Ethics and Writing — Are You on The Right Path?

Rather than spend time on the Internet over last weekend, I decided to reread passages from some books on my bookshelves. That’s where I came across a section called “Etiquette and Ethics” in Writing for Money, a book by Loriann Hoff Oberlin. I must say I agree with the basic rules she outlines in the book.

Oberlin knew that when you are granted an interview for a publication, it doesn’t mean you can market that interview somewhere else. As an example, she uses her working with Family Communications in Pittsburgh, the production company for TV’s Mr. Rogers series. When she learned that the popular show would be celebrating 25 years on public television, she began producing a series of articles about the show, based on an interview with Fred Rogers, plus faxed questions and telephone followups. Her stories appeared in Hemispheres, The Saturday Evening Post, parenting magazines and other publications — all the result of her good working relationship with the production company.

“They trusted that I would place stories only in reputable publications, and they also knew that I kept in touch with and ran my ideas past their public relations staff,” Oberlin said.

She cautions writers to be careful when people you interview ask to see your article before you turn it in. “Allowing sources to preview your story would be allowing a form of censorship,” she said. “The public expects reporters to work uncensored and free of such constraints. We journalists shouldn’t have to fear that our sources will change their recollections, words or ideas to a more acceptable point of view. Also, by giving this kind of advantage to one source, you would give that person unfair insight into the information your other sources give you.

“Don’t misrepresent your credentials,” Oberlin warns. “Never tell someone you are on assignment for a publication when you are not, and watch that others don’t either.” Months after an interview, she recalled reading in a source’s newsletter that she was “on assignment” for several publications, when in reality she had only answered an intern’s questions about what magazines she wrote for and where she would be pitching the proposed story. “I was not pleased with the way he had misrepresented me,” she said.

She would also not be pleased, I think, with an ad I saw recently that was looking for writers to produce fake testimonials for an ebook going into production. What is equally unpleasant, in my opinion, were the scores of writers lined up, eager to write those fake testimonials. When the ad was reproduced on a freelancer’s post, the comments were very much against writing fake testimonials. Evidently those applying for the job could not see that they were going way beyond acting in a truly ethical manner. In my opinion, this is in the same category as writing papers that high school and college kids can turn in as their own. Those writers all need some ethics classes to set them on the right path.

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Writing Personal Experience Articles

Have you every written a personal experience article? Try it. I think you’ll like it. They’re easy to do and they are one of my favorite forms of writing.

These articles don’t have to be earthshaking or catastrophic; they can, in fact, be fairly simple. They do need some tension or drama but the dramatic or the tension level doesn’t need to be high. Just think of a series of events that happened to you that might be worth sharing with others. I remember one piece I wrote that was about a Saturday afternoon ritual at our house every week when I was growing up — about how my father shined his shoes to get ready for church the next day. It was simple, but it was a personal experience piece. And it worked.

Ever spent time with a famous person, either before or after he or she gained fame? Have you lived in or visited an exotic place? Had an accident or illness or attempted a difficult feat? Set up a party for a group of school children? Taken part in a special holiday celebration? Write about it.

The experience doesn’t even have to be your own. If a friend or colleague had a memorable event, you can write about that. Think about the event, put it into action, talk about the characters involved, the outcome, the lesson you or they learned. Limit the statements about how you felt to two or three specific actions.

Let the story build on its own emotion so readers will relate to what’s happened. Keep the piece smooth and tight. If possible, come up with a surprise ending.

Where should you send your piece? Family and women’s publications are good markets for personal experience pieces, as are many local newspapers and magazines. Look for other markets that use these pieces. The magazine section of a bookstore is a good place to see which other publications use personal experience pieces. Just checking through a variety of them will show you how popular personal experiences pieces are.

Also check the library for copies of additional publications and study the style and structure of the personal experience pieces you find in them. The key to getting these pieces published is to keep them in the mail — either U.S. mail or email. And you should know that, In general, publications pay better than average for good personal experiences.

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Taking A Break from Writing

You know, I suppose, that I’ve not posted anything here for quite a while. That’s because I needed to take a break from writing. Part of that decision was wanting to take a new look at what I was writing and make some improvements. The other part was because the breaks of life kept happening, including our house becoming flooded.

All that water was such a surprise. It was a bright sunshiny day, no rain, and I was multi-tasking by washing clothes while finishing up a nearly due article manuscript. After I got to the end of the article, proofread it and sent it to my editor, I got up and walked through to the other part of the house — straight into soggy wet carpeting and floors covered with water.

My husband came in from outdoors about the same time after finishing some yard work and he was as startled as I to see all that water. It covered the living room, dining room, kitchen, hall and master bedroom and closet — most of the house, in fact, except for two bedrooms and a bath. Quite an accomplishment for one small washing machine.

Seems that the control for the on/off function failed and did not shut off the water at the end of the washing cycle. And so water poured out for quite some time. We tried to get the water out of the house — with very little success, so I phoned our insurance agent. Their assessment folks and repair people arrived at the house in less than half an hour. They used machines to get rid of the water; they also pulled up our carpeting and our hardwood flooring, since all that was ruined.

Little did we know that it would take five weeks before the carpeting and hardwood would be replaced and the painting finished. If you’ve ever had flooding, you know how inconvenient that was.

It was also the perfect time, I felt, for my break from writing. We had wall-to-wall concrete floors with 7 large (and loud) industrial fans blowing over the wet areas 24 hours a day, and later an almost constant stream of workers coming in to reposition fans, measure, consult, fill out forms, and finally to begin reinstalling carpeting and flooring.

With all that going on, being away from writing seemed strange at first but I got used to it after a while. Now with the house all repaired, I’m turning on the computer again and writing. I hope my break from writing will lead to many more (and better) articles.

It’s good to be back!

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Michael Gartner, an Impressive Journalist

Among some of the yellowed clippings in my files, I have one by Michael Gartner, who at one time wrote a syndicated column, “Words,” that appeared in my local newspaper. I clipped this column, I think, because of his explanation of the difference between using “eager” and “anxious” in one’s writing. Here’s part of what he said:

Eager means intensely desirous or impatiently expectant.
Anxious means worried and distracted, uneasy.
‘Anxious has a long history of use in America as a synonym for eager,’ the American Heritage Dictionary says, ‘but many insist that the distinction between the two words should be maintained only when its subject is apprehensive or concerned about the event anticipated.
‘I was anxious to get home before it rained, but I was eager (not anxious) to get home and have a nice dinner.’
I’m among the many who want to maintain the distinction. You should, too.”

I”ve always been impressed with his command of the language. I’m also impressed with him in his role as a journalist with the Des Moines Register, the Wall Street Journal, the Gannett Company and USA Today and the Louisville Courier Journal. When he wrote the “Words” column, Gartner was president of NBC News.

According to Wikipedia, he resigned from NBC in 1993 as a result of controversy over the “Dateline NBC” show, which had reported on dangers of GM pickup trucks but which did not state in the broadcast that it had staged the explosion of a truck. Later, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Gartner said, “It happened on my watch. I took responsibility for it. I did what I thought you ought to do when you make a mistake. You say ‘we made a mistake’ and apologize to the viewers.”

That sort of honesty is in short supply among today’s journalists. Many of them will not even interview those whose views differ from their own. And when they do include opposing sources in a story, they often present only a negative aspect of the views of the opposition.

If you’d like to learn more about Michael Gartner, USA Today in June 2006 ran a delightful article that he wrote, “A Life Without Left Turns.” Read it. I think you’ll like it.

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They Held The First-Ever National Magazine Day and I Missed It

As a magazine junkie, I am distressed to find out that they held the first ever national magazine day last week and I missed it. That event took place on February 27 but I didn’t know about it until yesterday, when I dropped by Mr.Magazine’s blog and found “’Attack the Stack’ Ushers the First National Magazine Day.”

I always learn so much when I go to the site of Mr. Magazine (Samir Husni). According to him, the organizer of the First National Magazine Day is Kevin Smokler, a San Francisco writer who hopes it will become an annual holiday event. Mr. Magazine includes this quote from Smokler’s website:

On Saturday, February 27th, ordinary folk across America (like you, like me) will spend the day ‘attacking the stack’ or reading their way through the unread magazines they’ve accumulated. If you’re a big goody-goody and read your magazines straight through the moment they arrive, you may spend the day at your local library/bookstore/university exploring new periodicals, discussing your favorite magazines with friends, tweeting your favorite articles. As you wish.”

Considering the number of unfinished magazines on my office shelves (and in my living room, bedroom, etc.) the event would have suited me just fine. According to another bit from Smokler’s website, it is “a celebration of magazines and attacking the stack of unread titles piling up next to your bathroom sink.” And no matter where we live, he wants us to

invite friends over and rummage through each other’s stacks (of magazines). Spend the day reading at your local coffee shop or library. Mulch your magazines and construct a giant papier-mache wildebeest. It’s up to you. The idea is to spend the day having fun and forming community around a shared love of magazines.”

I’ve already marked the day on my 2011 calendar so I won’t miss the event next year. Although I’m nowhere near San Francisco, I figure I can be there in spirit to celebrate the day. Mr. Magazine sent congratulations to all magazine lovers on finally having a day they can call their own. I add my own congratulations.

You can read more about the “1st Ever National Magazine Day at The Booksmith.”
at Mr. Magazine’s blog on his website, and on of Kevin Smokler’s website.)
There’s also an interesting interview with Smokler here.

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Happy New Year to Everyone!

Happy New Year to all readers of this blog! Best wishes for a very successful new year. May your writing prosper!

I’ll be taking a break from this blog for a while (a very little while, I hope). A torn rotator cuff makes it too painful for me to spend time at the computer. I hope this injury will be of short duration.

Meanwhile, I hope you will continue to write and market your work. I wish you the best of luck in 2010. Please let me know about your successes! LD


What Kind of Writer Are You? What Kind of Writer Would You Like to Be?

What kind of writer are you? What kind of writer would you like to be? These deep thoughts came about, I think, because I’ve been without a computer for some weeks. (I bought a new computer but it had to go in for service the first week I had it. Now that it’s back in my office, I find it will have to go back in for more service this week!).

As a computer-less writer, I’ve had to content myself with reading about writers and writing. I finally reached this conclusion: although I would aspire to be influenced by other writers, I think I’m addicted to the Pearl S. Buck method of writing she talked about here:

I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.

So I’m a workhorse kind of writer — that’s what I do. That has been my modus operandi for more than 25 years and is responsible, I think, for my being able to produce so many articles and other writing projects. But writers like Mark Twain have also had an influence on me. Based on his advice, I’ve worked hard to make my writing lean, to take out every useless word. I am not always successful at that, even though
I always plan to write that way. I also plan to be the kind of writer that Twain spoke about here (although I’m not always successful at this either):

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

I think I’ve been a bit more successful in the choice of the words I use in my articles, but I still have a long way to go before reaching the level that Twain wrote about here:

To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single
sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire
of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.

Nevertheless, as a down-to-earth writer, I’ve long had lofty aspirations. I’ve never succeeded and I doubt if I ever could, but I’d really like to do the kind of
writing that Lord Byron speaks of here:

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling, like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.

Now I ask you: What kind of writer are you? What kind of writer would you like to be? And who has influenced your writing?

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