Tuesday, April 16, 2024

5 steps to writing engaging content

Image: Adapted from the movie Mr. Bean's Holiday.

First, the writer's oath (all my own work).

"I swear by the almighty dictionary, the thesaurus and the style guides that whatever I write shall be original, clear and accurate, and reflect my best efforts to communicate effectively and in a way that informs and entertains my readers."

Now to get down to the brass tacks of writing.

Metaphorically speaking, writing is like building blocks. Just as kids stack or connect the blocks to create something, in writing, I organise my ideas into words to craft a compelling story.

Here's how I make it happen (most of the time).

I start by jotting down my thoughts or make a rough outline of my story, leadership article or blog post.

Once the outline is ready, I write out the first draft incorporating my ideas, adding and subtracting and adding as I do.

Next, I review the draft as critically as I can, rewriting entire sentences and passages if I have to.

I then check the draft (or rather recheck) grammar including tenses and punctuation, complex words, better synonyms, clich├ęs, flow and sentence formation, making it as concise and impactful as possible.

Lastly, I play around with the headline options, which sometimes takes me nearly as long as the first draft.  

Am I satisfied with the outcome? Sometimes yes, but mostly no. Because I know I can create more engaging content with the building blocks of writing. Why settle for a house when I can build a palace?

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

12 famous authors on how to write better

As a journalist many years ago, I was intrigued by the writing process and referred to writing guides such as The Economist Style Guide, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, and The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. These helped me to hone my writing skills as a news reporter and editor.

Now, as a content writer and blogger, I have widened my reading of books on the art of writing. I frequently read, and occasionally collect, books on writing by masters of the craft including Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, Elmore Leonard, Annie Dillard, Stephen King, William Zinsser, Francine Prose, Ray Bradbury and others. All these authors, with their unique writing ideas and styles, influence my own creative writing projects.

Together, the style guides and writing books inspire me to write — and write better; especially when I experience blank-page syndrome. They render the task of writing less frustrating and painful and more satisfying and fulfilling, making storytelling a joyful venture.

Here are twelve quotes from some of the writing books in my collection, their authors imparting wisdom drawn from their individual writing experience.

"Examine every word you put on paper. You'll find a surprising number that don't serve any purpose."
— William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

"You become a writer by writing. There is no other way. So do it. Do it more. Do it again. Do it better. Fail. Fail better."
— Margaret Atwood, On Writers and Writing

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."
— Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere."
— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life

"For the first thing a writer should be is - excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigour, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it would be better for his health."
— Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

"One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes."
— Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader, not the fact that it's raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."
— Sol Stein, Stein On Writing

"Writers learn their craft, above all, from the work of other writers. From reading."
— Marie Arana, The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work

"Do you know what a mandible is? Your dentist does. She uses that word every day. So if you are writing a story just for your dentist, use mandible. But if you are writing for everybody else, use the more familiar word, jaw."
— Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

"Before you begin the writing, be sure you know the purpose or mission or objective of every piece of content that you write. What are you trying to achieve? What information, exactly, are you trying to communicate? And why should your audience care?"
— Ann Handley, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content

"Don't let jargon and acronyms bloat your prose - keep it simple and clear."
— Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

"You can't just come out and say what you have to say. That's what people do on airplanes, when a man plops down next to you in the aisle seat of your flight to New York, spills peanuts all over the place (back when the cheapskate airlines at least gave you peanuts), and tells you about what his boss did to him the day before. You know how your eyes glaze over when you hear a story like that? That's because of the way he's telling his story. You need a good way to tell your story."
— Adair Lara, Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Writing Essays and Memoirs for Love and for Money

© www.pocketfulofhappiness.com

Thursday, February 01, 2024

All the news that's (not) fit to read

In 1897, Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, coined the famous slogan — All the News That's Fit to Print — indicating the newspaper's resolve to publish impartial, accurate and relevant news.

That sentiment has long ceased to hold true in the world of news and newspapers.

The climate of news has changed drastically since the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. Much of what I read is not newsworthy, if not unfit to print. Digital has made news easily accessible, but not so discernible. There is more noise and less news.

There are some bright spots, though. Reuters, for instance.

For a clear reporting and writing style, concise headlines, accuracy, reliability, global coverage, hard facts and professional standards, I find the London-based news agency to be a responsible source of information.

Reuters gives me a dispassionate view of the world around us. I read it first thing in the morning — without emotion or prejudice.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Previews: Two debut thrillers and an exciting ebook

The Silent Patient
by Alex Michaelides and Shiver by Allie Reynolds were gifts from my daughter. She'd enjoyed reading both the thrillers and thought my wife and I'd like them too. Her choice of crime fiction comes with high recommendations.

The Silent Patient (Orion, 2019) is described as "A shocking psychological thriller of a woman's act of violence against her husband-and of the therapist obsessed with uncovering her motive."

The blurb on the back of the 339-page book tells us about the story of Alicia Berenson who "lived a seemingly perfect life until one day six years ago (when) she shot her husband in the head five times. Since then she hasn't spoken a single word. It's time to find out why."

"They were all there. So which one of them did it?" says the cover of Shiver (Headline, 2021). The 425-page book tells the story of "A reunion weekend in the French Alps (that turns deadly when five friends discover that someone has deliberately stranded them at their remote mountaintop resort during a snowstorm."

The Silent Patient and Shiver are both debut novels and were to be developed as a movie and a television series, respectively; although, I have no updates about either of the ventures.

Carolyn Arnold's The Little Grave (2021) is the first Detective Amanda Steele book in what appears to be a series of ten books. The 324-page Kindle edition was available for free on Amazon. My thanks to the author.

This is what the book is about:

"It's been five years since Detective Amanda Steele's life was derailed by the tragic death of her young daughter. The small community of Dumfries, Virginia, may have moved on, but Amanda cannot. When the man who killed Lindsey is found murdered, she can't keep away from the case. Fighting her sergeant to be allowed to work such a personal investigation, Amanda is in a race to prove that she can uncover the truth. But the more she digs into the past of the man who destroyed her future, the more shocking discoveries she makes."

At present, I'm reading The Silent Patient in paperback and The Little Grave on my tablet, and both the thrillers have my full attention.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Living life in restaurants

Photo: Bridgesward/Pixabay

Philip Rosenthal, the American television writer, producer and creator of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond and presenter of food and travel documentaries I’ll Have What Phil’s Having and Somebody Feed Phil, says: “We live life in restaurants, it’s the centre of social life, where we celebrate with family and friends, make new friends, travel without travelling, and of course, eat.”

That is so true. We go mall shopping and eventually head for the food court. We go to the movies and eat popcorn and ice cream in between the scenes. We go to a coffeehouse and huddle together over laptops, coffees and croissants. We break for lunch and share our meals in the office cafeteria. Not to mention all the dinners and parties we have with family and friends in restaurants and outdoor venues.

We live life in restaurants because in a way life tends to revolve around food and conversations. It’s where people unwind, deals are struck, proposals are made, relationships are broken, jokes are told, laughter is plentiful, special occasions are celebrated and fresh memories created.

So much beyond eating happens in a restaurant. From celebrations to heart-to-heart talks, it’s the go-to place for social and emotional rendezvous, making new connections and deepening old ties.

In the few hours we spend in restaurants, we forget our worries and share joyous moments over food and drink with the people we meet without travelling. In that sense restaurants are a comfort zone of food, relaxation and pleasant familiarity.

© www.pocketfulofhappiness.com

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The day I stopped reading newspapers

Before Covid-19, I used to read a dozen newspapers almost every day—an old journalistic habit. Now I read none. I had cancelled the only newspaper subscription I had even before the pandemic. I miss the paper, not for the news, but for wrapping things.

These days I read news online on my laptop, mostly via media websites and aggregators; though I'm not always happy with what the algorithms throw up. Both in terms of the news content and the way it is reported.

For example, I have absolutely no interest in reading an "Exclusive!" about a couple of actors arriving in some city for someone's birthday party. Paid news? Or paid algorithm? If there's such a thing.

Also, like the palm of the hand, there are always two sides to a story. Unfortunately, that's often not the case. "What does the other side have to say?" The news report doesn't tell me. Probably because the other side wasn't asked. That's not fair.

My tab is a very convenient place to read. I have downloaded a few apps—Mint, The Economist, Moneycontrol, FT (London), Reuters, Bloomberg, WSJ, The Guardian (UK), BBC and CNN, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, AP News, Pocket and The New Yoker—which more than feed my curiosity for news stories and features, and other stuff. Some I subscribe to; others I read what's available for free.

In a way I have become my own news aggregator. Curating and gathering news, views and perspectives that I want to read. No longer bound by the limitations of what was often a depressing front page.

© Illustration: Arturo Navarro/freeflo.ai

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Clash of the Press Titans

If you simply enjoy humour, you will get this. If you're a part of the media, public relations or communications field, perhaps even more.

*    *    *

One evening, Press Release and Press Note met in a bar. After a few drinks, Press Release, more cocky and boastful of the two, got up to leave. And then, a funny thing happened.

Press Note: "Where are you going?"

Press Release: "To shoot myself off to the media. I have several deadlines to catch."

Press Note: "Oh, that reminds me, I need to grab the media's attention, too."

Press Release: You? Seriously! A waste of time. You sit here, drink some more, and figure out who you are and what it is you do. Here, it's on me."

Press Note: "Hey, I know who I'm and what I do — you condescending jerk!"

Press Release: "Do you? Do you really?! I don't think so!

As Press Release turned to leave, Press Note, as boiling mad as a boilerplate, got off the stool and lunged at him. The two grappled and rolled on the floor. Headlines were torn, datelines were ripped off, quotes were shred to bits.  

Three journalists, drinks in hand, stood watching the feuding pair in the circle of cheering onlookers, some of whom were placing bets.

"There's our front-page story," one of them said, whipping out his phone and taking pictures.

"Yeah," replied another. "I can see the headline: WORDS FLY AS PRESS RELEASE AND PRESS NOTE CLASH IN HILARIOUS BAR BRAWL"

"Wonder who's gonna issue a press statement," said the third.

© Prashant C. Trikannad

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Why I chose to give away my books

Some of the abandoned paperbacks.

Each one of us has a unique relationship with books. We have so many anecdotes and stories to tell about the books we buy, collect, read, hoard and never read. Till, one day, something — I don’t know if it’s age, wisdom or common sense — propels us into doing what was once out of the question: Downsize our collection. Give away books we have been holding onto for god knows how long. Free up space, in cabinets, on shelves, up in the loft. And start again, one book at a time. Go back to the basics of reading.

At least, that was my plan.

I owned very few books in my youth, the years between 14 and 25 when I read the most number of books. In those days I read novels in just two or three sittings; sometimes in half a day and started on a new one by night. I borrowed my books from private circulating libraries, British Council Library and American Library. Then somewhere down the years, my career and family life took precedence. I stopped going to the libraries owing to the distance and lack of time, and instead started buying books, more than I could read. Not that anyone or anything stopped me from reading like I did before.

Over the next three decades, I accumulated so many books that several of my mysteries, thrillers and westerns followed me to every new place of work, where they sat quietly in office desks and cabinets, and seldom got a chance to tell me their stories. Then came the tech-induced comforts and distractions and my goal to read a certain number of books and short stories every month – in other words, reduce my TBR pile – went out the window.

About a year after the onset of the pandemic, I decided enough was enough. We were in the middle of home renovation when I took an inventory of my collection and removed nearly two hundred books, which I eventually gave away to anyone who was interested or sold them to footpath booksellers at throwaway rates. I’d no other choice. Some of these books remained unread for years. My logic was that if I hadn’t read them up to that point, I sure as hell wasn’t going to read them now. Fortunately, most of the books I weeded out were secondhand and didn’t cost a lot of money, though the parting did hurt for a while.

Now I have fewer than a hundred books, mostly paperbacks of some of my favourite authors and a few nonfiction; the latter comprising a dozen books on the craft of writing by seasoned writers like Stephen King, Francine Prose, Ray Bradbury, Anne Lamott, Benjamin Dreyer, Annie Dillard and Bill Bryson. They’re my writing companions – offering valuable lessons from their own experiences of storytelling, and helping me both as a reader and a writer.

In these past three years, I have been compensating the “loss” of my books by purchasing ebooks or downloading them from public domain and online libraries. I read these on my Kindle and Samsung tablet. Of course, I also buy paper books – no more than half a dozen a year – from Amazon as well as secondhand booksellers and book fairs, depending on what I find. I haven’t bought a book in a new bookstore in years.

The thing about de-cluttering books, to borrow a phrase from George Bernard Shaw in another context, is the illusion that it has taken place. No matter how many books we discard, there are always plenty around the place. I guess the only way to pare down our books is to read them as soon as we buy them.