How to interview like a maestro

Sarah Kanowski is a presenter for ABC Radio National’s very popular Conversations. This was in the Review section of The Australian, May 11-12 2019. It sums up beautifully how to interview somebody.

“Find someone who has an interesting story to tell. This will be almost everybody. Greet your guest warmly, offer them a cup of tea and make sure they are sitting comfortably. When they are ready you may begin. To ask a question, make it a question – not your own opinion. It works best if the questions are short and open-ended: Why? What happened next? What did you see? What could you hear?  Have a sense of where you want the conversation to head but keep an ear out for the unexpected. Don’t worry about what you are going to ask next, listen instead to what you are being told. Listen also to what your guest is perhaps not saying in the answers they give. Ask about that. Look for stories, zoom in on the details that shine, but don’t get stuck on the trivial. Notice when your enthusiasm sparks. Let curiosity and empathy be your guides. Prodding is OK, pushing is not. Don’t approach  your guest like a boxer in the ring; don’t try to make them trip on their shoelace. If they sit back in their chair and gaze out the window while talking, this is a good sign, They are turning away from you and walking back into their memories. If they find themselves hit with grief, don’t interrupt. Give that sadness space. Join them in the joy. Without leaving your seat, stand next to them as they look (with wonder, curiosity, regret) at this thing that is their life.”

Writing True Stories


Patti Miller has created the complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction

Great cover design!

People who have attended Patti Miller’s highly rated memoir-writing workshops have recommended this book to me to me more than once. I’ll admit to not having read it cover to cover yet. But I want to approach it like a course in creative nonfiction writing and work through it systematically.

Writing True Stories grew out of writing workshops the author ran at Varuna, the Writer’s House in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. And this shows in its practical approach, as it is written as a series of workshops, covering sources, voice, structure, narrative and style and editing.

Take the masterclass

Part Two consists of masterclasses that extend the skills in the first part. It deals with genre: memoir, creative nonfiction, essay and more. The last (brief) chapter is about publishing. Miller writes about commercial publication and self-publishing and how to present your work to agents and publishers. Although there’s a lot more that could be said about publishing, that’s best left to a another book.


A reading list and a page of useful contacts rounds out Writing True Stories. I can’t wait to get started on honing my skills before I get my project, now at the research stage, underway.

Listening to ‘Truth, bullsh*t and weasel words’


It has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the fact that I can’t stand corporate speak.

Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.

This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.

And along came Trump

Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.

So what’s the answer?

The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.

And those weasel words?

I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:

  • impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
  • window of opportunity
  • appropriate and/or inappropriate

You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:

‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’

If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.

Mark Tredinnick’s Little Red Writing Book

There are many books, courses and workshops that teach writing. I’ve found many of them inspiring, motivating and full of great tips. For my money, this book is the best.

I’d advise anybody who wants to write better to sign up for a face-to-face course in the first instance. In Sydney, Writing NSW and the Australian Writers’ Centre both offer excellent courses on a range of genres, both creative and for business purposes. Varuna in the Blue Mountains has wonderful literary programs. In any face-to-face course, you’ll benefit from the interaction with other writers as well as from the course content.

Great add-on to a face-to-face course

The Little Red Writing Book is a great add-on to any writing course. And if you can’t do a course in person, it’s an extremely good substitute. It’s approach is that good sentences are the basis of all good writing. Any writing, from business reports to scripts for your podcast, starts with sentence construction. Clarity is vital, style is everything.

Tredinnick writes both clearly and poetically, so working through The Little Red Writing Book is a joy. It has plenty of writing exercises (do them!) and examples, and processes to help you get your writing project out of your head and into shareable form.

There are six chapters. Try setting yourself the goal of working through one chapter a month. By September you will be a much better writer, guaranteed.

The Little Red Writing Book has a sibling: The Little Green Grammar Book. Catch up on everything they should have taught you in school.

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

How to write it, sell it and market it…successfully!

By Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry



This expert guide to getting your book published is packed with helpful information for new writers, would-be writers and those who have already published. The authors are simultaneously editors, literary agents and published writers. The first edition was published in 2005. This one, updated in 2015, takes the huge shifts that happened in the industry in those 10 years into account and includes ebooks and how to deal with social media. Although it’s written for the American market, most of it applies to publishing in Australia too.

The guide pinpoints what I aim to do for my writer clients to help them to get their work into shape to submit to publishers or for self-publishing. Read about the levels of edit most professional editors offer here.

“Outside editors, a.k.a. book doctors, diagnose, treat and help you fix your book.”

One of the book’s strengths – and there are many – is that it has sound advice no matter what you want to publish, from cookbook to potboiler, business manual to poetry volume. It’s not a writing manual, but a practical (and pragmatic) how-to.

Publishing success comes from four basic principles:

  1. Research. Not just your subject matter, but what else is out there and who might publish your book. Do this and … your odds of getting published will go from nearly nil to extremely decent
  2. Network. Use your people skills to find the right publisher, create buzz, reach your readers and sell books. I believe this has become critical for successful publishing. The days of the cloistered author are well and truly over.
  3. Write. While this seems obvious, the authors say it’s the one thing published writers told them over and over. Get your ideas down on paper and keep at it.
  4. Persevere. You will have to deal with rejection. Probably a lot of rejection. As the authors say, ‘please, don’t quit five minutes before the miracle’.

The Day We Built the Bridge

 

Children’s picture book   Written by Samantha Tidy    Illustrated by Fiona Burrows

My son was about 10 and we were crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge by train. ‘We’re so lucky to be on a world-famous landmark’, he said. We were, and we were privileged to be able to see its distinctive arch most days from the corner of the street behind our road. Now that he’s an adult, he realises that growing up so close to this iconic structure  was a huge privilege.

Samantha Tidy and Fiona Burrows have captured the outlines of the story of building the Sydney Harbour Bridge through the eyes of a child, from the need in 1890 , the idea, to the construction and finally to the cutting of the ribbon in 1932. The text is sparing, and just as the bridge’s two sides curved across the harbour to create connection, the words come together with the illustrations to tell a story of need, idea, effort, dreams, longing, striving and achievement.

The hardcover book is beautiful to hold and the illustrations are filled with detail that slowly reveals itself, from the endpapers illustrated with native flowers to the period posters for Arnott’s biscuits and Koala tea. It’s a lovely book for sharing with children in your life and will appeal to a wide age range, including children older than the traditional picture book reader. The book is a good spur for family discussions about a range of topics, from history, the First World War and construction methods used in the 1920s, to the place of dreams, needs, effort, achievement and celebration in our lives.

Publication date is 1 February 2019, and you will find teachers’ notes and be able to order signed copies at samanthatidy.com.

 

8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer

Mark Brandi is the author of the award-winning novel Wimmera, described by one reviewer as ‘a dark and disturbing story from a substantial new talent’. It’s both a crime thriller and a coming of age story, set in rural Victoria. Recently he discussed what it’s like to be an author at a wonderfully relaxed session at Varuna the Writer’s House in the Blue Mountains.

Picture of cover of Wimmera by Mark Brandi

Wimmera by Mark Brandi

1. It’s true: write what you know.

This maxim holds if you want your work to be the best it can be. Wimmera’s closely observed reflection of small-town life feels all the more real because the author grew up in rural Victoria. He captures both how free this life is for kids, who can go yabbying and stay out until dark; and how claustrophobic it is for adults when the world closes in on them. He also draws on his experience in the criminal justice system as an advisor to the police minister, and the experience of his three brothers, all of whom work in the police and justice system. But remember, you don’t have to have experienced every single thing you write about either.

2. Find a way – and it might be unconventional.

Mark gave up a full-time job as a policy advisor, enrolled in a writing course and – wait for it – WON $50,000 ON MILLIONAIRE HOTSEAT!* And by guessing the final answer! He could have ignored the entry form his brother sent him, but instead, without telling anybody, he applied for this most unlikely source of literary funding for his new life as an author. He doesn’t suggest you give up your day job, but the point is to make it happen if you’re serious about being an author. Find an hour a day or a couple of hours at the weekend. Join that writer’s group. Apply for those residencies that will give you some time out to focus on your writing.

3. Use the support and inspiration that’s out there.

Attend courses and writer’s festivals. Take a look at everything Varuna has to offer, from one-off events to fellowships. Two residential fellowships at Varuna helped Mark to develop the manuscript for Wimmera. Join Writing NSW. See what the Australian Writers Centre has on offer.

4. You can start with a short story.

Mark’s book began as a short story called To Skin a Rabbit (click to listen to the RN audio version).  Two of the main characters in the novel continued to haunt him after he had written the short story. He pursued them, and Wimmera is the result. Often aspiring writers are told to focus on either novels or short stories as their demands are so different. Break the rule. If finishing a short story will inspire you to get that novel out, go for it!

5. Enter competitions and awards.

If nothing else, it will give you the discipline to work to deadlines and get your writing finished. You may even win! Plus, you will attract interest from publishers if you are shortlisted. When Mark won the 2016 Debut Dagger, publishers contacted him. But…

6. Get used to rejection.

Don’t take it personally. Use any feedback you get to learn and to improve your writing. Mark submitted his book to different publishers and programs and got plenty of what he described as ‘nice rejections’. Some of them contained useful feedback, which he took into account as he reworked Wimmera. Instead of regarding rejection letters as negative, consider what they have to say and try to act on the feedback. Publishers may say no for a range of reasons, and many of them have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Keep going.

7. Enjoy the editing process.

I know, it can feel a bit like the teacher got out her red pen and pointed out all your errors, but editors bring perspective and loads of experience to your work as well as fixing your grammar and punctuation. Mark described how an editor researched and corrected details in a scene in which he described a cricket match on TV in the background to a scene in Wimmera. You can be sure one reader will be an expert in almost anything you write about and errors undermine the quality and credibility of an author’s writing. I recently read a book which had the name of one of my uni mates spelled incorrectly. It’s not hard to check that. My reaction was to wonder what else in the book was inaccurate. A good editor will fact check everything as well as look at the broad scope of your work, switching between a sweeping overview and a microscopic focus on detail

8. Revel in being an outsider and an introvert, if that’s what you are.

Mark was from the only Italian family in town. School was tough and he was bullied and excluded. But, as he said it, the excluded tend to be sharp and thoughtful observers. Use what you see and hear around you every day to inform your characters and your stories. Mark does this so well, conveying how children cannot and do not understand adult motivations, how the adult world is inscrutable to his characters in boyhood, and using this point of view to drive the narrative in Wimmera.

Varuna The Writers' House in Katoomba

Varuna Writers’ House

I learned so much from Mark Brandi’s generous sharing of his experience at Varuna’s Open House Day. There were other sessions, including one that explained Varuna’s programs and included a speaker from the Australia Council who fund writers and writers’ organisations. Above all, it inspired me to stop dreaming get back to my desk and write. I hope these 8 tips help you do the same.

*Writer Melissa Lukashenko also won big on Millionaire Hotseat. Read about it here.

The time-saving magic of an editorial style guide

style guides

How a style guide saves you time and money and helps you communicate your brand

When I edit material for different clients, I could spend a lot of time deciding whether to use Oxford commas, capitalise job titles, or start a sentence with ‘And’. Fortunately, I am usually given an editorial style guide to follow. I add a style sheet, where I record all the decisions I make as I go along. Using a style guide means I don’t confuse different clients’ house styles, and I don’t have to check back through the document to check what I did the last time I made a change. It’s all there in the editorial style guide.

Why use an editorial style guide?

An editorial style guide saves time

An editorial style guide is essential when you are trying to write clear, consistent, professional content that communicates your brand. Using a style guide cuts time spent on the mechanics of writing, freeing you up to concentrate on your great ideas. Multi-author documents will have a coherent tone and style, because you share the style guide with anybody who creates content for your organisation. That means less time spent briefing contributors and editing reports or newsletters.

Media organisations, publishers, universities and governments have style guides hundreds of pages long. Most small businesses don’t need that level of detail. A simple style guide that covers the most important points is enough. As you grow, you can add to the guide as needed. Remember, it’s not a grammar manual, but a record of the preferred usage in your organisation.

An editorial style guide is a live document

Language changes – sometimes quite fast. Writing ‘e-mail’ seems antiquated now, but that hyphen was considered correct not that long ago. Don’t be afraid to update your style, and use the style sheet to record your changes. Make sure everybody has the up-to-date version.

The style sheet is also useful for recording any industry-specific terms and abbreviations you use. I use mine to keep track of the spellings and usages I constantly stumble over. I edit with the style sheet for a particular client to hand, so I have a ready list of their specific usages. A style sheet in use may look like this.

Using a simple style sheet helps you track your editing decisions

Please download a copy of my editorial style guide, and feel free to add as needed.


Download  your editorial style guide here


An editorial style guide will help you to:

  • Establish the ‘voice’ of your brand
  • Collaborate effectively with other authors
  • Be consistent in communicating with your clients
  • Save time when creating content

Do you have a style questions? Please contact me and I will help .

Mind your language! A handy list of substitutes for some tired workplace jargon

Managerial language, suitspeak, weasel words… it’s hard to say exactly what we dislike about them, and why we groan inwardly when we hear one. They start as buzzwords, then worm their way into our consciousness and become part of our own language. When it’s time to write a report or blog post, we can’t find an alternative.

Here’s a short list of some clichés to avoid like the plague (did you see what I did there?) and some substitutes.

They won’t work in every situation, because clear writing depends largely on context and audience. Try them when next you write an article for social media or copy for your website. You might find your prose starts to cut through the noise, like an opera singer at a football game.

The examples I’ve used were collected over two days on LinkedIn and Facebook, plus a couple of websites I routinely consult.

But what’s wrong with these terms?

1. Sometimes your readers/customers won’t understand the terminology you use because it’s just not part of their world. Some of them are just plain hard to understand.

2. Their tone is often evasive and indirect. Most of the time, plain, direct language would be more suited to what you’re trying to convey. Here’s a real example:

‘[xxx] gives you and your account manager visibility over which elements of your content marketing are actually working by collecting data across all your activities.’

If they said something like the following I would understand what they propose to do for me – and I’d be more likely to feel I could work with them.

You and your account manager can see what parts of your content marketing are effective, because we measure them for you.

And, most importantly,

3. It makes you sound just like everybody else. Content marketing is everywhere. Just one platform, LinkedIn, had 467 million users at last count. That’s a lot of competition for attention. Why sound like a corporate drone when you can say things in a fresh, original style?

Words to stop using. Just don’t.

Innovate. Everybody’s innovating so routinely that the term has become meaningless. Same for passionate, iconic, savvy and unicorns. Challenges and solutions. They’re tired and worn out, so give them a rest.

There’s a great book on the topic. In Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon, author Steven Poole says that while there’s nothing wrong with jargon in context, we can ‘fight back against the filthy tide of verbal slurry that treats us like idiotic automata every day’.

The battle starts with you.

What workplace words do you find unbearable? Do you have a simpler substitute?