Friday, 16 September 2011

Don't Know? Look it Up

Today my guest post is from my very good friend and research guru, Maureen Vincent-Northam. Her advice is invaluable for all writers, whether researching for an article, non-fiction book or even fiction.

Don't Know? Look it Up

Some words have a certain writery ring about them: muse, reflection, creativity, contemplation. Others are less inspiring: tedium, frustration, research.

Okay, let’s leave tedium and frustration at the bottom of the pile – like frilly shirts and fitted sheets when we do the ironing – and take a closer look at research. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I grant you, but stay with me here.

When Lorraine and I wrote The Writer’s ABC Checklist, we carried out a whole heap of the stuff. As authors of a guide to professional presentation, it was vital that we got our facts right; there were many things we had to check (and we checked out many sources and took advice from publishing professionals) before we were satisfied we’d got the correct information.

But research isn’t confined to reference books. Even in works of fiction, a reader will expect your facts to be spot on – there’s always some clever dick ready to point out that, actually, your hero couldn’t have used Morse Code in 1786 and your heroine may have been pioneering and avant-garde but she wasn’t flogging teabags in her corner shop in 1902.

When writing stories, where an overview of a particular period is all you need, the children’s section of your local library is a hard act to follow. Books covering the Romans, Tudors, Victorians and just about any other era, will tell you how they lived, what they wore, and whether or not they sold teabags.

Tracking down info for any work, be it a novel or a non-fiction book, an article or a short story, can be time consuming. The secret is to prioritise and break down your search into practical and workable chunks.

  • When using the Internet, look for websites run by associations, societies and official fan clubs of the people or subjects you’re covering, as these will have the most reliable data.
  • Use primary sources rather than secondary ones. A primary source is the original – the secondary has been written using the original source in some way. And a transcript of an original document may contain errors.
  • Gather info from more than one book if you are researching this way and check the bibliographies to ensure the writers haven’t taken their information from the same source, thus perpetuating inaccuracies.
  • Gather the views of more than one expert to lessen the risk of biased data and personal opinion over facts.
  • Be very careful that you are not citing old facts and figures, as newer research may mean this material has become obsolete.
A final, and pretty darned clever, tip. When even reputable sources differ on dates or measurements, you don’t need to risk getting it wrong; it’s still possible to be correct without being specific. For example: The church was built in the latter half of the 13th century or the limo was twice the length of two average family saloons.

MaureenVincent-Northam has been published in newspapers, international magazines and on the Web, contributing regularly to markets aimed at writers. She is the author of Trace your Roots and co-authored The Writer’s ABC Checklist. She won The Writers’ Advice Centre for Children’s Books 2008 competition and her short stories and poetry have appeared in a number of anthologies. Maureen is also a freelance editor, has judged online writing contests, and tutored writing workshops.

The Writer’s ABC Checklist

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Pressing for publicity

Geoff from Carlisle says: I have self-published a novel and want to arrange some publicity. I got in touch with the local paper and the editor said to send in a press release. This is great, but I have no idea how to go about it.

A press release is an extremely effective way of garnering some free publicity. The main function of a press release from the newspaper’s point of view is slightly different to yours. You want it to promote your book; the newspaper is looking for newsworthy, interesting and pertinent information of benefit to its readers. So your press release won’t find favour if it comes across as a straightforward blatant advertisement for your book.

With a bit of luck, the editor will use your press release as the basis for a longer or shorter feature of their own. However, you need to bear in mind that it might get run it as it is – word for word. Because of this, you have to write your story as you would like to see it published. This means keeping it concise, pithy, but, above all, error-free.

Write in the third person, present it in double line spacing, use an acceptable font, such as Times New Roman or Arial and keep it to one page, if at all possible.

Write PRESS RELEASE in capitals and centre it at the top of the page. Below this, indicate when the release can be used. This will be the date when your book is available; if that is straight away, write ‘for immediate use’.

Under this comes the all-important headline which should describe the content of the press release in a nutshell. Sharp, concise, and amusing headlines are the most attention-grabbing. Type it in bold and centre it on the page.

The first paragraph contains a brief summary of what the press release is about and this is followed by more detail in consecutive paragraphs. Explain the book’s theme in a few words, what inspired you to write it, and your interests and experience in the field. Enliven the release by including a piece of information as a direct quote.

At the bottom of the page, write your contact details including a phone number and/or email address, so that you can be contacted immediately if the editor needs further information.

Include a picture of the book cover and a head and shoulders shot of yourself. Write a caption for each, and submit with the editorial.

It’s important to consider the timing of your press release. Magazines may not have space to include your editorial for several weeks, or longer, if it’s a monthly publication. Local press, on the other hand, might be persuaded to run the story to coincide with a book signing, an appearance on local radio, or a talk or demonstration held locally.

The Writer’s ABC Checklist

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Avoid this writing scam

Janice from Blackburn sent in a question that seems to be coming up more frequently recently – and it’s a worrying trend. She writes: I have subscribed to a freelance site where we have to bid for writing jobs. Many of these jobs specify quite low rates of pay, which I ignore, but there are others where the pay rate seems fair, but in the bid we are asked to supply a newly written sample article on the subject stated in the job offer, for which the bidder will not get paid. Do you think this is a scam, even though the lucky writer who gets taken on will (presumably) receive a fair payment for future work?

Janice, I’ve seen such job offers on numerous sites and very often the job is never awarded to anyone – and why would it be when the so-called employer has collected enough free work to use for a long time to come? Usually the brief says the sample article has to be able to pass Copyscape to prove it’s not been copied, which sounds fair until you think about it a bit more. I’ve noticed that these jobs sometimes get over a hundred bids, which means the person asking for samples has received that number of free (freshly written) articles.

Assuming the articles are used in a print publication somewhere on the other side of the world, or even on a website, the chances of the writer being able to claim payment for their work are not high.

Don’t reply to such job offers. If the person seeking a writer asks for samples of your work, send them something that has already been published, for which you have been paid, and state where and when it appeared. No reputable employer would ask for newly written samples, but would be only too happy to look at your previous writing clips to judge your ability to undertake the task.

The Writer’s ABC Checklist