Tag Archives: writing

Affirmation — and a challenge — from colleagues in the press

Last night, the Arizona Press Club honored journalists from statewide publications large and small with awards for exceptional work in reporting, writing, photography and design. Raising Arizona Kids was among the publications honored.

Mary L. Holden. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

Writer Mary L.Holden was recognized in the Non-Metro Writing/Social Issues Reporting category for her April 2010 story, “Casting a Light on the Shadow of Abuse.”

Mary put a lot of heart and soul into this project, which involved interviews with researchers and medical professionals who work the front lines in child abuse prevention and treatment. She listened to horrific stories about the unimaginable ways some children are mistreated by adults who typically lack the tools or knowledge to deal productively with the stresses and emotional damage in their own lives. She put a personal face on the issue by sharing the story of a Surprise family whose daughter was abused by a caregiver. She provided insights into the longterm damage of abuse and how it can manifest in adulthood.

James Motz of Surprise and his daughter Lilian, who was brutally shaken by a caregiver. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

The judge, Suki Dardarian, managing editor at The Seattle Times, described her entry as “a well-crafted story about the medical and emotional toll of child abuse. While it is a well-covered story, this reporter used strong cases and compelling writing to draw the reader through her story.”

Taylor Batten, editorial page editor of The Charlotte Observer, judged entries in the Best of Arizona/Features Blog category, to which I had submitted several of the blog posts I wrote about my experience in Ethiopia last summer, when I accompanied Paradise Valley couple Brian and Keri deGuzman on their journey to welcome two orphaned babies into their family.

Observing a distribution of food to starving families in Soddo, Ethiopia. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

“Barr produces memorable storytelling from an emotional and at times dangerous trip,” Batten wrote. “She is a powerful writer who captures the emotion of her subject while also revealing a bit about herself in an authentic way. Fantastic photos.”

It’s weird to be typing those words about yourself. As an editor it is my job to make other writers look good. I have attended many Arizona Press Club Awards events in the past 21 years to joyfully support my writers as they accepted awards. But in 35 years of writing and editing (give or take a few lost to graduate school or raising small children), I never once received an award.

What I’ve decided is this: It’s great to have a piece of paper that gives you membership in a small cadre of professional journalists whose work is deemed by peers to go above and beyond. It’s even better to hear the specific feedback, which envelopes your fragile writer’s ego like a soothing, restorative  balm.

But the very best part is the spark it ignites that grabs your imagination, rekindles your hope and challenges you to go out and do something even better.

Powered by interns

When you run a small media company like ours, maintaining a steady stream of capable interns is the difference between muddling through and really moving forward. When you can confidently offload some of the routine tasks involved in creating and editing content for publication (for print and web), you finally find time to tackle the big-picture tasks that hover too long on the “when I can get to it” list.

So it was with a sense of excited anticipation that I returned to Phoenix after a five-day trip to Seattle (where I spent some all-too-rare time with my two brothers) to welcome two summer interns to the RAK family.

Robert Balint. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

One is very familiar. Robert Balint, son of RAK multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint, is something of a returning veteran. His first stories appeared in Raising Arizona Kids in 2008, when he was still in high school at Brophy College Preparatory.

“Girls on the Mat” was about a female high school wrestler, “When Your Child Doesn’t Make the Cut” was about young athletes facing rejection and “Physicals Keep Athletes in the Game” explained what doctors look for during sports physicals.

That same year, Robert shared insights on his participation in the Phoenix Sister Cities program and many of us followed his blog posts during that trip. (We look forward to reading the next installments in his “Daily Occurences” travel blog when he leaves in July to spend six months studying in Argentina.)

Robert, who just completed his sophomore year at Boston College, will be with us for about six weeks before he heads to South America. During his internship, he will be writing for our collaborative Sports Roundtable blog, to which my husband Dan, who missed his calling as a sports reporter, periodically contributes. Dan and Robert teamed up in the multimedia department during Robert’s internship last summer, when they produced a great video piece about a high school football lineman competition.

I look forward to working with and getting to know our second summer intern, Sadie Smeck. Sadie is a graduate of Arcadia High School and currently is attending Washington University in St. Louis, where she will be a junior this fall, majoring in international studies and Spanish and minoring in writing. Although Washington University does not have a school of journalism, she is a reporter, writer and editor for the university’s independent newspaper, Student Life.

Sadie Smeck. Photo by Daniel Friedman. I have Vicki to thank for Sadie, too. Vicki introduced me by email  to Sadie, whom she described as “a family friend from our neighborhood, a good student and a hard worker.” While she’s with us this summer, Sadie will be covering community news, education and more.

In the “small world” department, it turns out that Account Executive Catherine Griffiths also knows Sadie. When Catherine showed up at work this morning (with her mom, who’s in town for Hunter Griffiths’ eighth-grade graduation), she immediately rushed over to greet Sadie warmly.

Turns out Catherine, whose older son Harlan has Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes, was once offered some very wise advice by Sadie’s mom, who was also navigating that journey because Sadie’s older sister lives with diabetes.

Read Catherine’s story, “What I Wish I’d Known about Managing My Son’s Diabetes.”

Proofreading lessons

Is it kid’s meals or kids’ meals or kids meals? That was the sticking point in November, when we published our annual “Kids Eat Free” directory.

Today, as I assembled seven proofreaders’ corrections to our June issue, there were questions about colons, capitalizations and hyphens.

One of my proofers noticed inconsistencies in how we were treating the first word following a colon. The rule is that a complete sentence following a colon requires a capitalized first word and a list (of words or phrases that are not complete sentences) does not. So this is correct:

What they found caught my attention: Men who had good memories of their relationships with their fathers while growing up better handled the stresses of adult life. (This is from a story about how dads can build good relationships with their children.)

And this is correct:

Other examples of adaptations: placing extra straps and pads on wheelchairs and walkers or re-wiring toys so a child who is unable to manipulate them can interact by touch or use a communication device… (From a story about Southwest Human Development’s new A.D.A.P.T. store.)

Moving on to our capitalization dilemma. When is a father “Dad” versus “dad”…?

Dad is capitalized only when used as a proper noun. So it’s “a dad” or “my dad” or “time spent with dad” (because you’re not talking about a specific dad but instead using the word as one would use the phrase “a dad”) … but “Dad (as in my dad, the guy I call “Dad” ) and I love fishing.”

Another capitalization catch: Our resident Francophile Mary Ann Bashaw noticed that we had used “french doors,” not “French doors” in a description of amenities at a hotel listed in our June issue’s directory of family-friendly resorts. The capitalized version is correct, as is French toast and French fries and French pedicure.

Another story in our June issue mentioned a “six-and-a-half pound baby.” It was missing a hyphen and should have been “six-and-a-half-pound baby.”

Enough for today. And by the way, it’s “kids meal.”

“Kid’s meal” means a meal that belongs to one child. “Kids’ meal” means one meal that belongs to a bunch of kids (and I would not want to negotiate that sharing lesson). “Kids meal” means a meal planned/prepared/priced (or whatever) to be appropriate for kids.

The gifts of writing

1979: Marbo Caves, Guam.

It has been a lot of years — more than 30 — since I have submitted a freelance article to an editor. The last time I did, as a senior year college student at the University of Guam, my approach was very different.

I typed my story, which was about an education program on the Northern Marianas island of Rota, on a manual typewriter. (I typed it several times, in fact, because I was unwilling to submit it with even a single typo or blot of Wite-Out.) I dropped my finished article in the mail at the campus post office. Several weeks later, when it was published in the Islander magazine section of the Pacific Daily News, I was overcome to see my words, and my name, in print.

For the past 21 years, as the editor of Raising Arizona Kids magazine, I have been on the other side of that experience. I’m the one who creates opportunities for writers, the one who makes decisions about whether something is worthy of pubication, the one who nurtures and encourages writers but also reluctantly wields the power to crush their confidence. So I approached my recent independent freelance assignment — a story about EthiopiaStudio, a design studio for sixth-year architecture students at ASU — with a great deal of reverence and care.

Continue reading

Post-a-day angst and the Weekly Photo Challenge: Light

Discipline is good. Obsession is not. I know this. Yet the message from The Daily Post at WordPress yesterday still had me tied up in knots.

“You’ve now completed 25% of the challenge!” it cheered, applauding the thousands of bloggers around the country who (like me) are trying to meet the challenge of writing a daily blog post. Three months down, nine to go. I should be feeling great. But I don’t, because I’ve already failed to meet the challenge. Two 24-hour periods escaped my attention, consumed by fatigue or other priorities.

Then came the April Fool’s Day prank. I wonder who thought it was funny to exponentially inflate the site stats? My tiny moment of hopeful elation was quickly deflated when I realized it was all a joke.

The hardest thing about blogging daily is finding the audacity to believe that you have something valuable to contribute to the universe. Many, many days I feel like that is far from the case. But I’m going to try again, starting today Maybe I’ll do better in my next 25% of the challenge.

So here’s my submission for the Weekly Photo Challenge, and my revenge on the person who suggested the April Fool’s Day joke: I spent part of my day taking pictures along the Batiquitos Lagoon Trail in Carlsbad, Calif. I’ll bet whoever inflated my site stats did not.

Questions about copyediting

Maggie Pingolt, a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications, called our office to ask if she could interview one of our copyeditors. Ours work on contract, so they aren’t typically in the office.

“I supervise the copyeditors,” I said. “Do you want to talk to me?” I was on my way out the door but we agreed to a time later that day to talk on the phone.

Being interviewed by someone isn’t a routine event for me. I’m used to being on the “asking questions” side of interviews and I was surprised to realize how hard it is to talk about the things you do and think about every day.

Maggie: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Me: Okay, this is kind of a joke, but not really. Keeping up with my email! I get so many hundreds of emails each day it’s beyond manageable. The rest of my job as editor is joyful. I like what I do. But the effort to keep up with my email is a constant source of stress and really eats up my time.

Maggie: Describe your office environment in one word.

Me: The first word that comes to mind is “crazy.” We always have a lot going on at once because we’re a really small staff trying to do the work of a bigger magazine. Call it “crazy,” “chaotic”…any way you can think of to say it that doesn’t make me sound like a lunatic. By the way, this isn’t going to published anywhere, is it?

Just then, our staff writer/photographer, Daniel Friedman, walked by my office door and I heard Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist call out, “Hi, fried man!”

Maggie: If you could change one aspect of copyediting, what would it be?

Me: These are hard questions! I guess the only thing I really wish I could change is that I wouldn’t miss things. We have several layers of copyeditors who read the magazine before it goes to press and yet there is no way to ever get it perfect. You’re never going to be able to change one thing that solves all the problems. You’re dealing with human beings and a complex language with all sorts of exceptions to rules. I like rules, stylebooks…they give me a sense of certainty as opposed to having to make judgment calls.

I wish copyediting didn’t take so long, but it does — to get it right. I wish it weren’t so important but it is. In this day and age, where everyone is throwing stuff up on the web without a second thought, I worry that the value of copyediting, and factchecking in particular, has been lost.

Maggie: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to go into the field of copyediting?

Me: Really know the basics — grammar, spelling…and understand how important factchecking is. Study the AP Stylebook, get the app on your iPhone and use it…basics! I can’t tell you how many freelance submissions I get on a daily basis with typos, grammatical errors, informal language…it’s disrespectful to an editor to be so sloppy. People don’t take the time they should. All writers should think of themselves as students who are trying to impress the teacher.

Maggie: What’s your biggest pet peeve as an editor?

Me: That’s an easy one: People who are sloppy. Sloppiness indicates disrespect…they couldn’t take the time. I’m a firm believer that you do something until it’s as good as it can be, and only then do you let it go.

Maggie: Are there specific examples of grammar or word-use errors that bother you?

Me: Things that bother me? “It’s” and “its”…a lot of people don’t get that you only use “it’s” when you mean “it is.” Not the possessive.

I cringe when I see “all right” spelled as one word: “alright.” And then “there,” “their,” “they’re”…people misuse those all the time.  I can’t stand run-on sentences…all of that drives me crazy.

We all make mistakes; don’t get me wrong. But when I see a freelance submission that has more than one or two it makes me want to claw my eyes out.

A journey past distractions

A little girl named Hannah was dancing around my table, her long, curly  hair bouncing as she dipped and swirled. When an older gentleman walked past us (who am I kidding — he was probably my age), he misstepped. His iced latte went flying out of his hand, crashing to the ground and spreading a milky river across the sidewalk.

Remarkably restrained, he walked back into the coffee shop to explain what had happened. A few minutes later, he exited a different door, a new drink in hand, calling “Thank you!” to the barrista. Another employee came out with a big bucket of soapy water, releasing it with a forward thrust to push the mess toward a small patch of grass.

Hannah danced closer to the soapy, light brown puddle, clearly intrigued.

“Stay away!” her mother shouted cheerfully from a nearby table, where she was enjoying a late afternoon coffee and chat with a friend. “It’s the alligator lagoon!” Hannah looked up, alarmed. Then she met her mother’s eyes and smiled, enjoying the joke.

For a few hours, this was my happy place: a coffee shop at a busy intersection in north Phoenix. A place where little girls danced and mommies talked and customers oogled pastries as they debated how many shots of espresso and how many pumps of syrup they wanted in $4 coffee drinks.

I, too, had an expensive iced coffee, though mine was free because I belong to the “frequent buyers club” and they send me a postcard offer for a free drink every year near my birthday. I held onto my card for two weeks, waiting for a special occasion. Today felt right.

I sipped my drink (more milkshake than coffee), popped earbuds in my ears and pulled out my laptop. Blenders whirred loudly. The music of the Eurythmics (“Here Comes the Rain Again”) was jarringly loud. I wondered if I’d even be able to concentrate.

But when I pushed “play” on my recorder I was instantly transported. As I listened to an interview I’d conducted several months ago, I remembered the emotion of that meeting, the clarity of purpose I’d observed in my subject. I listened, typed, replayed, listened and typed some more, bracketing new questions that occurred to me and adding observations I thought I’d long forgotten but which now came flooding back.

I typed until my right hand index finger was stiff and numb. Until I, too, found a place of clarity. Until the sun started down on an almost perfect day and I knew it was time to get home for dinner.

The agony of uncertainty

I get it now. I understand what I’m doing to people when I dawdle and drag my feet and wring my hands and don’t get to it. When the pile is too high or the queue is too long or I’m just not sure what I want to do.

When I procrastinate, avoid making decisions, delay responding and keep other people in limbo because I’m overwhelmed, distracted, tired or uncertain. When the effort to make a decision — and communicate that decision to someone who’s waiting with bated breath — just seems like more than I can manage.

Now I know what it feels like to be on the other side of the writer/editor equation. To be the person who’s not in charge of the decision but the one who offers herself up to be judged. To be the person who carefully does the research, learns everything she can about a magazine, reads the writer’s guidelines, spends a full day writing a query letter and offers up her story idea for publication.

And then waits. And waits. And waits some more. With nary a “we are in receipt of …” message in return. To wonder if it’s okay to write again (perhaps the email didn’t make it through?) or if that will be perceived as pushy. To take a deep breath, wait a month, write again and still hear nothing back. To repeat that process two more times.

To give up. To wonder why she tried in the first place. To question her goals, her ability, her basic worth as a human being.

Sometimes editors ignore writers because the writers aren’t very good — or have so blatantly failed to respect published guidelines for submission that the editor feels no sense of obligation to respond.

But sometimes, sometimes…editors are just busy.

And finally, five months later, the writer gets a message saying, “We want to publish your story.” And the floodgates of doubt fling open, completely overrun by the sheer joy of affirmation.

Two months down, 10 to go

Usually when I get an email that starts with the word “congratulations,” I quickly hit “delete.” I sure it’s some bogus message designed to make me think I’ve won something I haven’t so someone can try to sell me something I don’t need and never wanted.

But this time the praise came from WordPress. Though it felt like a much-needed pat on the back for me alone, it was actually addressed to “the thousands of you who are still going strong with Post a Day and Post a Week.”

It’s been 59 days since I took the 2011 Post a Day Challenge. Two months down, 10 to go.

Blogging daily isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s downright excruciating. Often I find myself wondering why I took on this challenge, especially when I spend so many other hours in my day staring at a computer screen. Or when I can’t think of anything to write about. Or when I’d rather be doing anything else — including working on taxes, doing laundry or cleaning the cat litter box — instead of sitting down to that blank screen.

I’ve learned some things along the way, though, that make it a bit easier. I’ve learned that writing a daily blog means thinking about topics 24/7. It means scribbling notes or writing myself emails when a thought surfaces, even if I’m not sure where it might go.

It means finding themes to which you can return. Sometimes I write about what’s going on at work. Sometimes I revisit my  trip to Ethiopia last summer or my father’s unpublished book, or movies I’ve seen, or books on my nightstand.

It means finding a time of day for writing that works for my life. I started out thinking I needed to write in the early morning hours, when I am least fatigued and my thoughts are most clear. I’ve found, instead, that I do better at night when I don’t face the pressure of preparing for the day ahead.

I’ve learned that you have to give up something to honor a daily writing commitment. I used to spend my evenings catching up on the newspaper, working crossword puzzles or watching my favorite TV shows. I don’t spend much time doing any of that these days.

But I’ve learned that you gain something, too, by writing daily. On the days I’m least satisfied with my writing I still feel a sense of accomplishment because I didn’t give up. And on the best days, the days that I sit down with no inspiration at all but end up with words and phrases that help me understand something better, I feel a sense of internal validation that is far more satisfying than a spike in blog stats or a kind comment from a reader.

So this is how it feels about hitting the two-month mark. It feels like I’m running my first marathon and somehow, miraculously, I’m still keeping up with the elite runners at the front of the pack. I’m gasping and stumbling but every once in awhile I get a sense of what it feels like to be “in the zone.” It comes at unexpected moments and is completely beyond my control. But the knowledge that it’s out there waiting — maybe just around the next bend in the road — makes the sweat and toil of the daily workout completely worth it.

Pet peeves about press releases – #1

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my list of “Top 10 Terrible Ways to Pitch a Story.” The post (“Want to Impress an Editor? What Not To Do…”) was directed at freelance writers, a great many of whom apparently missed seeing it because they continue to send emails violating absolutely every one of my rules, especially number eight.

Today I’m launching a rant about press releases. The next few posts will be directed at public relations professionals and people who do their own PR because they can’f afford to hire the real deal. Whether you’re a PR pro, a publicity-seeking business owner or a parent seeking media attention for an event at your child’s school, there are effective (and not-so-effective) ways to make your pitch.

If you were sitting in a room with me right now, I would position myself at eye level and tell you to “listen to my words,” which is how I always used to make sure my sons were paying attention to me when they were small.

“I will always love you,” I would say. “You are often my eyes and ears in a very large ocean of ideas. The best of you teach me, engage my curiosity, inspire me to find creative applications for your information and generally make my life easier.”

“However,” I would add, “I don’t always like you. Sometimes you waste my time and clutter my inbox and make me crazy.”

Now, repeat after me:

I will not blanket my entire media list with press releases just because I have the snazzy technology to do so.

Nothing is more disheartening to an already correspondence-overloaded editor than seeing emailed press releases that have absolutely nothing to do with your publication or its intended audience.

I run a parenting magazine. I don’t care about luncheon specials in Maui or “industry statements” on retiring politicians or the latest on some celebrity’s quest to lose weight. Your information is getting deleted as quickly as it comes in. It is wasting precious minutes of my life and is likely getting the “mark as junk mail” treatment, which means if you ever do take the time to pitch an idea with a good fit for us it’s quite likely I will never see your email.

Even if your idea is a good fit for our publication, you can bet I’m going to give it less attention if you have included me on a broadcast list. Why do I want to undertake a story that you have offered up to every other media outlet in town?  I understand the necessity of this approach for hard news. It is essential, and only fair, that every newspaper, radio/TV station and news-oriented website or blog get equal timing and access to information from hospitals, police/fire departments and any other organization involved in breaking news events. And it’s also fine when all you’re seeking is a calendar listing to send it to everyone you can think of.

But when you’re pitching a special feature story, asking that we interview an interesting person you represent or researching a trend about which your client has relevant information, my first question will be, “Who else have you sent this to?” Because any journalist worth their salt wants to get a good story first. So think long and hard about the best place for your client’s information to appear. Start there.

Study the stories these outlets do publish and figure out how your client’s story fits the mix. For a magazine like mine, suggest a particular department (which shows me you’ve done your homework). I’m much more receptive to someone who pitches a story about a new business, for example, if they mention what a great fit it might be for the RAK Mompreneur features we run on our website each Monday.

Tomorrow: Choose your words carefully.