A few years ago I decided to get "serious" about this writing thing. I went to my local library and checked out every book they had on writing. Saving the creative writing for another day, I found three general categories of business writing:
1) The business of writing
These are books on how to research publications, how to read a magazine masthead, how to make the pitch, how to write a cover letter, and so on. Some of them deal with getting money from publications that don't want to pay, how to live on a shoe-string writer's budget, and advice on little things like "get used to rejection." Of course with dead-tree books for five years ago, they also included some quaint advice like "be sure to paperclip, not staple your manuscript."
Outside of the letter I wrote
to Dragon Magazine in 1990, I've never sent in a physical letter. It's always been email. (Bottom-Right of Page 26 to top-left, 27. No comment on my social skills at that age, but even at fourteen I sure did like to end with a zinger, eh?)
One thing I found fascinating about the business of writing books was that they would not discuss, and sometimes actively avoid, what actually happens when you sit down at a keyboard. Sometimes they would be actively dismissive of it; I remember reading things like "Once you have the sale made, the contract signed, all your interviews done and quotes lined up, the time you'll actually spend typing is only a small fraction of the writing process." The implication being that it isn't really all that important.
There's some truth to that, at least in that once I've got an idea in my head the writing sort of "happens." But I think there was more going on than that; at least one of the writing books said that the actual practice of writing was "highly personal" and different for everyone, and they really couldn't help much with it. That's why, when I find books in the next category, I enjoy them so much.
2) The craft of writing.
Two books that really stick out to me are Stephen King's On Writing
and Jerry Weinberg's The Fieldstone Method
. These books actually talk about what separates good writing from bad; they also do it in a personal way. King tells you about how to craft stronger words and ideas, where Weinberg helps you get started. Strunk and White's Elements of Style
is another in this genre, but I found it to be a little dry for me. King and Weinberg, I'd read for fun.
But there's a third category of book on writing that you don't hear about as much, that I think deserves a little attention.
3) Books on publishing Formats
Especially magazine formats. Over the years, I've done a modest amount of publishing, and when that happens, people send you manuscripts, and that's fine. I take it as a compliment. Most of the time, I offer some suggestions for improvement; sometimes, if the piece is especially promising, I'll try to make some introductions to a publisher.
And sometimes, the piece just can't be saved. The most common reason is because the author simply wrote his opinion for a few thousand words, without considering format. It might make a good blog post, but I don't see it fitting into any classic magazine format -- and, I'm sorry to say, in most cases, that's the kiss of death. (With some of today's PDF and e-magazines, who knows -- you could get lucky.)
But you don't need to read a book on magazine formats; you could just read a few paragraphs, reverse-engineer a magazine or two in your dentist's office, and be off to the races. Yesterday I put a short, descriptive list on the writing about testing google group
, and I thought I would share it here as well.
So here you have matt's informal list of magazine formats:
Let's say you want to write something on selenium. You could write:
A) The howto. Probably the most common.
Example: "Selenium RC for fun and profit"
B) The interview. A 'journalist' asks questions to an 'expert'.
Example: "The why of selenium - with Jason Huggins"
C) Point-Counterpoint. Like the interview, but we pit two 'experts' against each other
Example: "Selenium Vs. QTP Smackdown!"
C) The Big List.
Example: "Top Ten Reasons to use selenium"
D) The Essay. Common in testing. 600-1,200 words, typically exactly
one page. In essays, you are allowed to be opinionated and take a stand for things. Many magazines have a back page editorial. Here's a good essay on essays: http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html
E) The page of definitions. ST&Pedia
started out this way, and still has a bit of this 'feel'
Those were the more common ones. Here are a couple rarer forms:
F) The Profile piece. Rare in testing. More common in women's interest magazines. "I sat down with Jason Huggins at his West Texas Ranch to discuss selenium, his issues with Thoughtworks, Google, what he was doing next, and the secret idea that makes him smile." Like an interview, but written in first person, these generally also include private details of home life, clothing worn, etc. really not popular in technology circles, but you might find an example in Wired.
G) Long-Form Journalism. 2,500-4,000 words. Also not popular in technical magazines. Most of Malcolm Gladwell's
writing is long-form journalism; it's basically editorial, but also investigatory in nature. In long-form journalism, you take an issue, pull out quotes from both sides, and try to present an issue objectively. (You can find long-form journalism on blogs, in mass-market magazines, and in plenty of best selling books. So if you want to write in that format, that's great -- but technology magazines might not be the best market for your work.)
Be careful, though, as the desire to appear objective often manifests as not taking a side. Example: "Traffic. A crosswalk would slow automobiles, but might be more safe. Then again, there aren't really many accidents in the area. One thing is certain: This is a complex subject" How is the reader supposed to respond, exactly?
H) Another format that you don't see much of in testing is the Short Story, but BetterSW was doing that for awhile with "Management Chronicles." A great example of that genre is the early work of Victor Stone
I like the short story format when you want to write something that the other side might not "get" for ideological reasons. So you use an anecdote and use humor.
So that's my quick review of magazine formats. Of course, I'm compressing multiple hundred-page tomes into a blog post, so I'm sure there's loss involved, but the basics of writing a piece for publication are having an idea, having a twist or "hook" for the idea that makes it unique, picking a format, then getting the intro down. After that, well, there isn't much left to the process of sitting and typing.
haha. Just kidding. There's a lot to the process. We'll just cover it another day.
In the mean time, if you want to get started on something, drop me a note. We can always use good writing and ST&P.