Archive for June 29th, 2007

Writing Adventures in Shanghai: Sentences—The Long and the Short of It

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Yang Erche Namu’s memoir about growing up in a remote area of China somewhere deep in the Himalayas, “Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World,” begins with a short sentence: “My mother doesn’t remember when I was born.” Though this sentence has only eight words, it is direct, powerful, and full of information. After just one sentence, we know:

1. Namu’s story is very connected to her mother’s story.
2. Namu is going to tell this story from her point of view.
3. There is a deep sense of longing in the book. (You feel it, don’t you?)
4. Namu is going to tell it to us straight. She’s not going to mince words or as my mother would say, pussyfoot around.

But of course, you can’t write a whole book with short, direct sentences. By page two, your readers would be bored, irritated, and pissed off. By page five, if you were lucky enough to hold their interest that long, they would pitch the book into the trash and curse you from here to heaven. Sentence length is an important part of successfully telling a story, creating a mood, and keeping your readers interested. It works the same way whether you’re writing a book, a short story, an essay, or an article. You have to mix it up.

Namu (and her English-speaking co-author Christine Mathieu) understood this when they wrote Leaving Mother Lake. After a number of short sentences on page 1, the fourth paragraph begins:

“Dujema is our neighbor. She is also my Ama’s best friend and they spend a lot of time together, working and singing to keep their spirits up, and after coming back from the fields, sitting by the open fire, drinking butter tea, and talking.”

See how much the long sentence accomplishes?

1. The rhythm of the prose is broken up, right at the point where the reader might begin to tune out if the short sentences were to continue.
2. There’s a lot of rich detail in this sentence that Namu cannot squeeze into a short sentence. Here Namu’s mother becomes a fully realized person who has a best friend and a daily routine. She sings and drinks lots of butter tea.
3. The story thickens, like a delicious saffron risotto..

Now you try it. Pull out a piece of writing that you’ve been sweating over. Look at your sentences. Read them out loud. How long are they? (Yes, go ahead. Count the words.) How many short sentences do you have in a row? How many long sentences follow one after the other? Have you varied sentence length or does the rhythm of the prose sound monotonous?

After you read your sentences aloud and study them a bit, play with them. If you’ve got too many long sentences in a row, break a few into two or three short sentences. If you’ve done the opposite—written a number of short sentences in row—combine a few into longer, more complex sentences.

When you’re finished, read the piece aloud again. How has it changed? What do you notice?

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

The Copywriter’s Paycheck: Get publicity with a press release

Elizabeth ShortBy Elizabeth Short

Now that your copywriting business is set up with marketing materials, a good pitch and a network of fellow business owners to send referrals your way, it’s time to get some media attention. Don’t mind the flashbulbs as you walk down the red carpet!

Getting Started Tip #6: Get publicity with a press release
Ever wonder how your local newspaper finds the time to cover the goings-on of local businesses—those mini-articles on a hair salon’s grand opening or a mortgage company’s new employee? Actually, the media doesn’t find the time. They rely on businesses themselves to do the work with a press release. A press release is a news brief (usually fewer than 500 words) that summarizes a newsworthy development within a company or organization. For a new copywriter, this might be as simple as announcing the launch of your services: “Freelance Copywriter Helps Businesses Find the Right Words.” An indispensable form of free advertising, press releases put you in the public spotlight. To write your own press release, read my article on the subject and view samples on my Web site. E-mail your press release to the business section of your local paper and to the editors of any business journals in your area. Don’t forget to include a digital headshot!

Copywriting Tip #6: Emphasize benefits
Let’s review the reasons why every business can use a freelance copywriter. Copywriters make you money by skillfully communicating with members of your intended market—and convincing them to try your goods or services. They save you money because you use their services on demand, instead of hiring a full-time employee. Copywriters save you time by delivering a professional product right off the bat.

Welcome to your USPs—your Unique Selling Propositions. In other words, the benefits of doing business with you. Unlike features (brochure copy, web content, ad copy, ghostwriting) which merely list what you do, benefits explain why someone would hire you to do it—an invitation for the reader to visualize how her business will be better as a result of using your services. Whether you’re creating marketing materials for yourself or for your clients, always emphasize one or more USPs aimed at satisfying the needs or desires of the intended market.

Elizabeth Short is a freelance copywriter and graphic designer with a passion for helping small businesses clarify and broadcast unique marketing messages. With a focus on websites and print materials, she brings together content + design in one easy, affordable package (www.write-design.biz). Check out her e-book, 7 Steps to Effective Web Content (www.write-design.biz/e-books.htm) to learn the secrets of writing copy for the web.

Good Reads for Writers: “Twin Study” by Stacey Richter

Cathy BelbenReviewed By Cathy Belben

One Amazon reviewer enjoyed Stacey Richter’s Twin Study so much, she says, that she rubbed the book all over her body after reading it. I can’t say I blame her, although as usual, my advance-reader’s copy has been crumpled beneath my bed sheets and sat too close as I ate––among other things––to a Reuben sandwich, a handful of Girl Scout cookies, a goblet of purple liquid, and something that left an amoeba-shaped stain on page 42. Once I got to the end, I was hesitant to turn the final pages without tweezers, let alone rub the book on my skin.

Instead, I’ll just yell. STACEY RICHTER IS A GENIUS. I know there are people shaking their heads and renewing the vow they made in 9th grade to never read another short story, but I command you: UN-VOW NOW. Short stories are among the most underappreciated works of art in the panoply of underappreciated works of art. Occasionally hazy and often pretentious, short fiction can make us feel like undereducated lint balls who’d be better off watching American Idol. There are short stories that are sassy, fun, unpredictable, and sheer genius for creating tiny, twenty-page worlds peopled by dynamic, complex characters. Stacey Richter hasn’t written all of those stories, but she has written a chunk, and readers who miss them are bound to have little holes in their lives where her brilliant wordplay and stunning imagination might have nestled.

Cathy Belben lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she earned early fame for her award-winning fourth grade essay, “What the flag means to me” and later wrote bad rhyming poetry for the Whatcom Middle School Warrior Express. She recently survived a year in Hollywood writing for the show Veronica Mars. She’s returned to her normal life as a high school teacher and librarian, a triathlete, a weightlifter, a yogi, a dog’s mom, a cat’s slave, an artist, a napper, a nanny and an auntie. She’s thankful every day for everything.


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