The Blog of John Hewitt

Improving your imagery

One of the most common pieces of advice you will see is to use all five senses. Writers tend to rely on the visual almost exclusively. It is a good idea though, to think about how things smell, taste, sound and feel. You can train this by training yourself to write without visual descriptions. If you leave visuals out, you force yourself to think in terms of the other senses. If you do this long enough, you should eventually turn this into a habit. Once you are used to including the other four senses, you can work visuals back in. Then you can work on the quality of your modifiers.

Not all modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) are created equally. There are really two types of these modifiers, the descriptive and the evaluative. A descriptive modifier provides information without judgment (or with just a little judgment). Evaluative modifiers provide judgment over information. If you say that a dessert was “sugary” you are describing the taste. If you say the dessert was “delicious”, you are evaluating the taste. Evaluative modifiers are less interesting and evocative to the reader than descriptive modifiers.

The next key to improving your imagery originality, which is usually a product of specificity. Specificity separates your images from other poet’s imagery. When you are creating an image for your poem, ask yourself what information you can give that will differentiate your image from everyone else’s description of that image. Find your own way to describe something. Don’t rely on what has been done before.

When you are editing your poem, concentrate on eliminating any tired descriptions from your work. If you think you have heard a description before, the chances are pretty good that you have, and so has your reader. Find a way to change it and make it your own.

Today’s Poetry Prompt

Find an original way to describe a chair and make that the first line of your poem.

Reselling Articles

Give or take a few thousand, there are over 23,000 daily and weekly newspapers in the United States. Weekly newspapers are published for the most part in small towns where there is no competition from large dailies. A weekly newspaper survives with advertising from local businesses, offering rates that are far below that of a daily newspaper. Of course, weeklies have a limited readership, so they reach a local audience with local news and local advertising. Operating on a budget, many weeklies have a small staff and there are weeklies that have 1-2 people doing everything from writing articles to shooting photos to selling advertising to running the presses and distributing the paper around town.

In my forty-plus years of freelancing, I’ve discovered a good market for my articles in weekly newspapers, but you must realized that small newspapers have small budgets. The Atlanta Journal (not a small newspaper) paid me $450 for a 1500 word travel article on Panama City Beach in Florida. I could never get that kind of money from a weekly newspapers, but I could earn $450 if I sold that article to 45 newspapers at $10 each or 10 newspapers at $45 each. I always retain the rights to articles by offering First North American Rights only. That way, I can turn around a month or a year later and sell the article again and again. I’ve sold one article as many as 30 times over a period of a few years, updating it as required to keep it current. This works with magazines as well as newspapers.

Sending out your writing via the old paper/envelope/stamp system is no solution if you want to reach 10, 45 or more newspapers. With a list of weekly newspaper website addresses, anyone can get a glimpse of the current issue and possible the papers archives and get an idea of what type of non-local material they use. A writer’s competition at weeklies is syndicated material that includes a variety of stuff (fillers, puzzles, comic strips, self-help articles, etc.) for only a few dollars each. Because there is no overlap in readership (the readers of a weekly in upstate New York never see an issue of a weekly published in downtown Cleveland), they can sell that material over and over again. A column like Ann Landers that appears in over 2,000 or more papers could be offered for $4 per column and everybody involved gets rich. With that kind of pricing, it’s difficult (but no impossible) to get paid fairly if you’re working on a one-on-one basis. Write a 650 word filler on how to save on your income tax and if you find one weekly interested in buying it, they might offer you $10-$15. I’ve been offered as little as $2 for an article and it cost me (at that time) $1 to mail it flat. You can’t survive under those conditions. But you can survive if you send that article to 10, 50, 100 or more newspapers and you can do that directly from the newspapers web site.

Almost all newspapers (dailies and weeklies) have some means of getting in touch with the editors. While dailies are usually staffed with people who can turn out a variety of material at no cost to the editor other than salary, there are dailies that buy material from freelancers. The Atlanta Journal article sale was the result of a query. They bought the article because I know more about Panama City Beach than any of their staff writers. If you know more about any subject then they can uncover through their normal research/writing routine, you can even crack the dailies. With website access, you can send you material off with a click of the mouse and if they respond, find. If not, there are others out there who might.

Here’s how I sold some humor columns over and over again to weekly newspapers around the country. You can do the same thing with a column on any subject or articles on any subject. I started writing the column for two upstate New York weekly newspapers in the mid-80s and over a period of two years had fifty columns, ranging in length from 500-750 words each. The papers in New York paid me $10 a column. The subjects were general in nature (dieting, paying taxes, living with a spouse, the cost of living, vacationing, politics, etc.) These were subjects that newspaper readers anywhere in the country could relate to. If readers can relate, then there are probably newspaper editors out there interested in what you have to say…if they can afford you. I started putting together the websites of daily and weekly newspapers and concentrated my sales pitch on weeklies for all of the above reasons. I picked two sample columns, opened an e-mail link (letters to the editor, staff e-mails, contact us, etc.) with a “…if you can use this at your normal rate of payment, I have some other columns I’d like to submit. If you can’t use it, just delete it.” I sent the two columns off the first time to 25 editors, using their e-mail link or the BCC block. When you send something to someone by typing in their address in the TO: box, only their address appears when it arrives at the other end. When you send something to more than one person and use the CC: box, they see the entire list of addressee…not a good idea. Using the BCC: (which stands for Blind Carbon Copy), they only see their address even if you send it to 500 editors. Check the e-mail HELP to see how to do this. Sometimes you have to insert a comma between each address.

I sent those columns to over 1,000 editors. While it was tedious, it’s my way of selling material over the Internet. The responses ranged from “…take me off your mailing list” to “sorry, not interested” to “we don’t buy freelance material” to “we don’t have any money” to “we like the columns. How much do you want for them?” I deleted all the negative stuff and wound up with 14 newspapers saying “how much?” If I had to do this by regular mail, I’d go looking for another way to earn a living. From previous experience, I knew if I asked for too much they couldn’t afford it. If I left it up to them, they’d probably pay $5. If I quoted them something in the just-over-reasonable range, say $40, they would probably counteroffer with something in the $20-$25 range. That’s fair enough for me.

Remember now, we’re working with weeklies that have only a limited amount of funds to buy outside material. If you have something good to offer and reach out to enough newspapers, somebody is going to respond. If not, you probably have a bad product, you’re probably too expensive or you’re not contacting enough newspapers. This type of marketing isn’t for everyone. There are writers out there who work on a piece for months and expect to be paid for their time. That’s certainly a reasonable request. But I’ve done both and realize that with the Internet, newspaper and magazine web sites and e-mail address, I can start selling my writing a new way and it works for me. All of this takes time, but once you get the hang of it, you can write something and send it off to a variety of newspapers both dailies and weeklies. Using e-mail links, you can send it to everything from The New York Times to the Marathon Keynoter in the Florida Keys. If they delete it and don’t respond, that’s just part of the marketing process.

Phil Philcox wrote this in the nineties. Keep that in mind.

Explaining the unreliable narrator

An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator that for some reason has a compromised point-of-view. In all stories with a first-person narrator, the narrator serves as a filter for the events. What the narrator does not know or observe cannot be explained to the reader. Usually, however, the reader trusts that the narrator is knowledgeable and truthful enough to give them an accurate representation of the story. In the case of an unreliable narrator (sometimes called a fallible narrator), the reader has reason not to trust what the narrator is saying.

The narrator may be unreliable for many reasons. Some of the typical scenarios are:

  • The narrator may be of a dramatically different age than the people in the story, such as a child attempting to explain adult actions
  • The narrator may have prejudices about race, class or gender
  • The narrator may have low intelligence
  • The narrator may suffer from hallucinations or dementia
  • The narrator may have a personality flaw such as pathological lying or narcissism
  • The narrator may be trying to make a point that is contrary to the actions of the story or be attempting to libel one of the characters due to a grudge

Whatever flaw the narrator has, at some point the reader will realize that the narrator’s interpretation of the events cannot be fully trusted and will begin to form their own opinions about the events and motivations within the story. Some readers will be put off by this approach. Stories depend on the willing suspension of disbelief, and readers can be pulled out of the story when they realize the narrator cannot be trusted. This is why telling a tale from this viewpoint can be problematic. There is a fine line between distrusting the narrator and distrusting the writer.

When done badly, a story written from this point-of-view can be viewed as manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. When successful, however, the results can be powerful and fascinating. Some of the greatest works of the twentieth century used unreliable narrators. Some examples of books with unreliable narrators include:

What major/degree is required to become a technical writer?

There are no specific degree requirements for a position in technical writing. Many technical writers have writing-related degrees such as English, creative writing or journalism. Others have degrees in fields that employ technical writers such as engineering, chemistry, computer science, aerospace, or biology. Some technical writers have completely unrelated degrees. These writers get into the business either by being promoted within the same company or hired because of industry knowledge gained on another job. Writing skill, industry knowledge and tools knowledge are what counts in a technical writing job search.

Common Majors:

  • Technical Writing
  • English
  • Communications
  • Computer Science
  • Any Science
  • Math
  • Creative Writing
  • Journalism

There are a growing number of technical writing degree programs. These programs focus on the creation of technical and educational documents as well as technical editing, usability testing and organizational communication. In the United States, there are technical writing or technical communication degree programs at colleges such as the University of Washington, Bowling Green State University, Texas Tech, and Carnegie Melon. Most technical writers have bachelor degrees. A few of us have advanced degrees. Although it is rare, I have met technical writers without college degrees.

My college degrees consist of an Associate’s Degree in General Studies, A Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and a Master’s Degree in English with a Professional Writing Certification. I began my career in technical writing long before I had the master’s degree. I had worked in my University’s computer department as an undergrad. It gave me the opportunity work with many different computer systems and applications. I also had the opportunity to work as a computer trainer during and after college. That eventually led to a writing and database development position. From there I got into technical writing. Almost all of my employment history for the past fourteen years has consisted of technical writing or information development jobs.

Write a definition poem

“To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one.”

John Ruskin

Reality is subject to interpretation. I have flown from Tucson to Las Vegas at least ten times. When I’ve sat by the window on the left side of the plane, I’ve seen mostly desert scrub and a glimpse of the Colorado River. When I’ve sat on the right side by the window I’ve seen Phoenix, Lake Meade and the Grand Canyon. When I’ve sat on the aisle, I’ve seen people’s heads and harried looking flight attendants. It’s the same journey, but my perspective changes dramatically based only on where I sit.

One of the jobs of a poet is to interpret reality. Every time you write a poem, you are attempting to capture a piece of reality. Even if your poem is an absurdist mix of words or a journey to a fantasy realm, you are asserting that your poem in some way reflects the world around you. Your interpretation may be that the world is completely unreal, but it is still an interpretation.

Your view of reality helps you to create your own poetic “voice”. Your voice is a combination of your writing style, your worldview, and your experiences. Many people start out imitating other poets or styles, but if you write frequently enough, your own voice asserts itself and you become comfortable with the way that you write. It is an important part of the process of becoming a poet.

Today’s Poetry Prompt

Write a definition poem. A definition poem takes a word or a concept and attempts to define it, provide perspective, redefine it, or create a definitive example of it.

Hospital

John Hewitt

A hospital is a white shell on a beach
Bleached bare and lodged in the sand
The ocean washes over it
It sometimes buries it
But a hospital remains unmoved by this
Whatever changes could occur already have
Any color it might have had has washed away
Or been ground into the sand
It shines in the sun but people walk around it
They sense that they should not touch it
They should not pick it up and add it to their collection
There is nothing wrong with a hospital
But it is a shell no one wants to own
They want to leave it