Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

V is for verb

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
V is for verb

The leader declared war on passive verbs.

Noreen Wald, aka Nora Charles, author of the Ghostwriter and Kate Kennedy series, vowed to stamp out all forms of the verb to be. Her fervor had inspired the Wednesday Critique Group, an offshoot of Noreen’s class in writing fiction, to the point that its members adopted a vigilance Paul Revere would envy. As we read our work aloud, we’d slash and burn to invigorate our prose.

Now an obsession with active verbs can deliver a crisp manuscript, or drive a writer nuts. Active verbs speed the story but call attention to the writing, and sometimes pull the reader out of the scene. Passive verbs put those readers to sleep. With all due respect to our instructor, what we need is balance.

It’s not always possible to find alternatives to the word is. Sometimes sentences sound less pretentious with passive verbs, and sometimes they have a better flow. The question is (and I use that word advisedly), when do we permit passive verbs and when do we pop for active language?

Does the answer require a mechanistic approach—as a former president once said, does it depend on what the definition of is is?—or does the choice grow from the writer’s intent, which changes from sentence to genre to type?

In P is for Peril, Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone hears a woman calling to a dog. “She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off.”

The passage ripples with tension as Grafton propels the prose with active verbs.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Marcia Muller tackles a less straightforward task. She needs to convey supposition as well as continuing action. Leaving the scene of a murder, Muller’s character Sharon McCone wants to rejoin her employer. “The ambulance had pulled away and the crowd was dispersing. Across the street, a light burned in the front windows of Junk Emporium. Hank was probably waiting for me. . . .”

And we burn to read more of the story.

In Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan writes the equivalent of her New Year’s resolutions in a student composition book. Keeping those resolutions has proven a challenge, so Lippman conveys the character’s frustration and resignation through a mix of active and passive language: “Tess slapped the notebook closed, filed it on a shelf with twenty-two others—all blank except for the first page—set her alarm, and was asleep in five minutes.”

Like Grafton and Muller, she uses language that embodies emotion as well as information. Had she stuck with passive verbs, we’d have nodded off in ten.

One more example and I’ll let you go. In To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming conveys both action and reflection as one of her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, searches for a missing woman: “Clare forced herself to keep her steps even, her head moving methodically as she climbed up the increasingly steep slope. She was, she had to admit, too impatient to be a naturally good searcher.”

As we are, too often, with passive construction.

So, do we need an iron rule about banishing passive verbs forever? Or can we allow the function and emotion of the scene to drive the choice?

Zig Ziglar will now see you at the top

Thursday, November 29th, 2012
Zig Ziglar will now see you at the top

After Garrison Keillor, he was America’s storyteller.

Zig Ziglar died yesterday at the age of 86. Over a bowl of spaghetti in his hotel room, the dean of motivational speakers shared his wisdom with me in this interview.

The cause that refreshes

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012
The cause that refreshes

Has branded journalism come of age?

Long considered promotional by traditional journalists, branded journalism is gaining credence as consumers looking for news that reflects their personal interests.

The discipline scored a big victory last month when the New York Times covered the reinvention of Coca-Cola’s website as an online magazine. The site offers articles on entertainment and the environment as well as company-centric news and features on corporate social responsibility. While content comes with a point of view, Coke says it wants to serve as a credible source of information. As with any of these sites, the key for journalists and consumers alike will be full disclosure of those commercial and political relationships.

Given the greater credibility readers grant editorial over advertising, marketers have promoted branded journalism for years. Several agencies, such as VSA Partners in Chicago, not only provide the service for clients but coach others in best practices.

I have long advocated for content marketing as a way to engage audiences in a compelling way, going back a decade to my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of not only the corporation that has become Sanofi Pasteur but the vaccine pioneers who made it a success. I’ve continued working in that discipline for the past eight years as principal writer for Mack Trucks’ Bulldog magazine, one of the oldest corporate publications in the nation.

There are two things I like about corporate journalism. It allows us to reach the essence of all news by creating a story about the people who benefit from the brand, whether that’s a commercial of philanthropic interest. And when done properly, the discipline requires the transparency of traditional journalism, with its bedrock insistence on accuracy of fact and tone.

That doesn’t always fly with senior management but it’s something practitioners owe to readers. By meeting that mandate, we can help organizations tell their stories in ways that even journalists can accept.

For marketers, that’s refreshing news, indeed.

Knucklehead or knuckleball? 3 tips on perfecting the PR pitch

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
Knucklehead or knuckleball? 3 tips on perfecting the PR pitch

When New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey throws a knuckleball, no one is sure where it will land. As a writer I’m not too proud to admit I’ve done the same thing at times—tossing ideas at editors without knowing how they’ll land.

To be more precise, we’ve all done as PR professionals what we dislike as editors: pitching without analyzing the audience. We’ve done it because we’ve lacked the time or patience to pull the editorial calendar or contact the blogger to determine her needs. I see it every day in my capacity as editor for The Builder Buzz, a social media newsfeed for the building and design trades. Mountains of releases clutter the inbox with appeals for coverage. Most of them are wobbly at best.

How do you ensure your pitch is on target? Here are three tips to crafting a more perfect PR pitch:

1. Know your audience’s audience. It’s basic but often overlooked: to create a better pitch you have to know your audience—what they like and how they prefer to receive their information. With editors and bloggers you need to know your audience’s audience. Examine the editorial calendars to determine what the editor wants. Then read the website, publication and blogs to determine what the readers, viewers and listeners want. As Amy McCarthy of Parenthood.com says, “If you’re pitching a . . . product, say how it can help my demographic. Don’t just carpet-bomb everyone in your Vocus database and cross your fingers.”

2. Provide news both audiences can use. Editors know that to retain readers they must provide news those readers can use—service pieces with information the audience can put into practice. Don’t send a pitch or release announcing a website or asking a journalist to follow your organization through social media. Strive to provide something of value to the journalist and her audience.

3. Know the difference between internal and external news. Here’s where life gets difficult. Your boss wants you to pitch a story idea to an editor because it makes senior management look good. You sense the subject won’t matter to people outside the organization. Sarasota, Florida PR professional Heidi Smith has some advice. “Above all, answer the question, ‘Who cares?’” she tells BIZ (941) magazine. “If only your organization gives a hoot, it’s not news—it’s just an item for internal atta-boys, not the media.”

By following that advice you may not win a popularity contest at work. But at least you won’t feel like a knucklehead.

Jeff Widmer

Survey gets a read on e-readers

Thursday, April 5th, 2012
Survey gets a read on e-readers

A fifth of American adults say they have read an e-book in the past year. They read more frequently than their print-loving counterparts and they’re more likely than others to have bought rather than borrowed their most recent book.

Those are some of the findings of the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Reading Habits Survey, which was released this week. As with most research from the Pew Center, the report goes into some detail. Here are the highlights:

  • A fifth of American adults have read an e-book in the past year and the number of e-book readers grew after a major increase in ownership of e-book reading devices and tablet computers during the holiday gift-giving season.
  • The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.
  • Some 30% of those who read e-content say they now spend more time reading, and owners of tablets and e-book readers particularly stand out as reading more now.
  • The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers.
  • E-book reading happens across an array of devices, including smartphones.
  • In a head-to-head competition, people prefer e-books to printed books when they want speedy access and portability, but print wins out when people are reading to children and sharing books with others.
  • The availability of e-content is an issue to some.
  • The majority of book readers prefer to buy rather than borrow.
  • Those who read e-books are more likely to be under age 50, have some college education, and live in households earning more than $50,000.

Most of the findings in the Pew report come from a survey of 2,986 Americans ages 16 and older, conducted on November 16-December 21, 2011, that focused on people’s e-reading habits and preferences.

Six degrees of reading

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012
Six degrees of reading

Want to see books similar to the ones you’re reading? Head over to Yasiv, a site that uses Amazon data to create a flowchart of recommendations. Created by Andrei Kashcha, the site serves up a web of book covers that, when clicked, lead to information about those titles. There’s also a box on the left that lists the volumes by title.

Kashcha describes Yasiv as “a visual recommendation service that helps people to choose the right product from Amazon’s catalog.” In addition to books Yasiv can web other products carried by Amazon including video games, music and movies, although a search for broad clothing categories such as skirts and pants yields only a single image. Good for Grand Theft Auto. Not so good for Vera Bradley.

Yasiv recommendation web for 'House of Silk' by Anthony Horowitz

What’s my line, 2012 style

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012
What’s my line, 2012 style

Some people know how to coin a memorable phrase.

Tom Brokaw referred to the men and women who fought for the United States in World War II as the greatest generation. In 1943 a Nazi propaganda periodical used the term Iron Curtain. Tea Party members often refer to journalists the media elite, a term coined by S. Robert Lichter and two other researchers in a 1980 study and subsequent book by that name. Former Vice President Spiro Agnew launched a salvo from White House speechwriter William Safire when he called the media “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Then there’s the 1984 TV ad campaign for Wendy’s with Clara Peller yelling “Where’s the beef?” a refrain that might ring true in today’s politicized climate.

Not all pithy expressions involve cheap shots at journalists and competitors. Many encapsulate the issues like a good joke. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is attributed to Frederick R. Barnard, who published a piece in the early part of the 20th century on the effectiveness of graphics in advertising. The term senior citizen first appeared as a euphemism for older people during a 1938 American political campaign.

Richard Nixon referred to citizens who weren’t protesting against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War the silent majority. Plato said necessity is the mother of invention, a phrase that must have appealed equally to Nixon and Frank Zappa, although for different reasons.

Contemporary authors are doing an equally good job in characterizing trends. People who follow us on social networks are called peeps. People who follow us on Twitter are Tweeps. Microbloggers live in the Twitterverse.

PIMCO Bond fund manager Bill Gross has called the post-2007 mortgage debt environment of high volatility and low returns the New Normal. Writing for hospital administrators at H&HN Daily Bill Santamour called the wave of retiring baby boomers who will need healthcare the Silver Stampede. And there’s the term baby boomer itself, a term coined by Landon Jones in his book Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.

What’s your favorite line?

Investing in storytelling

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011
Investing in storytelling

You think writers are the only ones concerned with telling a story? Listen to this.

Earlier this month three of six agency owners and recruiters interviewed by blogger Arik C. Hanson said the ability to tell a story was the leading trait they want to see in PR professionals. They believe storytelling reflects the facility to identify themes and execute a strategy. Yet when many of their peers screen applicants, they ask for experience that exactly matches the job they’re offering. They’re focused on the product, not the process, like the ability to build social networks, negotiate for information or get along with others.

For those in marketing communications, here’s the wake-up call: financial planners have discovered the power of story. In a column for MarketWatch, MIT’s AgeLab Director Joseph Coughlin said the traditional model of financial planning won’t work in these unsettling times. Neither will an appeal to reason through a recitation of statistics. He believes advisers who tell stories that elicit emotion and inspire people to act will achieve greater success–for their clients and themselves.

“We’ve got to be good storytellers to get that emotion, to make us relevant, responsive and realistic for what the consumer needs today to plan for tomorrow.”

Let’s hope the people who hire are willing to make that investment.

Impulse writing

Monday, November 7th, 2011
Impulse writing

Writing that flows is often based on a solid structure.

Take the piece “Why impulse spending can be a good thing” by Katherine Rosman, who writes the Checks & Balances column about finance and marriage for the Wall Street Journal. The article is designed to read like a short story with comments, unfolding through scenes with increasing drama. We want to determine what happens between Rosman and her husband Joe, who in their struggles to mesh their opposites-attract financial styles have become persons of interest.

The article is structured in three parts. The first details a recent event, the second one that took place a while ago, the third the night the two met. All involve charity auctions. All create an orderly march backward in time, from a seemingly frivolous exchange to a defining moment. Each segment seems ordinary yet together they build toward a quiet but profound insight you’d see in the work of Anne Tyler or Anna Quindlen.

The parts consist of anecdotes, all of which bring to life the article’s theme—that contrary to popular wisdom occasional impulse spending can provide rewards to even the most budget-minded couples. Those mini stories also illustrate a greater wisdom: we can argue about spending but what we really value is not the behavior but the relationship. The real prize isn’t the money, it’s the person.

When I worked as a writing coach for a newspaper owned by the publisher of the Wall Street Journal I studied briefly with the great Roy Peter Clark. Now vice president of the Poynter Institute, Clark taught us to use the tools of fiction writers while rigorously adhering to the facts. Structuring a story that way is more than playing dress-up. It’s a process to present and order events with all of the immediacy and emotional resonance of direct experience.

It’s good to see other non-fiction writers have adopted the storyteller’s technique. Using those tools, Rosman ratchets up the conflict between spouses with a deceptive calm that shows rather than tells about their relationship. The story flows without effort. Even the ending feels natural, a surprising valentine to financial and emotional conservatives everywhere.

Talk about impulse control.

The Fog

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Slowly the fog,
Hunch-shouldered with a grey face,
Arms wide, advances,
Finger-tips touching the way
Past the dark houses
And dark gardens of roses.
Up the short street from the harbour,
Slowly the fog,
Seeking, seeking;
Arms wide, shoulders hunched,
Searching, searching,
Out through the streets to the fields,
Slowly the fog –
A blind man hunting the moon.

– F.R McCreary