CRAFT LESSON; Uncle Oren’s Toolbox and the Value of Over-reporting
One summer when Stephen King was a young boy, he helped his Uncle Oren, a carpenter, repair a screen door on the side of his house.
“I remember following him with the replacement screen balanced on my head, like a native bearer in a Tarzan movie,” King recalled. Oren meanwhile lugged his toolbox, bulging with tools and weighing in at nearly 100 pounds, “horsing it along at thigh level.”.
‘There was a hammer, a saw, the pliers, a couple of sized wrenches and an adjustable; there was a level with that mystic yellow window in the middle, a drill (the various bits were neatly drawered farther down in the depths), and two screwdrivers. Uncle Oren asked me for a screwdriver.”
Wielding the simple tool, Oren speedily removed the eight screws that secured the broken screen and attached the new one. But King was puzzled. He asked his uncle why he’d lugged the toolbox all the way around the house “if all he needed was the screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.”
“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”
I thought of this story, which can be found in King’s magisterial memoir “On Writing” today after a conversation with my friend Stephen Buckley. Stephen has had a distinguished career as a journalist; Washington Post foreign correspondent with postings in East Africa and Brazil, national correspondent and managing editor for the St. Petersburg Times, (now the Tampa Bay Times),–dean of The Poynter Institute before returning to Kenya to run the Professional Development Program at the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications, Nairobi, He is now a media consultant.
When Stephen comes back on his occasional visits to the U.S., we always try to have breakfast at Trip’s, a local diner. It’s a highlight of my year, not just because he’s a wonderful companion, but a reflective practitioner of the craft of writing.
. “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story so I overreeport,’ he said on his last visit. “Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”
I stopped him mid-bite.. “You can’t ever overdo it,” I said. ‘You can’t overreport or research too much. But you can underthink. You can underplan. You can underrevise.”
Writers, my mentor Don Murray taught me, “write best from an overabundance of material.”
When Murray was a prolific magazine writer, he filled a trash can with the reporting materials he used and if the can was full he—and his editors—were satisfied he had a solid, fully-reported story. But when he needed something else–a quote, a fact, a statistic–and had to scour the bottom of the near empty bucket he knew he was screwed. He’d under-reported.
Over-reporting played an important role in the first draft of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times Magazine essay about the bitter legacy of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to America. Her first draft “was more than twice as long as what ran. There were a lot of examples that did not make it in the final draft. This is part of what makes long-form, deep research really hard. You just have so much information and it’s hard, when you’re so immersed in it, to figure out the most important examples and storytelling points.” The abundance of material, winnowed during revisions, gave the story the authority it needed to make her case. It won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
What Stephen Buckley thought of as overreporting was the crucial accretion of facts, details, scenes, dialogue that made his own stories so memorable. Yes, it’s a hassle, whether you’re researching a book or magazine piece, a feature story or even a deadline news account, to confront a pile of notebooks, screenfuls of interview transcripts, audio recordings and the other research materials that go into effective writing. It can be agony to realize you can only use a fraction of what you collected,
As Bloomberg Business Magazine writer Bryan Gruley said in a recent interview, when he’s pursuing a feature story, doing the work means “looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story.”
But that’s where the power of a story comes from. It’s the price writers pay for writing stories that have the heft of Uncle Oren’s toolbag. It’s what goes into stories that have no holes, that are written with the strength that can come only from over-reporting,