« The Fog Index | Home | Fact Checking the Fact Checkers »

Titles to Inspire Ideas

Posted on Monday, June 25, 2018 at 10:20 PM

Five titles from a section of one bookshelf to generate ideas.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I was sitting at my computer keyboard, having just finished writing a review. Outside my faced window, there was sunlight, one of the few occasions of brightness in several gloomy-for-April weeks. I chanced to look to the side at a shelf of books and, in perusing a sliver of it, noticed several titles that stirred thought.

Stirred the sort of thought perhaps useful for another of these monthly columns of mine for Editors Only, which would be the 267th, if my listing is correct. My thinking then blotted out the word "perhaps," and so I am here, still at the keyboard, ready to pursue the topic of what titles alone can conjure to help me, to help you as writer and editor, regardless of what's between the covers.

Build On an Idea

To the far left of the sliver of shelf, I spotted Russell Baker's There's a Country in My Cellar, a rich treasury of his New York Times columns, 120 of them, of which I have read many over the years. Since this column is about titles, I have not reopened the volume to look for details but remain wedded to the utility of titles in providing us with ideas.

Ideas are the capital of our journalistic lives. Without them, there is nothing to be published. We're always on the hunt for them. We have to be. And I pondered columnist Baker churning out column after column for decades, each one built on an idea. He was miraculously successful at the task and seemed to have made of each one come upon as an opportunity. Here he was with a book that told us there is a country -- think of it -- of stories gathered in his cellar, a number of which may well have originated from something he found in his own basement. Meaning, of course, that there are ideas available to us in every corner, atop every building, in branches of trees and gardens of flowers, along city streets, in newspaper headlines, in what you hear people talk about while dining out or shopping for groceries, in books you house on home library shelves. Just be aware of them, right there, right everywhere.

Entice Your Reader

I find again on that sliver of shelving Arthur Plotnik's Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style. It was inspired, of course, by the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style.

Plotnik's title is a reminder of the scope of competition, all the newfangled ways writers gain audience attention, whether through reading or listening or watching. Yes, we must remember issues of accuracy and brevity and clarity that Elements stressed; they remain the foundation of journalistic skills and practices. But spunk is important. Bite is important. We have to find ways of enticing, then holding on to, our readers/listeners/watchers. And yes, we may have pictures and motion and music and all such aids available, but in the beginning there was the word. And it remains our beginning. Our center and ending, too!

Whole Story of Sentences

Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, by Barbara Baig, starts with that basic in writing, the sentence. She discusses all the different ways we can improve that set of words ending in a period, or perhaps question mark or exclamation point. I remember reading the book. It is thorough.

But as I write this column and ponder the title, I'm thinking beyond. The sentence, brilliant though it be, by itself, alone, is an island, lonely. There must be a way to get there and a way to leave. The environment in which that sentence exists cannot be a vacuum. That reality gets us into context, into order, into continuity, into flow. The sentence(s) that lead into the spellbinding one we started with have to get the reader there. They must be just as brilliantly conceived and crafted, lest the reader never get to the showcased one in our discussion. And so, too, must the sentences fashioned for the departure.

A sentence is only as useful, as spellbinding, as the ones that surround it. We must deal, each time we sit down to write or edit, with a whole story of sentences. They require knitting.

Sense of Style

Steven Pinker recently published a book on The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century!. Style is a vague term that can mean following a style guide or writing prose with a certain grace. It can be synonymous with voice, expressing another complicated, vaporous sort of matter, an essence that pervades our copy and makes it ours.

Voice means most anything you want the word to mean, but one thinks first of the writer's way with words, the writer's ability to bring a personality, his or her personality, into the copy. Flair comes to mind. Authority comes to mind. Individuality comes to mind. The "you" in your writing comes to mind.

Readers recognize an author by his or her "sense of style," by the presence of a found voice. Readers like to recognize and visit that sense of style, that voice, that distinctive personality, that individuality. It becomes something to appreciate: to have the writing being read offer a distinctive flavor.

On top of that, on top of being able to cast a verbal glow on the whole of a story, there's the necessity -- when you're writing about people or an institution or a place or nonhuman creatures -- of capturing the voice of your subject so that subject's being is revealed and celebrated.

Writers need to work hard to capture the sense of style Mr. Pinker writes about. Editors, looking at the writer's copy from a distance, can be of valuable assistance.

Just Write!

Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis, gets right to my own frequent problem, one I believe is shared by a multitude of brethren.

I can spend endless time getting ready to write: thinking, planning, gathering information, and thinking and planning some more until the deadline looms dangerously. When I wrote my book on magazine writing, I had an 18-month period to complete it. I did all that thinking and planning and gathering information stuff all the way until I had 28 days left. That meant two days to complete each of the 14 chapters.

And how did I handle each two-day set? I spent the first choosing the material to be used and ordering it. And then, on day two, I wrote.

I counsel others not to do this. But that I do unveils a weakness in my makeup. I actually love to write, but my early years in journalism were often devoted to writing hourly five-minute radio news shows for ABC and NBC. Every day, deadlines mercilessly kept on coming. I guess that reality shifted into the practice of delay in more recent times, as I bathe in the comfort of looser, longer cutoffs. As for you, remember, short deadlines or long, all the delicious prewriting activity means nothing until words follow on paper or screen.

So, there you have it: five titles from a section of one bookshelf. From each: an idea. I encourage you to engage in similar inspections of your collection, one of so many ways to generate ideas.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

« The Fog Index | Top | Fact Checking the Fact Checkers »