Three things I learned about writing from reading Roger Ebert

Film critic Roger Ebert was famous for great insights. He was legendary for the way he expressed them.

Here are just three of the things I learned about writing from reading his magnetic reviews.

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    1. Give something of value to your readers

If Roger Ebert had been assigned to write about sports, politics, or travel instead of movies, his readers would be more discerning about sports, politics or travel.

I always felt that Ebert had our best interests at heart. He didn’t come off as someone who was just a very clever writer and smart about things. His ego didn’t seem to get in the way. And it never seemed like he was just cranking out another column.

He consistently remembered that people read movie reviews in order to make decisions about how to devote two hours of their lives and a piece of their budget. He wanted us to get a return on our investment.

This is evident in so many of his memorable quotes, such as this one on the movie Do the Right Thing:

Of course it is confused. Of course it wavers between middle-class values and street values. Of course it is not sure whether it believes in liberal pieties or militancy. Of course some of the characters are sympathetic and others are hateful. And of course some of the likable characters do bad things. Isn’t that the way it is in America today? Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool. But anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention. [Chicago Sun-Times]

Roger Ebert made being reader-focused look effortless. In reality it takes hard work and diligence to be so kind.

    1. 2. Stay on earth

    Among the things you could count on from a Roger Ebert movie review was that it would be sensible and not loaded down in intellectualism or grandiose language.

    Consider his 1998 review of a classic movie on the occasion of its 60th anniversary:

    Gone With the Wind presents a sentimental view of the Civil War, in which the “Old South” takes the place of Camelot and the war was fought not so much to defeat the Confederacy and free the slaves as to give Miss Scarlett O’Hara her comeuppance. But we’ve known that for years; the tainted nostalgia comes with the territory. Yet as “GWTW” approaches its 60th anniversary, it is still a towering landmark of film, quite simply because it tells a good story, and tells it wonderfully well.

    Sometimes he had absolutely nothing good to say, but that was often when he was the most fun to read. Such as in this review of Mad Dog Time:

    Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time…Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you’re not sure they have a bus line.

      3. Be conversational

    Several years ago, I was in the market for a rice cooker as a gift for my husband (the true cook in our family). Feeling uncertain about the utilitarian nature of such a gift, I thought adding a rice cooker cookbook would make it more thoughtful. That’s how Roger Ebert’s blog promoting his The Pot and How to Use It cookbook ended up in my bookmark folder called “great writing examples.”

    His opening is smooth, funny and one of the best illustrations of effectively writing in first and second person around:

    First, get the Pot. You need the simplest rice cooker made. It comes with two speeds: Cook, and Warm. Not expensive. Now you’re all set to cook meals for the rest of your life on two square feet of counter space, plus a chopping block. No, I am not putting you on the Rice Diet. Eat what you like. I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room. You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit. You, parents with kids. You, night watchman. You, obsessed computer programmer or weary web-worker. You, lovers who like to cook together but don’t want to put anything in the oven. You, in the witness protection program. You, nutritional wingnut. You, in a wheelchair.

    And you, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. You, person on a small budget who wants healthy food. You, shut-in. You, recovering campaign worker. You, movie critic at Sundance. You, sex worker waiting for the phone to ring. You, factory worker sick of frozen meals. You, people in Werner Herzog’s documentary about life at the South Pole. You, early riser skipping breakfast. You, teenager home alone. You, rabbi, pastor, priest, nun, waitress, community organizer, monk, nurse, starving actor, taxi driver, long-haul driver. Yes, you, reader of the second-best best-written blog on the internet.

    After that, I didn’t much care whether the cookbook was really going to change our lives, I just wanted to keep reading that dialogue.

    Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013, but his writing lives on to entertain, inform and inspire.

    Put me in the scene…and I’m yours

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    When you write: “snarling and baring its fangs, the dog lunged at her neck,” your readers mentally put a hand to their throats.

    If you’ve built the scene very well, maybe readers physically cover their throats.

    When writing evokes our senses we feel like we are there, experiencing it. To get that kind of reaction, your writing must be full of description, of details and places that make us see the story as it unfolds.

    A news piece on CNN.com by Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent, did exactly that.

    The story included a picture of a young woman holding a happy baby. The headline read: Surrogate offered $10,000 to abort baby. And a deck added: “Surrogacy ends with legal actions, secretive flight to another state.”

    That was enough to make me curious, but the real-time, story-in-action approach got me to read the entire piece.

    (CNN) — Crystal Kelley ran through the calendar once again in her head.

    It was August, and if she got pregnant soon, she could avoid carrying during the hot summer months — she’d done that before and didn’t want to do it again. There was no time to lose.

    But there was one problem: She had no one to get her pregnant.

    Kelley picked up the phone and called a familiar number. What about the nice single man who’d inquired before — would he be interested? No, the woman told her. She hadn’t heard from him in weeks.

    Disappointed, Kelley asked if there was anyone else who would hire her. She’d had two miscarriages herself and wanted to help someone else with fertility problems. In return, she’d get a $22,000 fee.

    Hold on, the woman said, let me see.

    Yes, she said, there was a couple who wanted to meet her. Was she ready to take down their e-mail address?

    Absolutely, Kelley answered.

    I’m right on that phone with Kelley, sweltering in the August heat. What will happen next? You can’t help but wonder.

    And that’s exactly what you want your readers to do.

    5 essential websites for writers, plus 1 semi-evil one

    Does the Farmer’s Almanac say the PANSTARRS comet will sizzle or fizzle? What was the weather like in Atlanta, Georgia on July 2, 1954? Is Pope Benedict XVI’s title emeritus or emeriti? Will an asyndeton offer a good way to hammer a point in your writing? Is there a better word for hammer?

    Writers need answers. Quickly. Here are five sites that will get you what you need, plus one that is a sort of necessary evil.

    1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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    You never know how people will react to a small mistake, but you do know that no one will ever object to correct, accurate, proper English.

    Need to confirm a definition, spelling or usage? Merriam-Webster.com. Handy. Reliable. Authoritative. And, it’s well beyond the scope of spelling and grammar checks embedded in certain software. Enough said.

    2. Thesaurus

    Yes, writers should have a large personal vocabulary but we needn’t pretend we know everything. One of my favorite English professors—a man who could work words like opuscule, ennui and non sequitur into a one-minute hallway conversation without even the slightest hint of bravado—kept a well-worn thesaurus by his side for all his serious writing.

    He always said he owed it to his readers.

    I think thesaurus.com, which calls itself “the largest and most trusted free online thesaurus,” is great; or should I say remarkable, comprehensive or impressive?

    3. The Library of Congress

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    Need to know if Shakespeare really used the word honorificabilitudinitatibus? Or how frequently reports on Principal Federal Economic Indicators occur? Want to report on when and where to look for this year’s comets?

    This is not your father’s Library of Congress. Today you can use the virtual reference shelf that includes the answers to all of the above, plus a myriad of digital collections, bibliographies and guides. Also, you can ask a real librarian a question in an online chat.

    4. Bartleby

    Perhaps more 20th century than 21st, this site gives free and complete access to encyclopedias and other reference books that can help writers. Among the most useful are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a searchable Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and Gray’s Anatomy. No, not the popular TV drama, but the actual 1918 classic publication complete with 1,247 vibrant engravings. Admittedly, you could probably find all of this stuff on at the Library of Congress site, but this one is easier to navigate.

    5. Grammar Girl

    Inevitably, all writers—even those who merely write something as innocuous as a yearly budget report—come up against someone with Grammar Pedantry Syndrome. First identified by Dennis Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, Grammar Pedantry Syndrome (GPS) is a form of Obsessive Compulsive/Oppositional Defiant Disorder in which sufferers need to correct every grammatical error, real or imagined.

    Baron wrote in his June 2012 The Web of Language blog:

    GPS goes a long way towards finding, explaining, and helping us deal with, their obsession with enforcing on the hapless public an idiosyncratic and often undertheorized idea of what’s right or wrong in speech and writing. If defining this kind of intrusive purism as a psychological syndrome helps us find a cure, then ultimately both society, and language itself, stands to benefit. Or is it that they stand to benefit?

    Sadly, at least 10 highly followed Twitter accounts failed to penetrate the academic humor in the above, all of which I learned from reading Grammar Girl.

    Mignon Fogarty is the host of Grammar Girl and founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Prior to becoming the curator for a site devoted to grammar, she was a magazine and technical writer.

    In case you ever thought you might be able to rely on your own knowledge of grammar to get by with your writing, the “GPS” business cited above should make the dangers in that exceedingly obvious. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of people who think they know a lot more than they do. You need a reliable reference.

    I like Grammar Girl because it is funny and smart. There are others. But you need to have one very handy.

    Wikipedia: the semi- evil one

    I know Wikipedia isn’t the most accurate resource, but it can be a starting point. It’s a good place to get some basic background information to prep for interviews. For example, it can help you construct the right questions to bring your source’s information down to layman’s terms. It can also point you to good references.

    A Final Word
    Salient details enliven your writing, surprise your reader and make what you write worth sharing or remembering. In addition to that, being accurate and grammatically correct is in fact how you will be judged, no matter how great a writer you claim to be.

    Lucky for us, all that can be just a click away.

    Writing for the web: 10 things to love about it

    Using the same kind of writing style for the web as you would for a traditional medium would be a lot like producing a radio program for the Big Screen. Or recreating a movie on an etch-a-sketch. Or painting a QR code on the back of a bus. Or setting up a Skype account for your cat.

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    Well, you get the idea.

    Different mediums have different strengths. And the web is a medium where you can be more informal and have some fun. What’s not to love about that?

    So here, in no particular order, are just 10 of the things web writers should appreciate:

    1. You can be funny, have a little verve, show a little leg. It may not be appropriate every time, but some personality can work wonders, especially with a dry subject.
    2. Not only can you use a conversational tone, you can switch into direct dialogue. Yeah, that means you can make smart little side comments like this. Brilliant, eh?
    3. Short works.
    4. As do numbered lists. Or bullets.
    5. And you aren’t limited to words and graphics. Got a podcast or a video? Want to ask a question? You can do it with multimedia. Like this:


    6. Your audience can talk back to you. They can share your stuff, “like” you, subscribe, flame you or use your comments section to try to sell soap. (Please, don’t do those last two though.) Whatever the case, you get some feedback. With a little testing that can mean better engagement with your audience.
    7. Make a mistake? Well, at least you can change it the minute you find out.
    8. You get instant metrics! You can know how many people looked at something, and for how long, whether they clicked through and etc. It really is a marketing paradise.
    9. Get a great new idea? You can add new content as it comes to light.
    10. All this and its free! Well, sort of. You’ve got to have a computer, electricity and a connection. Graphic content and a photography budget is nice. Of course you probably want to get paid. But a lot of the production costs may be already bought and paid for.

    What did I miss? What do you love about writing for the web?

    The truth about true stories

    People are too complex to have just one truth. Everyone’s truth is malleable depending on who’s telling it and why.

    What does this mean for your integrity as a writer?

    I believe a skilled writer, much like a skilled counselor, can work with sources to share their story in a way that is true to them and about them while at the same time nailing the particular communication purpose at hand.

    This juggling act is an important skill for those of us on the softer news, public relations side of the communications business. There is power in what we say and how we say it, that should never be underestimated. And it should always be a part of strategy conversations.

    If you aren’t sure you can believe that, you should watch this short video. “The Power of Words” is an amazing piece created to promote Andrea Gardner’s book Change your Words, Change your World. It illustrates the importance of framing someone’s truth to match the communication objective.

    It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to see it.

    I write a number of feature stories about successful people. When I do so, I have communication goals, but it is also imperative that the stories I write are truthful.

    Typically, I offer the people I write about the opportunity to review the article before it gets published.

    If that shocks anyone’s journalistic sensibilities, let me remind you that I’m not a reporter for the Washington Post or The Detroit Free Press or even a weekly tabloid. I write for Michigan State University. So my sources for success stories are our faculty, alumni, donors and friends, which means I am free, if not compelled, to involve them.

    Does that mean my stories are any less true than those written by news reporters?

    As a third grade child, I had to learn the difference between an autobiography and a biography. My third grade self was sure that the truest story would be an autobiography. How could someone else know a person better than they know themselves I innocently reasoned?

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    In my idealistic youth years, I sided with the biographers and thought any autobiography was self-indulgent at best, probably a bore and certainly not the whole truth.

    Turns out the truth—especially when set down in writing—is a bit trickier.

    When I was fresh from J-school, the thought of allowing a source to review your story was something I thought of as a harsh reality in public relations. Though, I probably kept quiet most of the time and hoped my sources wouldn’t insist. Then, felt violated if they did but, shamefully, relieved if they spotted an inaccuracy.

    Not surprisingly, most people want things that are written about them to mirror the story that they would tell about themselves. I can’t always do that depending on my objectives, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wanted me to lie.

    In fact, I could never really reflect anyone’s internal self even if I wanted to. No matter how much time I spend with someone, I can’t live in his or her head.

    All this is less about preserving some idea about journalistic integrity and more about portraying someone authentically while at the same time crafting a message that helps your organization. That takes time, trust and finesse.

    Telling my sources upfront that they can see what I write before it goes out into the world instills trust. It’s concrete evidence that they are not being used, that I actually care about them. It helps them talk more freely and makes them more willing to let down any walls. Which in turn, can open the door for telling a fuller version of their truth that is consistent with what and how I need to communicate with our audience.

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    A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Hollywood producer. When I asked him if he wanted to see what I wrote before publication, he said: “No, whatever you write is what you saw in me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

    Maybe that was merely a function of his busy life. Or, maybe I’d really won his trust. I’m pretty confident it was neither of those. I think he just understood that his story could be different for different people and he was okay with that.

    Career advice blogger Penelope Trunk writes,

    “every summary of any part of your life could be a totally different summary as well. And be equally true.”

    She knows out that her resume could tell the story of her as a writer. But if she needed to get a job in operations, she could rewrite it to indicate that operations had been her focus for the last fifteen years…without lying. She’d just frame her truth from a different angle.

    The man in “The Power of Words” had a message that was true enough but it didn’t work for what he needed. The writer reframed his message for him in way that had impact which is exactly my point.

    It’s okay to share the truth that works best for the situation you find yourself in.

    Painstaking Craftsmanship

    “…always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second and hold him against the wall until the tag line.”
    — Paul O’Neil, former Time Inc. reporter

    George P. Hunt, managing editor of Life Magazine, once penned an Editor’s Note about staff writer Paul O’Neil in which he noted that O’Neil “liked to think of himself as, among other things, Attila the Hun”; that “the excellence of Paul’s stories is the result of painstaking craftsmanship, a fine ear for phrase and a lot of experience.” He called the quote above: O’Neil’s Law.

    That was in 1964, nearly fifty years ago. But it all has a lot of relevance today.

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    People with a true passion for writing don’t write things and share them just because they are paid to do so. In 2013 you don’t have to be one of the chosen few writing for Life Magazine to start gaining that “lot of experience.”

    But with so much content out there, readers have become overwhelmed…and more discerning.

    While writers can publish more easily now than ever before, that also means you compete with CNN, youtube, your kid’s math teacher, illogical ranting political hacks, amateur movie reviewers, a guy who doesn’t like the toaster he bought last month, and someone with 9537 Facebook friends. Good writers have an incentive and an imperative to produce stuff not that grabs the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, but in fact does so in 140 characters or less.

    As everyone, everywhere increasingly fights for our attention richer more relevant content is trumping quantity. The rush to chuck trash into the cavernous Web simply to fill it up as quickly as possible is over.

    Quality is now much, much more important than quantity. And that’s precisely where painstaking craftsmanship comes in to play.

    What does this mean for you?

    Focus on quality—not quantity. Aim to create and produce only top-shelf content. Spend more time on less volume.

    Pretend your writing will determine whether or not you get the career opportunity of a lifetime; that President Obama will see your next blog; that you’ll wake up to 12 million hits; that your worst elementary school nemesis, the one who snaked your prized Nike sneakers over a telephone line, will read your next published article and finally will be sorry. Whatever it takes to bring out the painstaking craftsman in you.

    Work on developing that fine ear for phrase.

    I’m no Paul O’Neil but I do know this. The best writers are the ones who can tell a good story. They know how to find the right details to make it human and interesting. And they know their way around a metaphor or two.

    Developing that kind of skill takes practice; practice that will greatly increase your chances of grabbing the reader by the throat.

    The Granddaughter’s Guide to Getting Good Feedback

    My grandmother was the kind of woman who had her hair done once week. For which appointment, she wore low healed pumps, a dress and a string of pearls. She had a lady who did her laundry. Another who made custom drapes to match her custom upholstery.

    She liked everything just so. As a result, she was nearly always looking for ways to improve upon whatever was around her. Which further resulted in a tendency to be quite analytical. She made me a writer.

    Each winter she’d disappear to either Florida or Arizona to escape our Michigan tundra. Back in the 1970s that meant good granddaughters were expected to write letters. Once a week, if they were really good.

    My mother made sure I was really good.

    Most weeks that meant I’d be writing a letter on Sunday night. My Grandmother died over two decades ago. And I still sometimes feel the urge to pull out some stationary and pen a letter come Sunday night.

    On the one hand, my Grandmother was the happy recipient of what ever I managed to get down on paper. She was never one to point out misspellings, bad grammar, run-on sentences, fragments, missing words, extra words, wrong names, missing punctuation, or even missing salutations. I believe she reasoned that I had teachers who could deal with any of that.

    What she cared about was the big picture: the content and my ability to convey real meaning. She could be ruthlessly honest when it came to critiquing the meaning and content. Yet, she could be ridiculously generous when something delighted her. She was the first to say: “You should do something with writing.”

    She didn’t know it, but she provided the perfect feedback model: be honest about significant matters, overlook minutiae and encourage.

    It is hard to find useful feedback like that.

    In any good training program for public speaking, you will be required to videotape yourself giving a presentation.

    Unless you are some kind of Ted X rock star, watching such a recording of yourself can be one of the most uncomfortable, excruciatingly embarrassing experiences imaginable. But, if you can stomach it, there is truly nothing better for learning the naked truth about how you appear.

    It’s the feedback equivalent of my Grandmother if she took her gloves off and gave it to you adult-like.

    Unfortunately, there is no similar exercise you can do on yourself to really see your writing the way others see it.

    Sure you could read what you’ve written. But, that doesn’t pack much of a punch. You’ve been doing that all along in the writing process anyway.

    To get good feedback, you need to enlist the help of others. And because most people aren’t as invested in your development as my Grandmother was in mine, you’ll need to provide some guidelines and questions.

    Ask things like: What is your overall impression of XYZ topic after reading this? What did you learn from reading it? What was your favorite line? At any point, did you start to get bored or struggle to keep reading? If so, do you remember about where that started? And so on.

    One of the best places to find this type of feedback is through a writer’s group. I belong to one that meets once a month. We each bring something we’ve written and we read it out loud at the meeting. As far as feeling exposed, it is not unlike watching yourself give a speech on videotape.

    You can also cultivate trusted colleagues, sometimes a boss, certain family members, and etc.

    More on this at a later date.

    What’s your best source of useful feedback?