Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Category Archives: Tips & Techniques

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.

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