Friday, July 31, 2009


Crafting Nonfiction Articles: How to Begin

Writing nonfiction articles can be just as much a creative process as crafting a short story or a poem. I've been thinking about this fact a lot lately because of my news correspondent job at The News-Gazette in Champaign/Urbana, IL. I've recently been writing some "Home and Garden" type articles, and I've had a lot of trouble with my ledes.

With the first article, I was writing about a neighborhood garden, and I wanted to focus on the fact that the gardener had pretty much started with a yard full of grass and a few trees, and she has turned it into so many different gardens that she hardly does any mowing. But I was all over the place with my beginning. I started with a statement from the gardener. Then I started with a bit of her history, and finally, I decided I needed to just start with her story. Ten years ago, she had a yard full of grass, and now she has yards full of gardens and hardly has to mow. Simple, easy, and right to the point.

In my other recent experience, I was writing an article about a man who has several antique cars and a yard barn made to look like a 1960s Shell gas station. I turned the article into my editor, and she wrote back and said, "I encourage you to have a little more fun with your lede. Be more descriptive." Yes, yes, she was so write. So, I rewrote it and played on the gas station/car theme, saying things like, "The 1963 gas station pump parks itself in front of the gas station," and so on.

So, what am I learning about ledes and beginning of articles? I need to go ahead and write the whole article, starting in any way I can--not spend too much time on it in the beginning. But then I need to go back and rewrite and rework my beginnings because ledes are not my strong point. I also need to remebmer the focus of the article and the purpose of the lede: 1. to catch a reader's attention, so he will keep reading 2. introduce the article 3. set the mood, tone, and voice.

I can also look at how other writers have started articles for that same publication, and maybe get some ideas from them. All writers have strengths and weaknesses, and there are some amazing writers out there who are so creative with their ledes for NONFICTION! To me, it takes creativity to begin an article and do all three things mentioned above.

So, do you have trouble with ledes or article beginnings? Know any tricks you can share?

Happy writing!
Margo Dill

photo by Annie Mole

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Mistake Noted

Not too long ago in my zest and zeal to send out query letters, I began coming up with ideas for queries that related to life as I was living it. And how was I living, you may ask? During this rampant, query-writing fest I had a two-and-a-half year old running around and a two-month old nursing every 3 hours. Life was crazy, and maybe I can blame the query faux pas I committed on sleep deprivation and hormone fluctuations.

I came up with what I thought was the greatest idea for a story: how to breastfeed in public. My own mom didn’t give me many tips except “Just put a blanket over your shoulder,” and the lactation nurses weren’t much more helpful (they told me to just wear big shirts). I figured if I was having a hard time other moms were probably having a hard time, too, and would appreciate a how-to article that showed them the ropes.

I had my sources lined up, a body of research and I knew which magazine I was going to pitch the story to: American Baby Magazine. I looked through old issues to make sure that they hadn’t covered my exact topic but found that they did lots of articles about feeding new babies.

I wrote the query, thinking that I had the golden ticket for making it in the glossies with this pitch. With trepidation, I mailed off my query and began to wait. The odd thing was I didn’t have to wait very long.

I received back a letter a week later that said thanks but no thanks. Instead of being devastated, truthfully I was a little relieved. After all of my research on different tips and tricks for breastfeeding in public, I had exhausted my brain on the topic and it was no longer very interesting to me. I was glad was not to be required by an editor to make that story happen.

My relief aside, I did want to understand why the story was rejected. I don’t know for sure but some clarity came a few weeks later when I was telling a friend about that particular query. I told her it was about breastfeeding in public and she looked at me almost startled.

“Omigosh, Sue,” she said, “that is such a controversial topic. Ask three women about it and you’d get four opinions back. If I was an editor I wouldn’t want to touch that topic with a ten-foot pole.”

I sat there a little more than stricken by my friend’s bluntness, but I thought she was right. In all my research, in all my consideration of whether or not women would want to hear about my topic, I had not taken into account that the subject of breastfeeding in public was too taboo for that particular magazine. Now, if I had pitched it to, say an OB nurse quarterly, or a publication of the La Leche League, perhaps I would have gotten a different response. Since I chose to pitch it to a national magazine that needs to carefully take into account the sensibilities and opinions of a wide audience, I’m not surprised that this one was quickly overlooked.

Of course, I don’t know for sure why this query was rejected by that magazine; there could have been many other reasons besides the topic being controversial. Through the experience, though, I learned to take into consideration a different aspect of what a publication may look for or avoid in an article.

-Susan L. Eberling

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008


All Hail the Mighty Librarian

Librarians are beautiful, noble people.

I’m sure this statement needs a little qualification. There is this rogue rumor out there that librarians are stuffy, book guardians or silence- mongers intent on throwing you out of the library for the smallest audible infraction. But watch the face of a librarian when you say, "I want to learn how to research better." Their eyes will light up like Christmas morning.

When I began my freelance writing career in earnest, I called my local library, desperate to find out the best and fastest ways to find research for articles. I realized that five years of college had only showed me how to research to please professors, not produce a thoroughly researched piece of writing that would be scrutinized by hundreds, nay, thousands of pairs of eyes. Because of my “mommy-hiatus,” there were new, more powerful research tools available that I knew nothing about.

So I met with a librarian one-on-one. (Make note that if you would like to do this, call ahead and make an appointment to make the best use of your and the librarian’s time.) He showed me two library sections and one electronic resource that has helped me gather the information I need for writing.

#1 Where the Style Manuals Dwell

In the Dewey Decimal System (D.D.S) you will find writing style manuals starting roughly at 808.2. You can go to the nonfiction books and find style manuals to check out, or go to the same call number within reference section. I found it great to be able to test drive these often colossally priced books by looking through them at the library. Usually, the reference section will offer the most current edition of any of these books. On the self at my library were titles such as 2008 Writer’s Market, 2008 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, The Chicago Manual of Style and the AMA Manual of Style (this is used primarily in medical and scientific writing).

#2 The Marketplace

Around 050 and on in the D.D.S. is a section that contains books primarily about the publishing industry. Here lies the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media which could be considered a phonebook of sorts for print, radio, television, and cable companies. Nearby is also Literary Marketplace 2007, a contact book for over 14,000 listings of publishers, literary agents, distributors and events within the U.S. publishing industry. If you wanted information on the on the world-wide publishing industry, you could also look at the International Literary Marketplace 2007 on a shelf nearby.

The Encyclopedia of Associations lives in this section as well. This set of books is helpful to writers for two reasons: not only can you look through the book by topic to find a source for an article, but you can find associations with newsletters or publications within a certain field that you may want to query.

#3 Research in Your Underwear

The last, and I believe most helpful, tool that I discovered was my library’s online research database. An online database is a search tool that allows users to access millions of periodicals and academic journals. For instance, I did a quick search on breast cancer. I entered that exact term into my library’s database search field and it came up with 44,195 article s. Obviously, you would want to narrow that number so you can easily view the information specific to your article. The database offers suggestions to add to the breast cancer search, such as risk factors, treatment, and genetic aspects. When I click on risk factors, my results went down substantially to 1529. I can then pick between academic journals, magazines, or newspapers, sort by date or add another keyword to be more specific.

For me, as a wife and mom, having an online database at my fingertips means I do not have to drag two toddlers to the library for research. Most databases can be accessed via the Internet from home. All I need is my name and library card number to use the database (of course this can vary from library to library, so check it out.) I can put my hair in curlers, eat some chocolate, blare Norah Jones, and do research for my article without annoying one single, librarian.

While doing research for this blog, I spoke with a librarian who said they took whole, semester-long classes on the best keywords to use within database searches. (Can you even imagine?) I believe that most librarians are excited to share their knowledge of how to research effectively. After all, that is what they went to school for. Let these beautiful, noble people give you the tools to research well.

-Susan L. Eberling

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Sunday, December 03, 2006


Interview with Kathryn Vercillo of MoKa House Writers

MoKa House is a media company that provides freelance writing services to both individuals and businesses. We make use of the diverse talents of our pool of freelance writers and our own skills as writer-editors to craft the perfect message for furthering the creative and professional endeavors of others.

WOW: Kathryn, how did you start MoKa House Writers?

(Photo of MoKa House partner: Kathryn Vercillo)

KV: MoKa House was one of those things that happened slowly and then suddenly. As a freelance writer, I had always thought that collaborating with other writers would be an excellent way to provide better services to my clients, but I wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. Then I met Moniqua. In our first ever conversation, we tossed around our individual ideas for eventually starting a writing company. We’re both highly driven women who do more than we talk about doing, so the next thing we knew we were running a company together.

WOW: That's funny you should say that, because it sounds quite familiar! (Like a WOW! story) Can you tell us about the kinds of services that MoKa House provides?

KV: We provide freelance writing services of all kinds to both individuals and businesses. This includes professional, creative and academic writing and editing services. Specifically, our services include writing of newsletters, articles, web content, business plans, artist bios, reviews, e-books, and business profiles.

WOW: That's quite impressive. You seem to cover the full spectrum of freelance writing. What makes your company unique?

(Photo of MoKa House partner: Moniqua Lane)

KV: The two of us have very different writing backgrounds, so we are able to apply our experiences in order to oversee a wide range of different projects. Additionally, we employ a staff of approximately forty writers who all have different types of experience. This means that we have the ability to select a writer with appropriate experience for each project, providing our clients with a professional writer who has knowledge in their field. For the client, this is different from working with an individual freelance writer who may have general writing skills but may lack the specific knowledge required to best complete the requested work. Additionally, working with a company (as opposed to working with an individual) offers the client a stronger guarantee of professional quality.

WOW: That's wonderful that you're employing writers from various avenues, which in turn, lends the most qualified writer for your clients' project. What are some of the recent projects your company has been involved in?

KV: It seems like we’re always working on something different which is one of the things which we both love about this industry. It gives us a chance to apply our past experiences to broadening our horizons on a regular basis. Some of our recent projects have included travel advice columns for foreign country travel, profiles of up-and-coming musicians, real estate articles, and a series of technical internet blogs.

WOW: How diverse! Kathryn, I read somewhere that you created a unique non-profit quarterly magazine for inmates. What a revolutionary idea! Can you tell our readers what the magazine is about, and how the idea was conceived?

KV: In 1999, I started a small (now-defunct) non-profit organization called Create Me Free which was based upon the idea that creative self-expression can lead to both individual and societal growth. I worked with incarcerated artists and writers, using creativity to foster change. The literary magazine, which was published from 1999 – 2003, published the completed works and works-in-progress of those individuals involved in the program. Although Create Me Free is no longer an active organization, I do hope to eventually return to this type of non-profit work which would ideally be focused on forming a similar program for incarcerated youth.

WOW: That's an inspirational idea, and a needed one. Your heart shines through in your caring for others.

Speaking of others, you and your partner Moniqua Lane apparently work very well together. I'm always interested in women who collaborate on a higher level. There seems to be a real supportive energy that makes a business work...

KV: We were really lucky to find one another, because our backgrounds are very different but we seem to have nearly all of the same goals. We compliment each other really well. It seems that nearly everything that I don’t know how to do is something that she has experience with and vice versa. Additionally, our work processes are different so we balance each other out really well. It’s a benefit to our clients, because we double-check each other’s work so that they get the best of each of us. And it’s beneficial for us because we challenge each other to develop new skills while supporting each other in doing so.

WOW: There seems to be a fabulous balance between the two of you, yet I'm sure, considering your diverse backgrounds, there are different projects you would most like to take on. Could you tell us what kinds of projects you're interested in?

KV: I, personally, prefer projects which allow me to work with creative professionals in other fields. Music journalism and working with artists to create bios and press releases are areas which interest me because I believe that they allow me to use my talents to help further the creative talents of other individuals. I place a lot of emphasis on developing creative connections. Alternatively, Moniqua prefers projects that allow her to make use of her legal background. She enjoys making arcane aspects of the law accessible to the average reader. We are lucky to have a staff of excellent writers which means that we are each able to develop these areas for ourselves while providing our clients with the services of professionals whose areas of interest and expertise differ from our own.

WOW: After you decide to take on a project, what comes next?

KV: We work with the client to identify his or her exact needs and goals. This allows us to determine which one of us is best suited to overseeing the project. From there, we can determine which writer or writers may be most qualified to complete the project. We work closely with the writer to make sure that the work meets the client’s specifications.

WOW: It sounds like you've got a very 'hands-on' approach. How do you manage to maintain this ongoing working relationship with your client?

KV: We believe that regular, clear communication is the most effective method of maintaining a positive working relationship with our clients. We place a strong emphasis on collaboration and truly enjoy working to help our clients further their own endeavors, and I feel like that genuine interest in their work comes through in all that we do, encouraging continued partnerships over time.

WOW: Do you think attorneys should use freelance writers, and if so, why?

KV: Moniqua tells this story about how on her first day working for a large firm her supervising attorney told her to do as little writing as possible because she was not being paid to write. She says that what she came to realize was that attorneys are paid to know the law and use that knowledge to further their clients’ interests. Writing is an important part of that, but there is a lot of writing that attorneys do that is incidental to that – a lot of marketing and non-legal writing. Moniqua thinks that this is the kind of writing that attorneys can, and often do, hand off to freelance writers. She thinks, though, that for ethical reasons and for the sake of writing quality, it is best for attorneys to have non-practicing lawyers do their hired writing. She says there are lots of them out there like her, so it should be no problem to find one.

WOW: I think everyone could use a freelance writer like Moniqua! That's wonderful that she has that background to bring to the table. (Moniqua, we'll be in touch!)

The two of you sound like an unstoppable team, I'm sure all of our readers would love to know what you're working on right now, either personally, or for your company.

KV: Personally, I’m working on a number of small projects related to music journalism, including collaboration with several local musical artists in the development of online promotional content. I’m also collaborating with my brother (an artist and business owner in Los Angeles) in the development of a magazine relevant to the work that he is doing. Furthermore, I’m in the process of completing a book entitled Ghosts of San Francisco which is to be followed by a book about ghosts specific to Alcatraz Island.

Moniqua is working on a real estate practices book, answering user-submitted questions about real estate and finance at a mortgage lenders’ portal, and researching trends and breaking news in digital music for a daily digital music news journal out of England. Moniqua also maintains a small legal practice focusing on tax and estate planning and real estate law.

Together, Moniqua and I are collaborating on several small creative endeavors, with particular emphasis on writing pro-female erotica which supports the sexuality of women within a framework of diverse situations.

As a company, MoKa House is branching out in to a number of different areas. We are working on a two-pronged approach to immediate development, expanding our client base to include both more creative work and more business-professional work.

WOW: It sounds like you've got a lot on your plate! Where would you like to see MoKa House in the future?

KV: The short-term goals for MoKa House continue the aforementioned two-prong development approach. On my end, I want MoKa House to be providing more direct services for artists and musicians, working closely with emerging artists to assist them in furthering their goals as they grow in popularity. On Moniqua’s side, MoKa House is looking in to expanding our options for improved services to our corporate clients as well as for involvement in regular work with government contract writing.

Within the company, we want to see increased opportunity for our writers to expand their own opportunities. MoKa House operates on the core belief that following our own inspiration in collaborative efforts leads to overall success for all people involved in a project. It is our goal to work with our writers in assisting them to develop the skills they each would like to develop in order to improve their writing careers as well as to offer improved services to our clients. We would like to see some of our high-level writers eventually overseeing and editing for other staff members.

As far as long-term goals, we have discussed the possibility of eventually opening a publishing arm for the company. We would be interested in being involved in more creative works and I would like to see development of a non-profit area for the company. However, we’re open to seeing where things go from here. I have always worked through a process which combines drive and motivation with a willingness to take chances as they are presented to me. This is what allowed Moniqua and I to immediately recognize the opportunity to work with another and I believe it is what will continue to allow MoKa House to succeed.

WOW: I don't doubt that one bit. I'm sure you two will go far.

Thank you so much Kathryn for sharing your inspirational story with our readers. I'm sure they'll all want to visit MoKa House and check out the wonderful services you provide!

SPECIAL PROMOTION: (You won't want to miss!) MoKa House is happy to offer 10% OFF of their standard rates to anyone who mentions reading this interview.

Additionally, MoKa House is always happy to consider website link exchange with other creative and professional people.

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