Archive for the 'lectures' Category

A plea to editors and publishers: Do you want to attract pro writers or not?

February 4, 2008

At a party late last year, the owner of a new local web site asked me about freelancing. He’d been soliciting articles for his site from business owners and people who liked writing for exposure; he wanted to know how to attract professionals.

“Well, you’re going to have to start paying them,” I said. (Too frank? The party was hosted by a generous sponsor who’d paid for an open bar.)

Seriously, though, there are three things I just wish editors would do that would make everyone’s lives a little easier. This applies to blog editors as well as those in the print spectrum.

  1. Offer pay–and not pennies per word either. If you want people (potential writers) to take you seriously as a business owner and editor, you need to make sure you are taking writers seriously, and offering rates so low that they are a joke is a great way to show how little you care.
  2. Offer sample copies, and make them easy to buy. I just tried to get a sample copy of a magazine I liked, but didn’t want to put my credit card number onto their UNSECURE (http:// vs https://) server. When I called and asked if they would take Paypal, I was told that only their merchandise can be paid for through Paypal. This is for a $3 magazine. Now I have to write them a check and stick it in the mail because they can’t code their Web server correctly? I might just skip this mag altogether.
  3. Provide writer’s guidelines. It’s really important that writers are familiar with your blog, magazine, or other publication. But on the other hand, I shouldn’t have to sit there with my sample copy counting the number of words in an article so I know how long my piece should be. I shouldn’t have to guess whether a certain department accepts freelance or not. If this is all spelled out in your guidelines (which are online as a PDF or HTML file, not ones that I have to send in a SASE for) you save both of us time.

Feels good to get that off my chest, actually! Editors, take note–you’re affecting my health ;)

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PSA from your resident grumpy writer: avoid cliches

September 17, 2007

nate archer.

Avoid cliches like the plague if you want your writing to improve. You’ve heard that before, I know, but seriously–you need another cliche-infested sentence like you need a hole in the head.

I believe it was George Orwell who said that if a phrase even rings familiar, it’s a cliche. So we’re not talking about only things like “crying over spilled milk” or “sticking out like a sore thumb”, but also the arrangement of even two or three words in a trite, too-familiar order.

How many times has a romance heroine’s hair “spilled” across a pillow? When is a book lover anything but an “avid” reader? Read 24/7 With the Cliche Expert for a startling look at just how many adjective/noun pairs are inseparable.

Q: All right. I shall give you a series of nouns, and you supply the adjective that Homerically must precede each one. Are you ready?

A: As I’ll ever be.

Q: Competition is?

A: Fierce.

Q: And any success?

A: Unqualified.

Q: Agendas, endorsements, margins, bases, sources, the future, arguments, potential, waters, efforts, and breath?

A: Hidden, key, slim (or overwhelming), continuing, knowledgeable, foreseeable, heated, full, uncharted, Herculean, and bated. Bada bing! I may not be the flavor of the month, but I’m on a roll.

Cliches are easy to use and easy to rely on because they are so familiar. The problem is that they are so boring. It’s sometimes easier (for me, at least) to spot and eradicate cliches on a grander scale–cliches of plot, of theme, of lede or kicker, of phrases like “than you can shake a stick at”–than to find the tiny, overused cliches of one or two words.

In addition to being boring, pre-fab cliches are often used incorrectly. Was that battle really epic, or might there be a better way to describe it?

Tips for weeding out cliches? I have none. I know it takes a lot of work, but Orwell has this to say about taking the easy way out and refusing to take up the responsibility of writing with accuracy:

You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. —Politics and the English Language, 1946

Orwell continues with the argument that sloppy language corrupts thought–the same argument used in 1984 with Newspeak. If you have no way to express your thoughts, those thoughts eventually become impossible. This grumpy writer is less concerned with politics than with producing writing that is interesting, clear, and cliche-free. Now you, too, can aspire to the lofty goal of making the world a better place–without cliches.

PSA from your resident grumpy writer (or: In Defense of Lowly “Said”)

June 4, 2007

Today I am grumpy. It seems one of the most popular search terms for sending people to my blog is “words to use instead of ‘said’.” People, why are you searching for this? What’s wrong with “said”?

I have touched on this in an earlier post, but I want to reiterate. Even in more “colorful” writing than news journalism–even in your Great American Novel–dependable ol’ “said” is your friend.

Alternatives to “said” fall into two categories: impossible and annoying. The first category includes words like “barked,” “hissed,” “hooted,” “pouted,” “smiled.” (Disclaimer: the last two examples came from Avoid Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome, which I have only skimmed but looks to be a great page explaining exactly what I’m about to say. (I hate when that happens.))

Why are these words impossible? They are actions, not dialogue tags. Someone can “bark out an order,” “hoot with laughter,” “smile broadly,” but that same person cannot smile a phrase. Technically, hissing is what a snake does, but I’ve seen it used as a tag. If you do, at least make sure your character is using a lot of s’s in his sentence. (You can’t hiss a “hmmm,” for example.)

The second category of “said” alternatives, annoying dialogue tags, are, well, annoying. These are subtler, and easier to trip up on, but they are a clear sign of a novice. These include “responded,” “declared,” “disclosed,” “queried,” “expressed,” and others. Even when used correctly (i.e. don’t use “responded” unless the person is literally responding to a question), when overused, they can become annoying.

In praise of “said”
The most common complaint about “said” is that it’s “boring.” Luckily, its boredom-inducing properties are exactly what makes it so desirable. Think how many times you’ve seen “said” in the last month. How about in the last 24 hours? It’s ubiquitous. It’s so there, it’s not really there at all. The average reader skims right over it, to get to the next juicy bit of your writing. Which is exactly what you want. Throwing in a different dialogue tag throws your readers off, getting them stuck on the weird word you used instead of guiding them gently to your next point.

Fiction writers should be shouting here about “he said, she said” syndrome, which may be the cause of most bad dialogue tags. When you have ten lines of dialogue in a row, going down the page looks like this:

“You’re the Oracle?” he said.
“Bingo. I got to say I love seeing you non-believers. It’s really a relief. All that pomp and circumstances just plain tucker me out. Almost done. Smell good, don’t they?” she said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’d ask you to sit down, but you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase,” she said.
“What vase?” he said.

An easy way to solve this problem is to remove the tags altogether.

“You’re the Oracle?”
“Bingo. I got to say I love seeing you non-believers. It’s really a relief. All that pomp and circumstances just plain tucker me out. Almost done. Smell good, don’t they?”
“Yeah.”
“I’d ask you to sit down, but you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.”
“What vase?”

I’m not going to go into more depth with fiction writing techniques because I’m a pretty terrible fiction writer. But this is a pretty good, simple trick that will improve your writing loads. If your characters have distinctive enough voices, it shouldn’t be hard telling them apart even without any dialogue tags. For more help with this, check one of the million sites on the ‘Net dedicated to fiction writing.

Just keep dear old “said” in your hearts and in your keyboards.