writing

The Backstory

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Bad hair reporting days. You rarely get to see this.

What makes a good story? Writers are often judged by what appears below their byline, but there is so much more to a good story than that. The public rarely gets to see the exciting grunt work behind the scenes. An initial story idea, like any entrepreneurial venture, goes through several pivots and iterations, before the golden story materializes.

Pitching to my editors is my favorite part of the job, but it’s also the hardest. Balancing what the public wants to know with your moral compass of what you think they should know is tricky.

You spend a lot of time swatting bugs behind the scenes.

You spend a lot of time swatting bugs behind the scenes.

There are a million backstories behind the final product. The vetting process – determining what is worth writing about, what people will like, what they should know – involves asking the right questions. What are readers curious about? What is their perception on a topic? What do they know that I don’t?

I’m creating a newsletter to involve my friends and family in story development. Each week, I’ll share stories I’ve posted, stories in the pipeline, and stories that need some fleshing out. I want to hear your thoughts on the stories in queue. Think of it as a sounding board, and your chance to add input to a story before it is published.

My strategy thus far has been to post a question on Facebook and Twitter. “Hey, what internship advice do you have for new interns?” “Do you know anything about Atlanta? Let me know!” It can get annoying. So, one other purpose of this newsletter is to reduce my clutter and create a targeted community of people who do actually want to participate in the development of stories without bombarding everyone else’s social feeds.

If you’re interested in participating, here’s the link to sign-up and feel free to forward to anyone else who is interested:

https://tinyletter.com/lynneguey

ps. the inspiration for a newsletter came from Ann Friedman, who wrote this helpful post on How Writers Can Use Email To Share Their Work. Her weekly newsletter is a mix of her original work, suggested reads, pie charts, and funny gifs.

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editing, defined.

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I attended an editing workshop at The Poynter Institute this week. In some ways, I don’t really know why. I’ve never held an editing role in my life. I’m not particularly enthused by the thought of reading over other people’s work. And for all I know, editing is the red markup you get back when your writing is bad. Who would ever aspire to be that person, that word janitor?

Beyond reason, I went to the workshop anyway, and I’m glad I did. It certainly didn’t hurt that Poynter is conveniently located in St. Petersburg, Florida, home to soft white sand that sifts seamlessly through your toes and a sun that coalesces beautifully with your skin.  I figured that my indulgent beach lounging would be justified if I acquired some form of knowledge in addition to a bronze glow (which ended up being more lobster-red than anything).

The other attendees at the seminar were  -surprise!- actual editors, and way more accomplished than me. I was humbled to sit alongside some really impressive individuals. Shout-out to Lisa, a news editor who works for a news wire I can’t pronounce (the Swedish version of the AP) and who travelled all the way from Stockholm! The 15 of us learned tips on line editing, brainstorming story ideas, coaching reporters, and social media. But for me, the most important takeaway was quite basic: an understanding of what an editor actually does.

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Editors of all experience levels, w/ Poynter Faculty

Traditionally, the image of an editor conjures up images of a white male, legs perched on a desk, brooding over a newspaper mark-up or proceeding over a meeting. It’s a grand representation of man’s authority over what is “fit to print”. That image is partially true. But there is also a softer, less tactile element that involves the relationship between editor and writer. I learned that editing, at its core, is less about being a hardline news guru as it is helping to nurture and coach writers to construct stories in a way that enhances their value beyond the individual lens.

So, the most basic question an editor must ask is: “What to look for in a piece of writing?” Looking over someone else’s work is a huge responsibility. The first temptation is to rewrite from our own lens. All spelling, grammar, and syntax aside, I learned that there are really only 2 important things to look for: theme and clarity.

Theme  – A story is only good when you know what it’s about. At the end of a story, you should be able to easily identify the core message.  If you can’t, that’s a problem. Determine the focus of the story and be sure that every section directly adds to that theme. This eliminates redundancy and trims fat, builds muscle.

Clarity – This goes hand-in-hand with theme. If you know the theme, find a way of mapping it out – clearly. Kelley Benham, a writer and editor for the Tampa Bay Times (whose recently Pulitzer Prize-nominated piece you should read) recommended “running a chronology comb” through the writing. Making a timeline with a logical procession of events usually helps to construct stories with absolute simplicity and clarity.

I found these guidelines reassuring and helpful. Previously when given a piece to edit, I would strap on my writing helmet and enter battle. Never was the pen a mightier sword as it slashed through words and corrected spelling like a gallant warrior. (Allow me, itt was the closest I’d get to feeling like my life was an action movie. These days, it’s not so glorious when everything is done on a blinking screen; I type louder to make the process seem more dramatic.)

But in reality, making the paper bleed is not an editor’s job. It’s the reverse, actually; becoming a word janitor is what happens when you don’t let the writer do what he or she is supposed to do: write.

John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, advised editors to cultivate a lazy streak:

“What’s better than rewriting is to take an extra few minutes diagnosing the story’s one or two biggest problems (but not all of them) and return it to the reporter for adjustments. This is good for all concerned. You won’t get bogged down doing someone else’s jo b while oher stories pile up. And the reporter will be able to take pride in the story. The story’s minor problems tend to get straightened out in the rewrite process.

Good editors often have a lazy streak. Instead of impulsively jumping into the fray, put your feet up and figure out how to get somebody else to do the work. Things usually turn out better that way.”

Rather than rewrite, an editor’s job is to discuss the story and make it culturally relevant, together, with the writer. It is to make the story so deep, rich, and revealing of something deeply embedded within our human nature. It is to find a story that rises above the individual lens, that spreads its wings beyond the mere facts. That’s editing.

I knew I was attracted to it for a reason.

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*Many thanks to the staff at Poynter for a well-organized and insightful workshop. I highly recommend their training programs to those in the journalism profession looking to sharpen their skills. Special thanks to Tom Huang of the Dallas Morning News who led the seminar and encouraged us to find our “personal dimension” to this line of work. The story will continue to evolve, but I think, just maybe, I’ve found the beginning scraps.  

Confidence in the Face of Failure

Got really vulnerable, y’all.

Last week, I had the fortune of meeting Christina Vuleta, founder of 40:20 vision, a website that offers advice from 40something women who have been there, to 20something women (like me) who are trying to figure it out. Christina was a panelist at a 40:20 Highwater Women panel  where she, along with some other incredibly accomplished women, offered invaluable tidbits on how to navigate this thing called life. I feel extremely lucky to have made a connection with someone so willing to pass on her experiences and help the next generation weather through the rocky 20s.

I wrote a guest post for her site about a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: failure. 

Read it, but if  you’re busy here’s the Cliff’s Notes version straight from the last two sentences:

Embrace failure as relentlessly as  you pursue success. One is not better than the other, as they both simply bring us closer to the goal.      

Elusively motivational?  That’s how I like it.

Also, I haven’t said this before but to all who actually read these meanderings, thank you. I don’t get to see your faces often but simply knowing that there are faces is encouraging. It’s what keeps me typing. 🙂


Writing + An Announcement

“If you aren’t journaling what you’re seeing and doing so in a thoughtful way, you’re running yourself based on year or more old information, never cleaning off your blind spots. Just because you have funding doesn’t mean you put your head down.”

This was written as a word of advice to entrepreneurs on how to manage companies. However, I modified it for general life purposes because, entrepreneur or not, we are each our own company. We shouldn’t run our individual motors on year-old information. Similarly, cash flow in our bank account is no excuse to rest on our laurels.

On that note, I’ve been rather happy these past two weeks eating ice cream, watching movies, and on occasion, drafting lyrical tweets and emails. Somehow I think that’s enough to call myself a WRITER.

It got me thinking about why we write and situations that warrant burning the midnight oil,  – – or in writer-speak, ‘writing by candlelight’. (which I have never actually done)

I’ll share here, candidly, what often really drives me to write:

1. FEAR: Buried in my conscience is a deep fear that the day I stop writing is the day I deteriorate back to simple googoogaga speak.  Short S-V-O sentences. “Go here.” “Feed me.” “I want.” Flashback to the day of my 3rd grade writing assessment when I could barely construct an introductory paragraph with a ‘hook’, a 3-paragraph body with 5 supporting details and a zinger conclusion, resulting in a barely passing grade and making me despise writing, thus dashing all hopes of becoming a writer.

Engrained fearfully in my memory, this drives me. Like the gym rats who drag themselves to the gym for fear of gaining weight, my fear of being stripped of all ability to express is often just as extreme. So, I write.

More sensibly, I view writing as a way to clear off the mental counter, to make abstractions concrete in an otherwise tangled, dusty mind.  When the clutter piles up, what results is clusterfuck in the brain.

So, I write.

2. GUILT – I call myself a writer on Google + and Quora.  So, I better damn write.

3. THERAPY – My theory: writing mixes the disconnected new facts we pick up everyday with the existing knowledge we already have, creating new hunches.  It provides the self-reflection to sift between hunches by understanding my innate bias, allowing me to pick out the best ones to follow.

4. VANITY – Finally, there is a self-serving aspect to it. Life can be awesome and I want others to know it. I like telling others about my life. Not sure when it kicked in but it was probably around the time in college I started taking pictures of myself with food. Though I am less inclined to do that now, I still believe that certain milestones are worth sharing and for that reason, I write these posts with an element of personal candor.

On that note (and since I can’t think of a better segue), I have an announcement to make:

This week, I start work at ZeroCater, a San Francisco-based startup dedicated to connecting companies with the best food in town. I’m their first account manager in New York City, so I’ll be helping them set up shop there.

After a few months of dabbling in the freelance life, I’m ready for this. While I felt liberated by my open schedule and enlivened by the opportunities, I was often plagued with uncertainty. Uncertainty with where random projects were leading me, how much would be in my bank account, how much longer I could afford to stay in the city on a shoestring budget. It was, I believe, the closest I’ve gotten to ‘real life’. I had to make choices and live the consequences, with nary an alternative to fall back on. It was trying and terrifying. But a lesson learned. Rarely does anything come in an easy 9-5 package unless we constrain ourselves to that bubble. I learned to more readily deal with the gray because Choice A and Choice B weren’t available. It was a necessary time for reflection.

I have no idea what this new position will bring. I can only guess that it will be wildly different, challenging, and tasty. Ultimately, I’m just excited to learn more about 3 of my favorite things: startup culture, food, and the workings of delivery/transportation/logistics in the never-ending gluttony of New York City. My two main goals are:

1. to begin each day with specific goals in mind, and

2. to be openly communicative with my co-workers.

Tomorrow, I fly out to San Francisco for 3 weeks of training, and will be back in New York mid-February to get the office started.

Before I turn the page and scribble on, I cast my shadow out into the air. Out with the old, in with the new.  Cheers!

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“On a good day, I’m caught up by something larger than myself, held in the light by some celestial movement. For a brief charged time I may be irradiated, able to cast a shadow version of something I only imagine. The shadow will never be the bright true self that I know exists, but it will be as precise as I can make it, as real, as sharp, as beautiful. I will cast this shadow into the air, where it may never be seen, or where it may be seen at a great distance, and only by one person, someone I will never know. The point is to cast the shadow out into the air.”

Roxana Robinson, on writing


Day 18: Reunions

Some things never change.

My friend Kristin who has been out of the country for 18 months returned to the States this weekend. Before going home to Florida, she made a stop in New York City where she was greeted with big hugs, kisses, and a rousing homecoming from close-knit friends. We ate cupcakes, shopped, and hair-flipped our way through New York City like an obnoxious group of sorority sisters. It was almost like college again 🙂

Kristin and I traveled together last summer when we both taught English in Italy through a program called ACLE. We have always shared a strong connection through our mutual love for traveling and culture, but it was our OBSESSION with gelato that really solidified our bond. (One scoop? Try two or three…per day.) I left Europe after 3 months but Kristin stuck to the peripatetic life for another year and a half. Her travels took her from Italy to London to Paris to all throughout  Asia (Taiwan, China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia).

Over dim-sum on Sunday, Kristin shared stories about her travels, ranging from her run-in with Asian girls at karaoke ‘gangnam style’ to the incredible hospitality she experienced in Malaysia. Kristin has always been an adventurous spirit but she has now surpassed everyone within our circle of friends in sheer bad-ass status with the number of far-fetched tales she has.

She is that girl, the cultured one, the one who has friends everywhere because she’s actually been to those countries. She’ll begin a story with “This one time, my Dutch friend…” On a practical level, she can tell the difference between a good macaroon and a bad one, and has developed a strong inkling for when someone is ripping her off. She appreciates hole-in-the wall authenticity over flashy tourist traps. As a plus, she can probably educate you on all the details of the various visa application processes since she’s faced several interesting experiences with that herself. Read all of her helpful travel tips on her blog, Lost Abroad.

A year and a half seems like a long time. But as Kristin said herself, it’s really just a spec. What matters more than all of her worldly stories is that she can still snort a big laugh and engulf several slices of American pizza with a smile on her face.  Some things never change…and they never should.


Day 15: Storytelling

I had the pleasure of interviewing Monica McCarthy, actress, producer, and founder of Show & Tell Stories Productions, a boutique video production company based in NYC that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, artists, and organizations share their story. I talked to her about the importance of storytelling for InnerGap (an upcoming interviewing platform for HR professionals and recruiters), for both those being interviewed AND those asking the questions.

Why storytelling? It’s a buzzword these days, but why is it especially important for those on the job market?

M: It’s important these days for anyone who’s trying to get their message across because these days there’s so much information out there with social media. If you’re just spitting out facts it just gets lost in the deluge of information. So, it’s really important when you want to be able to express something that’s unique to you and why people should be listening to you. You need to have a story.

InnerGap caters to HR professionals and recruiters. How can they ask the right questions to draw out people’s stories?

M: One of the main things that I would say for interviewers is that you’re looking for connection. You already have the person’s resume. One mistake that a lot of recruiters make is that they’re taking time to ask questions that they can get the answer to on the resume (ie. Where did you go to school? What was your major?) Instead they should be using the resume as a starting off point…What they’re ultimately trying to do is to get more information than just a fact on a piece of paper.

Recruiters should also ask questions that don’t require just a yes or no answer.  Recruiters usually have a set criteria of questions they’re going to ask, but they shouldn’t be afraid to be present in the moment. If someone says something that is very intriguing, feel free to follow up with that. You don’t have to stick to set questions. That way, you can really find out more about that person.

For those being interviewed, how should they respond to more spontaneous questions that don’t directly relate to their skill set?

M: When you’re being interviewed, you actually have a lot more control over the interview than most people think. Celebrities and politicians are great at this. Several things to note:

1. Be empowered.

2. Know ahead of time what your talking points are.

3. Do your research on the company. Preferably find out who will be interviewing you because again, it’s about the connection…don’t be afraid to show some of your human connection.

4. Yes – and (borrowed from the improv world) Don’t give a yes or no answer, even if you’re asked a question that just seems like yes or no. It’s always, ‘yes’ and then add a piece of information. That really keeps the conversation going and again spawns that connection between two people.

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Be sure to check out Monica and more of her storytelling tips at showandtellstories.com!


Day 14: The Future

If you’re reading this from a cubicle, you probably won’t be in 2 years. If you’re reading from a laptop, you likely won’t be doing that either. Space and the tools we use in the space will be drastically transformed in the coming years. I’m not a psychic; this is strictly based on data, trends, and yes, a little bit of New York bias.

Living in New York is a bit like living in a time lapse. At the risk of sounding like an elitist urbanite, the rest of the country (San Francisco and Boston notwithstanding) trails in comparison. This is not meant to be condescending; it is simply a basic truth about metropolitan cities in general. With the sheer number of people (a large proportion being investors, technophiles, and creatives) progress is bound to unfold at a much more rapid pace.

One of the best places to witness the future is at co-working spaces. A co-working space is a shared work space for anyone who needs a place to plop down, get connected, and work outside of the basic constructs of a “normal” office space. Initially, co-working space was used by mostly freelancers as a way to escape the humdrum of working from home. Now, people from a variety of backgrounds flock to co-working spaces (developers, artists, independent consultants, even accountants and lawyers).

Last year when I was completely new to the tech scene, I visited New Work City, largely known as one of the first co-working spaces in New York. I personally believe it should be every New York newbie’s crash course into the tech world. I was immediately enlivened by the quiet energy buzzing inside. It was much better than a coffee shop, mostly because a.) no one was hogging the outlet, b.) no one near you was in an intense gossip sesh as you attempt to do work, and c.) coffee was FREE.  Outlets, productivity, and free caffeine yield generally good vibes. Who wouldn’t want that? As a freelancer, I would often go to coffee shops, not because I needed another 3 cups of coffee, but simply because I wanted a positive workflow that was conducive to getting things done. Most of all, I wanted an environment that reminded me I was not the only one. Connection. Something not unlike the college library buzzing with activity at 3 am during final exam week because you’re all in the same over-caffeinated, underprepared, cramming (aka screwed) state. Imagine that everyday, just with more chic chairs and desks, and more “sophisticated” problems to stress about. That’s a co-working space.

The number of co-working spaces in New York has doubled each year since 2006. In that same period of time, New York City has exploded as a tech hub. Vivek Wadhwa recently said, “In 2006, I wouldn’t have put New York anywhere on the map of leading tech hubs. Now it is literally number 2.” According to Tony Bacigalupo, founder of New Work City, there is a direct correlation between the growth of co-working and the explosion of New York City’s startup ecosystem. The reason? Co-working spaces facilitate transitions between jobs. In today’s ever-changing economy, a co-working space becomes quite necessary when you’re transitioning from a full-time gig to work at a startup or as an independent. This trend will only grow as industries continue to be disrupted. This is generation flux after all, and that’s not just a catchy phrase. The flux is real. Chaotic disruption is rampant, not just with the Facebook, Twitter, and Googles, but across industries. You see the writing on the wall in New York, as more and more people quit their corporate jobs and become their own boss by creating pockets within pockets among niche industries.

The future is about self-reliance, and this is another reason why New York paves the way. New Yorkers are famous (or infamous?) for being self-reliant. Tonight at a joint Mashable -BMW iVentures event, Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures likened the age we’re living in now to the period of time when we shifted from an agrarian economy to the industrial age. The possibilities of where we could be post-digital are..who knows. Figuring out how to properly monetize workspace is one issue. Will it take on a sharing model similar to our homes (AirBNB) and cars (Zipcar)? What about the jobs crisis? The jobs of those whose industries are dismantled?

Looks like the future is already here.

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*Many of the insights from this post originate from a talk given by Tony Bacigalupo, co-working evangelist, from a Brooklyn Venture Community meetup on November 14. You can download his presentation at nwc.co/bkv-preso. I also highly recommend his blog, Happy Monsters.

*Also, if you’re interested in finding a co-working space in New York, here is a super handy guide compiled by Charles Bonello, a member of the NY Tech community, that includes details on every co-working space in the city.  He also shares some interesting stats: “There is currently about 600,000 square feet of co-working space available, which is equivalent to 400 Starbucks, the entire 11 story building that houses Lord & Taylor’s flagship store in NYC and the Port Authority/NYC’s lease at the World Trade Center.” Wow!