When it’s OK to drown puppies

Back in the days before the internet there were space considerations. Word counts were limited by column inches and writers needed more discretion when it came to what they included in their stories.

With the abundance of blogs and online magazines to get published there’s a lot more freedom to pile on the words. While the space may be available, there is something to the idea of restraint.

When I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz the advisor for the school newspaper Conn Hallinan always had a phrase when it came to editing stories. He’d always tell us “sometimes you just have to drown a few puppies.” No, he’s not saying kill a few animals in our quest for good writing, but to save the audience from an infatuation with our own words.

Having all those words to burn doesn’t mean its a licence to go crazy. In fact, given the short attention span of readers these days, it behooves any published writer to be even more discerning with their words.

Print journalists are used to cutting their stories, it’s just the nature of working with limited space, but being economical  is a practical skill for all writers regardless of platform.

There’s a reason cutting stories is akin to slaughtering cute animals. Writers ply their trade with words and it isn’t easy to part with them given the  thought and consideration it took to put them on the page. That cool idea, that lovely turn of phrase sometimes looks like an abandoned puppy with really big eyes and a cute face. Soon hitting the delete key tends to feel like taking a hatchet to your arm.

The antidote to that is to keep in mind that what looks like a puppy to you may not look like a puppy to another person that may be reading it. Keep in mind that we serve a set of readers with an attention span shortened by television and the internet. Short attention span readers are turned off by long sprawling stories that fail to make their point right away.

Whether it is a newspaper, blog or that trendy online magazine concise and entertaining writing is absolutely necessary. The responsibility falls on the writer to accommodate the audience or risk losing them halfway through your story.

Part of serving your audience means being ruthless and efficient with your words. It means making the tough decisions about what is absolutely necessary. It means drowning a few puppies for the greater good of your writing.

Here is some advice on “drowning puppies”:

Be aware of size and scope- The idea of “concise and entertaining writing” depends on the size and scope of the project. A breaking news story will have different needs than a feature story or a review for example.

For freelancers, it’s always a good to be aware of what an editor expects out of you. It’s always good to set guidelines for length ahead of time so that you have something to shoot for when it comes to writing and editing.

Prioritize your infomation- Be clear about the ‘big ideas’ that are going into your story ahead of time. Ask yourself “what is the most important thing a reader should come away with?’ then put that front and center. Knowing what to keep helps you decide what needs to be taken out.

The 10 percent rule- This works best with longer stories, but a good principle to live by. The idea is to shave 10 percent of the total word count after you are done. This will force you to look for places that need to be tightened up.

The best way to do this is to take a broad overview first and look for ideas that may have been repeated unnecessarily. Then go paragraph by paragraph with a double space in between. Try to cut out a word or two for each graph by rephrasing sentences or taking out repeated words.

After you are done, repeat until you hit the quota.

Faces of your audience- Keep perspective on your story and realize exactly who you are writing for. Be a role player by reading your stories from different perspectives. Read it once as yourself, another as an imagined reader and a third time as your worst critic.

Doing this will be like looking at your story with a fresh eyes. You may find some things that need to be taken out.

Die to the past write in the present

The past is not the place for a working writer to be all the time. That’s the realm of guilt and regrets where questions of should, could and would tend to dominate. The more time you spend thinking about things you can’t control, the less time you spend thinking about what really matters— the writing.

Regret can be a powerful motivators. The desire to avoid it can drive you to work hard, but slip ups can feel devastating and lead to more regrets.  Perhaps you missed an important goal or made a decision that led to a bad outcome. The fear of either situation can do one of two things: make you work harder or drive you to stop trying.

Successful people work in spite of that fear. They understand that you get what you think about most of the time so if you dwell on mistakes then that’s what you will get in return. That’s not to say they don’t acknowledge the bad things, on the contrary, they face the consequences and move on faster than unsuccessful people.

Regrets stem from the past where major success and failure  are extrapolated into perceived future that is not wholly grounded in reality. For example, the writer that can’t get started on the second novel is still in some ways rooted to a past success that they perceive they can’t overcome the second time around. Yet how does anybody know how successful that second novel will be if it hasn’t even been written yet?  This is different from making an informed decision based on experience you gleaned from the past. The difference is that informed decisions are  fully grounded in the present, based on circumstance rather than an irrational need to avoid having regrets.

Writing is a task that requires you to vacillate between thinking about past, present and future. You draw on research and knowledge from the past to write in the present and then edit your story trying to anticipate what a future audience is going to think.
The trap lay in spending too much time dwelling on the past and future. No matter how much thinking you may have to do, the task of writing always happens in the present. I may have thought about what this post was about in the past and you may be reading these words at a future date, but I typed everything out in the here and now.

To approach your writing goals with an air of negativity does not make a sustainable career. Bad feelings can always be traced to some past regret or anxiety that is based on a projected future that stems from those regrets. It’s  necessary to work through that negativity before getting started or else writing will become a grind— It’ll be something you’re forced to do. Every hesitation becomes a reason to stop writing because it’s simply not appealing to you.

Writing doesn’t have to be something you enter kicking and screaming. It’s shouldn’t feel difficult or hard, but a genuinely enjoyable experience. The actual work may be difficult sure, anything creative is, but sitting down to focus on something you genuinely love should never be a problem.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to regrets:

There are no such things as a mistake- The nature of creating goals is binary. You either succeed or fail at it and that clear cut distinction either forces you into one camp or another. Trying does not guarantee success, but not trying guarantees failure.

There are a lot of people who can’t even muster up the courage to try because past mistakes have caused them to decide that future efforts equate to failure.

Thankfully, you have the ability to frame things any way you want and in the realm of trying there is no such thing as a mistake. To get started means you have enough self worth to believe that something is possible. The outcome may not be to your liking, but taking action is never a mistake no matter how you may frame it after the fact.

Failure does not mean you made a mistake, it means you have an opportunity to do it better in the future.    

Learn the value of acceptance-  Successful writers learn to identify the things they can control and act on it. The hallmark of insanity is dwelling on things you can’t do anything about and spending time fretting on it.

This may sound difficult, especially when it comes to something you care a lot about, but it’s actually quite simple. The key is acceptance. It’s realizing that something is absolutely out of your hands then taking ownership over those feelings by choosing to act on things that are in your sphere of influence.

It’s impossible to take take ownership over something that you haven’t acknowledged yet so the first step is being aware of where your mind is going. Once you realize it then it’s a simple matter of choosing to focus your attention on things that are more important.

This may be hard for people that believe they are in control of everything, but in many ways it’s about being ok with not being in control sometimes. The sooner you realize that the sooner you can focus on the things that you are really in control of.

Fear and the writing life

There’s nothing particularly scary about writing. You’re not in any imminent danger sitting down at your computer to type a few words and there aren’t any life threatening consequences to missing a looming deadline or not finishing that novel, yet there are so many out there that struggle to get started.

Fear is insidious. It’s not as if we go around avoiding work because it is scary, instead we dress it up and call it procrastination. Nobody likes to face uncertainty and maintaining focus gets more difficult the larger your goal.

The urge to procrastinate is directly correlated how much a writing project means to you. The reason is that larger goals mean higher personal stakes and the consequences for failure can feel like it’s going to crush you.

Procrastination is a mechanism to avoid dealing with the fear of failure. It’s impossible to fail if you don’t attempt it at all, but you can’t achieve anything without trying. If you are not careful, It’s easy to fall into a cycle of putting things off until anxiety builds up to the point where you are forced to take action.

This is an inefficient and very stressful way to work that rarely leads to consistent results  because forced action is not positive. Writing projects quickly become a slog through the mud then it won’t take long before your goals will feel unattainable.

Following through with a large writing goal takes patience, persistence and a healthy dose of courage. It requires facing the fear of failure and working in spite of it time and again. There are plenty of instances to quit when your dreams take weeks, months or even years to complete so it’s important to have a plan for following through when faced with the inevitable doubts that may lead you into the procrastination trap.

Here are my five rules for following through:  

1. Acknowledge the fact that you will face many obstacles
2. Accept it will be difficult.
3. Try your hardest when it’s time to work.
4. Celebrate when that time is up.
5. Repeat until you’ve achieved your goal.

Procrastination also means choosing to work on things that are not important. It can still feel like you’ve accomplished something like beating a video game or finishing a movie you’ve always wanted to watch, but it’s still time spent on something other than your goal.

The other side of following through is knowing whether you’re simply “working” or working toward something. Here are a few tips that may help get back on track:

• Personal organization- It is about clarity. It’s about knowing what you are up against so that those tasks that seem so daunting look a lot simpler. Fear is predicated on the unknown so when you don’t have a plan then it’s easy to procrastinate.

• Make sure first things are really first- The first step is to figure out what it is you truly want then how to achieve it. Next is a matter of acting with integrity and making those steps a priority in your life. Making a choice to follow through doesn’t happen on paper, it done through actions. The only way to show you’re serious is to put the important things first and foremost in your life.

• Know how to struggle- Nothing worthwhile is ever easy so just accept you’re going to hit obstacles and work through them. There is a difference between working hard and struggling to achieve something.
Working hard is aimless and without direction. You can work hard at reading, cleaning your bathroom or washing the dishes. Struggle means overcoming an obstacle. It implies there is an obstacle in the first place and you can’t have an obstacle without a goal.

• Make sure you want it bad enough- We’re conditioned to be motivated by something whether it’s external or internal. The ticket to overcoming fear is being motivated by the latter.
External motivations foster resentment, a feeling of “doing it because you have to.” This is a very disempowering way to work because you are never really in control over what you are doing.
Struggling to achieve a goal is difficult as it is, but it’s even harder when you haven’t really taken ownership over it in the first place.
Internal motivation means the goals are your own. It’s something you’ve thought about, decided on and are committed to achieving. These type of goals may be suggested by others, but only belong to you. These goals can’t be manufactured and you can’t be ordered to do them because you’ve made a choice to try and achieve them.    

• Trust your instincts- If you’re really clear about what your goals are then it’s easy to know what is the right or wrong thing to be doing with your time. Guilt is a good indicator that you are making the wrong choice or about to make the wrong choice. The goal in all this is to feel good about what you are doing so if a task does not foster a sense of real accomplishment then think twice about doing it or attempting it again.

Confidence and an organized writing life

Confidence doesn’t work the way it does in the stories. It’s not something that is imbued on a select few people like some character trait. It’s a skill that is honed and developed, but also gets dull if you don’t use it.

An organized writing life means having confidence in your own ability to finish a project no matter what it is. That confidence grows with every finished story and carries with it the necessary momentum to begin the next project with little delay. If you don’t feel confident about your writing despite the amount of work that you are doing then it’s time to take an honest look at the results and ask yourself “What did I really accomplish?”

The primary goal of organizing your writing life is to help you move forward and if something doesn’t feel like a step in the right direction then its time to reassess why you are doing it.


Hallmarks of Confidence

Principles are accepted rule of action or conduct. As you go about organizing your own writing life, it’s worthwhile to think of the principles that make a confident person so that you can judge whether you are on the right track or not.

Being clear about how any of these principles apply is essential because defining any number of these things will tell you if the steps you are taking to get organized are working or not.

Conviction-
Regrets are a good indicator that you are disorganized because it means you really want to be working on something else. A person with conviction is so sure that the things they are doing will benefit them that nothing will stop them from completing a task.

Developing the conviction necessary to finish something takes patience and effort.  It requires serious thought and asking the tough questions. Take some time to find out what writing projects you can apply this principle to. Think about what you are most passionate about. If there were no limits on your skills or abilities, what would you want to be working on all day long?

Vision-A confident well organized person thinks with the end in mind. When you are getting organized, shoot for the best and plan on obtaining it. Decide what it is that you want and then work backwards.

Having vision doesn’t mean being able to see what’s in front or behind you, but what lays ahead.  A confident person can’t necessarily tell the future, but they have a good sense of the future they want to create and never let go of it.

Integrity
The world can be quite complex, but the confident person is not. A confident person has integrity meaning— they mean what they say and do what they say at all times. When a course of action is set and all the organizing is finished, your ability to execute and follow through is the only way to adhere to this principle.

What’s sounds so simple is never easy because there will always be temptations to do something else. The more important it is, the more appealing procrastination looks because the fear of failure is amplified and we tend to run away from scary things.

If you have conviction and the vision to clearly define what it is you are doing then it is much easier to be a person of integrity. It’s hard to be fearful if you have a good sense of what your end goal looks like and have no doubts that this is the correct course of action.

If you’ve done things properly then the only thing you need to do is focus on the step that is right in front of you.


Faith
Faith is often brought up in the religious sense, but that is not what I am talking about here. I’m talking about having faith in your abilities so strong that it is unshakable.

There is a term in sports called being a bandwagon fan. Those are the people that root for a team when they know it is good and stop watching when things get ugly. If all the players on a team actually thought this way then they would never have a winning season.

When it comes to cheering for yourself, don’t be a bandwagon fan.

So often we come up with qualifiers for ourselves, reasons to say that we can’t do something. Having access to so much information can make things worse. It’s easy to “research” our way out a goal that is entirely possible.

Information is a tool, research allows you to measure the risks involved in doing something. Neither should be the rock that any particular goal or action should stand on. A confident writer— a confident person— stands on actions and goals built upon principles.

At some point the doubts have to stop, you have to draw a line in the sand and say “fuck it” I’m capable of doing this.

That may sound like harsh language, but the confident person is bulldogish about their inner space. Yes, there are doubts, but if you adhere to all the other principles: conviction, vision and integrity then there really shouldn’t be any more questions about it.

Organizing your writing life

The writing life tends to revolve around projects not necessarily a schedule. Writers tend to think in terms of the next story, article or novel, but not necessarily how much time it takes to finish.

It’s easy to get lost in a project and lose track of time working on something that matters, but it’s also easy to get frustrated if you don’t have a clear idea about when something is supposed to be finished and what the finished product is supposed to look like.

Personal organization is essential for a writer because setting boundaries ensures that you are clear about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and when it needs to be done. Proper planning before getting started fosters a feeling of accomplishment and removes all doubt about the necessary steps to “finish something.”


Organization basics

• Figure out what matters most to you: Before starting anything, it’s important to always work on things that really mean something to you. Without passion there won’t be the will to finish. Don’t skimp on this; really think hard what you want to spend your time doing and then commit fully to getting it done.

Define the ideal: Dreaming big means defining success in the context of an ideal situation. Think from the end first by defining what you want to achieve by completing a project then go for it. When doing this, don’t compromise. Pretend as if there are no limits on your skills and everything is going to break right for you.
In the end, real life may prevent you from achieving the exact end goal you had in mind, but it’s critical to shoot for the best possible scenario. That way you will never have any regrets about making the effort.  

Set deadlines for yourself: Projects without deadlines have no weight behind them.  People tend to prioritize tasks based on urgency so if there is no deadline then there isn’t a whole lot of motivation to finish something in a timely fashion.
I feel the most resistance when it comes to this. There is always a sense that it is impossible to rush creative process; that you can’t force a novel, short story or any creative work to completion or else it will end up being bad writing.
Part of that is true, if something doesn’t feel ready then don’t move forward until it is. That might time a week or it might take a month, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set a deadline for yourself.
Deadlines allow the creative process to keep on moving. If you know that deadline for finishing that 5000 word short story is coming up in five days you are more apt to tell yourself ‘alright if I write 1000 words each day this week then I’ll be fine.

Make a list and prioritize: A journey of 1000 steps starts with one, but you also need to know what step one is. Lists are the basic tools of any organized person because making one takes out all the indecision. A large project looks far less daunting when you you know all of the things that need to be done in order to complete it.
The best way to make a list is think of every single thing that needs to be done then prioritize them in order of first to last. After that, set a realistic timeline for completing each one.

Short attention span reading and writing

Part of writing effectively is being able to make your point with an economy of words. This is a necessary skill because your audience has a short attention span and won’t wait long.

The internet makes information accessible, but it also makes people impatient. The burden that comes with being able to access vast quantities of information is making time to read all of it.  There is a reason things like Google reader, RSS feeds and any news aggregator are popular. It saves time finding relevant information so time isn’t wasted finding articles to read.

Also, most of the time people don’t finish everything they start reading anyway. Most people aren’t there to admire your wonderful writing style, they are there to gather the most relevant information then move on to the next article.

The popularity of smartphones as a medium for reading information also necessitates short attention span reading. Reading a 20 page epic post on that tiny screen is uncomfortable. Also, people who read on their phones are probably on the go and looking for 10 to 15 minutes to kill. If they don’t finish reading what you write in that span, chances are they won’t get to it later.

There are a lot of great bloggers out there with outstanding reporting skills. They know how to find information, talk to the right people and have a good sense of where the story is, but they fail to cater to the short attention span readership. There are some bloggers out there that could learn a few basic tenets of news writing because it emphasizes brevity and getting to the point quickly, which is critical to keeping short attention span readers interested in what you write.

Here are some of the basics that you could use in organizing your future writing.


Reverse pyramid

When essay writing is taught in american high schools the model is a five paragraph essay with an introduction, three points and then a conclusion. Academic writing, also teaches us to slowly build to our point by providing all the basics and background information and then hit the reader with your point.

Short attention span writing requires you to think the opposite way. You reverse the pyramid and lead with the conclusion or the “news” first and then provide all of the context after that. While many articles are more than five paragraphs, those first few graphs are the most important  because your typical reader will not finish reading what you write.

A common mistake is burying the most relevant and interesting information under a sea of background information. Avoid this by asking yourself “What’s the most relevant information here?” then begin your story from there.

Short is the best
Brevity and simplicity go hand in hand when it comes to short attention span writing. I have two hard and fast rules when it comes to writing style. No more than three sentences per paragraph and if you need more than two commas to write a sentence then find another way to say it.

Big chunks of text are your enemy and should be avoided. It’s intimidating to the short attention span reader to see long paragraph. Three sentences is more than enough to make a single point.

Long sentences with multiple clauses are difficult for the short attention span reader to get through. If you find yourself going crazy with semicolons and long dashes then break it up. One good test is to read a sentence aloud. If you need more than one breath to get through it then it’s probably too long.

Ledes, Nutgraphs and Kickers

Ledes, nutgraphs and kickers are just fancy journalism terms for parts of a story.

Typically, a lede answers the question “What’s the news?” If you want to get one part of your story perfect, it’s this one because it’s the only part that the short attention span reader is guaranteed to get through.

The lede of your story can be as short as two paragraphs or as long as five. The most important part is that a reader should come away knowing the most relevant information right off the bat.

Here is an example of a lede from a game story I wrote:

The opening round of Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs rested on the wind and a prayer on Thursday night.
Fortunately for the Benicia High School boys soccer team, the ball bounced in its favor on a blustery day at Drolette Stadium as the Panthers tied their game against Cordova 1-1 on a stoppage time goal by senior Dante Arias in the second half. They later won 4-2 on penalty kicks after 20 minutes of scoreless overtime.


Your lede usually ends when you deliver the nutgraph, which is the  second paragraph in this story. The nutgraph delivers the less interesting context in one concise chunk. It answers the basic questions of “who, what, when where and how.”

Feature stories are more complex and require longer ledes then a breaking news stories. This lede required six paragraphs with a break in between before you got the gist of what was going on.

It’s been seven years, but Bethel High School coach Jeff Turner never lets any of his players forget about Mike Pennerman. The players break the huddle during practice chanting “Ball for Dawg” in honor of a teammate they have never met.
“That’s part of our past. It’s been a standard for our school since 2004,” Turner said. “The one thing we always do is to tell them how lucky they are and to take advantage of the time they have. It hits real close to home.”
Mike Pennerman was just 16 when he collapsed on the Bethel sideline after a botched extra-point play. He died two days after taking the field with his teammates on the Jaguars football team.

*

It’s been just four weeks, and the Vallejo High School girls basketball players are still reeling from the Nov. 17 death of Vallejo Officer Jim Capoot.
For Lovina Akauola, the shooting death of Capoot still brings her tears. She still struggles with the loss of her basketball coach, mentor and father figure.
“I try to forget about what happened and act like our coach is still here,” Akauola said. “I didn’t really believe that it was him at first. There are a lot of police officers out there. I didn’t really believe it until it came from one of the campus supervisors.”

*

Sports is where real life rarely intersects with the game between the lines. But when it comes to death, there isn’t a sport out there that will erase the emotional wounds often left behind. That’s been true in the case of two Vallejo tragedies. While different, they are similar in how the community and athletes reacted to them.


The nutgraph at the end marks the end of the lede and ties together the two subjects that will be explored in this article.

The kicker is a term that simply refers to the end of your story. It’s the last impression a reader will have after reading your story. It’s more useful for a feature story where you know a reader is going to finish it.

The best kickers usually involve a relevant quote or telling detail. Here’s the kicker from the above story.

For the Bethel football team, Pennerman will always have a presence on campus.
“I don’t know if you ever get back to normal. Me personally, (I) don’t want to get back to normal,” Turner said. “We want to have him be apart of us. It hurts forever and that’s not a bad thing. That shows you how important (Mike) is. It shows you how much influence Officer Capoot had.”

Resistance with the big “R”

The one thing that is garaunteed to kill creativity and stop your writing career in it’s tracks is Resistance with the big “R”. The kind of resistance I’m talking about is the preconditioned part of ourselves that really doesn’t like things to be different. It’s the part that craves comfort, wants assurances that things are going to be ok.

Resistance strikes everybody, but more so for the innovators, the creatives, the artists and writers of the world because that is the nature of what they do— making something out of nothing. It’s also scary as hell and anybody that doesn’t tell you so is lying or really just won’t admit it to themselves.

At it’s core, Resistance is the refusal to accept that things change. The problem is that change will happen whether we want it to or not  so we resist by searching for the things that will make us feel like we are on stable ground.

The success and failure of others is one source of Resistance.

I read a story  that tells me the economy is bad, so it becomes a reason that I wait till it gets better before quitting my stable job to pursue something I am passionate about. The problem with that is you could be waiting forever. The economy that looks weak now could get stronger and when it does  those who took a risk during down times usually benefit the most.

The data tells me that that there is no money in a writing career so I should steer clear and do something more stable. Well there isn’t a career out there that is stable forever. The field that looked like a sure bet now is an innovation away from becoming obsolete.

There are many out there refuse to do what they are most passionate about because of some dim night light in our mind that tells them to take the “sure bet,” but when you realize there really is not such thing there is no reason why you shouldn’t pursue the career that you are passionate about.

Resistance is insidious and takes on many forms, but the one sure characteristic is that it gets stronger and stronger the farther you step out of that safe path. Staring at the blank canvas, the empty page tends to bring it out in the artist. The internet suddenly seems so alluring in those moments.

It can also take the former of people that will come out and question your choice. Sometimes it can be family or friends and often the amount of people that question you is proportionate to how radical your idea is.

Self actualized people, the ones that are truly able to make things happen for themselves, are not just aware of Resistance they embrace it. They  think with the end in mind and  follow through with the plan that may not be comfortable or safe, but feels true to them.