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Some quick notes on superlatives, research, and writing a 600 word feature.

I was contacted by the editor of an in-flight magazine recently to write an article about voluntourism. Satisfied with that piece, I was subsequently contacted by the same editor to write a second article about ecotourism; the angle assigned was to identify five of the world’s most  “eco-friendly” places… and to do so in 600 words.

I’ve written before about my feelings regarding superlatives and I try to avoid them in my own writing, so the assignment was particularly challenging. How would I determine what countries were the world’s most eco-friendly? What criteria would I use?

I decided to start with my own experiences. What were the countries I’d visited that I felt were the most environmentally conscious and conscientious on the largest scale and with the greatest success? The list included intriguing possibilities, but they were not unproblematic. The more thought I gave to the assignment and the more reading I did of other writers’ “Best Green” or “Best Ecotourism” destinations lists, the more dissatisfied I was with making a broad sweeping claim that *any* country could wholesale claim to be eco-friendly at all. Brazil the most eco-friendly country in  the world? It tops many ecotourism and green lists, but astronomical wildlife trafficking and deforestation rates cause me to call Brazil’s superlative position into serious question, as do my experiences having traveled there. Sure, Curitiba, Brazil has been an international pioneer in urban sustainability, but one city’s successes can’t earn a country a top spot on a list like this.

Ultimately, I chose five countries* and felt confident about my choices and justification for the inclusion of each. But space limitations prevented me from being able to explain *how* I made those choices, and I don’t really feel satisfied about that. Transparency and responsibility are important to me.

The assignment was a useful exercise in becoming more cognizant of the processes we enact as writers when researching stories.

What insights have you learned as the result of a recent assignment? Share what you’ve learned in the comments.

*Which ones? Well, you’ll have to get your hands on the next issue of Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine, SilverKris, to find out!


6 responses »

  1. When I was writing the cupcakes piece for Forbes Traveler, I shared some of the same questions you had.

    Especially with something as subjective as food.

    I did a ton of research including a taste-test and here’s how I handled it in the article…with the following paragraph:
    Because our tastes for sweets differ greatly—from chocolate lovers to berry lovers—bakery shops keep inventing new, ever-more decadent flavors. Taking this into account, we’ve compiled a list that spotlights a range of tastes from classic moist cupcakes to the best vegan cupcakes from BabyCakes NYC and denser, thicker cupcakes offered by CakeLove in Washington, D.C.

    By acknowledging that it is a subjective topic to tackle and by being transparent about the process.

    Full piece here –

    • Lola-

      The cupcake feature is a perfect example; thanks for the insight! In fact, I’ve learned quite a bit from your writing and your openness about your own writing process and writer-editor relationships regarding changed articles, and I found those lessons useful when I was working on this piece.

  2. PS: Congrats on the feature in SilverKris!

  3. Hi Julie,

    The ‘full disclosure’ issue is such an important one to me too. I’m glad you acknowledged that it’s difficult even for a veteran writer like yourself! 🙂

    In a piece I just wrote on various guidebooks, I tried to focus on both their good AND iffy qualities, aware of the fact that it’s also a matter of personal taste–the same way we have different taste in friends or companions.

    PS- how does one acquire a copy of SilverKris??? I’d love to know your picks after reading this.

    • Alyssa-

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a thoughtful comment. I’ve just added your blog to my reader- great discovery! 🙂
      I’m always honest about pros and cons, but the real challenge for me was knowing I couldn’t fit all five destinations AND an explanation of my process into the 600 word piece without doing serious disservice to one or the other.

      And I forgot to mention entirely that in response to my first draft, the editor asked me to rework a sentence in which I mentioned that one of the countries’ political and economic situation has been unstable, but is generally considered safe. The editor said that the publication discouraged “critical” assessments of that nature… and I thought I was being tactful and circumspect! 🙂

      Just goes to show that the pieces we write are often retouched to the point that they’re not entirely our own.

      I’m not entirely sure how you can find a copy of Silverkris, but if you happen to live in a city that has a Singapore Air office, they’ll probably have a copy on hand. Once I have a copy, I’ll be sure to post a PDF version of the article.

  4. One of the downfalls of the “list” craze is that it seems to foster a shallowness of insight.

    How could any writer do justice to any of the five choices in the confines of 600 words? The truth is most writers can’t. The result is a sexy looking story that fails to deliver.

    It leaves you with this hungry feeling like you have a few hours after eating Chinese food. Sort of like TV news, but in print.


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