July 30, 2014

Guest Post: Avoid These Clichés at All Costs

By Daphne Gray-Grant

My husband laughed when he saw one of my writing magazines arrive in the mail recently. In 72-point the cover headline screamed: “104 Worst Clichés.” Cosmo Magazine may lure readers with come-ons like He cheated: Do You Take Him Back or Dump Him? But writing magazines know that nothing sells like the threat of being boring.

The list of clichés, which was intended for fiction writers, included the following — anything that sheds light; anybody who is stopped in his tracks; any heart, ocean, fist or headache that pounds. I agreed with all of them. But the list gave me another idea.

Each week I receive more than a dozen email newsletters. So I challenged myself to set a timer and go through this week’s batch to see how many clichés I could find.

I surprised myself by finding 12 cliches in three newsletters, in less than five minutes. Here’s what I turned up.

1) A real eye-opener: The word “real” is just the first problem. Would you ever have a pretend or fake eye-opener? Apart from that difficulty, this tired noun-phrase makes me want to yawn — the very opposite of the writer’s intent.

2) I have saved myself countless time, energy, and money. The word “countless” is part of what spoils this. First, it’s the wrong modifier (you want “endless” time) but second, it’s mindless. I don’t believe it for a moment. Truth is always specific. How and why did you save the time, energy and money? Give me more detail and maybe I’ll believe you.

3) Has never been this easy. Another over-generalization. Be wary of phrases that linger at the extremities — the best, the worst, the fastest, the easiest. Superlatives smack of sales jargon, not genuine writing.

4) No reinventing of the wheel is required. Yes, and the last time I heard that one, I fell off my dinosaur.

5) A nearly endless set of possibilities. Another overstatement that makes me disinclined to believe everything else the writer has to say. And the tacked on word “nearly” is a cheesy qualification.

6) First and foremost. You don’t want salt without pepper or Laurel without Hardy. But what’s wrong with just “first”?

7) Point them in the right direction. True, a devious person might want to point you in the wrong direction, but what’s wrong with just directing someone?

8) Want to learn the ropes. Shiver me timbers! Given that most of us drive to work, have lattes made for us by Starbucks and regularly eat take-out, it doesn’t seem overly likely that learning how to tie a rolling hitch knot is high on our list of relevant metaphors.

9) Get their feet wet. I live in rainy Vancouver and getting my feet wet is something I do nearly every day — and I don’t welcome it. This metaphor deserves retirement.

10) A valuable commodity. This is not only tired, it’s also nonsensical. By definition, a commodity is something not defined by quality — 2×4 lumber, for example. Also, the phrase produces no visual image in the reader’s mind — and it takes eight syllables. A terrible waste of type.

11) Those precious few. All people are precious to someone. I believe this line came originally from a poem, and when it was first written it was fresh. Alas, no longer.

12) Level the playing field. I live in a house with a cracked foundation, so believe me, I appreciate anything that’s remotely level. But this metaphor lost its oomph a long time ago.

Let me emphasize that these clichés do not come from bad newsletters. In fact, most of them are from newsletters I’d generally rate as good to excellent. But just as bad things can happen to good people (sorry, that’s hackneyed), clichés can happen to good writers. I know I perpetrate clichés too. We all do.

Because here’s the despicable thing about clichés — they’re sneaky. We stop seeing them — just as we stop seeing the cracks in the bathroom sink and the chipped paint on the kitchen walls.

The next time you edit your own writing do one read-through looking just for clichés — nothing else. Read each sentence slowly, asking yourself: are any of these words too predictable? Is this image fresh? Have I slipped into jargon or reflexive and mindless writing?

You may be surprised by what you find.

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a brief and free weekly newsletter on her website. Subscribe by going to the Publication Coach.

Guest Post: The Science of Breaking Into Publication

If you were a corporate advertiser looking to spend money in print, you wouldn’t sit down and read the last six issues of a perspective magazine, yet how many times as a freelancer have you been given that advice? Advertisers don’t troll the blogosphere looking for witty blogs. They don’t allow their own personal taste to guide them – they look strictly at facts and numbers.

As writers, we often see breaking into a magazine as an art – as synergy is moving in our direction. While I agree to a certain extent, it is time to bring out the microscopes and let a more scientific approach guide us. As you’re studying back issues, here are some shortcuts to consider.
Find your column - Chances are, you won’t break into a magazine by trying to sell a cover story. Open all issues of your magazine to the table of contents. Look for a regular column, relatively short in length and always written by a freelancer.

As you look at this column in each of your six back issues, notice the length of the column and the length of the lead. Is this column written with season in mind? In the short bio at the end of the story, notice how these freelance writers describe themselves. Do you have anything in common with them? Is there any expertise you need to gain before you would be considered an ideal candidate to write for this column?

Mimic the editor – Always read the letter from the editor. This is your window into the soul of the person who will be reading your query letter. Pay close attention to their style, their use of humor, their tone and word choices. Notice how they address their audience and be prepared to mimic their tone in your query letter.

Making your pitch - After you’ve dissected your column, brainstorm 3-5 ideas that could work for this magazine. Google the name of your magazine along with key words of your proposed pieces. Even magazines that don’t share copy online often have online archives of their table of contents pages. If you are determined to cover something that has been done before, make sure your pitch includes a new angle. If you are pitching a seasonal item, convey this timeliness, but remember to send your query six months in advance.

Keep track – I’m sure you already keep detailed records of the queries you send out, and to which magazines. But other than using this data to know who to send billing statements to, do you ever look at these numbers? Keep track of every query letter you send – even the ones that aren’t successful. After a month, look at your numbers. How many queries did you write versus how many proposals were picked up by magazines. Do this same analysis after three months, six months, and then a year.

Knowing your rate of return will keep your spirits high when you are receiving rejection slips. People across the business world use this technique. Fundraisers expect to call 30 people to get five appointments. A recruiter at a certain university knows that calling 100 potential students will get him 10 students. Even baseball players use this calculation for batting averages.

The following chart will help you compile information which you can then use to write the meat of your query letter. While you will still need to develop your lead, this method will ensure your piece is right for the magazine, moving you one step closer to success.

“Stitched with Love,” a 300 word article perfect for “Quilting Friends” in Quilt Magazine, tells the story of the quilters behind Cunningham Children’s Home, a residential treatment center for children. Partnering with the Children’s Home, local quilters have been enveloping each child in love, with a handmade quilt, since the Home’s opening in 1894…. As a quilt lover and a weekend quilter myself, I can appreciate the labor of love each of these quilts represent.

Christy Moss, a writer and fundraiser for a Big 10 University, blogs at Thoughtful Philanthropy. She is passionate about inspiring a spirit of philanthropy in her peers. She specializes in making sense of the numbers for both philanthropists and fundraisers. Jump on over to her site to be counted in her latest generational philanthropy project.

5 Q’s with Wendy Burt-Thomas

Wendy Burt-Thomas has written more than a thousand articles and three books, most recently The Writer’s Digest Guide to Queries; Landing articles, agents and book deals. Wendy and I chatted about query letters, book writing, and more.

Urban Muse: What are the most common mistakes writers make when writing a query letter?
Wendy:
They rush through it. I think this is especially true for fiction writers who have a completed novel. They pour all their effort into completing the book and then take five minutes to craft a query. The greatest book in the world will never get read if you can’t entice an agent/editor with a great query.

UM: Do you prefer writing a book length manuscript or shorter projects like articles and greeting cards?
W:
Greeting cards are definitely my favorite thing to write – especially humor. I enjoy writing articles but when you write as many as I do (sometimes 20+ a month), it can get tedious. Books are nice because you can work at your own pace. This book was actually one of the easiest and most fun pieces I’ve ever worked on. I’d been teaching a workshop on the topic for eight years (and making a living as a freelance writer) so I wrote the first half of the book in a few weeks. Writing doesn’t seem like work when you feel passionate about the topic!

UM: How do you stay motivated and organized when working on longer projects?

W: I never spend an entire day working on just one project. If I’m working on a book, for example, I’ll stop and do some work for clients (writing greeting cards, editing magazines, writing a press release). Then I’ll head back to the book, then break for emails or lunch. I know some people have a difficult time switching mid-project, but that’s how I keep things interesting.

UM: What is the best freelance writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
W:
Never pass up an opportunity. Of course, right now, it’s not possible (or profitable) for me to jump on every opportunity that comes my way. I am fortunate that I have plenty of steady work (and book #3 to promote). But the advice served me well when I was first starting as a freelancer. I figured I would seize the opportunity and either be glad I did – or learn from it. I’d say 99% of the opportunities helped me get where I am today. The other 1% gave me something to warn other writers about!

My favorite quote is “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Be prepared to become a successful writer.

UM: Any new projects coming up?
W:
I just got off the phone with my agent and I have an idea for another writing-related book that she thinks might fare well. I just have to find the time to write a proposal! (Did I mention that in addition to full-time work and promoting my new book, I also have a 1-year-old and 3-year-old…and a husband deploying to Afghanistan?) I’m not lazy, I swear. Just busy. ; )

In the meantime, I’m promoting my new program, “10 Questions for…” Every day on my blog I ask a different author the same 10 questions about getting published, writing life, messy desks, embarrassing stories, etc. I think I have enough authors to profile one a day for the next 2 years and I’m thrilled. The answers are sometimes hysterically funny and I think writers like to hear about real authors who got tons of rejections when they started.

Thanks, Wendy!

Guest Post: Give Your Title a Good Spunking

By Gene Wilburn

You finish your article, essay, or blog entry, putting the final polish on your prose, declaring it ready to go. Almost. Except for the title. If you’re like most writers, you have a working title — something you used to give your work focus during the writing — and it’s often about as catchy as a scientific paper on speciation in savannah sparrows. Dull.

Titles. They can make or break your chance of grabbing a reader’s interest. Newspaper and magazine editors know better than anyone that nothing captures your attention faster than a snappy title. Get the reader as far as the first paragraph and you have a good chance of snagging that five seconds or less of interest most readers spend before deciding whether to read on or skip to something else.

Good titles are especially important in science stories. We’re not a science-oriented society, despite its critical underpinning of modern life. We, as casual readers (assuming you’re not science-trained), are easily bored and have an innate resistance to anything that sounds ‘scientific’, ‘educational’ or ‘difficult’. Give us straight science and, mentally, we run the other way. But use the right lure and you might just hook us.

Take this example from the NYTimes Online science section: British Fight Climate Change With Fish and Chips. That’s not just intriguing — it’s funny, with echoes of Monty Python. The article, by Elisabeth Rosenthall, is a story about how used non-fossil-fuel cooking oil from fish and chip stands are being recycled and sold directly to car owners who pour it into the tanks of their diesel-powered autos. It’s an excellent piece, but would you be as tempted to read it if it were titled “UK Diesel Car Owners Try an Alternative Fuel Source”?

Not all stories lend themselves to snappy titles but it’s worth it when they do. It doesn’t always take much, sometimes a single word at the end: Geographers Find bin Laden — Theoretically. I particularly liked this title: Data Uncover Bigger Galaxy in Cosmos, and It’s Ours, about how the Milky Way is far larger than originally estimated.

Health science articles attract us more easily than the other sciences mainly because we obsess about health issues. The stories are more immediate to our lives than alternative diesel fuels or the size of galaxies. Even so, a catchy title is good for grabbing our attention: Great Workout, Forget the View, is a story on how stair climbing can give you as good, or better, workout than an elliptical trainer with an expensive health club membership attached.

Or how about Your Morning Pizza, a piece on rethinking traditional breakfast foods. Health articles also have the advantage of grabbing our attention with anything that sounds controversial or iconoclastic: Vitamin Pills: A False Hope?

It’s not just science and health stories that need good titles, of course. Any piece you write with a catchy title has a better chance of being read. For instance, I’m not innately interested in reading about the buying patterns of Japanese youth, but Sayonara, Prada, an article by Alexandra Harney in The Atlantic, on how Japanese youngsters are turning away from luxury goods, hooked me for a good, thoughtful, read.

Titles with puns catch my fancy immediately — such as Bear Essentials, an article by Jo Calvert in Canadian Living on knitting bears. I don’t knit, but I read some of the article simply because of the title. This title would work equally well for a chapter or pamphlet on camping in bear territory.

Thinking up good titles for essays, short stories, and novels is even harder. What words can be used to invoke the right feeling or mood? Gone With the Wind? Good one, but taken. For Whom the Bell Tolls? Can’t use that one either — well you can, but you’d better have something awfully good to pull it off or it’ll look pretentious. Puns on famous titles, however, can deliver a fresh take. How about a retro look at how you became totally hooked on fantasy literature: Gone With the Wand. Or a serious piece on money woes called For Whom the Bill Tolls.

The trouble with thinking up with good titles for blog postings or short essays is that it can take more time than the piece itself. And there’s that dark place in our brains that fears we might use up all our good title ideas and run out. It won’t happen, but the best way to convince yourself of that is to keep practicing. After you’ve come up with a zinger or two, it gets easier, and more fun.

Try to think up a catchy title for every piece you do. Give it some pizazz, some spunk. Your editor may change it (some of mine don’t share my sense of humor), but when one of your best titles gets through the editorial process intact, and you see it in print or online, it adds sizzle to your satisfaction. Not to mention luring additional readers. And isn’t that one of the reasons we write?

Gene Wilburn is a Canadian essayist, blogger, magazine writer, and co-host of the Creative NonFiction Writing Forums.