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Shop talk (anything and everything on writing)

Just write it

newspaper picture
Sometimes, when you sit down at a blank screen, it’s hard to know what to write. And then I remember the advice I was given on my first day as a reporter, after being allocated a desk (plain, wooden, stained, wonky back leg) a typewriter (Adler, pale blue, size of a badger) a spike (a spike) and a sheaf of reports about the latest meetings of the local branches of the Women’s Institute.
‘Write an intro,’ explained Max, the chief reporter. ‘Put down all the facts in order of importance, and when you come to the end, stop.’
I listened enthralled. I was a reporter. I was going to write a story on a typewriter, like they did in the films. ‘Right, right, right,’ I said, ‘And what kind of a conclusion do I write?’ One of the senior reporters sniggered. Max sighed. And so I learnt the basics of writing copy.
Intros: short, snappy, and as up to date as possible. Not, for example, Last week Mrs Rothwell presided over the tea at an interesting meeting of the Drayton Bulgy women’s institute. Max pointed out, with commendable patience, that the fact that one of the members had set fire to their hair was possibly the item that would most grab people’s attention.
Body copy: expand intro, keep sentences short and to the point. If you have a quote, put it in the third par. One of the members, Lydia Parsnip said: ‘At first, Mrs Smith had no idea she was sitting too close to the candle display. However, there was no great harm done as organ player Marjorie Snitterfield threw the fire bucket over her.’
Last few pars: whatever is most expendable. Next week’s talk will be on dolls’ underwear through the ages. This is because, in the days of hot metal, working out exactly how much space a story would take was an inexact science, relying on an em rule, a facility with numbers, and the hope that the subs hadn’t spent too long a lunchtime in the Swan. If, when the comps came to make up the forme (the metal template for the page) the type didn’t fit, the story would be cut from the bottom up and the extra type would get melted down to make type for another story.
Nowadays, computers can make copy fit to within a gnat’s arse (traditional piece of newspaper terminology there, for you) but the basic rules still apply. Tomorrow’s talk will be Lace doilies: Fact or fiction?

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About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I like to; even when I can't think of much to say.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “Just write it

  1. It’s just like fiction…you want to arrange your story in such a way as to lead the reader through to the end. A snappy opening, a breadcrumb trail of interesting happenings leading through to the end, though I think if someone was in the habit of chopping off the end of fiction stories we’d have a much, much smaller audience! I’m enjoying your blog, your keen observations and your wit. Thank you!

    Posted by Jordan Michael Palmer | October 11, 2013, 11:58 am
  2. Yes, I remember doing a writing course where we had to describe, in minute detail, the room we were in. That was such an eye-opener for me; looking at stuff I took for granted (it was distance course, so I was in my bedroom) and suddenly having to think what I felt about it. Thanks for calling!

    Posted by elainecanham | September 29, 2013, 12:20 pm
  3. You wanna be a writer?… then write something! Good advice from my first Arvon course, appropriately titled “Starting to Write”. I admit it’s different for a reporter, but when you want to be a writer, pure and simple, you don’t have to wait until you have a story in your head. You can just look out of the window and write about what you see, or sit in a cafe and write about what you hear.

    Posted by Jools | September 29, 2013, 12:16 pm

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