When your story needs shock trauma

Craft Lessons

In emergency medicine, the “golden hour” is 60 minutes of high-powered professional attention that can make the difference between life and death. It’s a narrow window of time when care must be managed or the traumatically ill or injured patient is not going to survive.

Apply the theory of shock trauma on deadline, couple it with the process approach to reporting and writing, and you have an efficient method that can make the difference between a compelling news story and one that dies on the page.

At the risk of practicing literary medicine without a license, I’d argue that the writer and editor’s first task is to diagnose — identify what works and what needs work in a story — and then treat.

IDEA
DIAGNOSIS:
1. What is the idea behind the story? Is it newsworthy, timely, relevant, interesting?
2. What would a reader/viewer/listener say the idea is? Is it the same answer as number 1?
3. How can the story idea be improved/refined/clarified?

RX:
• Identify the idea — a day in the life of an EMT during the Covid pandemic, the view from an immigration law office the day after a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, decisions made at a municipal meeting — and use that to evaluate the relevance of the material in the story.
• Move quickly from assignment to budget line (25-40 word summary of the story)

COLLECT

DIAGNOSIS:
1. What questions does the reader still have about the story?
2. What additional reporting needs to be done? (Interviews, research, statistics, examples, explanation)

RX:
• Mine your notes: You only want the best — the most illustrative anecdote, the most telling detail, the most pungent quote, the most revealing statistic.
• Look for revealing details that put people on the page. The female police officer who wears “size four steel-toe boots.” The widow who sprays her dead husband’s aftershave on her pillow. “In a good story,” says David Finkel of The Washington Post, “a paranoid schizophrenic doesn’t just hear imaginary voices, he hears them say, ‘Go kill a policeman.'”
• Use the five senses in your reporting and a few others: sense of place, sense of people, sense of time, sense of drama.
• Brainstorm the reader’s questions. Find the answers or acknowledge that they’re unavailable. (“City officials say there are no statistics available on…”)

FOCUS

DIAGNOSIS:
1. What is the story’s single dominant message?
2. What would the reader say the story is about? Is it the same answer as number 1?
3. How could the story’s focus be improved/sharpened/revealed/supported?

  • RX:
  • • Be ruthless about finding the heart of the story: an effective story has a single dominant impression.
  • • Address the question, “What’s the story really about?” and answer it in one word.
  • • Ask two questions that keep track of the focus of any story: What’s the news? What’s the point? They address the reader’s concerns: What’s new here? What’s this story about? Why am I reading this?
  • RX:
  • • Be ruthless about finding the heart of the story: an effective story has a single dominant impression.
  • Address the question, “What’s the story really about?” and answer it in one word.
  • • Ask two questions that keep track of the focus of any story: What’s the news? What’s the point? They address the reader’s concerns: What’s new here? What’s this story about? Why am I reading this?
  • Decide on a focus early but be willing to be flexible, to change with the information you report.

ORDER

DIAGNOSIS:
1. What is the path of the story? Does it have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end?
2. Are things in the right order?
3. Could the story be quickly reorganized using the “five boxes” approach?
4. What questions does each sentence, paragraph, box, answer? Are these the questions the reader will ask, in that order?

RX:
• Write the end first.  Once you settle on a destination, it’s easier to plan your route.
• Work the Rubik’s Cube. Move, cut, shift the elements of your story.
• Try Rick Bragg’s “five boxes” approach. Bragg doesn’t outline his stories, but he does preach the value of the “five boxes” method of story organization.

  • The first box, the lead, contains the image or detail that draws people into the story.
  • The second box is a “nut graph” that sums up the story.
  • The third box begins with a new image or detail that resembles a lead and precedes the bulk of the narrative.
  • The fourth box contains material that is less compelling but rounds out the story.
  • The fifth, and last, box is the “kicker,” an ending featuring a strong quote or image that leaves the reader with a strong emotion. (If you’re interested in an analysis of such a story, I read my email at chipscan@gmail.com)

DRAFT
DIAGNOSIS:
1. How is the story told: with scenes, summary, anecdote, quotes, attribution, statistics?
2. What additional material can be drafted or redrafted?

Rx:
• Write early: Find out what you know, what you need to know.
• Write the end first. Most reporters concentrate on the lead. The ending is more important for time management for the writer. It’s also the reader’s last impression of the story. Make it count.
• Put your notes aside before you start to write. “Notes are like Velcro,” says, Jane Harrigan, former professor at the University of New Hampshire. “As you try to skim them, they ensnare you, and pretty soon you can’t see the story for the details.” Her advice: Repeat over and over, “The story is not in my notes. The story is in my head.”

REVISE

DIAGNOSIS:
1. What are the stumbling blocks — spelling, style, accuracy — in the story?
2. How can the story be made more accurate, fair, balanced, compelling?

RX:
• Raise the bar: is it good enough?
• Murder your darlings.
• Cut “like a surgeon,” poet Anne Sexton says. “Down to the bone.”
• Select, don’t compress: Paragraphs, not words.
• Is there a beginning, middle, and end?
• Is the ending resonant?
• Are the sentences active by using action verbs?
• Can you use punctuation as a tool?
• Role play the reader. Step back and pretend you’re reading your story for the first time. Does the lead make you want to keep reading? Does it take you too long to learn what the story is about and why it’s important? If not, are you intrigued enough to keep reading anyway? What questions do you have about the story? Are they answered in the order you would logically ask them?

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