Craft Lesson: The Thief of Time

Craft Lessons

Over the years, I’ve met many writers with countless ideas for stories, magazine articles, novels and screenplays. Some have succeeded in finishing (and even publishing) their work, but many never survived the exhilarating flash of inspiration that launches a piece of writing.

Oh, they’d begin with great hope, with a single line, or a few paragraphs or pages. But stuck in a quicksand of doubt, they couldn’t go on. Doubt, that crushing emotion, overtook them. Writer’s block ensued.

Nevertheless, they resolved to go on. Tomorrow, they promised. Over the weekend when I had free time. During the vacation that was coming up. Time after time, they did what many people have done since the beginning of time. They put it off.

The Romans, an Empire that had its beginnings before the birth of Christ, had a word for this failing of the human spirit: procrastinatus. Pro meaning “forward” and “crastinus” signifying “of tomorrow,” a linguistic origin transformed over centuries into the English procrastinate, “the act of intentionally putting off something that should be done,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It took an English poet, Edward Young to capture its essence. “Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled,” he wrote in Night Thoughts,” a series of poems composed between 1742 and 1745, during the dark hours of night, when the anguish over abandoned dreams is perhaps greatest.

“Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience,” the writer James Surowiecki has observed. Of course, it’s not just writing that procrastination defeats. It’s the garage cleaning you’ve been meaning to put off, the mud-caked car that needs washing, the tax forms due in April, any number of tasks that nibble away, but still remain untouched. For writers, though, procrastination is the enemy of progress, the stomach-churning agony of being unable to move on and finish a story, no matter how exciting the idea, relentless the deadline, or disappointing the failure to act.

Over a career of five decades, I too became an expert at one of the most common of human failings, an ancient flaw that lies behind mountains of abandoned dreams, a towering torment of the half-finished, the half-done. Procrastination has been a companion at some point on nearly every writing journey I ever embarked on.

There are infinite ways to procrastinate: pace, video games, disappear into the black hole of social media, binge-watch, even tackle distasteful household chores. For me, one of the most successful approaches is to research. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the topic I’ve spent a lot of time studying—the craft of writing—is the one that’s kept me from doing the writing–fiction–that I dreamed of as a boy.

Challenging as procrastination is, years of experience in my own work and helping other writers with theirs has taught me not to surrender to despair. Delay can be defeated.

The first step is to acknowledge that everyone procrastinates.

All of us face tasks we’d rather avoid, whether it’s conducting that first interview, writing that first line, responding to an email, or just doing the dishes. Recognizing this reality means you must be ever vigilant for the telltale signs of resistance. For me, it’s the simple act of hesitation, realizing that my fingers are hovering over the keyboard, paralyzed.

In this case, my solution, one reached after years of procrastination, is to lower, nay abandon, my standards and type as fast as I can, thinking with my fingers, and trying to drown out the voice of doubt that clamors to be heard with the clatter of keys. What I wrote was immaterial. “I want to write a short story about a man struggling with dementia but I have no idea how to start,” or “Damn, my post on procrastination is due tomorrow morning..”

This freewriting, I’ve discovered is more than just throat-clearing; very soon, miraculously, prose begins to emerge. I begin to describe a man in his 70s, as his memory problems progressed from losing his keys, misplacing his wallet, and forgetting names to the terror of getting lost while walking his dog in what had been his familiar neighborhood. Not great, I tell myself, but it’s a start and it kicks me into gear and over many sessions, I draft and revise “Jacaranda.” I’ve reached the point of submission to literary journals, although of course, I’m procrastinating about that.

But wait.

Besides, lowering your standards and freewriting , here are some other valuable techniques, their value bolstered by users’ comments.

1. Know tomorrow’s task today.

This is the technique that made my friend and mentor, Don Murray, one of the most productive writers I ever knew. Perhaps, he mused, the subconscious takes over when you assign yourself a task the night before.

“What surprised me is how much I feel better knowing that I know what I will be doing tomorrow. I’m the type of person who needs to write down everything or I’ll forget it. I find it reassuring and calming. It puts me in control and gives me a sense of order. I’m not as scatterbrained trying to remember everything at once.”

–Jane Kim

2. Follow productivity expert David Allen’s two-minute rule: If you think a task will take you two minutes or less, do it now.

“What surprised me was how much I could get done in tiny chunks–maybe it wasn’t so much the sheer amount of work as finding mental space to tackle it.”

–Ellen Sung

3. Eliminate piles. Instead of letting paper stack up on your desk, either put it in folders or toss it.

“I learned that it is a lot quicker to find things when you don’t have to shuffle through 50 pages of other unrelated issues. I learned that filing is a good thing to combat the urge to pile things up. I had to do something with the papers, and filing was a good physical way of keeping from falling back into the bad habit.”

–Preston Smith

 So let’s not tarry any longer.

Don’t put it off.

Gulp and go.

Right now.

Craft Lesson: Libel Pains

Craft Lessons

The very word strikes terror in the heart of every journalist.

Libelpublishing false statements that expose someone to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule in writing or pictures—can trigger a costly lawsuit or the possibility of a hefty payout to settle the case. Originally limited to newspapers, it now includes broadcast news on radio and television. Slander is another form of libel that involves oral communication.

In 2017, Disney, the parent company of ABC News, settled a $1.9 billion libel lawsuit by paying a South Dakota beef production company $177 million. At issue was a 2012 broadcast that described a type of meat filler used in ground beef as ammonia-treated “pink slime,” once used only in dog food, according to the broadcast story and news reports. Disney’s insurers, the beef company said, paid the remainder of the total undisclosed settlement. The company, which maintained the filler is 100% beef, said it lost millions in sales and had to lay off 700 workers.

While such cases get big headlines, the reality is that routine stories that are insufficiently checked are behind most libel actions.

The bar is higher for public officials, and public figures—those who hold no office but are widely known. They must prove that the news organization knew the statement was false and published it anyway, known as “actual malice.” 

Failure to prove that led a federal judge to dismiss former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s 2022 lawsuit against The New York Times over an editorial linking her political rhetoric to a mass shooting. The editor in charge acknowledged he moved “too fast,” but insisted he didn’t act out of malice, just carelessness. The paper immediately put out a correction.

 THE ELEMENTS OF LIBEL

To prove they have been libeled by a  news organization, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a person must demonstrate six things:

1.    Publication in a newspaper, broadcast, or website.

2.    Identification. The person doesn’t have to be named if their identity—a local coach, say—is clear.

3.    Defamation that exposes a person to hatred and ridicule or injures her business. (Libel suits are often called defamation actions.)

4.    False. Were the allegations false?  Even an altered or incorrect quote can be false.

5.    Fault. Did the publication know the story was false and defamatory and publish it anyway?

6.    Injury/ Harm. The heart of a libel action is that the person’s reputation suffered injury, stated in dollars.

 WINNING CAN HURT, TOO

Even winning a libel suit can be costly. 

In 2021, a federal court judge threw out a libel suit clearing Reveal, a nonprofit newsroom run by the Center for Investigative Reporting, from charges that it defamed Planet Aid, an international charity that received federal funds.                                                                                                                                                                 Reveals reports linked the charity to an alleged cult and questioned its spending.

While the judge’s decision is an unequivocal legal win for Reveal, it took more than four-and-a-half years and millions of dollars to get there,” wrote Reveal’s general counsel, D. Victoria Baranetsky, in an article about the case in Columbia Journalism Review.

Frank Greve, an investigative reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers and a former colleague, beat back a libel suit, but he still called the experience “20 months of acute professional anxiety.” In his case, truth, as it is generally, was the best defense against a libel action.

But that doesn’t cover everything, as I discovered when Frank shared the lessons he learned with me:

  1. The tougher the story, the more generous a reporter should be in allowing its target to have his or her say.
  2. Reporting findings is more useful to readers than reporting conclusions. Distinguishing between findings and conclusions is libel insurance.
  3. Check all numbers. Check them again. Then get someone else to check them.
  4. If the target won’t comment, send a letter with your questions well before you publish. Follow up with a phone call. It’s impressive evidence of a reporter’s intent to be fair.
  5. Do some reporting on your sources’ motives.
  6. Listen to your inner voice that asks incessantly: Is what I’m writing fair?

Craft Lesson: Cut-and-Paste Jobs

Craft Lessons

Plagiarism, the theft of another writer’s words and ideas, is one of journalism’s cardinal sins. Ryan Broderick learned that the hard way.

In 2020, he lost his job as senior reporter at the news website BuzzFeed after an investigation determined 11 of his articles had been plagiarized or incorrectly attributed to other sources, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“It is BuzzFeed News’ policy that nothing may be copied, pasted, and passed off as one’s own work, and that all quotes should be attributed,” Buzzfeed’s Editor-in-Chief Mark Schoofs wrote readers. “We regret that in these instances those standards were not met.”

Journalists had been stealing words before, but the cut-and-paste functions on word processors that emerged in the 1970s have made it a snap to lift another’s prose.

At a time when so much research is conducted on the internet, some journalists find the allure of purloined words hard to resist.

You’re researching a story on the internet and come across a well-crafted sentence or paragraph that fits your piece perfectly. It’s better than anything you have.

IGNORE THE TEMPTATION

You’re tempted.

With a few keystrokes, you could easily lift the material and paste it into your story. You can change a few words around, thinking that the theft won’t be obvious. Or you come across a lively quote. This time, you pass it off as your own.

“Never plagiarize,” the Society of Professional Journalists’ Co of Ethics says flat out. Your news organization probably echoes the sentiment in its stylebook.

And remember, the same computer systems that embolden word theft can also be turned on the offender by searching databases f borrowed materials.

The common excuses plagiarists trot out—haste, sloppy no taking, deadline pressure—won’t always save you. Plagiarism can be the equivalent of a career death sentence.

The ethical choice, and one that will protect you from dire punishment: do your own original reporting. If you still want use another’s words directly, attribute them to the source, paraphrase them and include where the information came from.

There’s a simple solution, one that I lay out in my journalism textbook “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century “If you think you should attribute it, then attribute it,” says Thomas Mallon, author of “Stolen Words,” an engaging history of plagiarism.

“Manage your time wisely,” my book continues. “Plagiarism is a desperate act. Writers behind on a deadline, exhausted, anxious, may delude themselves into believing that what they’re doing is nothing more than a shortcut. Be honest about where you got your information.”

If Ryan Broderick had followed the rule, he’d still have his job.

Craft Lesson: Adjust Your Attitude

Craft Lessons

When I think of the hundreds of journalists I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it was their attitude that made them special.

Five decades of working with writers and editors have convinced me that attitude—a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior—matters more than talent. 

Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room.

Journalism is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding of structure, and facility with language, syntax, and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and above all, patience. 

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell cited research that found achieving mastery in any field requires 10,000 hours of work. There’s no doubt that becoming a good journalist takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. “Do the work,” no matter how tedious, is Bryan Gruley’s mantra when he wrote long features for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine and now as the author of thriller fiction.

Without the right attitude and the willingness to make that commitment, the chances of success are slim to none. 

ATTITUDE PAYS OFF

David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, best-selling author and associate editor of The Washington Post. But what I remember best was what he had to say when I interviewed him after he won a $10,000 American Society of Newspaper Editors award for deadline reporting. 

His prize-winning 1996 story—about the return of government officials killed in a plane crash to Dover Air Force Base—was a stunning meditation on fate and loss reported and written in a matter of hours. 

The weather was cold and miserable. Maraniss wound up with pneumonia. But he covered the story like an eager intern. 

GIVE AND GET 

Maraniss often devoted months to investigations and series. But when news broke, he was one of the first to pitch in.

“Usually when there’s some kind of major event happening, I either volunteer to help out, or they ask me,” he told me. “Even if I’m doing a series, I say, ‘Look, if you guys need me, I’d be happy to do something.’ I try to be in a position to say yes…”

“So many reporters keep banging away at their editors and having frustrating confrontations about what they have to do or don’t have to do,” he said. “I’ve always found it much more effective to do what I want to do by doing some things for them. There’s a fair exchange.”

In a field where so much—success and rejection, for starters—is out of a journalist’s hands, attitude is one thing we can control. We can decide whether to offer help, as Maraniss did, to procrastinate or commit to one more revision or learn from others, rather than be consumed by jealousy about their achievements. 

AN ATTITUDE CHECKLIST

  • Attitude makes the difference between giving up and sticking with a story.
  • Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft, burrowing into your story one more time to refine and polish it.
  • Attitude means fostering a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.

In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success.

Craft Lesson: The Power of Omission

Craft Lessons

When a lookout on the Titanic sounded the alarm, “Iceberg right ahead,” on April 14, 1912, what he feared was not the jagged tops of ice that broke the surface of the North Atlantic, but the mountain beneath. That’s because only about one-tenth of an iceberg pierces the water’s surface.

The same principle—the theory of omission, or what Ernest Hemingway called ”the iceberg” theory—holds true in news writing. 

Effective journalists always gather more information than they need. By the time you’ve finished a 15-inch story or a 60-second broadcast package, you may have interviewed half a dozen people and pored over a stack of background materials, including sheaves of reports, press releases, statements, and internet research. 

Too often, we sink our stories with information we can’t bear to part with, even if it’s not relevant. “But I spent two hours interviewing the Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Non-Essential Information,” we wail. “I need four paragraphs to describe that room.”

When our editor says, “keep it short,” or the copy desk sends word to “trim by a third,” we moan. “I don’t know what to cut. It’s all great stuff.” 

Stephen Buckley, who shone as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, told me, “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story, so I overreport. Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”

“You can’t ever overdo it,” I replied. “You can’t overreport or research too much. But you can under think. You can under plan. You can under revise.”

WHAT LIES BENEATH

What makes a powerful story is all the work that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many journalists fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that gives writing its greatest power: making every word count.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Writers write best with an overabundance of material, as my mentor, Don Murray taught me.

Alix Freedman always kept in mind her Wall Street Journal editor’s description of journalism’s essential challenge: “Distill a beer keg’s worth of information into a perfume bottle.”

That’s why the investigative reporter cataloged her reporting on a legal pad where she listed quotes, examples, statistics and themes she uncovered in her reporting.

Each got a grade. Only those marked “A” made it into print. Freedman’s aim was to “maximize impact,” to use “not just an example but a telling example,” she said. Not just a quote but “a quote on point.”

The power of a story comes from what’s not in it.

 It’s a paradox, one of many contradictions that lie in the journalist’s path.

But you ignore it at your peril.

Craft Lesson: Trust the Process

Craft Lessons

Growing up, I thought writers were magicians and I was screwed because I knew I wasn’t. 

Writing a news story as a cub reporter felt like hacking my way through a jungle. Panicked, sweaty, I flipped through my notes and flailed away at the keyboard, desperate to make deadline and convinced I wouldn’t. I kept my editors waiting, which frustrated them, but they got my copy eventually, flawed though it was, and it made it into the paper. It was a painful process without any clear direction behind it.

As the years passed, not much changed, until one day in 1981 when Donald M. Murray was hired as the writing coach at The Providence Journal-Bulletin, where I had gotten a job after journalism school. 

“Writing may be magical,” he told us at the first workshop, “but it’s not magic.”

I sat up straight and started scribbling in my notebook as he went on. “It’s a process, a rational series of decisions you make and steps you take, whatever the assignment, length or deadline,” said Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winner who taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire. 

That lesson was the most important element of my education as a writer. I didn’t have to be a magician after all.

By following the steps that produce effective writing, you can diagnose and solve your writing problems. Reporters and editors who share a common view and vocabulary become collaborators rather than adversaries.

 THE WRITING PROCESS: STEP BY STEP

 1. IDEA

Good journalists get assignments or come up with their own ideas. Editors expect enterprise and rely on reporters to see stories that others don’t.

Tip

Look for ideas in your newspaper and others. Look online, in social media and in discussion boards. Ask yourself, what would I want to read about? Ask people you meet what’s missing in your paper, in your broadcast or on your website.

2. REPORT

Collect specific, accurate information. Not just who, what, when, where, and why, but how. What did it look like? What sounds echoed? What scents lingered in the air? Don’t be stingy with your reporting.

Tip 

Look for revealing details. “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 other ingredients: place, people, time, drama.

3. FOCUS

 Confronted with a wealth of reporting, journalists can get lost in the weeds, as I did. Good stories contain a theme—best expressed in one word, like loss or corruption—that leaves a single, dominant impression. Everything in the story must support it.

Tip

What’s the news? What’s the point? What does my story say about life, about the world, about the times we live in? What is it really about— in a single word? Your answers point you forward, frame your story and tell your audience why it matters.

 4. ORGANIZE

Generals wouldn’t go into battle without a plan. Builders wouldn’t lay a foundation without a blueprint in hand. Yet organizing information into coherent, appropriate structures is an overlooked activity for all too many journalists.

Tip

Make a list of the top five elements you want to include. Number them in order of importance. Structure your story accordingly. Or, organize to build dramatic tension. Identify the beginning, an introduction of a problem or challenge. Then establish the middle, where conflict increases. Finally, establish the ending, a climax and resolution to the conflict.

5. DRAFT

Discover by writing, learning what you know and need to know. Freewrite your first draft without your notes. Go back and fill in the blanks. 

Tip

Pulitzer Prize winner Lane DeGregory stashes her notes in her car before writing. “The story isn’t in your notebooks,” she says. “It’s in your head. And heart.“

6. REVISE

Circle back to re-report, re-focus and reorganize. Good writers are never content. Find better details, a sharper focus, a beginning that captivates and an ending that leaves a lasting impression.

Role-play the reader. Does the lead make you want to keep reading? Does it take too long to learn what the story is about and why it’s important? What questions do you have about the story? Are they answered in the order you would logically ask them? Make a printout. Cut, move, add. Make the changes on your computer.

Trust the process. The magic will happen. 

CRAFT LESSON | NUMBERS THAT DON’T ADD UP

Craft Lessons

In school, I hated numbers and loved words.  My verbal skills propelled me into journalism where math didn’t matter. 

Or so I thought.

When city officials raised property taxes, I needed to calculate a percentage rate on deadline. A press release, which reported statistics behind a new study, needed critical analysis to ensure they supported the findings. A person’s age or phone number for a festival had to be reported accurately.

Numbers in news stories—stock prices, inflation rates, city budgets, dates, ages, and addresses—abound. But all too often, careless or unskilled reporters and editors let inaccurate ones make their way into the news, says investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, who cataloged common mistakes: 

  • Millions confused with billions and trillions. 
  • Misplaced decimals. 
  • Assuming statistics in official announcements are correct when they “are often rich with math errors.”

INNUMERATES RULE

There’s no room for illiterates in a newsroom, but innumerates—those uncomfortable with fundamental notions of numbers and chance—are everywhere. 

Fear of calculating can stop you dead in your tracks when you’re faced with the daily stream of figures that cross your desk or fill your inbox.

Math leaves some journalists feeling terrified, meaning they’ll accept figures from a source or a press release without trying to verify them. 

Getting numbers wrong about diseases or accidents can leave readers frightened without reason by journalistic hyperbole and open to fraudulent schemes. 

Journalism is crowded with math-phobes who told their professors, “If I wanted to do math, I wouldn’t have majored in journalism.” The result is a cascade of botched numbers and numerical errors that rank among the most common mistakes made by journalists, according to Craig Silverman, whose book Regret the Error, uses corrections to document the causes and effects of journalistic mistakes.

Two examples:

  • “How to… improve your swimming,” a story in the British newspaper The Guardian had this advice: find a pool “heated” to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The correction that followed noted that that temperature was below freezing. What they meant to say was 28 Celsius (82F).
  • The Wall Street Journal issued a correction for a recipe for a Bloody Mary mix after it transposed the amount of vodka and tomato juice, calling for 12 ounces of juice and 36 ounces of booze.

Readers and viewers notice when your numbers don’t add up. 

 Scott R. Maier, a University of Oregon journalism professor, surveyed 1,000 sources cited in math-related stories that appeared in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer.  They counted “an average of two stories with numerical errors in each newspaper edition,” according to his study published in the Newspaper Research Journal.“ What appears to be lacking,” Maier wrote, “is a willingness to question numbers that don’t make sense.”

  THREE PATHS TO FAILURE

Numerical errors come in three major categories, says Silverman: 

1.    Miscalculations or interpretations made by a reporter.

2.    A typographical error that misplaces a decimal point, adds a zero, or garbles  a phone number or date.

3.    Figures provided by a third party and passed on by the media without proper vetting.

 WRITING WITH NUMBERS

Words, not data, make a story. Put your verbal skills to work at conveying data without putting people to sleep. 

  •  Comparison shop. Put a figure in context by comparing it to something else that people can grasp. “To store a gigabyte’s worth of data just 20 years ago required a refrigerator-sized machine weighing 500 pounds,” IBM says on its website. “Today, that same gigabyte’s worth of data resides comfortably on a disk smaller than a coin.” Sue Horner, an expert in using numbers, led me to this comparison.
  • Round off and substitute. Economists and financial experts need exact numbers. Readers don’t. If 33 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes had alcohol in their blood, it would be clearer if you say, “one in three drivers had been drinking.”

BANISH YOUR MATH-PHOBIA

  1. You don’t have to be a math whiz to succeed and serve up accurate stories for your audience. Often simple arithmetic, a calculator, and close attention to detail can prevent the most common mistakes. You can find math resources online.
  2. Don’t be afraid to run your numbers by your source before you publish for accuracy, not censoring. Or to challenge them, if necessary. 
  3. Find a math-savvy colleague or friend to review your figures before you submit your story.
  4. Keep crib sheets—formulas for how to determine percentages, rates, etc.—close at hand as you work with numbers.
  5. Go back to school, using online resources designed to teach journalists how to do math.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming book, “33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Journalism.” Follow me on my Amazon Author Page to find out when it’s available. Thanks.

A Movie of My Reading: How I Coach

Craft Lessons

Writing teacher Peter Elbow says that what writers need is “not advice about what changes to make or theories of what is good and bad writing,” but “movies of people’s minds while they read your words.”

Inspired by that philosophy, I tell writers I coach that rather than critique their stories I will give them a “movie of my reading.”

Such a reading is a highly subjective, but factual commentary that attempts to reproduce the way I process a story and try to help the writer achieve their goals.

A typical “movie reading” is embedded in a draft or revision of a story. Think of it as a real-time edit without the red pencil wielded by editors who want to fix your copy rather than enable you to do so through coaching. Here’s an example of what you’ll find:

“Hmm. What’s this story about? The lead is intriguing. I get a hint of what’s going on, and I’ll keep reading. When I get to the third graf I slow down. I’m confused. I had to go back and read that sentence twice to make sense of it. Okay, I’m back on track, but now I’m beginning to wonder what this story is about. What’s the point here? I’m getting bogged down in this section. Love this line! Hmm, that’s a great quote, but who said it? Okay, now I’m completely lost, but I’ll keep plugging away. Page two. Oh, I get it, that’s what it’s about. Gosh, why didn’t you tell me that sooner? What would you think about moving it up? What a great simile! Writers profit from using literary techniques wielded by poets and fiction writers. Can you bring this character to life, with descriptions, a scene or dialogue? Moving on, I’m really engrossed. But wait, I forgot who this person is. What about a brief descriptor to remind the reader? It’s a good ending, but what would you think of stopping the story two paragraphs earlier?”

This approach–a combination of comments and questions–is especially useful with journalists and other writers who may come to a writing conference thinking the story is done or, even if they recognize it has problems have no idea how to solve them. My “movie reading” isn’t a vague critique, (“It just doesn’t work for me.”) but instead gives the writer a detailed sense of how one reader absorbed the story. It’s hard to argue with a reader who says he’s confused. You either say, “Tough,” or “Well, I don’t want you to feel that way. How could I clear things up?” My job is to help you see problems, offer solutions and for you to make the changes that make your meaning clear and your story shine.

Tell Me an Article, Daddy

Craft Lessons

Story.

 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.”

 “Sheesh, how the heck did that story get on the front page? (This always refers to another journalist’s work.) 

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 Feb. 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.

 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 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 narrative 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 Ahmad Arbery, a Black man, by three white men in 2020 while jogging through their suburban Georgia neigbhorhhod.

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. It’s a feat that teenage Maud also intends as a message to his coaches, his teammates, and all else that ain’t hitherto hipped: Don’t test my heart. Some of those teammates smash their fist to their mouth and oooh. Others slap one another’s pads and point. An assistant coach winces and runs to the aid of the tackled teammate. And the head coach, well, he trumpets his whistle. “Why’d you hit him like that?” he hollers. “Save that for Friday. Let’s see you do that on Friday.”

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. Stories 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.  

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 write stories, as Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal, described it, that reveal the “joys and costs of being human.”

 STORYTELLING TIPS

         •      Newspapers are full of stories waiting to be told. Police briefs, classified ads, obituaries, the last two paragraphs of a city council brief; all may hold the promise of a dramatic story. Mine your paper 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 council story through the eyes of the Asian-American who asks for better police protection in his neighborhood.         

•      Look for ways to drop storytelling features in your daily articles: a description, a scene, a snatch of dialogue.

Data Journalism: Making Numbers Pop

Craft Lessons, Uncategorized

Mention the word data and many journalists look like a deer caught in the headlights. We’re word people, we say. Data is for geeks. 

That attitude denies your audience information in computer databases that reveal hidden secrets and compelling stories. It can cheat you of the chance to do the most exciting and important work in your career. 

“Data journalism matters because we live, increasingly, in a data-driven world,” Casey Frechette, who teaches and researches data journalism at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, told me. “The digitization of society means the emergence of limitless troves of information about how businesses operate; how citizens lead their lives; how governments run. In this sea of data, it’s easy to find ourselves adrift. Data journalists help us make sense of it all.”

STEP INTO DATA JOURNALISM

  1. Acquire. The Washington Post used newly released tract level census data for an interactive database that shows, by typing in your address, how the racial makeup of your neighborhood has changed since 1990. 
  2. Query. The data journalist probes the stockpile of information, looking for story ideas in spreadsheets or to confirm key facts from traditional sources, like an interview with a public official. 
  3. Analyze. Using basic math and at times advanced statistics, data journalists find averages, establish ratios and crunch percentages. Sophisticated calculations can  establish correlations between two variables, such as tenant evictions and rising rents. 
  4. Visualize. “It’s vital.” Frechette says, “to enable people to understand what data means. That’s where visualization comes in, turning statistics into interactive maps and visual worlds.” 

Wall Street Journal reporters Joel Eastwood and Erik Hinton achieved that with an algorithm to compile lyrics from the Broadway musical hit Hamilton that enabled them to show how Lin-Manuel Miranda tapped rap and hip hop’s imperfect, internal rhymes to make musical history. It’s very cool.

HUMANIZING DATA

Behind every statistic is a human being. Data journalists who don’t find them fail to connect their findings with their audiences. 

Numbers numb, according to psychologist Paul Slovic, who co-authored a 2015 study “The More Who Die, the Less We Care.” It concluded that “as numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action.”  

About 700 women die in America every year from pregnancy or delivery complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, making it the nation with the highest level of maternal mortality in the developed world. 

But how to illustrate the problem when most of these deaths are kept hidden by authorities? 

ProPublica and NPR reporters solved it by creating their own dataset of victims by scouring public posts on Twitter and Facebook and the crowdfunding sites, GoFundMe and YouCaring, and then using obituaries and public records to verify the women’s basic information. Working with student journalists from New York University, they reached out to family members.

“Lost Mothers,” the series they produced, features a gallery of 134 women who died giving birth in 2016 and 16 feature obituaries. It’s a heartbreaking example of how data journalists succeed by putting a human face on the numbers their computers churn out.