Entries in shop talk (92)


Artful Journalism

Some of what I underlined in Walt Harrington's new book:

1. ... most of us struggle through life seeking small redemptions, which is what many of my profiles are about: people struggling fitfully to be better people, struggling in their own ways to find mastery over their lives, to feel they are in control in the face of the conflicting demands and expectations of parents, family, and society. ... Always, I begin my research looking for continuities or rifts in each subject's life that might help clarify how he or she came to be the person he or she is.

2. In the introduction to her book Character, a collection of profiles about the presidential primary candidates of 1988, journalist Gail Sheehy wrote that she always tries to compare her subject's "personal myth" with her own reportorial assessment.

3. ... full-blown profiles need to be written differently from slice-of-life profiles. But as a ageneral rule, it seems best to create a narrative that moves through time from when the subject isn't revealed to the reader — and sometimes not even to himself — to a time when the subject is revealed.

4. The journalism of ordinary life is a way to repair the torn social fabric that hard-edged journalism has undeniably helped to shred.

5. It's the kiss of death for anyone aspiring to do intimate journalism to think of what he or she does as lighteners, brighteners or human interest stories.

6. Remember to collect, in the moviemaker's parlance, not only long shots but tight shots. My father was an amateur painter, and he used to tell me that there were two ways to paint a picture — one was to stand back and squint your eyes and see shapes and colors emerge in a beautiful blur, and the other was to get down on your knees and examine the flower, petal by petal. It's important to think of the details you're gathering in that way ...

7. You have to gather the material that you will need to make an anecdote a scene.

8. Think of your stories as pieces meant to be read out loud.

9. We have this idea in straight journalism that stories are supposed to tell themselves through the way we lay out the facts. We pretend this because it fits our mythology of objective newspaper journalism. Yet stories don't tell themselves. Mike Sager wasn't writing Greg Smith's story. He was writing Mike Sager's version of Greg Smith's story. Get used to it.

10. If a story isn't animated by an idea, it will fall flat.

11. Growing up is a pretty important part of doing grown-up work.


Terrible advice for a young writer?

Alice McDermott to Joe Heim in todays Washington Post Magazine:

"I guess I cringe when the discussion leads to, rather than books and sentences and characters and the stuff that writers are supposed to be concerned with, how to have an online presence and how many followers you have on Twitter. That stuff always makes me uncomfortable."

Agreed. At this point, though, for better and for worse, aren't both important?


How to Write (a Thesis)

Something I underlined in a book I picked up at Literati in Ann Arbor on my way back to the airport in Detroit after going to the Maumee Chipotle:

... remember this fundamental principle: the more you narrow the field, the better and more safely you will work. Always prefer a monograph to a survey. It is better for your thesis to resemble an essay than a complete history or an encyclopedia.


Re-reading Writing for Story

27 things I underlined in Jon Franklin's classic manual:

1. I started looking more closely at human motivation.

2. I know, in short, what a story is ... and equally important, I know what a story isn't.

3. The straightforward definition of a story is as follows: A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.

4. A complication is simply any problem encountered by any human being; it's an event that triggers a situation that complicates our lives ...

5. It raises a question in the reader's mind as to how the problem will be solved ...

6. Whenever you see someone do something, anything, ask yourself: Why did he do that? What was his motive? Your answer will lead you to a complication. That's because human action is taken for one purpose and one purpose only, which is to solve a complication. Without complications we would all be as inert as stop signs.

7. Complications that are more fundamental to the human condition, involving love, hate, pain, death and such, are very basic to the human dilemma and thus are fair game for the professional storyteller.

8. The writer sees the resolution and tracks it backward to discover a complication.

9. Most news stories are endings without beginnings attached.

10. ... successful stories generally have happy endings.

11. Most stories, and especially the good ones, have more than one complication.

12. Sad endings are tricky, tricky, tricky. ... For this reason the unhappy ending, when it is written at all, is the preserve of the master craftsman.

13. The thing that will make him a satisfied customer is partly the fact that he was entertained. But the deeper satisfaction comes when the reader learns with the character.

14. ... words are not, repeat not, the basic unit of literary structure.

15. ... what we most want is story — which is to say, structure. That's what's important to us, as readers. And words, as wonderful as they truly are, play a role analogous to that of the atom in biology.

16. If you begin your story without knowing precisely where you're going, any mistakes you make at first, any small omissions, take on added significance as you proceed.

17. A story is not a line of dominoes, it is a web, and tugging on any filament causes the whole thing to vibrate.

18. Stories consist of actions! Stories consist of actions! Stories consist of actions!

19. If all else is done properly, the most dramatic aspect of any story is growth and change in the main character. This growth and change should be made a central part of the outline, so that it will emerge as the backbone of the story.

20. The most valuable thing about the outline isn't the outline itself but the fact that you thought the problem through thoroughly enough to create one.

21. The most obvious misconception is that the "rough draft," because of its name, is somehow permitted to be sloppy. In reality, the rough draft is only "rough" in the sense that the writer doesn't worry overmuch here about the veneer of finish.

22. In the case of carpentry, the rough-in process is the most time-consuming and critical period of construction. Though the studs and beams may not seem particularly pretty to the uninitiated, and though they won't even be visible to the ultimate consumer, the quality of craftsmanship that goes into them will determine the ultimate strength and durability of the house. If the rough-in is done carlessly or amateurishly it may still serve as an adequate basis for plasterboard and paint ... but it will not long survive the stresses of seeping water, gnawing termites, strong wind or heavy snow.

23. The rough draft is not a product, it is a process ...

24. You could, of course, set aside a dozen paragraphs or so at the top of your story and give a mini-lecture on the subject at hand. You could ... but you won't, not if you want to sell your story. What you'll do, instead, is teach as you go, tucking concepts into the action, positioning your reader's mind to understand, A phrase here, a sentence there, and by means of foreshadowing your educational message will unfold with your story.

25. ... polish is probably the most overemphasized aspect of the writing craft.

26. Polish is but the plaster on the walls of the structure.

27. The brutal fact is that structure is far more fundamental to storytelling than polish.


What We See When We Read

Picked up this book the other day at Powell's in Portland. Nine things I underlined on the plane back to Tampa:

1. Characters are ciphers. And narratives are made richer by omission.

2. It's how characters behave, in relation to everyone and everything in their fictional, delineated world, that ultimately matters.

3. All books open in doubt and dislocation.

4. We perform a book — we perform a reading of a book. We perform a book, and we attend the performance.

5. Are the muscles we use to imagine growing weaker as our culture ages? Before the age of photography and film did we picture better, more clearly than we do now? Our mnemonic skills are atrophying and I wonder if our visual creativity might be as well. Our culture's visual overstimulation is widely discussed, and the conclusions drawn from the fact of this overstimulation are alarming. (Our imaginations are dying, some say.) Whatever the relative health of our imaginations, we still read. The rapid proliferation of the image has not kept us from the written word. And we read because books bestow upon us unique pleasures; pleasures that films, television, and so on cannot proffer.

Books allow us certain freedoms — we are free to be mentally active when we read; we are full participants in the making (the imaginging) of a narrative.

Of, if it is true that we cannot advance beyond a vague sketchiness in our imaginings, then maybe this is a crucial component of why we love written stories. Which is to say that sometimes we only want to see very little.

6. We desire the fluidity and vagary that books grant us when we imagine their content. Some things we do not wish to be shown.

7. Words are like arrows — they are something, and they point toward something.

8. ... we push an attribute of theirs to the fore; we "foreground" a piece of them and then let that piece suffice.

9. Through reduction, we create meaning.


Writing for Your Readers

22 things I underlined re-reading the late Don Murray's book on craft originally published in 1983:

1. Professional writers never learn to write; they continue to learn writing all their professional lives.

2. Writers need colleagues, test readers, editors, and sometimes a writing coach who, like the opera star's coach, does less teaching than reminding.

3. You are not an expert. You are a reporter.

4. Remember that people want to read about people.

5. Change your point of view. Drive to work by a different route. Go to a familiar place at an hour when you're not usually there. Shop in a supermarket patronized by people on welfare. Stand in line at an unemployment office and listen to what people are saying. Sit in a waiting room at a hospital clinic. Watch the ballgame from the bleachers.

6. Buy a different magazine each week.

7. Look for stories that have no event.

8. In writing a descriptive scene be aware of the dominant impression you wish to convey. Descriptions are not written effectively if they move from left to right or top to bottom. The details should lead someplace. You can make the reader see the pol, the cigar, the face, the belly, the left hand on one person's shoulder, the right hand grabbing another person's hand, the eyes focused on a third person. Everything in that description should reveal the dominant impression of the politician as a superficial gladhander.

9. It is a principal responsibility of the artist and the journalist to make connections.

10. Point of view does not mean opinion. Think of the writer standing beside the reader and pointing out the story. The point of view is the place from which the reader can most effectively see the story. It may be on the street corner, in the police car, before the judicial bench, in the cell, beside the victim at the hospital, at the funeral home, in the parents' kitchen.

11. The lead is vital, for it captures the reader, but the greatest point of emphasis in the story is the ending.

12. One hazard of writing endings, however, is the danger of "writing" them.

13. Artists talk a great deal about negative space, about what isn't in the picture, and art students are trained to draw the edge of what shouldn't be in the picture as well as what must be included. They are trained to leave out, to use white space. Writers should be trained the same way.

14. In writing endings we have to remember to leave some room for the reader. We can not tell the reader how to think or feel; we can deliver information that will make the reader think or feel. Once we have done that it's all over. The ending works or it doesn't work. Nothing you can say will make weak information strong. Deliver a solid piece of information — and stop.

15. The reader asks questions that do not appear in the text. Your text is an answer to those questions.

16. Transitions are always clumsy; try to find an order that makes them unnecessary.

17. Time is the thread that holds the story together.

18. An editor at Time told me you could tell a good story by the amount of interesting material that was thrown away.

19. We should remind ourselves that we write not with words but with information.

20. Readers like to read about people. They are far less interested in issues and ideas than in personalities.

21. Dialogue. This device is rarely used in newspapers, but it should be used more often.

22. Fiscal stories are still people stories.


Five tips from Next Wave

Some of what I underlined re-reading the anthology Walt Harrington and Mike Sager put out a couple years back:

1. Thomas Lake: The story, the story, the story. It exists whether you find it or not. Find it. Get it.

2. Robert Sanchez: Find the right character. If there's any advice that I can give to aspiring narrative non-fiction writers, it would be that.

3. Eli Saslow: Details are always the key to narratives. They are what make the characters and the circumstances feel real.

4. Seth Wickersham: Magazine writing is like carpentry: the grind precedes the art.

5. ... me: Public records are like the bottom rungs of rope ladders. They're something to grab onto. Names lead to names. Information leads to information. Material leads to material.


Telling True Stories

29 things I underlined re-reading the 2007 book edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call:

1. Jacqui Banaszynski: I think that stories make us human. Only by telling them do we stay so.

2. Gay Talese: Curiosity is the beginning. That's not something we are going to get from the Columbia School of Journalism or the University of Missouri.

3. David Halberstam: Print journalists have to better than they used to be. With network television, cable television, the Internet, and even video games, it's tougher to compete for people's time. There are more and more sources of information out there, and they demand less and less intellectual energy. People work harder; they have less time. When I started as a journalist, 52 years ago, I operated in an age with a single-income middle class. Now it's a two-income middle class. The writer must get better and better, become a better storyteller.

4. Katherine Boo: We often talk about story-making as a two-part process: reporting and writing. This leaves out the third part: thinking.

5. Lane DeGregory: What's the big idea? I ask myself this because my editor always does.

6. Isabel Wilkerson: In journalism school, no one called the interactions between journalists and sources relationships, but that's what they are.

7. Anne Hull: Observation, the art of watching, is one of the most underrated elements of reporting, especially in newspaper journalism. The natural impulse is to ask questions. Sometimes that is wrong. It makes the reporter the focus of attention. Be humble. It honors the person you're trying to observe. Think like a photographer. Watch. Change location.

8. Tracy Kidder: I try to write down all the visible, tactile, smellable facts as well as what I hear.

9. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Moments of enlightenment take time. People need time -- lots of time.

10. Jacqui Banaszynski: Your job as an interviewer is to turn the subject into a storyteller.

11. Alex Tizon: Every story has a protagonist who wants something, and must work through a series of obstacles to obtain it. Every good story, and every great profile, is a quest. The quest can be simple: to escape boredom, to get the girl, to win the money, to redeem oneself, to avenge something.

12. Katherine Boo: The best narrative isn't soft, and the best investigative reporting isn't only steel-plated facts.

13. Nora Ephron: Structure is the key to narrative.

14. Kelley Benham: Looking back at the stories I especially admired while growing up, I'm struck by how sparsely and carefully writers like Rick Bragg used quotes and dialogue. That's my first rule about including a subject's exact words: Do it sparingly. Using fewer quotes makes me a more disciplined and thoughtful writer. It forces me to think harder about my job and take better control of the story.

15. Jon Franklin: Good stories show how people survive.

16. Nicholas Lemann: The marriage of narrative and analysis is the fundamental project of journalism. Once you get past the realm of the purely entertaining or sensational, nearly all journalism is a promise to explain the world via narrative. Stories and characters have a powerful hold on the human mind. We translate the world into narrative form. That is why story, rather than datum, is the basic unit of journalism.

17. Bruce DeSilva: Readers devour narratives to discover how the problem will be resolved. Once they know, they stop reading -- so you had better stop writing.

18. Jon Franklin: Description alone isn't helpful. A reporter who doesn't understand a subject has no way of knowing what the details of the surroundings mean. To put it another way, information that explains motive goes into the piece. Everything else stays out.

19. Mark Kramer: Start your scenes at the last possible instant, cutting out all actions tangential to the main point, and end them as soon after the action as possible.

20. Tom French: Even in daily newspaper stories, I don't think about a lede, I think about an opening section. It is not useful to think about just your first paragraph, because you don't want the reader to stop at the end of it. The entire opening section must offer an experience that propels the reader forward through your story. Whatever you convey, it will be pointless unless the reader stays with you to the end. To make that happen, your story must get better as it goes. Open with something good. Build toward something even better.

21. Louise Kiernan: ... perhaps I do know how to answer that question about whether I am a features, investigative, or explanatory reporter: "Yes."

22. Walt Harrington: It is impossible to go intimately into people's lives without having to wrestle with what should be revealed.

23. Isabel Wilkerson: Authenticity comes from long conversations and then playing back to the person what you think you just heard.

24. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call: A great editor is a rare gift.

25. Anne Hull: Thinking is the most underused skill in the newsroom.

26. Tom French: The three most beautiful words in the English language are not "I love you" but "To be continued."

27. Jack Hart: Is there a protagonist? Is there a complication? Is there a sequence of events that leads to some kind of dramatic tension? Is that tension resolved? When the answer is no, we don't force it. It is better to publish no narrative writing than bad examples of it.

28. Lane DeGregory: Too much is written about people whose dreams come true. People facing failure or setbacks are far more fascinating. The tension is built into the story: Where do they go from here? How have the crises changed their lives?

29. Louise Kiernan: ... one important tactic is to report before you report.