A chance to be the editor…

I love the Toronto Star’s annual You be the Editor survey. And I like reading the follow-up results even better.

It’s an opportunity to make real-life editing decisions with no risk of fallout. It’s a learning opportunity, too.

Here are a few points I found particularly interesting. No, let me rephrase that, because I found the whole column particularly interesting. So I’ll just highlight a few of the questions.

Public editor Kathy English described #10 as “a tough one.” It had to do with a business profile of Heather Reisman. Most readers who completed the survey would have chosen not to publish the cited excerpts, which describe the Indigo CEO’s appearance. I probably would have omitted the reference to her “slim, lithe figure,” but I would have retained the phrase “petite frame belying the power she wields.” I’m always intrigued by contrasts and unexpected impressions – I think they make articles more interesting to read, and may help readers question their own assumptions. In this case, I believe the phrase is relevant to Reisman’s role. English asks a key question: would a male CEO’s appearance be described similarly?

#11 dealt with a column that referred to former mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug in strong and unflattering language. A resulting complaint to the Ontario Press Council was dismissed. A lot of people that I meet aren’t clear about the difference between a column and an article. Columnists – as I learned in one of the first writing courses I ever took – are “queens” of the business who write their opinions. Journalists don’t “editorialize” in their articles.

“Paddy wagon” (#6) is a term I don’t recall ever using, and I don’t think I’m likely to use it in the future. But finding it in the survey served as a reminder that the phrase might be considered offensive.

More importantly, it’s a reminder that every word counts.




Follow your passion, or be practical?

Yesterday, I had lunch with a freelance writing group I joined recently, and the conversation turned to young people entering journalism school. What kind of future will they have? Are there jobs for them? Do cutbacks in media mean that only those with a *passion* for journalism are pursuing it as a career?

Does it even make sense to pursue a career if the odds of success are iffy? Aspiring actors face the same question, someone noted. And yet, I think we all agreed that without pursuing the passion in the first place, there’s no chance of success at all.

By coincidence, this LinkedIn article (“Do What You Love” Is Horrible Advice) appeared in my inbox this morning.

The subject was on my mind because of yesterday, but the article also captured my attention because “Do What You Love” is the advice my parents gave me many years ago. Not to mention that, at the time, I didn’t think it was very good advice.

As a young adult trying to figure out my direction in life, I was envious of friends whose parents were more practical, steering them toward careers where jobs were abundant.

It wasn’t until a few years after graduating from university that I discovered I had an aptitude for writing and journalism, and a passion for it too. Lucky me!

I believe there’s satisfaction in a job well done, even if it’s not your passion. I also believe that what you’re passionate about should be part of your life, even if it’s not how you make your living.

But if there’s a chance to turn your passion into a career… why not dream big? Maybe things will work out. If not, then you can go to Plan B.

What do you think? Follow your passion, or be practical?



Clichés, Shakespeare, and – um – chocolate

A Facebook friend of mine posted a link to this article from Business Insider (Australia) marking William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. It has a list of 26 common phrases that can be traced back to Shakespeare’s writings.

I was curious to see how many might be considered clichés. Although journalists prefer fresher language, we don’t always succeed in avoiding clichés. There’s usually truth in them. That’s why they’ve become clichés. Groan!

Only one of Shakespeare’s phrases from the Business Insider article – “Love is blind” – made this list of 10 common clichés. But here’s a much lengthier list from a seemingly unlikely source, The Pathology Guy.

About.com reminds us that we often quote Shakespeare without even being aware of it.

Last summer I saw a play called Taking Shakespeare at the annual Stratford festival in Stratford, Ontario. Veteran festival company member Martha Henry starred as a discontented, aging professor tasked with sparking an interest in Shakespeare in a young, video game-obsessed, struggling student.

The play appealed to me because I wanted it to spark more of an interest in me too. Shakespeare explored ideas and feelings that still resonate today, in language that was fresh for its time. Hundreds of years later, it’s difficult to appreciate all the antiquated turns of phrase.

Reading the Business Insider article this week reminded me again that it’s worth the effort.

PS When I blogged about Stratford last summer, I wrote about the chocolate trail, not the theatre aspect. A visit to the Festival doesn’t have to be all about Shakespeare 😉


What makes something worth writing about?

I’ve been thinking this morning about what it is that makes a subject worth writing about.

When I was a staff reporter at The Canadian Jewish News, it was easier to know what to write than it is as a blogger. For one thing, many stories were assigned to me, although I also initiated a good number on my own.

Some of the criteria were easy to recognize – if a subject fell into one of my beats, for example. It also had to be relevant to readers. The best stories were also important, compelling, engaging, thought-provoking, and/or entertaining when appropriate.

Some stories – my own and other writers’ too – had a bit of magic for me, when a subject I didn’t expect to be very interesting turned out to be exceptionally absorbing.

I used to tell student columnists to write about subjects they found compelling, and about things they found themselves discussing with their friends.

It always caught my attention when a subject arose two or three times in quick succession – either an issue people were talking about, or repeated stories that had significant points in common. Often, that was indicative of a trend or issue, and turned out to be the springboard to a story.

I was pleased to read CJN editor Yoni Goldstein’s column in this week’s newly redesigned paper about the “journey” to a new CJN, and the vision for the paper as it moves forward. I’m excited to have an article (about the Ontario Jewish Archives and its new website) in the first new paper.

Yoni’s references to asking tough questions and providing solutions to them – as well as including uplifting stories, and issues that have been swept under the rug – indicate there will be much in the paper that is worth reading.


Designated writing hours… or not?

Every week, Friday is food day on my blog, but I half expected that I would have to call every day “food day” this week. The week before Passover, every day is food day. Shopping yesterday, cleaning the oven today, getting a head start on my cooking as soon as I can!

So far, though, prep work hasn’t superseded my freelance writing, blog, or social time. I wrote this post while I was waiting for my car to be ready, because today was also snow tire removal day for me.

I’ve had three lunches out in the last week, and now that I have freelance deadlines, I’ve been thinking more about how to structure my time.

After I was downsized and started blogging and working on my book, a few people asked if I had designated hours for writing. I wondered if it made me less organized or productive that I didn’t… aside from specific blogging days, when I usually write in the morning.

But my schedule seems to have evolved, just like my post-downsizing path in general. I blog Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and I work on my book more regularly now that I’ve joined an online group that holds me accountable each week for the number of words I write.

The book-writing hours are still evolving. I try to start earlier in the week, although I still don’t have designated days. At first, I thought I should be writing more, and more often, but now I’m content to write my self-imposed minimum, and sometimes exceed it.

Because of the subject matter (the year I lost my dad, and said Kaddish for him), I think it might actually be better to write the book in small doses, even though it’s not all sad. Parts of it are funny, parts are just interesting, and some parts have broader implications (I hope other people will think so too!).

Now that I’ve adding freelancing to the mix, it would be easy to spend most of the day in front of my computer.

It was good for me to get out of the house and spend time with friends this week. I like working on the things that are most time-sensitive before I head out, and catching up with the rest of my writing later.

Maybe I do have designated hours now. Sort of.





What’s strange about writing my book

My book is coming along, slowly but surely. It’s a bit strange writing a memoir about the year I lost my dad and said Kaddish for him (the traditional Jewish way of mourning a parent).

It’s strange because as a journalist, for the most part, I write about other people’s stories, not my own. I’ve written three reflections on saying Kaddish, however, and they seemed to strike a chord with many people.

It’s strange because as a journalist, I work from notes I take during interviews or events that I’m covering. During the year of Kaddish, I made a point of not taking notes on what I was experiencing. That would have felt even more strange, and on some deep level, didn’t feel right.

It’s strange because I remember so many aspects of the Kaddish year – my feelings, bits and pieces of conversations, holidays, celebrations, funerals, things that happened at work, at home and at synagogue – that I’m starting to wonder if this is normal. It’s almost six years since my dad died. Why do I remember so much detail? Is there something different about the way my brain is wired?

I don’t think I’m obsessed, and I don’t think I’ve prolonged the mourning period. I do attribute my detailed memories to the fact that so much emotion was attached to everything I experienced that year. I’ve read that that’s supposed to enhance memory. I also have articles and thank you notes that I wrote, old emails, and my 2008 and 2009 calendars to jog my memory.

Another thing that makes a difference for me – I still attend services regularly, and that triggers memories, too.

I’m not flooded with them. They come to me in bits and pieces, and that’s how I’ve been writing them. But they seem to be turning into a cohesive whole.


Exclamation marks

Journalists generally don’t like exclamation marks. We believe that words alone should have enough impact in most cases.

However, I find myself using exclamation marks on a regular basis now that I’m blogging. Groan!

That said, there’s definitely a place for exclamation marks in conversational writing. I find myself using them mostly to convey excitement, especially when I’m writing about food.

Jicama! Cherimoya! Chocolate!


But only one exclamation mark at a time. I have to show some restraint!





A taste of freelance (writing) life

It’s official, I’m freelancing. Last week, I interviewed Rabbi Miri Gold for The Canadian Jewish News. I just found the article online this morning.

Rabbi Gold – Miri – is the Reform rabbi in Israel who launched a 2005 court case seeking salary payment from the Israeli government, a benefit previously accorded only to Orthodox rabbis.

The interview is my first article since I was downsized last June, aside from a column I wrote a few months ago for my former CJN colleague Sheldon Kirshner’s online journal, about the role of Jewish food in my life.

In the weeks and months after being downsized, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do next. I set up this blog partly to help me figure that out, and I looked at a lot of job postings.

As time went on, I leaned more toward the idea of freelance work, combined with work on my blog and my book-in-progress. I like the variety and flexibility, and I’m willing to live with the uncertainty that goes with it, at least for now.

I couldn’t help thinking back to my first assignment as a CJN freelancer, before I joined the staff in the early 1990s. A couple of things were different this time: I wasn’t nervous any more (experience makes a difference!), and I didn’t have to run out to the local bookstore to see my article as soon as it appeared.

My interview last week fell into one of my former beats (religious issues), so it was easy to get back into reporter mode. I re-familiarized myself with the issues, changed the battery in my tape recorder, and bought a new notebook. I was all set.

But there was one thing I hadn’t thought about. When I asked Miri for her business card, I realized I no longer had one to give her in return. I guess I should put that on my list.


Accents, and listening

Last night, a friend of mine posted a BBC Radio link on Facebook, called “A Tour of the British Isles in Accents.” We both found it interesting because of our  background as language students – plus, it’s less than a minute and a half, an added incentive for me to check it out.

I think I learned to listen – really listen – to the way people talk, when I was studying French as an undergraduate. Part of our “ear” training involved transcribing tapes of diverse speakers. Brigitte Bardot was one, and I believe there was also an elderly, toothless man from the south of France, as well as a hippodrome announcer.

The focus I honed in that classroom helped me years later as a reporter, when I interviewed people and covered events.

In the last couple of years, I’ve become a fan of Downton Abbey, and part of the appeal is just listening to the English accents. This morning, I found an interesting blog post about the accents in the show.

The BBC Radio link also brought to mind a scene from “Lucy Meets the Queen” – an episode of I Love Lucy – when Ethel explains to a British character that she and Lucy don’t understand English, because they’re American. I looked for the episode online, but couldn’t find one that would play in Canada. Sigh.



Thoughts on “No comment”

Every so often, as a reporter at The Canadian Jewish News, I would write about difficult, painful or divisive situations that arose at community institutions like synagogues and schools.

Sometimes, the logical spokespeople for those institutions deflected my questions with a “No comment.”

The problem with that answer is that it can reflect poorly on the speaker and the institution, for failing to be upfront. People tend to imagine the worst, or think the speaker has something to hide. They may think the institution isn’t addressing the problem, or isn’t dealing with it in a good way.

So why are some people quick to say “No comment?” Either they don’t see the relevance of the subject, or more often – at least, in my experience – they want to avoid negative PR. Or both.

I used to explain to reluctant interviewees why I thought a subject was important, and what the implications might be of not addressing it.

I was secretly happy when they agreed to talk to me, and especially when they came up with reasoned answers that demonstrated responsibility.

In those cases, the bonus for them – contrary to what they expected – was good PR.