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Writing an Article
A Plea, a Pep Talk, a Plan
I have three objectives for this article. The first is to convince you that you should write woodturning articles. The second is to assure you that it’s not all that hard. Sure, there are differences in writing ability, just like there are in bowl turning technique. But like with bowls, the difference is mostly elegance, as even a bowl turned by an all thumbed beginner will likely hold apples. The third objective is to outline a method that works for me. It’s not THE way, just a way, but I’ll mention some of the tools and tips that have made it easier for me.
Better for You
Unfortunately, writing a woodturning article won’t make you the equivalent of a rock star. Although the other guys at your McJob (McJob is just for effect. Most days I like my real job.) will at least pretend to be impressed. But it will give you a new creative outlet, and as creating something new is exceeded on the pleasure scale probably only by sex, you should find it rewarding.
It won’t make you rich, but you might get paid. When starting out you’ll probably have to settle for self-publishing on a web site or inclusion in a local club newsletter which won’t pay except in satisfaction. There are an increasing number of publications that pay for articles now. Again, you won’t get rich, but it may add appreciably to your woodturning discretionary income. Particularly if you compartmentalize your income, as in money from McJob goes to the house, money from woodturning sales and articles goes to woodturning toys.
Better for Me
It will also be better for me if you write. I’ve already read my articles. But more to the point, I like to write about things that are at least a little bit new. New things rarely spring to final form in one revelation. It’s much more common to combine a few things together in a new way and your article might contain of those things.
Better for us All
This seems so obvious it’s hard to state. The more ways something is expressed, even if it’s the 30th iteration on turning a slimline pen, the more likely someone is to find an expression they understand. The more ideas that are recorded, the more new combinations of ideas are possible. The information explosion is driving the expansion of civilization. Be part of it.
A Pep Talk
I’m not trying to say writing an article is falling off a log easy, because it’s not. And it wouldn’t be any fun if it was. There will always be room for improvement, no matter how good you get. Again, it wouldn’t be much fun if that wasn’t true. But it’s not impossibly hard to get to the point where your article will benefit someone. But you do have to try. Which is pretty much the point of this section: to argue against some of the barriers that might keep you from trying.
Epiphany Not Needed
You might think “my idea isn’t important enough”. Look, it doesn’t need to be a mountain top experience complete with lightning and a release of doves. It just needs to be interesting enough that some people will want to read it. If you take something to show and tell at your local woodturning club and two or three guys ask questions about it, then that’s good enough. If that doesn’t convince you, consider that you’re better off learning to write on less important concepts so if you DO have an epiphany you’ll do a better job. Most of us didn’t learn to turn bowls on pink ivory burl.
If You Can Talk, You Can Write
You might think “I can’t write”. Well it does help if you can compose a decent sentence complete with a noun, a verb and a period at the end. But a lot people make it harder than it should be by writing in a foreign language. No, I don’t mean French. I mean they try to sound overly formal. Or try to write in bureaucratese. Or use words they wouldn’t use in ordinary conversation. Instead, write like you talk. It will be easier and people will understand you better.
That’s What Editors Are For
This is the second answer to “I can’t write”. An editor can help. It is, after all, part of their job. If you’re not ready for paid publications then recruit a free editor. Try your spouse, another guy at your local club, or your sixth grade teacher. Maybe even a blind post for help at an online forum. You wouldn’t believe how many hits I just got on Google for - editing writing forum-.
I like to take the pictures first. I’ve found that a picture after each significant step to be helpful. “Action” shots with flying chips are more of challenge to get, and more impressive when you do. But unless your article is on how to use a tool they document ones ego more than the process of making a piece. Sure I try for a few, how else to justify buying and modifying a remote, but they’re extras. Once I’ve taken, edited and organized the pictures, I use them as a guide to outlining and writing the article.
I’m old enough that I’ve done a few articles with a film based camera. But I don’t want to again. There are so many advantages to digital cameras. You can see if the picture you have is acceptable right away. You don’t have to wait until you finish the roll of film, and you don’t have to wait for processing. The advantages don’t stop when you have the pictures. Digital pictures are trivial to crop and easy to edit and enhance with a little practice. Take white balance as an example. To correct the white balance of slide film you have to select a different film or use corrective filters. If you have mixed lighting (fluorescent and incandescent, for instance) I don’t think you can get a balance. But even mixed lighting can be balanced pretty closely in a digital picture with a few clicks. There is no equivalent of lightening shadows and darkening highlights with film based processing and it does wonders for the appearance of a picture.
You could start with a film based camera, scan the
resultant pictures, and then edit them in a computer.
You could also travel to
If you don’t have a digital camera, what should you get? You can get by with most cameras over 4 mega-pixels on the market right now. As always, there’s a certain amount of getting what you pay for. Having a tilting swiveling LCD screen is a great help when working on a tripod (that precludes my upgrading to a digital SLR, darn). A large zoom ratio keeps you from constantly moving the camera set-up. A macro feature is great for small details. If you want to do action photos you’ll need a remote or at least a delay timer. Having preset selections (such as no flash, incandescent balance, macro) is a time saver. I seem to be just describing my semi-obsolescent Nikon Coolpix 5700 now…let your wallet be your guide.
On camera flash is pretty harsh lighting. You can compensate somewhat for the resultant over-lighting of foreground and under-lighting of the background, but there’s no way to get rid of the one-sided outlining shadows. Your pictures will really look a lot better if you use ambient light. In the typical shop (mine’s in the basement) that means you need a tripod because the exposure time will be too long to hold by hand. I just looked on Amazon, and there was a tripod that looked better than mine for less than $15.
A cluttered background makes it hard for viewers to try to see what you’re trying to show them. A method that I’ve found to help is drop a piece of foam board behind my lathe. A plain background is much less distracting than my wood chip encrusted basement wall and shiny dust collection hood. I suggest you select white or neutral grey, as it will make getting color balance easier.
Start by creating a separate directory for everything related to your article, and put the pictures there. Your article pictures will look a lot better if you take the time to edit them. At a minimum, plan on cropping, and rotating the image if necessary. The editing software that came with your camera can probably do this much. If your software comes with a one button enhance feature then try it.
Rather than use the software that came with my camera I bought Adobe Photoshop Elements, a mid-level editing/organizing program. It has some additional features that I find very helpful. The Shadows/Highlights adjustment is very helpful in making up for sub-optimal lighting. I find the Remove Color Cast feature very helpful because I don’t have normal color vision. With this feature I can balance the image for non-standard lighting by just clicking on anything white or grey in the image. Photoshop Elements also makes generating composite pictures like the one in the Background paragraph much easier to do. I recommend it, although if you buy a copy, buy a book too, as the documentation included with the program is inadequate.
There are equally capable programs available for free on the Internet (legal and otherwise), but the learning curve for some of them is perhaps steeper.
After you’ve edited your pictures, rename them to something that makes sense. Six months from now, if you want to send a picture to a friend, “DoubleBevelJigComposite.jpg” will be a lot easier to find than “DCN80057.jpg”. Be as descriptive as you can while still being brief.
After I edit and rename my pictures I like to sort them into the order they’ll appear in the article and print out thumbnails or a contact sheet to use as I guide while I write. I used to print thumbnails, cut them out, sort into order, and use that to rename them so that they would sort properly by adding a figure number (Fig01, Fig02, …). Then I would reprint the contact sheets. Hardly elegant. Then I discovered the Collections function in Adobe Photoshop Elements. All I have to do now is make a new Collection, select all the pictures I want to include, and drag the tag to my selected pictures. I can add or delete pictures later. Once the pictures are in a collection I can call them up by clicking on the Collection. I can change the way the pictures are sorted by dragging them where I want them to be. Then I can easily print out contact sheets of the Collection that will be in the correct order. It will print even out file names under the pictures. If the editor desires Figure numbers, it’s also easier to rename the file names of pictures that are in order than shuffling paper pictures and trying to find the corresponding picture. I really love it. My wife can’t understand why I was so impressed that I tried to tell her about it more than once.
If the editing software you have already does what you need, you can also find organizing software free on the web. For instance, Adobe offers “Adobe Photoshop ® Album Starter Edition”. To find it, open your copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader. Click on “Help”, then click on “Check for updates now”. You’ll be taken to a web page where you can download the program. You can also do simple editing in this program, such as cropping, rotation, and one-click enhancement, but not color balance and highlights/shadows.
After creating my contact sheets, I use them as a guide to write an outline. Do I really need to mention that this is one whole heck of a lot easier on a computer? After all, even my 90 year old Mother uses a PC to write the Genealogy Newsletter she works on. Sadly, I am old enough that I remember trying to write an article longhand. Never got one published that way though. Never going back, either.
I assume you’ve got access to MS Word, one of its competitors, or one of its clones. The details may be different depending on the actual program you use. Word Perfect, for instance which came with my computer but I never use, uses a separate Outline function and headings to create an outline. In Word you can click on View/Outline to switch to outline mode. Then select “Heading 1” and create your major topics. I suggest creating one for “Introduction”, each major part of your project, a byline, and other things such as “Materials” your editor may require. Then switch to “Heading 2” and break down the major parts of your project into manageable segments. Create as many sub-headings as necessary. If you think you might leave something out, create a sub-heading for it. If it interrupts the flow you can drop the sub-heading after you’ve finished writing.
Next I start writing. It’s helpful to break the job down into manageable chunks. Maybe try to write one sub-heading at a sitting. Don’t try to write in a foreign language; if you’re a boiler mechanic don’t try to sound like a corporate lawyer. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a corporate lawyer. Okay, that’s too flip. Language isn’t really job dependent, but you should get my point. Strive to be clear, not to impress.
I tend to rehearse mentally and rewrite as I go, usually only making minor changes when rewriting. If you have trouble getting started, ignore this style and concentrate on just getting something written (Editors can rewrite gibberish easier than blank pages). Then perhaps rewrite more than once.
Oh, and SAVE your work after every paragraph or so. Or if you’re using MS Word, at least check and see how often it creates a recovery file (Click Tools/Options, then the Save tab. Make sure “Save Autorecovery Info” is checked off and set the minutes for how much work you’re willing to lose).
Add Figure Captions
After the article has been written and is in basic shape I add captions for my photographs. I put captions in the body of the article instead of a separate document for two reasons. The first reason is that way it tells the editor where to place the photograph. The second is it makes it easier for me to republish it on my web site. I don’t do that until after the article has been published, which be long enough after I’ve written it that I’ll have forgotten a lot. I put the captions in brackets and change the text color to make them easy to find. This way I only have to add a table where I see the color keyed caption text, and drag the photo and the caption text into the table. That’s just my idiosyncrasy, but it works well for me.
This is an example of how I indicate figure captions.]
Once you’ve gotten the basic article committed to computer memory, run your spell checker and fix everything it finds. Then let it rest at least a day, print it out, and read it over. Look for errors your spell checker won’t find, like typing “you” when you mean “your”, “their” instead of “they’re”. Make sure you can understand what you wrote. Look for ways to make things clearer. Fix what you find. If you like the article at this point it’s time to publish. If you don’t, find someone to help with it—see the “That’s What Editors are For” paragraph.
Where you should try to publish depends on how good you think your article is and your past publishing history. It’s sensible to start at a level lower than Fine Woodworking. You can certainly accept your own article for publication on your own web site. If you don’t have one, check with your internet service provider, as most give space for free. Or Google “free web site”.
Submit your article to your local chapter’s newsletter editor. Most are extremely glad not to have to write everything themselves. Another starting point would be More Woodturning, as Fred Holder actively solicits new contributors.
David Reed Smith is a basement woodturner living in