Archive for guest post

Research Cheat Sheet: Tips From a Librarian

Photo of Mimi SzetoThis week, we’re lucky to have a guest post by Mimi Szeto, who’s both a journalist and a librarian (so, basically, she’s a research ninja). Check out Mimi’s tips for smarter online searching and free resources.  

Online research is easy or daunting depending on how well you can weave through all the information out there on the web. Here are a few librarian-approved sources and easy-to-do tricks—most of which you can try at home in your pajamas—to save time while digging deep into the virtual stacks.

1. Find out what you have access to

Though not often publicized, and sometimes veiled as “e-resources” or “digital collections,” libraries have growing selections of online goodies that you can access with your library card. Download magazines you want to pitch to, research new story angles and find niche publications for your work by signing up for a Zinio account through your public library (for example, the Toronto Public Library). You get free, unlimited access to the current digital editions of hundreds of magazines, and in some cases, back issues. Need to reference works by Alice Munro or Malcolm Gladwell? Download their ebooks through OverDrive 

2. Tap into databases, high-quality web resources and guides

Maybe your first instinct was to Google your topic. Now you have to back up your research with factual information from authoritative sources. Try searching paid databases and web portals via your library for newspaper articles, journals, consumer reports, statistics, encyclopedias and more. If you’re new to a subject, guides are one of the best starting points—search for “guides to [topic].”

3. Access hard-to-get (for free) research

Science, health and medical journals usually aren’t freely available to the public. Nonetheless, it’s worth a shot to search Google Scholar for full-text articles. If you study or teach at a university, there’s a good chance you have an all-access pass via the library website to subject-specific databases containing journal articles, abstracts and other types of documents. Start with the topic and then dive into the suggested resources to gather what you need.

4. Use social media as a research tool

Even if Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn aren’t your thing, they’re a gold mine when it comes to discovering new businesses and interview sources, and listening in on both expert and non-expert commentary. One neat trick you can do on Facebook is pull up posts, discussions and any other mentions of a particular topic by adding a hashtag to your search term. For instance, typing “#snow” into the search box will bring up public posts and comments from people on your friends list that mention snow. This is particularly useful for newsworthy events.

5. Back up documents you may need later

Web links break all the time. Content is taken down or revised. In some cases, entire websites disappear. Documenting webpages for research purposes is as easy as clicking File>Print>Save as PDF, if you’re using a Mac, or taking a screenshot. Skitch is a free app for Macs, Windows and mobile devices that allows you to annotate screenshots, maps and pictures. Do a web search for screenshot apps and plug-ins that create full-page records, and try a few out to find one that suits your needs. (Worried about copyright infringement? Read about fair dealing in the Copyright Act. In Canada, research, private study, criticism and news reporting are exceptions to copyright infringement.)

Mimi Szeto (@mimiszeto) is a freelance researcher and editor from Toronto who holds a Master of Information Studies degree in Library and Information Science. Formerly an online listings editor at St. Joseph Media for torontolife.com and where.ca, she has coordinated fact-checking projects for torontolife.com and worked in various public, academic and non-traditional libraries in the city. 

Insert clever display copy here: 8 nifty tricks for heds and deks

Today I have a treat for you: tips on display writing from Kisha Ferguson, writer, editor and journalism teacher. I’ve been an admirer of Kisha’s since her Outpost Magazine days (she was the founder and editor), and I’m excited to share her advice on Editfish. 

kisha_fergusonIt’s no surprise so many journalists end up being spin doctors, speech writing flaks, or ad copy writers. In order to entice a reader to read, you have to first sell them on what you want them to read. Storytelling comes second. And these days, it’s no longer “Come take my hand, gentle reader,” but rather, “Read this or else.” The visual noise is becoming louder as more and more information competes for our attention, increasing the need for every headline to scream.

There is no denying that writing a he(a)d, de(c)k, teaser, bumper, banner, value-added, kicker, sub-headline, etc., is an art. A great example of this is Twitter. Cramming enough info into 140 characters is an amazing exercise in explanatory brevity, especially when your aim is pushing someone to read an article they can’t see at that exact moment. In other words, getting them to “click on through to the other side.” (More on that later.)

Having gone back and forth over the years between working in magazines and TV news and current affairs, I’ve managed to apply that art to both media. Especially now, as I primarily bang out news copy for a living, viewers “read” TV a lot. Talking heads and voiceovers now compete with screen text, often scrolling, popping up or changing several times within a two-minute item.

I was once told to “Find the meat and sell it,” as a way of coming up with great headlines. Replace “meat” with pathos or drama…but always remember the selling part of it. Below are a few things to keep in mind when you’re waiting for a visit from the clever copy fairy.

1. The best things in life are 3’s.

When in doubt, employ the magic power of “3” to sum up the elements in your story, preferably with alliteration: “Guns, God and Guantanamo” or “Coffee, Capitalism and Culture.” Even better, throw in an ampersand or a plus sign…works especially well on cover copy.

2. I’m OK, you’re (not) OK.

Ask a thought-provoking question. Put the onus on the readers – using “you” – to make them question themselves or their beliefs, or worry about something they never thought to worry about before, thereby giving them almost no choice but to read the next few graphs. This is especially effective in women’s and parenting publications, where inducing fear, a sense that something’s wrong, sells the magazines and the products advertised inside: “Are you getting the most from your 90-minute workout?” “Do you really know the man you’re sleeping with?” “What dangers are in your child’s lunchbox?”

3. You’re a poet and you know it.

Use rhyme to riff on common expressions: “The Great Stall of China” (a story about a three-day traffic jam); “Lush Hour” (about drinking on the tube in London); “Coffee, Tea or D.V.T.” (how people develop blood clots on airplanes).

4. Perturbed lines.

Riff on song titles or lyrics. See graph #3.

5. Love it and list it.

Before the rise of data visualizations, infographics and “charticles,” there was the list – short, punchy bits of info that fall somewhere between copy and display copy. Lately, they seem to occupy more space in front-of-book sections, often replacing articles rather than complementing them.

6. One word to rule them all.

A single word can make a big impact, especially if splashed across a double-page spread, and even more so if you can invoke a sense of doom and gloom: “Aftermath: The Story of…” Or use a fairly banal word, hopefully given a great graphic treatment, followed by an alarming premise: “Water: Why the World Will Soon Run Out of It.”

7. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

You’ll always get someone’s attention if you can somehow use “Armageddon,” particularly when it comes to fairly benign events or weather stories: “Snowmageddon.”

8. Gate-crashing.

Using the “gate” from “Watergate” as a suffix never fails. I now regularly screen All The President’s Men in the journalism classes I teach, after students asked me why they keep seeing “gate” in headlines.

 

Kisha Ferguson (@kishaferguson) has spent a lifetime putting words in a readable order so they make some kind of sense. As well as editing other people’s words, she also teaches a generation of wannabe journos how to make it in the big, bad media world. She’s currently working on a book and a documentary despite a full-time job delivering bad news by writing and producing TV news and current affairs stories.

15 lessons from a year of freelancing

I meet a lot of talented young writers who are eager to break into magazines, including many who want to be freelancers. I met today’s guest blogger, Vanessa Santilli, in the spring of 2012, just before she made the leap from a staff job. I invited her to share what she’s learned since going solo.

Vanessa Santilli head shot

Vanessa Santilli

One year ago, I quit my stable journalism job to pursue freelance writing full-time. All the new experiences this road-less-travelled has given me made it well worth the risk.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my first year of self-employment.

1. Network like your job depends on it — because it does. In my experience, being a member of a writers’ group, such as the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), has been immensely helpful in getting face time with editors.

2. Pitching is not personal. It’s business. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And again. And, well, you get the point.

3. Know your worth — and your rights. If you’re not happy with a fee being offered, try to negotiate when possible. If the client isn’t worth the time, don’t be afraid to turn down the assignment. And never sign a contract without reading the fine print.

4. Pick up a side gig to give yourself a source of steady income. It’s also helpful in giving yourself a bit of a schedule and staying connected with the outside world. Shoot for opportunities that will enhance your skill set. For myself, working part-time as production coordinator at a university newspaper has given me the chance to learn more about the advertising side of the business.

5. The corporate writing world is one avenue to earn enough money to pursue “passion projects.”

6. Sticking to set working hours goes a long way towards being productive. I typically work 9 to 5, but start earlier if it’s going to be a particularly busy day. Without fixed hours, it’s easy to get too laid-back.

7. If used correctly, social media is an excellent, cost-effective marketing tool. But it can also be a huge time waster. Log out of social media when you’re not using it for work-related purposes to avoid surfing.

8. Continuing education classes or workshops that are going to enhance your business are good investments. The write-offs they bring don’t hurt either. (Moderation is key.)

9. Keep in touch with a network of other writers so you don’t get lonely — and to stay inspired.

10. Always be on the hunt for new publications and clients. The unlikeliest clients can end up being the best ones. The Canadian Writer’s Market is a great resource, too.

11. Keep a daily freelance log of all the work you’re accomplishing. It will give you an instant lift at the end of the week…or serve as a motivational kick in the butt if you’re not being productive enough.

12. As your office manager, it’s up to you to be on top of the paperwork. Set up a system to ensure that you invoice promptly. And, of course, closely track what has been paid. (I find an Excel spreadsheet is the easiest way to do this.)

13. Give up trying to explain to your relatives that, yes, freelance writing is your real job.

14. Stay positive during slower periods. Never forget your reasons for wanting to freelance in the first place.

15. Freelance writing is really hard work (and not glamorous). But it’s also extremely rewarding to run your own writing business.

Vanessa Santilli (@V_Santilli) is a Toronto-based freelance writer and a former youth editor and reporter for The Catholic Register. She has written for publications such as MoneySense, The Medical Post and Canadian Living, and she is a member of PWAC Toronto Chapter.