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Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Now blogging at 10,000 words, but still keeping tabs here

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

When I started Meranda Writes, I wasn’t sure what it was. That is to say, what I wanted it to be and how to make it that. My early posts discussed everything from car trouble to job hunting. Over time, however, this site became pretty focused on journalism and my personal experiences and opinions. This worked really well when there were few other young reporters blogging about the same things. Today, everybody is (including several I helped encourage to start). Where once I felt like my voice represented an under-represented segment of the industry, today, it feels drowned out.

Beyond the proliferation of similar blogs, Twitter has also done much to eliminate the need to post the shorter posts or to debate in a more stream-of-consciousness method the questions or concerns I have about developments or pass along links others would be interested in reading. There were weeks in the first year or so of this site where I posted nearly daily, sometimes multiple times in a day. I had a lot to say and no other platform. But thanks to the myriad other connections I have with journalists today, including through Twitter, much of the steady posts I used to write are supplanted by 140-character tweets these days.

Finally, because I’m in a very different reporting and editing role today, my experiences are less relevant to the general journalism population. I’d love to talk about how I use Access and databases to find story trends and sources for my magazine articles, but nobody else has access to that proprietary information. That isn’t to say there aren’t some really interesting tricks of the trade and experiences I’ve gained, because there definitely are. Seeing the industry from a different niche in it has made me appreciate some things I didn’t notice before, and it’s also made me miss some things I underestimated. Eventually, I’ll write about some of these things.

For now, however, Meranda Writes has gotten to the point where I post sporadically. So I’ve been looking for a way to get back into the groove and have a reason to keep my head and heart in new media and journalism trends. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to join an already established and respected site: 10,000 Words. As a contributor, not only will I get paid to write things I’ve been writing about for free here (although a modest amount that will likely cause more of a tax headache than any upward blip in my income), but I’ll also have a reason to keep writing because I’ve committed to at least a few posts each week.

My first two posts are already up:

I’m always accepting tips for blog posts you’d like to see me explore: meranda@merandawrites.com

I’ll still blog here from time to time — probably as often as I have been in the past year or so — but for more regular updates follow @10000words, and for my in-between musings, follow @meranduh.

What I’ve learned two months into a 10-month series

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

You know it’s bad when even your boyfriend, who is not a journalist, keeps telling you that you need to update your blog. My last update was the end of July, so I didn’t want September to slip completely by, as August did, without any updates.

I also want to update everyone on the series I wrote about before the school year began and sent me into a crazy-busy tailspin.

As I previously wrote about, I began in August the first part of a 10-month series. The series is basically a year in the life of a local elementary school on the brink (it was then at least…) of restructuring because of No Child Left Behind. The idea was and is to go inside and spend time at a “failing school” to see what takes place in the classroom, on the playground, in the office, at the homes, etc. and examine why this school is in the position it is and what we can learn from it. It’s a comprehensive look at all the different factors that come into play, each month focusing on a different facet.

The August package was setting up the series, explaining all of the changes this year, introducing some key players and terms and spelling out why we are focusing on this one elementary all year. The second part, in September, was a look at the make-up and motivations of the teaching staff, with a look at how much researchers say those teachers matter to the kids success. The October story, which I’m just beginning now, is a look at the families that make up the high-poverty, highly transient population of the school.

Miller series part 1, August 2009. Miller series part 2, September 2009.

You know what they say about the best laid plans, right? I began work on developing and pitching this story and getting the permissions I needed during my second furlough in May. It took all summer to plan and prepare. And four days before the first story ran the school district dropped a bomb shell: The school’s changes — including an eleventh-hour agreement with the teachers union to extend the school day and year — were enough to constitute restructuring per the Department of Ed. It doesn’t have to worry about closing or replacing staff or hiring private management. That is great news for the school. But it meant a last-minute rewrite and refocus that was not at all fun.

The initial premise of my first version of the August story was essentially that this year was the last great effort to save the school. Once that news broke on Thursday afternoon, I had to not only write a story for online and then Friday’s paper. But I also had to completely start over on the mainbar of my Sunday package. Oh yeah, and Friday morning I had to work the 6 a.m. cops shift, which kept me plenty busy besides finishing that rewrite! It was a great exercise in Plan B and not cracking under pressure. I remember several people coming to me and saying, “I’m sorry about your series…” because they thought I’d give up on it since the premise had shifted. Not at all! The topics I and my editors identified are still important, and whether this school has “restructured” or faced the possibility doesn’t diminish what those areas can tell us not only about our community but about other schools that could reach this fate in the coming years.

Overall, the experience to date has been fascinating and frustrating.

I have absolutely enjoyed the hours I’ve sat in classrooms at the school just observing. Sometimes it’s entertaining and sometimes it’s heart-breaking. I’ve never been a teacher and don’t have the patience to become one, but these sessions have helped give me a glimpse of what exactly goes on in different classrooms and different types of classrooms. It’s been great really getting to talk to staff members and parents on a level I’ve never been able to reach before. It’s funny because the week before the second part ran, I spent nearly the whole school day there several days. A few of the teachers even asked when they were going to start paying me to be there since I was there so much.

Probably the greatest part so far has been the community feedback. In the months leading up to my series, I was writing a lot about the school because it was facing this major dilemma. And people were weighing in, not always constructively, with their opinions. Since the series started running, the discourse I’ve heard both personally and through letters to the editor and even story chat comments seems to be much more proactive. It makes me feel this is helping people understand what is happening (and has happened) and why it matters. Two weeks ago, I was covering a school board presentation at another local district. After the meeting, I was talking to some parents when another man came from across the auditorium and interrupted us to tell me, “I’ve been living here for decades, and you are the best education reporter we’ve ever had.” He specifically cited the first part of the series and said it laid out so clearly the issue that he felt he finally understood. What more could you hope for?

It’s been frustrating, however, because as much as I’ve been able to do, I don’t feel it’s been enough. I knew going into the school year this was going to be an “in addition to” project. That is this package is in addition to everything else I have to do to continue to be the best source of education news in our community. I knew that we were short staffed as it was. But it has been difficult to make this project a priority when the daily paper also needs fed and when there are dozens of other interesting stories I want to tell. Because while this is interesting, there are only 315 students at the school out of 20,000+ in the entire county.

It’s also been both helpful and frustrating working with the photographer on this series. It’s the first time either of us has really latched on to a major project. We’re both young and have lots of ideas but not a lot of time. Bouncing ideas off each other has been helpful, but sometimes we’ve snagged between working out vision out with our schedules. Sometimes it’s been from lack of communication between us or from us to the editors. We’re getting better, and I’m thankful to have her thinking about this as well. She has a multimedia background, so she’s done some video and is continuing that. This package, to date, hasn’t had as much multimedia as I’d like for the same reason I haven’t done as much as I want period: time. Our paper is ~40K circulation. We don’t have a large staff, which means we don’t have time to drop the ball on other things. My priority has been on finding and telling the stories (each package has been the front-page plus a spread inside on two pages), and time hasn’t allowed as much alternative story telling as I’d like. While my editors have been relatively gracious as my deadline approaches, I personally still worry about my time. Finding the time and carving it out to do this package right has definitely been my biggest challenge to date. I’m still struggling with it, but I’m getting better.

That last sentence is important: I am getting better. I am already a better reporter than I was two months ago when this began. One of the reasons I wanted to do this series was it is an opportunity to grow professionally. Not many people get the chance to do a story like this, whether for lack of ambition, buy-in from their editors or access to their sources. I am fortunate I am in a position to be able to tell theses stories. It has challenged me to improve my reporting, my research and my writing. I know, as the year continues, I’ll grow even more.

You can read and see what we’ve already produced and follow the series throughout the year: http://jconline.com/miller (The presentation leaves A LOT to be desired. But we’re stuck with this template, and yeah, it’s frustrating. But I’m trying to focus on things I actually can change.)

I’m still excited about what’s ahead. Glad to be one-fifth finished, but looking forward to more stories to come. If you have any feedback or ideas, definitely share them.

A pun-filled story that was a bit too “well done”

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

I meant to post on this weeks ago when this story first aired on the local TV station, but I got busy and forgot. I was reminded of it again today and since I’m off work today (I’m working Saturday and avoiding the newsroom so if there are any lay offs today there I’m not witness) I thought I’d share my ROTFLMAO moment now. It’s still funny.

The reason I want to share this is its over-the-top, pun-filled groan-inducing writing. I have never seen so many puns in one story before, waaay too many not to be intentional. And the reporter says them (you can watch the video) without even cracking a grin and acknowledging the absurdity.

The story is about how bakeries are coping with the economic downturn. A hint at what’s to come: The title is Bakeries rise in the recession. Subhead: Pastry chefs whipping up dollars.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I’m not going to copy and paste but instead link to the entire story. (For any professors/readers who come across this post after the story has been killed out of the system, I did save a copy if you’re interested it.)

But I am going to bold and bullet each of the bakery-related puns/cliches I could spot.

  • … one type of business is rising to the top
  • whip up dollars
  • … just scraping by
  • … earning money during the recession is frosting on the cake
  • … Quality takes the cake
  • … Creativity is O’Rear’s special spice
  • … is mixing it up
  • … share their secret success ingredient
  • … with a sour economy, there’s a demand for something sweet
  • … each cook up a variety

With the title and subhead, that amounts to a dozen (not a bakers dozen, but close) in one 340 word story. Check out the story and see if I missed any. And comment to tell me what you think. Am I overly critical? I realize it’s not a story about murder or anything, but just seems a bit silly to see a professional organization producing stuff like this.

Awards, external praise don’t motivate me

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

So, today I have resolved to go back through all the stories (or at least the headlines of the stories) I wrote during the past year to see if any of them are worth putting up for my paper to submit to the state press association contest.

I usually don’t do this. And this year, as in the past, I had resolved to ignore such contests. But my editor sent about three reminders to local reporters, and then, before I left Friday, he made another pitch to us to get him our suggestions. I figured, whatever. If nothing else, I should pause to reflect on this past years work?

My issue with such contests goes deep. I’ve never entered my work in any, and any awards I have won have been the result of other people submitting it. I think it’s great some people use these contests as a way of setting a goal for their work. And I can see why people get a high from winning them.

I am just not motivated by external praise. Sure it’s nice to win, but I never have been that disappointed when I didn’t or overwhelmed with pride when I did. I trace this to childhood: I was always one of the top in my class, super involved in everything and a hard worker. I received a lot of certificates and awards throughout the years. I haven’t kept a single trophy or certificate. If you asked me, I would have to do a great deal of searching just to produce my high school diploma or college degree. I think they are stashed in a bin in a storage unit back in Ohio.

As far as my work today, I don’t need validation from a panel of judges sifting through hundreds or thousands of other peoples’ best work in hopes they find my gem. Besides even if they do, it’s probably one of a hundred gems they’ll award. Few prizes, especially ones a person in my spot could hope to compete for, are really that “special.” I mean, the Pulitzer is one thing, but a regional award? Think about it, there are four different circulation size contests in my state, and a dozen-plus categories for each. Multiply that by 50 states, and soon the certificate seems even less special. Besides, a community-serving story’s value is not diminished by not winning a Pulitzer or other award. Great journalism doesn’t need a gold star to be great.

I get enough positive feedback from the community I cover to know I’m doing OK. This week I received two phone calls, two e-mails and one thank-you card, each thanking or commending me for stories. I care a lot more that my community finds my stories relevant and helpful than a panel of strangers who don’t understand where my work fits in here. Maybe our community is better about contacting reporters than most, but I feel my work is appreciated by the community.

It often seems awards are a crap shoot. I often see “award-winning” stories/packages/Web sites highlighted that are not that impressive or even that good. (Maybe that’s because the definition of award-winning is so broad, see my comment on the number of awards.) I find myself wondering if all the entries were not great so they picked the best of the discard pile or if my taste is just way off. I always decide I just must not have the same vision. All the more reason to not enter contests: I hear enough from my community to know I’m on the right track, which means my vision might not line up with contest judges but it does with my readers.

Finally, I’m my own biggest critic. When I read old stories, and often when I read stories in that day’s paper, instead of thinking about the Sunday enterprise I worked very hard on, “I love this story,” I think, “I should have…” I don’t know if others feel that way. But it’s always been a challenge for me. When I was job hunting, I struggled picking clips to send. I knew I was at least as good as other kids at my school, but when I looked at what I’d written I couldn’t find seven stories I loved. Even today, when I have a far greater stack of stories to choose from, I don’t know if I could find seven I loved. It’s not that I’m a bad journalist. I have room to grow. But I think I’m good, especially given my age, my resources and my amount of output. But I am hypercritical. I can always find some quote I wish I’d left out, some angle I wish I’d over- or underplayed or some paragraph break I’d reconsider (this is especially true if bad editing ruined it for me). So it’s hard for me to even find stories I think are good enough — even if judged against a stack of similar also-rans — to bother entering in contests.

As I said before, I don’t object to people who thrive on such competition. Sure, it’s nice to earn some cash or even some solicited praise. Removing myself from the competition probably does those who thrive a favor. Fewer entries means better odds. They should thank me. ;) The bottom line, for me, though, is I get enough of a high out of knowing I worked hard and did a service to my community. I guess I’m one of the lucky folks who doesn’t need much more.

But I realize it’s not about me. So I’m going through the 534 stories that carried my byline or tagline over the past 12 months to see if any of them are worth considering. Whether I find awards validating or not, they reflect well on my bosses and my paper. Even if I don’t care, they do.

A few tips on outlining stories

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

For most daily stories, the time it would take me to outline the article isn’t worth it. I can write about a crash, a fire, a school board meeting without really thinking through the direction I want to head: Start with what happened, and it gets less important from there.

But I also write a lot of daily enterprise. When I’m working on these stories, I’ve found having a direction saves me time. It’s worth the five minutes to outline a story if it saves me 20 minutes of trying to just get started. The usefulness of outlining stories is almost directly related to the length of time I’ve been reporting and how much information I’ve gathered.

Sometimes, a story just comes to me and flows without much effort. Other times, I’ve reported so much I’m overwhelmed by everything I’ve gathered. Deciding what to include, or not include, and what I need to do more research on, and then, how to arrange all of that information can put me at a deadlock, as I was on Friday, when I was writing two A1 stories for the weekend papers and had been working on one for an hour but had just two paragraphs written.

I’ve talked to my editor before about this, and he suggested the way he writes is to do each chunk as he reports it. That’s a great idea. I’ve tried it — with limited success. I know some reporters have to have the perfect lede before they write the second paragraph. I can write a bad lede just to get me started and come back when the first draft is done. My problem is I need to be able to see where it’s going before I start writing. I need to have everything reported and ready to be compiled. That’s why outlining a story works for me.

On Friday, in an effort to get the stories written, did just that. I posted a picture of my “outline” on Twitter. Kate Martin commented on it, which made me realize, this might be a method worth sharing with the wider community.

story outline

I don’t know if I originally saw this outlining method somewhere or invented it out of necessity (or genius?). But I do know, it’s effective. Here’s how it works:

  1. Gather all the story notes. I flip to the pages in my notebook(s) if they’re written or print the document off the computer if they’re typed or transcribed.

  2. Highlight the facts you want to include. I also highlight and star the quotes I like. I use different color highlighters for each person/source to make it easy to identify quickly who is speaking and where the info came from.
  3. Write each of those ideas/facts/quotes on a Post-it. I don’t write the whole thing out just the general point and who said it/where it came from so I know where to quickly find it in my notes. (Remember, those are color coded.) You also could probably just as easily do this on the computer, in a Google Notebook like program. But I find taking a break from staring at the screen helps me process the information better. Note: I cut up a regular size Post-it into about four flags each to be less wasteful. I’m actually not wasting office supplies anyway. I usually buy my own Post-it notes because I don’t like the plain-vanilla yellow in that shot.
  4. Group related topics/information/quotes together. I usually do this on my desk, or if your desk isn’t cleared enough, a sheet of paper works well. Usually at this stage, I can eliminate duplicate or tangential information pretty quickly: I can tell the areas I have the most information on and those I don’t have enough. If I don’t have enough and it’s important, I know it’s time to do some follow-up reporting.
  5. Within the group, arrange the information. This is what my boss does when he writes chunks. You’re just putting the information together in a logical sequence, and again cutting things that don’t fit or need to be there.
  6. Arrange the groups. At this point, I pull out the anecdote or fact I want to lead with and/or those I want to end the story with. (In my example above, I had just written a place-holder “Lead ???” at first because I didn’t know yet how to start.) Then, I put each group down in a sequence that makes sense for the direction of the story.
  7. Re-arrange the groups or the facts within the group. I add back in anything I took out that feels like it’s missing. Or I take out anything that feels unnecessary. This is the entire point of using Post-its, which you can quickly and easily reconfigure.
  8. Write. Organizing the story was the hard part, so once I have that figured out, I can just write through by filling out the full quotes and facts I abbreviated on my Post-it notes.
  9. Read and rewrite. Once the story is written, I go back through at least once more. Read it, proof it, clean it up, double check the names and numbers, clarify anything that needs more explanation.
  10. File the story. And move on to the inevitable next story.

After I outlined my story Friday, I finished writing all 23 inches in 20 minutes.

Do you have any suggestions to improve my method? Or better tips to try to improve organization/writing? Let me know. I’m definitely game for suggestions to make me write better and more efficiently.

Why page jumps online are annoying, counterproductive

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

I knew it was coming. And yet this weekend, when I pulled up one of my stories and saw it was split into two pages, I was still annoyed.

I read enough newspaper Web sites to have noticed over the past several months a trend was spreading among the other Gannett papers using the corporate template. Specifically, those GO4 sites now (or if they don’t already, will) sport a “Next Page” link at the bottom, just above the comments.

page jump example

I would be annoyed by this anyway because it requires more work on my (the reader’s) part. It also tends to have the same effect on me as on John Gruber: I must have some weird strain of dyslexia. Whenever I see a link named “Next Page”, I think it says “Stop Reading and Close This Tab”. As a writer, I’m bothered that beyond about 350 words now my stories will likely not be read. In print, we have limits on how many stories can jump from a section front because they say research shows people don’t follow the jumps. I’ve already been working on tighter writing, but sometimes it takes more than 350 words (~ 10-12 inches) to make a point. And usually the stories that flow longer are the most important stories we write — the enterprise we work hard to nail.

Why would they follow the jump online when the pages take quite awhile to load because they are bogged down with so many ads, scripts, images, etc. Who wants to reload all that junk three times for information they may (I hope do) or may not find useful? For example, I ran a story I wrote today about money saved through field trip cut backs through a page load test. It timed out! But take a look (here is a PDF of the test in case that link is broken) at how much it loaded before that time out. It was 30.1 seconds and 80 objects in before it gave up. That’s an individual single story without any comments on it. The home page has much more going on, and when you have multiple pages of comments on a story, that adds to the load time as well. I have a cable connection and it still takes awhile to load. I can’t imagine how some of our users still on dial up or who have DSL at best suffer through the load times. But I can guess: They don’t.

Here’s what makes this move even sillier than I’ve already pointed out: The entire story is loaded on each of the pages. So, they’re adding a few extra elements and seconds but not even trimming the extra crap that doesn’t appear on that page.

Now for the disclaimer. I do like to be paid. I understand there is a relationship between ads displayed and money made. So, I guess this is a gimmick to get more page views and inflate page counts. But there comes a point where that is counterproductive. And I think the sites, already teetering on that ledge, didn’t need this shove. (I have an ad blocker at home anyway. See my past discussion on what Web site “feature” pushed me over the edge on that.) I have also come to terms with that reasoning being the same as why my stories appear juxtaposed against “after hours” galleries of bar-hopping snapshots. Actually, I haven’t come to terms with that either, but it’s a discussion for another day.

To be truthful, I’d less annoyed if there was a “single page” option available, ala the NYTimes. That is beside hitting print to see it all displayed in one fluid block, which was my workaround. …

Was my workaround until I posted my annoyance about the page jumps on Twitter and found a new hero: Matt Busse. He pointed me to a script he created that puts the whole story on one page. So it turns out the fact that all the story is loaded in one page is a good thing. It meant this script was possible.

I was also told, but haven’t tested, that turning off javascript will have the same effect. Though that likely affects other elements too, but it would probably cut significantly the load time.

So that’s my solution for now. Unfortunately, it isn’t something that will get widespread use, and it’s not exactly something the sites will publicize. So my real solution will just be to try and keep every story I write within 350-400 words to try and avoid annoying readers with a page jump. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will be challenging for me and mean some important information or anecdotes don’t make the cut. And, it will be counterproductive to displaying ads. So we lose in the end anyway.

QOTD: Writing well means never having to say, ‘I guess you had to be there.’

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

“Writing well means never having to say, ‘I guess you had to be there.'”
—Jef Mallett