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Bits of Wisdom from Others

Posted on Tuesday, January 30, 2018 at 5:13 PM

Advice and perspective from unlikely sources.

By Peter P. Jacobi

If you are a regular reader of my monthly contributions, you know I quote a lot. That's because, when I come across a morsel or two of advice or a sample of something I benefited from reading, I want to share it, having recognized that you'll get information from someone I think is smarter than I am. Or from someone with a different and useful perspective. Or someone or some place that I never would have thought of as source and I believe you also might not.

Today, bits of that.

Minders and Reminders

For instance, one day recently, while waiting in the office of a doctor for one of the needs I have, I came upon a copy of Fast Company, a magazine I had seen before but never paid much attention to. It's about business and for those engaged in such, particularly in small companies and small-scale business efforts.

This particular copy (sorry I didn't jot down the date) had a theme: "Find Your Purpose Issue." I started to look through the pages and skimming the titles (because I knew I wouldn't be in the waiting room long enough to dig deeper). I realized that the story titles heralded ideas that those of us who edit and/or write might wish to keep in mind. Here are a few. Let your mind roam and see whether you agree they could be useful to you:

Follow your instincts. Stay restless. Find your own style. Experiment fearlessly. Nail the right tone. Think deeper. When you don't know what to do, try doing something. Believe in your mission. Discover your voice. Ditch distractions. Have purpose.

I think that's a terrific short list of minders and reminders. And somewhere in the issue, I found a quote of Jack Kerouac's: "Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road." That's worth your consideration, too.

Learn. Follow. Make what you do easier and better.

Pay Attention

In the August 2017 issue of National Geographic Kids, read in my eye doctor's office, I came across a two-page story, "30 COOL Things About CITIES." I found out a number of things:

"The marble lions guarding the New York City Public Library are named Patience and Fortitude." "Rhesus macaques in New Delhi, India, often snatch eyeglasses and purses from pedestrians." "The bus station in La Paz, Bolivia, was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same architect who built the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty." "Every night in Austin, Texas, more than 1.5 million bats fly out from under a bridge to eat insects." "Twenty miles of streets, shops, restaurants, and hotels lie underneath Montreal, Canada." "In Reykjavik, Iceland, heat for homes and businesses comes entirely from geothermal energy created by underground volcanic sources." "San Francisco City Hall in California sits on 530 washing-machine-size shock absorbers that help protect the building during earthquakes." Each tidbit comes in a box that features an appropriate photo.

Such lists are not a new concept, of course, but think how you can use them in a way that serves your readers' purpose. Ideas are everywhere if you look for them. Look.

Lessons from the Times

For me, the New York Times is a take-home textbook. Writing, editing, and coverage are exemplary. Again, within its pages, the lessons are to be found where you might not be looking for them.

On page two of the paper's opening section, mid-page, you'll see "Inside the Times: The Story Behind the Story." Peruse the space. You'll discover lessons.

On September 27, 2017, for example, you'll find Stephen Hiltner's piece, "How a Critic Opens a Book." It consists of an interview with a new book critic for the newspaper, Parul Sehgal. Hiltner asks six cogent questions. One is: "At what point during reading a book do you feel that your opinion of it begins to consolidate?"

Sehgal answers: "It all comes together in the writing for me. The writing is the moment of sifting, of thinking. Before that, I just have a bunch of visceral responses. It's only when I sit down at the computer that I start to tweeze out actual thoughts and an argument." Is that how you work as editor? Or do you have another method? What works for you?

On October 21, 2017, an Ana Marie Cox byline follows the title, "At the Heart of a Celebrity Interview." She writes for herself and a personal approach to the task, this on the occasion of stepping down as the Times Magazine's Talk columnist.

Here's one tip she offers: "We journalists often confuse soliciting new information with wanting to understand a subject. Chasing after a showy quote or treating the interview like an interrogation is a power trip, but it doesn't mean you know your subject any better. My editors supported my decision to chase after introspection instead of scoops: I never wanted a truth that talk subjects had been keeping from the world, but, instead, one they'd also been keeping from themselves." A noble effort.

More another time.

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.

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