Writing well really does pay according to a new survey

slide_272894_1944735_freeAs a journalist, there’s nothing more annoying than finding spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in your own work.

I confess that I always read my own stories first in the Australian Financial Review – the newspaper I write for – and feel gutted if there is a glaring error – spelling, punctation or grammar. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen too often.

Writers hold their own written work in high esteem, as they should, as it represents their personal brand.

Errors make you look stupid and can be downright embarrassing – or very funny if it’s not your own work.

A while back, a bestseller called “Eats, shoots and leaves” by British radio journalist Lynne Truss attempted to, very humouresly, highlight common punctuation mistakes and how they often change the meaning of a sentence. Her aim was to lift writing standards which have arguably gotten worse since publication of the book given the popularity of Twitter, Facebook and text messaging.(Embarrassingly, Truss made mistakes of her own, in her book).

You may scoff as you type out a garbled text message on your phone or dash off an unreadable tweet, but new research has found that there is a high correlation between how accurately you write and how well you do your job – and very importantly – the level of pay you earn.

Regardless of whether you are a salesman, lawyer, engineer or accountant – those who make fewer mistakes in their emails, reports and presentations are better regarded by those that employ them, and, they earn more money.

This came out of a study of  448 profiles on freelance jobs website Elance by Grammarly, a start-up proofreading web application that finds and explains in-depth grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes online.

Grammarly found that an engineer who made 10 or fewer errors per 100 words written in their online profile earned on average $521 per project while an engineer who made 30 or more errors earned less than half that.

Similarly, lawyers who made less than 10 errors per 100 words earned $372 per job, while those that made three times as many errors earned only $198.

Overall, it found that freelancers who made the fewest mistakes received the highest reviews from their employers – those who made the most mistakes were rated much lower.

In short, accurate writing increases credibility, hireability and pay.

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Grammarley survey: writing well pays better

Journalists and others that write for a living will be pleased to know that – according to the study – writers make the fewest mistakes, followed closely by those in admin and  legal roles.

While it was perhaps not surprising to find that IT professionals make more mistakes on average than any other professional – almost one in every five words – it was alarming to learn that those in leadership positions (in finance and management roles) are almost as bad.

Perhaps it explains why big companies all hire expensive public relations executives – to find and correct all those top management mistakes, before they become public relations disasters.

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Freshlyworded.com is also giving away one free premium access account to Grammarly. Just send your name and email to freshlyworded@gmail.com – The first email received will win the premium pass.

Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“The story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO – “My Eyes Glaze Over”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

– Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

– Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.

What reading ‘All the President’s Men’ can teach journalists

all the presidents men“All the President’s Men” – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s account of how they uncovered and reported the Watergate Scandal in 1972 and 1973 in the Washington Post and brought down President Nixon and his goons – should be compulsory reading for any journalist wanting tips on how to break a big story. It’s practically a ‘how to’ manual on investigative journalism.

I don’t know if they still make journalists like Bernstein and Woodward, but even in the digital age, where research and information is just a search term away, the techniques, tricks and cunning they employed still apply. Truly great stories don’t come from Google.

I should be upfront and say, that I did not find ‘All the President’s Men’ an easy book to read.

Firstly there are the sheer number of characters and the very convoluted plot. In the inside introductory pages of my paperback edition there is a list of 51 people – presidential staff, advisers, aids, campaign directors, lawyers, editors and prosecutors – who were the main players in the scandal. I found I had to constantly turn back to the beginning of the book to remind myself of who each person was as the plot diverged into a myriad different strands.

This may sound harsh, given Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting (and others on the paper) helped the Washington Post win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973, but it’s also not incredibly well written. Perhaps writing a 300 page book gave crack newspaper reporters – accustomed to writing 500 – 1000 word articles – too much leeway to tell their story. There’s too much information crammed into paragraphs and too many minor incidents that get in the way of the overall plot – a good, tight edit would have done marvels to the finished work.

That being said, it does provide some incredible insights into how these two brave, foolhardy, and belligerent reporters dug down the deepest of rabbit holes to uncover the truth.

Married journos need not apply

The first thing that’s apparent is the long and strange hours Bernstein and Woodward put in to crack the story. Neither of them were married at the time or in relationships, nor did they have children. This made it easier for them to work late into the night in the offices of the Washington Post, or drive out to the outlying suburbs of Washington or jet off to Miami or Los Angeles to track down and interview people and give up their weekends in pursuit of a story.

Anyone journalist today married or in a relationship would find it impossible to put in the hours they did – they would either end up divorced or entirely burnt out, or both.

Woodward famously would head out well after midnight to meet up with “Deep Throat” (later revealed to be the FBI’ no.2 man Mark Felt) in deserted car basements to verify information or seek help with stories.

Both journalists also had no qualms about ringing up legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee at 2am and asking if they could come over to discuss an idea or situation.

Hit the phones relentlessly. Put in the hard yards.

In the book, Woodward and Bernstein recount countless hours spent calling people on long lists, hoping to come across someone in the White House, Justice Department or some friend of a friend willing to share confidential information with them.

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Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward at the offices of the Washington Post in 1972

By beginning at the top of a list and working their way through it, Woodward Bernstein would eventually find someone willing to speak to them. Sometimes they’d spend the whole day just telephoning people in the hope of finding a useful contact. In this way, they built up an incredible network of insiders. This is how they worked:

Each kept a separate master list of telephone numbers. The numbers were called at least twice a week. Eventually, the combined totals of names on their lists swelled to several hundred, yet fewer than 50 were duplicated.

Think laterally, be creative

Bernstein and Woodward were very savvy and had to be because the might of President Nixon, his ‘men’ and the CIA were out to prevent the ties between Watergate and the White House cover-up ever being revealed.

Sometimes they crossed the line and veered into the murky borders of the unethical or illegal – for instance, when they contacted members of the grand jury investigating Watergate who weren’t supposed to talk to the press or on one occasion, Bernstein not identifying himself as Washington Post reporter.

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One of Woodward and Bernstein’s scoops on Watergate

(Read the actual newspaper article here.)

On another occasion, they met with chief prosecutor Earl Silbert in his fastidiously tidy office. Bernstein noticed a piece of paper on his desk that had as its letterhead the name of the company where bugging equipment for Watergate had been purchased. He used this information to write a story and was severely admonished by Silbert who called his methods “sneaky, outrageous and dishonest”. Bernstein apologised, but saw it differently:

Bernstein had learnt years before that the ability to read upside down could be a useful reportorial skill…

The point is that no opportunity was passed up. Every lead, idea or suggestion was followed up.

Get people to talk

Bernstein were masters at getting people to talk. One way, was to get themselves inside the house of a person they knew had good information, but was reluctant or too scared to speak and then find ways of staying and chatting. In one rather comical episode, they kept on ordering cup after cup of coffee in an attempt to prolong a conversation with the wife of an important person caught up in the conspiracy.

They write:

The trick was getting inside somebody’s apartment or house. There, a conversation could be pursued, consciences could be appealed to, there the reporters could try to establish themselves as human beings

Be daring out and outrageous

Bernstein and Woodward pulled some outrageous stunts and came close to going to jail.

My  favourite one is towards the end of the book.

Following a day in court where the Watergate defendants are being tried, Bernstein and Woodward along with a couple of other reporters notice three of the defendants and their lawyer trying to hail a cab. Bernstein races down as they file into the cab and

…uninvited got in anyway, piling in on top of them as the door slammed.

But it doesn’t end here:

Bernstein arrived back in the office late Saturday (he had gotten into the cab on a Friday afternoon). He had gone to the airport with Rothblatt and his clients, bought a ticket on a flight one of them was taking, edged his way in by offering to carry a suitcase and engaging in friendly banter, and slipped into the adjoining seat. Bernstein did not have to press the man too hard to turn the conversation to the trial. The story came out in a restful flow of conversation as the jet engines surged peacefully in the background.

Talk about outrageous, but this was the way Bernstein and Woodward operated.

Not all their ideas paid of – and a couple almost sunk them.

They misread what they thought were confirmations from sources on at least two occasions (one involved a source agreeing to hang up after 10 seconds if the story read out to them was entirely true. The source hung up but misunderstood the instructions) with spectacular results. But most of the time they got the story.

Every word matters

Every word mattered to Bernstein and Woodward and to their editors. The lead (opening paragraph) had to be perfect and they would fight over words and phrases and re-write and re-write as deadlines approached. This, of course, would be a problem in today’s 24 hour news cycle, where posting stories quickly as well as accurately is the challenge.

However, the digital age has not dampened the importance of writing well and being able to tell an engrossing story in a few hundred perfectly chosen words, as Bernstein and Woodward did back then. The importance of ‘words’ is revealed in this revelation:

The two fought openly. Sometimes they battled for fifteen minutes over a single word or sentence. Nuances were critically important, the emphasis had to be just right…sooner or later however, (usually later) the story was hammered out.

And let’s not forget the end result of their endeavours, the resignation of President Richard Nixon