CJ McKinney

practical tools for digital writers

New Site: The Do It Yourself Digital Writer

This is my last post to the CJ McKinney site.

From its beginnings as just a portfolio site for CJ McKinney. science and health writer, it’s morphed into many things. But now it’s a compromised site with persistent malware problems and an unremitting, unworkable identity crisis.

So as of April 1, I’m taking up residence on my new site, The Do It Yourself Digital Writer, featuring the Digital Writer’s Review in a new and spiffed up format.

The switch lets me focus not on me, but on what’s important to you, digital writers: low cost tools and resources you can actually use to build and sustain your writing career.

I’m a longtime teacher, and I know that not every lesson needs to reinvent the wheel. The best instructors are those who can gather the most relevant information, synthesize it and present it in a way that students can grasp and apply it.

That’s what the Do It Yourself Digital Writer aims to do – gather the best practical resources on the Web, curate them and make them available to digital writers and publishers building a career on a shoestring.

What you’ll find there:
The Digital Writer’s Review, new and revamped, on its very own domain;
The Writer’s Depot, an online shop powered by Amazon that’s devoted to resources and tools for writers and publishers;
The weekly newsletter, with updates from DWR and more;
Free ebooks and guides for writers in the digital world.

Oh, and you can also write for The DIY Digital Writer! We’re looking for quality articles, tutorials, tips and reviews aimed at helping writers navigate the maze of tasks the digital world requires.  Have a look at the guidelines on the site.

I hope DIY Digital Writer will  become the home  of a community of writers helping writers – so that we all  succeed.

See you there!

What’s a Digital Magazine Anyway?

So I’ve decided to continue to use the PaperLi platform for this springtime’s reboot of The Digital Writer’s Review. More about my reasons for this later.

But in figuring out what I wanted the Review to be and researching platforms for creating it I stepped into a much bigger debate on the identity crisis facing digital magazines and indirectly indie publishing in general.

Specifically,  in a world where anyone can publish anything, what does it mean to be a publisher? And what constitutes a publication – in this case, a magazine?

In an article from Pando, Hamish MacKenzie discusses the 2013 reboot of digital magazine platform Flipboard and its claims that now anyone can publish their own digital magazine.  But, he argues, just telling a platform to grab content from all over the web and cram it into a template doesn’t make a magazine.  The web is then littered with these “homemade creations” that are nothing more than just collections of things people find interesting that they can then share with family and friends.

That’s not a magazine, he says.  There’s no original content, not even curated content, in which the user can add commentary, context and meaning to the sources they’ve aggregated.  A real magazine requires original feature stories, fresh news, insightful commentary by skilled professionals.

But hold on there a minute.  A magazine isn’t really defined by its content, but by its form.  Our good friends from the Merriam Webster dictionary define “magazine” as: “a periodical publication containing articles and illustrations, typically covering a particular subject or area of interest.”

Doesn’t say a word about where that stuff is supposed to come from.

So a digital magazine’s identity lies in its presentation – and that’s really what the various platforms offer.    You can choose an aggregator like PaperLi, a PDF uploader iike Issuu or something in between like ScoopIt, depending on what you want your publication to do.

That said, though, aggregation without any kind of editorial involvement is a bit like a grocery list. Useful, but not particularly enriching.   Not, as Seinfeld would say that there’s anything wrong with that. But publishing means more than simply clicking a button and  putting something into the public sphere.

Content curation bridges the gap between simple aggregation and creation of new content.

Because the flow of new information is so overwhelming,  there’s a huge need for curators with the knowledge and authority to sift through it all, weed out the useless and make the best available to those who need it.  And the magazine format is ideal for doing that.

As a longtime writing teacher, I know how important it is to gather information, synthesize it and present it in a way that students can benefit most from it.  There’s no need to reinvent the wheel with every lesson.

That’s why this site and the new version of The  Digital Writer’s Review aims to curate content on the digital writing and publishing world with commentary and observations from a working writer and coach (that’s me).

Yeah, it’s true that PaperLi in its free version is an aggregator. The DWR as it exists now began life as a simple experiment with the form that quickly gained a readership (Thanks, Twitter!), so now it needs to grow.

So because DWR already has a home on PaperLi I am going to its Pro version, which allows me to curate more precisely, add content from more sources and host the paper right here on the website.  I’ll be adding commentary on every new issue in the Editor’s column on page 1 and throughout the publication.

Though it’s true that online tools make it possible for anyone to become a publisher,  those tools are also just tools. It’s what you do with them that matters – and putting content in that general magazine format really depends on your goals.

Stick around for my next post reviewing free and paid digital publishing platforms.




Word Watch: The Shifty Suffix IST

Are you an “ableist”?  I came across this word in a recent blog post written by the mother of a disabled child, calling out people everywhere for their thoughtless use of “ableist” language and behaviours that, she said, shows disrespect for disabled individuals.

The hardy suffix -ist has been around for a very long time and is used to name the person who does a wide variety of things.  But in today’ world, the use of -ist has taken on a new negative connotation when used to label individuals whose behaviour a certain segment of society just doesn’t like.

And that’s another example of the amazing flexibility of English, a cobbled together tongue that relies on the constant dance of roots and affixes to make meaning and change meaning as culture and usage dictate.  While that makes grammar traditionalists tear out their hair,  it makes for some interesting glimpses into the thought processes of users and shifts in the cultures they live in.

As you know, this site is dedicated to helping writer develop a deeper understanding of the basic tools of the trade: word and structure.  The constant interplay of these elements creates the power and the passion of written words that change hearts and minds – and the world.

Which brings us back to the root-affix relationship, and -IST in particular.

IST is a useful suffix that creates nouns that name the doers and practitioners of things, adherents of beliefs and players of musical instruments:

art > artist

science > scientist (note the consonant mutation)

guitar > guitarist

and so on.

But another submeaning of IST allows it to refer to people who hold a particular set of beliefs or convictions.  That’s pretty neutral, right?  Except that it isn’t really.  Look at the large numbers of -IST nouns carrying this submeaning and you’ll find that in popular parlance it can take on a largely negative connotation.

An “ableist,” for example, discriminates on the basis of ability.  A racist, on the basis of race.  A foodist is snooty about the quality of food.  There’s even “healthist,” somebody who’s snobby and superior about eating and living a healthy life. A creationist is one who believes (wrongly, from the speaker’s perspective) in the Biblical version of the world’s origin.   And applied to certain followers of political movements, to be an -ist can be very bad indeed: socialist,  communist, marxist, fascist.

There’s no “disableist” to pair with ableist or “inhumanist” to pair with humanist, though some of these nouns do have an opposite number: theist to atheist, for example.

There’s no question words have power -as weapons or as tools. But that power can shift as new forms arise and new valuations become attached to words both old and new. And for writers, it’s a race to keep up.


Have you found other examples of shifting meaning?   Got any  language oddities to share? Hop down to the comments or click the contact tab above to let me know. And as always, please share freely!





The Digital Writer’s Review Gets a Makeover

The Digital  Writer’s Review,  a weekly roundup of news, reviews and other stuff for digital writers and indie publishers, is getting a makeover and standing on its own.

Right now, the Review is hosted by Paper.Li, a marvelous little website that lets you create a digital newspaper on any topic you want, free of charge, from various web sources including Twitter feeds, RSS feeds and other social media content.    The Review began as a sort of experiment in content  curation – something that fascinates me, as an old teacher at heart.  But it’s becoming more obvious that it has a role beyond that – and it needs room to grow into that role.

Paper.Li gathers all the relevant information from the sources you tell it to, and then presents it in a customizable newpaper format.  You can click on the sidebar and get to the current issue right here.

But the problem with that format is that it’s only customizable to  a point, and some choices are pretty limited.  The Review is now finding its identity and gaining readership, so it needs to stand on its own two feet.

So in April 2015, The Digital Writer’s Review will be launched as a standalone, monthly  online magazine, with a tighter focus on the digital writing and publishing world.  It’ll be free, hopefully supported by sponsors and advertisers down the line.

The goal of The Digital Writer’s Review is simple and in line with the mission of this website: to help writers find the most useful and reliable information and tools to further their writing goals. With that in mind, it’ll still be a roundup of posts, articles and reviews of websites, products and resources, but it will also have room for brand new pieces and images submitted by you, the writers and publishers it hopes to serve.

In the coming weeks I’ll be posting some general submission guidelines on the DWR page here, and answering inquiries and pitches via email:


 Right now, free is free – but with your support, I’ll be able to offer more compensation than the good old fame and glory of a publication credit and exposure for your brand.

Watch this space.

Calls for Censorship Show the Power of Words

Hidden behind the general looniness of the recent hysteria over the measles “epidemic” sweeping the country is another, more insidious threat to writers, readers and people who care about thinking freely: censorship.

Though I’m here on this blog to help writers master the tools of their trade and claim the authority that goes along with that, I also aim to bring you news about trends and topics that, for good or ill, could have an impact on your writing life. And if panicked calls for censoring books that some people just don’t like isn’t one of those topics, I don’t know what is.

The catalyst for all of this is a weird little Amazon Kindle book called Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, penned by an anti vaccination mom named Stephanie Messenger. The book is a celebration of measles.

Yep, little Melanie gets the measles – and it’s a good thing. Illustrations show her playing in the garden, while the book explains that measles is a benign disease that actually boosts the immune system. Though MMM was actually released in 2012, it’s gained more attention in the past month than it probably had in all its life to date as a Kindle ebook, thanks to the measles outbreak.

The ongoing battle between the vaccination supporters and the “anti-vaxxers” (which sounds like something from a B-grade sci fi flick) put Messenger’s book in the spotlight, with over 900 sarcastic and negative reviews posted on Amazon and a slew of comments calling for banning it entirely – and for a return of censorship to keep irresponsible messages like this from reaching an audience.

Now, maybe Messenger’s book is silly. And not founded in science. But when panicked people start calling for an anonymous somebody to protect everybody from a threat that only they can see, it gets a little scary for the rest of us.

Book banning and book censorship cuts many ways. Panicked cries to censor a Kindle book that sells for less than three dollars because it promotes a message that measles is a good thing opens the door for killing your book – and mine – for a message that someone else feels is a threat to their comfort zone. And for creating a new corps of “thought police” regulated by – who knows?

When fear rules, intelligent discourse suffers, and so does art. When scenarios like this arise, nobody’s asking who these censors would be, and how they’d go about deciding which books to ban. All those advocates of censoring Melanie and her measles, and by extension any other books, posts, or articles that don’t fall in step with a poorly defined social paradigm, are simply hoping for someone to do their thinking and their choosing for them.

Hate Messenger’s message? Write your own book on why measles is harmful and dangerous. Talk to people. Start a blog. But calling for an all-powerful board of “they” to eliminate everything you find offensive sets a frightening precedent for the stifling of free thinking and every individual’s right to choose.

But those calls for banning MMM and any other books that a given body of readers finds uncomfortable actually affirm something really important: the power of words to change lives, hearts and the world. It’s our power, dear writers – and it’s not one to be taken lightly – or surrendered easily.

What do you think?   Has your writing ever been censored?  Leave a comment below – and as always – please share!

Is Your Audience Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

A former creative nonfiction student of mine called with some news. After months of trying to land a freelancing gig, Julia had gotten an offer to blog for an up and coming travel site. But the company had sent her their style and formatting guides, and something she read made her wonder.

“It says all my posts and articles should be written for a fifth grade reading level,” she said. Only one idea per sentence. No words bigger than two syllables. Is that – typical?”

I smiled. I’d been thrilled a couple of years ago when one of my clients had said he wanted content appropriate for a high school level reader. Well, yes, I told her. It seems to be.

“But if everybody writes for a fifth grade level,” Julia said, “Then nobody’ll ever get to the sixth grade! They’ll never know new words. We’re just helping people stay dumb!”

Julia, who in my class had written a brilliant, bitter memoir of her mother’s struggle with dementia, went on to channel her inner fifth grader and write equally brilliant, if simply stated, insights on vacation destinations. She did well.

But she had a very good point.

Take a look at the guidelines for online writing offered by the top tier blogging and content-writing experts, and you’ll find recommendations like those offered by Julia’s client, plus others such as:

  • One sentence per paragraph
  • Avoid big words
  • Don’t make allusions to literature (true – a guideline once given to me)
  • Stay conversational; imagine you’re having coffee with your reader
  • Keep it short and sweet

Now, the world of online writing is undeniably different from that of print. Reading on-screen can be tiring. And people who are searching for information want to find it fast, with no obstacles in the way. Not everyone wants to expend the time and focus reading a long carefully crafted article that offers an in-depth analysis.

But some do. There’s a place for those kinds of pieces too, and it’s growing, as search engines become more sophisticated, rewarding lengthy original content over short, spammy keyword stuffed bits. In an ever-expanding number of venues, long, well-researched original pieces trump shallow, quick info bites every time. And there is of course something for everybody; it’s the Internet, after all.

But for popular consumption, many kinds of online writing, blog posts in particular, are nevertheless expected to follow the fifth grade guidelines.

Now, I don’t mean to put down fifth graders. The popular TV show and online quizzes asking adults, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” point up just what fifth graders are expected to know – and, embarrassingly, it’s more than many adults do.

But if you read nothing but fifth grade level stuff, you’ll always read at the level of a fifth grader. And if that happens, what’ll you do if faced with, say, an eighth grade text? Or will eighth grade and higher levels simply vanish from the popular readership entirely because most people are never exposed to them?

Of course, we writers want readers – and that means we need to write in a reader-centered way that makes it easy for them to receive our ideas. But in addition to our responsibility to those readers, we also have a responsibility not only to our own authority and credibility, but also to the language that makes our very existence as writers even possible. Would you trust an expert who could only speak like a middle schooler?

One of our jobs is to show readers what is – but another one is to show them what’s possible too. Among the most basic pieces of advice about writing is to read – a lot. It’s how you see what skilled writers do, and how you expand your scope of language and style to become a skilled writer yourself.

Maybe readers of our posts and articles ought to have the same opportunities to encounter new things. But they won’t, if we continue to give them the blandest, simplest, least challenging writing we can crank out.

Featured image: Flickr/ElizabethAlbert

What do you think?  Add a comment – and please, share if you like!

Do Online Marketers Exploit Digital Writers?

Cranky curmudgeons make me, well – cranky.

“Telling it like it is” is all too often a cloak for saying really unpleasant things usually from a high horse of age or perceived experience. And while I respect the right of everyone to say what’s right for them to say, truly I do, I’ll call out the hypocrites every time.

In this digital writing biz, there are a couple of constant and contrary threads. One is that you are a writer, you have every right to claim that name and do the work. You have to overcome your fear, be kind to yourself, shrug off the well meaning stupidity of family and friends, pursue the path no matter what.

The other is harsher: you must stand up for yourself, take control, find high paying clients — and if your writing career isn’t what you’d like it to be, well then you just aren’t committed enough, trying hard enough or using the program created by the writer of said words.

Now, there’s some truth in all of that. But writing is many things. And not all writers, thanks to circumstances or inclination, are able to do all those things to create a six-figure income. At least not right away. And there‘s no fault in that. If you have to make this month’s bills, you can’t wait for the results of your marketing efforts to pay off with a big assignment. You need to grab whatever gig will pay. That means content brokerages, jobs posted on job boards, or whatever you can do right now.

But that puts you in a place that’s ultimately a trap. And it’s a trap that many of these moneymaking marketers are only happy to exploit. I’ve just read The Blunt ad Brutal Truth about Business and Life: Observations, Facts and Rules From a Cranky Curmudgeon (Amazon Kindle). It’s the latest book by Bob Bly, marketer and curmudgeon extraordinaire.

The book is a compilation really of what he calls his “rants” – cranky musings on Internet business, writing, marketing, online etiquette and a host of other topics.

Bob Bly is an unabashed traditionalist. a true curmudgeon who uses age as a cloak of authority while harking back to earlier times. He believes that the only legitimate route to authority as a writer is through print; digital publishing doesn’t count because it’s available to anyone – even those who don’t write well.

Now, readers of this blog and my other observations on creativity and writing know that in a sense I agree with Bob. One of the jobs of digital writers is to restore credibility and authority to the greatest information source the world has ever known, and remove the tarnish of bad writing that makes people like Bob Bly say what they say.

But the problem I have with Bob Bly’s stance and that of other high end online marketers whose empires are driven by content is that in order to make their money, they’re only too happy to exploit the very writers they criticize.

Bob Bly’s marketing advice regularly contains suggestions on places to get dirt-cheap content for your ebooks, blogs and websites. That’s content written by somebody who needs to make a living – and who hasn’t managed to crack those upper levels of great clients. And by crowing about how you can make continuous income from content you didn’t even create and paid somewhere under ten bucks for seems – well, hypocritical.

Not everyone’s a writer. That’s what we freelancers are for. But if online gurus claim to have their own authority as writers, they need to contribute to the solution of making the digital world a better one not just for writers but for all the readers who depend on what we tell them for solving problems, making decisions and learning about the world.

Those online marketing magnates who buy writing from low paid writers and pass it off as their own are indulging in a bit of a cheat while decrying the pitiful state of digital writing. And that not only keeps writers from earning the pay and respect they deserve, but it also keeps readers from getting the authoritative information they need. (Featured image: Flickr/DonMiller)


What do you think, dear shoestring writers? Let’s talk about it in the comments – and please share the post on the social networks of your choice.

Amateur Writing Mistakes Kill Credibility

Watch out when you cut yourself. According to an otherwise very professional medical website, you might get a ‘staff’ infection.

Somebody wrote that – really?

Yes, really. I went on a recent late night hunt for information about preventing infection and there on quite a spiffy medical site was that little gem: one risk if wounds aren’t cleaned properly is a staff infection.

I clicked out and kept on hunting for trustworthy information. If the writers of that article don’t know the difference between ‘staph’ as in staphylococcus, and ‘staff,’ I’m doubtful if their medical advice is reliable.

The error has to do with the phenomenon of homophony – two words are spelled very differently, but sound exactly the same. More common examples include son/sun, wary/weary, the ever popular two/to/too  and so on. It’s a huge problem in a language like English, where sound and spelling shifts have created many many soundalike words. And many an unwary writer has gotten trapped with this kind of mistake.

But because that’s so, it becomes essential for writers to stay on their toes. And when your words can affect someone’s health or welfare, it’s even more essential to take as much care with checking yourself as you’d expect from a medical professional.

Words matter. And the wrong one changes everything. It destroys credibility and damages the writer’s authority.

Mark Twain famously said. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” It’s a quote much beloved of writers, and something of a cliché, but the point remains true.

Words are the essential tools of the writer’s  trade. It’s our job to know them intimately and use them wisely and well. Silly confusions like its and it’s may not seem particularly important but those kinds of mixups signal a writer who’s unskilled, sloppy or both.

If a writer can’t get those things right, how can you trust that they’ve done their homework on the big stuff – the information they claim to know about?

Careless structure, bad grammar, lazy errors – writing mistakes don’t just hurt a writer’s credibility, they also drive away readers who might really need the information you’re offering.

Lightning and lightning bugs are about as similar as staff infections and staph infections. What they have in common, though, is an uncanny capacity to undermine a writers’ authority – every single time.

Rosetta’s Comet Mission: Why It Matters

Black, coal black, the comet hurtles through space. But on this pass around the sun it’s not alone.  The European Space Agency’s intrepid voyager Rosetta tracks it every step of the way. Rosetta;s comet mission is a stunning culmination of over a decade of vision, planning and just plain sweat.

Clinging to Comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko like a spider is Rosetta’s trusty sidekick Philae, the little probe that made history on November 12, 2014 when it landed on the comet’s rocky surface.  Though its landing was bouncy and its batteries limited, Philae sent a treasure trove of data to Rosetta for transmission to eager researchers back on earth.

The photographs sent back by Rosetta are breathtaking.  They offer us Earthlings a real-time look at an object none of us could ever see otherwise, a detailed look at an ancient  visitor from deep space.

This is not science fiction, kiddies.   This is us, human beings, staring the universe right in the eye.  And that should send a little chill down the spine.

Some sites that showcased Rosetta’s images also included classical soundtracks to play while viewing – a nod to the fact that the whole endeavor is more than a collection of robotic parts sending back pictures of a large rock.

In reading comments to the various online articles about Rosetta and Philae,  I was dismayed.  Some readers complained that the photographs (sent from space of a dead black object) were not in color. Others dismissed the entire Rosetta mission as a failure because Philae didn’t land properly and its batteries failed far too soon.  Still others thought it was all Obama’s fault. And of course there were the predictable rants about “wasting” time and money on exploring the Universe.

I can’t stop thinking about that little craft, silently tracking its coal black target on its way toward the sun.  It represents a triumph of dedication, knowledge and technology. It opens doors to a wondrous and scary reality. We are always wondering if we are alone in the universe.  Missions like Rosetta show us that we aren’t – it’s a vast world full of movers and shakers, bigger than our problems, bigger than Obama. And they are completely alien to us here on our little blue ball.

The more we learn about them, the more we can look at this planet from a different perspective. And that just might lead to a better life for us all down here.

I’ll be writing about Rosetta and Philae in an upcoming ebook. Stay tuned.

The more we share, the more we know.  I’d really appreciate it if you tweeted, pinned or posted this one!


Featured image courtesy of ESA: Space in Images





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