Archive of Articles about Writing

A List of Essay Writing Don’ts

Topic / Research

  • Don’t try to solve the mysteries of the world in an essay. Stick to topics that you can handle in the space and time provided to you.
  • Don’t write about a topic you don’t understand. Pick a topic you can write intelligently about and take the time to research your topic before writing your essay.
  • Don’t use web sites as your only sources. Read some actual books or academic papers.
  • Don’t make things up.
  • Don’t include irrelevant information.
  • Don’t be afraid to start over. Sometimes your initial approach won’t work. Recognize that and move on.
  • Don’t feel like you have to agree with the experts.
  • Don’t plagiarize.
  • Don’t forget to answer a question.

Style

  • Don’t provide lengthy plot summaries or paraphrases.
  • Don’t provide a collection of generic declarations and cliches.
  • Don’t use overly long quotations.
  • Don’t pad your writing. Take the space to say everything that is necessary, but don’t use a paragraph to provide a sentence worth of material.
  • Don’t misuse the thesaurus or convince yourself that big fancy words will make your essay sound more academic or intelligent.
  • Don’t be afraid to write in the first person, but remember that your voice must fit the material and the audience.
  • Don’t use slang or unnecessary technical jargon. If you must use an obscure term, take the time to define and explain it.
  • Don’t try too hard to be funny. Some humor may work in an essay, but going overboard can make your topic and you look foolish.
  • Don’t try to imitate others. Just write cleanly and correctly in your own voice.
  • Don’t just spout a list of facts or statistics. Take the time to analyze the information you are presenting.
  • Don’t forget to let your personality and ideas about the topic guide the way you write.
  • Don’t brag or put down other people.

Editing

  • Don’t turn in your first draft.
  • Don’t forget to proofread.
  • Don’t rely exclusively on your computer to check your spelling. Read through what you have written. Read it out loud and listen to the way your paper sounds.
  • Don’t be afraid of revision. Sometimes it takes a while to find the true focus of your essay. Once you find it, you may need to make major changes to create your best essay.

Formatting

  • Don’t hand-write your essay.
  • Don’t use subheadings before every paragraph.
  • Don’t use a font that is too large or too small
  • Don’t use colored or oddly-sized paper.
  • Don’t turn in an essay that is messy or poorly formatted.

Chapbook Publishing

What is a chapbook?

A chapbook is a book that created by folding standard 8 1/2 x 11 (The size varies outside of the United States) paper in half so that you create a shape close to that of a common paperback book. By doing this, a single sheet of paper yields four pages of a book. You then bind the multiple pages together by stapling along the crease of the sheets of paper. A mere eight sheets of paper can create a 32 page chapbook. Because of the limitations of the stapling and folding process, chapbooks tend to run about 32 pages and rarely more than 64 pages. In addition to standard sheets of paper, you may wish to create a cover using thicker (and perhaps glossy) cover-stock paper.

What are the advantages of a chapbook?

The primary advantage of a chapbook is that it can be created cheaply using a computer, a word processing or desktop publishing program, and a printer. This means that you can produce as many or as few books as you need. Poetry chapbooks are accepted in the poetry community and many poetry competitions accept chapbooks as entries.

What are the disadvantages of a chapbook?

The primary disadvantage of a chapbook is that most retail bookstores will not sell it. Because chapbooks do not have spine wide enough to print a title on, they cannot easily be found on the bookshelf. Also, if you wish to produce a chapbook yourself, that means you will have to write, edit, design, print, and bind the book yourself. Many people lack the skill or the motivation to do these things themselves. It is possible to have a professional print shop produce the chapbook for you, but that will add to the expense and you will have to order a set run of books. There are also online services such as Lulu who will publish one for you, but again, if your goal is cheap this may not get you what you want.

Once I create a chapbook, what can I do with it?

You can sell it through your web site. You can bring it to sell at poetry readings (even open mike nights). You can enter it in poetry contests and you can produce it so cheaply that you can even give it away if you want to.

How to Create an Article or Blog Idea Log

Some writers know exactly what they want to say. They merely have to start typing and passion flows from them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they write well, but they don’t sit around wondering what to write about. Most writers, however, need a little prodding. Sometimes they have great ideas, and sometimes they stare at their computer screen waiting for something to come to them. If you fall into the second category, you can reduce your time spent staring at the screen by creating a log of your good ideas when they come to you. You can also spend those slow times looking at a few tried and true idea resources and seeing what ideas you can grow for the future.

What is an idea log?

Your idea log can be as simple or as fancy as you wish. Some people create file folders for their ideas. They fill them with notes, clippings, pictures and whatever else will assist them. When they pull out the folder, they have all they need to start work. This can be a great system, but it is a lot of work, especially if you never pursue that idea later.

Many people take advantage of their computers. They write quick notes, or even put them in the form of a query to an editor, and keep them in individual documents or add them to a database. There are whole services devoted to notes and thoughts, such as Evernote and Simplenote. This is an excellent system and one that can also get you going quickly once you decide to write because part of the document is already written. You just have to expand on it.

The third way that I propose is simpler and not as thorough. I use it myself, however, because of its ease and portability. I keep a stack of 3×5 cards in which I jot down my ideas. I put a title and description at the top then jot down the note below. I rarely fill up more than one side of one card. It isn’t as thorough as a file or as ready to roll as a computer note, but it keeps me from prattling on about what is just a single idea that I may or may not follow. Plus, when I have a stack of these cards, I can pull them out and thumb through them quickly, more quickly than going through a file folder or a database. I can also take these cards with me anywhere and jot down the ideas as they come. I am a big fan of computers, but for this task I really do prefer the simplicity of a 3×5 card.

What do you like? What do you hate?

A great place to start looking for ideas is to look at your likes and dislikes. What makes you happy and what makes you sad or angry. These are the things in your life that will provoke your most passionate writing. This can range from politics, entertainment, art, or even a lump in your carpet that you’d like to get rid of. It all depends on what interests you enough to upset or please you.

Who do you know?

The people in your life can be one of your greatest sources of ideas. They have jobs, hobbies, interests and problems that make them experts hundreds of things. Your architect friend can now be interviewed about what makes for a good or bad home design. Your divorced friend with three kids probably has much to say about child support issues. With a little fictionalization, the annoying woman at work might make for a great short story. Look at the people around you. Evaluate them as article sources, interview topics and as story ideas.

Who would you like to know?

People often portray writing as a solitary task, but one of the great benefits of being a writer is that you can use it to meet people. Think about the respected or famous people you would like to talk to: writers you respect, experts in fields you are interested in, actors and politicians. Some of them will be difficult to meet, but many are easier than you think. While the ten most famous writers in the world may be hard to contact, most writers do not spend the majority of their time fending off interview requests. The same is true of experts in most areas. Politicians and actors are probably the hardest to get an interview with, but even then you might be surprised. Just remember that the top few in those fields are nearly impossible to interview without some clout behind you, but there are plenty of others in the field who would be happy to answer your questions.

Where have you been?

Travel is a great way to generate ideas. Look at the places you’ve gone and the things you’ve done there. Think also of the trips you would like to take. From travel guides to the settings for stories, your journeys can be a great source of ideas. Whenever you travel, it is a good idea to keep a journal and write down your thoughts and impressions. You never know where you might find your next idea.

What have you been doing?

Take a look at your areas of expertise. What jobs have you held? What hobbies have you had? What have you studied? These are your areas of knowledge. You may not be an expert, but in writing it is generally enough to be an intelligent amateur as long as you are willing to do the research for your story. Just as your friends are great sources of information, you are your greatest source. Not only do you know something about these things, but also you can rely on yourself, more than anyone else, to do the work required to find out more. Every job, from working in a warehouse to being a phone solicitor to managing a small office, has requirements and areas of interest. Think about how these things can become articles or stories.

What have you been reading?

If you are a writer, then chances are you are an avid reader, and it pays to keep a few notes while you read. The daily paper, magazines, the Internet and the books you read are great sources for ideas. My favorite example of this process is the movie The Player, in which a studio executive challenges anyone to read him a newspaper article and he’ll come up with a movie based on it. Over and over he turns the most mundane articles into feature film ideas. Ideas are everywhere.

What happened to you?

Beyond the jobs and hobbies you’ve had, there is plenty more to your life. There are hundreds of high points and low points in every person’s life: people found and lost, love shared and unrequited, accidents, plots, plans, choices and mistakes. Most of your memories are worthy of a story or article, because chances are you haven’t managed to remember the ordinary and mundane parts of your life, just the highs and the lows and the elements that contribute to who you are. Your life is an endless source of material if you have the talent to make it interesting to others.

Ideas are all around you. If you go through the items above, you will have plenty of ideas to work with, but beyond that, you just need to keep your eyes open and your other senses ready to back them up. Ideas will come to you if you are paying attention. Just remember to have some system to keep track of them, even if it is just a notebook for you to jot things down in. Your ideas are fuel for your writing. Keep plenty of fuel handy.

How to Send an Effective Press Release

Capturing a publication’s attention can be a difficult task. You are competing against a variety of other people, causes and events. To win this competition you must do two things. First, you must gain their interest. Second, you must present your story in a professional manner that will make it easy for them to give you the coverage you desire. Here are some tips to help you send effective press releases.

Know Your Target

Find out who the publication’s editor / reporter / blogger is for the section you want your press release to appear in. Include that person’s name on the press release, not just on the envelope or in the email address.

Pick One Person Per Publication

Once you’ve chosen the appropriate person, stick with them. If the article needs to be passed off to another reporter, the publication will make that decision. If you send your press release to more than one person, any problems that develop from duplicate coverage and effort will be blamed on you.

Don’t Just Send, Call

To increase your chances of getting coverage, call the intended recipient before you send the press release and call a few days later to make sure they received it. Making first contact by phone will also help you find the appropriate person to send your press release to.

Give it Time

Don’t email a press release the day before an event and expect your event to receive coverage. Give the maximum possible amount of time for the publication to decide how they want to cover the story. If you feel the event is so far in the distance that they might forget about it, then simply send another release as the time for the event draws nearer.

Know Your Deadlines

Magazines, even weekly ones, are planned months in advance. Seasonal events such as Christmas and Thanksgiving are great examples of this. Holiday issues are frequently developed in the heat of summer. For calendar items, know when the publication’s submission deadline is. Do your research.

Keep it Short and Informative

Reporters and editors are notoriously busy. Most press releases should be kept to a single page. Two pages is acceptable but not optimal. If the publications want more information, they’ll ask.

Write it in a News Style

Put the primary information (who, where, what, and when) into the lead (first paragraph), and avoid a heavy sales pitch. No exclamation points!!! Use short words and sentences. Make sure what you’re saying is very clear. Many publications will directly reprint a press release, as long as it is written in a professional news style. Buy either the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, and learn the general guidelines for abbreviating words, writing numbers and capitalizing names.

Use Postal Mail or Email

You should check with each publication to find out their preferred system for receiving press releases. In general, email is acceptable and postal mail is fine. Faxes are hard to read or to include photos with, so avoid faxing.

Help keep it Together

For printed press releases, always include, at the top corner of every page, a two or three word description of the story, the name and contact information of key contact people (no more than two), the page number (if there is more than one page) and the release date (usually “for immediate release” or “please hold until ??/??/??”). For emails, include this information at the beginning of the email. Be aware that most people will hit the reply button to respond to an email, so send your press release from an email address that you will be able to follow up from.

Show and Tell

If you have good photos, send them or include the words “photos available upon request” with your information at the top of the first page. Only send high quality photos, however, and only when they add to your story. Place photos between cardboard when mailing. Don’t tape or paper clip the photos or you risk damaging them.

Make it Easy on the Eyes

When sending mail. use standard 8 1/2″x 11″ paper typed on one side only. Never break a paragraph across two pages. Leave wide margins for editors to write notes in. A 1 1/2″ or 2″ margin on each side is fine. Also, use a standard font. Fancy text may look nice, but it is hard to read.

Dress for Success

When sending mail, don’t fold your press release like a letter. You should fold it so that the headline and date will be the first thing the editor or reporter sees upon opening the envelope.

All Good Press Releases Must Come to an End

End a press release with either “###” or ” -30-” typed across the center of the page, three lines below the end of your text. If a release has greater than one print page, type “-more-”, centered at the bottom of the pages preceding the final page.

How to Write a How To Article

The podcast

My podcast addresses some mistakes writers commonly make when creating how to articles.

What is a how to article?

A how to article helps the reader to accomplish a specific task. This may be a technical task such as loading a new computer application, a mechanical task such as changing the oil in a car, an educational task such as writing a research paper, or a more esoteric task such as ending a relationship or meditating. How to articles are often called instructional or procedural articles. One of the oldest and most common types of how to articles is the recipe. A good recipe contains all of the key components to a good how-to article.

  • A well defined goal (bake a cake)
  • Necessary components (ingredients and tools)
  • Steps (mix sugar and flour, add eggs)
  • Conditional changes and options (Adjust for higher altitude, substitute brown sugar with molasses)
  • Expected result (cake should be moist and golden brown)

 

How to prepare for a how to article

IDENTIFY YOUR TARGET READER

Think about who is likely to use the instructions you’re about to write. Are they experts? Are they totally new to the process? Are they, like most of us, somewhere in between? Are you writing in their native language as well as yours or will you readers be doing some mental translating? You may not always know exactly who you’re writing for but keep your reader in mind as best you can; aiming at a specific type of reader will inform your article from beginning to end.

DEFINE THE GOAL

Defining a goal is not complicated, but it does take more thought than most people give it. The main thing to remember is that there is a direct goal and an indirect goal. The direct goal of a person who reads an article about “How to Brew Beer” is to brew a beer, but their indirect goal is to create something that they can then enjoy and be proud of. Most how to advice is a means to an end. The reader wants to accomplish the task, but their real goal is the result of that task. An article about How to eliminate the XyXIX virus from your computer will be used by people who want their computer to work properly. Getting rid of the virus is just the means to an end.

DEFINE THE STANDARDS FOR SUCCESS

One of the reasons you should spend a little extra time thinking about the reader’s goal is because it will help you define your standard of success. The standard of success is the expected result of your how to article. You are defining the result that the reader will expect to produce by following your instructions. For example, if your reader is attempting to build something, the standard or success might be that the end result is:

  • Attractive
  • Functions properly
  • Required only the supplies and equipment specified
  • Built within economic expectations
  • Finished without personal injury
  • Holds up to the stress of use.

WALK THROUGH THE PROCESS

When creating a how to article, you should expect to do the task you are documenting. You don’t tell someone how to bake a cake unless you can bake a cake. The key to a successful walk through is to track each step you take and the result of that step. Steps should be broken down into small, clear actions that produce a result.

In some cases, it may not be possible to replicate the entire process. Due to exterior constraints, you may not be able to perform every step of a process. For example, when documenting software that is still in production, you may have to assume a result. This is especially true when working with dummy data (information created for simulation purposes) or with mock-ups (graphic representations of the expected final product).

EXAMINE THE OPTIONS

There is more than one way to accomplish most tasks. For example, many computer commands can be accomplished with either the mouse pointer or with keystroke combinations (often called shortcuts). Additionally, part of the process might change based on your choices. Option A might have different steps than Option B. Depending on what you are writing about and who you are writing for, you will have to choose between telling your reader a single way to accomplish a task and discussing their other options. This is particularly true when you’re describing how to do something technical. Installing software often forces the user to either accept defaults or to make fairly sophisticated decisions. Building a shed would present choices such as where you put a door; that choice, when made, results in the need to be sure the right sized shelves go in the correct place, etc.

CONSULT AN EXPERT

Writing a guide to a process you are not expert in can be a challenge. That is why it is important to find outside resources to help you write your article. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs, called smees) are a great resource in this situation. A SME is simply someone who has the information you need in order to properly write about a task. At software companies these are often product specialists, programmers, trainers and business analysts. It is certainly easier to write a how to article when you are the expert, but even when you think you know all you need to know, don’t underestimate the value of a second opinion. There may be a better way to do things and it’s almost always true there will be a different way to do things. Chefs, for example, often change a cake recipe to complement an entrée.

RESEARCH WHAT OTHERS HAVE WRITTEN

Additional research is always a good idea. No matter what topic you are writing about, there’s a good chance someone on the Internet has tackled something similar. In the software world, there are usually archives of supporting documentation such as functional specifications, business reviews, quality assurance scripts and usability testing results. Looking over the information that is out there can be a real help in making sure your article is a good one. You don’t need to read every article or brief though. The number of ways to bake a cake is astronomical. You could spend the rest of your life just studying cake recipes.

A brief style guide for how to writing

ORDER AND GROUPING

How to guides are written in a procedural format. That means that you follow a logical series of steps. Depending on the topic, you may or may not need to number these steps. In general, the less technical or mechanical a topic is, the less need there is to number steps. This article is not numbered because each step required considerable advice and discussion, and because the order of events is not fixed. While you can write a how to article following these topics in order, it is not necessary. There is no real problem is you consult an expert before you define the audience or examine the options. In fact, it may be the better way to do things in some cases.

There are often pieces of information that belong together even though they don’t have a specific order. A list of supplies or a list of resources, for example, does not need to be in a specific order but should still be grouped together.

Ordered list (numbered list)

Most ordered lists are numbered. In general, standard 1, 2, 3 numbering is best. Some documentation styles call for roman numerals or letters, but those are the exceptions. Lists tend to become more complicated, however, if you need to document sub-steps. This can happen if you have one or more options to choose from and need to describe how each option produces a particular result. A list with subsets is what is referred to as a nested list. For nested lists, letters are often used instead of numbers.

Try to keep the number of steps in an ordered list under ten. Readers tend to be intimidated by longer lists. To shorten the number of list items, you may want to break a complex task up into two or more sections/parts. This can often be done by finding a logical place to begin numbering again following a paragraph of explanation.

Unordered List

Unordered lists use bullet points. A bullet point is a dot or a square (or other design) before a list item. Unordered lists are great for article elements such as lists of tools, supplies or options

Results

If a step in the process changes the situation (creates a result), that needs to be documented. For example, when someone clicks on a link online it will generally send them to a new web page (or at least change the look of the web page they are on). Another example might be when the step is adding, say two eggs to the flour, butter and sugar in the cake, a description of how the batter will change (become more liquid) would be appropriate. Describe the result immediately after the step, but do not make it a numbered item because it is not a separate step.

References and resources

When working with outside sources (such as information from books or other web sites) be sure to acknowledge those resources. When possible, provide a link to the source material. Doing this not only gives fair credit to the source author, it also provides additional information that your reader use clarify questions and provide alternatives.

Language

CLARITY

When writing a how to guide, your overriding goal should be clarity at all times. This style of writing isn’t as broad or imaginative as prose. You want your statements to be direct, concise, and unambiguous.

SHORT SENTENCES

Short sentences are almost always preferable to long sentences when you are writing a how to guide. Short, declarative statements make for good steps. Never try to combine two steps into a single sentence.

REPETITION

One of the keys to writing a procedure is to use the same words in the same way every time you use them. Some words, such as Run and Program have many meanings. When you write a guide, you don’t want to have your words misinterpreted, so do your best to use the word consistently to mean one thing throughout your instructions.

Just as you want a word to mean the same thing every time you use it, you want to use the same word every time you mean the same thing. If you said, run the program the first time, don’t say start the application the second time.

Additionally, use the same phrases when an action is repeated. If you write, Click on the OKbutton the first time, don’t write Click OK the second time. Use the same phrase every time.

ACCURATE AND UNAMBIGUOUS WORDS

Using unambiguous words will help your reader understand your instructions. Here is an example of a set of terms that become increasingly unambiguous:

  • Communication device
  • Phone
  • Mobile phone
  • Smartphone
  • 3G capable smartphone
  • Blackberry smartphone
  • BlackBerry Curve 8900

In the world of cooking, stirring had a different meaning than beating or whisking does. Use the most appropriate word and use it consistently. If you’re not sure what word is best, look it up or ask your expert.

Add Supporting Materials

SCREEN SHOTS

When documenting a computer-based process, screen shots (images of the screen) are an excellent way to demonstrate both the steps to take and the results of those steps. There are, however, a few drawbacks to using screen shots.

Screen shots take up a great deal of space on your screen or page. It can be difficult to find a balance between the clarity of the image and the amount of space it takes up. These space considerations can be especially troublesome when you are working with mobile devices such as smart phones and touch screens.

Screen shots can be slow to load. Image files take longer to download and display on a screen.

Screen shots can become outdated. I once worked on a project in which the previous writer had meticulously created screen shots complete with additional graphics such as pointers and numbering. When it came time to update the document, all of those screen shots were useless, even though much of the underlying process remained unchanged.

If the screenshot is to be printed, make sure it will be large enough to make it worthwhile. If it’s an ebook, the chances are the color on the screenshot may get lost if the user prints it – you can solve this by making the shot grey scale to begin with.

ILLUSTRATIONS

When you are writing about a physical task such as putting a desk together, illustrations tend to make the task much easier. Many people think visually, and a good illustration can really clarify a process. Like screen shots, illustrations can sometimes become outdated. The main downside of illustrations, however, is that they take drawing and design talent. If you don’t have these talents (or have someone who does) then this will take a lot of time and may never produce the desired result.

FLOWCHARTS

A flowchart is a great way to clarify a process. This is especially true if the process has many optional steps or choices to be made. The symbols on a flowchart each have a set meaning/purpose, so you will want to get a good idea of how they work.

SLIDESHOWS AND VIDEO

An accompanying video or slide show presentation can be very handy for your audience.

Testing

The first step in testing is to follow your own how-to instructions. Do exactly what you say to do. Don’t let yourself stray from your written plan. If you do, then it may be a gap in the article.

The best way to test your instructions is to have several people actually try to install the software or bake the cake or put the desk together. It is particularly helpful to watch people as they are testing your process. They may complain that step 5 is confusing, but that may only be because they made a mistake at step 3. You won’t learn that just by listening to or reading their feedback. You’ll also see where they hesitate and re-read the instructions. Often, however you’ll have to make do with their notes. And sometimes you simply won’t have the opportunity to test.

Having someone new to the project read through your instructions can help. They may spot something that’s crystal clear to you but incomprehensible or confusing to them.

The final result

A well-written how to guide should have the following qualities:

  • It should be easy for it’s target audience to understand
  • It should have a clear result
  • It should accomplish the stated goal
  • It should have all the information necessary for success

What a freelancer should know before querying a magazine

Know the magazine’s submissions / writer’s guidelines

The easiest way to find out what a magazine wants is to let them tell you. Many magazines post their writer’s guidelines on their web site. If you can’t find them online, contact one of the editors and ask for them to email or snail mail you the guidelines. A directory such as Writer’s Market can be helpful for your initial search, but don’t rely on them for all of your information. Any number of things can change between the publication of those listings and the day you decide to send your query. Not only do writer’ guidelines tend to address content issues, but they can also tell you what format the publication prefers their submissions in. One magazine may want you to email them, another might want you to send a paper copy and a third may want you to upload a Microsoft Word file. You won’t know if you don’t do the research.

Know who the magazine’s editors are

Knowing the right person to send your query to is one of the little details that can make a big difference when you are trying to make a sale. If you query the wrong person, any of a number of bad things can happen. The person who receives it might dismiss your query and throw it away because it isn’t what they are looking for. The person who receives it may know who should get it and plan to give it to them, but never get around to doing so. If your query does finally get to the right person, they may hold the fact that it was addressed to the wrong person against you. Always take the time to find out who the right recipient for your query is. Check the magazine’s masthead for the latest information and don’t be afraid to call or email to confirm your choice.

Know the magazine’s editorial calendar

In addition to guidelines, many magazines have an editorial calendar that covers such things as publication lead times, deadlines for holiday or seasonal items and upcoming special editions or subject focuses. Some magazines dedicate issues to a single topic. Knowing what a magazine is looking for and when they are looking for it can give you a serious advantage over the competition. When you request submission guidelines, be sure to request the calendar as well.

Know the magazine, front to back

Don’t assume you know what a magazine wants just because you have read their writer’s guidelines. The proper way to research a magazine is to read it. Get your hands on a copy of the magazine (the more copies the better). Check the magazine’s website if they have one. You don’t have to read every word of every article, but take the time to get familiar with the different sections and the general writing style. Be sure that what you are proposing fits in well with the publication’s approach to content and style.

Know how to write a query letter

Your query letter needs to demonstrate both the quality of your idea and the quality of your writing. Additionally, it should demonstrate that you know how to follow the magazine’s submission guidelines. Many editors receive dozens of queries each month. For major publishers, the number of queries can climb into the hundreds. This may seem intimidating, but the number of queries that are actually well-written and well thought out is quite small. Most queries are terrible. They are badly written, inappropriate or fail to follow the magazine’s guidelines. It is easy to rise above the crowd if you know what you are doing and you are willing to make a genuine effort to create quality query.