Saturday, 28 March 2015

Ten Tips on How To Grab the Reader's Attention

Michelle Ruberg says that when you write an article, try to grab the reader's attention.  While you want your article to have a level of respectability, take a page from the tabloids, who are so good at grabbing the reader's attention, they sell three million copies a week.  Here are ten tips to keep in mind:

1.  Never Be Boring

Here is a line from a tabloid:

"Cats may have nine lives -- but dogs go to heaven!  Just ask Stephen Huneck who spent $200,000 building a church for dogs."

The reader immediately wonders how a dog would need a church, and for $200,000, no less.

2.  Find the "Hey Martha" quality

When you read an opening like the one about the dog church, it makes you turn to your wife and say "Hey Martha, get a load of this."  That's the quality you want for you opening.

3.  Use your Best Shot

"Kirk Douglas put a pistol in his mouth determined to kill himself and only an accident of fate prevented him from pulling the trigger."

The questions swirl in the readers head after reading this line.

4.  Make a long story short

Fill your paragraphs with lots of details

"The Queen, seventy five, has been on the throne for fifty years, and married to a grumpy husband for fifty four,  Even palace insiders admit she shows more affection to her beloved pet corgis than to her dysfunctional family.  Personal fortune of $2 billion has not bought her happiness."

5.  Make Effective Transitions

Write tightly and make effective transitions.  When referring to the heroes of 9/11 who rerouted the plane intended for the White House, into a Pennsylvania field, the Star used the transition:

"Glick and the other heroes stormed from their seats into history."

6.  Pace yourself

While your sentences should vary, some long, some short, for the most part your paragraphs should be short.

7.  Keep it Simple

Write to express first and to impress second.  Your writing should be easily understood.

8.  Use Active Verbs

ex. "6.0 Magnitude Earthquake Strikes Chile" is more effective than "Chile Struck by 6.0 Magnitude Earthquake".

9.  Have Fun with Puns

Harrison Ford dated a much younger woman and the headline read:  "Raider of the Lost Cradle", referring to his movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

10.  Come Full Circle

Return to the lead in your conclusion.  When I wrote a Maranatha News article about the black settlement of Africville on the fringes of Halifax, I introduced it with the following statement:

“Where the asphalt ended and the dirt road began, that is where Africville started”, recounted Gus Wedderburn, after investigating the black community of Africville at Halifax’s north end in the 1950’s.  Mr. Wedderburn, who wondered why Halifax was  largely devoid of 'coloured people...'" 

I finish the article by tying the ending to the beginning:

"While Halifax is no longer devoid of coloured people, Africville is."

For more information, read Writer's Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (Michelle Ruberg).

Friday, 27 March 2015

How to Finish Off Your Article with a Bang

"When you've found your concordant ending, you'll know." (Michelle Ruberg)

How do you finish off your article with a big bang?  Michelle Ruberg, author of Writer's Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, recommends that you end with a quote.  Do you have a statement that sums up the issue while adding a touch of pathos?

Despite resistance from the city's gaming commission, Dr. Ellen Parker and other ecologists continue to search for a safe home for the endangered birds because they believe each creature plays a vital role in our ecosystem.  'If this creature were to disappear, it would cause an explosion in the insect population and that could have a disastrous effect on local agriculture,' Parker said.  'Then it's not just about the birds.  The problem will affect all of us.'"

In order to pack an emotional punch, respond briefly to the end quote, ideally including the reader in the story.

Another way to end your article is to bring it full circle:  revisit a word, phrase or idea that you included in the introduction, often in a different or humorous way.  Lauren Mosko in the Louisville Eccentric Observer does this effectively.

The Rudyard Kipling.  It's a restaurant, it's a bar, it's a playhouse, it's a musical's a garage. You're out of luck if you're looking for an oil change, but if it's garage rock you're seeking, you've come to the right place.

Three bands, three chords, one night.  It may sound like a garage, but if you're not there by nine, don't expect to find a decent parking space.

Michelle Ruberg suggests reaching a higher ground by introducing a provocative statement or unexplored question at the end of your piece.  "Plant a seed of curiosity in the reader's mind."

Today, The New Yorker featured Sarah Larson's article "East Village Fire:  Love Saves the Day".  She ended it with this paragraph:

"The East Village has long intermingled love and loss:  signs of bygone eras and heroes are everywhere.  The loss of these buildings;  the places we loved, the relocation of the people who lived and worked there, the memories of what used to be, as of yesterday -- is painful.  Not knowing what happened to Nicholas Figueroa and Moises Locon is unimaginably so."

Speak a common language.  Break one of the rules of writing by including a cliche at the end of your article, part of your reader's collective knowledge bank.  During the Gulf War, there was a national press blackout.  An article about the issue could have ended like this, according to Michelle Ruberg:

And so, for twenty four hours, the country received absolutely no news on the conflict.  Whoever said that's good news couldn't have been a journalist.  Or the parent of a soldier."

The reference, of course, is to the maxim "No news is good news".

Lastly, trust your gut; end your article at a logical place.  You've said what needed to be said; now it's time to end it.  As Michelle Ruberg says:  "When you've found your concordant ending, you'll know."

For more information, read Writer's Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (Michelle Ruberg) at

Thursday, 26 March 2015

How to Flavour Your Article with Anecdotes

"Anecdotes are like raisins in oatmeal cookies.  Sure, you can eat the cookies without them, but you'll miss out on the added flavour, contrasting texture and enhanced nutrition." 
(Michelle Ruberg in Writer's Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing)

Anecdotes don't just fall out of the sky onto your page like "manna", according to Michelle Ruberg. As a writer, you must search for them during your research and interviews.  While you are recording your names, dates and places, don't forget to include an anecdote or two.

Michelle Ruberg suggests that you draw them out of your subject by asking open-ended questions ex. "Tell me what happened when..." or "Describe what you saw when..."  Ideally, a face to face interview is the most productive.  Much of what we say is non-verbal, conveyed by our gestures and facial expressions; these are thing you can't pick up in a telephone conversation.  Don't forget to look for cultural distinctions and nuances as well.

As part of your research, documents can be a good source for anecdotes.  Eric Freedman, author of Pioneering Michigan, used a letter written by Jefferson Gage Thurber to his New England family to illustrate the panic following the 1832 cholera epidemic in Detroit.

"The panic at the time exceeded anything I ever imagined.  The timidity of our border settlers from sudden incursions of the Indians forms but a faint comparison.  I have no doubt from what little experience and observation I have had that fear has killed as many as the cholera." 

Where does an anecdote go in the article?  According to Michelle Ruberg, anywhere that it fits.  Steve Wilson's Folio magazine profile started with an Evel Knievel anecdote.

"One evening in 1973...Bob Bitchin pulled his chopper up to a stoplight on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.  He made eye contact with a man in a fur coat behind the wheel of a Ferrari.  When the light turned green, they raced.  The driver (who won) turned out to be Evel Knievel, and their late night of partying and entanglement with the law later made it into a Rolling Stone article."

Immediately upon reading this anecdote, your interest is piqued.  It pulls you in and makes you want to keep reading.

You can also put an anecdote at the heart of your piece as William Goldman did in his New York magazine article about wrestler turned film star Andre the Giant.  After being treated to several meals by Andre the Giant, Arnold Schwarznegger invited him out to dinner.

"...late in the meal, he snuck into the kitchen to give his credit card to the maitre d'.  As he was about to do this, he felt himself being lifted up into the air.  'When he had me up in the air, he turned me so I was facing him and he said:  'I pay.'  Then he carried me back to the table and set me down like a little boy.'  Oh yes, Andre was very strong."

The image I have of Andre the Giant lifting up former body builder Arnold Schwarznegger like a little boy is a powerful one.

An article can also end with an anecdote to drive a point home.  Douglas Preston included one in his National Geographic article about Cambodia.  He touched an ancestor stone, then:

"ran my finger through the cool grove of a lotus tree.  Here, broken soldiers from an Angkor temple had been put in the service of an even more ancient religion.  One of our soldiers, a skinny, barefoot teenager with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, stopped at the shrine,placed his hands together and bowed deeply in an act of veneration.  A gecko called twice, and then the forest fell silent in the stifling noon day heat.  Life went on in this strange, timeless land."

Note the sharp words and vivid imagery Mr. Preston uses, just as you would see in a fiction piece.

Michelle Ruberg reminds you to write tightly when including anecdotes.  "An overly long and wordy anecdote detours readers".  If your word count is 1000, and you include an anecdote of 350 words, that only leaves you 750 words for the rest of your article.  However, if your word count is double that, you might have room for such an anecdote.

Think like a fiction writer.  Use devices like plot, dialogue, characterization, sharp words and description when writing an anecdote.  Remember, your anecdote should bolster your point; it should be more than just "window dressing".  If you have too many to fit in your piece, save the remaining anecdotes for future writing assignments.

Note:  For more information, visit

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

When an Editor Wants a Rewrite

"Editors are frantically busy -- single-working-mother-with-eight-kids busy -- they don't have time to make every piece into exactly what they want it to be.  By delivering a rewrite and otherwise leaving the editor alone, you turn your editor's time poverty to your advantage."  (

When an editor requests a rewrite of an article, it's usually a minor rewrite, where the bulk of the piece can be saved.  While it's frustrating to have to rewrite your work, keep in mind that an editor is trying to anticipate the needs of the magazine.  It doesn't necessarily mean that your writing is poor; it might just mean that you and the editor are coming at the piece from a different angle.

Keep in mind what Online Health editor Kathleen Donnelly advises:  "Writers who are intractable and fight with us probably won't get another assignment".  Unless you are Pierre Berton, who flew in the face of editors, you have to have at least some respect for the process.

What steps should you take to rewrite your article?  Michelle Ruberg suggests these steps.  First, re-read your query to see what you promised the editor.  Second, re-read your assignment to see what the editor requested of you.  Third, re-read your article and look for the following.  Did you do one of the following?

-overshoot/undershoot your word count?
-write news that already appears elsewhere in the newspaper or magazine?
-cite too few sources?
-conduct garbage in/garbage out interviews?
-write a piece that is too close to what the competition is publishing?
-come at the article from the wrong angle?
-under/overwrite the piece for the target audience?
-use too many qualifiers, digressions or prepositional phrases?
-use too many quotes regarding a point already made?

What happens if you rewrite the piece and the editor still doesn't like it?  Michelle Ruberg recommends asking the editor to rework one of your paragraphs.  You follow the model for the other paragraphs.  Use the three P's:  patience, persistence and adherence to procedure.  Don't focus just on the structure of the writing.  Brian Smith of Indianapolis Monthly warns:  "Some writers worry so much about getting individual facts straight that they don't hear the flow and what it does to the cadence of the story."

Michelle Ruberg says that any extra calls or extra trips on behalf of the magazine should be compensated.  Request to see the galley of your piece before it goes to print.  That way you're not attaching your name to something that you don't agree with.  Stop at three rewrites.  Enough is enough!

Blogger Scott Edelstein recommends that you don't mindlessly follow the editor's suggestions. Make changes that seem reasonable, but at the same time, do what's best for the piece.  "Editors are frantically busy -- single-working-mother-with-eight-kids busy -- they don't have time to make every piece exactly what they want it to be.  By delivering a rewrite and otherwise leaving the editor alone, you turn your editor's time poverty to your advantage." 

Note:  For more information, read Writer's Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (Michelle Ruberg).

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Editing Your Article: Get Ready to Roll Up Your Sleeves

"When you have the first draft of your article done, then revision begins.  Get ready to roll up your sleeves, because this is the real work, and often, the real fun." (Michelle Ruberg)

Michelle Ruberg cites the example of Marge Simpson who sets out to write a story.  She writes the first paragraph and then clicks spell check.  That is her first mistake:  writers should separate the writing process from the editing process.  When writing that first draft, "Let it flow; get everything on the page," says Ms. Ruberg.  If you listen to your inner critic at this stage, you will stifle your voice and your creativity.  

With the first draft complete, take a break for a day or two.  Let it digest.  Work on another writing project or putter in the garden.  Come at if from a fresh perspective, with new eyes.  Pretend you are looking at your writing for the first time.  Critically re-read your piece with a fine tooth comb.  It's not a once over, it's a process.  Ms. Ruberg separates the process into four parts:  focus, organization, style and grammar.

1.  Focus

What is the major impression you want to make on the reader?  Summarize your theme in one or two sentences.  If you can't, it must not be strong enough.  As you re-read your article, make sure that everything points towards that central theme.  If not, take it out or rewrite it.

2.  Organization

Does your article flow?  Are your points presented in a logical sequence?  Do you link your points with easy transitions?  Do you repeat the same points or words?  Have you left some paragraphs sparse?  Re-read your piece twice.  Print it out and read it aloud, giving you more of an "outside reader" perspective.

3.  Style

Is your style interesting and easy to read?  Do you use your own voice?  Does it shine through?  Does your lead ex. quote, anecdote hook the reader in?  Do your paragraphs flow?  Have you tied your ending to your beginning?  Have you left the reader satisfied or have you left him or her hanging?  Is your content style and tone reflective of the current market?  Is your word count under the maximum amount?

4.  Grammar

Have you peppered your piece with strong verbs?  According to Ms. Ruberg, "strong verbs equals strong writing".  "To be" is one of the weakest verbs; replace it with a more interesting choice. Change the passive voice to the active voice.  Again, this makes your piece more convincing. Change nouns to verbs, especially those that end in "ing" (gerunds).  Eliminate adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs.  Replace noun/adjective combinations with stronger nouns when possible. Ms. Ruberg says this will strengthen your writing and lower your word count.  Make sure your tense is consistent as well as your point of view.  Use a good grammar reference to check punctuation. Make a checklist of your most common mistakes.  Finally, re-read your article backwards to find errors you missed.  Here is a chance to catch repetitions and overused words.

Happy Editing!

Note:  For more information, read Writer's Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (Michelle Ruberg).

Snoopy is breaking the first commandment of editing:  "Thou shalt not combine thy writing and thy editing" courtesy

Monday, 23 March 2015

Ten Tips on How to Write an Effective Event Report

Blogger Samantha Gluck ( recommends that you attend the actual event that you are writing about to get a genuine feel for what happened.  Here are some steps to follow when reporting on an event.

1.  Choose your event ex. historical anniversary, sports game, concert, writer's convention, parade, charity fundraiser, first date, birth of child, act of kindness.

2.  Include the vital statistics on the event such as the number of attendees, the location, the date and time, the theme, the atmosphere.

3.  Describe what preparations have gone into making the event happen?  Observe special details like visuals, sounds, tastes, smells.  What makes this event special?  What conversations do you overhear?

4.  Take photographs of the event.  Take closeups of the MC and/or speaker and a wide shot of the crowd.  Try to capture the action of the event and the reaction of the crowd.  Make sure you take more than you need and you can pick and choose.

5.  Chat with the attendees about the event.  What were their impressions?  What surprised and/or disappointed them about the event?  Talk to any experts who attended.  Jot down quotes from both attendees and experts.  Make sure to get more quotes than needed.

6.  Compile your information three hours (enough time to allow the information to digest) to three days (no longer so you don't forget what happened).

7.  Write your report.  Remember that showing trumps telling.  Avoid cliches and tired phrases like "selling like hotcakes".

8.  Include a main paragraph summarizing the events of the day.

9.  Compare the event to similar events you have attended.  What are the similarities and differences?

10.  Speculate as to how the event will fare in the future.  Make a statement for or against holding the event again.

Note:  For a sample event report, visit

Crowd reacts to Apollo 11 liftoff on July 16, 1969 (President Johnson & Lady Bird front & centre) courtesy

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Bon Appetit: How to Write Like a Restaurant Critic

How do you write a restaurant review for a newspaper or magazine without sounding like an amateur?  Here are some tips offered by former food critic David Farkas (

1.  Avoid superlatives

Don't use words like best, awesome, incredible when describing each dish.  Instead, compare the dish to one eaten at another restaurant.  It's all about setting the context for the reader.

2.  Assess Food

Don't write down every dish you and your group of friends scarfed down.  Concentrate on a few dishes, the ones that stand out.  Pick the ones that you really enjoyed and the ones that you did not like.  What is the presentation like?  How about the temperature of the food?  How was it cooked ex. to perfection, under-cooked, overcooked?

3.  Observe the Staff

Are the servers having a good time?  Are they dressed professionally?  Are they distracted?  Are they attentive?  Have they set your table neatly and promptly?  Can they answer your questions competently?  Do they know the ingredients of the dishes?  Are the vegetables organic\/  Is the beef grain fed?  How do they respond to your compliments or complaints?

4.  Describe the Ambiance

Describe the restaurant's decor.  Is it comfortable ex. air temperature?  Are the other guests enjoying themselves?  Is the restaurant half empty?

5.  Eat on behalf of the customer

Put yourself in the customer's shoes.  Rather than filling your review with the pronoun "I", use "you" to include the reader.

6.  Write frankly

Did the hostess size you and your date up before she seated you?  Did she give you a lousy table?

7.  Write succinctly

Use vivid description when explaining your dining experience.  Avoid vague language ex. "The Caesar salad was boring" or "The chicken was bad."  Instead, try "The Caesar salad lacked flavour " and "The chicken was dry."

8.  Turn a clever phrase

Avoid cliches ex. "There's atmosphere in spades here."  Use unique words and phrases.  Read critiques of the professionals like Pete Wells of the New York Times, but at the same time make your own personal voice through.

9.  Eat dessert

Dessert can either be a disaster since many customers forego dessert or a thing of beauty.  It may be an experience well worth having.

10.  Remain anonymous

Try not to record your opinions at the table.  Staff will pick up on it right away.  Instead, wait until you get home to start writing your review.

For more information, read Will Write for Food by Dianne Jacob.