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Tricks of the trade

Analyzing crime statistics in Excel

Spreadsheet window

If you thought Excel and similar spreadsheet managers were just tools for sorting data and doing simple arithmetic, you might learn something from this tutorial by John Wihbey and Leighton Walter Kille, who show how to get more advanced statistics like standard deviations and confidence intervals: "Quick calculations are handy, and can help you in a deadline situation, but it’s always better to really dig into the numbers, even when you have a small amount of time."

Pitching advice from NPR editors

Carrot on a fishing line

Good pitches are short, focused, newsy, and surprising, Alison MacAdam writes in a roundup of tips from one high-profile newsroom: "All editors are not alike. They expect and need different things. Once you have an established relationship with an editor, the pitching process will get easier. So if you are searching for one perfect pitching template, you won’t find it here. But still, there’s a lot of agreement among editors on what makes a pitch work."

Relative and absolute risk, explained

Drawing of crowd in front of column graph

Stating risks in absolute rather than relative terms should be standard practice for science writers because it puts the numbers in clear perspective, Joy Victory writes: "Knowing only the relative data is like having a 50% off coupon for selected items at a department store. But you don’t know if the coupon applies to a diamond necklace or to a pack of chewing gum. Only by knowing what the coupon’s true value is — the absolute data — does the 50% have any meaning."

Some tips for writing a saleable book

Book sales table

Thousands of books are published each day, but still more never get published at all. Dan Blank writes that the problem often boils down to a few things — authors who don't know their audience, or don't understand marketing, or write competent books that just don't resonate with readers: "Say what you want about some popular authors or creators: they know how to move someone. To get people to keep turning pages. Keep buying books. Keep telling friends about them."

What you need to know about polling

Map of U.S. House polls

Leighton Walter Kille follows up on the Trump upset with a review of the basics of polling — explaining why, for example, a poll's sample size is related to its sampling error, and why even the best pollsters sometimes come up wildly wrong: "It’s important to remember that polls are a snapshot of opinion at a point in time. Despite 60 years of experience since Truman defied the polls and defeated Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, pollsters can still miss big."

A roundup of story writing advice

Internal combustion engine

Jane Friedman collects five years of posts from her guest authors on fiction writing, much of it applicable to non-fiction as well. Included are tips on developing story ideas and characters, working on plot and structure, using point-of-view, and building scenes. From writer/agent Paula Munier: "Narrative thrust provides momentum for a story; it’s the gas that fuels your story’s engine. You can also think of it as the magnet that pulls the reader through the story."

Reflections of a ghostwriter

Ghost hands on keyboard

Jack Limpert quotes from a novel about a ghostwriter to draw parallels between that and other forms of writing and editing: "Some of the ghostwriting reflections apply to more general editing and writing. An editor sometimes has to do a lot of rewriting — almost ghosting — to save a story, and the way a ghostwriter tries to open up his subject is much like what writers often do in their reporting." Limbert also recounts his experience speechwriting for Hubert Humphrey.

Some tips for secure leaking

USPS mailboxes

Investigative reporting's lifeblood is the leak, and ProPublica has published a guide to leaking without getting caught, including high-tech things like cell phone encryption and one low-tech but very secure method — the mail: "U.S. postal mail without a return address is one of the most secure ways to communicate — authorities would need a warrant to intercept and open it in transit. You can mail us paper materials or digital files on, for example, a thumb drive."

The hazards of irrelevant drama

Writer at typewriter

Lisa Cron uses an example from fiction to show what happens when writers add inapt drama to a story: "Because while, sure, in the real world anything can happen (especially these days), in a story, that is decidedly not true. A story revolves around one single external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, so throwing in random 'dramatic' events cripples it, breaking the cause-and-effect momentum, and making the reader wonder, 'Huh, what the heck does that mean?'"

How to seek and destroy useless words

Pile of word magnets

Jane Friedman publishes excerpts from Keys to Great Writing, a book by Stephen Wilbers, who offers tips on how to find and remove unnecessary words from your writing. Wilbers writes: "The more frequently we hear and read certain word combinations, the more acceptable they begin to sound and the more likely we are to use them unthinkingly — not because they are the best, most natural, and concise way to say what we have to say, but simply because they sound familiar."