’t have anything to say.
- My chair is uncomfortable.
- Most writers get their work rejected by publishers anyway.
- I’ll do it when I have more time.
- So many writers are depressed!
- The vast majority of writers are poor and only get rejection letters.
- I don’t like competition.
- I’m shy. I don’t want people to know what I’m really thinking.
- I don’t like being criticized.
- I like editing but I HATE writing the first draft.
- I like writing a first draft but I don’t want to get started because I HATE editing.
Have you ever used any of these excuses? If so, the very best time to write is first thing in the morning, as soon as you wake up. Why?
- Your brain won’t be awake enough to feel fear or process excuses.
- You won’t be disturbed by phone calls and the demands of others.
- You’ll start your day by achieving something meaningful, which will make the rest of your day better.
- You’ll be building a habit, which is far more sustainable and much stronger than willpower.
What are your very best excuses for not writing? How do you get around them? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)
There is no Frigate like a Book
By Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
These are legitimate concerns. But a less remarked upon and equally worrisome question is what the death of letter writing — and its replacement by emailing — is doing to the process of creative writing itself. Before the advent of email, many writers maintained a healthy relationship with their correspondence; they found letter writing to be a useful complement to their main literary projects. Letters were not only a way to stay in touch with colleagues or test out ideas and themes on the page, but also a valuable method of easing into and out of a state of mind where they could pursue more daunting and in-depth writing.
John Updike, for instance, often began his writing day by answering a letter or two. Cynthia Ozick has said that she does the same thing, answering letters after breakfast, before beginning her real work. Ernest Hemingway, by contrast, turned to his letters when his fiction wasn’t going well; they were a welcome break from what he called the “awful responsibility of writing.” Iris Murdoch worked on her fiction in the morning, wrote letters in the afternoon and then returned to her fiction for a couple hours in the early evening. Thomas Mann’s days followed much the same pattern: serious writing in the morning, then letters, reviews and newspaper articles in the evening.
For these writers, and many more like them, keeping up with their correspondence was a valuable para-literary activity — not quite “real” writing, but something that helped them warm up for or cool down from the task. (And, of course, it should go without saying that many of these letters were beautiful works of literature in their own right.)
This is not to say that all writers found dealing with their correspondence pleasant. H. L. Mencken replied to every letter he received on the same day that it arrived — out of politeness, he said, and also for more selfish reasons. “I answer letters promptly as a matter of self-defense,” Mencken once explained. “My mail is so large that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me.”
Charles Darwin was similarly compulsive. He made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious cranks. If he failed to do so, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night.
Is email really such a different beast? I would argue that it is. I recently compiled a book about artists’ daily rituals, and as part of my research I spoke to several contemporary writers, painters and composers about their working habits. Nearly everyone was wary of the distractive potential of email. The novelist Nicholson Baker, for instance, told me that he tries to avoid checking email too early in the day because “it just does change everything. As soon as you have a couple of emails pending, the day has a different flavor.”
In a 2010 interview with The Paris Review, the novelist David Mitchell voiced a similar sentiment. He talked of “hearing the blip blip blip of emails arriving in your inbox, and knowing that at some point you’re going to have to sit down and sift through them, but not today, damn it, not tonight, please, not until I’ve just finished this one last scene.”
It is this constant background awareness of email that can cause real problems. Unlike traditional mail, email is always active. You can’t fire off an email and then put it completely out of mind; there is at least some slight awareness of the message’s continuing life, the possibility of a reply, the need to keep refreshing the stream of digital correspondence. And that’s the best-case scenario — more often, it is the nagging collection of unanswered emails that weighs on one’s mind.
So can contemporary writers — and nonwriters who are overwhelmed by email, i.e., pretty much everyone I know — take away any lessons from our literary ancestors’ less fraught relationship with correspondence? One possible tactic is to set aside a portion of each day for email and deal with it only at that time — to process email in batches, treating it like a daily delivery from the postman rather than a constant slow drip of communication.
I realize that this is not an entirely original suggestion, nor one that is likely to work for most people. An alternative is to adopt a habit that I have noticed in several especially busy editors and journalists, and it is simply this: Spend as little time as possible reading and replying to emails, and dash them off with as much haste, and as little care to spelling and punctuation, as you can bear. In other words, don’t think of them as letters at all — think of them as telegrams, and remember that you are paying for every word.
Mason Currey is the author of “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.”
Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress
by Kevin Larimer, Published in Poets & Writers
Special Section 
What’s the biggest misconception about self-publishing?
Ciotta: The stigma. Slowly, the industry is breaking away from the stigma that if a book is self-published, it’s not worthy of a publishing house, or it’s not worthy to read at all. Now that many self-published authors are businesspeople, too, their books are well written and professional and they can certainly uphold or go above and beyond readers’ standards. That being said, both traditionally published and self-published books can be amazing, good, or just plain bad. So it’s an author’s job to do his best to be in the “amazing” category and blow readers away.
What’s the future of self-publishing look like? Where are we headed with this?
Ciotta: Since self-publishing is making a ton of money, it’s only going to get hotter and hotter. We’ll see more self-published titles than ever. I believe self-published authors will bust through some major industry barriers. Perhaps the New York Times will start reviewing a self-published book once in a while, in the future. Or we’ll start seeing a few more self-published authors being interviewed on NPR or on Jon Stewart.
But most of all, self-pubbing in the future will give the power back to the readers. What the readers demand, the readers will get. And that’s the beauty of self-publishing.
Nelson: Back in 2007, my fellow agents assumed that print-on-demand was only for those who couldn’t find an agent or a “real” publisher. I never thought that. And you know why? Because over the course of my career, I haven’t been able to sell any number of projects for a variety of reasons. But I thought those novels were always worthy and ready for publication, otherwise I wouldn’t have offered representation! Now if a client wants to pursue a regular publishing deal, we go for it. But if it doesn’t happen, we aren’t necessarily despondent. We have a host of other options available to help this author find his or her audience. Traditional publishing is simply one avenue. That’s why I launched NLA Digital in 2011. It’s a platform that not only supports the reissuing of client backlist titles but also supports clients launching new frontlist titles. And, according to Bowker stats from the 2013 Digital Book World Conference, on average the hybrid author—an author who is both traditionally and self-published—will make anywhere from 10 to 20 percent more in income than authors who are just in one camp or the other. My job is to not only guide an author’s career but to also help my client make more money. Through my agent filter, hybrid looks like the future to me.
When a traditional publisher gets 100 percent behind a title and the launch is a major event, the results are unparalleled. Hands down. It’s magic, and a completely unknown author becomes a household name in less than a year. The problem is that this treatment only happens for a handful of titles in any given year. Self-publishing is the empowerment of the midlist author who would have been dropped by a publisher for sales underperformance. Now that author can find the right price point for the audience, have ultimate control, and make a decent living.
And for me, here is the last word—for now: I have yet to see a self-published title become a worldwide, juggernaut best-seller without the backing of a major publisher. Now this isn’t to say it will never happen, but as the publishing world stands right now it would be hard to achieve. Until the first one…
Nash: The future of self-publishing is the same as the future of publishing. The two are inseparable; they aren’t, in fact, even two. They are these terms of convenience becoming increasingly inconvenient, at least in terms of describing reality. Walt Whitman, Sander Hicks, Hugh Howey, E. L. James, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Guy Kawasaki have nothing in common, except that they’re all, technically, self-published. But the reasons, the tools, the goals are all radically different. You could create an equally absurd cross section of so-called traditional publishing. Some self-publishers have agents, some don’t; some are in print, some aren’t; some do “distribution” deals (as opposed to “publishing” deals), some don’t. I know, in order to have this conversation, we have to agree for the moment to talk about self-publishing as if it existed in contradistinction to selfless-publishing, but I do hope we abandon the term quickly, so we can proceed on to helping individual writers realize their goals, matching their skills with peers and intermediaries without regard for how closely they mimic what was once called traditional publishing. We’re all publishers now. That’s both a desire and a prediction.
Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.