Write great beginnings

north-of-here-seattle
Journalists call story openings “ledes.”

Whether you call them beginnings, openings or ledes, you need to agonize over them – because you have about 250 words to grab your readers.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, gravely, “and go on ’till you come to the end. Then stop.” Lewis Carroll.

Up top, identify the message of the e-mail, web page or article. Learn new ways to begin a piece of writing. “A lead ought to shine like a flashlight, down into the whole piece, if possible,” says John McPhee.

Avoid these bland, trite leads

  • An apology or complaint: As you probably know….
  • A panorama or vague overview: Urban sprawl is a problem each of us faces every day.
  • A truism, a cliché, the obvious or platitudes: We are dedicated to being the world’s best at bringing people together – giving them easy access to each other and to the information and services they want and need – anytime, anywhere.
  • The Adam-and-Eve approach: Back when the company was founded….
  • There’s good news and there’s bad news….
  • A dictionary definition.
  • To whom it may concern.
  • Dear Sir or Madam.
  • Enclosed (or attached) please find.
  • It has come to my attention.

2 stories in 1 week on Newsworks

hooked a big one

Proud to have scored two bylines in a few days on Newsworks.org, the website of WHYY-TV and WHYY-FM.

“In a world of ‘not my job,’ do you shut up or speak up?” asks whether people are tattle-tales or whistle-blowers — or not. It starts with a story of what happened when a lifeguard was looking at his cellphone instead of the waves.

“I was always one paycheck from being homeless” is an interview of 2 homeless men I interviewed on the streets of Philadelphia.

I always have a story idea or 6 up my proverbial sleeve.

Do you read nonfiction as well as write it?

library
I write nonfiction, but I read fiction for pleasure.

Years ago, before the age of self-publishing, someone told me that only about 15 percent of books published in America are fiction, in all genres, while the vast majority of books fall under nonfiction. I imagined that those statistics indicated that editors slave more thoroughly over fiction than facts, parsing more sentences, correcting more errors, enhancing more nuances.

So I read fiction, I tell myself, because the writing is intrinsically better than in nonfiction. I am more likely to encounter a memorable phrase or aptly used arcane word in contemporary fiction than in heady books penned by politicians, potters and patients for whom writing is not a first language.

Recently I asked librarians and booksellers if I was correct about the ratio of domestic books. They had never considered the question and had no answer. So I wrote to the Library of Congress.

A librarian named Abby Yochelson responded: “I think the quality of editing probably depends on the publisher rather than fiction vs. nonfiction. I know plenty of people who complain about the quality of fiction editing, too!” She asked Andy Lisowski, of the institution’s information-technology staff, to run a search.

“In terms of figuring out percentages,” she wrote later, “you would have to figure out the number of books we have compared to our overall collections.” The most current compiled information is for Fiscal Year 2013. “Fascinating Facts about the Library of Congress” reports that the Library of Congress owns about 160 million items, about 37 million of which are books and other print materials.

The library’s annual report includes an appendix listing books by class. Class P covers language and literature: English, American, etc., plus fiction, literature, children’s literature, poetry, drama, essays, literary criticism, biographies of writers, etc. Andy could not identify fiction specifically, Abby says. The two of them “Concluded that trying to count genre fiction would not work. Including a genre category is fairly recent in terms of library cataloging. Many works have multiple genres, so something could be categorized as a love story and suspense fiction.”

Abby went all out, making me value this remarkable federal resource. Who knew all this stuff even existed? Not I.

“I also attempted to make use of the subdivision fiction as it can be used with subject headings: libraries-fiction, railroad trains-fiction, writers-fiction,” she wrote. “I used the advanced search in our catalog. I typed fiction in the search box and used the pull-down menu to indicate SUBJECT ALL (KSUB).

“Unfortunately, the maximum number of records the catalog can retrieve is 10,000, with no idea of how many records there are over that number. In addition, fiction didn’t always appear in subject headings, so this search would miss thousands of older books.”

Abby even searched OCLC WorldCat, a database showing the holdings of more than 70,000 libraries. (Here’s the free version.) When you use the advanced search, you can limit to fiction or nonfiction and to adult or juvenile. Unfortunately, you can’t just click on the limits without searching on something.

“I don’t really ‘trust’ any of the numbers above about the Library of Congress holdings or think they are sufficiently accurate to quote.”

So there are no facts on which to base my preference for reading fiction while continuing to write nonfiction. And that’s the truth.

What about you?

What Ed Snider taught me about writing nonfiction

Flyers

In 1966, Ed Snider, the billionaire entrepreneur who died recently at 83, co-founded the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. He also developed and acquired 10 additional businesses, including SMG, an early sports-arena management company; WIP, an early all-sports radio station; and SpectaGuard, a security company. Oh, yes, and the Spectrum, the late, great indoor sporting arena in South Philly.

Snider bundled his companies into an entity called Spectacor, which occupied a mansion on the south side of Rittenhouse Square. It was there that I met Snider, whom I was to profile in Spectacor’s employee newsletter.

Snider’s office, the top level in his elevator-free building, was as impressive as his business empire. His reputation was even greater: He was a towering figure in the world of sports, well known for the emotional support he gave to his players, the presidents of his companies and his friends and colleagues in the city and country.

I was literally and figuratively breathless when I arrived at the fourth floor. But Snider put me at ease, and he spoke with ease. Across the world’s largest wooden desk, he talked about his love for his family and players. He interspersed comments and memories with gestures to photos of his favorite people. And he chatted at length about the wonder of having a child and a grandchild of the same age, a feat he accomplished by marrying multiple times.

The lesson he taught was that, if I just kept quiet and allowed his mind to wander, I’d get a good story. I knew that already, but he, or at least his behavior, reminded me. I didn’t interrupt with questions from my prepared list. Sometimes I smiled or laughed or said, “Oh!” – an inducement for him to keep on keepin’ on. And he did.

Well, the story wrote itself, as they say. It was easy to punctuate his musings, to turn phrases into sentences, to insert paragraph marks. Before deadline, I submitted the profile to the p.r. man who hired me. He loved the article.

I wish that were the end of the story. But when Ed Snider, later honored for his charity work by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, read the piece, he had second thoughts. According to the p.r. man, Snider regretted opening up as much as he did. He didn’t take back any of the details, all of which I cited accurately. He merely dismissed the entire article, which never saw publication.

RIP, Ed Snider: You taught me to keep still when I interview, even if the result did not thrill you.

Vote for Hillary Clinton

LINDA NORBERG BLAIR AND SUSAN BLUMENTHAL GLAZER CO-WROTE THIS ARTICLE.

We believe the American people must elect a woman to the presidency.

Not any woman, this woman: Hillary Rodham Clinton. With her in the Oval Office, the heights to which women can rise will have no limit. We believe a Clinton victory will smash the proverbial glass ceiling for the rest of us.

We rally ’round her not solely because she is a woman. She is the best-qualified candidate, and she happens to be female.

We are a few years older than the front-running Democrat, all former classmates at Elkins Park Junior High and Cheltenham High School in suburban Philadelphia. Together we have produced four daughters, five sons, 10 granddaughters, and four grandsons. It is for their benefit that we support Clinton and the promise she holds for all women and men, feminists or not.

In this patriarchal society of ours, people have expected men to earn the bulk of the income. Even though we see the patriarchy crumbling, slowly, some women don’t support Hillary. Perhaps they are not ready to handle women on the ascendancy.

Women have always held families together, a talent for which they earn little respect. In our generation, women became teachers, nurses, and secretaries, working until the time came to bear children. Then they stayed home washing cloth diapers. Their careers were over, at least until the last offspring left for college.

But today women nurture their families and work as pharmacists, accountants and military combatants. Women earn more money than ever before, at least at the bottom of every career ladder. Even though wage inequality persists, young women step onto the ladder in almost every field.

Glaring exceptions are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which qualified women tend to avoid because they don’t feel comfortable in mostly male classrooms and labs.

Yes, women are making progress, and many think they have it made and can do it all. But young women have not been around long enough to recognize that incremental success rarely leads to a chair in the boardroom.

Women have excelled in leading many other countries. Today 22 countries have women presidents, chancellors or prime ministers, and two more have female governors-general. Switzerland has elected six female presidents. Five countries have had three female presidents and/or prime ministers, and 13 countries have had two female presidents or PMs. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir presided over Finland for 16 years.

Best known and most highly praised among female leaders are Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, and Indira Gandhi, twice prime minister of India. Both led their nations to unprecedented levels of glory and the women who elected them to unprecedented heights.

We care primarily, essentially, dramatically about the rights and future of American women. Today we face an opportunity to improve forever the lives of women. If we elect this woman president, it will be on the merits of her candidacy. Clinton will neutralize this blatantly ineffective men-first mantra of our democracy precisely by proving that a woman can be first.

A Clinton presidency will lead us to a stable and powerful future. Her leadership of the finest country in the world will entice girls and young women to aim even higher.

Vote for Hillary Clinton for the sake of your granddaughters, stepdaughters, and nieces, and all the men who love them.

Linda Blair, PhD, is a retired high school English teacher living in Springfield, Va. Susan Glazer, of Wynnewood, Pa., is the retired director of the School of Dance at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia. The article appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 3, 2016. 

Yes, grammar matters.

you're right

A man I don’t know sends an e-mail. According to his signature, he handles website development, digital marketing strategy, SEO, social media, paid search management, and content marketing. So, while he probably is not a writer himself, he might hire or consult with writers. He says:

“I am not trying to connect with you for any particular reason. I am trying to do a better job of connecting with people I have met so that I don’t have to go to a million places to find people when opportunities or potential introductions arise.

“For example, if someone came to me with a need for a writer who was crazy fanatic about grammar. I would likely send them your way but might give up if I have to search all over for your contact information.”

Wow, I think. He thinks I am crazy-fanatic-about-grammar. I am, and proudly so. It’s not for nothing I have co-opted my friend’s nickname of Comma Momma. I swear, though, I never corrected this guy in public, perhaps because we have never met. Then I wonder: Who wants a writer who is not crazy-fanatic-about-grammar (CFaG). Do people call and ask him to recommend writers who are or are not CFaG?

Similarly, who wants a tailor to alter a jacket without being crazy-fanatic about making the sleeves the same length? Who wants to eat a restaurant meal where the chef is not crazy-fanatic about a clean kitchen? Who wants a website designer who is not crazy-fanatic about checking broken links?

But this is not the only dude who asks if grammar matters. In fact, I teach a course at Temple University Center City called “Does grammar still matter?” The answer, if you care, is that grammar does matter.

The fact that teachers don’t teach grammar at any grade level doesn’t mean it’s not essential to clear communication. It is. The fact that parents don’t or can’t correct their children’s oral or written grammatical errors likewise does not diminish the value of good grammar.

I teach grammar to adults because they didn’t learn it in school or they have forgotten it since. They come to class for refreshers, hoping to recall first-, second- and third-person voice; active and passive verbs; and the difference between affect and effect.

I am not alone in believing that grammar matters.

Andrew Hindes lists credibility, professionalism and clarity among the 6 top reasons why grammar matters.

Richard Nordquist says that people associate grammar with correctness. “Knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.”

And Steve Tobak writes about creating content for social media: “If what you’re writing will be public and has your name attached to it, assume that anyone who works with you or might be interested in hiring you will see it. As such, whatever it is can be conversational, and a typo isn’t the end of the world, but it should still be reasonably grammatically correct…. Business writing is about clarity in communication….”

I remain, sincerely yours, CFaG. Consider signing up for my grammar class at Temple.

Write positively, not negatively

A restaurant
When you write nonfiction, use positive words rather than negative ones.

Set the tone for what you write by using positive expressions. Use positive words to soften messages. Use positive words to make you or your organization seem friendly and interested.

Imagine yourself as a reader. Which would you prefer to read?

Positive words Negative words
appreciate blame
beneficial careless
capable complain
commend decline
cooperative disappointed
efficient doubtful
excellent failing
recommended impossible
reliability neglect
sincerity unfairness
thoughtful wrong

 

Write sentences in a positive manner so they sound friendly. Otherwise you may annoy readers or damage your existing relationship with them.

Negative sentence 1. We must have a copy of your specifications by October 15 or we will be unable to deliver on time.
Positive sentence 1. Please send us your specifications by October 15 so we can deliver on time.
Negative sentence 2. This certification may only be used by individuals who have passed the specified course and exam.
Positive sentence 2. You may use this certification after you pass the specified course and exam.
Negative sentence 3. We are unable to insure that equipment because you failed to enclose the serial number and original sales receipt.
Positive sentence 3. We can insure that equipment as soon as you send us the serial number and original sales receipt.

What sentences have you written recently that you are ready to revise?

Freelancing in America

follow the arrow

In October the Freelancers Union released its second annual survey of freelancing in the United States. In a nutshell, nearly 54 million Americans – 34 percent of all workers – worked as freelancers. Not all are freelance writers or editors, of course, but the trends undoubtedly reflect on us, too.

• Nearly 54 million Americans – 34% of workers – have done freelance work in the past year.
• That amounts to 700,000 more freelancers than last year.
• Sixty percent of freelancers said they started freelancing by choice.
• Half of all freelancers said they wouldn’t stop freelancing for any amount of money. They thrive on the freedom and flexibility that freelancing offers.
• Nearly three-fourths of freelancers said that technology has made it easier to find freelance work.

Care to chime in? Just click above on LEAVE A COMMENT.

 

Don’t syphon your hyphens

coin-op showers
Q.
What’s the proper use of hyphens?

A. Hyphens diminish the space between words. They bring words closer rather than separating them. Here is a guide to the most common uses of hyphens.

Whether you are a native speaker of English or a speaker of English as a second language (ESL), these tips can be helpful.

compound words  Use hyphens to separate parts of compound words. Use the dictionary to learn whether to use one word, two words or one hyphenated word. Water-repellent, but waterproof; cross-examine, but notebook.

multiple-word adjectives  Use hyphens to connect two or more words functioning together as an adjective before a noun.

  • Buy some paper-wrapped fish at the market.
  • We charge for in-house consulting and for EPA-mandated documents.
  • Sears’ 120-piece tool-set.
  • Profit-sharing plans (profit modifies sharing, not plans).
  • Levi’s red-tab jeans, on sale for $90.00.

avoiding ambiguity  Use hyphens when uncertainty would arise without them.

  • She will speak to small-business men (not short males).
  • Forty-odd employees would be silly without the hyphen.
  • The agency provides domestic-violence training (training in domestic violence, not an at-home training session on violence).
  • A genuine-leather catcher’s mitt (a mitt made of genuine leather, not a mitt for a leather-catcher).
  • Hyphenate to distinguish re-creation from recreation.
  • Hyphenate to differentiate under-served from undeserved.
  • Hyphenate to separate awkward double or triple letters, such as anti-intellectual and cross-stitch.

multiple words as one   Use hyphens with words that you want to glue together into a single unit. The hyphen brings single words together so they work as a team.

  • Slab-on-grade.
  • A less-is-more philosophy.
  • The Eagles-Redskins game.
  • The Willard-Laney-Johnson-Elliott family reunion.
  • The Atlanta-Philadelphia flight.
  • When my son sat on my lap during his first Phillies game, it was a take-me-out-to-the-ballgame feeling.

suspended hyphens  In a series of similar entries, when each entry requires a hyphen, write the hyphens and skip (or suspend) the common word.

  • You may buy first-, second- or third-class tickets.
  • The agency provides before- and after-school care.
  • We offer both short- and long-term leases.

fractions  Use hyphens for fractions. One-fourth of my income goes to pay off the national debt (the hyphen brings words closer).

incorrect hyphens   Do not use hyphens when the same words follow the noun.

  • We do in-house consulting.
  • We do the consulting in house.
  • We did a last-minute edit of the nonfiction manuscript.
  • We edited the nonfiction manuscript at the last minute.

more incorrect hyphens  Do not use hyphens to connect -ly adverbs to the words they modify.

  • A slowly (no hyphen) moving truck.
  • A partially (no hyphen) edited manuscript.
  • An especially sympathetic writing coach.

Quiz: How many hyphens would you insert in this paragraph?

The 12 story, glass and limestone tower improves the look of the entire neighborhood. The new condominium development on Bank Street features homes with state of the art appliances and the latest in furnishings. Buyers looking for beautifully appointed two and three bedroom contemporary homes with open floor plans should visit this high-end development. First-quarter sales have been brisk, attesting to the property’s solid investment potential. Buyers and their agents should stop by the sales office on Bank Street or request a copy of the four color brochure.

Answer: My version adds 11 hyphens.

The 12-story, glass-and-limestone tower improves the look of the entire neighborhood. The new condominium development on Bank Street features homes with state-of-the-art appliances and the latest in furnishings. Buyers looking for beautifully appointed two- and three-bedroom contemporary homes with open floor plans should visit this high-end development. First-quarter sales have been brisk, attesting to the property’s solid investment potential. Buyers and their agents should stop by the sales office on Bank Street or request a copy of the four-color brochure.

Who wears head scarves?

Bahiraa Abdul Rasheed is folding tall piles of scarves into perfect rectangles, preparing them to hang on a thousand hangers around The Islamic Place, a shop in West Philadelphia.

She’s wearing a scarf – a Muslim head covering called a hijab – in a blend of greens, yellows and tans.

Hijab means to protect or cover, and it relates to far more than clothing. Hijab is personal, says Aleem Choudhary, the Pakistani native who manages the store. It’s about one’s personal relationship with God, he says. “In Muslim culture, women have very high status. They are considered sacred. They represent the honor of society. Hijab is about protecting that honor.

“Some societies turn that ‘protection’ into a method of suppression,” he says, and non-Muslim people often look at women in hijab and think of them as repressed. But that’s often not the case. In the Pakistani town where Choudhary’s wife grew up, the women jointly decided to wear hijab. “My wife has a master’s degree, so no one is suppressing her, but she prefers to wear hijab.”

Rasheed, born Christian in the USA, explains how she began wearing. (“Wearing” is short for “wearing hijab.”) “I was working at Rite Aid,” she says, and I wanted to know why I saw sisters covering up. So I asked one sister, and she told me about the Muslim religion. I asked more questions, and she said she would help me.”

Rasheed’s journey began. “I feel Muslim in my heart,” she says. “I want to know more about Islam. As I submit to Muslim law, one condition is covering my hair.”

The hijabs most popular among Western women are square scarves that cover the head and neck but leave the face clear. Although women wear hijab to maintain modesty, available colors range from somber black, brown and burgundy to fashionable lime, hot pink, brilliant florals and tailored geometrics.

Aaliyah Hamid, shopping at The Islamic Place, grew up singing in the choir in her grandmother’s Catholic church. “Now my family are all Muslims, but we are not strict,” she says. “As my faith has increased, I cover my entire body.” She wears a khimar, too, which covers the head and neck, and a jilbab, a neck-to-shoes over-garment.

Mohamed Elcheikhadi, of a Philadelphia suburb, is a single, practicing Muslim man. His mother and sister, who remain in his native Lebanon, wear hijab, but his Philadelphia sister does not. “My family does not restrict our women. Our values do not require that women cover themselves. But a woman who covers is not at risk of getting negative attention from strange men, which would be bad.”

Before visiting this store, I asked a dozen women wearing traditional head coverings if I could talk with them. On a bus, I met two women wearing hijab: one, wearing pastel pink, teaching her mom, all in black, to navigate Philadelphia on her cell-phone map. Daughter said that some veiled women tend to wear a lot of makeup, “And if they have money, they get nose jobs, too.”

But she never returned my phone calls. Half the women I approached said no and turned away. Half said yes – and then failed to respond on the phones or e-mail addresses they had shared. The consensus in The Islamic Place was that that was not surprising, that the women were maintaining their privacy, their cover, their hijab, by refusing to talk.

A study guide accompanying a PBS show called “Suppression or Liberation: Islam, Hijab and Modern Society,” says that countries vary in defining women’s garb. Iranian women must wear a hijab, and Saudi Arabian women must veil their face. In Turkey, the government outlawed women from wearing hijab in public places.

Aleem Choudhary’s sister Wajeeha describes herself as “A 25-year-old hijab-observant Muslim woman born and raised in the Philadelphia area. My parents are immigrants from Pakistan who came to the U.S. 26 years ago.” She is a PhD candidate, writing her dissertation on the visual representation of South Asian Muslim women in American mass media.

“At age 14 I started wearing hijab,” she says. “My mother does, but she questioned me, wanting to make sure I was doing it of my own volition. I was. Wearing helped me grow with my friends, and I am glad I did it early. I grew comfortable and confident in it. If you’re looking for a job in your early 20s, you wonder if hijab will get in the way. Women who are denied employment because of wearing hijab can always go get another job.”

Choudhary is focusing on Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old, scarf-wearing Pakistani who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. “She wears the garb that is local to her community, but she is the opposite of how Muslim women have been represented. There seems to be a tendency to exceptionalize her, to say she is a celebrity, that she is not like other Muslim women.”

Choudhary finds Philadelphia “a very Muslim-friendly city. I don’t see any Muslim hatred here.”

Elcheikhadi says, “If I marry, I could ask my wife to cover herself, but I would not demand it.” In fact, he has never dated a woman wearing hijab, and a woman who covers all but her eyes would seem “too strict” for him. “To Americans she looks old-fashioned, even like an outcast. But an educated woman with hijab is a plus. You know she will care deeply about her husband and that she will be faithful.”

Local resident Hakima Ewida, a native of Morocco, has a different, perhaps unique, perspective on covering. Her father was an imam, a leader of prayer in mosques. His lesson guides her daily behavior: “Cover your heart with good deeds. God sees your heart.” She has never worn hijab, but she considers herself fully wrapped.

This article appeared November 24, 2015, on Huffington Post.