Tag Archives: writing style

Call yourself a writer? Meme response

It’s meme day on Freelance Unbound – mainly because it’s August and I think we all deserve to enjoy the Silly Season. (Though in the era of 24-hour rolling news, does that even exist any more?)

Here’s an interesting meme started by Linda Jones. (Well, she hopes it will become a meme, and I’m calling it that, even though it may not quite have achieved the stature of the crasher squirrel.)

This response is prompted by Sarah Hartley’s entry which, although it didn’t tag me, did invite anyone to participate. Which would really be the only way it could meme itself, I guess.

So – here we go:

Which words do you use too much in your writing?

”Really”, “Crucially”, “You know”, “Of course”.

Which words do you consider overused in stuff you read?

“Climate change”, which is used as a catch-all to explain almost anything bad that happens because of the weather, with almost no justification most of the time. 

“Celebrity”. I mean, really…

What’s your favourite piece of writing by you?

A piece on the “House of Tomorrow”, published in the late lamented Internet Business. As it was a Haymarket magazine, and as it was all about the internet, there is no online archive to point to, of course. 

What blog post do you wish you’d written?

John Scalzi’s “Bacon Cat” – a traffic-generating triumph. 

Regrets, do you have a few? Is there anything you wish you hadn’t written?

Drifting into a “career” in journalism/publishing – an industry with a very uncertain future and no money in it. If I had my time again I’d do something orders of magnitude better paid, or else much more creatively fulfilling. But, you know, there’s still time.

How has your writing made a difference?

It’s helped to pay my mortgage over the years, so it’s made a difference to me. With luck, some pieces of advice from Freelance Unbound may have helped journalism students or graduates along the way. Perhaps to do something better paid… 

Name three favourite words

Vampires, zombies, time-travel.

And three words you’re not so keen on

Impact (as a verb), holistic, synergy.

Do you have a writing mentor, role model or inspiration?

John Scalzi has some very good writing advice on his blog. I especially liked his introduction to his novel Agent to the Stars, which outlines the least angsty way to write a novel I’ve come across. I also liked the advice given by crime writer Robert B Parker in a Telegraph interview:

“Dialogue is easy and it chews up a lot of pages,” he says. “Describing a room is hard and it slows everything down and it doesn’t chew up many pages” 

What’s your writing ambition?

To earn royalties.

Plug alert! List any work you would like to tell your readers about:

My friend the Wartime Housewife and her brand new blog. It’s packed with advice on surviving hard times – both in the family and in the economy. There doesn’t even have to be a war on…

Tag time:

Here are my nominations for journos/bloggers to take part:


Hackney Hackette


Bristol Editor

Unmitigated England

The rules:

If you have time to do this meme, then please link to my original, then link to three to five other bloggers and pass it on, asking them to answer your questions and link to you. You can add, remove or change one question as you go. You absolutely do not have to be what you may think of as a “published” or “successful” writer to respond to this meme, I hope people can take the time to reflect on what their blogging has brought them and how it has been useful to others.


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Summer reading suggestions for journalism students #2

WallaceYesterday I suggested journalism students should read Jeffrey Goldberg’s financial feature “Why I fired my broker” from the May issue of The Atlantic magazine.

But I’m well aware that most student journalists aren’t that keen to write insightful business articles. 

Instead, I’m sure a lot of you want to write witty and amusing columns of your clever observations about life. I don’t blame you. It’s a lot easier: there’s much less research and it’s more fun to produce.

But often these kinds of column are not so much fun to read. If you don’t know what you’re doing, they turn out to be self-indulgent and flabbily written. The columnist is often the only one enjoying themself. Although they seem as if they should be easy, writing a humorous and topical column that actually works is very hard indeed

But some writers do it very well. One is Danny Wallace, who writes for London lifestyle freesheet ShortList on a Thursday.

He should be good at this. He writes for radio and TV, as well as turning out books. More importantly, he’s been writing since he was at school. It takes time and practice, after all.

Why is his self-indulgent humour column worth reading? Mainly, timing and structure.

He has a certain formula – pick a social event and bring out the embarrassing misunderstandings. This piece starts with an old schoolfriend inviting him to meet up and asking if he can “suggest a date”.

They meet with an awkward moment as Wallace goes for the handshake and his friend for the hug – then they head out to dinner, only for it to slowly dawn on Wallace that he’s in a gay restaurant. 

Now we are two men in a dimly lit restaurant inches from each other’s faces, our hands almost touching, lit only by flickering candlelight.

“Well, this is unusual,” I think.

If this were the 1970s, that would be the joke. But because we’re in the 21st century, the humour comes from Wallace’s desperate – and futile – attempts not to say anything offensive. 

And he’s getting more and more worried that “suggest a date” means “suggest a date“. How can he let his friend down gently? 

The faux pas come think and fast. Wallace is so desperate not to seem homophobic that he can’t say anything right. Each time he tries to dig himself out, he digs his hole deeper. 

The finale comes with the farewell. This time, Wallace remembers to hug, but his slightly unnerved friend goes for the handshake. 

I ignore this, and just hold him. Tight. 

“I’ll be back in London soon,” he says, looking a little uncomfortable.

“It’s a date,” I say.

The structure works well – by the end of the evening their roles are reversed and therein lies the humour. The timing is good too – he doesn’t labour things and the punchline is really nicely done.

I’m really not keen on the personal column format – it’s so rarely done well. But I actually make a point of picking up ShortList partly to read its Danny Wallace Is A Man page. If you want to write humour, he’s well worth reading – and stealing from in terms of style (before you develop your own unique voice, obviously). 

The ShortList web site is a bit weird, in that it has its archive of back issues in some electronic reader format rather than HTML. But all the back issues are on the site if you want to trawl through them.

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Handy guide to better writing

Bill Bennett’s Knowledge Workers blog is running an ongoing series of posts on better writing. Today’s offering suggests why short sentences are only best up to a point, and why you need variation in your writing to help it develop an engaging rhythm.

It follows others that cover journalistic staples such as the inverted pyramid, writing for the web and other worthwhile advice on style and substance.

This is the kind of thing that is always worth checking out, especially for journalism students and graduates.

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Why journalism students should read Raymond Chandler

Good writers read. They read a lot. And they read widely. 

If you’re a journalism student, the best advice I could give you would be exactly that – to read, and read widely. Most importantly, it would be to read not just journalism.

I imagine that’s probably difficult when you’re doing a journalism course – you’ll be spending most of your time reading examples of good (and bad) journalism, lots of critical theory stuff that you can’t see the point of (there is one, don’t worry), and learning other vital-yet-kind-of-dull things such as media law and, shudder, shorthand. 

So why spend your valuable partying time reading yet more books?

Simply because it’ll make you a better writer. 

Sure, it’s important to read the best journalism. But to make your writing richer – to give you a range of different ways to bring colour and style to your writing – look beyond the news media. 

So, why should journalism students read Raymond Chandler particularly?

For one, it happens to be the 50th anniversary of his death this year, so it’s kind of appropriate. But mainly because he had a way of making language work for him that was both very inventive, but also accessible and accurate. (Although, ironically, he was a failure when he got a job as a reporter.)

For those who don’t know him, Chandler created private detective Philip Marlowe – played most notably by Humphrey Bogart in the movie adaptation of The Big Sleep. Though he didn’t invent modern wise-cracking detective fiction (that was probably Dashiell Hammett), he certainly turned it into an art form. 

I’m not such a big fan of his plots – they tend t0 be a bit convoluted and sometimes contrived. But the dialogue, description and atmosphere are superb. 

Here’s Marlowe sitting waiting to meet a potential client in the rarified atmosphere of the Gillerlain perfume company in The Lady in the Lake:

“I lit a cigarette and dragged a smoking stand beside the chair. The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips.”

Chandler is also very good at conveying the ugliness of moneyed Los Angeles:

“This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead.” (The Big Sleep)

Not to mention the ugliness of his characters:

“Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same colour.” (Trouble is my Business)

Yes – some of his work has become cliched. Probably his best-known line is the classic “a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window”. And it’s true he had a tendency to overdo it in some of his novels. 

But if Chandler used unexpected imagery to create simile and metaphor in really new and imaginative ways, can you do the same in journalism? 

I’d say yes – as long as you remember that you’re not actually writing hard-boiled detective fiction. 

Think laterally about language. Expand your vocabulary – and also the way you use words. 

Crucially, though, don’t just fling words together. A lot of mediocre magazine-style journalism (think local papers, London freebies and giveaway magazines) involves using colourful adjectives and idioms without really thinking about them or knowing what they mean. (I posted about this here – it infects even the Financial Times.)

Instead, think carefully about what words mean and how you can play with them for effect. 

The best response I got to a feature on data accuracy in direct marketing was for a line about how databases of personal information become less accurate over time:

“Like flesh, data decays…”

It was just different enough to snag the attention and the imagination of the editor – but still relevant and accurate enough not to be cut or rewritten. And zombie movie fans liked it a lot.

Also, it’s short. You don’t need to go on for paragraphs to prove what an imaginative writer you are. In fact, do that and you tend to reveal quite the opposite.

In brief:

  • Read a lot
  • Read widely
  • Enjoy words
  • Use them imaginatively
  • But be precise

Coming up: It’s important to read beyond journalism – but are there any journalists who are really worth reading for their prose style? Why, yes. A forthcoming post will take a look at some business writing and other journalists who really know what they’re doing…


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