« The Fog Index | Home | Editorial Accomplishments »

Attention-Worthy Books

Posted on Saturday, November 29, 2014 at 8:52 PM

Three recommendations to have on your shelves.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Books have been gathering. Not dust, mind you, but space. And they cry for attention.

A Good Book to Have Around

Working the Story by Douglas Perret Starr and Deborah Williams Dunsford (Rowman & Littlefield) may be a refresher for you, but it also can be something akin to a manual for any newcomer/novice you may have around.

The authors are veteran writers and publicists and teachers. They've put together, as the title page declares, "A Guide to Reporting and News Writing for Journalists and Public Relations Professionals." Their table of contents ranges from "What News Is and Why It's Important" and "How to Gather Information" to "How to Write and Deliver a Briefing" and "Public Relations in a Crisis." There are 32 well-considered chapters, all adding up to a worthy text. Along the way, the reader will discover how to cover speeches, meetings, education, universities, government, industry and labor, crime and courts, science and medicine, religion, and the arts. The reader will find out how to research and interview, and how to write news stories and features and reviews, as well as ghostwrite a CEO's speech.

The information is practical and crisply verbalized. A chapter on "How to Write the Basic News Story" begins: "Writing, which combines artistry, skill, imagination, and professionalism, is the most difficult and demanding task you will ever undertake. Writing demands clarity, conciseness, terseness, and rhythm in the handling of the language. And newswriting demands objectivity in the story and, in the writing, the imagination of a dreamer, the skill of an artist, the accuracy of a mathematician, and the meter of a musician.... If readers do not understand your news story, the entire fault is yours; you did not make the information accurate, clear, concise, terse. And, be careful, your first reader is your editor, your CEO."

I think this is a good book for you to have around. It's basic.

Useful for Nonfiction Editors and Writers

Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children, by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas (Writer's Institute Publications) may not be a basic for you, but I'm always amazed at how many morsels of wisdom I can find in most any book on writing, wisdom as meaningful and helpful for me as for the reader it is actually aimed at.

Facklam and Thomas are award-winning children's book writers; they also happen to be a mother-daughter writing team. They offer solid advice on such matters as "Brainstorming Ideas," "Uncovering Stories" (through research), "The Heart and Voice of Story," "Assembling the Story Skeleton," "Breathing Life into Biographies," "Handling the How-to Genre," and "Strengthening Your True Story."

I find counsels worth taking to heart, like: "A subject may have been written about, but not by you -- not with your ideas, and not from your perspective." And: "The more you write, the more you will begin to relax and settle into your own voice."

In a chapter on research, titled "Uncovering the Bones," I find this opening: "An archaeologist digs through tons of soil, sifting out tiny bone fragments that will tell the story of a past life. Like an archaeologist, a nonfiction writer must sift through thousands of bits of information for just the right facts that will tell the story of an entire civilization, a famous sports figure, an animal's life cycle, or how chewing gum is made, The facts that you uncover become the bones for your body of text, the skeleton that will hold it together."

Further on, the authors quote prominent children's editor Carolyn Yoder, who says, "People should be a big part of research. This means conducting interviews and experiencing the world around you so that you can give your writing color, a distinct voice, and the authority it needs."

In their research, the authors have found nuggets from various sources, such as this list of questions to ask yourself as you listen to a nonfiction manuscript. It comes from a website sponsored by the Northern Ohio chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It's a great list for you as an editor:

1. Does the introduction grab your attention? Does it make you want to hear more?

2. Do the facts flow in a logical sequence?

3. Do you understand? Does the author present enough facts and examples to make it clear?

4. Does the article have kid appeal? Is it interesting and lively?

5. Does the article keep your interest?

6. Does the writer show the facts or just tell about them by reciting information?

7. Is the writing targeted correctly for a particular age group? Is it too simplistic or too difficult?

8. Do you hear inconsistencies in the information or have unanswered questions?

So, maybe this Anatomy of Nonfiction is not directly meant for you, but it contains much that's useful for any editor or writer of nonfiction. You never know without looking in.

Focus on Personal Writing

If there's an essayist or memoirist in you, look at Phillip Lopate's To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. It is truly focused toward very personal writing. But Lopate is a beguiling wordsmith, and he passes along thoughts that can echo.

For instance, as he begins to discuss "The State of Nonfiction Today," he writes: "Consider the very name of this practice, defined by what it is not, like the Uncola, the Anti-Christ, or antimatter. In the last 20 years, some attempt has been made to cloak it with dignity by adding the word 'creative' before 'nonfiction,' but this is tantamount to saying 'good poetry.' No one sets out to write uncreative nonfiction. I prefer the more traditional-sounding term literary nonfiction, though I have to admit that 'literary' is also a bit of gratuitous self-praise."

Lopate makes for pleasurable reading, even if he doesn't follow paths directly leading to what we do and where we are. Just thought I'd at least mention the book to you.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

« The Fog Index | Top | Editorial Accomplishments »