Paul Lagasse Interviewed on “Write Out Loud”

I recently had the pleasure of being the subject of a weekly interview for Write Out Loud, a blog for and about writers by Baltimore-based freelance writer Ami Spencer. Ami asked me to discuss how an academically-trained archivist ended up with a freelancing career, the benefits of participating in local writing organizations like the Baltimore chapter of the MWA, how I find clients, and my biggest vice (writing-wise, that is).

The interview went live today. You can find it here. Thanks again, Ami! It was fun.

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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you can teach old writers new media

MagicianWhether you write to sell, invite, entice, or provoke, your words can’t do their job unless the audience sees them. In professional writing, distribution is everything. The availability of new electronic distribution technologies only increases the opportunities — and the challenges — for reaching them.

Here are two interesting recent articles on the intersection of writing and distribution, with significant implications for writers:

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getting to “thanks” #2: the power of appreciation

This afternoon I e-mailed a client, the editor of a bimonthly national magazine, with an update on an article I’m writing for her. She promptly wrote back to thank me, and also to let me that she’s been receiving many compliments on another article that I wrote that is about to go to press. “I SO appreciate your valuable contribution to [the magazine],” she wrote. “And I haven’t forgotten that you would like to do more.”

Not surprisingly, for this editor I am willing to walk through fire.

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adapting fiction techniques: character development

Person with books“Nagle was forty years old then, a thin, deeply tanned former Snap-On Tool Salesman of the Year. To see him there, waiting for the fisherman in his tattered T-shirt and thrift-shop sandals, the Jim Beam he kept as his best friend slurring his motions, no one would guess that he had been an artist, that in his day Bill Nagle had been great.” — Robert Kurson, Shadow Divers (Random House, 2004), p5

In one masterfully crafted paragraph, author Robert Kurson not only creates a visual impression of deep-sea diver Bill Nagle, but also conveys the trajectory of his life and imbues him with tragedy. Sure you can get character descriptions like this in any decently written novel. But Bill Nagle was a real person, and Shadow Divers is nonfiction.

Can you draw a portrait in a few pencil strokes? If you want to grab and hold your reader’s attention, you need to be able to create lasting impressions in readers’ minds. Among the most important — and hardest — impressions to craft are those of people.

Fiction writers describe characters as a matter of course. But nonfiction writers must be able to do this as well, and perhaps for them it’s even more important. They are, after all, writing about real people.

Whether you’re writing a celebrity profile or interviewing the new CEO, you can adopt techniques for developing fictional characters to turn real people into memorable characters.

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mottainai

The Japanese expression mottainai has its roots in ancient Buddhist practice. The meaning has evolved over time; today, it is commonly used to mean, “what a shame to waste this!”

The spirit of mottainai manifests in many ways. Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai has adopted mottainai as a motto to encourage people to respect and take responsibility for their environment through frugality and conservation. Salvaging wood from old barns to use in new buildings is an expression of mottainai. So is the decision to buy well-built, quality tools that can be handed down through generations instead of cheap ones that will soon be discarded.

I think that the concept of mottainai can be applied to writing as well . . .

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adapting fiction techniques: the freitag triangle

Freitag TriangleNo, it’s not the title of Robert Ludlum’s latest thriller. But it is something you might remember from high school English. The Freitag triangle is perhaps the classic graphic representation of story progression (click on image for full size). Remember? “Every plot has to have a climax and a denouement.”

Did you know that you can apply the same structure to your nonfiction articles to make them as readable as — well, as readable as the latest Robert Ludlum thriller? Here’s how:

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thinking blogs

The motto at the top of my blog has become something of a professional mantra for me. My goal here on the Active Voice blog (and by extension through all my writing and editing work) is to address issues that are of concern to readers and writers — whether practical, technical, philosophical, or whimsical.

Thinking Blogger AwardWriter, certified creativity coach, and journal writing teacher Quinn McDonald, a regular here on the AV blog, has tagged me with a Thinking Blogger Award, a meme started earlier this year by ilker yoldas. Quinn described me as “the thinking person’s writer.”

(*Blush*) Thanks, Quinn! Coming as it does from the thinking person’s coach, that means a lot!

To fulfill my obligations as an awardee, and to help pass on its spirit, I must name name five blogs that I, too, find to be interesting, informative, and helpful. Here are five blogs that make me think:

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games writers play

JoystickNo, I’m not talking about creative justifications for billing your client for the time you spent surfing the web, or writing off your cruise to the Bahamas as a business expense.

I’m talking about video games.

And I’m going to try to convice you that you shouldn’t feel guilty for playing them during working hours — because, admit it, you do. Instead, I’m going to try to explain why game breaks are an essential component of the creative process.

And I’m also going to recommend some good games to play.

Image courtesy iBand.com

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study confirms best companies include writers from the beginning

The most successful companies bring their technical writers into the loop at the outset of a project, according to a new study by the Aberdeen Group. Back in February, I blogged about the importance of including writers from the earliest stages of a project; it’s good to see that there is evidence to bear out my contention of the writer’s added value.

According to the Society for Technical Communication, the study, which was co-sponsored by STC, the UK-based Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, and the Center for Information-Development Management, that finding was among the most important results of an online survey of over 300 companies.

The study report, The Next-Generation Product Documentation Report: Getting Past the “Throw it over the Wall” Approach by Chad Jackson and Mehul Shah, looked at five key performance indicators:

  • product launch date
  • documentation cost
  • translation cost
  • documentation purpose
  • documentation quality

Nearly three-quarters of the respondent companies that scored highest on these five indicators reported that they launched their documentation and product development processes simultaneously. According to the study, top-ranking companies were also likely to:

  • integrate the documentation staff into the engineering department;
  • rely on document authoring tools that facilitate content repurposing;
  • use software to minimize content localization lags; and
  • measure readability by tracking content resue.

Managers, the results are in: keep your friends close, but keep your technical writers closer.