How to Crank out the Work (without Becoming Cranky)

Most of us who work for non-profits have more work to do than we have time to do it. So we prioritize, focus on the task at hand and try not to think about what’s waiting for us when we’re finished with the task at hand. So what’s a writer to do?

Do the minimum amount of work required, and then pass the project on to the next level. Repeat. There is little room for perfection or excellence. Do your best work, make it count, but do the minimum amount of work required, then pass it on.

If you write stories about the work of your non-profit, find one big idea. Why did someone pick this story to best illustrate how your mission works? How is this person accomplishing the goals of your organization?

Anyone remember the move City Slickers? Three men in the 40s, each having a mid-life crisis, leave wives and children behind to join a cattle drive out West. On the drive, the wizend, crusty, aging cowboy who has spend a lifetime doing what he loves, gives one of the men a valuable piece of advice. To paraphrase the scene, the cowboy says that the meaning of life is one thing. Taking the bait, one of the 40-somethings asks what that one thing is.  “That’s what you’ve got to figure out,” the cowboy answers.

Fortunately, while you do have to figure out what your one main point is going to be, you have a few guidelines. What’s the stated purpose of your mission? How about your vision statement? With purpose and vision statement in hand, ask yourself:  How the people in this story best demonstrate the mission and vision of our organization? 

Let that become your focus statement. For example,

Insert name here, fulfills our mission of insert mission here, when she insert description of work here

Now, smooth that out so it’s readable and interesting to your readers.

Next, pick the details that match your focus statement. Details could include:

  • a scene from her work
  • statistics collected during the previous year
  • her background (how did her life circumstances prepare her for the work she’s doing?)
  • the background of the work she’s doing (what happened before she arrived, when she arrived, now that she’s been there?)
  • a statement about the future (leave room for growth. No work is ever truly finished.)

You’re done. Turn it in, take a well-deserved break, and then repeat the process with the next assignment.

Improve your productivity by working faster. Set absurd deadlines for yourself. If you have the information in front of you, see how much of this you can get done in an hour. Do your best work, but know when you’re done.

As I have written, edited and coached other writers, my own skills and the skills of the people I work with have improved based on the numbers of projects they have written. As you repeat the process, your work improves. This is a case where quantity over quality, as long as you are doing the best work you can in that moment, leads to more work done and better writing skills.

How can you keep from becoming cranky? Know what done looks like. Know what is expected. Fulfill the requirements of the assignment and pass it on.

Happy writing.

How Long does it Take to Write a Blog Post?

How much time does it take to think of an idea and write a blog post? It’s a good question.

I’m part of a team curating content for an online community. We invite our members to submit their best ideas in the form of 600-800-word blog posts. Normally we give them a 2-week deadline to add urgency to our request. If they need more time, we give them an extra week.

So far, most of the menbers who have promised to write something have done it in the timeframe we have asked for.

Why don’t we give them more time? A few reasons.

Two weeks is long enough for our members to figure out whether or not they can do the assignment. If they can’t do it, giving them more time only adds to their frustration.

If they are busy and they need more time, we give them an extra week. If that’s not enough time, then they are too busy, and we invited them to write a different time.

If they are perpetually too busy, or, if don’t want to write it themselves, we schedule an interview. We can write their story for them in first-person. That becomes a piece that is by them, with us. Or, we can write their piece in third-person. That becomes a piece about, by us.

Either way, we accomplish our goal of giving them a voice in our community.

So, how long does it take to write a guest blog post for another site, or, even a blog post for your own site? Under two weeks. If that’s not enough time, switch gears and conduct an interview, then write up the interview as a blog post instead.

Happy writing, and happy editing.

 

 

Is Good Enough Good Enough?

So, your standard is good enough. Aren’t you settling for mediocrity? Not at all. You are doing the best work you know how to do. It’s good enough. Imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time.

Let’s set some minimum standards.

Does your piece have a main point? Think high school English. Or Freshman Composition 101. What’s your thesis statement? Look for the one idea that ties the entire piece together. In journalism circles, we call this the focus statement. It’s a single sentence (or two) that makes a promise to the reader. If they read the words you have written they will learn (insert your focus statement here).

Think about a train. A focus statement is the engine that drives your piece forward. The details are the train cars connected to the engine, heading in the same direction, arriving at the same location.

Once you’ve picked your focus statement and the details, decide how you want to order them. Which cars are you going to attach to the engine? Are all of the details heading the same direction? Does it make sense for them to arrive at the same destination as the engine?

Every analogy breaks down somewhere. Here’s where this one breaks down. In real life, the engine of a train always comes first because it pulls the cars behind it. While the focus statement of your story should appear early in your text, you don’t have to begin with it.

If you’re writing or editing a short piece, you might want to lead with the focus statement. If it’s a longer piece, you might want to find an interesting story or example to begin with that illustrates your focus.

So, here’s a standard for good enough:

  • Find the main point of your story, the engine that drives the piece along.
  • Choose the details that support your main point, the cars that follow the engine.

If a piece meets these two criteria, then it’s good enough. Your writing style or the style of the author of the piece you are editing will improve with practice. Be willing to allow yourself of the person creating the content to be where they are right now today. And then to find a way to be better next time.

What’s your Standard?

What’s your standard? It’s a good question. Most of us can agree that perfection is unattainable. At Mirriam-Webster.com, perfect is defined as the state of being entirely without fault or defect: Flawless. Who wants to attempt to write to that standard? No one I know. Let’s agree that perfection is unattainable, at least in this life.

What about excellence? Certainly excellence is a good standard to strive for? To call work excellent, it means the work is done to the highest possible standard. Very few of us begin any enterprise by doing excellent work. For most of us, excellence comes after years of practice. If a writer can’t attain excellence, it’s too easy to quit. Then writing becomes a task for the experts who have already attained excellence. Novices need not apply.

How about good enough? Anyone with a big idea can type words onto a screen, publish those words almost immediately, and gain a worldwide audience. Or not. But, the secret it to be the best you can be today. If you show up, do your best work today, and then show up again tomorrow and do the same, your best work will improve to the point where someday it will be excellent because you have practiced.

So make a decision. Show up today. Write. And be good enough. Do it again tomorrow. And the day after that. Continue to practice and your writing will improve. Be good enough today. Be even better next week. And watch your writing improve over time.

Creating Content and Defining Terms

landscape.JPGFocus on people; focus on results, we tell ourselves. How do we communicate that the mission is accomplishing its goals? Stories and statistics. Stories prove we’re doing what we say we’re doing on an individual level. Statistics show that we’re accomplishing our goals on a broader level. The two work together.

Every one of us who writes for the Internet has to listen closely to the needs of our audience and then determine the types of content we can create to meet those needs. Those of us who write for nonprofits understand we define ourselves by the stories we tell, the people we profile and the events we write about.

 

What kinds of content can you create for your audience?

1. Story

Stories contain a likable main character who confronts a problem and solves it, requiring the main character to make a difficult decision, follow it up with hard work and become a better person in the end.

While stories resonate with our readers, they are difficult to write because the author has to show life change. Sometimes that change happens inside a person’s heart. That kind of change is harder to identify and write about. Frequently this happens when a person comes to Christ or starts to grow in their faith.

How do you show life-change? Ask your story subjects if they can give you an example. Whenever you can, write about their response to a difficult situation, demonstrating how they changed.

 

2. Personality Profile

This is a summary of a person’s life experiences, answering questions like: What do they do, and what experiences have led them to do it? It’s not a story because there is no problem to confront and solve, however, you will want to identify a common theme, think of it as your focus, to write about throughout the entire story.

It’s possible you will write about someone who participates in your work on a regular basis. Even though they might not have an obstacle to overcome, they show up week after week, accomplishing the goals of your mission.

You can show what a day in their lives might look like so people can imagine themselves stepping into the work you’re doing.

 

3. Biographical Summary

This, too, is a summary of a person’s life, only it’s more a listing of the facts as they happened. The writer doesn’t pick a theme to write about in every paragraph or present the main character as having a problem to confront and solve. Instead, it’s a telling of important life events, usually in chronological order.

Inexperienced writers might choose this format to help them gather all of the necessary facts. Once the facts are gathered and assembled, an experienced editor can help identify a focus that could allow the writer to create a personality profile.

 

4. Report

A report explains what happened and answers questions your readers might be asking. For example, what happened? When did it happen? Where did it happen? Who was there? How does it show our mission in action?

According to writing coach Roy Peter Clark, the difference between a story and a report is this: A report tells the facts of what happened. A story evokes an emotional response. A report shows scope on a large scale. 500 students came to our fall retreat. A story shows life-change in an individual. One of the students made a decision to trust Christ to forgive her sins.

 

5. Tribute

This is a summary of a person’s life events that includes quotes from four or five people who explain what this person means to them. This works well when you want to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary of a well-known person.

 

Each of these forms has its place on your website, in your emails and in your publications. Know what they are and understand the purpose they serve. If you are the editor, know the difference between each piece of content, and be clear with the writer exactly what you expect. If you are the writer, understand the differences between each piece of content, and ask questions to help you understand what your editor expects from you.

 

Because variety is the spice of life, consider varying the types of content you put in front of your readers. Know the difference between each one. Try each one out to see if it helps you accomplish your goals.

Peer Editing–Be Brave

Earlier this week, I sent an email to my daughter’s academic advisor explaining I was supportive of her plans to finish the semester at home if her professors would allow it. In the email, I wrote that Bethany is a conscientious student. I copied her and my husband, Mark as a courtesy.

The next morning, Mark very gently pointed out to me that I had written Bethany is a very contentious student.

No, she’s very agreeable. I’m the one who’s contentious. Sigh. Mark would have caught the mistake had he read my email before I sent it.

While it’s not practical for someone else to read every email we send, we can improve the quality of our work if we allow each other to read what we have written before we turn it in. We call this process peer editing.

If you are the writer, consider finding someone to read your piece. Then ask these questions:

1. Does it make sense?

2. Is it interesting?

3. At what point did you want to stop reading?

Pay close attention to the spot where your reader wanted to stop reading. Check your verbs. Are they active enough? Can you find a more compelling way to move the action along in your prose?

If you read someone else’s work, ask yourself these questions:

1. Does the writer pull one main point all the way through the piece?

2. Is the piece organized so that you can easily understand it without the writer’s help?

3. Is it interesting?

Use the answers to these questions to give helpful feedback.

From time to time, my son, the engineering student, sends me research papers to read for him. I’m the perfect audience. While I don’t understand much of the technical material, I can figure out whether or not his information follows a logical progression. After I provided feedback on one of his pieces, he added illustrations so that his readers could see what he described.

Your work isn’t published until someone else reads it. Maybe the bravest part of the process is turning your work over to someone else so you can listen to their feedback.

 

 

Focus: The Secret Behind Strong Writing

 

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In an age of constant distraction, you can capture and keep your reader’s attention by organizing your text around one central idea.Think of it as your focus statement. Next time, you write, ask yourself these questions:

1. What is this piece really about? Decide the one piece of information you want your readers to remember when they finish your piece. Try stating it as an opinion so that you can tell stories, use statistics and present facts to illustrate your point.

2. What’s the most interesting part? If it’s interesting to you, it will interest your reader. After you decide, ask yourself what makes that part so interesting to you. If you are writing a topic or an experience you can relate to, allow your perspective to influence your text. None of us are truly objective. Maybe God picked you to write the piece because your experiences allow you to better understand the events and principles you are writing about.

3. What’s fresh about this topic? While there is nothing new under the sun, you can add fresh perspective to stories and topics that have already been covered. Most faith-based stories tell the same series of events over and over again. An unbeliever refuses to believe, has an experience and crosses the bridge to belief. What’s new and different about that? Personality. Family background. The events leading up to crossing the bridge to belief.

4. Can you be more specific? As you answer these questions, pick one main idea to center your piece around. State it as a sentence. Be as specific as possible.

Your focus statement is like the string that holds a strand of pearls together. Each pearl fits on the string because it is the same size, shape and color as the other pearls. In the same way, when you write, pick one main point and then choose details that reinforce that idea.

Warning: This is harder than you think it is.  Choosing one main idea means saying no to a dozen other ideas. It also means saying no to good information so that you can pick the best information. Great writing begins by making hard choices. You can’t tell the whole story. So, which part will you tell?

In the movie City Slickers, Curly, the cowboy, tells Mitch, the 9-5er, the secret to life is one thing. When Mitch asks what that one thing is, Curly tells him he has to figure it out for himself. In the same way, only you can figure out for yourself what your main point ought to be for each piece you write.

At a time when your readers are constantly distracted, you can make your work easier to read by organizing your ideas around one central thought. Pick one point, prove that point to your readers, and you will give them the gift of being able to remember what you have written.

 

Stories on a Plane

 

southwestPlease don’t sit here, I silently willed to the people passing by. It’s an almost full flight. I continued hoping that the travelers would keep moving toward the back of the plane, passing up the empty middle seat next to me.

“Mind if I sit here?” one shy traveler asked.

I looked up to see a man 10 in his mid-60s asking the question. He sat down, yielding the armrest to me, and smiled a playful grin. How could I not like him?

“So, what do you do?” I asked, thinking I might be able to start and finish the obligatory conversation, and move on to the book I was holding. He had no carry on luggage.

“I farm,” he said. “In Central Nebraska.”

And then he told me his story. He runs a family farm in Central Nebraska, approximately 30 fields that span 30 miles. From Kearney to Gibbon, much of it on rented land.

At first, he and his father farmed. Then he and his brother farmed. Now it’s him and his two sons. His grandsons have said they want to farm, too. Sure it’s hard, but they find ways to keep going.

His wife suffers from MS, a debilitating disease that shuts down muscle groups one by one. She’s had it almost 20 years. Five of her high school classmates were diagnosed with it and have passed away. She considers herself fortunate.

I’m leaning in. “How do you cope?” I asked.

Every morning he gets out of bed, fixes her breakfast and helps her get dressed before he heads off to farm. She reads a lot of books, he tells me. Including the Bible. Friends call her and grandchildren stop by after school to visit with her. She gets around in a wheelchair. She keeps a phone close by so that if she falls, she can call him and he can help her.

One day, after a faithful friend who calls every morning didn’t get an answer, the friend called her husband, the farmer who immediately went home and found his wife on the bathroom floor.

“Why didn’t you call me?” he asked.

“I knew you would be home soon,” she said.

Another day he came home and found her on the floor surrounded by grandchildren. She had fallen, and they couldn’t help her up. They made the best of it by playing cards together until he returned. They looked up and smiled at him as he entered the house.

I want to meet this woman, I thought to myself. She sounds wonderful.

Yes, it’s hard, he continued. She’s frustrated that she can’t do more for herself, but she refuses to give in to self-pity. “You can leave me,” she once said. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”

“No,” he said. “This is the life God has given us. We’ll find a way to make it work as best as we can.”

Children, grandchildren and a network of friends, including those from church, help him keep that promise to her. The plane descended toward the airport and the captain turned on the fasten seatbelt sign.

After thinking for a moment, he said, “I get up every morning and I know God is with me. That’s how I cope.”

The presence of God, that’s his secret. Friends and family help, but his faith is the glue that holds it all together. God never promised a pain free life, but he did promise his presence. “I will be with you always,” Christ said. “Even to the end of the age.”

 

Telling Stories

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This week, Bethany is guest posting about the process of writing her story. Seems the more she thinks about it and then writes it, the more its meaning changes. What’s a writer to do? Keep writing stories. Here she writes about the value of continuing to tell our stories as their meaning evolves. You can read more at Bethany’s blog

In between classes, cooking, and everything else that comes with being a college student, I’ve been working with Susanna to get the book done. That’s part of the reason I’ve been so absent here. I have a head full of ideas of things to blog about, but it’s been more and more challenging to find the time or the mental clarity to make the words say what I want them to.

 

I’m finding it hard to know how to tell my stories when I’m in a place of such constant change. I always thought that if I studied and learned enough, I would reach a place of understanding that would never change.

We’re in the midst of writing the story of my year in the dress. With each chapter, the way I see that year is shifting. The way I feel about it now isn’t the same way as I felt about it when we started writing, which was different from how I felt about it when I was wearing the dress.

Sometimes, I wonder if I should wait to tell this story until I’m sure of it and what it actually meant. It terrifies me, because ten years from now, the way I see that year will have changed again. They’ll probably change between the time we finish writing and the time the book is actually published.
But maybe that’s part of telling stories.Maybe it’s not my job to tell you what the story means.
Maybe all I need to do is tell it.Stories are important, and I still think they’re worth telling. I know that this one is worth telling. So if I’m not here, know that it’s because I’m writing and wrestling with this story. In the meantime, in the midst of everything that’s changing, there’s still stories I want to share here.
I can’t say what they mean, but I can offer them to you. Maybe together, we’ll discover that we’re not alone.

Five Ways to Utilize Pinterest as a Student Journalist

An African elephant photographed on Becca's favorite continent. Courtesy of Worldwide Challenge photography team

An African elephant photographed on Becca’s favorite continent. Courtesy of Worldwide Challenge photography team

So, my boss, Becky is having a baby, and the women I work with are planning a shower for her.

Recently, Becca Gonzales, one of the newest writers on our team and a graduate of The University of New Mexico, showed me how to find baby shower ideas on Pinterest. After we examined fun shower games and party favors, she showed me how to find writing advice and pin it to one of my boards. Now I’m hooked.

Below, Becca, who earned a degree in Multi-media Journalism with a Psych minor, describes five ways student journalists can use Pinterest to find ideas and organize their thoughts. Really, though, any writer can benefit from using these ideas.

You can find Becca here: http://beccagonzalespress.blogspot.com/and here: http://beccagonzales.blogspot.com/

 

Pinterest is not just for aspiring Martha Stuarts any more.


Pinterest – a popular and unique social networking site – has gained traction since its founding in March 2010. The site allows users to choose “pins” from their favorite websites and photos, and organize their interests into categories. Popular categories include fashion, food and, of course, crafts.

But news publications have begun to create their own Pinterest accounts and the site is becoming more widely-utilized as a whole. Student journalists have long been encouraged to create professional Facebook and Twitter accounts for the sake of their future career. But these same students – whether their interests lie in breaking-news broadcast or magazine features – can learn from hopping onto this trend as well.

Here are five ways student journalists can make the most of their Pinterest account.

Follow the media

Like Twitter, and most other social networking sites, Pinterest is only truly valuable when you do not go it alone. Follow people, follow them widely and follow those most important and relevant to you. 

That said the news media have begun to create Pinterest accounts themselves. The New York Times, CNN and Vogue magazine all have Pinterest accounts, as do many smaller news publications. Following these publications on Pinterest can allow you first access to any visuals which may accompany big stories or alert you to national trends that you may want to write about later. Following these publications, just like reading their stories, can help you learn how to be an efficient journalist as well, even on Pinterest.

Follow your audience

Any journalist knows that you, your editor and your boss primarily answer to one group of people – your audience. Newspapers were founded for the good of public information and discourse, and magazines write for their readers. If there is any group of people who will lead you to your audience’s interest and understanding of issues, it is your audience itself. So follow your audience.

Follow your friends, your peers, and the community of people you write for. This often can indicate trends in interests, pop culture and consumerism. Certain circulating quotes can point to prominent figures who your audience would like to know more about – so perhaps there is a profile awaiting. Likewise, travel boards can indicate places they would like to explore, even if from afar, and videos may point to issues worth discussing. Pinterest is the perfect place to locate public interest, as this was what the site was created for. Take advantage of this to speak to your readers. 

Get the word out 

Like Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest is a means of advertising your own stories and the stories of the publication you write for. Include an interesting graphic or photograph with your story (and if it is not your own, be sure to credit your source), and pin it! This can be especially helpful if you are writing on a subject that fits neatly into one of Pinterest’s popular categories, such as fashion or travel. 

However, even if your story does not fit into one of these categories, pinning it can be helpful. Utilizing hashtags, which are albeit less popular on Pinterest than on Twitter and Instagram, can help reach people who are not following you but are interested in the subject of your article. Even if your first couple of articles do not gain traction on Pinterest, putting your work and information out on as many platforms as possible is always beneficial. 

Collect your thoughts and ideas 

Whether you are a student journalist, or just the average Joe or Jane, Pinterest is a great means of simply categorizing your interests, thoughts and ideas. This can be especially helpful with thoughts and ideas pertaining to potential stories. Finding an interesting YouTube video, a blog on a hot topic or an intriguing website and pinning it to an “ideas” board may eventually lead you to a novel topic, subject or angle. This approach can produce outstanding evergreen features and make you aware of trends. And who doesn’t like a collection of interesting ideas for a dry week on the student paper? Using Pinterest the way most users do – to simply collect one’s thoughts and interests – is valuable as well. 

Collect inspiration and guidelines 

Similarly, collecting specific news inspiration and guidelines onto one board can be helpful as well. Media is ever-evolving, and there are people and websites doing interesting things which student journalists may want to stick in their pocket for later. Jonathan Harris’s projects with social media, Mariane Pearl’s collection of inspirational and investigative stories and essays and journalists with thoughts on media ethics, philosophy and theory are starting points in collecting media inspiration. Helpful guidelines to pin may include AP Style websites or the Media Law Resource Center. 

These are some of the several ways to utilize this social media network. Hop on the network, explore what else there is to see and pin away!