Yes, an ethical journalist protects his/her sources

An anonymous reader asked why journalists protect their sources.

It’s a fair question but an easy one to answer. Part of a journalist’s role in society is accountability. When something is wrong, the journalist is supposed to raise awareness.

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Vox dusts off old content, should the rest of us?

I found a story earlier this year about Vox’s decision to dust off, slightly update, and re-run old content as new.

The practice happens a lot more often than anyone realizes in the print world, especially magazines, and as Gigaom says, there are implications when doing this. The questions got me thinking, and in the case of blogging, I think there’s something to learn but the practice is probably unnecessary. Read more

Identify bad guys through writing style

This month’s Social Engineer podcast discussed a tactic to identify bad guys through writing style, something the hosts expressed surprise was possible.

This won’t be news to anyone who minored in English or Communications or Journalism. A lot of factors go into style—where we grew up, where our parents are from, what we read growing up, our life experience, and it really is like a fingerprint. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby called everyone “Old Sport,” and we all have something like that, it’s just usually more subtle. I’ll say, “taste this,” when my wife or mother in law will say “taste of this.” That’s a regional thing. I pick up on that because I’m interested in language. A really good linguist can pick up on a lot more than that, and machine learning can potentially pick up on still more.

If you recall, it was the Unabomber’s long manifesto that brought down Ted Kaczynski.  Other forensics proved it, but the investigation began with his brother’s observation that the manifesto “sounded like Ted.”

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How I blog

I’ve had a couple of people this year express admiration at the frequency and quality of my blog posts. I know the quality isn’t always where I’d like it to be, but I appreciate their sentiment.

It occurred to me that I’ve been doing this a little more than 15 years now–I don’t remember anymore exactly when I started and that early material is long gone, but I know it was sometime in October 1999–and in the last couple of years I think I’ve finally come up with a method that works reasonably well.

Yes, I have my methods. Read more

The dwindling writing market

I get the occasional query from people who say I should promote my blog more, so that I can get an audience and write a book about this or that, and then I read stuff like this. Basically, writing is getting more and more commoditized, and writers are making less and less, not that they ever made much in the first place. And then I heard on a podcast that the average technical book sells 5,000 copies.

Fifteen years ago, I was in the home stretch of writing a book–my first, and so far only book. All told, I made around $13,000 off that book, between book royalties and publishing derivative articles in magazines, all before taxes, of course. I wrote about 20 hours a week for six months to do it, so, perhaps if I’d made it my full-time gig, I might have been able to make $52,000 a year. But that was when computer books were hot and big-box book stores were booming. I’m not confident I could make $52,000 as an author today. Read more

Why I set work aside for a while before calling it done

A former supervisor called me the other day. He’s having quality control issues at his new gig, and quality control was one of the things I did when I was working for him. He wanted my insight. And he was very direct with one question he asked me.

“You would always set work aside and then come back to it,” he said. “Why?”

He knew my tactic worked, but wanted to know why it worked. Read more

Don’t research when you’re in a groove. Yes. That.

Lifehacker has a great writing tip that I take for granted, but come to think of it, may not be obvious to everyone: When you’re in a groove, don’t interrupt your writing with research.

The groove is much too valuable for that. When the words are flowing effortlessly, ride it out as long as it lasts. It usually takes a while to find that groove, so just go with it. I usually won’t break a groove to edit, either. Just let the words flow. You’ll always be more productive that way. Read more

A programmer writes about writing

I saw this piece by Steve Losh last week, and thought it was some of the best advice about writing I’ve seen in a very long time. Programmers don’t generally like to write, but I find if you tell them how, they can do a good job of it. It’s much easier for a programmer to learn to write than for a writer to learn how to program. Losh does a good job of telling how.

But beyond that, I think it’s a good reading assignment for anyone who writes documentation of a technical nature. I’ve worked with some very good writers and some very bad writers over the course of my education and career, and this would have helped both types. It would have made the good ones better and the bad ones at least marginal. The thing about writing is that if you know the rules and you follow them, it doesn’t take much else on top of that to be good.

So, if you ever get stuck writing documentation–and if you’ve been reading me for many years, I’d say there’s a pretty good chance you do sometimes–give this a read. It will help you get into the mindset you need to be in, and write more effectively. Even if you’re not a programmer. Because, even though he’s a programmer, he uses cars and guitars as his examples. So if you were writing about how to build a bookcase, his instructions would help you.