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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goal-oriented productivity

Simple Critical Path Management diagramIn the course of designing and testing hPDA templates, I have found that many of the people who organize their planners also follow a productivity methodology such as David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done (GTD) system.

As a freelance writer and editor, I understand the importance of good workflow management, so I looked into GTD and other popular methodologies. To my surprise, none of them felt like a good match with my style.

Curious about why, I took a serious look at how I manage my own workflow. What was different? What was similar? The answers that I found were personally illuminating. They also offer interesting possibilities for other freelancers too.

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this is not your father’s library

Library bookshelvesWe’ve heard it so often, it seems like a truism: in this era of instant electronic information access, libraries are like dinosaurs that don’t know they’re already extinct.

Well, maybe not.

A new survey has found that Generation Wired uses libraries far more often than you might think. In fact, Internet-savvy youth between 18-30 are the largest user group for library research services and resources. Furthermore, the survey found that library usage actually declines with increasing age.

The survey, a joint project of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Princeton Survey Research Associates International, and the Pew Internet & American Life Project, featured telephone interviews with nearly 3,000 U.S. residents 18 years old or older.

You can download a free PDF of the survey report, Information Searches That Solve Problems: How People Use the Internet, Libraries, and Government Agencies When They Need Help, from the Pew website.

Image: iStockPhoto.com

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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nielsen: passive voice must be cheered three times by you!

Putting the Cart before the HorseConsidering the name of my writing and editorial business, you might imagine that I would be skeptical of an article extolling the virtues of passive voice. But what if such an article is written by Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen?

Well, in that case, attention must be paid.

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three common misconceptions about e-mail

Full TrashJournalist Xeni Jardin recently discussed the perils of storing and deleting government e-mail on her weekly NPR spot, XeniTech. Prompted by the recent controversial decision by the District of Columbia government to purge all e-mails every six months, Jardin presented a brief overview of the complex issue of electronic records retention.

Unintentionally, Jardin’s piece highlights and perpetuates some of the most common misconceptions about the nature of records management in the information age. Let’s take a look:

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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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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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