Does Your Reader Trust You?

There’s a famous photo of Lyndon B. Johnson sitting despondently, with his head in his hands after he learned that, in a rare moment of editorializing, the venerable CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite characterized the Vietnam War as all but lost.

For nineteen tumultuous years, millions of Americans had tuned in every night to hear Walter Cronkite report on the state of affairs. When Walter Cronkite spoke, America listened.

Do our readers trust us that much?

Trust is a multilayered thing built over time. Here are a few qualities that Cronkite had that writers who seek to cultivate trust should consider:

1.  Authenticity

As writers, we have to speak the truth as we know it, no matter our genre. Sometimes this requires that we show parts of ourselves we’d prefer to keep hidden, including perhaps our vulnerabilities.

2.  Accuracy

As writers, we must recognize our biases, acknowledge what we don’t know, and avoid distortion or otherwise lift things from context. We have to separate fact from opinion, and give credit where credit is due.

3. Consistency

We must also present a consistent level of quality. If we have cultivated a voice, that voice has to be there as resonant as ever. If we have adopted a position or a theme, our treatment of it has to build in a direction a reader has come to expect.

4. Delivery

Cronkite set the bar for eloquent, measured, and calm delivery—exactly what you’d want from a news anchor. Even in the most emotional of times, his voice held the ground and in this, his listeners felt safe, which is fertile territory for building trust. The anchorman cultivated an effective voice—a perfect fit for delivering the news—but any writer needs to do the same. Fiction or nonfiction, whatever our purpose or goal, we too have to consider our delivery. Our tone and voice must fit the work and be such that the reader is able to absorb our words.

5. Faith

If we want our readers’ trust, we can’t do anything halfway. If we’re bored, or our emotional life is a mess, or we are writing by rote—these things will show. If we have lost faith in the value of what we do, this too will show. A good writing day or a bad one, it comes down to caring—and doing. Perhaps we need to take a break. Perhaps we need a vacation. But nothing goes out until it’s as perfect as we can make it.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of Walter Cronkite widely cited in reverse image search including at http://www.worldculturepictorial.com/blog/archive/all/2009/7/19; LBJ at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Life Magazine, November 4, 1966; General Westmoreland in the foreground, http://faculty.smu.edu/dsimon/Change-Viet2.html among other sources.

Taking Stock

This is the third look at the numbers. The firstwas at 6 months. The secondwas at 1 year.  This one is late at 2½ years.

Choosing the metrics for it is never a value-free process, and collecting the data is an occupation, but even a loosely gathered set of facts can be revealing.

At post number 150, for example, I figure we’re now into Blogging 201.

0 missed days. 0 tardy.

Brand, though tweaked, remains at 5 words: clean, visual, informative, encouraging, and real. The only addition is “real” but perhaps “straight” or maybe even “opinionated” are more to the mark.

Posts still at 400 +/- words. Still like that focused, quick length.

Still carried high on Alltop. Still with enduring champions and many more ping backs from around the world, of late, Brazil, Holland, Korea, and Singapore. Chinese readership is growing. Monthly visitors  6,600; monthly page views 12,600. .

Posts inspired from wandering museums and galleries: dozens.  Posts inspired from the peculiar goings-on in my tiny, wonderful town: 7.  Subjects I tend to return to: 5 process; storynaming things, breaking rules, and going for it.

Permissions sought and received: 4. Permissions refused: 1 and it was a most awkward moment, and a shame, as it’s a story I really wanted to tell.

Number of attempted posts that just didn’t work: countless, or at least I’m not counting them.

Most popular of late: How to Write a Villain and Open to Interpretation. Also How to Write a Query LetterWhat’s in a Name?, and Three Writing Principles a Long Way Downstream.

Most successful title: “How to. . . ”  Used 14 times, or 9.3%.

Reader response: roughly 50% female, 50% male. Twitter favored.

Most pushback: Do You Need to Know the Ending? and Prayer or Plan? and The Most Important Skill for a Writer.

Total word count approximately 180,000. By comparison, my novel has roughly 115,000, an essay in progress 3,500, while a set of notes taken on the fly and pretty much on a daily basis might have 700 words.

Number of times profanity appears: 3once  in a photo, and again in an expression, and finally in a symbol of an erect middle finger sculpted bigger than life by the bad boy artist Cattelan and positioned not incidentally in front of the Italian stock market.

Most fun: 100% choosing the photos.

Most valuable player: my editor who says it like it is and has some ideas on how to fix the broken bits. And my tech guy, without whom survival is out of the question.

Most surprising turn of events: One honorary doctorate in letters forthcoming in just a few weeks and earned in part for recognition of this blog.

Atahualpa WP 2.92 Theme with 5 widgets and 1 favored classification: “mechanics.” Akismet with 46,850 filtered bits of spam and 106 suspects in the queue as we speak.

The next post, next Friday—number 151.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of sextant by United States Pacific Fleet and the numbers board is by admanramblings.com.

A Writer Will Go Anywhere

These are raw notes. Unedited. Unshaped. Bricks for a later construction I may or may not build. The scene is a coffee shop, but not the kind you think. This is Amsterdam.

Narrow place. Two seats in the far corner of the bar. Bar top is polished steel and dark wood burnished with the soft touch of so many elbows through the years. Old money hangs from the ceiling as part of the decoration. That was when money was colorful and decorated with Van Gogh sunflowers. Nothing at all like today’s staid euro.

The place hums and it’s barely dawn. The bartender runs the counter and the all-important playlist. Her hips move. Her leopard skin top ripples.

My avid photographer husband wants to shoot the twinkling bar lights, the filmy air, the girl in the fuzzy pink sweater and sparkly earrings drinking Coke from a straw.

In the corner, near the door, an older man sits two steps up, selling what people come for. He has a menu. It’s illuminated when he presses a button. He has a drawer that only he accesses. The sign above his head reads “Watchmeester / Officer on Duty.”

Everyone is happy here. Even the bulldog is smiling.

There’s something important in this.

There’s a jail theme going on. Mock prison bars. Al Capone’s face hangs near Bugsy Siegel’s and Jimmy “the rat” Fratianno’s. A fake machine gun is bolted to the “Keep Out!” door.

In the thirty-odd years I’ve been in and of this town, I’ve never been here. But this writer will go anywhere—especially when it’s been a sleepless night stuffed in an airplane, and it’s way too early to check in, and the coffee is good and hot, and the newness of the scene intrigues.

The lives people lead! The bartender hears it all—and so do I, or most of it, at least the bits in English. Everyone speaks English, but I hear German, French, and Dutch, as well.

A new bartender arrives.

“I’m Dali,” the 20-something says, “only without the moustache. Just a little beard.”

He’s not smoking—he wants that known right off—and it puts us on equal ground. In real life, he’s a comic.

Loose limbed, lanky, fluid in his movements, he’s wearing a bulldog shirt labeled “Crew” that some part of me covets. The customers are drawn to him. He’s good at what he does. He alone notices the beat up camera lens.

We talk about where he gets his material and how comedy takes courage. We talk about his shirt. We talk about someone named Rawlings and Dave Chappelle, and Chappelle’s break down.

“Took a break,” Dali says, which is how he prefers to think of it. “It’s a lot of pressure. It’s like living out loud. And everyone expecting you to be funny all the time.”

“Consumptie Verplicht. Drinks required,” says the sign. Another Coke to the girl with the dreamy eyes in the back.  My husband takes his photographs.  I take a note.  We wonder if we will have anything worth anything when we look back later. . .

Take enough notes, as is my habit, and watch with wonder as certain preoccupations appear over and over. Looking these over, I see at least one theme that I am drawn to (happiness, freedom) and several bits of appealing characters (Dali and the Watchmeester). The notes are where I start every morning. These will link to other notes, or stand alone in something new, or sharpen something already in progress. With notes in hand, I rarely face a blank page.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits the Bulldog coffee shop by piak; dali by geographie.

The Best Thing that Ever Happened to my Writing

A number of things have helped my writing along, but best thing that ever happened was to stop caring so much.  This came about gradually. In fact it took a couple of decades.

Rejection hastened things along. “No. Sorry. I’m afraid I’m not the right for this.”  “You have me stumped; I can’t do a thing with this.” “Just didn’t connect.” “Too ambitious for us.” And the mean spirited: This has no artistic merit whatsoever.”

I was crushed by the first rejections, but I kept going and subsequent ones got easier. I understood that taste is personal and that reasonable minds can differ. Sometimes the rejections would reach me after the piece had already been published elsewhere. Twice, pieces that were rejected ended up with Pushcart Prize nominations.

Eventually, I gave up listening and trying to please. I gave up explaining and apologizing, and best of all, I gave up the rules.  Oh, I wasn’t stupid about it.  I continued to seek opinion and always considered what was being said, but I no longer worked to please another.

Instead, I shifted my focus to one thing only: the work and what I thought it required.

And that’s when it started to be fun. I wrote things the way they impressed me.  I took example and insight from other art forms—especially painting.  I left out all the boring parts and just wrote the interesting things. I paid zero attention to form. Right now, for example, I have a bunch of notes from a coffee shop in Amsterdam that I’m thinking of running as raw notes.   Would raw notes work for a blog on the writing process?  Maybe. I might try, and see where it takes me.

To stop caring so much means you let your internal compass guide what you hope to achieve and how you will get there. This allows you to work with a new vigor. You can throw away piles of pages, and start again, or not—no worries. You can take the one scene or character that you liked, and change the whole project, the entire point. In the painting world, you can throw the paint at the canvas or even tape the dripping brush to the wall and call it art, if you have your reasons.

And when your heart starts racing at the possibilities, then it’s going to be a good working day.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo by Thorsten Becker.