J Is for Journal/ism

Journal, journalism . . .

Lately while out in the woods with my dog I’ve been pondering the connection. It’s out there in plain sight: both words derive from the Latin diurnus or diurnal, daily, by way of the French jour. So does journey, from the Old French jornée, a day’s travel or a day’s work.

The etymological connection is close and clear, but in practice? Both have to do with writing, but journals are private while journalism is very public, right?

Well, a journal is private while you’re writing in it, but in the historical and biographical nonfiction I copyedit, previously private journals become essential sources for published writing. Public figures and figures who plan to become public often keep journals as an off-the-record record of their journeys, their days’ travel and their days’ work. For anyone who seeks to understand what was going on behind the scenes during important events, these journals become crucial.

With journalism, the journey from private to public happens much faster. It may be almost immediate. Being a rather slow writer myself, I’m continually awed by the speed with which a good reporter can gather information, synthesize it, and spin it into a story that makes sense when heard or read. In a competent news organization the reporter doesn’t do it alone, of course. The tighter the deadline, the more important editors and fact-checkers become.

You can see the problem: In the digital age, deadlines have never been tighter, but unfortunately neither have budgets, and the editorial and fact-checking positions are among the first to get axed. For a writer, going to print without adequate editing is like doing tightrope acrobatics without a safety net. Continuous deadline pressure raises the wire a few yards.

Another casualty of the digital age has been local journalism. Local journalists know their areas well. They develop stories that develop under the radar of regional and big-city news organizations. These stories can and often do become the impetus for regional and national stories — the building blocks, if you will.

And that’s a connection between journals and journalism: as journals can become building blocks — sources — for historians, biographers, and historical-fiction writers, so day-to-day news stories become the foundation for longer series, for informed commentary, and for full-length books. Some of the most important books I’ve read began as the writer’s reporting for a newspaper or magazine. Among the works that come immediately to mind: Seyward Darby’s Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of African Americans from the South into the Northeast, Midwest, and West.

Others rely heavily on the in-depth reporting of others, such as Rachel Maddow’s Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.

I recently copyedited two books dealing with Covid-19. One focused on the political and medical aspects of the pandemic; the author had clearly been keeping a detailed record of a year’s worth of developments, while publishing some of it in pieces along the way. The other, by a working journalist, gathered in-depth interviews with individuals variously involved with the pandemic, as patients, health-care workers, local officials, scientists, and so on; earlier versions of most of these interviews had already been published.

So what does all this have to do with you, the writer and/or editor? I see a few possibilities. An obvious one is that news outlets, especially local ones, are a vehicle for getting your words into print and even building an audience. Think letters to the editor, op-eds (opinion pieces that traditionally appear opposite the editoral page), and feature stories, for instance about an individual or organization that’s doing good work in your area.

As local news outlets decline, “citizen journalism” has become more important. Sometimes it’s fostered by existing news organizations; other times it arises from the grass roots, with individuals using social media to report and comment on happenings in their areas. Some practitioners have huge national and international followings. Many more find readers closer to home.

In my area a very large Facebook group has become a conduit for local news, even though we’re lucky enough to still have not one but two weekly newspapers. I think of it as the grapevine on steroids: “news,” such as it is, travels farther faster than old-fashioned gossip ever dreamed of doing, and it can be every bit as inaccurate and even vindictive. But it tells me a lot about the community I live in.

D Is for Deadline

You know we’re off to a good start: I’m writing this at half past noon on the day after it was supposed to be up. Never mind what the button says: Blowing off deadlines is not good practice if you value your income and/or reputation.

But if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never missed a deadline, I’d be surprised.

And if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never used deadlines as an excuse, I’d be even more surprised. In the last month I’ve avoided two or three events by saying “I’m on deadline.”

It wasn’t a lie. I had three editing deadlines to meet in a two-week period, all on substantial book-length jobs. The real story is a little more complicated. I took on one job with a more-than-reasonable deadline: a little over 200 pages in about four weeks. The deadline was so reasonable that I accepted another job. And then another.

So I was on deadline, but I could have finished that first job in two weeks easy if I hadn’t taken on the other two.

I bitch about deadlines, but in truth I like them. They help me stay relatively organized. And the adrenaline surge can be, well, a rush. For the better part of a decade, from the late 1980s to the late ’90s, I worked for a weekly newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Key ingredients in the weekly rush to deadline:

  • Martha’s Vineyard is an island.
  • The printer was off-island.
  • The “boards” from which the paper would be printed had to reach the printer by a certain time to ensure that the finished copies would arrive on the island early the next morning.
  • In the days before digital transmission, there were only two ways to get the boards to the printer: by ferry or by plane.
  • Ferries and planes have fixed schedules.

The paper came out on Thursday, so Wednesday was deadline day. The boards had to be on the 5:00 ferry, without fail. No matter how much writing, editing, and paste-up got done earlier in the week — the features sections generally went to bed by Tuesday night — Wednesdays were synchronized chaos: stories breaking, reporters writing, advertisers begging to change their ads or get a new one in, and everything having to be edited, proofread, and pasted up.

Me checking the boards on my last day as features editor, October 1993. In 1996 I returned as one-woman copy desk, where I remained till I went full-time freelance in mid-1999.

I loved it. I loved the way we all came through under escalating pressure, right up to the moment that the finished boards were zipped into the big black carrying case and the editor in chief headed out the door.

After that we crashed, of course, and it was a groggy bunch of campers who showed up for staff meeting the next morning. But the camaraderie and the sense of achievement was real. We knew we could depend on each other to come through under pressure.

On the subject of pressure — I was the paper’s main theater reviewer in those days. Theater reviews had to run by opening night, which was usually our publication day or the day after. This often meant that I’d review the last or next-to-last dress rehearsal.

The deadline curbed my perfectionist tendencies, but on one occasion I froze. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The lead actress was excellent — but I had no idea what the play was about. I couldn’t watch the play again, or interview the director, or even read up on Beckett. (This was before the World Wide Web, so research options in my small town were limited.) I had to write something, so I riffed on the notes I’d taken, trying to understand what was going on.

Into the paper went my review, and after the paper came out on Thursday, the lead actress told me I’d “gotten it.” I knew her pretty well and don’t think she was just being nice. It was a major life lesson to realize I could wing it under that kind of pressure and not wind up with egg on my face.

Working on a big project without a set deadline is hard. When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, my writers group stopped meeting. Well into the fourth draft of my second novel, I hadn’t realized how much I depended on those meetings to keep going. Sunday night was my weekly deadline. When it stopped, so did I.

Meetings resumed in warm weather, when we could meet, socially distanced, outside. In the fall we finally made the transition to Zoom. By then I’d put the novel aside and taken up another project: The T-Shirt Chronicles, a blog organized around my formidable T-shirt collection. Will I pick the novel up again? Not sure, but as time goes on I’ve been thinking that maybe the weekly deadline was getting in the way, and what I needed was time to step back and consider the structure of the thing. The novel’s ingredients are all fine, but the whole isn’t doing what I want it to. I’m not even sure I know what I want it to do.

Short version: Deadlines can be powerful motivators, and that includes the ones you set for yourself if you take them as seriously as the ones others set for you. But pacing yourself so that every deadline doesn’t become a crunch is important too. Leave your mind time to meander a little off the track, to follow up on leads that might take a while to bear fruit. And when you meet a deadline and know you’ve done a good job, pat yourself on the back.

Keep Yourself Accountable – Find a Writing Buddy

Here’s an idea if you’re not in a writers’ group, or even if you are.

Business in Rhyme

writing-buddy

Solace. I always emphasize how solitude is your great companion in writing. Stillness of environment allows the quietness of mind to take place and gives you opportunity to clear your thinking. You can easily access the deepest corners of your being and reconnect with your inner-self. Many writers take advantage and even pick remote and distant places when they are writing their books. I also believe it has to do with fact that in that kind of idle conditions we are able to tune in that inner conversation and it becomes clearer what is it that we want to convey.

For me, early morning hours are crucial for focused and productive writing. When mind is still in dream mode, silence and serenity that surrounds my home form almost ideal condition for writing. So, I always encourage writers to find those special moments during the day when their energy and creativity…

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Z Is for Zipped

Some book-length jobs arrive in a single file. Others have a file for each chapter, plus frontmatter, backmatter, author’s bio, and maybe captions and other stuff. Multiple files can be attached to a single email, so the client zips them into a single compressed file and sends it that way.

When I receive it, I save the file in the appropriate folder and unzip it. Voilà, all the individual files are there in their own folder, waiting to be opened and worked on.

Z also stands for zed, which is in fact how the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced in lots of places. And here are, on the last day of April, at the end of the alphabet.

Wow. I did it!

A couple of days ago I panicked. In the A–Z Challenge you were supposed to get Sundays off, but  Saturday was “Y Is for You” so Z was going to have to come on either Sunday or the first of May. Had I missed a day, or a letter? I grabbed my chairside calendar and counted. Three times I counted, and every time Z fell on Sunday, April 30.

Whew.

The lesson for me here is that I can come up with stuff to say almost every day of the month. I don’t have time and I have nothing to say and I’m too tired and I’m not inspired today and That’s too obvious and I said that already are just excuses. Start writing and the words will come.

I knew that already, right? So do you. That’s what this blog is about. But it’s something we have to keep learning and relearning. The alphabet may come to an end, but the writing doesn’t.

Write on!

D Is for Deadline

I was thinking “D is for Dictionary,” but I’m in deadline hell at the moment so Deadline won.

Most editors and writers have mixed feelings about deadlines. We love them when we’ve met them, not least because if this is a paid gig  the check will shortly be in the mail or payment will land in our bank account.

Until then, however, deadlines are swords of Damocles hanging over our heads and dominating our thoughts even when we’re not supposed to be thinking about work.

I’m never more focused than when I’m on deadline. Deadlines make it easier to set priorities: “No, I can’t drop everything and go to lunch. This has to be done by tomorrow.”

Deadlines also make it easier to get out of stuff you don’t want to do anyway. It’s so much easier to say “Sorry, I can’t — deadlines!” than “No, I really don’t want to sit through another three-hour meeting where nothing gets done.” (I hope I didn’t blow my, or your, cover with that one.)

My years working for a weekly newspaper taught me a lot about deadlines. Web-based publications may have rolling deadlines, but print is less flexible. During much of my time at the paper it was not flexible at all: “the boards” from which the paper was printed had to be on a certain boat or a certain plane to make their rendezvous with the printer’s representative on the other side of Vineyard Sound. (Living on an island does complicate things somewhat.) The adrenaline surge on Wednesday afternoon was exhilarating, especially if a story broke late: the reporter might be typing furiously at 3 p.m. while Production rearranged pages to make room for new copy.

Don’t be like this. Please.

As an editor, I learned just how annoying it can be when writers blow off deadlines without advance warning, or turn in copy that’s longer, shorter, or sloppier than expected.

Being a fairly slow writer, I learned to appreciate my colleague whose copy might be sloppy but who could crank out anything if it was needed to fill a gap, maybe because an ad was cancelled or a story pulled or another writer didn’t make his or her deadline.  I could clean up sloppy copy much faster than I could turn out something that didn’t need editing.

Sometimes an impending newspaper deadline made me buckle down and write something that I would cheerfully have given up on under any other circumstances. Once I had to review a local production of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days.  The acting was fine, but I had no idea what the play was about — and this was before the digital age, when an hour or so online would have given me enough background to BS semi-intelligently about Beckett.

So in desperation I transcribed and embellished the notes I’d taken during the play, which were sort of a stream-of-consciousness attempt to make sense of what I was seeing. Then I knocked them into paragraphs and called it a review. After the review appeared in print, the actress who’d played Winnie told me that she thought I really “got” what the play was about. Go figure. Maybe the desperation born of deadlines can make you smarter than you think you are.

For me the biggest challenge is having no deadline at all. Projects without deadlines tend to get pushed down the priority list again and again. How to keep going when your own enthusiasm flags or you hit a roadblock that you can’t see around?

No one’s waiting for my novel in progress, but two mini-deadlines keep me going. One is to write “every damn day.” (That blog post is about what happened when I let work deadlines take too much precedence over my own writing. It wasn’t pretty, but I know what to do when I get into that kind of trouble.) The other is my writers’ group, the Sunday Writers, which meets (you guessed it) every Sunday evening. All of us bring pages to nearly every meeting, and many’s the time that deadline has made me keep writing or revising till I had something coherent enough to bring to group.

Letting Go

Recently a colleague posted to an online editors’ forum: “How do you tell a client who keeps tinkering to just stop?” Her client’s tinkering was not improving the manuscript. In some cases it was making things worse.

Her client was having a hard time letting go, and with good reason: letting go is hard. Off the top of my head I can think of several excellent manuscripts that are languishing in their authors’ desk drawers or on their hard drives because their authors can’t let them go.

The subject has been on my mind lately because I’m in the process of making an ebook out of my novel, The Mud of the Place. The print version came out in 2008. My final draft was a Word file. The proofs were in PDF. Plenty of corrections and tweaks were made on the proofs. My first step was to transfer all of them to the final-draft Word file. Now I’m proofreading the Word file from which the ebook will be created.

In proofreading mode I’m looking for typos and stylistic inconsistencies. I am not looking to change or rearrange any of the words. Yes, a few times I’ve paused at a word and thought that another word might be better. But I want the text of the ebook edition to be identical to that of the print edition. If I find an error — a genuine, bona fide error — I will fix it.

But the time for tinkering is past, long past.

The urge to keep tinkering is often a sign that Perfectionista is gripping your shoulder and scaring you half to death with her what-ifs. What if you’ve left something out? What if you’ve made a mistake? What if your whole book is a mistake? What if everyone hates your book? What if everyone thinks you’re stupid?

Sometimes Perfectionista keeps you from writing. Other times she wants you to tinker endlessly with what you’ve already written. Whatever she’s up to, the way to loosen her grip is the same: Lower your standards. And no, that doesn’t mean “do shoddy work.” It means that no matter how much tinkering you do, your work is never going to be perfect — and even if it is, someone‘s not gonna like it. You can’t control what anybody else thinks.

Letting go takes practice. You’ve got to have confidence in your work — that takes practice too. If you’ve been sharing your work in a workshop or a writers’ group or with readers who’ll give you honest feedback, you’re well on the way. Sharing your work, after all, is a kind of letting go.

Deadlines can be a big help. When the clock or the calendar says you’re done, you’re done. The train is leaving the station and your story’s on it. When you see your story in print, a few hours or days or weeks later, you probably see something you would have done differently, but the chances are excellent that it’s fine as is.

Especially if you have a good editor acting as your safety net.

And one last thing: It’s easier to let go of one work when you’re hard at work on something new. The new story or essay or book probably won’t leave you much energy to obsess about the one that’s ready to leave home. Kiss it goodbye and move on.

Not ready to let go: The late Rhodry (1994–2008), right, and his buddy Rosie.

Not ready to let go: The late Rhodry (1994–2008), right, and his buddy Rosie.