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

dictionary

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

LOC

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 Art of Interviewing

If you can chat over lunch, you can master an interview for writing a great personal story.

In the past few years, I’ve had some interesting interviews. I talked to a lady who, heartrendingly, broke down into tears while describing the very first time she saw the campus where I work. I also got a detailed personal tour of an insanely extensive, yet somehow charming, collection of duck decoys. Another time, I only got ten minutes to talk with a very generous donor while at the same time orchestrating having his picture taken with our basketball coach.

Whether you get ten minutes on a basketball court, the whole afternoon at the subject’s home, time via Skype or just over the phone, you can use the same process to write a story with impact.

I believe it boils down to about seven steps.

1) Before you do anything, define the purpose so you fully understand it. You should be able to state your purpose in one sentence. It will drive your research, interview and, eventually, the writing and editing.

2) Background research. Learn about your subject including defining potential themes that will allow you to riff on the spot once you are in the interview.

3) Request the interview.

  • Identify yourself confidently and without apology.
  • Share your purpose and what you will do with their story.
  • Establish a slightly flexible time limit, i.e. “I don’t expect this will take more than X minutes of your time.”
  • While you are talking, try to get a small sense for how the person might be. Will they be chatty? Are they mainly flattered or suspicious? Stoic or comfortable?

4) Prepare questions. Some writers resist this in order to “let the source lead the interview.” Personally, I don’t believe that having some prepared questions means you have to doggedly stick to a predetermined structure. You are always free to deviate.

  • As a good rule of thumb, aim for about one question for every three minutes you’ll have.
  • Make sure your questions are designed to draw them out and make them human. Don’t ask “what are your strengths?’ say “what would your colleagues (or rivals or family or friends or someone meeting you for the very first time) say are your strengths?”
  • Be ready to follow-up with questions that will get you the personal elements. Take me back to that day, what were you doing before ABC happened? Where were you living? What was your first thought when you realized XYZ?

5) Build rapport.

  • Smile, smile, smile! They’ll feel it even if it’s a phone interview.
  • Keep positive and patient no matter what; even if all you’ve heard so far is unusable platitudes.
  • The main thing is to keep things non-judgmental and don’t rush in to fill the void the second your source stops talking.
  • If your source rambles, gently steer them back on course. If need be, say, “I have a few more questions I need to ask and I want to respect your time.”
  • Keep at it to get a few hooks. Instead of “can you tell me something funny that happened?” ask “did anyone ever do XWZ?” If you’ve build a little rapport, most likely they will counter with “No, but…”

6) The bomb. If there is anything potentially embarrassing, awkward or tough put this near the end—after you’ve built rapport. Allow time for recovery to end things on a positive note.

7) Conclude. This can either be when you’ve gotten enough material or when you sense your source is tiring of you. I have a standard final question that goes something like this: “Is there anything important that we haven’t talked about?” End with a thank you.

And what is said in the interview is never enough. A great interview also includes description, context, a fresh way of saying something and nonverbal information about the subject.

That’s my process. I hope you can find something useful here for your next interview.