Friday, March 16th, 2012

Writing Prompt: Check Your Morgue or Trunked Files

Virginia Pilot Ledger Newspaper MorgueMy background is journalism, so naturally I have my own morgue.

The “morgue” in newspaper parlance are the file cabinets holding all the research materials, notes and photos that went into producing a news story. All the pieces are usually filed together in a single folder by year or story. Sometimes the photos have their own morgue. Depends on the newspaper.

Pretty inefficient, really. While a lot of those records are filed electronically now, most of it still goes down the same way because who has the time to turn scribbled notes and library research into electronic documents when you’ve got to write the next news story?

And really, that stuff almost never gets looked at again unless it’s a really big story that has repercussions years later and needs to be referenced again. Or, the newspaper runs one of those “Five years ago, Ten years ago, etc. columns.

Writers tend to have ideas folders (stuff where they put ideas they’ve had, but aren’t ready to be written yet, snippets of overhead conversations, inspiring photos, etc.) and “trunked” files: a place for those stories that were written, but never got sold for whatever reason.

I have another file I keep, my “Culled from ‘XX Manuscript'” file: this is the place where I copy and paste the stuff edited out of my manuscripts. It contains idle scenes, verbose paragraphs, misplaced character thoughts in long and short phrases.

It’s a file that makes me feel better when I’m editing: I can take all that “hard work” which should never see the light of day, and keep a record of having written it. I tell myself I’ll go back there one day and make use of it.

I’ve never, ever done so (unlike my morgue or ideas folders…)

But this past week while I was doing some major edits, I realized that that file contains a lot of good stuff even if it wasn’t polished enough — or well thought out enough — to use in the current manuscript.

It’s plenty good for inspiring ideas when you need a kick.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Raid your ideas folder or junked stories for a snippet, phrase, paragraph, description, etc. to get your juices flowing: we’re not looking for an old idea to use here, we’re reading until you find a phrase that sparks a new idea. Find it and write.
     
  • Kill two birds with one stone: edit something that needs to be polished. Take all those words and phrases you cut away and save them into another file. Likely, they won’t be ‘sparkers’ this early: they’re too fresh in your mind. Set them aside for a few weeks and then revisit. In the meantime: you’ve polished up some writing. Send it out!
     
  • If you don’t have ideas folders, trunked files, or writing that needs some editing (Welcome, beginner!) pick a book off your shelf — something you haven’t read in a long time, or something you’ve never read — and open it to a random page. Read until an idea is sparked.
     
  • If none of these ideas appeal, here area a few very short phrases from my latest edits. Feel free to use them for your own stories:
     
    • “I’m damn tired of not getting my money’s worth.”
       
    • So, what did he want me to do about this?
       
    • It didn’t matter why the old man told him the story: he didn’t want to hear it.
       
    • …stiff and away from the window…
       
    • Chasing women was something he’d never had to do
       
    • Convinced he could do no more for the creature than make her comfortable, he…
       
    • The priestesses had long controlled the northern parts of the continent because of…
       

Good luck!

 
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Photo Credit: A story about the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch newspaper morgue.

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Writing Prompt: You’re in the News!

Good Morning!

You’ve opened the newspaper today to see your picture splashed across the front page with the headline,” ___________________.”

What does it say?

Is the picture only of you? Or, is there someone with you? If so, who is it?

What did you do?

Here’s Your Prompt: Write the news story about you. Make it exciting.

Write the story in journalistic style, referred to as “inverted pyramid.”

In inverted pyramid writing, the most important facts are made known in the first paragraph, and detail gets less and less important as the story progresses. (This is so that if the newspaper runs out of room, they can cut off the bottom of the story without having to re-edit.)

So, in the first paragraph, answer the questions: who, what, where, and when?

Don’t “editorialize” this lead paragraph, that is: don’t make your opinion known. You don’t want to slant the story! Include only the facts.

You can add a quote or two in this first section. Make sure these quotes pertain directly to the story: perhaps an eyewitness account or two of what happened. What did those people see?

The questions “How?” and “Why?” can be answered in the middle of the story. They will add additional detail.
Sprinkle in a few quotes with the extra detail here, too. These quotes can be opinions. What do people think about what happened?

Make certain that you have quotes from differing points of view: some from people who agree with the story, some from people who don’t. (This is called “fair and balanced” reporting.)

One last thing, journalistic stories are measured in column inches and contain 20-30 words. Your assignment: write 20 inches.

When you’re done, send it to me! I’d love to read about you.

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

The Cliche is Dead, Long Live the Cliche

Or, How to Write Copy Like a Trained Journalist – Part 1

I spent a lot of years working as a reporter. I find writing like a reporter is perfect for writing for the Web, and in most instances, can help to bring your fiction alive as well.

Journalistic writing is characterized by spare prose (“just the facts”), with the most important information at the beginning of the piece. There are other rules, usually found in a style guide (more on that in another post), which characterizes other parts of the writing.

One facet of journalistic writing is to avoid cliches.

A cliche is a phrase or an expression that has become overly familiar through use. Two cliches should be evident in the following sentence:
 

The car barreled down the road at breakneck speed.


Which of the following cliches haven’t you heard?

  • a note of warning
  • beat a hasty retreat
  • black as night
  • cool as a cucumber
  • dazed and confused
  • flood of tears
  • green as grass
  • hard as nails
  • in the nick of time
  • long-suffering
  • made ends meet
  • very much in evidence

(My original list was much longer…but it just looked silly on the page… I think you get the point.)

Cliches should never be used in a news or feature story (or fiction!), no matter how great the temptation–and temptation will beckon. (Trust me on this…it’s so much easier to write the cliche than to think up something new!)

And, there’s a reason why cliches are so popular: they’re familiar and easily understood by an audience. They bubble to the top of your thoughts when you’re considering what to write. And if you’re facing a deadline, it’s easy to rely on tired phrases to get your point across, rather than write fresh copy.

It’s much harder (not to mention more time consuming) to think up something new (especially if you’re like me. I like to dither over phrases and make them “perfect” before moving on.) But the use of cliche represents poor use of language, and in some cases, can identify the author as either inexperienced or, worse, lazy.

Appearing lazy can lose you commissions.

The problem with cliches is they make all stories sound the same:

The robbers terrorized their victims and made their escape on foot, fleeing with the loot.

So, the rule is: avoid cliches like the plague.

When writing fiction, don’t let your characters resort to cliched thought. Avoiding trite phrases will allow their personalities to develop. (And you may find that you learn more about your characters themselves if you have to work hard to make them think on their own, rather than relying on tried and true expressions to get their points across.)

When writing Web copy, keep your thoughts fresh and your words crackling. Cliches allow your reader to skim the writing, but if you use new language, your readers will actually have to think about what you write.