True story: I once worked for a company that required me to get a doctor's note in order to use a yoga ball in lieu of a chair. A doctor's note.
Are these a matter of life and death? Assuredly not. But the goal of writing is communication, and if you're making these mistakes, you might as well not be attempting to communicate at all.
It's certainly natural that one of the most-asked questions that I get from people who are curious about writing as a profession is, "What's the biggest mistake that you see non-writers make?" (Emphasis mine.)
Everybody with a child who has tried working at home even once knows this is a problem. There is absolutely no way to focus on real, actual work that you must do and also care for your child during the day, and this applies in triplicate if your child is an infant or toddler. I don't think I'm blowing the covers off any vast secret by typing that.
I just spent $2 on a chocolate muffin that I might or might not eat (but right now, leaning toward not) so that I would have a comfortable space to sit down and work while I wait for my podiatry appointment time to roll around.
I just opened an email and noticed a mistake.
A big one. Huge! Obvious! No way it's not a mistake!
For the past 18 months or so, I've felt like I won the life lottery. I have an excellent job that I love, and I get to do it from the comfort of a home office.
I ask strangers a lot of questions for a living. Not many strangers ask me questions in return — and when they do, it's almost always a variation on, "How do I improve my writing?"
I'm certainly not a perfect writer. But I've been "good" at writing (above average, anyway) for as long as I can remember being "good" at anything. And as I got older and writing became an increasingly important part of my school work, I helped friends and family members who had essays and papers to submit for classes. Now that I've worked in the publishing business for a decade, I've also helped many authors polish up their pieces for the final printing on a glossy page or PDF.
Here are my best secret strategies for writing a better "paper" of any kind, whether it's an article for a magazine, a white paper, an essay or a thesis.
(I have a whole separate set of tips that I typically give for writers who want to write for a living. More on those next time.)
- Pick your topic wisely, if you can. Sometimes you won't have a choice, but if at all possible, choose something you find wildly interesting. It's better to have too much to say about a topic than too little.
- Spend five to ten minutes regurgitating all of your topical knowledge onto a page. Wait, we're going to plan this paper? Yes. Yes, we are. I know, you might think it's a little painful at first. But ask yourself: Is it worse to go through some minor discomfort now, or some major staring-at-the-ceiling, no-idea-where-this-paper-is-heading feeling later? This will not take as long as you fear it will, it will be easy, and it will make the actual writing of the paper so smooth (and fast!) that you won't know what hit you.
Anyway. Sit down at your computer or take a blank sheet of paper and start brainstorming everything you know about the topic. Some of that knowledge will be relevant to your paper and some won't, but just get it onto the page somehow. As you start to write (or type) what you know, the ideas will flow faster and faster, so take enough time to get them all down.
- Decide what you want to include based on how long your paper is. You will likely have too much to say and have to pare down on your inclusions if you want to meet the paper criteria — and if you selected your topic wisely.
- Organize and sub-categorize the items in a way that makes sense. You will typically be able to find some sort of sensible pattern in your information that will help you respond to the paper topic. If not, consider what chronological or other categorical options you might have for organizing your information.
- If you will be including supporting information, note what to include and where. Find the quotes and data that support your arguments and decide where you will use them.
- Start writing. With a clear idea of where to go, you should be feeling pretty confident that you can do this — and hopefully, you've given yourself enough time to think about the topic and consider your approach, and you've included everything you want to say.
- Read aloud as you go. In an exam setting, you might have to settle for a very soft whisper or even imagining the words in your head, but this easy trick will help you identify awkward and incorrect grammatical constructions.
The more often you practice these steps for each piece of writing you do, the smoother the process will be. I found this method particularly helpful when writing timed essays for tests. The few minutes you spend planning upfront will make the actual writing much quicker, more coherent and more comprehensive than it would have been if you'd just started writing frantically, making your way as you go.
As an intern at Westword in 2005, I was given a handful of news stories to follow during my summer tenure, and a couple of them turned into print pieces. The first was about two practically identical buildings in Douglas County that had been appraised to have remarkably different values — which meant one homeowner was paying higher taxes. I outlined the issue in "A Tale of Two Buildings", and then followed up on the situation a couple of weeks later that month with "A Pain in the Assets."
The second story involved a "naturopathic practitioner" who likely seemed well-certified to his patients but had actually been educated online through a short course. After a few of his patients wound up in the hospital, he was indicted on several charges. I wrote a piece for the paper, "Do No Harm," and then followed up for his sentencing.
It was a few years before I wrote another news story — and this story fell into my lap in an unusual way. It was a profile of a woman who teaches trauma-relief techniques to police officers, framing mindfulness practices through a scientific lens to help them better understand the material. She's also a drummer, and my first music feature for Westword involved one of her musical projects.
More recently, I've been writing about health care and benefits news; I'm a contributing writer for Benefits Selling magazine and have also ghost-written articles for placement in assorted publications.
And I'm currently writing, among other things, cannabis news for Westword. Here are some of my favorite stories about that particular topic:
- 9.17.14: "Marijuana: Heartbreaking Testimony About Caregiver Cap at Board of Health Hearing"
- 9.15.14: "Marijuana Working Group Asks: Should All Pot Edibles Be Colored Orange?"
- 9.10.14: "Top Five Lessons From Day One of Marijuana for Medical Professionals Conference"
- 9.8.14: "Driving Stoned: Are Field Sobriety Tests and Drug Recognition Experts the Next Big Step?"
- 9.3.14: "Marijuana Enforcement Division Hearing: Pot Edibles Debate, Indoor v. Outdoor Plant Counts"
- 8.15.14: "CDPHE Discusses Pilot Pot Surveillance Programs, Febreze During Marijuana Workshop"
- 8.8.14: "Pot-Related Immigration Hell the Subject of New Movie, Kickstarter Campaign"
- 6.30.14: "Four Most Important Factors in a Marijuana Business Investment"
My first job after I graduated from college was working as the assistant arts-and-culture editor at Westword. In the many years since I began that gig in October of 2005, I've written about literally hundreds of events, so many that it's impossible to pick my favorites. (I'm still writing event previews for Westword.)
Apart from events coverage, I've also written a variety of pieces about the arts scene in Denver and further afield.
I am a literature fiend and will read anything I can possibly get my hands on. Although I've written a great deal about music and talked to some huge stars — and I've also talked with some big-name comedians (more on that later) — I get most flustered and star-struck when I'm interviewing an author I really enjoy reading. Some of my favorite interviews include my chats with Charlaine Harris, Jacqueline Carey, and a really poignant talk with Dawn Schiller after her book, Surviving Wonderland, was released. Authors who have Colorado connections are also fun interviews, like Erika T. Wurth, who set a novel in Idaho Springs.
Some of my favorite film projects have been lists, including this list of my favorite Mean Girls quotes and my favorite lines from Labyrinth. Interviews with filmmakers are always fun, too; I've talked with documentarians about their pet projects, including Ghosts of the West director Ethan Knightchilde, Redemption filmmaker and animal activist Nathan Winograd, and Code Black director Ryan McGarry.
There are so many amazing artists in this town, and I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to pick their brains on a regular basis. I've put together profiles for some of the Westword MasterMinds, including 2006 MasterMind Katie Taft, Vox Feminista in 2007, Catherine O'Neill Thorn/Art from Ashes in in 2008, 2009's Ravi Zupa and Fallene Wells in 2010. I've also written some pieces about limited-time exhibits, such as an article about the Hats Off to Dr. Seuss! exhibit that included an interview with the exhibit curator, a chat with Magnet Mafia alumni and all-around fantastic artist Harrison Nealey and a piece about Dorothy Tanner, the woman behind the glowing sculptures at Lumonics.
One of the biggest thrills of being an entertainment reporter is talking to people you've seen on television or in film, and I've gotten to do plenty of that. Bill Burr was one of my favorite interviews; another was Tommy Chong (I talked to him once in 2008 and again in 2010).
Sometimes I review events or conferences, like the 2014 Wake Up Festival in Estes Park, which included luminaries like Seane Corn and Mark Nepo. I love learning from my fellow humans.