Wordwork: the art and craft of making a living as a writer.

  Writing is a hard business. Finding the right words, and making sure their meaning and their sound and their rhythm all merge properly on the page, has been a head-banger since people were scratching on cave walls. Those of us who write stories we make up have one special set of problems, and those who try to research and write the world’s literal truth have another. This blog will be my attempt to share what I’ve learned in more than three decades as a reporter and writer about gathering and organizing information, and then writing it down as clearly as possible.

    I’m going to try to do something else as well: discuss how to make a living as a writer. Because as much as writing is a literary act, it’s a mercenary one as well. If we don’t get paid — if we can’t pay the rent and buy groceries and keep the lights on — it doesn’t matter how brilliant we are as observers, investigators, and wordsmiths. It’s the dirty little secret of the literary life: Words are to writers what shoes are to cobblers. We have to produce enough of them and sell them at a high enough price to stay in business. It isn’t easy.

I started writing this blog in 2009 and am re-posting it upon request. The latest is at the top. To read them in order, read from the bottom. If, reading these blog posts, you encounter any that require a password, email me at danbaum@me.com. You can also get new postings in your email in-box by clicking in the Follow box and typing in your email address.

My wife, Margaret, and I both started out as newspaper reporters. Then we were full-time freelance writers, with no other income, from 1987 until taking jobs with an NGO, in 2015. We didn’t live large, but we lived entirely on our writing income, and rarely had to resort to writing stuff we didn’t want to write. We were lucky. But we also were careful never to forget that alongside the responsibility that we have to write the truth and inspire with our words is the equally important requirement to make a buck so we can keep writing. We’ve watched a lot of freelancers fail over the past three decades, and usually it has been not because they failed at the former, but because they lifted the eye from the latter.

If people who claim to love you suggest you minor in accounting  or learn construction skills “so you’ll have a fallback,” remind them that people who have a fallback tend to get the fallback. If you have a parachute in the plane, you’ll use it when the engine catches fire instead of bringing the plane in for a wheels-up landing and saving the lives of everybody else aboard. If you have a lifeboat aboard the Patna, you’ll jump into that instead of toughing out the storm at the helm.*  Need I keep stringing out the metaphors? I think not. You get it: Have no fallback. There’s nothing wrong with learning construction skills or knowing the basics of double-ledger accounting. But if you have your heart set on writing for a living, better to be hungry for a spell and work your ass off at writing than to flop back into something “practical” that you don’t want to do and from which, once you’re accustomed to the regular paycheck, you will find it difficult to extricate yourself. Stay hungry. Let’s begin:

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” — Samuel Johnson.

Now, sit up straight and stop mumbling. Your use of the language is about to improve a lot, whether you like it or not.

correcting you grammar.jpgShirt sent by my good friend Phelim. Margaret says she’s going to hold me to the “silently” part.

 

 

*Obscure literary reference. The Patna is the storm-wracked ship full of Mecca-bound pilgrims into a lifeboat of which the protagonist jumps at the start of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. When he is rescued at sea and steams back into port, there sits the Patna, safe as houses. That Jim is branded a coward doesn’t mean I’m calling you a coward for jumping into the lifeboat. Just that had he had no lifeboat, Jim’s life would have depended on piloting the Patna home safely, as someone obviously was able to do. If you can arrange things so that your life depends on getting paid to write, you’ll vastly increase your chances of getting paid to write, as some people obviously are able to do. 

 

The indignity!

A good friend who follows this blog — that is, he has clicked the FOLLOW box to the right, and therefore receives new posts in his email in-box– makes a helpful suggestion that has me wanting to roll up a newspaper and bop him on the head with it:

“If a person is using an ad blocker in their browser, they won’t see the “Follow” button in WordPress.”*

Can you spot what has me irate? He may receive Wordwork; he may even read it. But as they say at the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) at Fort Leavenworth,** the lesson hasn’t been absorbed until behavior changes. He, who should know better without being hectored by me,  is mixing singular and plural in the same sentence: “if a person…,” “they won’t see…” He either didn’t receive this post, has forgotten it, or is waving a red flag before me for his own amusement. 

Allow me to repeat: The best way to avoid both confusing the reader by mixing the singular with the word “they” and falling back on the awkward he/she or his/her is to make everything in the sentence plural. My friend could have gone unbopped had he simply written “Readers who are using ad blockers in their browsers won’t see the ‘Follow’ button in WordPress.” 

Yes, I will someday address how to write about a person of complicated sexuality who wants to use the personal pronoun “they.” I’m trying to figure out how to do that inoffensively. If you have any ideas on that, please share them. 

 

* If you’re reading this on the web, do you see the FOLLOW box to the right? If not, try turning off your ad blocker for a minute and see if that helps. 

**That’s a link to one of my favorite stories from my time covering the military for The New Yorker (2004-2007).

Be Easy

As Hyman Roth says in The Godfather Part II: This is the business we’ve chosen.

This is a theme to which I’ll return often: Magazine editors are among the most unhappy people in the country. This is especially true now, with the industry imploding. But it’s been true for years. They work under relentless deadline pressure. They never know when the company for which they work is about to spring some awful surprise — closing the magazine, shrinking it, changing the format, replacing the top editor. They live in perpetual terror of losing their jobs. They’re underpaid. The work isn’t as glamorous as they thought it would be. It goes on and on.

It’s long seemed to me that these people are desperate for any brief respite from the hideous stress under which they work. One way that Margaret and I have enjoyed our limited success has been to make a conscious effort to be that respite. Briefly put: We try hard to make ourselves effortless to work with. We work as hard ast that, sometimes, as we do on the quality of reporting and writing.

We strive to make a phone call or email from us a moment of blessed relief in an otherwise dreadful week. Ah, we want the editor to think. Dan and Margaret are on the job. I can relax a little.

Certainly we have to do acceptable work. But read our stories: This is not wiggy-brilliant poetic wordsmithing. We do thorough reporting and then write it clearly. (Our work can be expressed in the equation Good Information + Strunk + White.) The work is fine.

We’ve gotten repeat assignments from high-paying magazines, I believe, only in part because our work is good. Another big part is that we make editors’ lives a little easier.

The actor Joe Pantoliano once said in an interview that he realized early on that he wasn’t the most handsome or talented actor in Hollywood; that he had a high, unpleasant voice; and was generally a dime a dozen as a character actor. So he set out to make himself the nicest man in Hollywood. He showed up on time, ready to work. He accepted direction. He didn’t throw tantrums. He simply made himself pleasant and effortless to have around, so people liked hiring him. Then, his natural and remarkable talents were given a chance to shine through.

For the rest of this week, I’ll share some techniques that Margaret and I have used to make ourselves easy to work with. Some of them will seem, at first blush, to be lifted from the Book of Duh. But we’re constantly amazed at how many writers fail to observe the most basic courtesies, and how many seem to founder as a result. Stay tuned.

 

 

More plural problems

Hey! Washington Post copy desk! Let’s go get a be… 

Hello? Anybody here?

All right. You there, reading this. What’s wrong with this line from Post columnist Michael Gerson’s recent column?

After a brief, brilliant campaign that toppled the Taliban, there were a series of complications across the terms of three presidents.”

Two problems here, actually. The first is simply a poor aesthetic choice, not an actual error. As I explain here, “there is” and its variants (there are, there were, etc.) is a weak and dull construction best and easily avoided.

The error in Gerson’s sentence is, once again, is one of mixing up singular and plural. A series is a singular thing. It may be made up of many components, but it is singular, so Gerson should have written, “…there was a series of complications…” One wouldn’t write, “the family were at the beach,” even though a family consists of multiple people. 

The British muck this up all the time. Years ago, while waiting in a Singapore cinema for the newly released Jaws 2 to begin, I was flummoxed by these words in giant type on the screen: Shaw Organization Present. Could the producers really have made a typo or a grammatical error in the first image to appear on the screen and in eight-zillion-point type? No, my British-educated colleagues told me. The British consider “Organization” a plural word because it’s made up of many people, so “present” is correct.

The difference between their way and ours may not merit taking up arms at Lexington and Concord, but it bespeaks differing world views. The way the British see it, the components of an organization are more important than the whole. Their way smacks of disunity, whereas ours makes of many, one. Or, e pluribus unum.* 

Then again, perhaps the British way of linguistically honoring the individual components of a whole over the whole itself is to be expected of people who’d bolt the European Union. Maybe “Shaw Organization Present” should have warned us that this was coming.

 

*Among a certain set it is clever to say that the American Civil War was fought not over slavery or the Mississippi River, but over a verb. Is it the United States is or the United States are?

 

Local News!

I’ll get back to opening a foreign bureau in a minute. First I want to convey some important local news: I don’t have prostate cancer.

Duh, I hear you say. You have brain cancer. Well, ever since September 18, I’ve thought I might have both. On that day, my general physician, a man endowed with an impressively long and stout index finger, said during my annual physical that he felt a “nodule” on my prostate and that I should see a urologist. I knew I was screwed  when the urologist’s receptionist asked me on the phone, “did your doctor use the word ‘nodule?'” and when I said, “yes” continued, “then we’d better get you in right away.” The urologist, too, had an index finger for the record books, and after raping me with it said I’d better come back for an ultrasound. Remember that screed I wrote you about me on my roof yelling at Cancer? I wrote that then, and have been walking around for almost a month thinking that cancer was eating me up from both ends. Preoccupied? Me?

Today (October 23), I returned for the ultrasound; the urologist had this device all lubed up and ready to go.

ultrasound device

That’s my wholly inadequate index finger, for scale. Getting to the necessary spot with this thing felt like the New York MTA was building a new subway tunnel in my lower abdomen. 

But somehow, by looking at this utterly featureless screen, 

prostate ultrasound

…the doc could tell me definitively that I don’t have prostate cancer and don’t even need a biopsy. 

His office is way out at the edge of town, near Costco. Margaret said I was such a good, uncomplaining patient that she would take me for a treat — one of Costco’s signature quarter-pound hot dogs.

hot dog

End