Category Archives: Teaching

‘Take it easy on the -ings’

Do you find yourself using the same writing tropes over and over? Once a tendency comes to my attention, I see it everywhere. A former colleague always caught instances of “that” when the word should have been “who.” Once I learned the distinction between passive and active voice, I noticed improper usage everywhere.

As I read Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,” I am overwhelmed by usage–or improper usage–of the tools he details. This week, my journalism students read tools five and six, “watch those adverbs” and “take it easy on the -ings.” They then edited one of their recent stories to reduce the number of -ing words, and I did the same.

I struggle to avoid discouragement with such reflection. I would like to think my work is awesome as is, but the truth is, I want to grow. This process can be uncomfortable, but it moves me closer to my end goal.

My most recent email newsletter including 41 -ing words. Forty one! I’ll admit, I didn’t edit the newsletter before I sent it, but I was horrified by that statistic. (I didn’t count words such as “thing.”) Four of those 41 were part of proper titles, so I couldn’t edit them out.

A quick edit, though, reduced -ing words to 19. That’s still a lot, in my opinion, and I retained some to indicate an ongoing pursuit. But I think the end result is stronger. You can read the original (and sign up for the newsletter) here. Here’s the edited version:

 

MailChimp has been good to me. I’ve used it for more than two years, and I registered in preparation for my first book’s release. Self promotion doesn’t come to me naturally, but publishing and sales go hand in hand. I sucked it up and launched an email newsletter.

Two years later, I’m not any more comfortable with this promotion. Email newsletters intrigue me, but mine has made me feel like I’m in sales mode. (There’s a reason for that.)

However, I subscribe to a few writer newsletters that rely on TinyLetter. These newsletters are text based, simpler than the flash-and-dazzle of so many others. I appreciate MailChimp and subscribe to a number of newsletters that use that service well. But TinyLetter, which is a MailChimp product, feels truer to my writerly ways.

That inspired me to shift formats. I don’t have a new book to sell you, but I do believe there’s value in an email newsletter. Moreover, I benefit from the act of writing this thing. So welcome to “Read, Write, Breathe (repeat).” I intend to send this thing weekly, but we’ll see. It will be a way to share what I read and write as well as things that help me breathe more easily.

Let’s get started.

READ
Charlotte Donlon’s “The Three Rs” is one of the reasons I’m now on TinyLetter. Charlotte’s weekly newsletter highlights reading, writing and arithmetic from her days spent as a writer, MFA student, wife and mama. I’ve never hit reply on an email newsletter as often as I have on hers, and it’s been a great way to peek inside my friend’s process.

Three Cents by Manjula Martin leaves me with so much more to read, I don’t know when I’ll get through it all. (That’s a good problem to have.) She focuses on creative work, money and love in this monthly-ish newsletter. I don’t know Manjula personally, but I sometimes feel as though I do, thanks to these emails. I’m ridiculously excited for the January release of her book, “Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.”

On a similar note, I’ve preordered “Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace.” I’m resisting the urge to repeatedly email my local bookseller and ask if it’s arrived. (The book doesn’t publish till Sept. 13. Patience, CJ. Patience.) Need a healthy dose of feminism to tide you over? I’m reading “Rad American Women A to Z,” and it’s awesome. Think of it as a children’s book about women who make a difference. I bought it in the fine Asheville, N.C., bookstore Malaprops, and it originated with the lovely San Francisco bookstore City Lights. That’s an awful lot to love.

I finally read Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” I bought the book upon its release a decade ago, but I’m prone to collecting books faster than I can read them. I picked and chose and a few chapters to teach from last semester. This semester my University of Alabama students will read most of the book during class. I have told them repeatedly, this is a book I want you to keep. It’s a treasure of writing insight and exercises.

WRITE
I believe so strongly in “Writing Tools,” in fact, that I’ll spend this semester completing the homework I assign. I wrote about that on my blog, so I won’t repeat myself here. I’ll add, though, that life as a professional writer sometimes means I focus more on inching forward than I do on the craft itself. (Sad, but true.) This is part of why I teach.

In recent weeks, I’ve poured most such energy into my journal. Journal writing used to be my favorite form of therapy, but I’ve gotten away from it in recent years. Now I start each day with 10 minutes of writing, and I haven’t yet found the words to explain how glad I am. (I’m working on it.) This Dixie Chicks blog entry is one result of that morning exercise. I’m sure some of my journal entries will end up online, but it’s beautiful to create space in which I can ramble without worry.

But of course, I still write to live, and you can find a few recent examples in reviews of “I’m Still Here” and “The Dollhouse.” As for my “real” job, I’ve spent my recent days on others’ columns and my podcast more than writingYou can find those podcasts here. I also used my recent trip to see the Dixie Chicks in England as inspiration for the travel story “How does Birmingham, England, compare to Birmingham, Alabama?”

BREATHE
Fall draws closer, but it’s still about eleventy billion degrees in Birmingham. Sitali breath is an antidote to the heat, as well as any anxiety you might face. I taught it in Friday’s class at The Yoga Circle, and I ought to incorporate it into my pre-sleep rituals. Learn more about that breath from Yoga Journal.

Thanks for reading. Based on the word-count indicator at the bottom of my screen, I had plenty to say!

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Filed under Journalism, Teaching

Do as I say, and as I do: Why I’ve assigned myself a semester of homework

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week's homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week’s homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Even teachers have plenty to learn. Last week I began my seventh semester as a college instructor, and my third semester teaching advanced news writing and reporting.

A pattern has emerged over the years: The first time I teach a course, it’s a little bumpy. I’m excited but adapting to new curriculum and expectations. That semester is always special because I’m learning how to teach the course as the students learn from taking it.

The second time around, my confidence grows. I have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The course is a bit stronger than the first time out, and there’s some magic that comes from that alchemy, too.

But there’s a danger in returning to the same material. When life and my “real job” demand more of my time, I’m tempted to coast in the classroom.

That’s a double-edged sword, at least in my opinion. A stronger command of the material means I’m better prepared to pass the knowledge onto my students. But I can’t check out of the process. Every job has its ups and downs, of course, but I want to be all in with my students every semester.

They teach me, too.

Students motivated me to join the Society of Professional Journalists, a move that paid for itself with the first event I attended. Now I serve as my chapter’s president. Thanks, students. That move bettered my life and career.

This semester’s class will add another layer to my learning. I spent the end of the summer revisiting past lesson plans and evaluating how I could improve the course. (My spring students sparked this process with helpful suggestions in the end-of-semester evaluation. We really do read those things.) I read the textbook, Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools,” and selected exercises for homework and in-class assignments.

As soon as I finished my reading, I began again with page one. I’m going to spend the next three months completing homework assignments alongside my class.

I’m prone to climbing on my soapbox, especially when it comes to writing and reporting. To me, journalism is like breathing, a sentiment I shared in the first class period. And so I’ve also lectured the students about the value of this book, and why I hope they’ll hold onto it long after semester’s end. I purchased my copy a decade ago, although I’m sorry to say I’m only now beginning to take advantage.

We read this week about beginning sentences with subjects and verbs; ordering words for emphasis; and using active verbs. We’ll discuss those tools at some length in tonight’s class, but I asked the students to complete a private assignment for tool 40, “draft a mission statement for your work.”

They emailed those mission statements to me, and I’ll use them as a reference point throughout the term. I’m copying my own statement below. It’s imperfect–everything is–and basic. I intend to return to it and refine it throughout the semester and my career. But I hope it’ll serve as a touchstone as I navigate my job, and some sort of accountability as these 16 students and I grow together.

Features are sometimes seen as puff pieces, strictly positive and shallow depictions of topics meant to entertain, not inform. There’s value in pure entertainment, but I want more. My goal is to report on stories that help readers understand their communities. That may mean a deep dive into an arts organization’s value, or a news feature that adds context to a breaking story.

I am to do this using the medium best suited for the story. That may be a traditional news article–my specialty–but could also take forms such as audio, video, slideshows, lists or social media. I want to maximize the available tools.

Because my beat is broad, it can be difficult to home in on specific assignments. Therefore, I’ll set aside time at the end of each month (perhaps two to four hours) to examine opportunities in the month ahead.

I also hope to rely heavily on a narrative approach and refine my use of writing tools, such as those outlined in Roy Peter Clark’s book by the same name.

I intend to write about class throughout the semester, both to create transparency for my interested students and to hold myself accountable as I seek my own growth. My goal is to continue growing as a reporter even as I encourage others on their paths.

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Filed under Autobiography, Journalism, Teaching