Passive voice is to be avoided

Writing teachers, editors and agents all rant about not writing in the passive voice. Here’s the down and dirty about passive voice. What is it? How do you identify it, and when it’s OK to use it.

What is passive voice?

confused readerHere are two sentences, which one is using the passive voice?

Jon loves Lisa.

Lisa is loved by Jon.

The second sentence uses passive voice. The object of the sentence – Lisa, is not doing the action in the sentence – loving. In passive voice, the object of the action gets placed where the subject should be. This is not grammatically incorrect. Subject + verb = sentence. Passive voice is a stylistic choice.

The problem with passive voice in your writing is that it can obscure who is doing the action, why the subject is doing the action, and how.Writing in active voice removes ambiguity and helps readers connect with your characters.

Recognizing Passive Voice

There’s this misconception that all instances of the verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ are passive voice. This isn’t true. These verbs can perform valid functions within an active sentence. However, one easy way to recognize passive voice is to scan your work for ‘to be’ + a verb with an ‘ed’ ending.

Jon is loving the new car – active voice. The subject is doing the action.

The new car is loved by Jon – passive voice. The subject isn’t taking any action.

Passive voice often increases your word count, it’s vague, and it can be awkward.

Passive voice can be vague.

Lisa is loved. Passive voice. Who loves Lisa? Why should the reader care? Don’t know.

Passive voice is useful when it’s important to obscure the doer of the action to change the emphasis, or if the reader won’t care who’s doing the action. Politicians are famous for using passive voice to be vague. “Mistakes were made.” This statement by Ronald Reagan is grammatically correct, but tells the reader very little.

The declaration of independence was signed in 1776. Passive voice, but I wanted to emphasize the signing. The declaration of independence was signed by Thomas Jefferson. This is also grammatically correct, but not the point I was trying to make.

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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Can You Earn A Living As A Freelance Writer?

When Lisa and I teach at writer’s conferences, we often hear the question “Can I earn a living as a writer?” (If we’re being honest, isn’t every writer’s dream to quit their “day job”?)

If you’ve read our bios, you know that Lisa and I both work full-time as freelance writers and editors. But we also know people who don’t make a living from their writing.

So I thought I’d create a little quiz to help you figure out whether a career in writing is right for you.

Rate yourself on a scale of 1-5 for each of these questions, and add up your score.

Why do you want a career in writing?
1 – Everyone’s doing it.
2 – Writing is an easy way to make money.
3 – I need to find a second career because I retired/was fired from the first one.
4 – I really enjoy writing, and I’d like to see if I can turn something I enjoy into a career.
5 – I feel driven/called to write, and I would write even if I didn’t get paid for it.

How many hours a week can you devote to launching your freelance career?
1 – Wait, you mean this is going to take a lot of time?
2 – I can eke out an hour or two.
3 – If I sacrifice some things like TV or Farmville, I can find a good 10 hours.
4 – I can write part-time for a minimum of 20 hours a week.
5 – I can go full-time right now because I’m independently wealthy or have a spouse who’s the bread-earner.

Are you prepared to market yourself by networking in person at conferences, setting up a website/blog, speaking, and joining social networking sites?
1 – Not a chance. Not gonna do it. I’m a writer. Promotion, marketing, and branding are someone else’s job.
2 – The hunchback of Notre Dame has more social skills than I do, and people scare me.
3 – I have no idea how to do any of that, but I’m willing to learn.
4 – I’m already on social networking sites, and am actively learning about how to market myself and build a platform.
5 – I have a website, blog, social networking accounts, and I’ve already attended some conferences.

How well do you take criticism, and how willing are you to learn from others?
1 – Screw you, I’m perfect.
2 – God gave me this idea, and the message is what’s important, so my writing skills don’t really matter.
3 – I can learn how to write on my own. I don’t need help.
4 – It takes me a while to accept the mistakes I’m making or to understand concepts, but I want to improve.
5 – Bring it on! At least if I know what stinks, I can fix it.

How flexible are you about what you write?
1 – I want to write a novel. Period.
2 – I didn’t know I’d have to write something other than what I love to make ends meet.
3 – I’m open to the idea of writing other things, but I’d rather not.
4 – I might be willing to take some less glamorous work (e.g. editing, copywriting) if it pays well.
5 – Call me Gumby. I’m willing to take any writing or editing jobs that will pay the bills to get my start.

How is your grasp on the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling?
1 – I dont no nothing about them.
2 – Isn’t that what editors are for?
3 – I’m a quick learner. I’ll start brushing up right now. (Or I’m a slow learner, but I’m a hard worker.)
4 – I received excellent grades in English classes during high school and university.
5 – I am a grammar Nazi.

Have you received positive feedback on your writing?
1 – Not yet.
2 – Yes, but only from my husband/wife or best friend.
3 – I’ve had quite a few people tell me how much they enjoy my writing.
4 – I’ve had professionals tell me that my writing is ready, but I haven’t had anything published yet.
5 – I already have published clips and have been paid for my writing.

How do you think you’ll handle family/friends who disapprove of your career choice?
1 – I would quit if I didn’t have the full support of my loved ones.
2 – I’m too embarrassed to tell my friends and family that I’m considering full-time freelancing.
3 – It would take me a while to recover from their disapproval, but I think I’d eventually press forward.
4 – I’ll show them. They won’t stop me.
5 – I don’t expect everyone to agree with the choices I’ve made or the opinions I express. I would have to respectfully tell everyone else that we’ll have to agree to disagree. This is my life and my choice.

SCORE

8 to 16 – I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but you probably want to look elsewhere for a career. Write as a hobby.

17 to 31 – You’re getting there, but you have a few obstacles to overcome and more learning to do before I’d recommend a career change. Many people fail at turning writing into a career because they jump into it before they’re ready.

32 to 40 – This career comes with no guarantees, but you’ve got as good a chance as anyone to earn a full-time living as a freelance writer.

How did you score? What else do you think it takes to earn a living as a freelance writer?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

6 Reasons To Write For Magazines

Magazines and newspapers get a bad rap in this writing business it seems. Good-paying magazine slots are hard to get as a freelancer, and some publications have been slammed by writers organizations in Canada for being money-grubbing copyright thieves – but money’s not the only reason to play in their sandbox.

stack of newspapersI’ve had a fair number of conversations in the last couple of months – emerging writers asking me about how to sell their non-fiction book. Only one had any kind of viable platform, or relevant qualifications. That’s a hard sell to agents or editors. I don’t write for magazines because of the pay, though that’s a nice bonus, but I’ve learned a lot from working with those editors.

#1 Magazine and newspaper editors are more willing to give new writers a chance. It takes time, you have earn their trust and respect, but now I get assignments to write cover features. I get to interview a wide variety of people, and write about a lot of different things. I often work on a short deadline, so it’s not a project that drags out for months at a time. It’s great exposure for me, and is a quick way to build up a diverse portfolio of work.

#2 Magazine editors, the ones I’ve had the privilege of working with at any rate, are very generous to help out new writers (me included not so long ago) to get better. They are often willing to suggest how to improve your writing and create a better piece. If something’s not working, they tell me – and I appreciate that. You don’t learn by having everyone tell you that your writing is awesome all the time.

Here’s what people say to me: ‘but I have this story about my life, and everyone says it should be a book.’ Well, hard truth – unless you have a significant platform there will significant, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles to having your book published with a royalty-paying publisher.

#3 If you have a message you want to get out and reaching a large number of people is your objective – write for magazines. Now, I’ve heard that a bestselling book in the USA is 100,000 copies (5,000 copies in Canada) – that’s a lot of books to sell. In the UK it’s something like between 5,000 and 25,000 copies a week to make a bestseller. (now don’t slam me on this – I know that sales are determined weekly and can vary by season, between fiction and non-fiction, between hard cover and paperback, etc. Just stay with me –  let’s agree it takes A LOT of book sales in a short time to make a bestseller.)

The Anglican Journal, for instance, has an international readership of 200,000 every month and they’re open to freelancers. That’s a lot of books. If you’ve got a message to share – which route makes more sense in terms of exposure? Magazines have slots to fill every month – they’re always looking for new content, and they archive their articles online.

#4 Magazine and newspaper credits can give you credibility with agents and editors later on. It shows that you can write, you understand what a deadline is, and you understand something about the nature of publishing.

#5 Writing for magazines and newspapers has landed me contracts with non-profits looking for freelancers who are connected with the media and are capable of placing timely articles.

#6 Editors all know one another. It’s a big exclusive club, I’m convinced. But, if you do a good job for one editor, word gets around and results in more work. ‘Oh, you worked for so and so. OK. I’ll give you a shot.’ And editors know other media people who are influencers – ‘we don’t publish that but try so and so over at x and y. Use my name.’ Invaluable connections.

What’s been your experience writing for magazines? What’s holding you back from pitching magazines and newspapers?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Co-Writing When Distance Separates You

Marcy here: You guessed it. I’m super busy too. But that’s actually a good thing for you because it means you get the second part of the co-writing posts we put together a while back and never made live.

How do you collaborate when you live miles–or even countries–apart?

Thanks to the Internet, you don’t have to let distance or conflicting schedules stop you. In fact, we usually only see each other once a year. The online community has created dozens of free collaboration tools you can use to connect remotely. Many of these share common features, like limiting public visibility, assigning certain editorial controls, and requiring you to sign up for a membership. Of the variety of platforms we’ve tried, here are our thoughts on what’s worked well and not so well. 

(We’ve only listed the free platforms we’ve tested. The fee-based platforms have a lot of bells and whistles, but the free platforms offer the basic necessities required for online collaboration. Some platforms, like WebEx, will also give you a free trial, but then want a monthly fee to continue using it. We’re all about free here.)

WordPress

You can create a free WordPress blog, and using the P2 theme, establish a meeting place. P2 lets you post statuses or updates like you would on Facebook or Twitter. WordPress also allows you to import directly from Word with the “kitchen sink” feature that copies all formatting from one program to another, and use standard WordPress tags and categories, which is handy. We didn’t find this platform very helpful, but see its potential for a large number of people contributing to and editing a single work.

Word – Track Changes

With the track changes feature (under the Review tab in Word), Word embeds comments and changes directly in the text. If you’ve got multiple projects on the go, keeping track of which version you’re using for various projects can be tricky. We rename each version with our initials and the version number, so Chapter 2 LW1 or Chapter 8 MK3.

One caution—be sure you learn how to fully use the feature so you’re not sending an editor all of your edits and comments. We’ve found that this one is best left for longer projects like novels. It’s the option we’re using for our co-written novel.

To reduce the risk of confusion with a novel-length project, we send chapters back and forth in clusters of 5. When a cluster has finally passed our rigorous editing rounds, we save a clean version to a final file.

Google Docs

Google Docs is a free document platform where you can create, share, and view documents. There are limitations as to the amount of formatting you can do (margins, page orientation, fonts, etc.). For those unfamiliar with web formatting codes though, this platform does most of the basic formatting required by most publications with the click of a button. You can export a file as a Word document, but Google Docs has a habit of breaking the formatting codes. We don’t use this very often, but know of others who love it.

Writeboard

Writeboard is an online collaborative writing platform. (This company has several collaborative platforms, but they’re not all free.) You can share your writeboard with any number of people, and access your writeboard from any computer with internet access.

Writeboard has a few cons, like the lack of formatting tools and no word count feature, and you must set up separate writeboards for every project. However, once you’re done collaborating on the piece, you can export to Word, or another program, as either a .txt file or an .html file without glitches.

Writeboard automatically tracks every version and who worked on it, and has a comments feature. With one click you can switch back to previous versions (because you liked that paragraph the way it read two weeks ago).

We loved the built-in RSS feed. With a glance at our toolbars, we knew if the other had worked on the document without having to log in to check. Unfortunately, Writeboard will lock you out if your collaborator is working on the document though. And it’s much better for shorter projects.

Zoho Writer (Beta)

So far, the winner for us has been Zoho Writer, though it’s still in beta (a techie way to say they haven’t found all the glitches). Zoho has all the standard word processing features like formatting, page setup, and review tools, and comes with online storage, so we can save all our collaborative documents in one place.

Like Writeboard, it tracks your changes, so if you’re worried about losing your work you’re covered. Finding previous versions has been problematic. We’re hoping this is one of the “bugs” they iron out.

Zoho is our number one choice because it allows for editing and writing simultaneously in real time, has a chat feature, and lets you embed comments like the Track Changes feature in Word. Still no voice chat feature though.

This is the tool we used for creating the query letter, 1-page synopsis, and 3-page synopsis for our current WIP.

What programs have you had success with collaborating on writing projects remotely?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Promotion Tips for Co-Writers

Cowriting can be a great boon to your career – think Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins – or the anchor that beaches your writing career. Marcy and Lisa have been writing together for almost 3 years. We started out as good friends with similar interests before launching into freelancing together, and we work well together – but we thought we’d share a few promotion tips for cowriters.

women holding sign 'mutual benefit'The Key To Success

If you write together long enough, one challenge you’ll encounter is how to juggle joint and individual networking and promotion. The lynchpin for us has been mutual benefit. Any of our joint platforms also promote our individual freelance work and vice versa. We’ve reaped many benefits from this, including saving time.

Visibility

If you want a career as a professional writer, you need a web presence through a website, a blog, and social networking sites. As part of maintaining our independent careers, we both have our own websites. This allows us to display our individual work in our portfolio sections (though we also both display co-written articles there as well). It also allows us to have something to show to clients who will only be working with one of us, and to highlight our unique areas of expertise.

To save time and to promote our partnership, we share this blog. Marcy made Lisa sit down and make a plan for the blog, and to humor Lisa, Marcy lets Lisa decide spur of the moment when it’s her week what to post about inside stated guidelines. If Marcy is out of town, Lisa covers, and vice versa. By splitting the work, we’re able to do three posts a week, something neither of us had time to do on our own.

Regardless of who posts, we both promote the latest blog post on networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and G+, doubling the exposure that we’d otherwise have individually. Even if you don’t plan to write together regularly, if you know a writer who you trust and who has a similar vision to yours, sharing a blog can be a huge time saver as long as each participant has high visibility.

Conferences

Another area where our divide-and-conquer strategy has served us well is at writer’s conferences. We bring our own business cards, one-sheets, and presentation binders, but our presentation binders often contain pieces we’ve co-written. We attend different sessions and exchange notes afterward. This broadens our investment at each conference and our network of contacts.

On occasion we’ve gotten a reputation for being inseparable. (David Koop from Multnomah, who we met at Mt. Hermon, will probably always remember us as the quirky Canadian girls who finished each other’s sentences.) The lines can be fuzzy, and you need to be prepared for some people to remember you only for your co-written work and to not want to work with you independently.

This doesn’t bother us, but if sharing the limelight bothers you, you might want to hold off on entering a co-writing relationship.

It’s not all about you

The most important thing to remember when you’re networking and promoting together is that you’re going to be more successful if you support and build up the other person. When we hear about a good opportunity, whether it be an editor looking for new writers, a job, or an idea that we’re not going to pursue but that the other might enjoy, we pass it along.

We’ve even entered the same contests and critiqued each other’s work – never had a problem because we’re friends underneath everything else, and want the other one to see her dreams come true whether we ever see our own happen.

When it comes to managing the distance, as well as networking and promotion, flexibility is the key. Be willing to bend a little, be patient with the other person, and if they’re doing the same for you, you might just form a partnership (and a friendship) that lasts a lifetime.

So – your turn. How do you juggle your writing, your family, and other outside commitments?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Writers – Know Your Audience

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, you must know who you are writing for because by trying to appeal to everyone – you end up appealing to no one. Remember that you’re not writing for a faceless book-buying crowd – you’re writing for Aunt Sally or Grandma Rose, or even yourself. Writing for readers distinguishes okay books from great books.

A Lesson From Disney

One of my favorite Disney movies is Aladdin (don’t mock me). I thought Robin Williams as the Genie was fabulous – he cracked me up. My kids watch that movie and they don’t get the Groucho Marks, Jack Nicholson, Rodney Dangerfield impressions, the ‘quid pro quo’ reference – they’re all about the slapstick humor. “Well I feel sheepish.” Genie morphs into a sheep. “Alright baaaaad boy, but no more freebies.”

Disney understands their main audience is kids, so they use simple story lines kids can relate to, incorporate slapstick comedy with great animation — and a powerful marketing strategy aimed at that audience. But Disney also knows that every kid has a parent watching over their shoulder so they sprinkle in ‘grown-up’ humor and deeper story lines to keep adults happy.

Take the movie UP! Do kids understand the bigger story going on beyond the humorous exchange between Mr. Fredrickson and Russell? No. Kids like Russell because he’s dealing with stuff they deal with every day like he has to go to the bathroom — RIGHT NOW, and the bigger issue of his dad never having time for him. My kids understood that Russell is lonely and finally finds a grownup who wants to spend time with him.

The adults catch the bigger story about Mr. Fredrickson not having any children, losing his wife Ellie, and feeling like life is over. But that backstory blurs past in the first minute of the movie for the grownups. Adults understand that Mr. F has set out to fulfill a promise to his late wife, doesn’t plan on coming back, and in the end realizes there’s a few more pages left in his scrapbook after all. Brilliant story-telling.

But Disney appealed to the kids first — their primary audience. If they didn’t catch the kids’ interest, the movie was going to fail.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you.” -Orson Welles-

Your Primary Audience

I’ve read proposals that list audience as: adults. While that may be true, it’s too broad. No book is going to appeal to everyone so don’t try. By telling agents or editors that your audience is adults you’re not making yourself more marketable — you’re marking yourself as an amateur. Romance writers know their primary audience is female readers between 31 and 45 who are married. The more you can narrow your audience, the more your work relates to them. Some writers create work for an extremely narrow demographic and appeal to a niche audience.

Your primary audience is who you’re writing the book for. When I’m writing copy, I envision the typical person I’m writing for – such as a woman over 45 who’s married with an empty-nest. I have a picture of that woman in my head. She has a name, a husband, kids. I constantly ask myself questions like: would she like this word, would she understand this turn of phrase, would this image resonate with her? Do you know who you are writing for? Be specific.

Over The Shoulder Audience

This is a group of people outside of your primary audience who may find value in your writing. If you’re writing an article or book about comforting a loved one during a terminal illness, your primary audience will be immediate family caregivers. That doesn’t mean no one else will find value in your work. Your writing may interest others who will read over-the-shoulder of your primary audience – so in this case the topic may interest medical professionals, those sick with a terminal illness who don’t yet need constant care, etc. But you can’t write to your over-the-shoulder audience and still resonate with your primary audience. If Disney stopped appealing to kids, parents would stop buying their movies.

Over The Shoulder Audiences Are Forgiving

One of my husband’s favorite authors is John Eldredge. He writes books for men. I enjoy reading Eldredge’s books because many of the things he talks about I can relate to – but I overlook those things that appeal specifically to men because I understand that he didn’t write the book for me.

The Twilight series is another good example. I understand that because the books are being marketed for 9-12yr olds, the characters in the books are going to be young, the sex, violence, etc. everything will be written to appeal to that younger audience. I’m willing to overlook that because I know the books weren’t written for someone my age – but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them.

Marcy and I are editing our WIP for a different audience than the first draft was intended for and it’s been rough going. What about you? Who’s your audience?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Write What You Know

When a new writer hears these words, they cringe. I did. The predominant thought running through my mind at the time: but I don’t know anything. Not anything exciting at any rate. But I was wrong and so are you! Everyone has a story to tell – the question is are you the one to tell it?

I’m a wife, a mother, and a teacher, but I’ve also challenged ‘the boys club’ playing and refereeing soccer, taught rock climbing, led youth canoe out-trips through Algonquin park, had dating relationships fail and succeed, been betrayed by a friend, overcome mild post traumatic stress disorder, moved to a town where I didn’t know one other person… The list goes on. I’ve experienced many things common to many people and so have you – and it’s all great material for the beginning writer. Personal experience articles are one of the easiest articles to write and place in the Christian market.

kids in backseat of car

Our family road trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario. 18 hours each way with three kids in a rental car. Ever wished you’d been better prepared with snacks, games and activities? I have. Sounds like an article to me!

Be Passionate

Choose a cause that you’re already passionate about whether it’s animal rights, starving children, battered women or the environment–and write about it. If it’s a cause you’re already interested in, research becomes easier and your passion for the topic or cause will shine through in your writing. I’ve had marketers tell me that if a writer isn’t passionate about the cause they’re promoting, they can’t sell it in articles or press releases. It’s true. I’m very passionate about social justice issues, so I’ve written about drug addiction, pornography addiction, human trafficking, child prostitution, reaching out to those serving jail sentences. What are you passionate about?

Have An Opinion

Is there a topic or cause that you make a point to stay abreast of? Whether it’s a specific non-profit’s work, or the latest developments in Canada’s prostitution laws, there are usually publications looking for people who can define the debate, accurately present both sides and give their opinions on the topic tailored to their audience.

Write From The Other Side

soldier in a trench writing letterWhen writing about a personal experience be sure to write from the other side of the experience. Work through the pain or the situation first, and write about how you overcame or survived the trial. Or, if it’s a situation that isn’t going away, like caring for a mentally handicapped child for instance, write about how you’re managing to stay positive or what helps you’ve found. If you can do this, you avoid the pitfalls of having your writing dismissed as being angry or bitter.

Is This A Blog Or An Article?

Some topics are better suited to a blog than a newspaper or magazine article. Be honest with yourself. If you want to rant, unless you can do it with a lot of wit and intelligence, or are willing to submit as a letter to the editor, you’re unlikely to find an editor to publish it unless you have a public platform. If you want to share personal stories or thoughts, that’s a blog. If you can pull out a few life lessons from those highs and lows and relate them to a large number of people you’ve got an article.

Make It Bite Size

Take your experience and narrow it down into a bite-size piece, while keeping your audience in mind. Otherwise the article will be too general, too broad, to actually benefit the reader. The power of personal experience is often in the specificity of the experience, but the lesson has wider appeal.

What personal experiences have you/would you like to write about?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Journalistic Writing: Inverted Pyramid

John Smith, principal of Brock High School, announced that the entire school’s teaching faculty will travel to Toronto for a one day seminar with Minister of Education Jane Smith next Thursday.
As a journalist for the local paper, what is the lead for the story?

No school on Thursday.

I don’t have a degree in journalism, but as a freelancer I’ve learned how to write for a variety of publications including newspapers. To write for newspapers, editors want articles written in the inverted pyramid style. What’s that? Picture an upside-down pyramid, the widest part at the top. Every newspaper article has a headline and a lead. Reporters relate the most important details at the very top, with more details following in order of descending importance. This is done so that if an editor needs to find space, and when you’re publishing a daily newspaper you don’t have the luxury of time, they can lop off the bottom paragraph or two and know that readers are still going to get the most important facts. It’s also written this way to accommodate those readers who skim the headlines for the day’s events and news and don’t want to read the entire newspaper.

The Lead – Keep it simple
Every non-fiction article writer knows that you need to tell readers the who, what, when, where, how of the story. You learned that in elementary school. A good journalist goes further than that and relates the So What? They will examine all the facts and discern the point. What does it mean? Why does it matter? This is what the above example does. That all the high school teachers are going for a one day seminar is local news, but it’s the reporter’s job to give us the So What? The so what in this case is, there’s no school on Thursday. Keep it simple. Find out the one main point of the article, and that’s your lead.

Burying the lead
Reporters can ‘bury the lead’ when they don’t prioritize correctly and leave the most important details stuck in the middle or body of the article where fewer people find it. This is bad.

Here’s a couple of examples of leads and headlines published today:

Police seek public’s help in solving homicide
WINNIPEG — As a window of suspicion widens, Winnipeg police are turning to the public for help solving the killing of Elizabeth Lafantaisie.
Police now believe that someone took the victim’s blue-grey 2006 Pontiac Grand Prix to a car wash between Friday, Feb. 18 and Tuesday, Feb. 22, and washed the sedan. They want to know who that person was.
(Winnipeg Free Press – February 28, 2011)

If I stopped reading, I’d know the most important details, right? Here’s another example:

Power failure closes schools
Two London elementary schools are closed Monday after a power outage in the Westmount area.
Westmount school and Jean Vanier Catholic school are closed and officials are trying to reach parents of children still at the schools located at Wonderland and Viscount roads.
(London Free Press – February 28, 2011)

These examples are from larger daily newspapers, but both are very current and the leads are succinct and immediately relateable.

Prioritize
When you only have 300 words or 500 words to write about an upcoming event or local news item, you find out fast that’s not a lot of words to work with. This isn’t a novel where you have 80,000 words to develop character arc and rising conflict. This isn’t a 1200 word magazine article that has room for you to add your own opinions, euphemisms or verbal flourishes. You have enough space to get to the point and that’s it. Take a look at all your information and prioritize what is absolutely essential to the story. Order them if you have to, so you have a visual indication of which facts are most important. Start with the most important facts and then write in descending order. Keep it simple and straight to the point. Be economical with your words and eliminate the ‘fat’ from the story.

Timeliness
Newspapers are an easier market to break into writing for, especially the smaller local papers, because they publish more frequently than many magazines and require fresh stories constantly. A daily or weekly newspaper editor needs stories that are very current, and usually are more interested in promoting an upcoming event than telling about something that’s already happened. You report on the results of the local high school’s win against another school after the event. If the school makes it to the finals, you also report on their upcoming game. It’s a subtle difference but an important one. The bigger news is what’s about to happen, what’s coming to town, what’s new and exciting usually. Small town editors want local details and like to mention local people in the articles. Remember who your audience is when you’re pitching a story.

If you’ve never written for a  newspaper before, I encourage you to try it. Learning the disciplines of this kind of writing is valuable and applies to many other kinds of writing also. Writing for newspapers has helped me write better press releases, better magazine stories and taught me to look behind the facts for the real point of the story.  This is why journalists have so much power. Wield it wisely.

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Hook an Editor in Two Sentences or Less

Writer, your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to hook an exhausted, distracted editor in two sentences or less. This message will self-destruct.

You might not be a secret agent (that career’s over-rated anyway), but when it comes to pitching articles, five seconds really is all you have before your query letter self-destructs. You have two sentences or less in which to convince an editor to read on rather than sending a form rejection. They have too much to do and too many other queries to read to give you any longer than that. It’s speed dating in the extreme.

But that’s not fair! Maybe not. You might have an amazing idea that the editor never gets to hear about, but think of it this way. How long do you give a magazine article before you flip to the next one or toss the whole thing aside to do something more exciting? In an editor’s mind, if you can’t interest them in a couple of sentences, you won’t be able to hook their readers either.

Here’s an example of what not to do from one of my very early query letter leads:

“Mature Christians want to live in a way pleasing to God, but how can they know what that way is when God produced the Bible before the invention of things like bikinis, and movies, and Euchre.”

Answer me this: What was the topic of the article I was pitching?

My early attempts didn’t sell because they were vague and boring. A good query letter hook needs to give an editor (and eventually a reader) a tantalizing, focused, and clear hint about your article. Sounds difficult, but it’s not if you stick to some tried-and-true hook templates (illustrated with examples Lisa and I have used successfully).

The Question Lead

Do you know how many tablets are left in that bottle of Tylenol #3 prescribed to you two years ago – the one still sitting in your medicine cabinet?

The benefit of the question lead is that it makes the editor a participant. You get them thinking, and suddenly they’re paying full attention to what you’re going to say next.

If you’re not careful, however, the question lead can backfire. A good lawyer will tell you that in the courtroom you should never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. The last thing they want is for the witness on the stand to answer in a way they didn’t expect. Their whole argument would be blown.

If you’re considering a question lead, you’re facing the same challenge. You need to be absolutely certain how the editor will answer your question. For example, if you ask “Have you ever wondered . . . ?” you’re taking a risk that the editor answers “no.” If they do, you’ve lost them. Craft your question carefully.

The Story Lead

Since she turned 19, Ruth has fought four separate battles with lymphoma, thyroid cancer, and skin cancer. She jokes that she’s trying to get into Guinness World Records as the person to have cancer the most times and live.

You find a person whose story can add a personal element to the article you’re writing. (It also obviously works if you’re writing a profile.) A good story lead puts a face to otherwise dry statistics, shows that you’ve already done some research, and lets the editor know that real people are dealing with this issue.

The trick with this lead is to find an individual who’s story is unique and compelling. Before you use a story lead, run it through the “who cares?” test. Why should the editor and her readers care about this person? Also, you should only use a story lead if this person will play a prominent role in your article. If they’re not important to your article, they don’t belong in your query.

The Statistic Lead

According to a 2006 Barna report on Teens and the Supernatural, 54% of the teens in evangelical youth groups are moderately exposed to witchcraft and psychic activities.

A statistic lead works because it gives the editor a specific, concrete number rather than a vague statement. When choosing a statistic to lead with, though, you need to choose one that’s shocking, provocative, or intriguing in some way. You also don’t want to include too many numbers up front or your lead becomes dry and loses impact.

The Quotation Lead

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

A quotation doesn’t need to come from someone famous, but it does need to be so awesome that you can’t say it better in your own words. It also needs to be short and directly apply to your article topic.

We’d love to hear what query letter hooks have worked for you.

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Writing a Great Press Release

Freelance writers, by necessity, learn many types of writing. Writing an effective press release is something non-profits never seem to have the staff to do, and authors and other entrepreneurs need to learn. Writing effective press releases gets my foot in the door with marketing managers, and often leads to more work.

So, what makes an effective press release?

An effective press release is one that’s picked up by the media outlets you send it to. Simple. Right?
Here are some thoughts based on my experience writing press releases as a contractor with non-profits such as Teen Challenge and World Vision.

Keep It Simple
Reporters and editors are busy people. While they’re always interested in what’s going on in their community, you have a better chance of coverage if you make their job easier. When I’m writing a press release, I include all the details I would need if I was to write about the event myself: the who, what, when and where, and Why readers should care. Have an angle, remember you’re ‘selling’ the event essentially. I never make my press releases more than one page and I use short paragraphs. More often than not, I will find my press release in the paper shortened, or expanded upon in places, tailored to the editor’s preferences. They often don’t bother to write something new, they just cut and paste what I’ve sent. Write as though you expect them to copy your words.

Here is a basic formula I employ when writing press releases:

Title
Always write an engaging title that could double as a headline for an article.  It must grab interest and tell the reader right away what the article is about. Editors and reporters could change that title, but I’ve found often they just use the one I provide.

Date
Always place the date at the beginning of the first paragraph.

Intro
In one or two sentences I try to capture the important physical details of the event (venue, city, time, etc.). Newspapers write in the inverted pyramid style (that’s another blog post). You need to include the most pertinent details right up front. What is the event about (this will tie into the title), where will the event be held and the date at the very least. The following one or two sentences are the ‘hook’ for the article. The person I am trying to hook is not the person who will read the article, but the editor or reporter whose desk this press release lands on.

Body
I break the body up into three sections generally. If there are persons of interest who are going to be the draw for the event, I will include a short bio (by short I mean one sentence, maybe two if I can list published books or other noteworthy achievements that lend credibility). If there is more than one ‘headliner’ so to speak, I’ll include a bio for each of them. I might slip in a one or two sentence paragraph about what an audience will gain by attending the event. (Be sure to mention your target audience if there is one: children, women, men, couples, etc.)

The next paragraph expands on the event details: time, location, ticket information, etc. I do a separate press release for every stop in a tour or event lineup, instead of a general press release for the whole tour and listing each event at the bottom. As a contractor paid to deliver results, I find this method more effective than writing one general press release. If the tour will be making ten or fifteen stops, or has a name for the tour, I will include that information, but I won’t list the other stops. If the writer or editor wants to know where else the tour is going, they can check out the website for more details (they’re going to do that anyway to make sure everything is legit). Usually, they’re only interested in knowing the details for their own city or town. General press releases are more effective with national publications and media rooms on websites.

The final paragraph in the body will be a few comments or joe-public endorsements. “This was the most fantastic speaker/message I’ve ever heard in my life…” Don’t lie. You need honest comments from people so that it doesn’t sound canned (written by a writer). I’ve had editors use those comments, but I include them to give credibility to the event more than for any other reason.

Conclusion
The final paragraph in the press release will include any further pertinent information such as websites, blogs, facebook pages, etc.

Contact:
Under this title, I will list the media contact person for the event. This has never been me as the contract writer. I include a name, title, phone number and extension if there is one, and an email address for the media contact. This way the reporter or editor knows who to contact if they want an interview, photos, or more information.

-END-
Finally, at the end of the press release, place -END- centred at the bottom. This lets the person reading the press release know they’ve gotten the whole press release. There are other ways that have historically been used to end a press release harking back to early writer’s union disputes and such–but I won’t go into that here.

Was this post helpful? How do you write press releases?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.