Saturday, November 21, 2009

?4U: Should the Standard Rules of Good Writing Apply to Blog Spots?

By Paula L. Silici for TalkingWriting

As the Internet secures an ever-increasing foothold in our lives, we writers should consider ourselves under mounting pressure to maintain a strong, professional presence both online and off.

If we wish to be taken seriously as professionals—and if we are to gain the respect we long for in the blogging arena—then we need to be just as meticulous about the quality and accuracy of our online postings as we would if submitting material for payment to a traditional hardcopy publisher.

Am I being overly pedantic here? Given the laissez-faire nature of the Internet, one could argue that the standards should be relaxed. For many, the blogging world is an “anything goes” venue, where typos, misspellings, grammar, and punctuation errors are the norm. Both readers and some (not all) contributors deem it acceptable, even cool, to replace traditional style conventions with sloppy, ill-constructed, or just plain poorly written ramblings.

What a mistake that is.

Beginning writers who dream of future fame should be aware that whatever they submit online today is being scrutinized by industry professionals and other writers everywhere.

Here’s a sobering thought: Think of how easy it now is for agents, editors, and publishers to google, twitter, or facebook a prospective client’s name in order to check their professionalism and track record.

In writing guest posts or our own blogs—even in commenting on other blogs—can we honestly afford to forego convention when it comes to proper style and format? Shouldn’t we do our darnedest to make whatever we post as polished as it can possibly be, for the ultimate benefit of our readers but also for our own self-respect and satisfaction?

It is true that how we use the written word in general is rapidly changing. For example, there’s the way texters use shorthand abbreviations in place of common words. Those who text don’t seem to care much about misspellings and bad grammar; they simply wish to get their messages across to their recipients as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

But I believe we’re comparing apples to oranges here (forgive the cliché). Professional writers, as standard bearers for our art, cannot afford to lapse into such habits.

So, then, what’s considered proper format in online postings? Since there are few official guidelines governing proper manuscript format when it comes to online postings, the question is open for discussion. But I believe pretty much the same rules apply as those for work submitted to offline publishers. That’s because the overall appearance of a blog entry or other online post ultimately generates a lasting impression on its readers, either negative or positive. In other words, the look of the piece itself will determine how you, the writer, are perceived overall.

On that note, here’s a simple, four-point checklist for those of us living in two writing worlds. You may find these pointers helpful before submitting your next guest post or print manuscript.

The Two-Worlds Guide to Preparing Pieces for Publication

1. Make sure your submission, whether online or off, is presented in a professional manner. This means you’ve placed the text in proper manuscript format. For best results, especially when submitting offline (that is, to avoid immediate rejection) check the publisher’s guidelines for writers and follow them to the letter. Publishers mean what they say.

2. Carefully proofread your work. It’s helpful to let the piece sit for several hours or days, then read through the text again, preferably aloud, noting and correcting any blips in the flow, typos, and grammar errors you find.

3. Spell check. If you’re unsure of a word’s spelling, either use an online source such as or good old Webster’s. Remember that your spellchecker cannot distinguish between the proper use of homonyms such as they’re, there, and their, which brings us back to carefully proofread your work.

4. Check punctuation and grammar, either through an online source such as or your favorite style book. A great, easy-to-understand hardcopy reference I can’t live without is Nitty-Gritty Grammar by Edith H. Fine and Judith P. Josephson. When I really want to power up, I consult The Chicago Manual of Style.

I’m reminded of the old saying: “You have only one chance to make a good first impression.”

I welcome your comments.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Talking Art

"Second Cut" by Kathleen Volp

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

My grandfather, Jacob Scheinfein, was a painter and a photographer. Some of my earliest and most happy memories are of time spent with him: walking around the block near his home or sitting across from him at our kitchen table quietly sketching. Jack kept a studio in his house and though he died when I was 11, the smell of oil paint never fails to bring its image vividly to mind.

My two older brothers and I loved and admired him. He took the time to forge a unique relationship with each of us. He was, hands down, the most positively influential male presence in our lives.

Because of Jack, I have always been drawn to creative people. Many of my closest friends have made artistic expression their life’s work. So it is with great pleasure that I take on the task of choosing and posting images for this blog. My goal is to share the work of my favorite artists and photographers and that of those I do not yet know.

The artist whose work we currently feature, Kathleen Volp, is a conceptual artist. Her images are a skillful manipulation of media that might include paint, metal, string, varnish, and plaster that convey stories, emotions, and themes. Her work is personal at the same time as it makes statements about the world around us. She asks viewers to take their time looking. Those who do will walk away with something new to think about.

So I hope you will take the time to explore these images. To visit the featured artist’s Web site, simply click on the image itself.

Please feel free to comment on these as you would on a blog post – and definitely let us know about other visual artists whose work we may want to feature.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The New Magazine: Blogazine or Magazog?

Why we're now calling TW a blogazine—and the ever-evolving world of first-person journalism. Do you think we've entered a new age for writers, or is it more of the same?

A few days ago, I thought I was particularly clever, dreaming up a new term for the hybrid blog-magazine that's now appearing all over the Web: magazog. That's it! I told myself, as I strode around the local reservoir, golden leaves fluttering down, the raw sticks of winter peeking through.

We professionals, I thought without a scrap of humility, will soon be working for online sites in which the writing is not just stream-of-consciousness crud. We won't just be generating free content, we'll be...zoggers??

All right. Forget magazog. I waded through another swirl of leaves. I played with the words in my head for a few more steps—b-zine (no, sounds like b-school), blozine (nosedrops? yuk), blogazine (yes! yes!)

Hubris is sometimes a wonderful thing. But there's nothing like a quick google to bring a dreamer down. When I got back from my walk, I found many entries for blogazine, a word that already has some currency.

I may have missed the blogazine blip, but what magazines are becoming has been much on my mind. It's a question I'll ask my students to research this spring in my magazine course. It's forcing me to revise my syllabus. After all, Malcolm Gladwell has a blog. Margaret Atwood has a blog. And what about everyone writing for free on Open Salon—with its tag of "You Make the Headlines—isn't that like a magazine?

Yet as radically as the industry has changed in the past year, some of the edgiest trends in magazine writing—the looser style, the subjectivity, the self-reflexive references—may not be so new at all.

One user at Urban Dictionary defines blogazine as an "online magazine/blog with thoughts and opinions that are researched unlike blogs." (Granted, if you check out the other links here, you'll notice lots of tongues in cheeks.) 

Readingaround Blogazine is described as "an online magazine of new work by independent writers and editors," and it actually has a very attractive, magaziney (but mercifully uncluttered) front "cover."

Phresh Mentality, a self-described "myspace photo album" that launched as an indie music blogazine this summer, calls itself  "a dynamic team focused on photography, design, and journalism."

"Journalism" and "research" often pop up in references to blogazines. The collaborative nature of these enterprises also distinguishes them from old-style blogs. And once you've got a list of contributors or "staff," you've entered magazine territory.

But except for the digital medium used, the shift from blogs to some form of online magazine isn't shockingly new. Blogs and blogazines are very much in line with the origin of print magazines. The term "magazine" (from the word for an ammunition cartridge or holder) was first used as a reference to the incendiary nature of opinion pieces.

The Gentleman's Magazine, first published in 1731, kicked off the use of "magazine" for a print journal with political commentary, cultural reviews, and a letters section that involves a back-and-forth with readers. The Preface to one volume notes that "whoever has perused the Gentleman's Magazines of this year" must be able to discern that:
"[W]e have a large number of ingenious and learned contributors, by whom many subjects, of the highest importance, are treated with accuracy, spirit and candour. Much the greater part of these contributors conceal themselves with such secrecy that we correspond only with them by the Magazine...."
The editor himself used a pseudonym—Sylvanus Urban—which would work just fine on Open Salon or other cyber sites where noms de plume are common. Political writers like Jonathan Swift and, most especially, Daniel Defoe would also have been right at home with today's blogs or blogazines. Defoe's Review so much resembled a blog that one academic project has set it up in that form for contemporary readers.

Then there's George Orwell, the patron saint of many feature-writing journalists, who had all the earmarks of an avid blogger. His given name was Eric Blair, but "George Orwell" allowed him to keep "the public from 'working magic' on him by knowing his true identity," notes Paul McHugh in a Washington Post travel piece about Orwell's island retreat on Jura.

(Side question: Would Orwell, ill with TB on that remote Scottish island and composing 1984, have written for free just to get his ideas out? Probably, but I'm not sure.)

Here's what I want to know: Has blogging changed more recent standards for journalistic magazine features? Are we getting more personal, more subjective? Is the first-person starting to trump?

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's potentially a profound change. The distinction between "hard" and "soft" news seems increasingly outmoded to me. I'm not arguing that we abandon good reporting practices; more than ever, feature writers need to verify facts, cultivate diverse sources, and make clear to readers where the information comes from.

Yet features in which writers inject themselves to good effect, giving readers entré to how reporters sift through facts and come to conclusions, may get us closer to multi-faceted reality. That's certainly true for trend stories or other features that rely on anecdotes.

Neil Swidey's latest article in the Boston Globe Magazine, "Why an iPhone Could Actually Be Good for Your 3-Year-Old," is a great example. He takes a hot-button topic (I must admit my first response was "Are you nuts?!") and makes a convincing case for something counterintuitive. Yet he doesn't do so by pretending objectivity or journalistic omniscience:
"I say this as someone who doesn't even like the iPhone. I have never worshipped at the altar of Jobs, and have, in fact, always preferred the dowdy PC.... But I can see how quickly our youngest daughter has become a pro with the device, despite being just 4 years old and unable to spell anything more than her name. She belongs to a new generation."
Swidey not only provides plenty of counterpoints to his claim, he also clues readers in to why what they say matters. Swidey writes that "for a reality check, I went to see Dr. Michael Rich," who runs the Center on Media and Child Health at a Boston hospital. Rich, predictably, talks about why smart phones for toddlers are worrisome. But Swidey adds:
"[H]ere's what makes Rich's perspective so valuable. In a field where some children's advocates view all media as bad while industry-bought voices speak only gee-whiz-ese, Rich opts for nuance. He rejects the notion that parents try to seal off their child from all media...."
Most readers know journalists have biases and that we're not completely objective observers. Instead of one's perspective being masked, in personally inflected features it's out there for all to see.

Ironically, the rise of first-person journalism, fueled by blogging and social-networking, may be dragging magazines right back to their roots—to all those gentlemen writers talking with such "accuracy and candour." (Or at least back to Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion.) You can see it on Open Salon, where so many gentlepeople fling ideas around with gusto, and with a quality that matches or surpasses much of what appears in print today.

So do we need a new word for magazine—or blog? Perhaps the only reason to push for blogazine and the like is a professional one: respect.

On another walk around the reservoir, the golden leaves still falling, here's a comment I overheard: "I'm still getting together my blog thing. Do you have an e-mail? I'll send it to you."

This speaker is obviously worried her "blog thing" will get no respect; it's not the equivalent of saying, for instance, "my article in the NY Times Magazine." But she follows up fast with "your email" and "send it to you," revealing just how much finding readers means to writers these days.

Sometimes I think the whirl of blogs and e-zines is the equivalent of a million tumbling autumn leaves. But I like the notion of collaboration versus the top-down masthead of print magazines. If that's what makes a blogazine different and "dynamic," I'm for it. I like the spirit of adventure, the potential for many editors rather than just a few guarding the gate to publication.

Call it the New-Old Journalism. Or the Old-New Magazine. Think of Daniel Defoe or Samuel Johnson, a regular contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine. They would have been thrilled to spread their ideas from pole to pole. If asked to create a new kind of magazine, they'd be learning HTML and how to create podcasts in the pubs of London. They'd be way past worrying about a drop in print ad sales—though they'd also be figuring out how to make some money.

This piece originally appeared on Open Salon as an Editor's Pick.

Corrections: A small error appeared in the block quote from the Gentleman's Magazine (an incorrect "of"); Paul McHugh's article appeared in the Washington Post, not the New York Times. These errors were corrected January 8, 2010.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The View From One Inch Shorter

By Elizabeth Langosy for Talking Writing

It has been two months since I accepted an early retirement offer from Harvard University in order to focus on my fiction writing (my optimistic starting point is described in “An Awfully Big Adventure?”). Since then, life has swept me along on its merry (and sometimes not-so-merry) path.

Did I begin working on my writing? Yes, I did. As planned, I reviewed three stories awaiting final edits and decided which one to work on first. I was both giddy with the prospect of writing days stretching ahead and terrified that I’d made a huge mistake in leaving my job, but on my first workday, I identified—and, more importantly, saw how to resolve—a critical problem with the opening pages of my story. I knew then that I’d made the right decision.

What happened next? I regret to say that I was completely distracted by an overload of paperwork and obligations. These fell into three categories:

Money: My post-retirement to-do list held 22 items, ranging from “Cancel subway pass” to “Submit final Flexible Spending Account receipts.” All of them had to do with funds I could receive or funds I could avoid uselessly spending—but only if I submitted a specific form and associated documentation. When I realized that I was in danger of forgoing money I was owed while continuing to pay for things I no longer used, I knew I had to set aside time to complete the paperwork.

Mom: My mother is 87 years old and has congestive heart failure. She’s now in an assisted living facility, but her doctor suggested that she move to a higher level of care. This prompted my siblings and me to begin simultaneously researching long-term care options and finalizing a partnership agreement a lawyer had drafted several years earlier to preserve and protect a summer cottage we’ll inherit. Many phone conferences and email exchanges ensued, some of them contentious. As the longtime family peacemaker, I ended up revising the partnership document to reflect our conversations while running interference between my siblings.

Mayhem: Well, not literally mayhem, but how many things can happen at once? Between the time of year, happenstance, and things I’d neglected to do over the summer, my calendar listed appointments for nearly every day in September and October. Many of these involved family and friends and others had to do with medical appointments I’d been putting off. At one of these appointments, my annual physical, I learned that I was one inch shorter than I’d been the previous year.

One inch shorter! How could that be? “That happens when people get older,” said the medical assistant as she left me in the examination room. Well, yes, it happened to my 87-year-old mother, who now looks tiny standing next to me in photos. But I thought I had many years to go before I started to shrink, which—face it—is what is happening. Since that appointment, I’ve used up even more time in researching this phenomenon. I’ve learned that height loss can sometimes result from poor posture or a lack of stretching exercises, but the results of my planned experimentation with that will not be known until my next height measurement.

In the meantime, I’ve identified a hidden benefit of decreased height. I was walking a familiar route the other day (the route of my twice-daily walk to and from the subway during my working years) when I realized that things looked subtly different. What could have changed so radically in just a few weeks? I indulged myself in imagining that my newly expanded focus on writing was enabling me to notice much more about my surroundings than I’d seen before. But the truth is that I’ve always noticed what’s around me, storing away images and overheard conversations for future stories. Then I thought of my decreased height. I’m used to seeing things at a flat height or at one or two inches higher, depending on the shoes of the day, but I’ve never seen things at a lower height. Could it make a difference? To test this theory, I tried walking a few steps on tiptoe and suddenly everything looked “normal.”

So now here I am. My calendar is mostly clear for November and December, and I’m back to revising my story. I’m trying to get in at least five hours of solid writing each day and have been reading a lot more fiction than before. I’m also making sure to get in a daily walk, ruminating on the day’s writing conundrums, collecting snippets of conversation, and viewing the world from one inch shorter.