Sunday, December 18, 2016

Magazines, You, and Career Tips from Rompin Ronnie

Off and on over the years, I've acted (and I use the word with care) as a part-time journalism instructor. But since I know squat about what you might call actual teaching, what I end up doing amounts to jumping up and down and yelling like a cheerleader about how rewarding journalism can be. For one class, though, I managed to calm down long enough to come up with this 26-point magazine-production tip sheet.

I showed my sister Mary. She suggested people outside journalism might enjoy it, and because I always do what my older sisters tell me to, I present: Peter's Slightly Updated A-to-Z Guide to Magazine Journalism.

ADHD: Assume readers are poster children for attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. If they don't read your story; it's not their fault. Every keystroke you make must work hard to hold the reader’s attention.

BUSINESS: The more a journalist knows about how the business world works, the happier she or he will be. Learn how to read stock quotes. Buy shares in a company and then follow that company's progress or lack of same. You'll be surprised at what you learn.

CAREER: Measure it by your own standards. Don’t be deceived by outward signs or glamour. Your story in the community newspaper can reach a soul and change a life just as effectively as your feature in a mass-circulation magazine; and there’s often more freedom and fun where there’s less money.

DEADLINES: People do everything at the last minute. Don’t even think about expecting anything else. But also never ask a writer to work without one.

ERRORS: They’re all bad, but some are worse than others. Errors in judgment can be far more harmful than errors in fact. Typos are easier to repair than reputations. You have a great responsibility as a reporter. Don’t forget that if you print that somebody has been merely charged with an offence, in many people’s eyes that person is automatically guilty.  (That reminds me of a joke I made up. "What type of blood do lazy editors have?" "Type-o.")

FAMILY: Stuck for an opening question in an interview? Ask about family. Even the Dalai Lama has siblings, and you can bet he sometimes lays awake at night wondering why all they're all screwy, just like yours and mine.

GOD: He or She is “In the Details.” Here’s what separates real writers from hacks. Don’t tell me that somebody smoked cigarettes. Tell me she chainsmokes du Maurier Extra Milds. (Hacks. Get it?)

HELL: You will also find that hell—surprise surprise—is in the details. A small mistake or hasty edit can ruin an otherwise near-perfect project. As one of my favourite journalists, the late Gordon Donaldson, once told me,  “I wrote that comma.”

I, AS IN YOU:  Don’t be afraid of the first person singular. You have a unique perspective. Exploit it. Boring tired and sexless reporters go to the predictable sources. What's stopping you from citing, say, something somebody said to you in a dream?

JOURNALISM: You’re going to face people who say the press distorts; that they can’t trust reporters or that newspapers are full of lies. They’re all wrong. Every journalist I’ve met strives for accuracy and truth and wants to make the world a better place. Few grow out of it even though they might pretend to be jaded. Whether you’re writing for your association’s blog or the New York Times or anything in between, communication is a calling. Some might even consider it the Highest. The Book of John, in the Bible, starts the Old Testament “In the Beginning Was the Word; and The Word was with God; and The Word was God.” Good enough for me.

KIDS: See “FAMILY.” Everybody is somebody’s kid. Find out as much as you can about the kid inside the person and you’ll see deeply into that soul’s soul. I’ve never met a person who wasn’t preoccupied with her or himself. Birth order is also very revealing.

LANGUAGE: Many people think more about what clothes they’re going to wear than which words they’re going to use.  Many people take more time selecting food from a fast-food menu than how they’re going to phrase their next sentences. Words are more powerful than bombs yet we too often choose them with little or no care. Stop it right this instant. Select your next words carefully. And the ones after that. In print; in speaking; in emails—check back with the entry for the letter J and get back to me if you still have a problem with this.

MAGAZINES: If you get nothing else from this course, try to employ magazine-editing techniques in your day-to-day lives. Treat the people you meet as friends; shower them with compliments, offer hints for subtle improvements; celebrate their values with them; never be boring; look them in the eye when you talk to them; be as good looking and as well dressed as you can; never make people feel bad after spending time with you; turn them on; share their adversaries; suggest music, books, food, looks and activities you know they will like; be reliable, trustworthy; funny and informative and serious when need be; smart; not smarty-pants, fun, and make them proud to leave you out on their coffee table.

NOTES: Take’em. Reporters and police officers take notes and you won’t remember much if you don’t write stuff down. What part of being a writer doesn’t involve writing? Post it notes, notebooks, computer files, take notes. Keep emails. Some of your most brilliant insights will disappear if you don’t keep them somewhere .

OH HENRY!: They’ve been around since 1920 and remain delicious. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s an improvement.

PETER: As in  The vast majority of jobs are obtained because of who you know. Stay in touch with people; don’t ever give anyone a reason to withhold a job recommendation and as Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins once said “Be nice to the people you meet on your way up because you’re going to meet them again on your way down.”

QUOTATION MARKS: “Gimme a g’dam break!,” Carter says. “Any good writer knows the carefully crafted quote is a reader magnet. If you quote somebody cleverly, even if you don’t name him, you can get away with lively devices like colloquialisms, grammatical goofs, even swear words and readers won’t be thinking it’s your words. Cool eh?”  

READ: Everything. You will get inspiration from surprising sources. And don’t be afraid to use those obscure sources as citations in your stories. Readers for some reason feel compelled to believe offbeat sources such as, say, The Tibetan Book of the Dead  or  The Low Down to Hull & Back News.  (A real newspaper, btw.)

SHOW, DON’T TELL: Make pictures with words.  If I told you I knew a girl in university who got drunk once you’ll forget it but if I show you—in words—the story of how she came out of the Brunswick House with a date after drinking way too much draft beer and she felt she was going to puke but didn’t want her date to know so she discretely turned around and barfed into a Canada Post box, you will NEVER forget about her.

TWO DRINKS: This is the Patrick MacFadden theory, named for the Carleton  journalism professor who was acutely aware of the buzzkilling powers of boring stories. At all times during social events carry two drinks so if you meet somebody and they start telling you the plot of a movie they’ve just seen you can nod towards one of the drinks and say “Excuse me I’d love to hear more but I have to deliver this.” (This one, you’ll remember.)

UNEXPECTED: Do it. You’ll be happier, you’ll have less stress in your life and you’ll be a better writer and global citizen.

VANITY: Exploit people’s inherent desire to look good. Even my 99-year-old grandma had her hair done.   Compliments are free and among the most powerful weapons in your war-chest.  Make them detailed, sincere, and well chosen. If you tell somebody you think they have nicely shaped eyes, they’ll remember you a long time. If you tell them that the sweater they’re wearing complements their eyes, you’re also applauding their thought processes; their wardrobe and their eyes and they will remember you for, oh, ever. Just don't ever fake it, okay?

WRITE YOUR OWN WORDS: Hacks and computer software programs use other people’s words.  Real writers choose every letter, every punctuation mark, every rhythmic device. Invent your own axioms; coin your own clever phrases. Never default to trite phrases or inaccuracies.  Remember. Skunks don’t get drunk. If somebody falls on the floor laughing, call 9-1-1.

X-FILES: According to Wikipedia, when writer Chris Carter presented the ideas for the pilot for this hugely successful program, network executives wanted Scully to be a slightly off-kilter blonde woman with a love interest.  X-Files fans like yours truly were happy Carter persuaded them otherwise. Lesson being: Trust your creative instincts; others might not share them and you will frequently have to be able to defend them; plus if a person named Carter suggests something, go with it.

YES: John Lennon met Yoko Ono when he was at an art gallery and peered through a lens and on the other side, she held a little card with the word “YES” on it. Yes, it sealed the Beatles’ fate but it also signaled J&Y’s future together. Magazines are all about yes. Magazines leave readers feeling like every dilemma has a solution. Magazines are full of hope. Abandon hopelessness all ye who enter the world of magazines. 

ZED It’s a Canadian word. Stick with your own language. As one writer whose name escapes me said, “I write Ontario English. Anything else would be pretentious.” Be yourself.

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