In this issue:
Writers Speak | Billy Wilder on structural flaws
Chronology Is Your Friend: Four Questions with Peter Perl
Craft Lesson Revisited | Tell Me an Article, Daddy
Writing to Savor | “How a Script Doctor Found His Own Voice” by Patrick Radden Keefe
“If you have a problem in the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”
— Billy Wilder
INTERVIEW | CHRONOLOGY IS YOUR FRIEND: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH PETER PERL
Peter Perl retired as Assistant Managing Editor of The Washington Post after a 33-year career as a reporter, editor and magazine writer.
He supervised personnel matters, career development, skills and management training, leadership coaching, and various other roles in the operation of the 600-person Post newsroom. Prior to joining Post newsroom management, he was an award-winning staff writer of The Washington Post Magazine. He also served as chair of The Post newsroom’s labor union and was elected to the governing Executive Council of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, representing 1,400 Post employees. Prior to The Post, he was a reporter at the Providence Journal-Bulletin and at Connecticut Magazine.
Perl is the recipient of more than 35 journalism awards from the Associated Press, the Newspaper Guild, the American Bar Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Education Writers Association, the AFL-CIO, and other organizations. He has taught journalism at Georgetown University in Washington and at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. His work has also appeared in Reader’s Digest, Columbia Journalism Review, Working Woman and other publications, and he has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and on MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams.
What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a writer?
First, be human. Then be a writer. Whether it’s profiling a famous person or interviewing a crime victim, I have learned that I must show up as a person, not a reporter/writer. It’s important not to adopt the persona of the question-asker/note-taker/or word processor. For me, I have learned that it must start with empathy: the sense that we all, as fellow humans, are struggling to figure out who we are, who we want to be, and what to do. The other person is not a “subject” of my story. She/he is someone whose life is intersecting with mine at some important moment and they have to know and feel that I understand their situation — or at least that I am genuinely trying to understand who they really are and what they are living through. That is when they will open up and really share their story.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
I have frequently been amazed that people will allow me into their lives with a degree of intimacy that I, personally, would never, ever extend to a stranger. Most of the time, I have been able to genuinely earn the trust of my subjects. I think it’s because of my approach of being a human first, and a writer second. Bob Woodward and I once had a discussion about how to get people to talk to you, and he said that he often puts himself in the position of a person who needs the other person’s help. He would tell the person that he does not understand a situation and he really needs their help. He said it often works because many people feel a genuine need to help others. Of course, this can come across as disingenuous, and people often know when you are bullshitting. But I have been successful at persuading people that I honestly am seeking “truth.” The challenge then is figuring out how to write the truth.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
A cop-turned-shrink. I’ve been a reporter, editor and magazine writer for more than 40 years and, looking back, I see two primary, evolving identities. I grew up with a father who was a New York City private eye and a pretty suspicious, cynical guy. So my first writing identity was as a digger/investigator always trying to ferret out the real story, and often that meant exposing the wrongdoing and finding the bad guys. About 15 years into my career, I got tired of being a cop and gravitated toward using my investigative inclinations to try to understand and write about people, about what motivated them, and about the truth and lies that they told themselves. The latter part of my career ended up focusing on psychologically oriented profiles in which I often ended up in a role akin to a therapist.
What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors and writer colleagues, and
their best collective writing advice could be summed up as: Keep it simple, stupid. Under that heading, the specific pieces of advice that stuck with me are:
1) S-V-O; Subject-Verb-Object. Straight, simple, declarative sentences are your best starting point. You can always dress up your writing with fancy clauses and pretty, lyrical swirls, but start simple.
2) Chronology is your friend. The writer — and the reader — can get hopelessly lost when you are bouncing back and forth in time. Be as linear as possible and be very clear when you are moving forward or backward in time.
3) Tell What Happened. People love hearing stories and they want to know what happens next. So don’t use extraneous details and other distractions that will keep them from getting it.
CRAFT LESSON REVISITED | TELL ME AN ARTICLE, DADDY
Heading into the new year, I want to emphasize the importance of storytelling in journalism. This piece is taken from my book, 33 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Journalism.
It’s a word that echoes in newsrooms every day.
“Great story today.”
“Where’s that story? You’re 30 minutes late!”
“Boss, I need another day/week/month to finish that story.”
“How the heck did that story get on the front page?
And the old standby: “Story at 11.”
We call them stories, but most of what appears in print, online, and broadcast are articles or reports, says writing teacher Jack Hart.
Here’s an example from The Guardian about the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine:
Fierce fighting broke out in Kyiv as Russian forces tried to push their way towards the city centre from multiple directions in the early hours of Saturday, and as the Ukrainian president, Volodomyr Zelenskiy, bluntly rejected a US offer to evacuate him from the country’s capital.
Articles present information about an accident, a public meeting, a speech, a contested presidential election, or even a war. They’re a convenient way to convey information in a clear, concise, accurate fashion told in a neutral voice.
But please, let’s not confuse them with stories.
A story features characters rather than sources and communicates experience through the five senses and a few others: place, time and, most of all, drama.
It has a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention, a middle that keeps the reader engaged and an ending that lingers. Scenes peppered with dialogue and a distinct voice drive the action.
Here’s how Mitchell S. Jackson opened “Twelve Seconds and a Life,” his Runner’s World story about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, by three white men in 2020 while jogging through their suburban Georgia neighborhood.
Imagine young Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery, a junior varsity scatback turned undersized varsity linebacker on a practice field of the Brunswick High Pirates. The head coach has divided the squad into offense and defense and has his offense running the plays of their next opponent. The coach, as is his habit, has been taunting his defense. “Y’all ain’t ready,” he says. “You can’t stop us,” he says. “What y’all gone do?” The next play, Maud, all 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds of him, bursts between blockers and — BOOM! — lays a hit that makes the sound of cars crashing, that echoes across the field and into the stands, that just might reach the locker room.
Jackson’s story won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for feature writing.
Journalists must be able to write articles and stories. Each has their own challenges. Articles compress events and focus on newsworthy elements. Narratives connect us with the universals of the human condition. They matter because they transport us to different worlds that reveal the personal and emotional realities behind the news.
We need stories, nonfiction author Bill Buford wrote in a 1996 essay, because “they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle and end of our personal and collective trajectories … because it is impossible to live without them.”
Articles have their place, but late at night, your child will never say, “I can’t sleep. Tell me an article, Daddy!”
No, they beg to be lulled into slumber by a story.
Instead, in much of news writing, we provide few if any of these.
Instead of settings, we give readers an address.
Instead of characters, we give people stick figures: “Goldilocks, 7, of 5624 Sylvan Way.”
Instead of suspense, we give away the ending at the beginning using the inverted pyramid, the form which presents newsworthy elements in descending order and peters out at the end.
The challenge for today’s journalists is to use literary techniques to write true stories that, as Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal, described it, reveal the “joys and costs of being human.”
• Newspapers are full of stories waiting to be told. Police briefs, classified ads, obituaries, the last two paragraphs of a city council story; all may hold the promise of a dramatic story. Mine your paper/broadcast/website for story ideas.
• Find the extraordinary in the ordinary stuff of life: graduations, reunions, burials, buying a car, putting Mom in a nursing home, or the day Dad comes to live with his children.
• Change your point of view. Write the city council story through the eyes of the Asian-American woman who asks for better police protection in her neighborhood.
• Look for ways to drop storytelling features in your daily articles: a description, a scene, a snatch of dialogue.
WRITING TO SAVOR | “HOW A SCRIPT DOCTOR FOUND HIS OWN VOICE” BY PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE
Scott Frank spent a long career as a Hollywood scriptwriter, making up to $300,000 a week punching up troubled movie scripts. Among his credits: Saving Private Ryan and The Minority Report. Despite his success, in middle age he abandoned the lucrative gigs to write his own words and found a home in the streaming world that has overshadowed the movie industry, writing the international mega-hit The Queen’s Gambit. In this fascinating profile, Patrick Radden Keefe digs into Frank’s life and career at the same time, illuminating the world of scriptwriting.
Nieman Storyboard, where I am a contributor, published its list of the top 10 most viewed posts of 2023. No. 3 on the list was the annotation I did with Lauren Smiley, who wrote “I Am The Operator: The Aftermath of a Self-driving Tragedy” for Wired magazine. It’s a compelling story, illuminated by Smiley’s commentary on her indefatigable reporting and writing process.