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.

    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?

    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.

    2013’s Buzz Words Every Writer Should Know

    The fact that there are always new words is among the many things I love about American English. Any noun is fair game to become verb. We allow popular use to change grammar rules. We adopt words and phrases from every other language on the planet.

    Spoiler alert: the downside of all this freedom trending now is that this is the time of year when English word-watchers everywhere list their pet peeves in word use. While some of them get a bit self-righteous, the lists are generally good reminders of words to avoid.


    Misused, Overused or Generally Useless

    Lake Superior State University recently published its 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness, based on nominations submitted from the United States, Canada and beyond.

    Among the dirty dozen that made this year’s list is “trending” of which Kyle Melton of White Lake, Michigan said “A trend is something temporary, thank goodness; however, it is not a verb, and I’m tired of news stations telling me what trite ‘news’ is ‘trending.’”

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    Melton has a point in terms of overuse, but his assertion that a trend is not a verb is so ten seconds ago. (Please feel free to submit “so ten seconds ago” for next year. I already checked and it’s not on the list yet.)


    Buzz Kills

    Yesterday Ragan.com posted “10 Industry Buzz Words That Need to Die.” Mobile topped the list.

    And a few weeks ago, British PR agency Twelve Thirty Eight released Buzz Word Report: January 2013, an annual review of the PR jargon and practices that inflame journalists, as determined by surveying British journalists.

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    Among the words that presumably cause British journalists to suffer near internal combustion is ‘iconic’. Admittedly, when applied to everything from Kate Middleton’s hair to Colleen Rooney’s platforms as they suggest, I can concur with their recommendation: “Please can we allow this word the respect and privacy it deserves at this special time so that it can recover its true meaning?”

    And it sheds a great deal more understanding on the puzzling cynicism by some British partners of my university who insisted that I refrain from using the word iconic in talking points for the opening of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.

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    Take a look at the museum (and where it is) and tell me that architecture doesn’t recover the true meaning of the word iconic.


    For the early 70s retro chic amongst us

    Despite my iconic experience, I think I like Twelve Thirty Eight. Their website claims: You’ll never hear us say “awesome”, “circle back”, “ping me”, “super-exciting” or “reach out”. We’ll never start a sentence with “So,….”. We don’t have a boardroom filled with double beds, a pool table, a company bar, a pinball machine, a vintage caravan parked in the middle of the office, fake grass on the floor, pet monkeys, sponsored dogs or an organic goats milk decaf latte maker. Our holiday plans are unlikely to leave you feeling inadequate.”

    They say their average age is 41 (which they call “early seventies retro chic”) and that most of their ideas “end up in the bin.”

    And I really liked their advice that writers should try to write in English. Specifically, that we should read back what we are sending out to see if we could imagine a real person ever saying it out load.

    They illustrated it with one random example of a chief executive’s quote:

    We are entering a new global paradigm in business whereby operatives are no longer satisfied with having a physical office in which all deals must take place. Enterprise is expanding beyond the four walls of the company headquarters and businesses therefore need tools that facilitate a much more mobile and fluid sales team. As we infiltrate new markets around the world, we expect to roll out our offering on a wider scale and enable businesses to benefit from our market leading product.”

    Buzz word-laden jargon like that makes using iconic a relatively petty concern.

    One million strong, Gangnam Style

    According to Oxford Dictionary online English most likely has more words than any comparable language.

    The impossibility of determining the exact number of words in English didn’t stop Global Language Monitor from publishing their 13th annual estimate (1,019,729.6 as of January 1, 2013). GLM also declared ‘Gangnam Style’ as the top phrase of the year and noted that ‘Frankenstorm,’ Superstorm Sandy’s colloquial name, “went from a meteorologist’s lips to a globally recognized neologism within a few hours.”

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    I don’t particularly like Frankenstorm. But the fact that one person could create a globally recognized neologism in a couple hours is kind of amazing.

    There will always be curmudgeons ranting about the overuse of phrases, the use of meaningless words and the like. If you take a look at the lists, you’ll be sad to notice some you’ve used, but, now properly shamed, probably won’t use again.

    It’s a good idea to consult these lists.

    But, I also will take a moment to appreciate a language that puts at my disposal more than one million words, and counting. Not to mention that it offers the possibility that any one of us could create a globally recognized neologism of our own. But hopefully, a better one than Frankenstorm.

    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?

    For the love of words…once you start writing that is

    There’s busy. And then there’s my life for the past two weeks. I know that’s a weak excuse for being behind on this “weekly” blog. On the plus side, the insane work load I’ve been managing lately got me thinking about why I do what I do. Or, for that matter, why anyone would do this.

    In short, it can only be for the love of noodling around with words. You have to find some joy in finding a new way of saying something. Otherwise, you certainly would not stay up way past your bedtime still tapping on the old keyboard, trying to fix your lead.

    For me the hardest part of writing anything is getting started. Once I do, I’m totally hooked. Take this blog. I knew I should be writing something for it, but I had so many other things to do, it was too easy to put it off. Once I started though…

    So the key to getting some writing done–at least for me–is starting. So, I’ve perfected a few tricks to force the issue:

    • If you interviewed a few people, starting pulling out all the best quotes—the ones you knew you’d use the minute you heard them. Once you see a few of those pulsing on the screen, how can you resist getting underway? If for no other reason than to share those perfect comments.
    • For a dryer piece, just put down some key facts you know will have to be in there. They’ll either sound so boring you can’t resist spicing it up, or one or two of the facts will pique your interest.
    • Type or retype your notes. It forces you to start thinking about it. You’ll end up editing and reorganizing the notes and soon you’ll be writing the piece outright.
    • Take the Swiss cheese approach. Tell yourself you’ll just write one paragraph you might be able to use. Come back to it and write just one or two more paragraphs; and etc. Until you’ve carved out enough holes either to get it done or to get it to the point where you no longer need a mental trick to polish the rest off.
    • Write an outline or just a list of what you’ll need to include. It doesn’t feel like writing so you can kid yourself. Once you’ve got the framework, the whole task won’t seem so heavy.
    • Write the end first. If you know where you want to end up, it is easier to start the journey.
    • If you are truly stuck, do a quick Google search on the topic you are writing about. Either you’ll find something great that inspires you, or you’ll see that everything out there is so dismal that you’ll want to contribute something more meaningful.

    Spending time on your writing is certainly a good thing. Taking a thoughtful approach takes time. Deciding on the best way to order things takes time. Editing.  Takes even more time. That would be hell, if it weren’t so inexplicably enjoyable.

    A cautionary word is in order. I’ve learned (yeah, the hard way) that a love of words can also get in your way. You can get too close to things.

    Go over what you’ve written a few dozen too many times, and not only won’t you see the forest for the trees, you likely are blissfully staring up at the sky, having not even noticed there are trees! That is, until you smack into one.

    That’s where other editors come in…but that’s a whole new subject.