Saturday, October 31, 2009

Writing about sex

It's weird, that's for sure, to call up a sex therapist at 8:30 in the morning and ask for details about her weight loss and libido gains. And when she launches into a description of how women try to get in on while ironing or applauds the invention of sex toys, well, you just better have your nimble fingers ready to record these jems...

The story appeared in Saturday's Life section, allowed me to use the word proverbial in a lede, and opened my eyes to the world of a sex therapist. You can read it here:

Buy a big cake -- Nov. 18 is Libido Day

Somehow, even at 8:30 a.m. my fingers were able to record plenty of Sue McGarvie's quotables, but the fact is I censored her a bit. Though I mentioned her book chronicles her own sluggish sex drive, I didn't push her for details.

Why? I'm still trying to figure that out. I already know I am somewhat more prude than the average editor.

I know this from an interview for a position with a school newspaper some years ago. I thought it had all gone pretty well, and was looking forward to slicing down my student loan, when the editor-in-chief (/teacher) laid before me a hypothetical situation.

"There's a cleaning company called Rent-a-Wife. They have these small ads, with cartoon women dressed in french maid outfits. But they're a legitimate business and they want to advertise with us. Do you accept the ads?"

I said no, and I didn't get the job. Learned later, in said teacher's Ethics in Journalism class, that he's a stickler for freedom of expression -- and that turning down an ad like that would breach that company's freedom.

Now I've strayed far from Sex with Sue, but I'm just getting warmed up... the new D will write unabashedly about underwear (I'm going back for more plain white cotton... comfort is sexy, I learned at the steam room... except not with capoeira pants, then it's thongs all the way). I'll dig for details from sex sources and pitch more stories about whoopee...

Just don't ask for first person.

Friday, October 16, 2009

My first correction

That's not to say I've never written an article that included disputable facts or statements that might be seen as sweeping, presumptuous, or even inaccurate. But I've never been called on it. (In fact, in a few cases I've actually called editors before the article has run, informing them of an error. Often these realizations come to me in dreamland or in the wee hours of waking-ness... but thats another post.)

No, when I got a message with the subject FW: possible error -- and filled with messages from colleagues and supervisors tracking back from the weekend when some irate reader had called the newsroom to complain -- it was a first, most humbling experience.

The error came from some hasty research I did on HER2-positive breast cancer tumours, and the survival -- I mean recurrence -- rates of the women they affect. Yes, I switched up the terms survival and recurrence, which is especially bad because the whole article was about a website aiming to dispel the 'death sentence' reputation of HER2 breast cancer... and survival rates and recurrence rates are sort of like opposites. A low recurrence rate is good -- a low survival rate is bad.

In my defence, the study did compare these two rates. As reported in Science Daily:
"Our findings show that women with early stage HER2 positive breast cancer have a 23 percent chance of recurrence. In contrast, the five-year survival rate of all women with such early-stage breast cancer is more than 90 percent."

This made the correction tough to write, because I couldn't compare apples to apples. But I got some help from my editor, a few harsh words from a managing editor, and came up with this

And because I'm ever the optimist, I'd like to add on a positive note: at least people are really reading. The experience definitely connected me to my readership and, of course, humbled and warned me -- especially as I continue down the heath beat.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Health Beat

As mentioned in an earlier post, I'm writing more about health issues these days. Weird how these things turn out: I wanted to diversify, and I like tackling complex problems and making them accessible to a general audience, so I thought I'd start contributing to this small health publication.

That should get my health chops working, then I'll pitch to larger, better-paying mags, I thought.

But then, about a month before I got my first official letter of assignment I got TWO health-related assignments from one of my regular editors. Coincidence? Maybe they knew I was ready for a change and open to doing the extra research the beat demands?

Either way, proud to say two article appeared in this weekend's new Life section!

Tellher2 -- about a new website that aims to help young cancer patients connect


Shake it -- about a fitness device that claims you'll lose inches in weeks (but it's not an all-in-one, or a weight loss regime, or..)

OK, so my party of coincidence and celebration about getting into a new beat is over. This beat holds plenty of important stories, like the state of smoking in Nunavut. This guys' face broke my heart this morning.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Editors: Aim to please or stand your ground?

A comment made on my Facebook page today, made by a former journalism teacher, made me remember one of my favourite lessons of freelancing.

I was a fourth-year journalism student with a hefty assignment on green roofs. He was a senior editor who made quasi-promises about printing (and paying for!) said article.

But after weeks of sending him well-crafted, overly-polite emails -- one of which included the full 2,500-word article -- I started to get scared. In his first email he expressed sharp interest ... so why didn't he return any more emails?

Finally, I changed my tune. I wrote and said I was scared I'd made a mistake sending the article. Though I prefaced the note by claiming ignorance on the finer points of freelance ("they don't teach us this is J-school"), I ended with the aggressive "I hope I don't see this article, with the same sources but under a different byline, in a future edition of your newspaper."

Well, that got a response!

"I'll give you some advice about freelancing," the editor wrote, "don't go around accusing senior editors of stealing your story."

Whoa. Was i shut down or what?! I took his advice, and got more comfortable in my powerless freelancer position.

The thing is, just year later, I was on staff at that publication, and of course it wasn't long before I ran into that editor. Yes, he remembered me -- he even remember my article.

And a couple months later he recommended me for an article that dealt with some of the issues my original assignment had schooled me in. Because I was a copy editor at the time, I was able to earn some extra cash writing it, put my knowledge gained from the previous article to use, and give my freelance hopes a boost.

So did I make a mistake that day when I made such an accusation? I'm still not sure. I think I'd rather be remembered as someone who stepped out of line than forgotten among the heap of freelance pitches. And it remains a favourite story ... 'cause it helped lead me to give up the copy desk and write many more stories.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On Rewrites

Life's been pretty good in the freelance game, wiht editors regularly sending me quick-hit type stories and cheques coming in a few weeks after. I was getting into fashion writing, to the surprise of my rubber-boots-and fleece-wearing mom, and I was never short of work. I even took a month off!
(Well, sort of. On my honeymoon I wrote on the opening of a new Michael Kors store in Ottawa and contributed to KMKK radio/ MolokaiNews on Molokai).

And maybe it's true that "if people don't shop, people lose their jobs," but I was starting to feel like I shouldn't be placing all my eggs in one basket (no matter how fashionable that basket may be).

So I'm looking to health issues. I love physical activity, and I enjoy writing about that stuff, but medical issues are a bigger challenge, and probably a bigger market.

I should have known that this noble challenge I was taking on would mean going back to J-School, if just in terms of CP stylebooks and asking big questions about what the heck I'm really writing about. Yes, I got a big, overwhelming note from an editor saying that I hadn't answered some big questions and, worst of all, was writing in a promotional style. Maybe it was the year of fashion writing, because in J-school I think I was more inflammatory than promotional, but I took her comments to heart and ripped the article apart.

So last weekend, Saturday morning no less, saw me jotting down the gist of each point I wanted to make, then arranging them, then taping this arrangement to the wall in front of my desk. Of course, once I got my steam going I hardly glanced at this arrangement, but it helped me ask important questions about the subject at hand: the T-Zone machine, and exercise device that uses vibration technology to strengthen muscles.

And I still wasn't 100 per cent satisfied -- but my editors were. And I got more satisfaction out of answering basic questions about anaerobic exercise and muscle atrophy than I did finding the right descriptor for silk dupion (which I understand is made with double cocoons!)

PS -- I'm also hoping that rewrites lead to a better, more collaborative relationship with my editors. I know they're busy, but if I were an editor I'd try to make the time for this sort of thing. A springboard, a writing coach, a person to vent to. Once trust is there, it will make me work faster (and even for less. shh).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I"m falling in love with my new neighbourhood, and today was one of those winding, romantic days that often follow a night out and that brought me and my new beloved 'hood closer together.
A few memories:

Brightly dressed kids! And men in suits getting out of cars everywhere. A dressy birthday? Well, we did see balloons on one corner but it was the wedding that everyone was suited up for. Bagpipes and we were metres away from the processsional: bride in cocktail white and pretty veiled hat, two girls and a guy.
And htey got married right there, at the intersection I don't even know the name of yet.

And just now, as the bells of St. Francis of Assisi ring six o'clock, a trio of tweenies in orange, paper plate masks. Heading to the festival at the Patrick John Mills gallery, likely Yay Hintonburg!