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Writing Workshop

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Writing Tips

If you want to become a better writer, but you don’t want to have to read a whole darn book about it (or take another class … or do anything else that requires a major time commitment), I’ve got a suggestion: read On Writing Well, a blog post by a student in my MCom 63 class.

Alexis’ blog is called “It’s Story Time,” and it’s a good read. Check it out.

Focus stories

What’s a “focus story” you ask? It’s a story about an issue or trend that starts out by focusing on an individual.

Focus story structure allows you to “humanize” or “put a human face” on a complex issue or trend. It’s an effective way to draw attention to an important issue or trend that might not otherwise engage our interest.

Stories written using the Wall Street Journal formula are often focus stories.

For an example of focus story structure, read the opening paragraphs of this story, “Nail salon workers exposed to toxic chemicals,” which appeared a while back in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Notice that the extended lead — the two opening paragraphs — tells the story of a nail salon worker who’s become ill. Then, in the third and fourth paragraphs, writer Elizabeth Fernandez introduces the larger issue: cosmetic products contain hazardous chemicals that are unregulated. Next, you find out that state Sen. Carole Migden is holding legislative hearings on the hazards posed by these chemicals and what should be done about them.

Consider how less interesting this story would be if the writer had simply written about the legislative hearings. By using focus story structure and focusing on an individual, the writer helps us recognize and understand the issue’s impact and relevance.

For another example of a focus story, check out “Who Will Care for Dana?” in April 3 issue of Parade magazine. It’s about a young woman with autism and the difficulties she and her family will face as she “ages out” of the existing, school-based support system for people with autism. But it’s not just about this one young woman — it asks what will happen to all children in the U.S. who have autism as they get older.

Here’s the nut graf that makes the transition from Dana’s story to that larger story:

In the next 15 years, an estimated 500,000 autistic children like Dana will graduate out of school systems in the U.S. and into the unknown. Meaningful programs for them are scarce, and funding even scarcer. “We’re at the moment of truth to address the numbers of children aging into adulthood,” says autism activist Linda Walder Fiddle. “Their lives are hanging over a cliff, and we must not let them fall.”

Proofread your papers!

In class on Monday, I talked about some of the things that good writers do.

Careful writers, I noted, choose the right words and phrases, including concrete nouns and vigorous verbs. They provide details, including relevant information and focused observations. And they make sentences flow by cutting unnecessary words, using active voice, and varying sentence lengths to create rhythm and pacing.

Another thing good writers do is proofread. They get good at catching errors and fixing them … before submitting their work. That’s what professionals do, and that’s what you need to do.

That’s why I emphasize the Copy Edit the World assignment … and that’s why I’m cracking down on copy editing errors this semester.

Here’s how it’s going to work: If I find three errors (in AP style, spelling or grammar) as I’m grading your paper, I will stop grading it and return it to you for further revision. I will not finish grading your paper until you’ve revised it and resubmitted it. Every time I have to hand a paper back to you because of errors, you will lose a grade — that is, a “B” paper will become a “C” paper. This also applies to assignments submitted as blog posts and assignments that are graded Credit/No Credit.

So please make sure to proofread your assignments carefully before you submit them.

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