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Category Archives: Writing tips

Why can’t I write good yet?

I really want to be a good writer. Like really, really good. I want to be able to put words to page that make people laugh, make people cry, make people think yeah, she’s quite good. And every time I write creatively I think: this is it. This is going to be the best thing I’ve ever, ever written. It is most definitely going to be amazing. But all the time, it’s not. I have yet to read any of my printed features in full, because I’m dying of embarrassment within the first paragraph: I know it’s not good, and I’m gutted.

But over the course of my journalism journey so far, the most important lesson I’ve learnt is that writing takes years of practice.

Watch this:

Just keep at it.

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Headlines: how to write your icing

Witty headlines. How do editors seemingly whip them out of clean air, sprinkling the perfect words on top of a news story like icing on a cake? Everybody Was Kung Fuel Fighting. Genius! Naming Private Ryan. Amazing! Where do they come from? There are certainly none in my brain.

Well actually, there are. But only found after….a little prompt shall we say. As I’ve discovered, there are a few (sort of) cheaters ways of constructing a headline.

First of all, take a word from your story – the key word, what it is will depend on the piece. If it’s a celebrity profile feature, either their first name or surname. If it’s a news story, use the subject, i.e. fuel from above example.

Type it into here, and bingo! You should get loads of ideas.

Second way: again, take the same word and type it here. Pick a word from the list, type it in here and keep doing it with different words until you come up with the perfect headline – by replacing the rhyming word with the original word.

I did this for a recent Annie Mac (VERY cool Radio 1 DJ) interview. I typed in Mac (important word), picked Jack from the list of rhyming words, typed it into the idioms function and came up with…drum roll please…Mac Of All Trades. For an interview in which she talks about the million things she’s done throughout her career. I know, I know. Genius. Amazing. See?

One more. Consider words that are similar to the important word, but don’t rhyme: i.e. Common as Mac (muck).

Of course, use your brain and initiative first of all – because you might come up with something stellar with any contextual/historical/well-known information about the particular subject or person that the story focuses on. But if nothing springs to mind, cheat, cheat, and cheat some more. Editors: you’ve been rumbled.

Music reviewers: please don’t…

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Friday, June 29 brought some crap news for music journalism. Heavily respected music magazine The Word announced that it will release the last ever issue in August. Famed for it’s excellent writing (go and buy a copy and learn while you still can), the demise is another kick in the teeth for the future of good, quality journalism.

BUT music isn’t going to go away any time soon and we still need people to tell us if we should pay £1o for a CD or not. So to make sure this generation of journalists keep the quality alive and in tribute to it’s death, here are some suggestions of what NOT to do as a music reviewer (stolen from a forum post on the magazine’s website):

– DON’T end a feature like this: And with that, he adjusted his trademark spectacles, gave a conspiratorial wink and disappeared into the Soho night…unless for comedic value.

– You can do without obscure foreign quotes in italics and the name-dropping of impenetrable philosophical tomes you know no one else will have read (this applies to all journalism).

– Do not use the words “sonic cathedral” or Quintessential……unless you’re talking about a record by Quintessence: in which the record will, necessarily and inherently, be Quintessential. Unless they’re trying to sound like someone else, of course.

– Stating that an album that “Demands to be listened to” . How does that work then?

– Or describing something as “Wire jamming with Nick Drake while Skillrex mixes the cocktails and Brian Wilson dozes off in a chair”…nothing sounds like that.

Thou shalt not refer to something as being like something else on (insert drug here).

– The overuse of unnecessary semi-colons to create very long sentences just to prove you’re well educated (this also applies to all journalism).

– Mentioning your drug use, especially drug use with the band. Very hard to pull off without sounding like a weakling trying to appease the schoolbully by laughing along with his joke as he flushes your head down the toilet.

– Thou shalt review the album, or interview the artist, and not review how well-heeled or dirt poor their parents were. The tunes don’t sound any different as a result.

– Stop overusing (and misusing) “cerebral” and “existential”.

– A few others…’Has no right to be this good’, ‘What’s not to like?’, similes ie “Like The Stranglers have been in a car crash with Missy Elliot”.

– “….on acid” is not only lazy, it’s stupidly inaccurate because when somebody is actually on acid they very often just say nothing for six hours and dribble a bit.

– Avoid the word I (Yes. Please, please do).

DISCLAIMER: These rules are not verbatim. You might disagree. But I right like them all.

How to unblock writer’s block

I’ve found my Achilles heel. When faced with the task of writing about myself I suffer from a severe case of writer’s block. All my creativity disappears, I completely forget how to string a sentence together and question whether I am supposed to be a writer at all.

My Guardian blog posts about life as a journalist apprentice are the hardest things I’ve ever had to put together. And I’m not alone. I’ve come across more than a few journalists who are brave enough to admit they have a love/hate relationship with writing – particularly when it comes to writing about themselves.

One day the words will seem to write themselves, the next it feels like trying to wade knee deep through wet sand and the longer you leave writing that first sentence, the harder it gets. But I’ve struggled on and invented many ways to deal with it and (thank god) it has got easier every time.

The first thing to do is take the pressure away. It’s the same feeling of dread I get before going for a run. I get over it by telling myself I’m going to go really slow, just jog for a little while and before I know it I’m having the time of my life running full speed. So I do the same with writing: set a small goal of a paragraph or a few sentences.

Then I find it really useful to do something that relaxes and inspires me. I’ll dig out some really cheesy pop music that I loved when I was 15 or read a favourite writer’s recent column. For you it could be reading a few pages of a book or having a chat with a friend. Just do something that makes you feel something.

When I finally get down to work, I think about what the overall theme is going to be for the piece and spend some time making a list of the paragraphs, with one main point for each and making sure they all lead onto one another. Nothing is more daunting than a blank page so having a few bullet points down immediately makes the task more achievable.

Before I start writing I’ll cover up the clock on my laptop and set the alarm on my phone for an hour’s time. I don’t edit anything, worry about the word count or the content until the hour is up. The aim is to just get words on the page.  The worst thing to do is to start of a piece of writing thinking; this is going to be brilliant, world changing, witty or hilarious. Just concentrate on writing the words; you can make it entertaining later on.

Another useful tip I picked up from an experienced freelance journalist, is to remember that you don’t have to start writing an article from the beginning. If you have a killer conclusion or particular paragraph already in mind, write that first and work around it. Another journo swears by going to the toilet first and comes up with some of their best ideas during those ‘private moments’.

If you find your mind wandering in the middle of writing, go back and re read the original pitch or brief. This should make you re-focus and that doesn’t work, take some time away and come back to it. If you’ve had enough writing for one day, finish up by printing out the copy, reading it and marking changes. Start the following morning by making the changes to the document as this will help prompt more ideas and you’ll quickly pick up where you left off.

Starting a blog is another great way to get over those uninspired days. Writing a few fun blog posts makes you realise it’s not so hard after all and when it comes to writing a real article it will be far easier.

The most important thing is: don’t ever tell yourself you’ve got writer’s block because you can’t write. Being able to write like a journalist isn’t all about talent – the people who do it well aren’t necessarily better than you – just more practised.

Finally, instead of getting stressed and overwhelmed, whenever I have to write something about myself, I’ll dig out some old work that I’m proud of, or read encouraging feedback I’ve had and my creativity, confidence and journalistic ability soon returns.

Writing features – lose the crap

One of the most common mistakes that new writers make is to take ages to get to the point. When given a big word count, it’s very tempting to write a lengthy introduction full of clever metaphors to set the scene for your feature. This is a bad idea.

Yes, it’s important to draw your reader in but you do this by letting them know what they are going to be reading about early on, don’t confuse them and leave them feeling disappointed. You’re not an author penning a 480 page novel, you’re writing as a journalist. Two very different things.

This was my first attempt at a blog entry I wrote for the Guardian. It was for the careers section and supposed to be about what I’ve been getting up to in my journalism apprenticeship:

I’ve found myself remember one of my most disappointing memories recently. Midway through year 11 my Art GCSE portfolio was underway. One of my main pieces of work was an A3 collage, a huge picture made up of tiny squares of coloured paper. It took weeks of sticking every little piece down, I had glue stuck under my nails, in my hair and on my carpet for weeks but when it was finally completed I was so proud of my efforts.

Is this an article about GCSE’s? Art lessons? Ruined carpets? (crap…)

I left it to dry on my bedroom floor and went to school with my window slightly open. The collage was on the floor and when I arrived home that day a rainstorm has swung my attic window open. My soaking work of art was lying on the floor, all the colours had merged and it was completely ruined. I was absolutely devastated. All of my concentration, time and effort had equated to nothing.

Maybe it’s about disappointment? (more crap…)

The reason this has come back to haunt me is that I had a very similar experience last week. I was a chance to write an article that would be printed….

…I don’t care what it’s about anymore, it’s boring and I’m losing the will to live…(…crap.)

Compare this with the first paragraph of the published piece (after many edits):

Before I got my current job, I found out the hard way how cut-throat the journalism industry is. I’d tried and failed to get work experience at the BBC, Time Out magazine, Pop Justice (a music website), Heat magazine, Now magazine and my local paper.

OH. The article is about how cut-throat the journalism industry is. I love this paragraph. I hate the first attempt. Lesson learnt.

A few examples of good intros for features:

Belinda White for the Telegraph on the subject of a cure for ‘camel-toe’ (I have rearranged it a bit to make my point):

The problem of camel toe – it’s the fashion no-no which reared its ugly head with the birth of the catsuit and spread like an epidemic when leggings became the height of fashion. The unsightly effect achieved when a lady’s bottoms are impinging too much on her nether regions – has been solved by ‘SmoothGroove’ the latest weird and, er, wonderful wardrobe ‘essential’.

Mark Rice-Oxley writing for the Guardian: The truth about depression: six people speak out:

Depression is not picky. Men, women, rich, poor, white, black. No one is immune. It is not just an illness for people with dark, mysterious pasts or chaotic presents. It is ubiquitous. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests this is fast becoming the disease du jour. Antidepressant prescriptions have soared. The World Health Organisation warns that mental illness will be second only to HIV/Aids in the burden it places on the world by the end of this decade.

And finally my favourite. Pop Justice reviewing Madonna’s latest album:

We went to listen to Madonna’s ‘MDNA’ and after one listen decided that it was – as we tweeted – fucking amazing.

Straight. To. The. Point.

Lesson No.1 – how to write like a toff

When I was eighteen I had my first article ‘published’ online. I went to review a Paloma Faith gig in Manchester. I stood at the back and took extensive notes, writing down things like the intricacies of the set and diversity of the audience.

I went home and created what I thought to be a true work of art. It was beautiful. It went up online and I was so proud of myself. I decided I was really really clever. I thought; I am an artist, I am a word artist.

Here’s an extract;

“My preconception of Paloma Faith would lead me to expect The Academy to be full of young girls styling dramatic hair and lace with the odd theatre loving thespian due to her strong affiliation with fashion and the arts”

and

“The cover of At Last by Etta James advocated the strong jazz influence and created a scene usually found in an underground bar of classy uncorrupted musicianship with the piano complimenting vocals and vice versa making this the highlight of the evening”

I am an idiot.

It sounds like a headteacher is going through a mid life crisis, went to a gig and was so moved by the experience she decided to pen a sonnet as a tribute to her ‘wild night out’.

So lesson number one; creative writing and being able to write like a journalist have nothing to do with each other.

A journalist’s job is to convey a story as clearly as possible.

– Don’t use ten words when two will do. Every single word should be necessary for the article to make sense, delete everything else.

– Don’t use any academic words. See above example; preconception, thespian, affiliation, advocated. Fool.

– Don’t assume prior knowledge with the audience for anything. “The cover of At Last by Etta James” v. “The cover of At Last by Soul legend Etta James”

Taking these points on board it turns into:

“I thought The Academy would be full of young stylish girls and the odd theatre lover to see Paloma Faith.”

and

“The cover of At Last by Soul legend Etta James was the highlight of the night and the piano brought a welcome injection of musicianship.”

Still not great, but you get the idea.

If you can’t part with your quill, ink and thesaurus go write a book or poem. Don’t be a journalist.