Monday, October 20, 2014

Small Writers Group Nets Big Results

by Theresa Sullivan Barger

New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post,, Columbia Journalism Review, Family Circle, Parents, The Atlantic, Philanthropy, Poynter Online—these are just some of the places the bylines of our small writers group members have appeared for their first time since we started meeting 10 months ago.

We originally formed as a monthly accountability group, but soon evolved into much more. We set up a closed Facebook page where the eight of us could post questions and share the wisdom of the group. Our virtual newsroom replicated the days when we could slide our chair over to a coworker to ask how she would handle that day’s challenge. We soon switched to meeting every two weeks.

We’re each other’s support system, cheering squad, and sounding boards. The group is helping each of us advance our careers while addressing the isolation we freelancers face. We recommend each other to our editors and share links to helpful webinars or websites.

When we started, most people in the group had never met. I was the only one who knew everyone, and I didn’t know most of them well—but I knew them enough to know that we all shared a desire to grow as writers. We’ve become trusted colleagues who offer honest critiques, ideas for sources, and a gentle nudge.

Freelancers By Choice

Our members range in age, specialty, political views, and freelance experience, but that’s part of why the group works. We’re different enough to not be in direct competition. We have diverse strengths and weaknesses, so we learn from each other.

We come to our meetings with lists of stories we’re working on or thinking of doing, and the rest of the group offers suggestions on story approach and where to pitch. When we hear of editors looking for writers, we share that news.

Success Breeds Success

When one of us gets a “yes” from a prestigious pub for the first time, we’re all happy. Each person’s success propels the rest of us to aim higher and keep trying. If one of us can break into that coveted market, so can the rest of us. Our celebration of breakthroughs seems to be happening with increasing frequency.

Since rejection—or simply being ignored—is so much a part of the job of being a freelance writer, it really helps to have encouragement from writers whom you respect.

One of our members—a talented, experienced writer—had never pitched to a national publication. A challenge from the group propelled her to commit to a date for pitching. When she stumbled on an idea worthy of a national newspaper, she pitched it to the New York Times. When they passed, she refined the pitch and immediately sent it to the Journal, which said yes. We felt like proud parents.

(This post originally appeared on The ASJA Word)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Guest Post: The Biggest Mistake a Writer Can Make on Twitter

by Jonathan Rick

Don’t just tweet the headline. Comment on the article. Explain why you’re sharing it.
Don't create a Twitter crime scene. (Photo by Andreas Eldh)

Tweeting has never been easier. Just click that turquoise bird alongside nearly every kind of content on the web today, and a ready-to-go message presents itself. All you need to do is click “tweet.” The whole thing takes less than five seconds!

Yet there’s no decree dictating that you must use this prewritten gruel. In fact, you shouldn’t use the default text, which is tantamount to a robot announcing the Oscar winners: it’s generic and devoid of any shout-outs, styling, or personal commentary. After all, what you tweet is transmitted over your name and avatar, so it behooves you to stamp it with your own style.

What’s more, if you want to stand out, you can’t just put out what everyone else is typing. You need to offer up something new—even if it’s just your two cents. Indeed, with this little bit of extra effort, you can make each tweet count.

Consider the widely read post, “Facebook: I Want My Friends Back,” by Richard Metzger of the Dangerous Minds blog.


Here’s what happens if we click the “tweet” button:

FACEBOOK: I WANT MY FRIENDS BACK via @dangermindsblog

While the essentials are here—and, to the blog’s credit, the Caps Lock key is employed for emphasis—this tweet typifies the bare minimum. This is an opportunity lost.


Now let’s tweak a few things:


  • We used Facebook’s handle to ring its bell.
  • We separated the link by way of a hyphen, thus making the tweet easier to scan.
  • We capitalized @DangerMindsBlog in accordance with how the blog stylizes itself.

And if we overhaul everything…

Is Facebook scamming you? Check out this eye-opening post by @RichardMetzger - (via @DangerMindsBlog)

… our followers benefit from:
  • A teaser (“Is Facebook scamming you”?) in sentence case
  • A call to action (“Check out”)
  • A shout-out to both the writer (“by @RichardMetzger”) and the blog (“via @DangerMindsBlog”)
In other words, we’re no longer mindlessly broadcasting. Instead of repurposing a headline written for a blog, we’re now issuing a call to action tailored to Twitter. In short, we’re explaining why whatever we’re sharing is worth reading.


As usual, sometimes you need to break the rules. Consider these alternatives, which play off key points in Metzger’s post:

How Facebook killed more than 50% of @DangerMindsBlog’s page views -

Don’t let Facebook get away with the biggest bait and switch in Internet history -

C’mon, @Facebook. You’re better than this! - (by @RichardMetzger)

An important analysis from @RichardMetzger: “Facebook has taken a pee in their own pool from quite a lofty height” -


So which publishers embrace the great model? Unfortunately, not many—with a few exceptions.

Here’s how Upworthy, the website known for making serious subjects go viral, masters the medium:

Article Headline
You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate how amazing @StandWithFrank is.
This is why it’s good to have strange people like @timminchin give your commencement address.
Zach Sobiech: “You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living,” by @soulpancake.
Watch this @getup video and just TRY not to be open-minded.
THIS JUST IN: @SirPatStew is a friggin’ amazing human being.

Similarly, as documented by Laura Hazard Owen of paidContent, Slate has woven this twin-titling into its content management system. A few examples:

Article Headline
It’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Stop Eating at Lunchtime.
Everything Electronic You Own—iPhone to Subway Card to Power Strip—Can Be Hacked. So How to Defend Yourself?
Doctors Spend 36 Seconds or Less Talking With Teen Patients About Sex. Grow Up, Doctors!
Yeah, it’s cold out. But wind chill is a lousy measure.

The bottom line (in less than 140 characters, of course):

Don’t be afraid to change the prepopulated, default text. Those 140 characters are yours—own 'em. Make each tweet count.

Jonathan Rick is the president of the Jonathan Rick Group, a digital communications firm in Washington, DC. Tweet him your biggest Twitter pet peeve at @jrick.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Most Reliable Source of Grist for the Speechwriter's Mill? The Obits

by David Murray

As I like to say, the obits are a great place to meet people. They're also a great source of ideas for speechmakers, speechwriters, and speech editors.

In one week late last month, I got to know the Chicago theater kingpin Sheldon Patinkin, got reacqauinted with Ohio politician Jim Traficant, and met the writer Alastair Reid.

From Patinkin—or actually, his friend, the actor Jeff Perry—I learned the true size of the job of criticizing a creative product. Directors and actors would beg Patinkin to give them notes on their work, because he was a "world champion note giver," according to Perry. "His process is gorgeous; like movements in a symphony or rules of comedy, it comes in threes."

First are the Socratic questions that lead you to this pleasantly shocked re-understanding of your intent. Then he continues with a great, blunt, nonjudgmental articulation of what he saw compared to what you intended. And finally, as you launch into a spin cycle of anxiety and self-justification about all the obstacles sabotaging your genius, he has the knack of being able to steer you, like a shrink, bartender and rabbi rolled into one, into the belief that the fixes are easy, they are absolutely in your reach, and there’s plenty of time to work them in.

U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant liked to make references to Star Trek, often ending speeches with a request: "Beam me up." Traficant wore an outrageous hairpiece, spent time in jail and had a lot of crazy ideas. But he got heard, with soundbites like this one, from a 1998 speech:

Mr. Speaker, the Lord’s Prayer is 66 words, the Gettysburg Address is 286 words, the Declaration of Independence is 1,322 words. U.S. regulations on the sale of cabbage—that is right, cabbage—is 27,000 words. Regulatory red tape in America costs taxpayers $400 billion every year, over $4,000 each year, every year, year in, year out, for every family.

Beam me up.

And then there was Alastair Reid, who only occasionally returned from reporting trips around the world to visit his office at the New Yorker (where the dope smoke often curled out from under his office door). What drove him him to travel all his life? Same thing that drives everyone to travel, to whatever extent they do. Here's Reid's poem, "Curiosity":


may have killed the cat. More likely

the cat was just unlucky, or else curious

to see what death was like, having no cause

to go on licking paws, or fathering

litter on litter of kittens, predictably.

Nevertheless, to be curious

is dangerous enough. To distrust

what is always said, what seems,

to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,

smell rats, leave home, have hunches

does not endear cats to those doggy circles

where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches

are the order of things, and where prevails

much wagging of incurious heads and tails.


(This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches.)