The Craft of Professional Writing is the most complete book ever written about the real-life work of being a writer. Covering topics ranging from business writing (advertising, PR) to commercial work (news reporting, feature writing, blogging, non-fiction books) to creative writing (screenplays and novels), as well as advice on pitching, rejection and leading a writer’s life, the narrative is filled with anecdotes and illuminating stories, as well as tricks of the trade in each form of writing. For the student, The Craft of Professional Writing is the most wide-ranging and practical textbook on the subject. Designed to be an instructional text for producing professional-level work, it is also a survey of the various writing professions to enable budding writers to make career decisions. For the professional, this book is the ultimate reference work—offering practical tips and advice they can return to again and again to help them through various phases of their career.
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About the Author
Michael S. Malone is one of the world’s best-known business and technology journalists. In the course of his 40-year career he has produced, at the national and international levels, almost every form of professional writing, both non-fiction and fiction.
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You can't write anything if you don't have anything to write about.
That observation may sound stupid and obvious, but you'd be amazed how many poets, columnists, feature writers and novelists try to force words onto the page without any real knowledge of what they are writing about. Some are even reduced to making up "facts" and sources that aren't real. Such are the demands of money, deadline and ambition. Sometimes they pull it off; but not for long.
Real, honest writing — even if it is fiction — requires real, honest information on what you are writing about. And the only way to get that information is to go out looking for it. That means interviewing sources or eyewitnesses, or visiting the sites of key events, or digging deep into official records, or searching far out into the hinterlands of the Internet. The closer you can get to actual participants or witnesses to the event you wish to describe, including the documents they leave behind — the more legally certified the documents you find, and the more verified and cross-referenced the file you find — the better off you are going to be.
Why do this? Because you owe it to yourself as a professional to get things right. And because you owe it to your readers, your client or your employer not to mislead them or place them in legal or financial jeopardy. Sound overdramatic? Wait until you get a story wrong.
We once worked for an editor who was the very model of a conscientious reporter — including checking and double-checking every factual claim made by his staff of young reporters. At first we thought he was overly careful, at the expense of stripping some of the power out of our stories. Then he told us of an experience from his own days as a young reporter.
It seems that, while still little more than a rookie, he wrote a profile of a fast-growing new company that had a hot new product, skyrocketing sales and the prospect of even better days ahead. The young reporter got this insider news from the CEO of the company itself and was flattered that this business superstar even took the time to talk with him. He went back to the newsroom and pounded out a breathless feature on the Next Big Company. He barely even took the time to gather a few guarded comments from competitors, industry analysts and trade-magazine reporters.
Roll forward a year, and our now not-so-young reporter found himself in the local courthouse covering another story. His editor had expressly assigned it to him as punishment. It was the trial of the CEO of that Next Big Company which, it turned out, was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, with no real technology or products to show for the millions of dollars of investor money it had burned up — or had used to line the founder's pockets. Our future editor might have foreseen this had he dug a little deeper into the scam company's patent filings, the founder's (criminal) background or just asked around the industry.
Now, as the reporter walked toward the courtroom, he found himself passing through a gauntlet of furious investors who blamed him for their losses. Some even waved copies of his original article. But the encounter that shook him most, and that still haunted him a decade later as he spoke to us, was with the elderly couple who quietly walked up and told him, more crushed than angry, that they had invested their life savings in the company based on our editor's glowing article. Did he have any advice on what they should do now?
We reporters were never burned as badly by a story — perhaps because we were nearly as haunted by our editor's cautionary tale as he was. But on many, many occasions each of us had subjects not give the true story. Some subjects were just zealous employees who saw their employers through rose-colored glasses. Others were egomaniac executives who wanted to inflate their reputations. A few had something they wanted to hide — dwindling shipments, a late new product, an impending lawsuit. And a very few were simply lying sociopaths. A few got through our filters but, thankfully none did much damage. And, if caught, they got no pity from us.
Over time, like most reporters, we learned to grow a thick hide. A number of companies even complained that we were too cynical, too skeptical of the great story they had to tell. But, remember, this was Silicon Valley. At least 90 percent of those so-called great companies, with even greater stories to tell, died a quick death. We may have started out in journalism as romantics, but we soon learned to trust only the facts.
Facts are your friends. If you want to be a successful professional writer, learn how to find them.
So, where do you find these facts? Where do you go to get accurate information to underpin your writing?
There are a number of places — indeed, more than you probably know from watching television shows and movies about journalists and other writers. Here's a quick overview:
Source documents — In terms of accuracy, there are few information sources more trustworthy than those that derive from actual witnesses to (or participants in) an event or from official records about the event created by trained investigators. In fact, the latter may prove to be a more reliable source because, as any criminal investigator will tell you, eyewitnesses may have a distorted view through the lens of their own limited viewpoints, excitement and bias.
News coverage — Newspaper stories, wire service stories, and local television coverage can often be good sources when working on a story, especially one being written well after the subject event occurred. But beware: you are essentially trying to overcome potential weaknesses in your own writing, but adopting the possible failures of others. Moreover, news reporters often get facts wrong because they are under a tight deadline, have little time to interview eyewitnesses, and even the officials they speak to may have an incomplete understanding of what just happened.
Official reports — Official reports tend to get around the "Rashoman effect" of conflicting and confused eyewitnesses by using time, the luxury of conducting many interviews, and professional information gatherers to come up with the best description of the event, its causes and its aftermath. That's not to say that some reports are eventually proven wrong as additional evidence appears but, in all, they remain the most reliable of sources (especially if you follow up with some of the eyewitnesses). The downside of reports, especially those created by for-profit research companies, industry analysts and so forth, is that they can be hugely expensive — sometimes running into thousands of dollars. If that's the case, you may be able to get your employer (especially if it's a corporation) to pay for it. Short of that (if you are a journalist) you may be able to request a free copy. And if all else fails, look for the executive summary of the report, or a summary of it, on the Web.
Legal documents — Because they are created as part of an adversary process, legal documents usually conceal as much as they disclose. But what they do offer is information that has been made under oath or the threat of legal penalties for misrepresentation. In the real world, it's hard to get more reliable information than that. That's why the libel lawyers publications and news stations keep on retainer, when they sit down with you to go over an investigative story, will ask you about every statement in your story: "Do you have paper to back that up?" If you do not, and it is a high-risk story, you will have the unpleasant experience of having half of your work chopped out and thrown away.
The downside of legal documents is that they are a pain to get — and even more of a pain to decipher. Though some of these documents are now posted on the Web, most (notably court filings) remain in print form, which means you have to drive down to the courthouse or county records department, deal with the bureaucracy there, and then spend hours trying to find that one document that will support your argument.
And even then, you've only begun, because you have to read through the legalese (remember: these documents aren't written for you, but for members of specialized professions) to find the key statements you need. This can take days, even weeks, in a stuffy room searching through page after page until your vision blurs.
But it can be worth it. A former reporting partner of ours spent days going through real-estate documents and deeds in an obscure courthouse on Long Island (he worked for a California paper) until he found the handful of documents he was looking for. They helped pull down the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and earned the reporter a Pulitzer Prize. Not bad for a bunch of boring legal documents.
Oral histories — For source information at least, one of the most positive developments of recent years has been the rise of oral histories. One obvious reason for this movement has been the technological revolution. Instead of taping an interview with a subject then spending laborious hours transcribing it, or taking notes by hand and then trying to decipher and flesh them out afterwards, these days it is possible to digitally record a subject, convert the interview into a file that even can be automatically transcribed via software. Combine that with the advent of permanent mass storage, either on personal media or in the Internet Cloud, and is possible for the first time to capture the life stories of millions of people — not least old folks being interviewed by their grandchildren as a family record.
Needless to say, the key to doing oral histories right is to have the proper equipment — including a good microphone, digital tape recorder (or smart phone or personal computer), good translation software and permanent digital storage ready.
There are several tricks to capturing a good oral history:
a. Let the subject know in advance. With enough forewarning the human brain will dig up an amazing number of forgotten memories.
b. Make the subject comfortable. You don't want the subject worried about the setting or the equipment or fearful of the next question. You are not there to judge, but to coax out stories.
c. If possible, do multiple sessions. In our experience, once you've interviewed a subject more and more memories will surface for days and weeks afterwards. Some of them may prove very important. So, go back and follow-up, if you have time.
d. Index the interview. Once you are done, transcribe or software translate the audio track into narrative form. Go through and mark out key statements and divide the text up into chapters and subchapters while it is still fresh. That'll help with navigation later on — especially if the interviews are hours long.CHAPTER 2
Words, Sentences and Paragraphs
For the next two chapters we will look at the practical craft of constructing compelling phrases, sentences and narratives. Think of it as everything you were supposed to learn in language and grammar classes in primary and secondary school — but in only a few thousand words. This time around, we're going to teach you the actual stuff you need to be a professional writer, and make a living doing so.
For that reason, we aren't going to spend time on grammar: in the real world, the only rule of grammar is that it works in getting the message through to the reader. Nor are we going to discuss rhetoric, other than, once again, what works. Nor vocabulary: experience has shown that working every day as a writer will force you to expand your vocabulary if you are going to be able to effectively explain yourself. Nor punctuation: not least because that field has become increasingly fluid in recent years.
Rather, we are going to use these two chapters to look at how you use language in the most powerful way to capture and hold readers, enhance their emotional response to what you've written, and keep them reading through to the end. Compared to that, whether you've written a sentence fragment or split an infinitive is inconsequential. Indeed, in professional practice, there are good arguments to be made for both. So, let's begin our short course in Real-Life Writing — or, as the author prefers, Writing for Money.
The parts of language and their roles
Sounds are senses
Once, during a safari in Namibia, the author met a man, a tracker and guide, who was one of the most linguistically accomplished individuals on Earth. His father was a member of the Ovambo tribe, the dominant African people in that part of sub-Saharan Africa; his mother was Bushman, a member of the San people. Meanwhile, by the nature of his work, and his own native language skills, this man dealt regularly with people from around the world and had to learn to speak with them in their own languages.
One day, in idle curiosity, the author asked this man how many different languages he spoke. He paused for a moment, and then began listing on his fingers: German, Swahili, Dutch, French, Polish, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese. He listed several more, then finally said, "English, but not very well." This last despite the fact that we had just been conversing in English for the previous hour — in his mind, his command of English was still incomplete. What about his mother's tongue, I asked. Ah, he reminded himself, of course, I speak three San dialects.
Linguists have found that human beings communicate, via language, with less than twenty distinct sounds. Most of us are lucky to regularly use a dozen of those sounds. Thus, for example, as a middle-aged American, the author will never be able to capture the 'lion' growl in Gaelic Irish (though I'm of Irish extraction), nor the trilled "r" of the Latin languages. By comparison, my Japanese friends will forever struggle with the hard "r" and "l" that are almost my Yankee birthright.
What made my African friend so remarkable — and something he didn't know about himself until it was explained to him — was that he had learned to use not only all of the important vocal sounds of the world's major cultures, but even the rarest ones. In particular, in his mother's arms he had first learned the precisely modulated clicking sounds that made Bushman dialects among the most unusual in human history.
Only a handful of people on the planet regularly use, like my guide friend, all the available human language sounds. For the rest of us, we must make do with a dozen or less. That may seem constraining, but the analogy is to music, where a comparably limited number of notes have been used to create an incredible range of music over the centuries. A professional writer is thus, like a composer or improvisational musician: to make your writing "sing," to tap into the deepest emotions of your readers, you need to be so competent with the use of these sounds that you do not just write with them, but perform with them.
You may be asking: Why are so few sounds used by humans in their languages? The answer is not entirely clear. One answer is that we don't really need any more sounds than that. Other animals typically use far less. And, because of our intelligence, we can use our tools — from musical instruments to digital technology — to create a nearly infinite range of additional sounds. The creation of language — and thus of writing, which is symbolic language — appears to have begun a couple of hundred thousand years ago with a remarkable pair of events: a thickening of the cerebral cortex in the brain of early man — and with it a greater aptitude for higher, logical thinking — and the evolution of the hyoid bone in the throat, which enabled hominids to generate more complex vocalizations.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Craft of Professional Writing"
Copyright © 2018 Michael S. Malone.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction; Part One — Basics; 1. Gathering Information; 2. Words, Sentences and Paragraphs; 3. Narrative and Composition; Part Two — Corporate Careers and Disciplines; 4. Publicist; 5. Advertising Copywriter; 6. Speechwriter; 7. Technical Writer; Part Three — Writing Careers in Media; 8. Blogger; 9. News Reporter; 10. Critic; 11. Essayist; 12. Book Author; 13. Television and Radio News Reporter; 14. Screenwriter and Playwright; 15. Fiction Writer and Novelist; 16. Academic Track; 17. Miscellaneous Writing; Part Four — The Work of Professional Writing; 18. Pitching; 19. Editing; 20. Rejection; 21. A Writer’s Life.; Further Reading; Suggested Assignments; Index.
What People are Saying About This
“Few places on the planet are as cutthroat as Silicon Valley. I’ve had a front-row seat for the past 30 years watching Mike build his reputation as the most creative writer and editor the Valley has to offer. He’s earned that distinction by being as innovative, thoughtful and hardworking in his craft as any of the Valley’s best entrepreneurs.”
Ed Clendaniel, Editorial Page Editor, The Mercury News
“Ever helpful, practical and inspiring, Mike Malone offers a friendly, nuts-and-bolts approach to craft writing that makes professional writing seem wonderfully possible as a career.”
Ron Hansen, Novelist and Professor, Department of English, Santa Clara University, USA