A few links for the end of the week

What you leave in your wake

Neat and tidy About 10 years ago, I was hired by a small software company as its sole technical writer. When I stepped into the role, I found that the documentation was a mess. Several versions of the manual were scattered across my predecessor’s hard drive. It wasn’t obvious which version was which, and files were both missing and badly named.

I learned later why the project was in such a mess: the previous writer left the company after giving just two days notice. Yes, that’s the level of professionalism I was faced with from my predecessor.

It took me several days to figure out what was what, and where it was. Happy wasn’t a word that could be used to describe me that particular week.

Not every writer focuses solely on penning work for publication. A number of our brethren and sistren spend their days writing in the corporate world. No matter what type of corporate writing you do, regardless of whether you’re a full timer or a contractor, you’ll eventually part ways with an employer. Voluntarily, I hope. When you step out the door for the last time, what will you leave in your wake? A mess, or a way for your co-workers or replacement to quickly pick up where you left off?

I’d hope the latter. Here are a few tips on how.


Don’t ignore the smaller stories

A typewriter, once the main way of telling a written storyNo matter what some of us say, writers are an ambitious bunch. Many of us want to write bigger stories. Stories that will bring us wider fame, enhance our reputations, grab the cover or front page, and (we hope) pay us more money.

Not all of us will succeed at going after those bigger, splashier stories. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

When I was in journalism school, I realized that I wouldn’t be chasing the front page or the cover. I wasn’t (and am still not) that driven or ambitious. I also realized that the space after the cover or front page needed to be filled. There were, and are, opportunities to do that with smaller stories.

What do I mean by smaller stories? Here’s an example: let’s say a hacker breaks into a bank’s systems and steals the credit card information of thousands of customers. That’s the big story. The smaller story would be contacting a few of the people whose information was stolen and sharing how their lives were affected by the theft.

Not all small stories complement bigger ones. There are thousands or more small, standalone stories out there. Stories that humanize the news. Stories that bring an issue into perspective. Stories that might not have wide appeal, but which will interest a group of readers. Stories that educate or enlighten.

During my brief foray into community journalism, I wasn’t interested in local politics or the latest scandal. Instead, I was more interested in the area small business that was bucking a trend or offering something new. I was more interested in the plight individual residents of the community as a result of moves by city hall or large businesses in the area. I was more interested in the achievements of the locals.

To me, those were (and are) the stories that need to be told. Those are stories which, as writers, I don’t think we should ignore. They might not have the wider impact of bigger stories, but they were ones that readers could often relate to a personal level.

The smaller story can also be a springboard to snagging the larger stories that a number of writers covet. By covering smaller stories, you can gain experience writing. You develop a sense of story. You make contacts. All of that can lead to you gaining the confidence and experience to try to tackle a bigger story.

Don’t ignore those smaller stories. You never know where they might take you.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

A few links for the end of the week

Taking notes with nvALT

Someone sitting in front of their Mac taking notes by hand (Note: This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, at Notes From a Floating Life. It appears here via a Creative Commons license.)

After I moved overseas three years ago, I had to take the dreaded day job. For about a year or so at one such job, I used a MacBook Pro at the office. While prefer Mac OS to Windows, I really don’t see what all the fuss about MacBooks (and Macs in general) is. They don’t have anything I hadn’t seen before, and they have more than a few annoyances.

That said, there is some nice software available for the MacBook. One tool that I came to depend on was nvALT. It’s a note taking tool that’s based on the popular note taking app Notational Velocity.

nvALT brings much-needed minimalism and simplicity to taking notes. You write your notes in plain text. It’s quick and easy to use, and is quite flexible.


Why longer-form writing still matters

A book, with its pages opened like a fan I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the tl;dr crowd be hanged. There is a place for longer-form writing on the web. And in print, too.

There are many people (far too many, in my opinion) who only want quick hits of information. Headlines. Listicles. Summaries. There’s more to reading, and understanding, than small chunks of information.

That’s where longer-form writing — writing that runs 2,000 or 3,000 or more words — comes in. Here’s why I think it still matters.

Longer-form writing lets you tell a story. Not just a snapshot, but a fuller, more complete story. You can tell that story from its logical beginning and tie in any background that’s needed.

Longer-form writing offers depth. This ties in with being able to tell a story. You can go into more detail with a longer piece. You can bring in conflicting view points. You can not just present the bigger picture, but look at the smaller pictures that make up that big picture.

Longer-form writing promotes analysis. Very little in this world is cut and dry. Very little is black and white. There are twists and turns. There are gray areas. By properly analyzing a story or an issue, you can bring some clarity to that story or issue.

Longer-form writing can last. It might not be for the ages, but a more in-depth article or essay or interview has a longer shelf life than the quick hit of information I mentioned at the start of this post. Readers can come back to a longer piece of writing — one which tells a story, offers analysis, and goes into more depth — to learn, to understand, and to enjoy.

What about readers with short attention spans? I constantly hear arguments about some peoples’ attention spans are growing shorter and shorter. And how some people won’t consider reading anything longer than a few paragraphs.

If you choose to write longer piece, remember that you’re not writing for them. Ignore that audience. Instead, tell the best story that you can with the number of words you need to use.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

A few links for the end of the week

Defining success

Children celebrating a success Success as a writer means different things to different people. For some folks, success is wrapped up in fame and fortune — bestselling books, big advances, lots of royalties. For others, it’s the ability to get steady work and make a decent (or better) living.

I’m in the latter camp. While I wouldn’t turn down a big book contract, I know one doesn’t land in the lap of many of us who smith words professionally. Most of us take what work we can get, write what we can, and earn whatever we can. Sounds like a 9-to-5 job, but one where we’re doing something we actually love and enjoy.

I often compare writing to acting. Not all of us will be stars. We’re more like character actors. While the big names get the big roles (and the big pay packets), their careers may stall or eventually peter out. Good character actors, on the other hand, have a steady stream of work. They’re chameleons. They’re always needed. Many of them have longer careers than their more famous counterparts.

Even when I was in journalism school, I knew that I wouldn’t be the person who went after covers or front pages or the big stories. I just wasn’t ambitious or competitive enough. But behind those front pages and covers, around those big stories is a lot of space. Space for smaller, interesting stories. Stories that might not otherwise be told.

That’s my domain. One I’m happy to inhabit. And being able to inhabit that domain as a writer is my definition of success. I can write, learn, grow, and tell a variety of stories. I can pay my bills and provide for my family with my keyboard.

I hope to be doing that for as long as I can write.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

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