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.

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    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.

    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.

    Plan A Head

    No, that is not a typo. In this 52-week learning quest toward better writing, this week’s installment is on that most important finishing touch: writing a decent headline. Or subject line, heading, report title—whatever caps your communication of the moment.

    No matter how brilliant your content, if you put a ho-hum, boring—dare I say old school journalistic—title on it, you may as well have typed out your weekly grocery list.

    Handwritten Grocery List

    Sure the occasional devoted reader might still wade in to your copy. But let’s face it, the overwhelming majority of potential readers of anything are scanners at best. Without an element of intrigue they can’t miss, you’re wasting a whole lot of communication real estate.

    Back in the day (since I am officially middle aged, I’m entitled to say that at least once a week) I distinctly remember an editor from the Lansing State Journal speaking in one of my J-school classes about her job. She was—and this was hard to believe it was someone’s full time job even in those days—the headline editor.

    Later that week at the Peanut Barrel—then, the go-to place for J-school graduate students—several of my classmates commented on how much they’d love to have that woman’s job. For me, it was one of those moments where you try to look inconspicuous and hope no one notices you’re the only one not nodding in agreement. My thoughts were more along the lines of “No way would I ever want to be in that pressure cooker!”

    In short, when it comes to headlines…A Natural Me Not. So, I’ve found ways to cope. I really wish I had a Top Ten List of great ways to solve the headline dilemma. But I’ve only got four. (I’m open to ideas here…)

    Here they are, in no particular order.

    1) Borrow from other publications and adapt it for your unique purpose

    There’s no harm in finding inspiration from others, right? That is, as long as you don’t cross the plagiarism line of course. When I get stuck, I like to browse through examples of excellence.

    Inspiration Next Exit Sign

    One of my favorite sites for that is longform.com. It’s a brilliantly curated collection of new and classic articles, culled from a myriad of excellent sources on the web. As the name implies, these are substantial pieces and nearly always have interesting titles. You won’t find a “So-and-so Wins Award” in the bunch.

    Here’s a sampling of some recent offerings and how you could repurpose the headline concept:

    “THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A SHOOTER” –An essay on why people play violent video games by Tom Bissel in Grantland
    This concept could be repurposed for anything you’ve got that lends itself to a list, especially when the list is an unexpected number. And, the topic is equally unexpected: “Eleven Ways of Looking at Robo Hamsters”, and etc.

    “WE’RE GETTING WILDLY DIFFERING ASSESSMENTS” –Covering the chaotic nine minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its health care ruling by Tom Goldstein in Scoutusblog
    If you are lucky enough to have any kind of short, pithy quote in your piece, why not put it up front?

    “WILL YOU STILL MEDAL IN THE MORNING?” –A feature on sex in the Olympic Village by Sam Alipour, ESPN
    Admittedly a tie to sex isn’t appropriate for a business report but I like the idea of using a question. Not to mention, bending a well-known phrase, which leads me to my next idea.

    2) Flip that tired old adage; pun intended!

    Some of the best headlines, take some familiar saying and swap out a word or two to give it new meaning. Done right, it comes off smart. Done wrong, it’s just painful.

    Terrible Puns

    One I wrote recently was for a web page about students painting an iconic rock on our campus in our school color: green. It was in honor of class gifts and really was undertaken to provide a photo for the contents page of our magazine. I titled the web page “Between a Rock and a Green Place.”

    Maybe it was painful for fans of other places, but our fans seemed to think it fit our culture just right.

    Joe-Ks.com is a great site for scanning for potential phrases to turn. You could also consider twisting up part of a well-known verse, song title or lyric; and etc.

    3) With a preposition

    I believe an element of surprise is key to a good header. For example, say a list of seemingly disparaging things. Prepositional phrases came to my rescue in that sort of regard twice this week.
    I had a working headline I hated. And my boss hated it even more than I did. With the magic preposition “Making the Grass Greener and Lives Richer” (UGH) became “On Graduation Speeches, Gifts and Golf”.
    The other one? “Science Olympians Go for Gold” (double UGH) became “Of Trebuchets, Bridges and Mousetraps.”

    4) Throw in the weird

    In an ideal world, the writer of the content would never come up with the title for that content. Instead, a fresh set of eyes would take over; such as someone with a knack for copy writing. But anyone can start to think like a copy writer by looking for unusual elements to highlight. And then stating them in an unusual way; such as in the form of a question.

    If a photo or illustration will be featured with your piece, that is a great place to start. For example, in a piece on the academic impact of faculty chair endowments, our most excellent design team came up with putting a giant chair into an aerial photo of our campus. By giant, I mean its real world dimensions would have been about 200 stories high. So the headline became “What’s so BIG about a chair?”

    Granted there is a place for a dry, factual headline. Media releases, white papers and grant proposals to name just a few. But, there is also a place for fun and drama.

    Great examples and different techniques wanted here. Please post if you’ve got them.