Top Techniques for Writing – Part One

There are some pretty specific techniques and practices you can pick up from the world of serious journalism, in particular newspaper, magazine, and broadcast journalism, that will elevate your analytic and writing skills far above the average.

They will work for any kind of writing you do, be it Fiction, Journalism, Non-Fiction, Plays, Daily Journals, whatever.

I am a product of the journalistic world, and I still use its tools and practices in my non-fiction and fiction worlds which of course have nothing to do with daily journalism.

They are founded on attitude, consistency, and simplicity.

They do not require much if any work on your part. But, they will, absolutely, improve everything in your writing life.

The first thing you have got firmly grasp is that you will forget some, part of, or all of a thought or observation you have unless you get it down in physical form.

Memory is as fleeting as summer lightning. It is all too common to forget the very fact that you had thought of something in the first place. You have no hope of hanging onto more than a few fragments of an idea if all you rely on is memory.

And be aware that the mind is far too quick to make up details, recreate false statements, and utterly mess up anything that has been in your head in an incomplete manner for more than a few minutes. There is a reason why police offices, lawyers, journalists, doctors, and many other detail oriented professionals get issued a notebook before anything else.

The second thing is that no note-taking system can be too simple. And the simplest is pen and paper.

If you need to stop what you are doing to open an app, or fish your phone out of your pocket and enter its security code, or stop to find your special pen, or fire up a voice recorder, your thought is in danger of disappearance. At best, your thought is subject to corruption as your mind tries to fill in details it does not have.

The third thing is, as much as possible try to use one system only.

Don’t use Evernote, One Note, Google Keep, Zoot, or any others indiscriminately and simultaneously. You will lose notes.

Here is my system. Others will have better and perhaps worse, but that’s okay as long as you pick something and stick to it, making no changes to it without long and hard thought.

One of the writers I greatly admire is James Rebanks (A Shepherd’s Life) who says he and his fellow shepherds in England’s Lake district are pathologically opposed to new ways of doing things. “If you have done something on your farm for generations the same way, and it works, then that is a good reason not to change.”

Now generally, I am not a follower of that philosophy. I am the type who is always the first kid on the block with the latest technology, the latest software, the latest gadget. But, when it comes to writing, and more specifically the recording of those ideas and other elements that go into writing, I am a purist.

So, pick something and use it without modification until you are unequivocally sure that a change will help.

Telescoping Fisher Space Pen. It also writes underwater and upside down
Telescoping Fisher Space Pen. It also writes underwater and upside down

I carry a softcover notebook of about 60 pages that fits into a hip pocket. It is with me all day, everyday. With it I also have a telescoping pen that also sits in the hip pocket. The Space Pen is the right size but there are others. You could also have a cut down pencil if that is your preference. But the point is that the notebook and the pen are always together and always on your person.

The Procedure

  • Date and time your thought.
  • Write it in one simple sentence, or a decent sentence fragment.
  • Only when those two things have been done, and it doesn’t matter how fragmentary your recorded note is, do you then tag on any context, color, or subsidiary thoughts.
  • Don’t worry about handwriting, in fact it is good practice not to even look at the paper while you are jotting. When you open your notebook, don’t try to find the next available page or section of page, just open it at random, give it a quick glance to make sure that you have a clear space to write, and then charge ahead. You can indeed write without looking at what you are doing.
  • You must always try to make sure that nothing gets between the still bubbling thought in your brain and the words on the paper.

The next step, and it can be done quite some time after the actual note taking, is to make a Table of Contents entry.

I number all the pages in my notebook. When the note is done I flip to the first page and on its own line I put down the random page number where I dumped the note. Then, I give it some sort of title so I can refer to it later. A primitive TOC will make finding and using your note a lot easier. Having to flip through dozens of pages looking for something or other is no a good use of your time.

It is really important to get these notes into a more formal record keeping system before they turn into cryptic messages from an alien underworld. So, as soon as you can it is best to put them into your favourite computerized data system, be it Evernote, Zoot, One Note or whatever. It really doesn’t matter what you use as long as you only use one. If you scatter notes across recording systems you will lose them.

For longer notes, or perhaps even full scenes in a book manuscript, you can use a portable voice recorder and then import them as text files using one of the Dragon Naturally Speaking editions that supports transcription, not all do.

Using a voice recorder is superb for describing a location you might want to use in a story, or to get down as much complicated detail that you think you will need.

A variation on that technique is to hit the video button on your phone and visually record your surroundings as you describe the scene.

A different system might be necessary when working right at your computer. It may be best to pop open your database program and type out a note, but be wary that you don’t get shunted down a rabbit hole. I keep my little notebook right next to my mouse, or I reach for the voice recorder.

Remember this at peril of losing your thought; your note taking system has to be one-step simple.

A lot of people have asked me about the idea of learning shorthand for note taking. My answer is, don’t bother.

I learned shorthand as a young reporter and use it still, but it is of limited use to the fiction writer. There are rather simple techniques outlined on the web and in instruction books for what is called Speed Writing and you could look into them if you are interested.

The main thing is, have a way of getting that thought out of your head as quickly as possible, with the least technical effort so you don’t run into this common scenario:

Find app,

Open it,

Menu, select Make New Note   

At which point you forget what the hell your were going to say.

Covering the Arctic

Here’s a snippet of what I might slip into The Disaster Tourist.

“I should take some lead pencils with you.  Bloody cold where you’re going and pens freeze don’t you know.”  Parting advice from my Managing Editor in CBC Radio News as I was being happily packed off to the eastern arctic to set up the first radio newsroom there.

Dear old eccentric Eric Moncur had about as much knowledge of what we now know as Nunavut as I had— absolutely nothing.  We both had to look at a map to see where he was sending me.

Oddly enough that advice about pencils was spot on.  Many many times over the years that I have spent in the arctic, first as a bush pilot, then reporter, and now media consultant, I have yet to find a pen that doesn’t freeze.

But pens are the least of the problems facing a reporter in the arctic and more particularly in Nunavut.

First of all there is no such thing as being a  journalist in Nunavut.  Such pretensions are reserved for fly-in foreign correspondents and southern media types on short-term swings to vacuum up interesting features.

To cover the arctic one has to be a reporter first and last.  Reporters must talk directly to people to find out what is going on, they have to record their comments exactly, and they have to tell the stories fairly.  As a journalist, and I was one of those for a long time too, you can afford the lazy luxury of doing analytical pieces formed from your own opinions, interpretive insight pieces, and just generally a lot of writing that requires more thumb sucking than anything else.

Journalism by journalists just doesn’t work in a region where the people demand to know just what the hell is going on and to hell with the editorial spin and gloss.

There’s also a strong cultural problem in trying to do southern trained reporting in Nunavut.

The Inuit as a people dislike direct confrontation.  Any questioning that has to be done for a story must be indirect, respectful, and non aggressive.  On Parliament Hill in Ottawa we are used to the full speed bulldozer approach to news gathering.  In Nunavut one needs the slow careful attitude of a palaeontologist.

When I was sent to Frobisher Bay, now Iqaluit, to set up the first CBC radio news operation, I had the largest beat of any reporter in Canada.  It crossed three time zones, encompassed a quarter of Canada, and took in western Greenland for good measure.  At the time I think that only four of the 26 communities in Nunavut had long distance phone service.

Have you ever thought how difficult it is to conduct a broadcast radio interview with someone at the other end of a snapping, crackling, and fading short wave radio link?  Throw in for good measure that the person you are interviewing has english as a very limited second language and you begin to understand why some of the stuff we put on the radio was utterly incomprehensible.

All of the communities now have superb satellite phone links, email, fax, and in some cases video conferencing facilities, but the old job of reporting is still exactly the same.  Reporters in Nunavut have to get out and talk to people otherwise they won’t have a thing to put into their broadcasts or newspapers.

I’m fond of saying that 90 percent of reporting is simply knowing that something is going on — the rest is just mechanics.  But in a region where there are precious few news releases, fewer news conferences, no wire services, and a general reluctance for people to phone you up and offer a story, worrying about what might be going on turns into a huge dark monster that haunts every northern newsroom.

The best way to find stories is of course to talk to people as much as possible.  That’s fine if the reporter is based in Iqaluit and wants to only cover that community.  But to discover the weird and wonderful goings on in places such as Pangnirtung, Resolute Bay, Arviat or any other community, a reporter pretty well has to go there.  Very few news operations can afford travel to even the closest communities except in rare and unusual circumstances.  It’s cheaper to fly from Ottawa to Australia than it is to go from Iqaluit to let’s say Cambridge Bay or Resolute.

Any Ottawa journalist who accepts a freebie flight pretty well guarantees a snarky and career deadening conversation with a humorless news manager following policy. A reporter in Nunavut, or anywhere else in the Arctic for that matter, who doesn’t learn the fine art of hitchhiking by aircraft, piggybacking on charters, and playing the “send us the invoice” game, is never going to do much in the way of providing decent news coverage.

This once reached an extreme for me when I wanted to cover the start of Naomi Uemuera’s solo trip to the North Pole in 1978.  His DC-3 Dakota aircraft was leaving Resolute Bay for Greenland and then to the last bit of land in Canada before the pole.  The trouble was that the flight was being paid for by National Geographic Magazine.  They were not about to let any reporter on board at any ticket price.

I got on the flight and covered the story (surreptitiously) by talking the charter airline into allowing me to fly as co-pilot, out of date ratings and licenses be damned.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had very strict rules against this, and still does.  Fortunately there were more than a few managers with at least one blind eye.  I hope there still are.