The JRW Blog

Citing Sources

To me, one of the best parts of writing is doing research, especially when you’re looking for information on a subject that really interests you.

Recently I wrote an article about the USS Monitor, the famous Union ironclad that fought a historic sea battle with the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, in the Civil War. Fascinating stuff. The information I used came from sources such as military publications and websites, naval archives, private blogs, old newspaper articles and from conversations with museum personnel.

You have probably noticed how often journalists refer to unnamed sources in the columns and articles they put out to the public on a daily basis. These writers tell us all sorts of juicy things but frequently fail to say how they actually came to know about their oh-so-interesting subjects. So, who are their contacts? Who spilled the beans? Very often they don’t name names and we are left wondering whether what they’ve written is just so much fake news.

The thing is, you need to preserve sources for the information you acquire for articles and blogs; first, so you can sift through it again if you need to, and second, so you will be able to tell anyone who asks where you got it. Sometimes publishers ask for your sources, sometimes they don’t. But even if you are just writing an article for your in-house newsletter, someone—possibly your boss—will want to know where you came up with your facts. Take notes, keep links and be prepared to cite your sources. Being able to do this makes you look competent. And smart.

Telescope Words: Just a Fad?

Our language is peppered with “telescope words,” what linguists call “blends.” In essence, this is shorthand for what is normally two or more words. So, what you have, for example, is brunch (breakfast + lunch), or that big-city staple, smog (smoke + fog). On the surface, telescope words might appear to be a relatively modern invention. Fact is, they’ve been around for ages.

Lewis Carroll, the noted author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, referred to blends as “portmanteau words.” In his world, the mid-19th century, a portmanteau was a traveling bag that opened into two compartments. One of the many portmanteau words that Carroll coined is chortle (chuckle + snort).

Going forward, famed 20th-century columnist Walter Winchell could be counted upon for creating new blends, such as cinemactress and guestimate.

Today, telescope words are in constant use, they’re part of our everyday conversation. Think advertorial, camcorder, sitcom and Jazzercise.

Just a fad? Well, faddish, maybe—but the more words we pack into our writing and speaking, the more we find shorthand useful.

Words of all kinds are managed daily at James River Writing. Whether it involves writing, editing or proofreading, we help folks get the word out, including any ingenious telescope combinations they come up with.

New Year’s Resolutions

Since this is the first day of 2018, I thought it would behoove me to write down my New Year’s resolutions as a writer and see how close I can come to transforming thoughts into actions as time goes on.

As I look around my office, I realize that I live in an environment of organized chaos. Stacks of papers are everywhere, along with newspaper clippings and copies of magazines in which my articles have appeared. There are also boxes of files, many of which I no longer need, and on my desk, scraps of paper with notations that need to be consolidated. I do keep client information well organized, but that’s the only positive comment I can make about the state of my office.

So, my first New Year’s resolution is—yep, to become better organized in my work life. That would help not only with the looks of things, but also in terms of my daily production.

And that leads me to my second resolution: At the end of each day, I resolve to make a plan for the next; to write it down and follow it. Next day, I will check off the items as I complete them. Such a satisfying way to get work done.

As people who work with words, I think we all need a certain amount of organization and planning in our lives because, as Strunk and White so aptly put it:

“Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

How true.

Happy New Year, everyone!


Developing Editor Relationships

One of the perks of writing for a particular publication is the rapport you develop with an editor. By the time you’ve written a few pieces that have been accepted by this person, the editorial atmosphere becomes more relaxed, more welcoming. Happily, the responses to your queries will probably be more prompt, whereas you often have to twiddle your thumbs and wait anywhere from a few days to a few months to hear from an editor to whom you are an unknown quantity.

Here are a few of the benefits you can look forward to when you nurture your relationship with an editor:

You know what they want

The editor will take the time to tell you, sometimes in detail, what the publication is looking for, so you get a better sense of the kind of slant they want on certain topics. This gives you a leg up; it’s great for developing subject matter for a new article.

Query with confidence

Most writers sweat bullets over query letters, but once you have your foot firmly in the door with a particular publication, you can relax a bit. Your query letters should still contain all the pertinent information, but you can now go lighter on your own credentials—the editor knows what they are—and concentrate on providing clear, concise information about the article or blog you have in mind.

A better payday

Some publications will increase payment when you have written for them before. You have proven your worth as a writer and deserve a better payday for the articles or blogs you produce for them now.

Repeat assignments

Depending on the kind of publication you’re dealing with, the editor may contact you for subsequent assignments. This is a plus in my book. It’s always nice to be sought out because you produce quality work consistently.

And finally…

Some publications are a dream to work with, and that makes developing a good relationship with their editors all the more rewarding.




Who is Your Audience?

Before moving to Virginia in 2001, I worked for a large software company in southern California. I was attached to the marketing department and wore two hats: copywriter most of the time, event planner on an as-needed basis.

One of my projects was to organize and manage President’s Club, a glitzy annual incentive event for those who made product sales of $1 million or more. In addition to the management duties required, I was also tasked with creating marketing materials that would push the sales team into selling more software. The company’s CFO wanted these people to make their first-quarter numbers. My job — this time as copywriter — was to tempt them with the prospect of a four-day, all-expenses-paid visit to Grand Cayman Island in the sun-drenched Caribbean.

I began my marketing efforts with a great flash-email campaign that began in late January and went to each salesperson’s inbox. I thought the weekly campaign was effective because I was getting some positive feedback. But by the first week in March, it was clear that the expected quotas had not yet been reached. The CFO was getting nervous. His consternation quickly spilled downhill to me and I had to come up with another plan. One crazy question kept popping up in my mind: Was I reaching the right audience?

Knowing that ninety percent of the sales folks were road warriors who might not be paying close enough attention to my flash program, I began casting around for a way to nudge them. And who better to provide effective nudges than the spouses of said road warriors!

New audience, new effort. I created a lively little direct mail piece, complete with come-hither glimpses of sandy beaches and sparkling azure water. I sent it not to the salespeople, but to their spouses. Worked like a charm. I could just hear the gist of the resulting conversations: “Hey, honey, have you made your numbers yet? What do you mean, no? Get with it so we can go to President’s Club in the Caymans!!”

We had over 400 people at President’s Club that summer, thanks to the spouses who made up an audience I hadn’t thought to address until it was almost too late. Everyone had a great time in the Caymans, the CFO’s attitude improved dramatically and I ended up looking like a genius.

It was a good lesson learned; things aren’t always what they seem. So just think about it a moment: As a writer, is your only audience the one that’s right smack in front of you?