broadsideblog

Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

The (latest) book I just couldn’t finish…

In behavior, books, culture, journalism, Media on May 25, 2014 at 1:43 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

photo(45)

Gah!

The fines alone for keeping this book out of library too long — I could have bought it.

And, too ironic, the title: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

It’s not even a very long book. I tried!

I just didn’t care about any of the characters. I didn’t find the plot, such as it was, compelling. Nor was the writing especially beautiful.

And it won the 2011 Booker Prize. Oh, well.

I just saw a friend’s post saying she couldn’t finish Donna Tartt’s latest, The Goldfinch.

I’ve tried several times to penetrate Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett and gave up.

Yet I am still slowly reading, and enjoying, Atonement by Ian McEwan, one of my favorite writers and recently (somewhat) enjoyed The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.

I put off for years reading The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, but couldn’t put it down and loved it.

What book(s) have you simply given up on halfway through — and why?

The writer’s week: 131-yr-old magazine killed and a last-minute TV gig

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, work on April 27, 2014 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Sunday

Into Manhattan to see a fantastic play, The Junket, written by Mike Albo, a fellow freelance journalist who used to write a popular shopping column in The New York Times Styles section — earning him $1,800 a month — until he went to Jamaica on an ill-advised press trip. The Times fired him for a breach of its ethics code, (which is a long, detailed and fairly intrusive document for people not on their staff), and Albo wrote a funny, tart one-man show about it.

I meet an editor from a local paper, who comes out for dinner with us after the show; she mentions, halfway through the meal, she has a story to assign and needs a writer. I mention I’m available and win an assignment in the middle of our meal.

Monday

I have to find sources for a story so I turn to my two usual places: HARO, which stands for Help A Reporter Out, and my large network on LinkedIn.

Tuesday

Chasing down pitches made to a few editors, invoicing for work completed last week, getting ready to two days at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I’m really looking forward to seeing dear old friends from all across the country and from my own country, Canada.

Freelancing is lonely and isolating, working alone at home all day every day, and while writers talk often by Facebook, Twitter and private listservs, there’s nothing better than a huge hug and a chance to cheer each other face to face.

Jose’s 30-year-old duffel bag, which I took with me to Nicaragua and shredded by dragging it on the ground, comes back freshly repaired by manufacturer Mountainsmith, in Boulder, Colorado. Between us, as two travel-hungry journo’s, Jose and I have a lot of luggage!

photo(46)

 

Wednesday

I head into Manhattan to meet Linda Marsa, an award-winning science writer whose latest book” Fevered” is amazing. I have no specific interest in climate change, (other than trying to adapt to it), so I agreed to review and write about her book as a gesture of friendship. But it’s so well-written, deeply-reported and compelling that I couldn’t put it down — and when the NYT finally reviewed it, was thrilled for her.

I just returned a few weeks ago from Nicaragua and she had just returned from Belize, so — even though we’d only met once before, at last year’s conference — we had plenty in common to talk about.

It’s comforting and fun to talk to a woman as passionate and driven as I am, even after decades in this crazy business. I tell her I hope to retire in a decade and she laughs, kindly.

“You love this business,” she says. “I do?”

“You just have to get rid of the bullshit.”

And she’s right.

We go to a trendy West Village Italian restaurant for lunch and order the chicken — JW chicken. Who the hell is JW? The waiter points proudly to a man sitting two tables away; the chicken is named for him. It’s delicious and juicy, but it’s just chicken! We order a side order of potatoes for $9. Nine bucks! They’re delicious and crunchy but it’s a small portion of…potatoes.

New York sometimes feels like a wallet-thinning machine.

Thursday

Day one of the conference and I’m on the 7:22 train from our suburban town. I normally don’t even get out of bed before 8:00! But it’s good to get dressed up and meet my peers.

The very first person I see — of the hundreds who have arrived — is an old friend who is another science writer, Dan Drollette, who’s had a terrific career, winning a Fulbright and then working for four years in Geneva at CERN. I tell him I’m eager for more international assignments and he offers a fantastic lead.

Like every conference, some panels are better than others. Linda’s, on long-form narrative journalism, assembled three extraordinary writers who talk about the many challenges of reporting their books, including fear of personal injury, even death. It’s exciting to sit a few feet away from some of the best in our business and hear them speak.

Huge news — the death of Ladies Home Journal, a 131-year-old women’s magazine, one of the “seven sisters” of American mass-market women’s magazines, costing 32 editorial jobs — people who will now enter a crummy job market for journalists and/or compete for freelance work.

My husband, photo editor for The New York Times business section, runs photos with a fun story about companies whose products have sassy names, like this cereal, made in the same small British Columbia town where my mother lived for years.

photo(47)

Friday

At the conference, I run into a writer from Montreal I met there in February 2013 who introduces me to a blogger from North Carolina I’ve been following for months, who offers to help me with some questions. The Montreal writer also mentions a potentially useful conference in Toronto in June — it’s $1,300 though, a fairly huge sum for me.

The two days here cost me $358; unlike others, all I have to do is take the commuter train in ($20) and walk two blocks, saving me probably $1,000 in additional airfare, meals and hotel costs.

Saturday

Having a horrible time lining up a final source for another story due two days after that one. I keep finding people and they keep refusing to participate. That’s unusual and stressful. I can’t write without sources!

At 11:15 a.m. — I’m fried from a busy week and ready to chill out — the phone rings.

It’s Al Jazeera America, doing a segment on American gun culture, seeking an expert to speak on television today at 4:00 p.m.  We arrange for car service to come and get me, (normal when TV needs you, and it’s an hour’s drive door to door from my home), and discuss their questions in advance.

I rush to a local hair salon to get my hair looking TV-ready; they will do my make-up. Good thing I have a few clean dresses always ready to go.

I’m given 3:30 to speak — a long time in television — but the host of the show asks me none of the questions I’ve discussed with the producer. I give it my best anyway, buy a bag of sugared peanuts from a street vendor, then slip back into the waiting car.

Time to go home and eat Jose’s fried chicken.

 

Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, Money, work on April 11, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you dream of becoming a published author — and some of you already are.

It’s a very cool accomplishment and one to be proud of.

I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books and I still love sharing them with audiences. I really enjoy public speaking and answering readers’ and would-be readers’ questions and hearing their comments.

malled cover HIGH

But, while it’s terrific to get out there and share your story, and that of your book, you’ll also get a pile ‘o invitations to speak for no money.

A new service (and I’m not A Big Enough Name for them to want me, sigh) is paying NYC-area authors $400 (and pocketing $350 of the $750 fee) for bringing authors to local book clubs.

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.

Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.

I make no money selling books

Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?

20131219120434

Your audience is too small

Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.

The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.

Your audience isn’t my audience

Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues  I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.

It costs me time and money to do this for you

You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.

If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.

Your competitors pay!

I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up  by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.

If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.

Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?

I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance

I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.

malled china cover

I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

The writer’s week: tears, mild panic and the IRS (possibly related)

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on April 5, 2014 at 12:13 am

By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you new to Broadside — welcome! — this is an occasional series in which I share the gory details of life as a full-time freelance writer in New York. Some of you hope to work in journalism or publishing, so this is a glimpse behind the curtain, as it were.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Monday

Back to the work world in earnest — I’m losing my Nicaragua tan. I need to find some elusive sources, people so broke they can’t pay any of the taxes they owe the Internal Revenue Service, people who wouldn’t normally want to speak to a reporter. That’s my favorite kind of story. I like difficult-to-impossible!

I Google the words “long term unemployed” and find an organization that might help. Its director calls me back and I learn more, including the fact no one in print has yet covered their fantastic work. I pitch the idea within the hour to an editor I know.

The challenge is deciding who to pitch — the biggest names don’t necessarily pay well or are easy to sell to, while a smaller outlet can pay more and make a faster decision.

I pitch ideas to Marie Claire, MORE magazine and a new website. I check in with my editor at Cosmopolitan — looks like the story I reported last summer is scheduled for the July issue. That will be cool; it’s a profile of a terrific young couple with a highly unusual love story.

MC and MORE pass on my ideas. At least I hear back quickly, usually within hours. I’d rather have a super-quick rejection and move on.

This is what we do.

This is what we do.

Tuesday

I write the profile of the Nicaragua country director, which isn’t due until April 11, but I have so many competing assignments right now that I’m having a mini-panic. Unlike many writers I know, I don’t work nights or weekends. I want a life! This month I have seven assignments in hand, another one possible and a short re-write due; until it’s in, the piece won’t get published and I won’t get paid.

I try to keep a steady workflow of a story or two each week, but it’s not always that tidy. A writer friend has agreed to contribute to a post here, but she’s got four assignments and a teaching job. It’s like that when you’re freelance.

That’s not even addressing the request for a long personal essay — the third version of it, none of it paid for yet, of course — from a large women’s magazine. Part of me just wants the kill fee in hand, and to move on to something simpler and quicker.

Still chasing down an overpayment of $2,600 that a client insists I never repaid them; I don’t want to pay one penny more income tax than necessary! Tax day here is April 15. Running out of time.

Wednesday

I take the train into Manhattan for a noon meeting at WaterAid, with whom I recently worked for a week in rural Nicaragua. I work alone at home, so getting out is always a treat. I drop off my battered four-year-old sandals at the shoemaker at Grand Central Terminal for repair — he wants $72 (!) for everything. I agree to $57 worth of repairs and wonder, once more, why everything here is so damn expensive.

I browse in Posman Books, one of my favorite indie bookstores, also in the station, and buy an Indian cookbook and thank-you card for the country director in Nicaragua who made our trip there fun and comfortable, even in intense heat and 12-hour days.

The view from the village house where we stayed; no electricity or running water. Heaven!

The view from the village house where we stayed; no electricity or running water. Heaven!

The meeting is with the entire office staff, only one of whom I’ve met before, plus three people Skyped in — from Maine, London and Nicaragua. We’re there to de-brief about the trip. When it’s my turn to speak, to my horror and embarrassment, I tear up and can’t say a word for a long, long minute before gaining my composure; the journey was a deeply emotional one for me on many levels.

It was great to meet everyone and to talk to people who are smart, passionate and worldly. I enjoy my work, but after eight years alone at home, it’s lonely!

Thursday

20131114105242

I have to choose the dates for my fall classes teaching at my alma mater, The New York School of Interior Design, on the Upper East Side of New York City. I’ve suggested a two-hour session on creativity and an eight-hour series on writing. It will feel very odd to be back there as a teacher and not a terrified student; design is much tougher than it looks! I studied there in the 1990s, hoping to become a designer myself, but changed my mind. I absolutely loved my training and don’t regret a minute of it.

But I realized my vocation is telling stories in words, not color or space. We do have a great-looking home though!

I finally score three excellent sources for my tax story and set up three interviews for Friday.

I write a 1,300 word story for WaterAid, the second of three they have hired me to produce. I send several questions to the country director for fact-checking; he’ll be totally out of reach all next week as he heads back into the countryside.

Friday

I skipped my usual 9:30 a.m. jazz dance class — too tired from last night’s hip-hop class, my first. So fun!

Out to a local diner for lunch with a fellow writer who lives in town. I met him through his wife, another writer, who takes dance class with me. One of the pleasures of working for myself is managing my own schedule. I normally work a seven to eight-hour day, but can control when those hours are.

I do my interviews for a story about tax season for Quartz.com, a smart new website run by the same publishers as The Atlantic; the pay is decent enough for web work and I like my editor a lot.

I now know a lot about the IRS and have the makings of a very cool story I’ve never seen reported.

I check in with a few editors about possible assignments for May onward and finally tell one that I’m not going to keep working on a personal essay she assigned to me back in January. My heart is really not in it, and I’ve already done two revisions. I just want a kill fee and to move on. I hope this won’t hurt our working relationship, but I know when I’m not into a story and it’s a waste of time and energy to keep going.

Mailed off a cookbook, Indian spices and a thank-you note to the country director in Nicaragua, who admitted he loves Indian food and there are no Indian restaurants there; Jennifer and I want to express our gratitude for such a fantastic experience.

Sent Jose’s 20-year-old duffel bag back to its manufacturer in Colorado for repair, ($12 in postage!), which I shredded while dragging it on the ground in Nicaragua; excess baggage weight was such an issue, I preferred to bring three books instead of the weight of a wheeled suitcase. I ended up reading only one book, Claire Messud’s latest, The Woman Upstairs. I enjoyed it, but gave it to Jen when I was done.

How was your week?

 

 

 

Why radio is still the best medium

In behavior, culture, domestic life, entertainment, journalism, life, Media, news on April 4, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

reciva_net_radio

Some of you might be old enough to remember Radio Caroline, the British pirate radio station that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — it began broadcasting, from an offshore ship, on March 27, 1964. It was the UK’s first commercial station and challenge to the BBC.

My earliest media memories are of lying in bed in the dark, around age seven, listening to — what else? — the Beatles on my transistor radio.

I’m bereft without the radio.

In Nicaragua, in the village with no electricity or running water, there was, even there, a transistor radio hung on a large nail. At night, it played a politician’s speech for hours, and, in the morning — in the native tongue, Miskitu — familiar Christian hymns How Great Thou Art and What A Friend We Have in Jesus.

Long before the Internet or television, radio linked us. It still does.

Here’s a review of the 2013 film, La Maison de la Radio, about Radio France, which I saw last year and enjoyed.

I’ve done a lot of radio interviews about the subjects of my two books, one on guns in America and the other on low-wage retail work. When discussing my gun book I was invited onto NRA radio as well as NPR; it was interesting explaining each side to the other!

I listen to a great deal of National Public Radio, especially topic-specific shows like The Moth (story-telling by regular people); The Brian Lehrer show (NY-area politics and economics), the Leonard Lopate show (culture); Studio 360 (ditto), This American Life (three segments on a theme), RadioLab, Fresh Air  and The Diane Rehm Show (smart, long-running interview shows hosted by women), and others.

This American Life, with 2.2 million listeners, is now considering handling its own distribution. I was heartened to read here, that I’m not the only fogey still using an actual radio:

While online and mobile listening are growing rapidly, particularly among younger listeners, “there’s still a lot of listening going on in radio,” said David Kansas, chief operating officer for American Public Media, whose other offerings include “Marketplace” and “Prairie Home Companion.” Distributors, he said, do not just provide technical support, they also work with stations to raise the visibility of a show in local markets: bringing in program hosts, creating content related to local issues and helping with live events.

I also like Q, an interview show from CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi.

When I have an hour in the morning, I listen to BBC World News and always hear stories I never would know about from American media. You might also try the Canadian evening national news show As It Happens; when I lived with my father in my teens, every dinner began with its theme music.

I love being able to iron or cook or clean or just lie on the sofa in the dark and focus on the music and words; television tethers me to a specific spot and steals all my attention.

Do you listen to the radio?

What sort of shows or music do you enjoy?

What are some of your favorite shows — and where can we find them (streaming on-line)?

On being (truly) honest about our feelings

In behavior, books, Crime, Health, journalism, life, love, Media, photography, television, work on April 2, 2014 at 12:19 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

Here’s a recent post from Freshly Pressed, about the social dance of “How are you?” — and its expected, safe, reassuring antiphonal response of “Fine!”:

But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.

It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.

And here’s an honest blog post about how messy real life really is:

I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.

Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Except about whether or not we loved each other.

And from A Transformed Faith blog:

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.

For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.

For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.

I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.

Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.

The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.

Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.

They'll never tell!

They’ll never tell!

Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.

And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)

A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied  in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.

But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.

I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…

No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!

Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)

But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.

Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.

Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:

“You can’t be a normal human being.”

By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.

Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.

But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.

Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.

Or not…

I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.

How about you?

Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?

Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?

This is how it feels to be edited — and why it’s still essential

In blogging, books, culture, journalism, Media, work on February 5, 2014 at 3:14 am

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, let’ s stipulate that it’s not always fun.revision1

OK, sometimes it’s really horrible.

Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.

But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.

Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.

Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.

Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.

Nor should it.

This delicious joke, how a women’s magazine editor would edit a BBC report was amusing every writer I know recently:

A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)

Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)

The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)

There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)

What do editors do?

At best:

– Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book

– Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it

– Offer some helpful sources

– Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject

– Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers

– Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic

– Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions

– Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership

– Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print

– Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct

– Question your logic and story structure

– Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish

It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.

But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”

At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.

A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.

If you want a glimpse into an editor’s brain, this is a classic, smart and helpful book for any would-be non-fiction author.

This week’s webinars: How Reporters Think, Finding and Developing Ideas

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on February 3, 2014 at 1:43 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

How do reporters think?

It seems mysterious to some, but — whether through training, school or experience — we process the world in specific ways. I enjoy journalism because one of its principles is challenging authority and questioning received wisdom.

We ask “Why? a lot.

It also means breaking many of the accepted rules of polite society: interrupting, demanding answers from the powerful, revealing secrets. That alone can be difficult for some writers to get used to.

Anyone who hopes to sell their journalism, non-fiction or books also needs to know how to quickly and efficiently find sources, decide which ones are worth pursuing and understand the underlying principles by which all reporters, and their editors work.

These include a deep and fundamental understanding of ethics, knowing when to push (and when to back off) and how to frame a story.

Having worked as a staff reporter for The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, and a regular freelance contributor toTHINK LIKE A REPORTER The New York Times, I can help you hit the ground running. To compete effectively with trained veteran reporters, you need to think as they do. We’ll talk about how stories are shaped and edited, and how to balance the need for accuracy, great writing, deep reporting — and hitting your deadlines!

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Saturday February 8.

Details and sign up here.

And anyone who’s blogging, writing and hoping to develop longer narratives for print — or for new digital websites like Longform, the Atavist, TakePart and others — needs to find and develop timely, compelling story ideas.

Ideas surround us every day, sometimes in the same room with us, at work, at the gym, at work, in your community or place of worship, or in conversation with friends, family and neighbors.

How to know which ones are worth pursuing? First you need to recognize them as potential stories, and know when, why and how to develop them into salable material.

Some of the hundreds of ideas I’ve conceived, pitched and sold:

putting my dog to sleep, (The Globe and Mail), the use of carbon fiber in yacht design, a devastating side effect of a popular medication, (Chatelaine magazine),  Google’s meditation classes, women car designers,  (New York Times) and returning to church after decades away. (Chatelaine.)

PERSONAL ESSAY

Finding great stories is like birding — once you know what they look like, you’ll start to see them everywhere!

Here’s a testimonial from Leonard Felson, a career reporter who took this webinar last fall to help him move from selling only to regional or local markets to national ones:

As a coach, Caitlin Kelly is like a doctor sending you on your way with just the right prescription. She read my clips and zeroed in on what I could do to up my game. It was time and money well spent, and well worth the investment in my career.

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Sunday February 9.

Details and sign up here.

Questions or concerns?

Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Is writing well impossible?

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, journalism, Media, work on January 29, 2014 at 3:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I had an interesting conversation recently with another journalist, who writes columns and features. She wondered if some people see what she and I do for a living as impossibly difficult, something you just have a talent for, or you don’t.

Here’s an image that may, or may not, comfort or surprise you:

revision1

It’s what fiction writers love to call their WIP — a work in progress. This is one page of a story, a narrative memoir, I was recently commissioned to produce by a major American women’s magazine.

This is the revision I was asked for by the first, of several, editors. I’ve never met her or spoken to her beyond a brief conversation about this piece. That’s typical, these days. At my level of experience, I’m expected to know exactly what’s expected of a “narrative memoir” and how to produce it to deadline. Which, of course, I did, as I did with this revision.

Which was still deemed “not there yet.”

Magazine journalism — especially some genres — is a team sport. I have to be ready for even more editors’ questions and comments.

What I’ve shown here is my own second or third revision of the second version, before I cleaned it up and sent it in.

You’ll notice a few things:

— I tightened and shortened a few sentences, cutting every possible excess word. I worked for a year as a reporter for a tabloid newspaper here in New York, 2005-2006, and it changed my writing for the better, forever. I try to use as few words as possible to convey my ideas. I also have a tight word limit for this piece, 1,700 words, encompassing my life from age 14 to today, multiple decades. Stuff has to go!

— I joined two sentences into a paragraph. Sometimes they just flow better. Or not.

— At the start of one sentence, I cut a word and inserted one later there.

— That crossed-out sentence at the bottom of the page, an after-thought, clearly, felt like a great metaphor — until I double-checked the meaning of the word I thought I wanted and I was wrong. Then I re-thought the whole idea and discarded it as intrusive and distracting, no matter how lovely a phrase it was. And it was; had I more room, I might have included it. But I don’t. This is called “killing your darlings. ” You get really good at lexical assassination if you stay in this game a while.

The reason I’m sharing this is to show the process, which no one ever sees.

By the time we read anyone’s work — no matter the medium — it’s been polished, revised, edited and re-edited.

So the final product, for most writers, is that of a tremendous amount of prior conceptualizing, framing, thinking, reporting, researching, interviewing, analyzing, re-thinking, writing — (look how far down in the list this is!) — re-writing, editing, re-editing, revising, revising again.

(This post, by the way, went through six revisions before I hit “publish” — the last one, about New York, went through 15.)

Even when I edit myself, I’m always applying three filters, three editing styles, all at once and unconsciously:

Structural. Does this piece flow? Does it have rhythm? Does the beginning pull you in and keep you? How do I feel about the ending? Should some sections (as my editor suggested, and I did) be moved much higher in the story?

Line-editing. How does this sentence sound? Is it too short? Too long? Does one paragraph transition smoothly into the next? When and where am I choosing to use a line space? (Helpful for marking transitions in time or place within a narrative. I learned this on some of my very first paid stories, while in college.) Am I repeating words, phrases or ideas — and to what effect?

Copy-editing. (Should that word have a hyphen?) Looking for spelling and grammatical errors and making sure I have names and numbers correct.

Great writing — (even crappy writing, after it’s finally published) is an iceberg — you’re only seeing the final, visible 10 percent of it!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,531 other followers