Category Archives: Writing

Point of View – telling the story from somebody’s perspective

Point of View.  It is a critical tool in the writer’s arsenal.

Point of view can best be described as: through whose eyes the reader sees the story unfolding.

There’s three sides to ever story, baby.

There’s yours and there’s mine and there’s the cold hard truth.

– Don Henley, from “Long Way Home”.

Point of view is what makes the reader empathize, maybe even sympathize, sometimes with the “bad” guy, making us feel like there is some good in him after all, that perhaps he is just misunderstood.  Point of view is what makes the difference between a respected community leader and a power-hungry control freak.

As the words of the Don Henley song point out, the same event can be see differently through two people’s eyes. I am sure you have seen this in your life, pretty much any time you get into an argument with someone. In most instances, you are not good, nor are you evil – nor is your adversary. But who is right depends on a pretty subjective point of view.

Consider this short narrative, a eulogy…

A Eulogy

It seems like just yesterday that she came into this world. She was so full of wonder, as everyone is at first. Full of energy. Full of excitement. Full of innocence.  Buzzing around heedless of the world’s dangers.

She seemed so young. Indeed, she was. But her type tends to grow up fast. They have to. She had to. It’s who she was. It’s what she was.

She learned very quickly what it’s like to be hungry. Her type doesn’t have food just handed to her on a silver platter, you know. She had to go out and get it. And that can be a risky business.

The crazy thing is that there is so much food available. A surplus a hundredfold or more. But those who have it don’t want to share it with those who need it. They never do. They never have. Sadly, they never will.

So she took risks. She knew she had to. She knew that one day she would not return. She knew each day that there was a good chance – “good” being somewhat of an oxymoron in this case – that today would be that fateful day.

But eat we must, and so we much each take the risks necessary.

We all know how it ended. That’s why we are here. We are comforted to know that she went quickly. Painlessly. That she never even saw it coming. But she is gone – slaughtered in broad daylight for no more of a crime than being hungry. By someone who had an endless supply of food, but was simply unwilling to share, but willing to kill.

Smacked by a human!

Nobody ever tells the story from a mosquito’s point of view.

Victim chalk outline

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How to write the plot of a story

So many people want to write a book, but have difficulty in structuring their story.  The Infographic below is more than just how to write a story plot – it reads like the plot summary of a typical fiction story, or even an epic non-fiction story.

I am sure you can easily read adventure, fantasy and sci fi into the plot outline presented, but for the most part even a romance or detective novel follows this formula. Or the screenplay for a romantic film or even many comedies or other movies.

A story need not use all these elements, or place them in this exact order.  But most fiction (and some non-fiction) books on the New York Times Best Sellers list include most of these elements in roughly this order. A complex story will have many of these elements repeat, sometimes several times.  In fact, a complex story might have several plots moving along simultaneously.

I was just reading Son of a Witch: Volume Two in the Wicked Years by Gregory MaGuire (highly recommended, but best to read Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West first), and the first half of the book runs through two threads, one past and one present, and the present thread divides in two to follow Liir along one and the two traveling maunts along the other.

One of my favorite books of all time, The Eight by Katherine Neville, follows two stories, one in present time (during the oil crisis of a few decades ago, and one historical, during the French Revolution.

Both these books use pretty much all of the elements presented in the plot outline below multiple times, and at times simultaneously along the different threads. Great reads, both, for students of how to write a book with multiple plot lines.

A generic story plot summary


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Must the Plot of a Story Be so Dramatic?

This is just a generic plot summary.  Mark Twain once said, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” Nevertheless, in real world story plots (our own lives), we never find such superlatives. There is good and kindness in everyone, and there is mischief and ill-will in everyone, too. And even in the most fantastic of stories, we like to see a little balance shine through.

  • We like to see our Valiant Hero vulnerable, perhaps a bit socially awkward or over self-confident, or caught off guard. We like to see him doubt his ability to prevail, or fall hopelessly in love.
  • We like to see the Forces of Evil are not all evil, that somewhere inside remains a seed of compassion and tenderness…seconds before our Valiant Hero annihilates him.

It is true that not every story has all of these component, nor are they always so clear-cut. Sometimes there are more than one Valiant Hero, and they are sometimes working at cross-purposes. Sometimes there is an ambiguous character, who is neither good nor evil – or is somewhat of both.

And the evil might not always be “evil”, but it might simply be an incredible obstacle or a natural disaster.  Or a bumbling fool who always gets in the way or tips the apple cart.

And the Quest is not always obvious from the outset.  In fact, sometimes we near the end of a story before realizing what the Quest really is about.

Writing a book or a screenplay is not always that simple, and even if you hire a ghostwriter it helps if you already have the structure of your tale pretty much organized.  There is plenty of room to play with the plot of a story, plenty of room for creativity in putting your own plot outline together. But if you start with this model, you have a great structure on which to build your story.

Hire a ghostwriter for your book

A Generic Story Plot

Transcription of the image above.

The End of the World!

The world is heading for cataclysmic disaster. Perhaps the planet will explode. Perhaps somebody’s true love will leave. In the context of your story, this is surely the End of the World.

The Noble Quest

Hold on! The End of the World will have to wait. Our Valiant Hero is off on the Noble Quest to save the day (and the world)!

The Roadmap to Victory

The Noble Quest to stave off the End of the World entails certain steps that must be taken, a checklist of challenges. This is the Roadmap to Victory.

Insurmountable Hurdles

Alas! The Forces of Evil conspire to ensnare our Valiant Hero and thwart the Noble Quest.

Supreme Personal Sacrifice

Only by acts of Supreme Personal Sacrifice can our Valiant Hero overcome the Insurmountable Hurdles and proceed along the Roadmap to Victory.

Impending Doom

Confounded! The Insurmountable Hurdles have nevertheless delayed our Valiant Hero. Impending Doom is imminent. Surely these forebodings mean that the Noble Quest fails.

The Stars Aligned

Somehow all the stars in the heavens incredibly align against all odds at half a second to midnight, so that Our Valiant Hero can save the day and delay the End of the World…at least until the sequel.

Unforeseen Rewards

So busy was our Valiant Hero battling the Forces of Evil, that he did not realize how he has blossomed as a result of the Noble Quest.

A New Kind of Normal

With the End of the World now in the past, people return to their business and things return to normal. But “normal” has changed; nobody touched by the Noble Quest remains unchanged by it.

* Special thanks to Forest Parks for helping me assemble the Infographic when I got stuck.

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Write to the point (never mind the word count!)

I have a beef with a lot of blog owners and other content websites, and you might want to blame Google.  You see, a lot of blog owners welcome guest posts – as long as they are 500 words or more.  And a lot of article directories welcome your words of wisdom – as long as it comes in doses of 500 or more.  And a lot of other websites welcome your content – as long as it is at least 500 words long.

What is so magical about 500 words?  Well, there is a common perception that if an article is 500 words or more, Google will like it more than if it is under 500 words and Google will rain darts and stink-bombs and itching powder upon your website.

The basis of this perception is that shorter articles are not as good quality as longer ones.  The number 500 is a very arbitrary choice, with no basis in fact (actually some websites insist on at least 300 or 400 words, and others on at least 600 or 700 words – in any case, an arbitrary number).

However, there is some reason to suspect that if your website has articles that are mostly 100 words long it might not be judged as having as good quality content as the site with articles that are mostly 700 words long.

Garbage, no matter how long

As a writer, you should write to the point – you should get right to the point.  Say what you want to say, and when you are finished, say no more. Sadly, a lot of people keep writing long after they have nothing more to say. I have read a lot of garbage on the Internet of 1000 words and of 700 words and especially of 500-520 words.

Why especially of 500-520 words?  Because a lot of people write 100 or 200 or 300 words of information, but take just over 500 words to say it. They are trying to please Google.  Or to conform to websites that are trying to please Google.

Quite aside from how ridiculous this charade is – like an endless Monty Python skit caught in a repeating loop – this makes for some pathetic writing.

Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” In order to please Google, many people will use two, three or four words where just one will do, and their writing quality suffers big time for it.

When you write to the point, you stop when you have said your piece.  That might be at 100 words.  Or it might be at 200.  In the case of this article, it is at 451.

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Long Headlines for Wordy Wednesday

All over the Internet, blogs celebrate Wordless Wednesday by posting images instead of writing.  As a writers blog, we must protest.  And what better way to protest than to post an image of what just might be the longest headline in a mainstream newspaper?



The version above was shared by Amy Vernon, and is pretty long and humorous.  But after it was captured and shared it on social media, the headline was altered, adding a word and replacing three words with longer ones, making the following headline even longer…



Can long headlines work?  I would say this is an example of when they can. A long, startling headline with plenty of words.

These pictures might not be worth a thousand words, but for Wordless Wednesday they’ll do.


RECOMMENDED: Wordy Wednesday – Hagrid moonlights

 RECOMMENDED: Lyrics – The Ent and the Entwife (with video)

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Wreck-It Ralph and Character Jobs, Part I

Although I haven’t watched “Wreck-It Ralph,” I have read the (highly recommended) screenplay, and it sparked some musings about characters and their jobs.

“I gotta say, it becomes kinda hard to love your job… when no one else seems to like you for doing it.”

–Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph, as an anti-hero and video-game villain in his day job, is in fine company. In his book What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z, Lance Johnson provides surveys that list some of the service industries and related jobs Americans rank as lowest and complain about the most:

  • Oil companies
  • Real estate agents
  • HMOs
  • Tobacco companies
  • Auto dealers
  • Cell phone companies (contracts)
  • Collection agencies
  • Banks
  • Auto repair
  • Mortgage brokers

If your characters hold a profession everybody hates, that makes your job as a writer more challenging, but in the case of Wreck-It Ralph, it can also be a rewarding journey.  Everyone (including, ahem, writers) can relate to days in which no one appreciates what you do. Yes, Wreck-It Ralph is about Generation X, the video game and most maligned recent generation, but it is also about our jobs and our livelihoods.

Does the job define the character? 

Does the job define the person? In our society, yes, it does.

Does the job define the character?  In the case of cop dramas, legal dramas, political dramas, hard-boiled police procedurals, stories about sex workers, stories set in the entertainment industry, stories about teachers, even family dramas in which Mom and Dad are the (toughest of all) job titles (what parent hasn’t felt unappreciated at some point?), the answer is yes.

Whether it’s Detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” who lives for the job, Sherlock Holmes, Captain Kirk (when the movies prompted him to admiral and took him away from the Enterprise, that sparked major character conflict and a four-movie arc), there are many examples in which the job defines the character. But it’s also the character’s relationship to the job that creates drama and conflict.

FREE help to describe your characters!

In Wreck-It-Ralphs’s case, he just wants to be a part of society and be valued. His external goal is to get a medal, but in the course of “going turbo” and leaving his game, he develops other relationships.

This works for true stories, too: If your client has a job that the public has preconceptions, especially negative, about, such as the mortgage industry (Confessions of a Subprime Lender), IRS agents, Hollywood agents (sorry), salespeople, or politicians (if you land such a gig), your job is to make the case as to why the reader should care:  Is it a tell-all?  A personal struggle with illness?  A friendship or love story that changes lives? A how-to book on consumer advice?  A cause that’s bigger than the job?

Yes, it is hard to separate people from their jobs, because one of the first questions we ask is, “What do you do?” Why would your characters, including in nonfiction, be any different?  Also, other than their stated job title, characters have different jobs to do in your story.  Hero, comic relief, best friend, messenger, shapeshifter, mentor, sidekick…

Don’t knock the villains (even though we all love to). In my follow-up post, I’ll give some love to the antagonist/villain’s job and why, in Ralph’s words, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

Back to the job!

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Contest to help you write your book for children

It is contest time again, and this one will interest anyone who has ever wanted to write a children’s book. So if you know anybody who fits that description, please let them know.

Today (well, in two weeks, actually) we are giving away to one lucky winner a free copy of Write a Marketable Children’s Book in 7 Weeks by award-winning authors, Shirley Raye Redmond and Jennifer McKerley. They have authored more than 30 children’s books and are published by Random House, Simon and Schuster, Gale-Cengage and other houses.  You can take a peak at their Write Children’s Book website here.

You will note that the authors of our giveaway prize are well-placed to provide guidance on both fiction and non-fiction books, which they do.

In fact, here is what one book reviewer (Kathi Linz) has had to say: “If you want clear, concise, easy-to-understand directions, then pick up Write a Marketable Children’s Book in Seven Weeks by Shirley Raye Redmond and Jennifer McKerley.”

Here is what another reviewer (Rachel Burns, writer of young adult books) has had to say on Amazon: ”Jennifer McKerley is a true professional who knows the ins and outs of children’s book writing. From researching story ideas to revision methods and everything in between, Jennifer can help you get your book on the right track.”

How to enter

There are three ways for you to enter this Rafflecopter Giveaway contest (the more times you enter, the better your chance of winning!):

  • Tweet about this contest, so that more people will know about it.  You can do this once each day during the contest (which gives you more chances to win!)
  • Follow me on Twitter
  • Share our free Character Description Cheat Sheet for Children’s Books  using any of the buttons on the right of that page (you can do this one more than once, too – share on each of your social networks).Just remember to use the Rafflecopter widget below to tweet, follow and record your sharing.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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What makes a good book?

One of the questions we get frequently goes something like this: “Do you think I have a good enough story?  Do you think it’s a best seller?”

My answer always, goes something like this, “Most stories are fascinating.  Almost anybody who thinks they have an interesting story does; it just takes a good writer to bring it out, to make it come to life.”

Of course, there are a few people who come to us whose stories really are not interesting at all, but that is pretty rare.  But this does give us a moment to consider what makes a successful book, so I would like to share my thoughts on this with you.

It’s the idea – the story

Above all, it is the idea.  It is the story.  And it is how that idea or story is developed. It needs to be interesting.  But what makes an interesting idea, an interesting story? Here are a few elements:

Strong emotions.  A compelling story makes us feel the terror of the main character(s).  Or the deep hunger for power or to be loved or to escape or…or…for something!  Or the deep love or lust of two people.

Incredible challenges. Strong emotions need equally strong challenges.  The fears need to be set off against the imminent realization of what is feared.  The hunger against seemingly insurmountable barriers.  The romance against circumstances that keep the lovers apart.

Suspense.  If the reader knows in advance how things will turn out, it is hard to keep her interest.  Suspense means keeping the reader guessing.  It means twists in the story line.  It means holding information back.  It means surprises.  It means, sometimes, the hero has to lose a battle.

If all this sounds like rules for fiction, they are.  And for biography.  And for history.  And the more of these rules that you can apply to a business book or a self-help book or a scientific report or a spiritual book, the better.

It’s the writing

 Of course, the quality of the writing is important, too.  Many an amazing idea has crashed upon the rocks of mediocre writing.  The basics need to be accounted for:

  • Proper word usage
  • Proper punctuation
  • Proper spelling
  • Proper capitalization

But “proper” is just the base.  Word usage is more than just about using the proper words.  It is also about how to use the most effective words.  The amateur tries to color his manuscript by adding lots of extra adjectives and even some extra adverbs.  The professional writer tries to remove adjectives and adverbs as often as possible and replace them with strong, descriptive nouns and verbs.

Here are a few more techniques that boost the quality of writing:

  • Vary the length of sentences, sometimes just for variety (to keep the reader from getting bored of the tempo) and sometimes to set the pace of the story.
  • Vary the length of paragraphs.
  • Except when a longer word adds more meaning, use the simplest word available (“use” instead of “utilize”)
  • Use synonyms deftly. Avoid too much repletion of a single word, except when used specifically to build cadence.
  • Dialogue is good.  The more, the better – to a point.
  • Internal dialogue is good, especially if it gives insight into a character’s motivations or emotions.

This list could grow to a hundred points, but these are some of the basics.  And these are techniques, not “rules”.  Different writers will use different techniques to different degrees, but these are some that are fairly universal among good writers and ghostwriters. Feel free to add to it in the comments.

It’s the pitch

A good idea, well-developed and well written, is still just a manuscript sitting in a drawer.  You need a good pitch.  I don’t mean a business case that you will see recommended in so many places.

“Last year there were 1200 books of this genre published and only 17 that were directly targeting this demographic.  There were twelve best-sellers in the genre, including three directly targeting this demographic, therefore…”

That’s a business case, not a pitch.  I am not saying to ignore the business case, mostly because don’t want to invite nasty comments for such a trivial issue, and because for non-fiction a business case can actually be very helpful even before defining your target audience (you might slightly alter whom you write the book for).

I am saying you need a solid pitch. Think about what might be written on the back of the book.  That is the basis of the pitch- what the book is about and why someone should buy it.

If you want to sell your idea to a publishing house, you’ll need the pitch to sell to them and, more importantly to sell them on being able to sell your book to the public. If you plan to self-publish, the pitch is what you’ll tell the public directly.  Either way, you’ll need the pitch in social media and when approaching book reviewers.

One note about the pitch and your genre.  If your book is fiction, you are trying to pull at people’s emotions and sense of suspense.  For some non-fiction genres, such as history and biography, you are doing the same.

But for more practical genres, such as business, how-to and self-help, you are trying to pitch the usefulness of your book.  And rather than focusing on readers and book lovers, you need to find people in the niche.  For example, a book on woodworking needs to be pitched not through book reviewers, but through woodworking bloggers.

Will my book be successful?

I don’t know.  Your idea is probably good, since few people think of writing a book without a feasible idea.  Few people with no ghost of a chance get told by their friends, “You oughta write a book.”  So, it is possible that your idea will fail of its own lack of merit, but not likely.  It might need some further development

If you come to us, you know you will get top-notch writing and help developing the idea.  You might already have it incredibly well-written on your own.  Either way, your manuscript has all the ingredients for success.

As for the pitch, that is a tougher one to define, and often the biggest factor in the success of a pitch is your own perseverance.  We can provide a synopsis and query letter (at no extra charge to our book writing clients, upon request), but you have to be able to ignore rejection after rejection to eventually find the publisher ready to take a chance on a new author on the strength of your manuscript alone.  Sometime the first publisher will recognize your genius.  Sometimes the 100th.  And sometimes, your route to success is to self-publish.


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What is a ghostwriter?

This question pretty much tops the questions people have about ghostwriting, so let me give a very complete explanation, which I will break down into three parts.

  • Definition of ghostwriter/ghostwriting.
  • What a ghostwriter does – and doesn’t do.
  • Who needs a ghostwriter – and who does not (in what situations is a ghostwriter your best option?)

 Definition of ghostwriter

What is a ghostwriter?  Simply put, it is a writer who is not seen.  A writer who is not credited or acknowledged.  A writer who is invisible – like a ghost.  You read a book or an article and you never know who the real writer was, because it was ghostwritten.

You would be surprised at how much is ghostwritten.

Almost any autobiography of famous people is written by a ghostwriter. Think about it; it makes sense.  Somebody might be a great statesman, or a great scientist or a successful businessman.  But that does not mean he is a good writer and more than a good plumber or a good teacher.  For teaching, he sends his kids to school and lets a professional handle the job.  For plumbing, he calls a plumber to fix his leaky pipes – a professional who knows what he is doing.  For writing, he calls a professional ghostwriter.

Most speeches you hear have been ghostwritten.  Busy political and industrial leaders have neither the time nor skill to write their own speeches, so they hire speech writers.  For important addresses, very often they will edit and send back for several drafts; but most of the writing is done by a ghost.

What does a ghostwriter do?

A ghostwriter does the writing.  The ideas come from the “author” or the speaker – the client.  Done properly, the writer picks the words that best express how the client would write or speak if he had the time and ability to pick his own words.  This is not always easy and sometimes not completely possible.  But it is the ideal goal.

The ghostwriter does not make things up.  OK, sometimes a ghostwriter and/or PR department and/or political handlers do make a lot up.  When I worked for a politician, there was a fair amount of material that I wrote on my own initiative, guessing what my boss would have said.  But in such cases, the ghostwriter has a “regular” client and can make such guesses based on previous experience.

  • The ghostwriter might do research.
  • The ghostwriter does keep in the shadows.
  • The ghostwriter does not reveal her identity.
  • The ghostwriter does not take credit.
  • The ghostwriter does not (usually) get royalties.

When do you need a ghostwriter?

There are three factors that you need to factor in when deciding whether to hire a ghostwriter or to choose some other alternative (which you can probably guess without even looking at the list):

  • Skill
  • Time
  • Money

Skill is the biggest show-stopper.  If you can’t write well, you need to outsource, the same as you probably need to do with plumbing and teaching and growing wheat for your bread.

Skill is not a black and white factor.  It is pretty complex.  There are many people who simply can’t write.  I could show you reams of partially legible emails I receive. And there are many people who write quite well. And there are many people who write passably – they can communicate their ideas, but they do not inspire or pull the reader along.

But one’s skill at writing depends also on what one is writing.  I write good quality blog posts.  I write great how-to and self-help material, and I can write excellent humor.  But if I wanted to write a novel, I would outsource the project.  Yes, a writer hiring a ghostwriter.  I simply do not have the skills required to write convincing fiction.

And then there is speaking.  You might be surprised how many people have difficulty with highly personal speeches, such as for accepting an award of some sort or  best man or other wedding speeches.  They often call on a speech writer.

Time is also a big deal.  Many of our clients are hard-pressed business leaders who simply do not have the time to put all other things out of their heads and focus on writing their business book or autobiography.  Some have the skill, many do not, but none have the time.

Time is money, so if you don’t have the time to spend, it might even be less costly to spend the money.  Better to spend $12,000 in ghostwriting fees than $100,000 in lost time.

Speaking of money, ghostwriting does cost money.  Here is a list of some “typical” pricing.  In real life, plenty of high end ghostwriters charge more, and plenty of low end writers charge less.  But you have to be careful, because you will discover that at the bottom end the quality really suffers.  We try to keep our prices below average, at least to the extent that it does not sacrifice quality.

If you can’t afford the cost of writing your book, your screenplay, your letter or your speech, you might have to spend more time and write it yourself.  You might have enough money to hire a writer to edit your writing, which costs much, much less.

But a word of caution: if your writing skills are not fairly strong, your manuscript might not be good enough to edit.  You won’t save much money if the writer has to rewrite your material from scratch.  So, as I said above, skill is the show-stopper.

If you don’t have the money, you might be able to inspire some wealthy relations.  Maybe they will hire a ghostwriter for you.


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K.I.S.S your writing or kiss your readers goodbye

Have you ever felt the need to use big, long words to sound more authoritative or to fill up space?  In most situations, all you are doing is sounding more difficult to read.  Your writing should be as simple and easy-flowing as possible.

This is a problem our manuscript editors often encounter:  sesquipedalian words where a simple word would do.

Let’s look at three very common words that are overused and should be replaced with simpler ones.

UTILIZE.  Wow, just three syllables to replace one. Honestly, have you ever heard anyone utilize this word in normal conversation, like at in the stands at the ball game or over a mid-week lunch?

“Hey, dude.  Wait up.  I just need to go utilize the washroom.”

“He just wanted me for my money.  I feel so utilized.”

“It’s easy to choose a password, but all the best utilizer names are already taken.”

Yes, there is a much simpler word to use: use.  And “use” is a fine word, even if it doesn’t sound pretentious.

Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious!
If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious “


PURCHASE.  More pretentiousness, perhaps?  I go out to buy things, not to purchase them.  How about you?  Why do we need an extra syllable?  Because a lot of advertisers think you will spend more money if they sound more educated an fancy?  Or because they want to avoid you feeling like you are being pressured into buying things.  So instead they pressure you into purchasing things.

Phew – that’s a relief.

ACQUIRE. This is the word that inspired this article, after I read the following message that somebody posted on the Warrior Forum :

In one of my titles, I had a confusion of whether to use “get customers” or “acquire customers”.

The former is simple but the later looks more sophisticated.

Google Search Says:

“acquire customers” 283,000 results
“get customers” 1,500,000 results!

So now the choice is obvious. I don’t want to look sophisticated. I just want to CONNECT with the readers with the right titles.

“Acquire” is another laughable word that people just don’t use in normal conversation.  Can you imagine…

“Please, Daddy, can I acquire another candy.”

“The phone is ringing.  Can somebody please acquire the phone?”

“I need to acquire some new light bulbs.  This one is burnt and I’ve run out of replacements.”

Whether you are writing a book or a blog post, you want to connect with your readers.  And unless you are writing a sales page for an expand-your-vocabulary course, it is almost always the simpler word.  Or put more bluntly, the world with the least syllables.   The smaller word, not the littler word.


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Anonymous Sources – is it ethical to use them?

Bloggers increasingly like to refer to themselves as “citizen journalists.” However, in spite of the title, some writers might not actually use journalistic standards when they prepare information for others in their blogs and even in books they might write.

As a professionally trained journalist, I’ve learned that if you want to establish yourself as a writer with credibility, whether you are writing for a newspaper, a magazine, a book, or a blog, it helps to observe journalistic standards. And, if you want people to take your writing seriously as a piece of credible information, it helps to be careful when you use unnamed sources.

The Anonymity of the Web

Thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to say just about anything – true or not. While there is good information out there, it’s also possible to run into information that is less than credible. One of the things that makes it hard to determine whether or not you can trust something is the anonymous, and semi-anonymous, nature of the Web.

It’s possible to say almost anything about anyone, and not get “caught.” However, even though the Internet seems to thrive on anonymous name-calling, if you want credibility, you need to watch out for using unnamed sources, especially if that source is name-calling.

One example is a recent post written on The Verge about the new Digg. While there were plenty of sources cited, there was one, unnamed, “source in the aggregation industry” that was quoted. I understand why a source close to aggregators and marketers might want to keep a low profile on this one. And the first part of the quote, “The fact that these folks are pissed off is a good sign,” I don’t have a problem with, per se, even though I think that there are probably other insiders and experts who would probably have shared similar information on the record.

My issue comes in when the source started calling out names, singling out two marketers, and referring to them as “shady online marketing scum who tried their best to ruin the organic Internet.” When you start making those sorts of name-calling accusations, my opinion is that you should have the guts to come clean about your identity. One of the issues with the Internet today is that it is so easy to hide behind anonymity when you want to say something rude about someone else.

When to Use Anonymous Sources

 Of course, there are times when it makes sense to use unnamed sources. The most compelling reason is when the source could lose his or her job, or be ostracized by the community to which he or she belongs. When personal safety is involved, such as getting information from a criminal informant, it also makes sense to grant anonymity to the source. But that anonymity comes with greater responsibility. If you are going to use an unnamed source in the article, it should be accompanied by the following:

  • Thorough research and evidence
  • On the record sources who back up the statement, or information
  • Independent verification of the source’s identity
  • Verification that the source can actually speak to the issue at hand

Most of the time, though, there isn’t much need for unnamed sources. For most stories, you can find people willing to share their names along with their opinions and information.

So, do I trust an anonymous source engaging in name-calling, or do I trust someone that went on the record in that self-same article? Anonymous sources call creditability into question. A named source is always more credible than a non-named source. As a result, if you want to be a more credible writer, it makes sense to avoid using anonymous sources, unless you have verified the information as best you can, and you can demonstrate a compelling reason to keep those sources’ names out of it.

Miranda Marquit is a journalistically trained freelance writer and professional blogger. Her blog is Planting Money Seeds.

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Write when you are inspired.

Much space has been given in the blogosphere to the topic of writer’s block. So many bloggers with so many blogs and they just can’t think of anything to write (or so it would appear).

And they see this as a problem.

So do I, but in a different way.

The bloggers see this as a problem, because they want to write something but can’t think of anything to say. The problem with this, as I see it, is that so many people who have nothing to say, want to speak.

This is generally a great way to create trash.

Speak just to hear your own voice.

Write just to see your own typing.

Hold meetings just to say you have met.

Watch TV just to do something with your time.

Drink because you are bored.

All the most wasteful uses of our time and energy are the things we do without having a good reason to do them. When you write just for the sake of writing, I can almost guarantee that your writing will not be worth reading.

Let me ask you about two blogs.

Blog A publishes occasionally. Every week, every month, irregularly – whatever. Every post is meaty and meaningful. Every post inspires or provides useful information or gives something of real value.

Blog B publishes regularly – every week or even every day. Regularly. The writer follows all the advice of how to overcome writer’s block, and writes lots of articles even though he has nothing of import or useful – or inspired! – to say. Sure, occasionally he does, but most of his posts are already written in different ways on other blogs and don’t really add much to anybody’s knowledge or inspiration.

Which blog will you choose to read?

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Writers Blog Commenting Carnival #1

On our SEO blog we began a tradition of presenting blog commenting carnivals, and we’ll be carrying that tradition over here. I comment on a lot of blogs about writing, and often the comments are quite substantial. Why let those comments go to waste, when I can share them with our readers, too?

Over at Common Excuses For Not Starting A Blog, I tackled the five excuses, one by one…

1. Everyone is a writer.

2. There is no such thing as writer’s block. When you have something to say, there is no block. When you have nothing to say, you should not be blogging.

3. You don’t have to be creative; just write what comes to your mind during a normal “day at the office”.

4. OK, it is true – blogging is too time consuming. But if it is worth doing for your business model, then it is no more time consuming than all the other time-consuming things you do.

5. All the good ideas have been taken…yeah but “so what?” All the best music has been written, and they keep writing more. All the best books have been written, but they keep writing more. Just write what you think and you will find elements of originality in your blog posts.

I expanded on point #2 above at How to Blog for your Business – 4 helpful tips!

Generally some good advice, but I disagree on keeping to a schedule. I have never heard of someone removing a blog from their RSS reader for not having received a post in a while. I can see why someone would remove a blog that posts too often and they are inundated with posts in their RSS reader (making it hard to find posts from other blogs), but there is no reason to remove something for not bothering them. I believe a schedule is a very poor way to decide when to blog. A much better way is to blog when you have something to say. A single really good post is worth more than a hundred on time posts.

And on the fun side, I planted my tongue firmly in my cheek and added to Time Management For Freelance Writers

Oh, not just for freelance writers. Anybody who works from home will be tempted to surf, tempted to keep marketing, tempted to just hang loose and avoid timing himself or handling the bookkeeping. My personal temptation is blog commenting…and…uh…oops, I guess I should be getting back to work.

I was not bored when Martha Griffin told us Why Most Blogs Bore Me. So I responded…

Nothing new is being said. That is the one that makes me cringe. When you spend as much time as I do in social media, reading, partially reading or just suffering through the same repetitive headlines over and over (Do I really want to read yet another blogger’s review of the same plugg-in?), you start to wonder where is the imagination, where is the passion, are they people really enjoying blogging, or are they just trying to fill their page and keep to an arbitrary publishing schedule. Which brings us to the second one that makes me cringe, “The blogger didn’t show up. ” and “Lacks passion”, which really are the same thing in my eyes.

Jane writes at BlogEngage about Why Should You Blog About What You Know .  Apparently, I agree…

Yes, yes, yes. About what you know AND about what you are passionate about. You should never have to worry about writers block or not knowing what to write about. You should only be writing when there is something inside you, something just bursting to get out!

Martha Giffen writes that Keyword stuffing is not a blogging tool.

I am afraid that using common sense is highly under appreciated. Best to write your post for the readers and for yourself – just because you have something to say. Then add in your keywords a couple times where it makes sense …if it makes sense. Then choose a title for your post. If possible, include your keywords in your title – but if the title didn’t attractive and doesn’t draw readers and (ultimately) linkers, there is really no point to the keywords in the first place.

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