The MacGuffin

Archive for August, 2010

Feeding off of Feedback

Posted by Lauren Rugani on August 15, 2010

I love getting feedback on something I’ve written. Especially when it comes from someone besides my mom (no offense, Mom). Good feedback, of course, is great. But critical feedback –not necessarily negative — is essential, too.

I get feedback all the time from my editor, who sees everything I write before it goes live (I write mostly for the web). It’s nice to get a piece back with most of the redlines being style points or suggestions for tightening up the prose — meaning, in other words, that my editor was satisfied with the organization, explanation and overall writing in the piece. I think a good editor is one who understands that each writer has her own voice, and so edits around that, making corrections only where it helps the flow of the story. (I’ve had editors before who have changed adjectives or verbs for no apparent reason, inserted completely new phrases, etc. that have made the final product sound nothing like anything I would write. But I digress.) When I write, I do try to self-edit as I go along, but having a fresh set of eyes always helps.

Getting feedback from colleagues is also nice, but can sometimes feel gratuitous: “Nice story today, Lauren.” I mean, I don’t think they would say anything if they didn’t like my work, and it’s a great compliment regardless. But every so often, one of my coworkers will send an email with a specific reason they liked a story, and that feels awesome. Especially when their comment, something like, “You made me feel like I was standing right there watching it happen!” is what you were trying to get across in the first place. Also awesome when said coworker is an award-winning journalist.

The most nerve-racking kind of feedback is probably from the subject of a story. You always want to provide a fair description to your readers, but knowing that the person you’re writing about is inevitably going to read the piece, a general tendency is to err on the side of praise. I’ve learned to avoid this by cutting out as many adjectives as possible, writing only facts and letting any subjectivity in solely through quotations. When I have consciously done these things, the subjects have been very pleased with the story and the readers have felt a personal connection to the subject on some level.

Then there are the people who aren’t a part of the story, but are either very close to it or know a lot about it. These are the people who aren’t looking at your grammar or punctuation — they are mostly concerned with the content. Hearing from them that the story was “spot on” or even a “really nice description” feels good. Last week, I got an email from someone I had never met, who was very familiar with the topic of my story, and told me that not only was I a talented writer (!) but also a very talented observer, which I think go hand in hand. Having only done about 3 to 4 hours of reporting for this story (really not a lot!!) I had managed, in his eyes, to capture the environment, the connections among the people in the environment and the importance of these connections. He noted that it took some people several years to finally become cognizant of such things, even being immersed in the environment on a daily basis. It was really the most unique feedback I’ve gotten in quite some time, and it certainly boosted my confidence in my ability, as a writer, to portray things as they really are.

Then there is what I like to call “accidental feedback.” That’s when the person behind you in line at the coffee counter is talking about the story you wrote. I never announce myself to these people. It’s usually been good when this has happened, but good or bad, it’s still nice to know that people read my work and it sticks with them long enough to warrant a conversation.

Clearly, feedback comes in many forms. Some of it is on the technical side, some is about the content, some about the writing itself. It comes from trained and untrained eyes, from subject-matter experts and the uninitiated. The good feedback reassures me that I’ve chosen the right career. The bad feedback stings, and sticks with me longer than is probably healthy, but in the long run makes me conscious of my mistakes and a better writer. Both kinds make me want to keep doing what I’m doing.


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On Inspiration

Posted by Lauren Rugani on August 11, 2010

I summed up my last post by pointing out that I find good writing inspiring. I also marveled at the amount of work that goes into writing a long-form magazine piece (nevermind a book!) that makes the work seem as though it simply flowed from the tip of a pen without any hesitation. A more recent inspiration to me is Rebecca Skloot, author of the award-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The story is profound, but what inspires me most is Skloot’s persistence. It took her roughly a decade (I think?) to go from concept to completion, tracking down details and earning the trust of her sources. She was even threatened and, if I remember correctly, doused in salad dressing. Most of us would have abandoned the idea.

Well, I have my own grand idea. I’ve had it for two and a half years. I’ve only told a handful of people about it, including my graduate school adviser and a colleague who now happens to be my boss. They both told me they could see the story in The New Yorker or Harper’s. I won’t get ahead of myself by name-dropping top-notch publications, but what excited me was that they even wanted to read it. They liked my idea.

So why haven’t I written it yet? I could give you a number of excuses: I don’t have time, I have a day job (and a night job), I don’t know where to begin, I haven’t figured out the story yet, even though I have the idea. But I think, if I am being completely honest, that it’s because I don’t want to give up the idea. As much as I want it to live on paper, I don’t want it to stop living in my head. It’s not that I don’t want to share the story – I’m excited about it and I want to tell everyone. What I’m afraid of is that I won’t be able to write it, and that it will stop being an idea and become, well, a failure.

I’ve had failed ideas before, and any author or writer or journalist will tell you that you cannot cannot CANNOT become married to an idea. Things that sound amazing in your mind often sound stupid coming out of your mouth, and there’s always that one guy who crushes your dream with a “But what about…?” And, inevitably, ideas will change the more you learn. But this idea is different.

In the past two and a half years I’ve done a fair amount of research, enough for a launching point to ask intelligent questions of the people I eventually intend to interview. But there’s this one guy. My whole idea centers around him. What if he doesn’t want to talk to me? I’ve written him so many letters, explaining my idea, telling him about myself, trying to convince him that my entire being relies on his willingness to open up to me. And then I crumple them up, or delete them, depending on which century’s mode of communication I chose that day. If he says no, then I have nothing.

Tonight I wrote another letter. I was gonna do it. I’m inspired now, remember? And then I came across something I never saw before. Some information, tucked away in a dusty corner of the Internet. Thanks a lot, Google. No, seriously, thank you. I probably would have come across as an idiot if I sent him that letter without knowing the contents of that 3-page PDF. I have a lot more work to do now before I can send that letter.

But I’m going to do it. I know, I know, I’ve been telling myself that for how long? But, inspiration in hand, I know that even if he says no, my idea doesn’t have to die. There are ways to keep it alive.

Here’s to hoping he says yes.

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Reading Again

Posted by Lauren Rugani on August 2, 2010

I’m not sure if I’m ashamed to admit this or not, but Twitter is where I get the majority of my news. Often, a writer will Tweet a headline they just published hours, if not days, before it hits an RSS feed. I feel slightly superior when my non-Twittering friends bring up something they heard on the news, and I can say, “Pshaw. That was all over Twitter days ago.” It’s where I found out Michael Jackson died.

While the onslaught of headlines can get a little overwhelming — today, for instance, I started seeing red after the number of links thrown at me about a new study that concluded women find men who wear red more attractive — Twitter is also a great place to find your proverbial diamond in the rough. That one headline, from that one website you never would have found on your own.

Yesterday, another young science writer I follow, @ferrisjabr (following, of course, the proper Twitterquette of crediting someone from whom you get your information) tweeted a link to Esquire Magazine’s 7 best stories of all time. I clicked.

The first piece I read was the one the magazine claims to be its best story ever: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” It was, indeed, one of the best profiles I’ve ever read. Then I read “The School,” a chilling account of the schoolhouse hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia in 2004, before moving on to “The Falling Man” and another profile, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” I still have three more to go.

While I don’t know what Esquire’s criteria were for choosing these stories, I do know why I like them. The two profile pieces totally changed my views of the historical figures that I have, in some sense, known forever. I grew up in New England — Ted Williams is a hero. My father often bursts into song for no apparent reason. Sinatra is one of his favorites. In a sense, the imaginary personalities I had drawn up in my mind for these men were totally ruined after reading the articles. I resented that at first, but one of my favorite things about writing is the ability to change people’s minds. Many of my favorite pieces, fiction or non, are the ones that leave me saying, “Well…shit.”

Another thing I admire, in all the pieces, is the tremendous amount of reporting that went into each one. So many details, jam-packed into every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every adjective. This is one thing I’ve marveled at as an up-and-coming writer, and as someone who would like to try their hand at long-form journalism someday. Sometimes, I like to pick a paragraph at random, and try to guess how many people the writer talked to just to be able to write those sentences.

A big theme across these stories (at least the ones I’ve read so far) is the fact that the subjects were either unwilling, or unavailable, to be interviewed. It’s something you’re told in j-school, that you can write about anything if you ask the right people the right questions, but it’s not something that sinks in until you’ve seen it done, and done well.

Reading good writing makes me want to write good stuff that other people want to read. I believe the word for that is “inspiring.” I miss reading for fun, on a regular basis. Reading these stories has totally given me the jump start to get back into it, and reinvigorated my passion for the craft.

If anyone has any particular pieces that have moved you, please send them along!

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