I can tell when someone doesn’t know what they’re writing about. The story is full of jargon and words people wouldn’t use in every day language. It could be a complicated environmental story or something about an upgrade in technology and my eyes start to glaze over because often there are phrases I won’t understand unless I’m an expert in the field.
Maybe the reporter didn’t ask enough questions to know what they were writing about. I fell into that trap more than once as a young reporter, especially when I had to write about Connecticut’s old affordable housing law. I had someone tell me to stop faking it and ask enough questions so I understood what I was writing about.
There’s another trap, though, and that’s writing too much about a certain topic. If you spend all your time covering cops and fires, you know their lingo. If you cover politics, there’s jargon only lawmakers and politicians use. You spend enough time around any of them and don’t check yourself, the lingo can end up in your stories.
Of course there also are the people who want to make themselves look smart by using all the jargon.
But as a reader it’s frustrating because this isn’t how they talk. I get frustrated because I want to take a red pen and change the words to something my mother would use.
And that’s the key here in breaking the habit of writing inside baseball (we have our own jargon in journalism too) and start writing how most people speak: How would you tell Mom this story?
I had a college professor who often talked about telling Mom the story. We want to write the stories we’d sit down and tell our moms about at the kitchen table. But we also want to write the stories in the same way of how we’d tell our mothers those stories.
Simplifying and breaking through the jargon doesn’t mean we can’t do something special with our stories. We can still write clever ledes. Just don’t write over your readers’ heads and write things in plain terms they will understand.
Also remember this: If you can’t explain the story to your mom, you don’t know the story.
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“This is my baseball tie,” my high school AP English teacher said one day in class. It was black. It was the day the MLB strike landed in 1994.
Mr. Curtiss was one of those teachers who inspired me, which I’m remembering today after asking people on social media to tell us about teachers that inspired them. It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and the stories I’ve read are touching.
I wouldn’t say Mr. Curtiss was the teacher who made me a journalist or made me love something, but he’s the kind of teacher who “got” me. I’m a quirky person, and growing up where I did in Connecticut that wasn’t always a welcome thing. I was the outcast. But I always felt safe to be me in Mr. Curtiss’ class. But he also opened my eyes to a new way of studying literature.
We read all sorts of books in his class (and I actually wanted to read most of them), but we didn’t have quizzes on them or intense essays to write. Someone was picked to find a sentence from our reading assignment for us to discuss. It was fun to see what other people chose, especially the discussion they drove. They were always intense and so often someone would have an epiphany where the light bulb went off.
Strangely, Mr. Curtiss’ wife was my Shakespeare teacher, and she also is another one who inspired me. I don’t think I would love Shakespeare as much as I do today if it wasn’t for her. We watched movies. She gave us fake quizzes. And she loved “Bill.” You couldn’t not love Shakespeare hearing her talk about him. Oh and getting to go see Hamlet on a Broadway stage helped continue to stroke those flames.
Something Mrs. Curtiss said to me also stuck with me forever. She once told me that I was a good writer who needed to be tamed. I think that’s why I look such an interest in self editing and being a better writer as I grew from teenager to working adult. She saw talent in me.
There are so many teachers from growing up I could continue to list who had a dramatic influence on me and the person I have become. Some from later years in college and graduate school became mentors. But I feel like those teachers we had growing up had an even bigger influence because we spent so much time with them. I wouldn’t love literature and Shakespeare like I do if it wasn’t for the Curtisses and Mr. Lippman or the history of revolution because of Mr. Blanc. I got my first break in journalism thanks to my high school guidance counselor. I also had those teachers I wanted to prove wrong and feel like I have.
I also wonder what has happened to a lot of the teachers who guided me through my life. You’d think a Google search would help, but not always. If they are reading this, though, thank you.
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Today I realized how long it’s been since I wrote on this blog — 2 1/2 months. In January I had lots of ideas of things to write for the blog and other things I wanted to do. I had intentions to write a “these are my 2013 goals” post, but it never got done.
It’s been a very blah couple of months for me. My energy is zapped, and it’s hard to build yourself up and do something creative when you feel down. That’s funny to me since my creative outlets often have helped my energy and depressed moods.
But I’ve also come to realize how hard it is to be creative in today’s technology age.
I sit down to write and get nothing done because there are too many distractions. New e-mail pops up. There are Twitter and Facebook notifications. And there are far too many other distractions online to cause someone to procrastinate. The distractions keep piling on each day.
I could just turn off the Internet while I work. I’m sure lots of people do this. But there’s just something about the keyboard and the laptop that doesn’t do it for me when I want to write something more than an article or a blog post, when I want to write a fiction piece. And I’ve had a story floating in my head for months.
I recently finished “The Paris Wife,” which is a fictionalization of the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife. I had one of those eureka moments as I read about how Hemingway would go off and write — he was just doing it in notebooks by hand.
Lately I’ve found it’s easier to work when I have just a journal and pen in front of me. There are no distractions, just the paper and the pen. I don’t like to do this except to scratch down a scene or an idea too often because then I’d have to retype the whole thing. It seems like more work.
But isn’t that what great authors like Hemingway did many moons ago? If they can do it, so can I.
My thinking is it’s the first draft. The first draft is never the final draft. If I write it down, I can’t go back and edit right away. And when I do type it, it’s a chance for me to edit the story too.
I’m just hoping my hand doesn’t fall off.
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The activity on this blog is an indication of how I’m feeling in the last two months or so: Uninspired.
Yesterday’s post was the first one I had written since before Hurricane Sandy at the end of October, and the same has been happening with my creative life in general. I’m not writing much if at all, whether it’s on this blog or elsewhere. I started a post-Sandy piece on how social media worked for us, but I haven’t been able to get back to it. I’m not taking many photos if at all lately. I’m not even debating much about journalism and social media, though I am determined to read Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present. I haven’t even been reading that much lately.
I was busy in the wake of Sandy, but I also just don’t feel like I have the energy or inspiration to dive into my creative projects now that things have calmed down.
I can point to my depression problems as one of the reasons. But my creative projects whether it’s photography, writing on a blog or scribbling in a journal has been one of my coping mechanisms.
And it’s not like I don’t have ideas. I’ve had a story idea brewing in my mind for a few weeks, but I’ve just never gotten to the point of putting the words on the page. I haven’t had a driving desire to sit down and write them down. I’ve shot photos, but I have yet to edit them. Editing them leads to sharing them, which is the fulfilling part of shooting photos.
I’ve had times in my life where I’ve felt uninspired, but it’s usually in one area and not all of my creative life. I was writing a story yesterday at work and struggled to write a creative lede. I wrote something straight forward, which is a bit more unusual for me. Lede writing can be a joy and I’ve rarely had that problem.
So where do I go from here? I have to find my inner inspiration (hey, I can’t sit around waiting for it to strike, right?), but it can be a hard task when you’ve lost something like that.
I’d love to hear stories from people who have gone through this struggle. Or maybe you have suggestions? Either way, leave them in the comments section or send me a tweet at @jenconnic.
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Writing is a solitary activity. You’re the one putting the words on the page and need your space from the rest of the world to do it. No one is there in your head to share the activity with you. Someone may be sitting in the room with you, but you’re not really doing it together.
But what if someone was looking over your shoulder the entire time, seeing every word you scribbled on the page and then, many times, deleted? What if they saw how you chopped an entire section because it didn’t work?
That’s what one writer is doing with Google Docs. Silvia Hartmann has opened her document with the entire world to watch. They can see as she writes and edits. Of course, people cannot edit or write on the document themselves. The document, though, is so popular that you cannot get in to see everything at any one time. Plus she had to split the document into two parts because of the constraints of Google Docs.
The process of writing can be a deeply personal experience. We all feel a certain sensitivity about what we write, whether it’s poetry or even an article. You have to have a thick skin just with the final product, but imagine if everyone could see the steps you took to get to the point where you’re ready to share it. Would we start to self edit and not put down what we really want? Would we be exposed of being a fraud as a writer and a product of quality editing?
I wonder how many people I would confuse as they watch me write. I don’t always write from beginning to end. If I’m writing an article, I might not have a lede or opening ready in my mind. I write the rest, and that usually uncovers what my lede should be. And I sometimes jump around when I’m writing fiction. I may know how a scene will unfold later in the story or how it will end, but I’m not sure yet how it will start. But writing the ending, or even middle scenes, allows you to drop in some foreshadowing, a very powerful tool, earlier in the story.
I don’t think I’d be brave enough to open up my writing process to the entire world so they could see how I write. Would you? Talk about it in the comments or send me a tweet @jenconnic.
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Ever read a book and feel like you want to be the main character? Maybe you even notice you’re taking on the qualities of the main character.
Medical Daily has an interesting article how readers can indeed take on the traits of their favorite characters (found the link via Brian Farnham on Twitter).
Even if you don’t take it to the extreme as dressing up as Harry Potter, perhaps you do do it in some ways. I’ve been reading Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and I find myself relating quite a bit to her. But more over, I’ve found myself thinking “I’d like to date a guy like Joe Morelli” (don’t judge me).
But writers also can take on those characters in some ways as inspiration. We may not take on the traits ourselves, but we stick them into a character we’re developing. I’ve found I develop characters one way after reading something by Christopher Moore, for example. I’m sure other people are the same way, but it’s a fine line to walk between inspiration and plagiarism.
What do you think of the study? Do you take on a character’s traits or use them in your own writing? Post about it in the comments.
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