Associated Press Decides to Bury the Lede

All good things, they say, must come to an end. According to this article from the Columbia Journalism Review, the Associated Press has decided to phase out venerable wire-service-era editorial terms like “lede,” “hed,” “sted,” and “graf” in its stories.

Well, I guess these terms have certainly had their day. But I’m surprised, in a way, that they haven’t caught on with the latest generation of web-based writers. After all, they have a couple things going for them:

  • They’re retro. They were born in the time of steampunk. When you hear them, you think manual typewriters and telegraphs. And as print newspapers increasingly acquire retro-chic cachet akin to vinyl LPs, perhaps some of that warm glow will shine on the terms of the trade as well.
  • They’re short. In an era when, once again, space constraints limit how much can be communicated effectively in one burst (think Twitter and text messages), abbreviated terms can pack much information into a small, efficient space. Think about it: “30” is perfect for a numeric keypad, and it uses five whole fewer characters than “kthxbai.”

We may have to wait a while, but I think these classics will make a comeback. After all, text messaging gave numeric keypad letters a whole new life long after people had stopped using them to remember telephone exchanges. They have stuck around this long — not because of nostalgia, but because their usefulness outlived the contingencies that created them. Whether we “RT” or “TK,” we’ll always have a need for editorial shorthand.

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Tips for Being a Good Interviewee

Interviewer's microphoneGood writers prepare thoroughly for interviews, whether they’ll be conducted in person, over the phone, via e-mail, or (increasingly) over a social media channel. But all too often, interviewees don’t realize that they also need to prepare for interviews just as thoroughly as — if not more than — the writer.

Why? Because an interview is a ritualized form of conversation; it is not (or should not be) two simultaneous parallel monologues. We’ve all heard interviews like that — the interviewer has his checklist of questions, the interviewee has her checklist of points to make, and both take turns running down their lists until they’re done. Dreadful stuff, right?

On the other hand, when an interviewer and an interviewee both do their homework in advance, they can focus on talking to each other, which leads to better quotations, more compelling anecdotes, and a stronger connection to readers.

Based on a decade of interviewing a wide variety of people for all kinds of articles — and being interviewed a few times myself along the way — here’s a short list of simple suggestions for how to prepare to be interviewed.

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Field Test: iPod Touch + Bluetooth Keyboard

With the release of iOS 4, Apple’s iPod touch has at last become a true pocket computer. So much so, that I have taken to calling mine an “iPad nano.” When the iPad came out, I seriously considered getting one but ultimately decided against it for two reasons:

  • I like the iPod touch’s “pocketability;” by slipping it into my pocket, that’s one less piece of gear I have to hold in my hand or sling over my shoulder (I am a fanatic about traveling light).
  • I guessed — correctly, as it turned out — that Apple would quickly begin importing iPad functionality — particularly Bluetooth keyboard support — back to the iPod touch.

Once Bluetooth keyboard support had been officially confirmed for iOS 4, I went out and bought an Apple Wireless Keyboard, the little brother of Apple’s USB-tethered model which I have been using for a couple of years with satisfaction.

I also needed a new iPod touch, because my first-generation device could not be upgraded to iOS 4. Still, the two devices were cheaper than a new laptop.

My goal was to be able to use the combination in the field in place of a laptop, on business trips as well as vacation. After a series of ever more complex tests of the various hard- and software components, last week I took the devices with me to a meeting at which my job was to take detailed notes to prepare a summary.

As a backup, I also recorded the meeting with my trusty Olympus WS-400S pocket digital recorder; in tests I found that using the iPod touch to both record and type drained the battery faster than the anticipated three-hour length of the meeting.

So how did the iPod touch plus Bluetooth keyboard fare?

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diplomacy 101 for freelance writers

Freelance writers usually spend a lot of time negotiating with clients and subject matter experts. From contract and payment agreements to progress meetings to conference calls to final product reviews, at almost every step of the process the freelancer is called on to answer questions, address concerns, or placate anxieties.

Instead of thinking of these as interruptions, think of them as opportunities. Each interaction with a client is another chance to sell them on you, not just your work.

If you’re used to working alone and yelling at the computer about how boneheaded your client is (hypothetically, of course; none of my clients ever cause me to do that), then you will probably find this short list of handy, bacon-saving diplomacy tips helpful:

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A Writer Looks at Copyediting

Katharine O’Moore-Klopf of KOK Edit posted a link to the following article on the EFA discussion list, and I thought it would make a valuable addition to the list of articles on copyediting that I posted recently.

Scott Berkun, “How copyediting looks and feels:”

“Copyeditors have a tough job. They have to sort out what the author was trying to do, and then help them do it. But if a writer botches a sentence or a paragraph (or chapter), it’s hard for copyeditors to figure out the intent. And of course writing is more than grammar and tense, it’s also less tangible factors like honesty, relevance, humor and value, which the copyeditor might sense is lacking but can’t fix on their own.”

(This copyeditor can’t resist pointing out that the last line above should read: “. . . on his or her own.”)

The article is a useful overview of how authors interact with copyeditors for the benefit of the final product. The comments that follow the article are both thoughtful and helpful as well. And I love his definition of copyediting: “where someone gets ‘all up in your sentences.'”

Some more words of wisdom:

“Good copyeditors are underpaid. They have the most intimate involvement in the creative process, even though it’s late in the game. In many cases they make mediocre writers look good. And of course a bad copyeditor can make an interesting or entertaining writer seem boring and dull.”

Writers and managers: do you value your copyeditors?

word diagnostics

I’m always looking for useful analogies to convey how good editing can improve advertising copy, web features, white papers, and other written communications. This morning I was reading an article about medicine and it hit me that what editors do when revising a piece of written work is analogous to what doctors do when diagnosing a patient’s symptoms.

Like a living organism, written copy is a complex system of interactive elements that can be rendered “unhealthy” by the presence of errors in spelling, grammar, or logic. A good editor, like a good doctor, knows how to read the symptoms — for example, “this doesn’t sound right, but I don’t know why” — and can suggest corrections that will restore the piece to optimum health. 

Let’s take a look at how you can apply the four cornerstones of diagnostic medicine to make your writing all better.

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new momentum for plain language in government

House and Senate committees are currently reviewing two bills that call for federal agencies to use simpler, clearer language in public documents. Both H.R. 946, the “Plain Language Act of 2009” and S. 574, the “Plain Writing Act of 2009” have been proposed in order . . .

As reported by the Center for Plain Language, this is the second go-around for these bills, which were introduced by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) in the House and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in the Senate. The previous attempt to pass similar legislation in 2008 led to its passage in the House, but the Senate version did not make it out of committee for a vote. If passed, the legislation would require federal agencies to ensure that their public documents in print and electronic form are written using language that can be understood by their intended audiences — that is, the general public.

So what is “plain language,” and what does it mean for you?

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what’s on your reference shelf?

Life hackers love to empty their pockets, bags, and packs and show off their gear. Freelance writers have their own version of every day carry: the essential reference works that, collectively, are the writerly equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife or a Leatherman tool.

Even in this era of instant electronic reference, I still rely on these books — not just because I know them so well, but also because they remain consistently and authoritatively accurate.

And quite a few of them are fun to read, too.

Here’s a list of my “every day reference.” Some of these may surprise you.

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why i don’t do wordsmithing

Old-time blacksmith at work“. . . and then we’ll give you the draft to wordsmith.”

Has a client ever said that to you? I’ve heard it quite a few times over the years. And while I would never contradict a client for using that term, I prefer not to use “wordsmithing” to descibe what I do.

Actually, it’s more than a preference. I emphatically declare (here on the blog, that is) that I don’t do wordsmithing.

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nara’s new ‘era’: 40 years in the making

Streams of binary digitsOn Tuesday, I participated in a webinar hosted by Government Computer News on “The E-Records Management Tsunami: NARA’s Electronic Records Archive to the Rescue.” It featured Michael Carlson, Director of the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Electronic and Special Media Records Services Division and was hosted by Joab Jackson, GCN’s chief technology editor. A recording of the seminar is now available (60 min., Real Audio), and it is well worth a listen.

Will NARA succeed in its multimillion dollar effort to solve the federal government’s electronic information management crisis?

Maybe — but we’ll have to wait five years to find out . . .

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