Month: May 2013

Writing Update: Ask Questions

I took some time to really go over a chapter last night. I worked off some notes from a colleague, but also went through and asked myself, “Am I overwriting? Have I used all the senses in description, and not just sight? What about sounds, smells, and even taste? Could I kill some darlings? How’s the conflict between my characters when they speak?” It helped to focus specifically on some questions while I reread words I know so well. I think it’s always good practice when revising.

A Writing Exercise – Emulation

A writing exercise – emulation

Here’s a writing exercise I really enjoyed from one of my classes. The exercise, which I encourage you to do, is this:

  1. Take a paragraph from one of your favorite stories and retype it on the computer.
  2. Give a paragraph analysis of the paragraph. Talk about how the writer writes, what you see him/her doing, and what works for you.
  3. Do a detailed paragraph breakdown, which is more technical, of exactly how the paragraph is constructed.
  4. Create your own paragraph using both what you learned in the analysis and following the detailed paragraph breakdown.

Here’s mine:

[Franz Kafka, excerpt from In the Penal Colony]

“The solider and the condemned man did not understand at first what was happening, at first they were not even looking on. The condemned man was gleeful at having got the handkerchiefs back, but he was not allowed to enjoy them for long, since the solider snatched them with a sudden, unexpected grab. Now the condemned man in turn was trying to twitch them from under the belt where the soldier had tucked them, but the soldier was on his guard. So they were wrestling, half in jest. Only when the officer stood quite naked was their attention caught. The condemned man especially seemed struck with the notion that some great change was impending. What had happened to him was now going to happen to the officer. Perhaps even to the very end. Apparently the foreign explorer had given the order for it. So this was revenge. Although he himself had not suffered to the end, he was to be revenged to the end. A broad, silent grin now appeared on his face and stayed there all the rest of the time.”

[Analysis of paragraph]

Kafka writes in sparse, direct language that is often slightly removed, which creates a distance between the reader and the text. He doesn’t use contractions, and he ends his first sentence with a preposition. He combines his second into a compound sentence by a conjunction and then loads it at the end with a dependent clause. He shortens his sentences in the middle until he arrives at the most important statement, then he moves out from that sentence with some shorter choppy thoughts. He uses dependent clauses to frontload and backload sentences and he keeps a clean, simple diction and syntax to maintain his rolling rhythm and he repeats words throughout the paragraph like “now” and the characters’ names. He also ends sentences in verbs and writes in passive voice, using gerunds.

 [Paragraph breakdown]

9 words 2WORDPHRASE 3 words, 2WORDPHRASE 5 words PREPOSITION. 11 words, FANBOY 9 words, DEPENDENT CLAUSE 7 words, 2 words. 21 words, FANBOY 6 words. FANBOY 3 words, 3 words. 11 words end in verb. 15 words end in gerund verb. 13 words with two repeats of a verb.  6 words. 10 words. 4 words. DEPENDENT CLAUSE 8 words, 8 words, repeat of word. 2 words, 16 words.

[Template exercise]

He turned his head slowly towards the one-way glass still hoping he was wrong, still hoping that the symptoms wouldn’t turn up. Three of the five patients were shuffling around the cushioned cell, and the other two lay prone in a fleshy heap, most likely shoved quickly aside by the other patients, jammed together. Soon he recognized one of the men pacing along the length of the cell as a researcher from the production phase, but he made no remark to David. So they observed, stiffened in silence. The researcher must have been testing the subjects when it leaked. What must have flown through his panicked mind seconds after he realized what was happening? He was now a patient as much as he had been a doctor. Edward knew they would not survive. None of the current strains were effective at combating it. This was the outbreak. Although he never meant to cause any of it, he was now responsible for all of it. A hoarse, low moan slid past his lips and fell with him as he dropped to the ground.

Now it’s your turn! Share your thoughts below.

Writing Prompt of the Day: May 21, 2013

This writing prompt is from the Writing Prompt Bootcamp from Writer’s Digest. I like it because it doesn’t deal with the obvious.

You can read the full prompt online, and others’ responses.

There’s been a break-in at your apartment. The robbers took everything—your couch, your clothes, your toilet paper—except for one odd item that they left right in the middle of your living room. This item, though meaningless to the police, is a clue that you recognize and it will lead you to the culprits.

Try to write a 500 word (or less) response.

Is Craigslist a Good Job Search Site?

In the past year or so, I’ve had fewer conversations that bring up a Craigslist job search site. I take this as a good sign that my friends and colleagues are employed and not in need of any job-search websites anymore. However, there’s always that desire to freelance, and I’m surprised how often – when I strike up a conversation about Craigslist – I receive a negative response that goes something like this,

Them: What resources did you use to search for jobs when you were looking for them?

Me: Well, I used a variety of websites, such as Monster, Yahoo! Jobs, Craigslist, and…

Them: Wait, did you say Craigslist? Why would you use Craigslist to find a job?

So Craigslist has a reputation around town – and it’s a mixed bag – but is Craigslist a good job search website?

A post by fellow writer Alison Doyle of About.com talks about certain popular Craigslist job scams, which include data entry jobs, work-from-home entry level positions, research assistants, mystery shoppers, and fake nannies. Yes, those are out there and you do need to be wary about sending any personal information to unknown sources (definitely don’t wire money!) – but as long as you are careful – you can also find some legitimate posts – especially for freelance positions.

Entrepreneurs and small businesses especially use Craigslist because it’s free to post, quick, and basically hassle-free. If you’re in immediate need of a writer, it’s a good way to go. Also, it’s just one more popular job board to post on. I often found the same job listing on sites like mediabistro and Monster that were also on Craigslist.

Personally, I say Craigslist is definitely a place I would check for freelance gigs or part-time work. I would use it as a supplemental site to search for full-time employment. Here are some tips I use when using the site:

Search ALL first, FILTER second – If you’re really looking for a job, go into the jobs category and don’t type anything in the search bar. Just start looking at all the jobs listed. Yes, this is a time commitment – but you’d be surprised how many posts are uncategorized or missing terms that cause them to then not appear in any searches you might do. If you search all first, and familiarize yourself with what’s out there – later on, you can go back and filter by keyword or other options and feel more confident that you did an exhaustive search. Especially as a writer, some of the most interesting projects might not be straight writing gigs – so this helps you discover those hidden gems.

Don’t forget GIGS > Writing – In addition to the Jobs board, Craigslist also has a “Gigs” board, and one specifically for writing. Be sure to include this in your job search, as once again – you never know where your potential client might think to list his/her jobs.

Be wary of deals “too good to be true” – This might seem obvious, but sometimes (especially after a long day of searching and finding jobs that don’t fit or don’t pay enough to consider) you come across what seems to be the perfect job. Young and ambitious talent wanted! Work from home and make easy money! Stop. I know you want to consider it – but this might be a scam. Check out these scam warning signs and decide whether it’s worth sending in your personal information.

Typos, emails, and descriptions – Are there multiple typos in the post’s body or headline? Does the writer use four exclamation points after a sentence? Are the job requirements and past experience vague? Does the post give a direct email, or does it use a anonymous re-route? These are some of the ways I decide whether a job post is legitimate, or if I want to work for that person at all.

The truncated resume – So if you want to send in your information and you’re fairly sure about the company, it’s still okay to send in a resume edited specifically for that site. I have sometimes removed more specific information (including address and telephone number) for the initial resume send-out, or contacted the email first with a cover letter and waited for a human response before sending anything else over.

These are some tips I suggest when using Craigslist as a job search site. You can also bypass this altogether and use an aggregate or other website such as Freelance Writing Jobs to do the legwork for you. But in a competitive marketplace, using such popular sites can also lessen your chances of landing the job.

What do you think of Craigslist? Do you use it in your job search? Have you before to positive or negative results? Post in the comments section!

Copy or Design First?

Is it copy or design first when you’re creating collateral or marketing materials? This battle between copywriters and graphic designers often arises when you’re creating material from scratch, and especially when the client doesn’t necessarily know what he/she wants – which, unfortunately happens more often than you might think.

Now there are websites and people who believe that copy is definitely more important than design, especially in advertising. However, what about when you’re trying to design a marketing piece that doesn’t have much content – and is more about catching the eye? What about when all you need is a good headline, and then the design will carry the rest? Well, I’ve had this debate with the graphic designers I work with, and in the end – we usually come up with a compromise.

While everyone has their horror stories about a project that didn’t go well because one of these two crucial elements was missing, I think it’s safe to say that both are important. As a copywriter, I would appreciate at least receiving a template or a rough idea of the design, so I know how much copy to write – whether I need a headline and two short sentences, or two decent-sized paragraphs. I like to know whether there’s going to be a sub-heading, and I even like to see how the designer wants to layout the piece – so I know what words to highlight and emphasize. Why have Lorem Ipsum if all copy should come first? And I don’t want to spend a good amount of time writing up three paragraphs to find out that all the project really demanded was two short sentences.

However, from a design perspective, I understand how you need the words to place them in the project. You can manipulate size and space, as long as you know what the client wants to say. Granted, as a writer, I also think that giving the copy before the design grants the designer more power over the final project – and at least as a proofreader too I like to see the final before it goes to print to triple-check that everything conforms to the style guide and there aren’t added typos.

Ultimately, projects where this debate arises are often the result of not enough basic information. If the idea isn’t explained well, or the designer and copywriter aren’t in the room when the project is being discussed, then of course it is more difficult to glean the vision the client has for the project. A compromise must be agreed upon – and the one I like the best is a collaboration of the two. The designer either describes what he/she is imagining to the copywriter (or shows a similar built past piece) and then the copywriter creates verbiage that fits the space, or goes a bit beyond, and then offers it to the designer with notes on placement and emphasis. This way both positions are on fairly equal footing and give and take, push and pull, until a final piece – amenable to both – is created.

This then is handed off to the client, who inevitably has more revisions – but that is a different can of worms entirely.

What are your thoughts on this debate? If you’re a graphic designer or a copywriter, how do you handle it?

Writing Prompt of the Day: May 10, 2013

Happy Friday everyone! Once again, I turn to Luke Neff’s tumblr blog for a visual writing prompt. His prompts are great, and so are the ones he finds. This one I’m adding on here because it’s a Neil Gaiman quote, and I am a big fan. I think this prompt is interesting and might say something about you. What would you chose to write about? What would you choose to teach and how would you go about explaining it?

Neil Gaiman writing prompt

To the Point: 5 Tips for Writing Nonfiction

So you want to write a memoir or a nonfiction essay but don’t know how to begin? Or maybe you have a story in mind, but you’ve never tried the style before and you are searching for some quick and dirty tips? Here are my top 5 tips for writing nonfiction:

1. Use models. No, I don’t mean beautiful people – I mean look at other people’ writing that you admire, and read (a lot) what you want to write. Do you like sub-headings? Try it in your own writing. Examine the structure and even the tone of other writing, and keep the ideas fresh in your mind as you begin.

2. Avoid clutter. You’re not writing a Dickensian novel. Examine every sentence for superfluous words and make sure you’re killing your darlings and leaving behind the pure and strong essence of what you want to say. Of course this means rewriting and revising.

3. Take what you can handle. Find the balance between pushing yourself to take risks and experiment and trying to write too much about too many topics. If you’re overwhelmed, take a step back and come at the piece again with a narrower focus. Let it expand organically.

4. Focus on you. No one else can say what you want to say the way you can say it. You cannot truly get inside someone else’s head, but you can delve deep into your own. Make other people see what you see by writing scenes and focusing on you.

5. Mention specifics and details. You don’t need to create a product placement advertisement, but try to remember as much as you can that’s actually real and specific, instead of vague or general. General is boring. “I think” is often redundant in non-fiction, and can hurt your credibility with the reader. If this means more legwork before the essay actually begins to free write and remember everything you can about the moment – do so. It will be worth it in the end.

These are my top 5 tips for writing nonfiction. What are yours? Share them in the comments section and, as always, keep on writing!

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