Naturally, that can be a catch-22. People can be afraid, or not know how to write well, or get sucked into echo chambers on different subjects (or all three, which I feel myself doing all the time).
The thing is, writing (or any content production) is a constant exercise to make something good. When I first started, there wasn’t a guide to point me in the right direction, so a lot of what I wrote was…not so good. Progress only came through trial by fire.
But now that I’ve got a few years of experience and mistakes under my belt, I’d like to solve that problem for the future Jewish writers out there. Here’s a simple-ish guide to start writing Jewish stuff (or non-Jewish stuff) that can also be generally applied to any content production.
#1: Don’t be afraid
Writing sucks. You will fail, you will get frustrated, sometimes what you write will only be okay, and often it’ll be really bad.
But the work you put into that process will pay off, as eventually something good, or even great, will come out of it. The trick is to know that everyone struggles, and to not be afraid of making mistakes and looking silly.
This is oftentimes the biggest roadblock for people, especially in our judgmental Jewish universe. But if you’re a writer, if it just clicks, then you know it comes from a personal place that needs expression. So, let it express.
Take a breath, and write.
#2: Get to the point
There’s a lot in this, but I’ll try to practice what I preach. When I think “get to the point,” I mean a few things: don’t ramble, have a purpose, be clear, and don’t take forever.
There’s a million things to say about any subject. And for Jews, it’s 2 million things. But still, pick one specific angle.
Want to write about your favorite challah recipe? Tell me something interesting about it. Maybe you got it from your grandparents, and that’s part of why the recipe means something to you. Maybe you’ve got a memory of bonding with your kids or friends over it. It can be a generational story, a Jewish identity story, or a plain cute-and-warm story that we all need to escape the bad news in the world.
But you don’t stick lasagna, pasta, sushi, matzah balls, and juice on a bagel sandwich – they’re all separate things that become disgusting all at once. Same with topics and writing. Pick just one food (or topic), and make it count.
Don’t ramble. Have a reason for telling the story. Make that reason clear. If it’s a boring reason, or it’s been written about a bajillion times before, rethink.
And when you’ve got something good, remember that you’re not writing a book for TC Jewfolk. Make every word count (and as a general rule, use up no more than 500-700 words when you start. Good limits make for good practice, which makes for good writing.)
#3: Be clear
Basically, don’t write like you talk. Many people, when telling a story, will jump around in the timeline and be unclear with details, repeating basic parts over and over again, or referencing things they forgot to mention earlier.
Instead, always think about how you might tell a story to a 5-year old. If it isn’t simple and clear, the kid just won’t get it. And in most cases, you’ll have to slow down and think step-by-step through the story before you say it out loud.
That’s how writing should be too. Take the time to make sure it makes sense. If a 5-year-old won’t get it, neither will a reader offhandedly skimming an article on their phone while waiting for the coffee to be ready.
Also, think Ernest Hemingway. The famous author allegedly made a bet with other writers that he could write a story in just 6 words. “For sale, baby shoes, never worn” was the final result. Heartbreaking, brutally simple, clear as a bell, and a full, emotionally compelling story.
No, we’re not all Hemingways. All the more reason to take notes and pay attention.
The K-12 school system introduced many students to a horrible thing called the five paragraph essay.
The concept was simple: 5 paragraphs, 4-5 sentences in each paragraph, and a whole main idea/supporting reasoning layout for each paragraph. Many students, myself included, wanted to light a bonfire to destroy any memory of our five-paragraph essays. If this is your experience, then now is the chance to metaphorically light it up.
The problem is that these essays made a lot of people write in unnaturally large blocks of text which, while already unpleasant on paper, really don’t work well online. Many readers will look at a chunk of text and simply turn off.
Instead, practice what you see in this article, which is a journalistic style where almost no paragraph has more than three full sentences. Oftentimes, only two. And at most, only four very short sentences. Also, work to keep sentences short.
The extra space between paragraphs, while making everything appear longer, gives more room for readers to pause and think between ideas instead of being intimidated by a barrage of words.
Crucially, it also gives the writer room to pause and work part by part, as you see greater control of sentence, paragraph, and idea length.
Also, pay attention to how many times you use filler words or phrases. Many times, you don’t really need the words “but” or “and” at the beginning of most sentences. Deleting them might feel weird because you’re used to the lead-in, but it’ll make a more concise and immediate story or article.
#5: Edit, edit, edit
Good writing is a misnomer. Good editing is what counts.
Always expect to reread whatever you’ve just written and rework the sentences, paragraphs, or ideas. It’s a bit like listening to a recording of yourself (most people hate it), but you won’t get far without it. If you think no edits need to be made, you’re lying to yourself.
Sometimes that means letting the article sit unopened for a day or so, so it feels fresher when you read it again. More details and depth will pop out, along with all of your mistakes. Always take a deep breath and dive into the edits.
Eventually, you might get to love the process, as I do. Writing is the hard part, but whittling it down to something great feels fantastic.
To be a good editor, pay attention to the basic structure of the story. Do the ideas flow? Is anything spelled wrong, grammatically incorrect, or repeated unnecessarily? And do you really need it to be THAT long?!
Editing is a gift, so use it. And always, always work to cut down what you’ve written. Don’t be lazy and expect a paid editor to do your work for you.
Once you have a final thing you’d like to have published, take a moment to think about how you’ll pitch it. This can be pretty difficult, even for experienced writers.
What paper or media do you want to be published in? Go to their website and figure out what email to pitch to (most of the time, it’ll be one of the editors).
Plan out the email you want to send. You can either pitch an idea or a completed thing. I personally prefer pitching completed stories so the response is more immediate, and the final product can speak for itself instead of relying on a promise to deliver.
Either way, it’s good practice to write a pitch of 100-300 words until you and the editor have a good working relationship. Catch their attention with what you’ve written about, and keep it concise. I like to start with the idea, and then end the email with personal info.
Here’s the beginning of a more serious journalism pitch I did for a story about a new Jewish holiday:
Hi [editor’s name here],
“Social Justice is your Judaism” is a regular critique of progressive Jews. They are seen by many in the larger Jewish community as non-religious, unengaged Jews grabbing at the overused bumper sticker slogan of Tikkun Olam, or healing the world.
But a new Jewish justice-holiday-in-development means to flip that critique on its head – by making social justice a staple of religious life.
I started with an idea that already makes people think and immediately led to the point of my pitch, which is a holiday related to that interesting idea. The rest was relevant detail.
For the challah recipe story, the pitch can be more informal, but still concise.
Challah is one of the most central parts of Jewish life, but we tend to take it for granted. Between work, kids, and managing a relationship with the in-laws, I usually don’t think twice about buying challah for Shabbat.
But over the past month I’ve come back to my grandparents’ challah recipe. Taking the time to make it has given me more of a real restful Shabbat moment, with even my kids joining in to help bake, giving my wife time to decompress after a long day.
I decided to write about my experience with the recipe, and hopefully encourage others to find more meaning in Shabbat. Attached is the story. Let me know if you’d be interested in publishing.
About me: [etc]
Short, sweet, and simple. Only 121 words.
Pro tip: you can either attach a word document to the email, or copy and paste the story directly below your email signature, so editors can just keep scrolling in the email and start reading if they’d like to.
Two books to help you learn to write well
“Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered,” by Sarah Tuttle-Singer, is a series of short stories about the life of an American Jewish immigrant in Israel, and her year living in the Old City of Jerusalem. Not only is the book eye-opening, interesting, and engaging, but it’s a great example of how to channel personal stories into writing.
“On Writing,” by Stephen King, is exactly what it sounds like. I’ve never read a Stephen King book in my life, and horror fiction isn’t really my thing, but King is a great example of storytelling, and he does a great job guiding the reader through basic rules of writing.