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March 08 2011

18:21

What we’re reading: death in all its guises

A week into March, we’re anxious for spring, but the narrative stories we’ve unearthed lately consistently offer up darker themes that go against the promise of the season. We’ve rounded up a few that focus specifically on death: murder on campus, suicide at work, death in combat and perhaps most surprising, a delicately crafted obituary for a rat. So as not to leave you in a winter funk, we’ve added two posts on craft to the end of the list: a primer for profile writing and an essay exploring the first use of cinematic scenes in writing.

What made this university scientist snap?” by Amy Wallace of Wired. “Bishop stood near the loading dock, unarmed. On her way down from the third floor, she had ducked into a restroom to stuff her Ruger 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and blood-spattered black and red plaid jacket into a trash can. The 45-year-old assistant professor had also phoned her husband, James Anderson, and instructed him – as she often did – to come pick her up. ‘I’m done,’ she’d said.”

Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice” by Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post. “Before he addressed the crowd that had assembled in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency ballroom last November, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly had one request. ‘Please don’t mention my son,’ he asked the Marine Corps officer introducing him.”

1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?by Joel Johnson in Wired (via @longreads). “It’s hard not to look at the nets. Every building is skirted in them. They drape every precipice, steel poles jutting out 20 feet above the sidewalk, loosely tangled like volleyball nets in winter. The nets went up in May, after the 11th jumper in less than a year died here. They carried a message: You can throw yourself off any building you like, as long as it isn’t one of these. And they seem to have worked. Since they were installed, the suicide rate has slowed to a trickle.”

S.F. kids spend recess toasting the best rat who ever lived,” by Steve Rubenstein from the 2002 archives of the San Francisco Chronicle (via @gangrey). A sendup of a classic obituary, this tribute to a classroom pet parodies the form while delivering a touching eulogy.

THOUGHTS ON WRITING

Profile Writing: The Basics” by Chris Jones, Esquire correspondent. Jones offers some fundamental rules, including that “Good features often have a ‘theme’ as well as an ‘idea’ – they’re about something, but they’re also about something else, if that makes any sense. They’re about beauty or art or the fragility of life. They’re inspirational or devastating. They’re not just a story; like fairytales, they have a moral, too.”

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar” by Rob Goodman on The Millions (via @TheBrowser). Did literature teach us how to connect scenic jumps and read panoramic shots centuries before moving pictures appeared?

May 19 2010

17:18

The iPad as a writing coach’s dream

The tech writer Joel Johnson has a piece on Gizmodo about how he’s shifted to using an iPad when traveling instead of a full laptop. His experience matches my own (I love my iPad more than even I’d expected; it’s taken over 90+ percent of my casual web browsing), but what I was interested in was this paragraph. He’s talking about using an external Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad:

For long typing sessions, I found myself putting the keyboard on my lap while placing the iPad off to the side — sometimes not even in direct eyeshot. For longer writing, there’s a sort of freedom that comes from not even looking at the screen while you type. (My friend Quinn Norton said that on longer writing jags, she sometimes uses her wireless keyboard in a completely different room from her computer, a sort of modern twist on the big-keyboard-tiny-screen experience of early laptops like the Epson HX-20, which were for years favored by some journalists even as laptops with larger screens were commonplace.)

Actually, my first thought was to the Tandy 102. I still have one of those in a box somewhere, saved from being tossed out by The Toledo Blade in the late ’90s.

Obviously, writing journalism without seeing what you’re typing is, shall we say, problematic. But what a fascinating way to change up one’s writing rituals. I’m reminded of Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, the annual November ritual where thousands of people try to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. As I wrote back in 2008, the aggressive word-count requirements and the video-game-like nature of the word-count goal can actually encourage better writing than you think:

In a sense, Nanowrimo has the same appeal as the free writing your newspaper’s writing coach used to recommend (back when your newspaper could afford a writing coach). By releasing yourself from the normal bounds of quality — by killing off your inner editor — you can release yourself from your old habits and really write. Consider it a cleansing ritual for your writing voice.

Needless to say, something like what Quinn Norton is doing wouldn’t work in any but a small portion of journalistic endeavors. I won’t be writing any Lab pieces blind anytime soon. But I can imagine a sort of long essay where an approach like this could be a useful weapon against writer’s block. And I love the idea of acknowledging that our work tools aren’t invisible — that even if we take them for granted, they still influence the work we do with them. I feel like there’s a lesson for news companies that extends far beyond writing tools: being conscious of our tools (and methods, and patterns, and rules), making them visible, and thinking hard about the impact they have on how we do our work.

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