Tag Archives: Los Angeles Times

Hemingway on writing, Fraser at writing, counterfeit books, and a podcast: newsletter, June 28, 2019

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,7xx) on Friday, June 28, 2019.

The great satisfaction of a project nearing completion came for me this week with the arrival of proof copies of Loyal Mountaineers: The Civil War Memoirs of Will McTeer. McTeer left his home near the Great Smoky Mountains in 1862 and joined the Union army. He spent the next two and a half years fighting to preserve his country. I’ll have more to say about him and the book next week.

Meanwhile, the earth produces, and we harvest: potatoes, onions, cucumbers, dill, beans, tomatoes, and blackberries.

Be happy and safe this weekend as America gets ready to celebrate the Fourth.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,769 subscribers and had a 30.4 percent open rate; 7 people unsubscribed. A chart showing the percentage of newsletter recipients who opened the newsletter each month will appear in next week’s newsletter.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Ernest Hemingway on writing

The spare writing style of Ernest Hemingway has been often analyzed — and too often imitated — by many writers, observers, and commentators.

It is unique. There is nothing like it in the English language, and when Hemingway emerged as an important and eventually well-known writer in the post-Great War era of the 1920s, the style was both praised and panned.

One of the techniques of Hemingway’s writing is the heavy reliance on the simple sentence — the subject-verb-predicate sentence without subordination. One study showed that 70 percent of Hemingway’s sentences were simple sentences.

Hemingway wrote like a reporter who was composing for a telegraph message that charged by the word. Every word had to mean something. Every word had to pull some weight. Lavish adjectives and adverbs were likely not only to waste time but to be inadequate for what the writer was trying to convey. What was important, Hemingway argued, was what was omitted, and he compared his writing to an iceberg:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. (Death in the Afternoon)

Another device that Hemingway used was something the ancient Greeks knew about: polysyndeton. This is the technique of stringing together sentences or phrase with the use of “and” rather than what we would call the serial comma. For instance, Hemingway wrote:

“I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.” (After the Storm)

This technique conveys an immediacy to the subject and allows the writer to juxtapose a startling image in the midst of a more mundane description. Many writers before Hemingway, such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, used it, and the technique is common in the King James Bible, particularly in the Old Testament.

And, as you might expect, polysyndeton has an opposite: the more commonly used and heard asyndeton. Remember this sentence from John Kennedy inaugural address:

We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Hemingway was well aware of what he was doing and of the techniques he was using. His quest was to write “the one true sentence.”

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.

Book counterfeiting: it happened before Amazon came into existence.

What happens when you are a self-published author (as I am), and someone takes your books, republishes them on Amazon’s self-publishing site, and sells them at a higher price — depriving you not only of royalties but also very possibly creating ill-will among your readers?

This hasn’t happened to me — at least, not that I know of.

But it has happened to others, and the New York Times has published a long article about book counterfeiting that is pretty scary.

. . .  Amazon takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore, never checking the authenticity, much less the quality, of what it sells. It does not oversee the sellers who have flocked to its site in any organized way.

That has resulted in a kind of lawlessness. Publishers, writers and groups such as the Authors Guild said counterfeiting of books on Amazon had surged. The company has been reactive rather than proactive in dealing with the issue, they said, often taking action only when a buyercomplains. Many times, they added, there is nowhere to appeal and their only recourse is to integrate even more closely with Amazon. Source: What Happens After Amazon’s Domination Is Complete? Its Bookstore Offers Clues – The New York Times

The article blames Amazon for not properly policing what it sells, and it quotes an Amazon spokesperson saying the right things:

An Amazon spokeswoman denied that counterfeiting of books was a problem, saying, “This report cites a handful of complaints, but even a handful is too many and we will keep working until it’s zero.” The company said it strictly prohibited counterfeit products and last year denied accounts to more than one million suspected “bad actors.”

Amazon could, and should, do a better job of policing what it sells, but blaming Amazon — and its dominance of the book market — for this situation, I think, is not particularly helpful.

The existence of this kind of counterfeiting is the result of current advancements in technology. These advancements have had many good and positive effects. But they also allow people who lie, cheat, and steal new ways to lie, cheat, and steal. Book counterfeiting is nothing new. It has a long and storied history, and what’s happening on Amazon now is another chapter in its history.


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

Antonia Fraser’s writing day

Fortunately for writer and historian Lady Antonia Fraser, she was pronounced as “uppity” when she was a girl attending convent school. The nuns, for reasons she doesn’t specify, didn’t like her.

They decided to punish by making her spend her Saturday mornings learning to touch type.

“In consequence,” she writes, “I’m a touch typist – actually the most useful skill I ever acquired; so much for uppishness.”

Fraser walls herself off for three hours in the mornings and writes “ferociously.” Then she stops, has lunch, exercises and does other things in the after. In the late afternoon, she edits and revises what she had done in the morning, but it’s at a much more languid pace.

The reason that this pattern of work-in-the-morning-only is something so deeply ingrained in me, is that I began trying to write history seriously when I had six children born in 10 years. I have actually written all my life, but history was It. So I devised a way of working like a bat out of hell, or anyway a bat out of the nursery, the moment I could cram the children into cradles, kindergartens, schools … with the wild hope they would stay there. (There are wicked stories of notices on my door saying “Only come in if you have broken something”, which I utterly deny.) Under the circumstances, I never ever suffered from writer’s block. Source: Antonia Fraser: ‘I was forced to learn typing as a punishment for being uppish’ | Books | The Guardian

All this information comes from a brief and delightful description that Fraser gave of her day to The Guardian a couple of years ago. If you are interested in how a good writer writes, you will want to read this.

Fraser is the author of many tomes of history (Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell The Lord Protector, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, etc.), a couple of memoirs, and a detective series — among other works. She writes and gives her full powers to it.

Verse and Vision

For the second week in a row, my good friend and newsletter reader Vince V. suggested a poem for a video. Last week I read Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s most famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade and did a portrait of the poet for a video. This week we drop back a couple of centuries to pick up To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace — the poem with the famous line, “Stone walls do not a prison make . . . ”

Here’s the complete list of videos I have made since the beginning of April:

Edgar Allen Poe

To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace: http://bit.ly/lovelace-toalthea 

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennysonhttp://bit.ly/tennyson-lightbrigade 

The House of Rest by Julia Ward Howehttp://bit.ly/howe-houseofrest

Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scotthttp://bit.ly/scott-lochinvar

Ole Bert: In His Own Words by Bert Garner: http://bit.ly/ole-bert

In the Highlands and Consolation by Robert Louis Stevenson: http://bit.ly/RLStevenson-2poems

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvellhttp://bit.ly/Marvell-CoyMistress

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer:http://bit.ly/Thayer-CaseyattheBat

The Old Clock on the Stairs by Henry Wadsworth Longfellowhttp://bit.ly/HWL-TheOldClock

Evening Star and Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poehttp://bit.ly/NPM-Poe-AnnabelLee

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Grayhttp://bit.ly/gray-elegy

My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browninghttp://bit.ly/EBB-myheartandi

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poehttp://bit.ly/poe-theraven

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespearehttp://bit.ly/shakespeare-sonnet18

And more are on the way.

Podcast: Man in the Window

He became known as the Golden State Killer, but his crime spree was so long, so widespread, and so extensive that he went by many names: the Cordova Cat, the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, just to name a few.

Now the folks who brought you the compelling podcast Dirty JohnWondery and the Los Angeles Times — have a new podcast series titled Man in the Window. Here is how they describe it:

In Man in the Window, Paige St. John, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter has uncovered never before revealed details about the man who would eventually become one of California’s most deadly serial killers. From Wondery and the LA Times comes a new series that traces his path of devastation through his victims’ eyes.Source: ‎Man In The Window on Apple Podcasts

It is hard to believe the evil of the man who committed the crimes ascribed to the Golden State Killer. The descriptions of his actions are chilling, especially since many of them come from the victims themselves. We had a brief item last year about the arrest of Joseph DeAngelo, the man accused of being the killer, and it is worth reading before diving into this podcast.

Everything surrounding this story is strange and complex, and the podcast does an excellent job of shepherding you through it.



Alice K.: It was nice to read Jennifer’s remarks about the role of a library in the community. (See the newsletter of June 7, 2019.)  She makes many good points, and who would know better than she does about the many people whose lives are touched each day at the library?  There is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that says, “the only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.”

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London
Watch this watercolor being painted with a voiceover of me reciting To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace: http://bit.ly/lovelace-toalthea

Best quote of the week:

All men — whether they go by the name of Americans or Russians or Chinese or British or Malayans or Indians or Africans — have obligations to one another that transcend their obligations to their sovereign societies. Norman Cousins, author, editor, journalist and professor (1915-1990) 

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: A newspaper story becomes a famous poem, the domestic troubles of a famous poet, and a cure for our civil ills: newsletter, June 21, 2019






More about true crime podcasts; Fowler’s English classic; and giveaways galore

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (4,261) on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017.


The county where I live, Blount (pronounced blunt) is home to a part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies are beautiful any time of the year but especially so during the fall foliage season, which has just ended. There is much more to the Smokies than the beautiful landscapes, however. The mountains are responsible for the watercolor toward the end of this newsletter.

Viewing tip: Click the display images link above if you haven’t done so already.

A remarkable tale of courage

The world lost one of its true heroes with the passing of Jeannie Rousseau in August. While I usually write about people who were writers, Rousseau’s story is too good to pass up without noting. She lived in Paris during World War II and took advantage of all of her resources — fluent German, a delightful disposition, steely courage, and a photographic memory — to score one of the great espionage coups of the war.

Yet, she never made much of what she did, waiting more than 50 years to tell her story and then downplaying its significance.

Read more about this remarkable woman here on JPROF.

More for the fans of true crime

Christopher Goffard, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has written and narrates a six-part true crime podcast called Dirty John. It’s the story of Debra Newell and John Meehan and is a true crime podcast of the highest order. It will take you a while to get through it, but once you start, you’ll likely be hooked. The reporting is thorough, the interviews are fascinating, and the story is full of twists, turns, and surprises. The ending is well worth the journey.

Meehan is one of those truly evil individuals, and his grip on Newell and her family is compelling. Here’s a link to part 1, “The Real Thing.”

Last week I recommended a series called Sword and Scale. This website and podcast, according to its own description, is about “the dark underworld of crime and the criminal justice system’s response to it.” The folks associated with Sword and Scale have spent a lot of time producing interesting and informative podcasts about serious crimes. One episode I listened to was episode 90. Here’s the description:

When Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Claudia Rowe, author of The Spider and The Fly, decided to write to a serial killer, she wasn’t prepared for how it would change her life. In her quest to understand the nature of cruelty, she ended up discovering much more about herself.

It was an hour well spent.

Where did English come from, and how it is used?

One of my favorite topics is the English language — its history, development, and use. Over the decades, a number of great scholars have devoted their lives to studying the language, and they have shared their knowledge, understanding, and conclusions with the rest of us.

One of those scholars was Henry Fowler, an English schoolmaster who lived from 1858 to 1933 and made the study of English his lifelong work. Fowler’s classic is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. It was originally published in 1926 and has since been revised and updated. It is so well known and established as essential among scholars that its title is now Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

I bought a copy of this book early in my academic career of teaching about journalism and journalistic writing, and I have kept it ever since and referred to it often. Fowler is insightful and often wry, and the entries — long or short — are always fun to read.

If you have one book on your shelf about the language, Fowler should be the one.


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery/

BookFunnel November MysteriesKill the Quarterback is included in this one, too. There are some great new mysteries here that you will want to check out. The giveaway runs through Nov. 20, so don’t wait. Head over there today, and see what you want to put on your shelf. https://books.bookfunnel.com/novembermysteries/iygwd1dtrg

The winner of the Amazon gift card contest from last week’s newsletter is Linny Marcus. Congrats Linny!

More from The Devil’s Dictionary

More entries from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, these from the letter J:

J is a consonant in English, but some nations use it as a vowel— than which nothing could be more absurd. Its original form, which has been but slightly modified, was that of the tail of a subdued dog, and it was not a letter but a character, standing for a Latin verb, jacere, “to throw,” because when a stone is thrown at a dog the dog’s tail assumes that shape. This is the origin of the letter, as expounded by the renowned Dr. Jocolpus Bumer, of the University of Belgrade, who established his conclusions on the subject in a work of three quarto volumes and committed suicide on being reminded that the j in the Roman alphabet had originally no curl.

JEALOUS, adj. Unduly concerned about the preservation of that which can be lost only if not worth keeping.

JEWS-HARP, n. An unmusical instrument, played by holding it fast with the teeth and trying to brush it away with the finger.

JOSS-STICKS, n. Small sticks burned by the Chinese in their pagan tomfoolery, in imitation of certain sacred rites of our holy religion.

JUSTICE, n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I promised to tell you more about Bierce, and that will happen in the near future. You can get a free copy of The Devil’s Dictionary in a variety of formats through Project Gutenberg.

Finally . . .

Watercolor of the week: The fiddle player

This watercolor is based on a photograph taken by Doris Ulman. A New Yorker by birth, Ulman was a professional photographer who came to the Southern Appalachians because of her fascination with the people and their culture. She is an important figure not only in the history of photography and photojournalism but also in documenting the lives and ways of the area around the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

I’ll have more to say about the Smokies in subsequent newsletters.

Do not forget the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate. These and many other disasters mean that people need our help. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to yours.Keep reading and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter



5-star review: I this book in exchange for an unbiased review. I loved this book! Its plot and characters are quite realistic. Having been a high school teacher I felt the voices of the teens were correctly written. It is a great read!

Kill the Quarterback

5-star review: I voluntarily reviewed an ARC of this book. Wow. This is the first book I’ve read by this author. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it but I thought I would read a few pages and then bam! I was hooked! Excellent writing. Excellent story. I could not figure out whodunit and that’s the best kind of mystery. I can’t wait until the next book comes out!

Unsubscribe | 2126 Middlesettlements Road, Maryville, Tennessee 37801 

Where ideas come from: One author’s journey

James Callan is a fiction writer who was introduced to newsletter readers several weeks ago.

He is the author of the Father Frank mysteries, the first of which is Cleansed by Fire, a roaring good adventure with lots of action and interesting characters.

Here are a few questions that James was kind enough to answer.

Cleansed by Fire

Where do you get the ideas for your books?

That’s one of the questions most often asked when I make a presentation.  I love that question because it’s so easy to answer.

Ideas are all around us, every day. You can’t pick up a newspaper or listen to the newscast without a story idea popping out.  Even talking with friends, or overhearing a bit of a conversation can ignite a story.

For example?

I was once in a restaurant. The people in the next booth were chatting back and forth and I pretty much ignored them.  It was as if my mind heard the sentences and immediately discarded them, without my conscience brain registering them.  But one sentence vaulted to the front of my mind and I knew I would write a story, or a book, where that sentence played an important part.  The sentence?  “Was she the woman who died twice?”

My books are all complete fiction, but initiated by something in real life.

What about Cleansed by Fire?

A few years back, a number of church burnings occurred in east Texas.  When they finally caught the two arsonists, the only reason given was, “Could we get away with it?”  As I thought about it over a year, I just couldn’t imagine someone burning down buildings for no reason.  What could be a reason?  And that became Cleansed by Fire, where churches were burned. But there was a reason.

You have said the spark for Over My Dead Body was the Keystone Pipeline.

Over My Dead Body

By eminent domain, Keystone cut a swath one hundred fifty feet wide and a quarter of a mile long through our property, bulldozing down thousands of trees, from hundred foot tall pines to sixth year-old oak and hickory trees.  And this was eminent domain for a private corporation, not for a state or federal project.  

One day I read a brief folktale about a missing wagonload of precious metal in Texas back in the early 1800s.   I wondered, how could such a folktale affect people today.  The answer became A Ton of Gold.

You said that newspapers often provide you with ideas.

Several years ago, I read a four-paragraph story in the Los Angeles Times about a woman held a virtual slave. There were no chains holding her, only the threat to kill her family left behind in Cambodia.  At first, I couldn’t believe such a story. Virtual slaves? In the U.S. today?  I decided to research that on the Internet and to my amazement found it was common. One government report said there may be more slaves in the U.S. today than there were in 1860 —no chains, but threats and economic controls.

A Silver Meddallion

One editor suggested I write a non-fiction book. Interview some who had escaped or some of the families of “slaves.”  As I thought about that, I knew it would be too emotional a topic for me to ever finish the book.

But the idea stayed with me and finally I decided I could write a fiction book and highlight the problem.  A year later, A Silver Medallion was released.  Tthe four-paragraph news story led me ultimately to a 94,000-word award-winning novel.

Any other examples?

Other books have come from similar circumstances: a chance comment, a news story, a personal experience. Often, it’s just asking the question, “What if?”  Not only does this produce good books, it makes life more interesting.  Seemingly off-hand remarks can send the curious mind down interesting and unpredictable paths.  

At least it does for a fiction writer. 



Cleansed by Fire, Over My Dead Body, A Ton of Gold, A Silver Medallion, and other books by James R. Callan can be viewed on his Amazon Author page:  http://amzn.to/1eeykvG or by visiting his website:  http://www.jamesrcallan.com


James R. Callan took a degree in English, intent on writing.  But when that did not support a family, he returned to graduate school in the field of mathematics.  Upon graduation, he worked as a research mathematician, and vice-president of a database company.  

James Callan

He has received grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Data Processing Management Association.  He has been listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science, and Two Thousand Notable Americans.

When his children were grown and self-supporting, he returned to his original love—writing.  For two years, Callan wrote a monthly column for a national magazine. For six months, he wrote a weekly column that appeared in newspapers in four states. Callan has had twelve books published. All have been published in print, nine were also published as e-books and four were released in audio.  The audio version of one of his mystery/suspense books rose as high as number six on the Books in Motion list. Another book ranked as high as seven in its category on Amazon. He has had shorter works published in five anthologies.

In addition to writing books, Callan gives workshops on writing in the U.S. and Mexico.

He and his wife split their time between homes in east Texas and Puerto Vallarta.  They have four children and six grandchildren.

Ethical lapses

When I was working on the desk of a medium-sized daily quite a number of years ago, I found myself in a layout dilemma. I was putting together an inside page and had a very good close-up picture of a kid playing a trombone. My problem was that I had laid out the page so the kid and the trombone would be facing off the page. I was pondering the problem when the city editor walked by.

“Why don’t you just flip the picture,” she said.

Flipping meant you turned the picture (the backshop could do it easily by just turning the negative over in the copy camera) so that the kid would be facing the other way — into the interior of the page rather than off the page.

“Okay,” I said, and that was that.

The picture was flipped, the page looked good. The newspaper went to press, was printed and delivered the next day, and the world continued to turn.

An ethical lapse?

It certainly was. What we did — for the convenience of following a layout rule — made the picture an inaccurate representation. We turned the kid from a right-hander into a southpaw. Back then (more than 20 years ago), it didn’t bother us a whit. Today, it would probably land us on Jim Romenesko’s column in Poynter.org and spark an internal investigation at the newspaper.

And so it should.

Journalists today — and the profession as a whole — has become much more sensitive to the rules and practices that we all profess to uphold. And we have the means of exposing our ehtical lapses much more quickly and widely. In recent weeks (the spring of 2005), we have seen the following:

• An Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter was fired for lifting quotes for his story about the Daytona 500 from other newspapers.

• A reporter for the Tampa Tribune resigned after writing a story about a woman who had been bar-hopping and had emerged to find her Jeep towed. The woman identified in the story had been home on the evening in question and had lent her Jeep to a friend.

• The Los Angeles Times dismissed a reporter after he had written a story about fraternity hazing at California State University at Chico. The editors had a story suspicion that he had made up the quotes he used in the story, and although he denied doing this, the reporter could not substantiate them.

• The Boston Glode dismissed a freelancer because she wrote about a Canadian seal hunt that did not happen. The hunt was scheduled to occur but was postponed. The writer submitted a story that described the hunt even though it had not taken place.

• Sportswriter Mitch Albom submitted a column for the Sunday Detroit Free Press that described how two professional basketball players had attended the NCAA Final Four’s semifinal round on Saturday to see the team from their alma mater play. Albom turned in the column before the game occurred, and it was read by at least a couple of editors. The column then appeared in print, but the players mentioned never made the trip to see the game. The newspaper took unspecified disciplinary action against Albom and the editors, but no one was dismissed.

It might be odd to suggest, after this litany, that journalism is doing better than it was 20 years ago when I made the ethical lapse mentioned above. But I think it is. And so does Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland College of Journalism. He is quoted in a column by Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, as saying:

Because we are self-policing so much better, it makes it seem like there’s a tremendous cascade of ethical violations. There used to be a lot more in the way of shenanigans and monkey business that we either didn’t know about or, if it was caught, it was winked at. There was a boys-will-be-boys quality about it — they were mostly boys — and they would get a slap on the wrist at best.

Journalism is not a mistake-free profession. It never will be. Even the most experienced and highly paid journalists will lapse — for a variety of reasons that will range from understandable to unforgivable.

But, unlike other professionals, we don’t seem to mind publicizing our mistakes.

Jim Stovall (May 2, 2005)

Writing summaries


The summary has developed into one of the major forms of writing of the Web. A concise, well-written summary allows the reader to gain information and understanding that is found more deeply in the site. Summaries are commonly located on the front page or the section front pages of a site, but they may also be located on the article page itself.

Some news web sites use the first paragraph of an article as the summary, but even with inverted pyramid news stories, this is rarely a good idea. A summary is a shorter version of the entire story and needs to give the reader a broad view of the story. Using the first paragraph as a summary can also be irritatingly repetitive for the reader who will likely expect something different if he or she goes to the article page. Finally, using the first paragraph as a summary shows that the news organization does not take its Web site seriously enough to create original content for it.

Summaries fall into three general categories: informational, analytical, and provocative.



informationalInformational summaries simply try to give readers an overview of a longer story. A summary can be as long as two or three sentences, so there is the opportunity for the writer to give the readers more information than normally found in a lead paragraph of an inverted pyramid news story. The summary does not have to isolate or emphasize the most important information about a story, as a lead paragraph for an inverted pyramid news story would. Rather, it can deal more generally with all of the information a story may contain. An example of an information summary follows:


Fighting Wasps lose to Dartford, 65-62

The Fighting Wasps stayed close through the entire game on Saturday night, but in the end the Dartford Dogs proved too much for the Pearl College basketballers. The loss puts the Wasps’ tournament seed in doubt just a week before the end of the season.


The informational summary is a staightforward account of the information in the story. It serves simply as a layer of information between the headline and the full article that will inform the reader and help him or her decide to read the full artile.




analyticalAnalytical summaries give the reader some interpretation of the information in the story. They emphasize the ”how” or “why” of a story, rather than the “who,” “what,” “when,” or “where.” The writer of an analytical summary must be thoroughly familiar with the story itself and must have a good understanding of the general topic. For example:


Fighting Wasps lose to Dartford, 65-62

The Fighting Wasps lost to Dartford Saturday night, but not because the Dogs proved they were the better team during the bulk of the game. Instead, it came down to free throws in the final three minutes. The Dogs hit theirs, and the Wasps didn’t.


An analytical summary attempts to explain the story or something about the story to the reader. The writer of the analytical summary may have to reach down into the story to find this explanation and may have to draw on a personal knowledge of the story to make some interpretation of it.


This analysis can be done with a point of view, but the writer should be sophisticated enough to the the information, rather than the attitude, do the talking.




provocativeProvocative summaries try to peek the interest of the reader not only by presenting information about the story but also by expressing some opinion or displaying some attitude. The writer may use humor, sarcasm, irony or some other device to get the reader thinking about the information. The point of doing that is to entertain the reader and induce him or her to read the story. Many non-news, magazine web sites, such as Slate and Salon, use provocative summaries to increase readership of articles.


Fighting Wasps lose to Dartford, 65-62

Chances are Coach Lou Wackman will have his Fighting Wasps spend some quality time at the free throw line during practice this week. If he had done that last week, the outcome of Saturday night’s game might have been different.


A provocative summary allows the write to display both a voice and an understanding about the story. The interpretation the writer makes in a summary may not be shared by the sources quoted in the story or by the readers themselves, but many news organizations are ok with that on their web sites.


Writing summaries


Writing a good summary — no matter what the type — is not an easy task. Above everything else, a summary must be an accurate presentation of the information in the article; it should also demonstrate that the writer has an understanding of that information.


To gain such an understanding, the summary writer must read the article thoroughly and clear up anything that he or she may not understand about it. The writer is looking to simplify what may be complex or complicated about the information.


The rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and AP style apply to the summary.


Summaries are often written under a short deadline. Once a story is done, the web site editor may want to post it as quickly as possible, and a summary must be hammered out immediately. A summary writer has to be confident in the understanding of the material and the ability to use the language.




Individual web sites will formulate their requirements and styles for summaries. Generally, summaries have been growing shorter. Where once a writer had two or three sentences to work with, the writer may now have only one sentence.


The following are some examples of summaries taken from some web site of newspapers in California. The represent some of the different approaches that these organizations take to writing summaries.



Los Angeles Times


LATimesBy using the present tense, the Times treats summaries are long subheads that try to give the reader that extra layer of information before getting into the story. Comare the summary to the lead paragraph.


As the country insists its nuclear program is peaceful, ElBaradei believes that threatening sanctions could cause the situation to unravel.

Lead paragraph
BERLIN — United Nations atomic energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei urged the international community Thursday to steer away from threats of sanctions against Iran, saying the country’s nuclear program was not “an imminent threat” and that the time had come to “lower the pitch” of debate.



Orange County Register


OCRegisterThe Register writes a summary that is quite different from the lead paragraph. In this case, the lead takes on a features tone, but the summary in one straightforward sentence.


The unexpectedly cold weather gets the blame for delays in a project to improve El Toro Road.

Lead (and second paragraph)
LAKE FOREST – Orange cones, open trenches and lane closures.
Motorists who use El Toro Road say they’re frustrated. The city had planned to complete the $32 million El Toro Road improvement project by the end of last year, but delays have pushed the work back.



San Francisco Chronicle


SFChronicleThe Chronicle, at its web site SFGate, also has a summary that reads like a subhead. It is a longer, abstracted sentence — much like those found in the Los Angeles Times above.


Officials to investigate why technicians risked working on system’s computers during rush hour.

BART officials promised Thursday to thoroughly investigate why technicians risked working on computers that control trains while the transit system was running, work that crashed BART’s main computer, stalled 50 to 60 trains, and stranded 35,000 passengers for more than an hour at the peak of the Wednesday evening commute.

Note: BART is Bay Area Rapid Transit



San Jose Mercury News


SJMercuryNewsThe Mercury News lets its lead paragraphs do double duty by using them as summaries for the stories its displays on the home page of the web site.


As on Opening Day in baseball after spring training, the candidates for mayor of San Jose left the practice games behind and competed for real in a formal debate.

Same at the summary)



Contra Costa Times


CCTimesThis example from the Contra Costa Times is a good example of an analytic summary. The summary writer has gone beyond the lead to give some explanation of the story.


Computer-system crash delays come at a time when ridership is up, but if problems persist, commuters may leave.

Computer software updates that shut down the four-county BART system three days in a row this week and left passengers stranded for hours were supposed to be performed on the weekends, not during rush-hour, officials said.




(This article was originally adapted from Writing for the Mass Media, 5th ed. It was updated and posted on March 31, 2006)