You Don’t Get an “A” Just for Effort

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: ToastyKen
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Whether in literature, visual art, theatre, dance, or music, the concept alone is rarely sufficient to engage the reader or viewer, convey an idea, and engage the recipient in a critical conversation.

The same holds true outside the arts. The scientist’s hypothesis is just that–a hunch, a concept–until it is given shape, form, and expression through some active process, an experiment that brings the idea into its full expression. And sometimes the experiment needs to be refined, carried out again and again before it is considered complete.

Put simply, the idea of a cure is not the cure itself.

These thoughts have been on my mind for a while as I observe what seems to be a creeping tendency to applaud ideas and concepts even when they are transmitted in the most mediocre forms and expressions. But the thought gained a certain intensity today as I sat through two short films that were beyond banal–they were poorly executed.

In one, the filmmaker kept asking, both of herself and the audience, “What am I doing? What am I doing?” “I don’t know,” I thought to myself, “but I really wish you’d do it in private if you haven’t quite figured it out just yet.”

In the second, the filmmaker had the idea he wanted to make a documentary, but he didn’t really know what he wanted it to be about. So he just walked around Havana one night, filmed–shakily–his path, and recorded–with lots of interference–his conversation with companions, whose names and relationships to him were never identified. He did some editing (though you can’t correct bouncy, out of focus footage or trim out ambient noise, like wind) and then titled the piece… wait for it: “Caminar/Walk.” And then, apparently, submitted it to a film festival.

Just as blogs have democratized the process of writing in such a way that anyone who can type can transmit his or her words to an audience, so too have relatively affordable equipment and accessible technologies made it possible for people to use other media for self-expression and the exploration of ideas. In the case of films, the proliferation of film fests on every conceivable theme also signifies a ready-made audience.

This phenomenon is not “bad”– self-expression and the exploration of ideas are important; indeed, they are critical to living a full, examined life. But increasingly, exploration and expression are being unleashed beyond the self before they have had the opportunity to mature, before they have developed fully into something the creator can understand and explain. There’s something to be said for sitting with an idea and turning it around in one’s mind for a while, then turning it over in one’s hands, or feet, or in the careful arrangement of words on the page or frames in a film. And there’s even something to be said for those ideas that never make it out of our heads or our scribbled notes (da Vinci’s notebooks are full of ideas never realized)– they lead us, eventually, to some fuller, more complete, and more coherent articulation that will resonate beyond ourselves.

“You don’t get an ‘A’ just for effort,” I thought as I watched the audience clap when the screen went dark.

Travel Writers’ Resolutions for 2009

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Brayan Collazo Alonso

As a travel writer who has written openly about traveling to Cuba, I receive frequent e-mails from people who would like my advice about doing the same.

Just last week, I was chatting with a friend–another travel writer–an American citizen who is planning on traveling to Cuba. “I was trying to decide… whether to write about it [the trip],” she said. She maintains a popular travel blog with a loyal readership, and the comments of her readers indicate that she clearly exerts a positive influence over their travel decisions.

“Here’s what I think,” I said to her:

“From a philosophical/activism perspective, the more people who write about traveling to Cuba, the better. It proves, for one thing, the importance of going there, seeing things for themselves, and rendering their own judgments and opinions. It also proves that the travel ‘ban’ is ridiculous and that travel is not threatening to anyone.”

Writing about travel, like traveling itself, is a form of diplomacy, of politics, and even, I argue, of patriotism. Travel writing is not an act of objectivity or passivity. It requires the writer’s full engagement, both while traveling and while sitting down and writing.

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A few months back, I attended a reading of prose pieces written by travel writers. A writer and editor was asked by a member of the audience if he had traveled to Cuba. The writer shuffled uncomfortably from one foot to the other, his head down, as if trying to decide whether to answer the question. Finally, he looked up and said, “Yes.”

That was it.

“And have you written about it?” the audience member continued. The writer responded something along the lines of he’d never written about the experience–or at least not published anything about it–because he didn’t really want to leave a paper trail of his travels to the forbidden island. He was worried about the consequences.

While I respect his decision, I think there’s something to be said for travel writing that takes people places where they can’t go or where they’re afraid to go. There’s something to be said for writing that’s courageous, that says, “This is what I believe, and this is why,” and that gives places and people without voices a medium for expression.
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My friend and colleague, Eva Holland, recently blogged about her 2009 travel and writing resolutions.

“I will give everything I write the same time, care and attention that I would have when I first started out, and every submission felt like life and death.”

It’s a resolution all writers should adopt for 2009.

And I’ll add one more, for all of us:

Write like you believe in your subject. Write through your fear, through your ego, through your anxieties. Write about places like they matter… because they do.

How to Research an Article (& Why Wikipedia Isn’t a Legit Source)

If you’re a writer intending to publish your work, you will eventually need to develop research skills. Even the most beautiful, deft narrative pieces occasionally require the information and insight that only research can provide.

The Internet has made research easier than ever, providing information that’s no farther away than a keystroke or click of the mouse. But as an editor of two very different types of writing–academic and travel-related–I can confirm that the Internet also raises some serious concerns about its use for research purposes, regardless of the genre.

The concerns can be sorted into two main categories. First, there’s the problem of accuracy and reliability. Where are you getting your information? Where did your source get its information? How dated is the information, and is it possible for you to corroborate your findings? Are you checking multiple sources? And if so, how are you reconciling divergent facts? For instance, while working on an article about Juan Antonio Picasso last week, Francisco wanted to verify the date when Pablo Picasso’s grandfather arrived in Cuba. One source indicated 1846. Another reported the date as 1848. Still another gave a different year. Which source was right?

Second is the issue of legitimacy. What makes an Internet site legitimate? Wikipedia has become wildly popular as a source of information for writers in a variety of genres. While the site can provide a quick overview that gives you background information about a topic, Wikipedia is not a legitimate source. First, the pages are written by people you can’t identify and whose credentials are not substantiated. Second, the “sources” cited in Wikipedia articles are not always legitimate themselves. There’s primary research information and secondary research information. And then there’s tertiary research… and Wikipedia falls into that category.

So where and how does a writer begin to research a subject?

The answers to this question will depend upon the subject of your piece, the publication in which you’re aiming to place it, and your intended audience. The general tips and resources I provide here, though, are useful for many writing projects and should be added to your mental or electronic library.

The Library of Congress: The bricks-and-mortar library has long been a place where academic researchers have ensconced themselves amongst stacks of books, documents, photographs, and other archival material. But you don’t need to visit Washington, D.C. to take advantage of the vast, impressive collection of the Library of Congress. An incredible amount of the LoC’s holdings have been digitized and are available–for free–online. You can even set up your own personalized virtual archive here.

If you’re doing historical research, American or otherwise, the LoC’s website is an excellent starting place for accessing primary source material.

Questia: Questia is a virtual library with an extensive collection of full-text scholarly texts, journal articles, and magazine and newspaper articles on thousands of subjects, including history, business, social science, politics, and much more. All of the material is in English. While the service isn’t free–it’s membership based–writers who need to conduct research regularly will find Questia worthwhile.

New York Public Library Database: The NYPL has 94 databases you can search from home… if you have a library card. If you don’t, reach out to an NYC friend and see if they might help you out. Database subjects range from the broad and comprehensive EBSCOhost (full-text journal and newspaper articles) to more subject-specific collections, including African American History, American Indian History, and the AP Multimedia Archive. There’s a database of 150 Chinese language journals and at least three Spanish language databases.

Google Books: What Google lacks in design appeal, it more than makes up for in functionality and utility. When researching, don’t just Google; check Google Books, which offers both full-text and limited preview editions of popular and scholarly texts.

Twitter and Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forums: Looking for information or opinions about a place from people who know it well? Travel writers, in particular, are using Twitter and other online forums and social networks, to survey other users, to line up interviews, or to search for contacts and information. These online communities can definitely expand the reach of your research.

What resources do you use when conducting research? Share your tips below!

Photo: andercismo
(Flickr creative commons)

From “Good” to “Great”: Tips for Becoming a Better Writer

As a writer, editor, and translator, I spend my days (and nights) surrounded by words.

I’m lucky: I love what I do and I’m regularly reminded why I love writing and why I think it’s important. Just today, for instance, I received a submission for Matador Travel from a writer whose opening lines read: “As the rooster announces the arrival of morning, Grandmaster Dai Kang’s slippers hit the concrete. It is 4am.”

It’s a perfect opening: the details are plentiful, yet the phrasing is tight. There’s an economy of language that confirms the writer’s skillfulness while successfully putting the reader in a specific place and time. The writer also introduces a character and provides just enough intrigue to engage the reader.

I knew the piece “worked”, but I sent it to a couple of other editors for their input. “Amazing,” one e-mailed. “I actually read it twice.” Another editor responded, “Fantastic.” Everything about the piece was well-crafted, and we look forward to publishing the piece so that other readers can enjoy it as much as we did.

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For every moving, entertaining, or informative piece I read, though, there are many that fail to impress, that fall flat and leave me wondering what can be salvaged and reworked. As an editor, I view my job as including the tasks of determining whether the piece is thematically and stylistically consistent with the format, vision, and interests of the publication for which it has been submitted; asking the question: Will this be meaningful to a large readership?; and nurturing the writer’s own voice and style while making sure the piece meets the preceding two criteria.

It’s not always an easy task, or a fun one–many writers are notoriously sensitive to criticism and rejection. But it’s through my own experiences as a writer that I’ve come to understand my work as an editor. It’s in that spirit, then, that I offer the following observations and tips for writers who are hoping to be published:

1. Trim the fat. I once heard a writer refer to revising and editing as “killing my babies.” As someone who writes long, Saramago-esque sentences myself, the metaphor resonated with me… it can be painful to cut the words we’ve worked so hard to birth onto the page. It’s true that some stories and subjects warrant 3,000 words. Many, however, do not. And in either case, even the most devoted, enthusiastic reader has a limited attention span.

When I say “trim the fat,” I don’t mean that you should force your piece into a word count (unless the publication requires that). Don’t kill rich details. Don’t omit a crucial character. But read through your piece before submitting it and ask yourself: Is every word absolutely necessary? Does every word advance the narrative? If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, start trimming.

2. Read with a critical eye. So how do you separate the lean from the fat? Simple. Get rid of filler words. So many words we use in everyday speech are unnecessarily imported into our writing: this, that, these, those, them, there are, there is, it, and etc. are just a few examples. Take a sentence with filler words and look at it critically: what can be eliminated without sacrificing detail? Try this tip consistently. I promise you’ll be surprised by how many words are simply unnecessary.

3. Write with precision…and passion. I recently landed a contract to write a guide to Mexico City for an online travel planning company. I was given a style guide to follow; though it was strict, it was not constraining. I was confident about my subject–I know my second home well–and I completed the guide with passion. I was satisfied with what I’d written and sent it off to the editor, sure it would be accepted immediately with praise and no requests for revisions.

I was wrong. “I just have a few revision requests,” the editor wrote. When I opened the document, I could see red marks all over my draft, the editor’s frustrated notes electronically penned into the margins. “WHY IS THIS PLACE GREAT?!!” she wrote with evident exasperation. “WHY IS THIS RESTAURANT ‘CELEBRATED’?!” I could almost see her, sighing and rolling her eyes, and I felt chastised by her feedback.

As I sat with the draft and reviewed it with fresh eyes and an open mind, I realized she was absolutely right. Words like “good,” “great,” “must-see,” and “celebrated” have no meaning for a reader who has never been to Mexico City. I knew the places I’d included in the guide were good, great, celebrated must-sees, but I hadn’t taken the reader there. I had to be more precise. The second draft–and the final product–were better because the editor pushed me to get rid of vague adjectives, forcing me to be precise.

So here’s the tip: Avoid “good,” “great,” and all other vague adjectives that mean nothing. Remember the 5 “Ws” of writing: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. WHY is the place great? Pushing yourself to be precise won’t just benefit the reader; you’ll become a better writer and you’ll fall in love with your subject all over again as you struggle (and succeed!) to articulate precisely why it’s so important to you.

If you find precision challenging, ask a trusted friend to read your draft. Can he or she understand the place or experience you want to convey? If not, what would the reader like to know that’s currently missing?

4. Be yourself. Recently, I had the painful experience of working with a writer who was simply trying too hard to channel her voice to fit the vibe of our publication. I could sense the talent underneath her words, but so much of her writing felt stilted. Something simply didn’t ring true, though it was difficult to express this to her.

Writers are constantly trying to fit their resumes and themselves into the varied visions and expectations of editors and the publications they represent. Don’t. Be yourself and always channel your authentic voice. When you force your writing to be something it’s not, the reader can sense the inauthenticity. And besides, you’ll be left with the yucky feeling of defeat and compromise. If the piece doesn’t fit, don’t force it. You’ll find your place. In the meantime, keep writing.

What tips do YOU have about improving as a writer? Please share your comments and experiences below!

Photo: thorinside (Flickr creative commons)

Voces de Mompox: An Update & The Dollar Challenge

The Update

Everything seemed to come together at the last minute.

We found a house for rent that would serve as the ideal space for Voces de Mompox to continue as an after school program. With a large living room (that’s PART of the living room, in the photo above–to be repurposed as a computer/multi-media room), three bedrooms (to be converted into a library, study room, and possible bedroom for future volunteers), a kitchen, two patios, and a couple of other nice details (three bathrooms, hooks ready for hammocks to be hung, and a nice work room), this house in the center of town, offered at a totally fair price by the owners who are enthusiastic about Voces de Mompox, it’s hard to imagine finding anything better.

We also interviewed and are prepared to hire a young woman who is motivated and totally qualified to facilitate Voces de Mompox on-site. Not only would she be an ideal director, the job would provide her with much needed income and the pride of being able to support her family.

By the end of our time in Mompox, most of the parents and family members of the kids had come by to introduce themselves, to thank us for caring about their loved ones, and to express their support for the Voces project. We feel a huge obligation and commitment to seeing this project through, and with all the infrastructural pieces in place, there’s just one more thing we need: funding!

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The Dollar Challenge

Since the Voces de Mompox project started, more than 4,000 people have visited CollazoProjects and read the kids’ articles and viewed their photography. The kids have been psyched to check our analytics and see how many people have seen their work and to learn where the visitors are from, and your support has been an incredible motivator for them.

In addition to your kind comments, your thoughtful personalized e-mails, donations to the ChipIn fund, and offers to help with everything from website development to grant-writing have been deeply appreciated.

The fact that 4,000 people have visited the site got us thinking: If every single person who read a Voces de Mompox article contributed just one dollar to the ChipIn fund, that would be $4,000! And $4,000 goes a long way in Colombia. In fact, $4,000 would secure the rental of the site for one full year, would pay the facilitator’s salary, and would provide some seed money for equipment.

Thus, we’re announcing The Dollar Challenge!

We challenge every visitor who hasn’t yet contributed to the Voces de Mompox fund to donate at least one dollar in support of the program being developed for the ninth graders of Mompox that will help them continue developing their writing, computing, multi-media, and communication skills, all in preparation for better opportunities for college and future careers. You’ll know how we’re using the money because updates will be posted at least once a week on the website and the kids themselves will be detailing what services they’re receiving and what work they’re creating on the ground in Mompox.

Are you ready to take on the challenge?! GREAT!

Just go to our home page and click on the ChipIn icon in the top right portion of the sidebar. This action will redirect you to a secure server where your transaction will be conducted via PayPal. If you have a PayPal account already, fantastic! If not, you can sign up for one–it’s quick, easy, and free.

Tomorrow, we’ll be posting 10 more ways you and your friends, family, and network can support Mompox to become the better community it’s capable of being. And stay tuned– there are lots more stories from the kids and from us about Mompox!

Thanks for your support,

Francisco & Julie