Writing for 16mm Today

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Writing for 16mm Today 2016-10-12T13:53:26+00:00

You’ve just finished building a new model, be it a steam locomotive, battery diesel, rake of wagons, panelled coach, building, line side feature or kit modification – or even a whole railway. You have that warm (and entirely justifiable) feeling of pride in your achievements and a collection of photographs that show off your creation to advantage.

Now is just the time to record your achievements in words and pictures – to share with your fellow members – and get a second warm glow when your writing efforts appear in print (not to mention further pleasure when everyone complements your efforts at the next local area meeting).

The challenge is – how to go about it? This guide is here to help you. It is written by someone whose employment has provided plenty of “learning opportunities” in preparing reports and presentations – and therefore plenty of opportunities for learning through mistakes. The prospect of writing an article might sound simple – and then you commit finger to keyboard and …

So, here are the golden rules:

Purpose of your article

We welcome all sorts of articles for publication in 16mm Today – how-to-do-it descriptions on the construction of a model, product reviews, articles aimed to inspire members in their 16mm projects (hey! look what I’ve done – and you can also build something just like this) and open day or event reviews.

Before you start to write, decide on the style of article you intend to adopt. Never mix up the styles in a single article. This is because different styles of article require different writing styles:

  • How-to-do-it requires a series of steps, clearly explained, so that someone can follow what you have done; drawings, plans and photographs will enhance your descriptive prose.
  • Product and event reviews need to be fair and impartial, describing what you are reviewing, how you went about the review and – importantly – your feelings about the product and the review experience.
  • Inspirational articles need to be positive and uplifting – and if possible include something a little different – so as to energise the reader. Return to the list of golden rules.

Logical thread to your article

OK, so you know what sort of article you want to compose. Easy, grab a coffee, switch on the computer, compose the thoughts that have floating around your head for the last few days and – write.

NO – WRONG (well, usually). The trained newspaper journalist might work this way but the rest of us poor souls need to plan the structure of our article as the first step.

It’s unlikely that you’ll require the intricacies of a mind-map to plan most articles (what’s a mind-map? – look it up on Google) but at the absolute minimum, you should create a plan, listing the main elements of your intended article in the order you intend to write. As an example, it’s unlikely to make sense if your article talks about painting your model before you’ve described how to build it.

Prepare your plan in two steps: firstly quickly jot down as many key words and phrases as you can onto a piece of paper and then, as a second step, re-write them and put them into a logical order. Return to the list of golden rules.

Attention “grabber”

When an experienced speaker gets to his feet, he (or she) will try to grab your attention with an opening remark or statement. A true expert will cause the hairs on the back of your neck to prickle with his or her insight, choice of words or the way they explain an exceptional fact.

Take some time to craft the opening lines of your article. Have a look through past articles published in 16mm Today for some inspiration. Try drafting two or three alternative grabbers; then, combine them in some way. Test your favourites on your better half or your friends. Polish it and refine it until it shines. Then save it and come back to it in a day or so – does it still hit the spot? Are your hairs prickling? Great, you’ve succeeded in setting the scene. Return to the list of golden rules.

Warm, descriptive and enthusiastic words

It is easy to write things that are flat and boring. You just use simple words and short sentences. But just like pepper and salt can add flavour to your food, so you can add some flavour to your writing with a light peppering of warm and evocative words. Not too much of course – remember that too much pepper or salt can ruin the food.

Try to be upbeat and positive – the bottle half-full rather than half empty. This does not mean you should keep quiet about any errors or mistakes you made (well expressed, they can be entertaining or instructive – even both), but do not get too gloomy about them.

The hardest thing of all is to write a descriptive or how-to-do-it piece with the right balance – sufficient detail so that someone can follow what you did, but not so much that it becomes tedious and repetitive (and then I did this, and then that and then this …). If it starts to get tedious, try using more diagrams and photographs and fewer words.

Use humour with caution: some folks have the knack of writing in a humorous way, whilst most of us fail no matter how hard we try. So it is better to be warm and enthusiastic than cringingly unfunny.

The things you need to worry least about are the spelling, punctuation and grammar. Modern spellcheckers can sort out the first of these, the second can be sorted by the editor if it is really bad (and ignored if slightly unconventional) and the third is of little consequence provided the writing is both readable and understandable (something we will look at below). Return to the list of golden rules.

Use of jargon

Here are a few lines from some kit instructions issued in the early 1990’s by one of the pioneer 16mm manufacturers: “the banjos can be assembled to the motor”, “screw a horn on each end” and “fit the syphon to the boiler with a 2BA banjo”.

What was this – some sort of bizarre musical ensemble or how to build a steam engine? I eventually succeeded in deciphering the meaning, but it was confusing to begin with, because I was unsure what a banjo and horn looked like.

Jargon is fine when communicating with experts but lousy for beginners – so try damned hard to avoid it. But if you believe jargon is necessary (perhaps it is warm and descriptive, like the word “banjo” – once you see one, it is obvious) then PLEASE include a drawing, photograph or (if all else fails) include a glossary as an end-note to your article. Return to the list of golden rules.

Take your time

It’s taken me two days to get to here. Not two full days, you understand, but I first put finger to keyboard two days ago. Initially, I had plenty of enthusiasm, but then the enthusiasm waned. So I stopped. For 24 hours. Then I started again – and I will certainly stop at least once more before I finish the first draft. And then I’ll stop again and take a break before I go back to read and revise my first draft.

You see, my energy levels vary depending on how tired I feel, the proportion of blood in my caffeine stream and what sort of a day I am having. And experience proves that I write best when I feel at my best. It also means that the process of writing is more enjoyable – less of a chore. ‘Nuff said. Return to the list of golden rules.

Use a computer

If it were not for the fact that you are reading this on a website, I would be about to alienate a reducing (but still sizeable) minority of the 16mm membership. But, luckily, I should be communicating with a reasonably computer-literate audience.

Here is a fact: the editor of 16mm Today is a volunteer who works on the magazine in his spare time. He has a life and does not want to spend all of it re-typing your hand-written scrawl – no matter how interesting your draft article might be. So, please make his life as easy as possible, by composing your efforts in an electronic form.

If this is beyond your current abilities, look upon the experience as an opportunity to enhance your skills; alternatively, it could be a way to involve your children (or their children) in your hobby by getting them to type up your hand-written draft.

Type your draft using one of the recognised packages, in a single-column format. Avoid fancy fonts, italics, font sizes and page breaks – the editor will start by stripping them out. Keep the layout simple.

And when you are happy with the draft, it becomes simplicity itself to email the completed work direct to the editor – but before you do, make sure that you have read and acted upon the final three guidance points below.Return to the list of golden rules.

Use sub-headings

The basic format for presenting to any audience is: tell ‘em the big picture of what you are going to say, then tell ‘em the detail, then recap on what you told ‘em. The sub-heading helps this process in a written article.

There are a number of benefits to a few carefully-chosen sub-headings. For the writer, they can be used as a framework – you set out your sub-headings first, based upon the logical thread you devised at the outset, and then you fill in the details (a bit like painting by numbers). For the editor, they make it easier to see what you were setting out it achieve, especially if it is not entirely clear from the first editorial read-through. For the eventual reader, sub-headings break up the article and make it easier to follow.

There are two types of sub-heading you can use: the banner newspaper-like headline or the subject heading. Take for example this particular section. If using a banner newspaper-like headline, I could have said “Sub-headings aid comprehension for all” instead of the simpler (but less descriptive) subject heading of “Use sub-headings”. The type of sub-heading you use is largely a matter of personal preference – just be consistent throughout your article to avoid confusing and irritating your readers. Return to the list of golden rules.

Relevant photographs, drawings and plans

I’m no expert photographer but what I do know is this: any article looks so much better for a few good quality photographs when printed full-colour in “16mm Today”. Since photography is not my field of expertise, I won’t attempt to tell you how to take high quality pictures, but I can set out some guidance for taking shots that are “good enough” for your article.

  • Let the photographs complement the article – the reader wants to relate the picture to the article and the article to the picture.
  • Write a caption for each photograph – tell the reader what he/she should look at. A banner newspaper-like headline (see sub-headings above) is the bare minimum but two or three sentences are even better. Let these add to your article; don’t simply repeat part of the text already in the article.
  • Try your best to achieve a quality shot – take your time, compose the shot, think about the lighting, the shadows and what is in the background, use a tripod (or rest the camera on something) to avoid camera shake, set your digital camera to the highest number of mega-pixels you can. In short, don’t just throw in a few pictures but really make it your very best effort. And it doesn’t have to be digital pictures – good quality prints can work equally well.
  • Don’t leave it to the editor to select the photographs – this is YOUR article, telling YOUR story and so YOU should pick the photographs that YOU think best complement YOUR written piece. Have a look at previous SMT articles to get an idea of the typical number of pictures for the sort of article you are writing. If you are unsure, include an extra shot (with caption). Don’t send the editor a sheaf of pictures or digital files and ask him to pick the best – you’re almost certain to decide he made the wrong choice.

A series of drawings and plans are an absolute necessity if you are preparing a how-to-do-it article or explaining some complex technical point. Speaking personally, I am greatly in favour of a track plan when reading an article on a garden railway, but this is probably because I was brought up on the “Railway of the Month” articles in Railway Modeller.

Using a CAD package or professional drawing equipment is not absolutely vital, provided your drawings are kept neat and simple. But the more attention you give and the closer to scale you can make your drawings, the better. If you are expecting a member to build something just like you have, then an accurate, properly-laid out scale drawing will be vital. Return to the list of golden rules.

thirdtimeeditRead and revise your efforts

I go through a weird mental process with my writing. Firstly, I get an idea that I think is brilliant; strangely, this often happens whilst I’m in the shower. By the time I get around to communicating my idea through the computer keyboard, I seem unable to record my original thought in precisely the same way that I considered so brilliant. Odd and frustrating at times.

Of course, I could put a computer in the shower. But the alternative solution (one that you can try at home) is to carry on writing even if the first draft does not quite hit the spot you were first aiming at. Then, save your draft, switch off the computer and go and do something else. Make sure that have a least one night’s sleep before you print off your first draft and read it slowly and carefully, with a coloured pen in your hand.

And hack it about a bit. No, sorry, hack it about a LOT. Cross out words, phrases and whole sentences and re-write them, move paragraphs around, insert extra sub-headings, change words to those you like better, insert synonyms for words you repeat too often. Then type up your revision, save it, switch off the computer and … do something else, sleep, shower (if you need to) … and then repeat the process.

Your first draft will be peppered with cumbersome language, repetitions, logic gaps and all sorts of things you didn’t really intend to write – they just appeared, somehow. If you are brutal with your self-criticism, the second draft will be much better and you should be able to eradicate many of the faults. But not all of them, so please persevere and try again with a third draft (my third draft appears on this page).

When you stop wanting to make changes, its time to submit your article to the editor – and don’t forget the photographs, plans and drawings as well.Once you’ve got your article plan; keep it in prominent sight whilst you are writing. You can of course change your plan as the article grows, but make sure that it retains the logical thread that you set out to achieve. Return to the list of golden rules.