I’ve heard from some writers that they can only write when the mood strikes them and words magically flow from their fingertips onto the paper.
They say when that happens, no editing is needed; however, Truman Capote once quipped, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I’m in agreement. In fact, I’ve not met a single, published author who has ever said that their work comes effortlessly. In fact, just the opposite. Good writing may be a labor of love, no doubt, but with emphasis on the labor.
“Writing is like giving birth to a bale of barbed wire.” — Author Philip Yancey
It is fine to let the words flow, if they will, but then one must take time to massage the work, kneading it into a truly well-written piece. I find that editing and revising my work comes easier if I review it in twelve steps. Here are the steps that work for me:
- I review the piece first, just looking for uninteresting verbs and…
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The stage is unlit. Anticipation crackles in the air. Suddenly, a single spotlight stabs through the dark to rest on the square-set shoulders of a man dressed all in black. He shifts the guitar slung casually on his hip, flashes a boyish grin that brings his craggy face to life and declares what the audience is longing to hear: “Hi. I’m Johnny Cash.” And the crowd goes wild.
This is the public vision of Johnny Cash: the entertainer, the legend, the “Man in Black”. From the early 1960s through the early 2000s, this was the persona fans came to see, and this was the persona Cash gave them.
Beneath the glamour and hype, however, there was another Johnny Cash – the real Man in Black – a man who struggled against what he described as “the inner holocaust” of drug and alcohol addiction.
During an exclusive 1983 interview in Minneapolis, MN, Cash recounted how he first fell into drug and alcohol abuse when introduced to cheap little white pills called “bennies”. At the time, Cash explained, he had seen the pills as an easy way to increase his stamina and performing ability as he traveled the unrelenting road to success. “It’s beautiful, at first,” he said, “because there’s a demon in the bottle – a demon called Deception. There’s an old saying,” he added, “that a man drinks out of the bottle until the bottle starts drinking out of him. That’s the demon.”
Literally killing himself by degrees on a vicious cycle of amphetamines, beer and barbiturates, Cash recalled how he had raced at a frenetic pace, trying to outrun his demon, while unwilling to admit that the demon came from within. By the early 1960s, however, the demon had caught up with Cash. Even though his career soared, amphetamines and alcohol — along with Cash’s erratic, chemically-caused behavior — pulled apart his first marriage to Vivian Liberto, and had also nearly destroyed Cash’s relationship with the close-knit Cash clan.
“I had turned my back on my mother,” Cash admitted, adding that he had also taken advantage of members of his touring troupe, including June Carter, who was later to become his second wife.
“At that time, I was drinking a case of beer and taking up to 100 pills a day – uppers and downers,” he said, adding how his body bore testimony to his inner demons. “If you had a picture of me, back in 1967, you wouldn’t believe it was me. I’m 6’2”, but back then I only weighed 150 pounds”.
Plagued by twitchiness, dry mouth, chronic laryngitis and depression, his friends and family – and even his fans – recognized that Cash was in deep trouble. While the rest of the Carter Family (who toured and performed with Cash) simply tried to stay out of Cash’s way, June Carter Cash befriended, fussed over and fought with Cash as she prayed for his recovery. Nevertheless, the demon called Deception had become a closer friend and Cash refused to admit he had a problem. “A drinker or addict only cares about himself,” Cash admitted. “He’s self-centered and only cares about what others can do for him”.
In 1968, Cash reached a breaking point. Deeply depressed and loaded on alcohol and drugs, Cash decided to kill himself. He drove to a cave he was familiar with, outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, grabbed a small, two-cell flashlight and began a slow, determined walk into the cave. His plan: to travel as deep into the cavern as the flashlight’s batteries would take him, then sit down and wait to die. “I went about a mile into the cave when the light went out,” Cash recalled.
“It was dark, black. So black you could feel it. I laid down flat on my back and said my goodbye prayers”. Alone, in total darkness, Cash gave up on life.
Then came a command: “No, you don’t give up. You’ve got things to do”.
- Make sure the information is newsworthy.
Ask yourself, “How would the publication’s reader relate to this? What makes this ‘news’ to the editor’s reader?” What do inquiring minds want to know?)
- The “Top Ten”.
The first ten words of your release are the most important. Take extra time to work on them. Make sure they are effective. Write these first ten words as if they were the headline; well, because they are.
- Editors and reporters are busy people.
Help them do their jobs. Tell the editor why the information is intended for their readers and why they should continue to read it.
- Lead paragraph.
The first paragraph needs to include a “hook,” an attention-getter that will entice a busy editor to read further, and it must contain the relevant information to your message (i.e.: the five W’s-who, what, when, where, why).
- Just the facts.
Start with a brief description of the news, then follow with who is announcing it.
- No fancy schmancy.
This is not the time or place to get poetic. Delete any excessive use of adjectives and fancy language.
- Recap: (optional but effective).
At the lower left hand corner of your last page restate a key point or fact or date, along with your name and contact information.
- Necessary elements.
Skip a line or two after release statement and then add:
- Contact Information: List the name, title, telephone and fax numbers, web address and email of your company spokesperson (the person you choose ahead of time who knows the most about the topic.) If your news release is about a late-breaking item, give a home phone number too (reporters often work after normal business hours.)
- FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (capitalized and without the quotation marks) should appear in the upper left-hand margin, just under your letterhead or contact information.
- Headline: Skip two lines after your contact information and use a boldface type. Your headline is not a title, it should be an action statement, using a strong verb.
- Dateline: This should be the city your press release is issued from and the date you are mailing your release.
- Use proper formatting.
This is the main body where you fully expand the message, but keep it short and follow the rules to look professional:
- One page is best, two if absolutely necessary.
- Use 8 ½ x 11 white paper, with one-inch margins on one side only.
- Use a bold typeface for the headlines to draw attention, but no where else. Do NOT use underlines for emphasis.
- If carrying over to a second page, use the word “more” between two dashes and center it at the bottom of the page to let reporters know that another page follows, and add your title and page number to the top of the second page.
- Use three numbers symbols (# # #) immediately following the last paragraph to indicate the end of your press release.
- Spell check everything.
Allow your press release to sit for a while. Then read all the copy, including the headline, backward AND forward. It’s a quick way to catch errors.
When you were young did you get asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer was different almost every time. A milkman… An astronaut… A teacher… A writer… A mommy. “You’ll need to decide,” I was told, but the fact is, by the time I’m 90, I still may not have chosen. It’s just that there are simply so many interesting things to do, and I want to learn more.
Consequently, I’ve come to believe it’s a crime to tell anyone to decide on only one path for the rest of his or her life. It may seem a little more graceful, slightly more dignified, a tad more predictable. But doesn’t it run the risk of also being confining? or boring? or both?
During a birthday party held in honor of 65-year-old Dr. William E. Barton, former moderator of the Congregational Church in Oak Park, IL., a church elder delivered an address entitled “Growing Old Gracefully.” But the more he talked the more Barton bristled.
When it came time for Barton to respond, he blustered, “Grow old gracefully? Rubbish, I say! Rubbish! I shall never grow old! But if perchance I should”, he added, “it shall not be gracefully, I tell you; it will be rebelliously!”
I like that idea…the idea of being 80 or 90 or 100 years of age and still being full of expectancy and open to new things. South of the border (Mexico, not Oregon) they have a saying:
“La vida es corta, pero ancha.” That is, “Life is short, but it’s wide.”
Though some people prefer to be more single-minded, I favor grabbing for all the experiences this “wide” life has to offer. I like to think that what is coming next is better than what has just past.
No matter what my age or limitations, I hope to always look forward to the new experiences still ahead. And when I get to the end of my days, and people ask over my casket, “Who is she? What did she do?” I want the answer to be a full-length novel not a short paragraph.
For me today, that may mean beginning life anew, starting over in a new place, meeting new friends, and beginning a new job.
What does it mean for you? What new experiences can you reach to live life “wide?”