Or as Melvin Mencher, the legendary Columbia J-school professor put it: If you’re going to be a reporter, you have to be counterphobic.
Counterphobia, defined in an online glossary of psychiatric terms: “Deliberately seeking out and exposing onself to, rather than avoiding, the object or situation that is consciously or unconsciously feared.”
One of the scariest parts of being a reporter is the challenge of approaching strangers. Beginners, and even some veterans, fear rejection, an angry reaction or worse. The fearful mind can create dark fantasies.
The same holds true for writers who fear starting, or finishing, a story, an essay or screenplay, anxious that it will reveal their incompetence. Journalists aren’t the only creative types that fear failure.
When I was teaching student journalists, the first assignment I gave was to head out to their beat and ask five people what news they considered important but had not appeared in their local paper. Many students admitted later they were afraid to do it, but the experience changed their minds.
“I was surprised the most by the fact that I was able to get over my fears of doing the actual reporting,” wrote one student, Steve Myers, now enterprise editor at USA Today.
“No matter how the writing of the story turned out,” Myers said, “in my mind it was secondary to the fact that I knocked on all 18 doors on 56th Avenue S. I felt a little bit like an encyclopedia salesman, but I got over the nausea in the pit of my stomach by the fourth or fifth house.”
Even the most experienced journalists feel that fear.
“It would astound you to know how many reporters, whose job it is to talk to people, are painfully, horrifically shy,” Monica Hesse, a Washington Post columnist, once tweeted from a Presidential campaign trail. “I’m here in New Hampshire and I get to eat one M&M every time I successfully interview another human.”
What may help is knowing that many people are terrified of journalists. Although it may be hard to believe, most people will be more afraid of you and the power you wield as a reporter than you are of them. Consider what J. C. McKinnon, a burly, stern-faced St. Petersburg police officer, once confessed to a group of my students: “I carry a can of pepper spray, a Glock pistol and 51 rounds of ammunition. But you’ve got something that can destroy me: a pen and a notepad.”
If you’re avoiding doing something—making the phone call, knocking on the door, visiting a part of your community you’ve never been to before —remember this about human nature. People love to talk about themselves. To share their opinions. They appreciate the attention.
Assertiveness reflects a belief in yourself. You have the right to ask questions, to approach someone for an interview, to request information, to write that short story or begin your long-delayed novel or script. Of course, bear in mind that people have the right to say no, but don’t let that deter you. Just try someone else.
After all, as a savvy editor once said, journalism is all about one thing: Gulp. And go.
Acknowledge that you’re anxious and then go do it. When I’m really paranoid, I make a point of writing in my journal whatever my fear is, what I expect would happen, and then report back the outcome. Invariably, the feared result failed to materialize. On those rare occasions when it did, I found that I handled it or accepted the outcome.
Whatever it is that scares you, go ahead and be afraid, but do it anyway.
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)
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…”)
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?
• 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?
• 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.”
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?
A TV ad for kayak.com features an unscrupulous doctor manipulating a patient’s exposed brain, turning him into a puppet who flails away at a keyboard, hunting and pecking for online travel deals. It’s funny to some, offensive to others, but it illustrates a larger point that is important for writers. The brain influences the way readers respond to words, for better or worse.
A growing body of research reveals that different parts of the brain respond to language in unique ways. Neuroscientists learned this by observing brain scans as subjects read. Writers can take advantage of these findings to connect with readers in deep, intimate and lasting ways. And you don’t have to be a brain scientist to do it, just apply the same kind of techniques that writing teachers have been preaching for years.
The science of “this is your brain,” “this is your brain on stories,” is relatively straightforward. It starts with a geography lesson, based on the principle that the map of the brain locates multiple areas that control the way we move, see, hear, taste, smell, touch and remember.
It’s long been understood that the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain that separates humans from all other species, interprets language through the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, which center on how the brain processes written words. But their powers are limited: they enable us to understand words, but nothing more.
That’s why traditional news articles with their passive verb forms, collective nouns (“officials said”) and clichés have so little impact on readers. Flabby prose turns off readers because it doesn’t turn on the brain. Neuroscience shows how carefully chosen words and the tools of storytelling activate parts of the brain other than those that process language to make reading a deep, resonant and lasting experience.
She describes how researchers at Emory University discovered that the phrase “he had leathery hands” aroused the sensory cortex that activated the sense of touch. Spanish researchers found that words like “cinnamon” and “soap” triggered a response from the olfactory cortex which processes smells.
A French team learned that action verbs, such as “Pablo kicked the ball,” fired up the motor cortex, which governs how the body moves. Not only that, but verbs that involved different parts of the body, such as the arm or leg, activated the parts of the brain that controls those specific limbs. Evocative language also reaches into the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory, and plays an important role in the way the mind turns language into meaningful experience, a goal for all writers.
Based on these findings, we can take advantage of this three-pound organ with its 86 billion nerve cells to enrich our writing. Here are five ways:
Create scenes. The combination of characters in action, dialogue and evocative settings lies at the heart of what novelist John Gardner called “the vivid continuous dream” that captivates readers.
Dig for details, the more specific the better. If you want to get a reader’s mind to visualize what they’re reading, a “cherry-red ’67 Mustang convertible” does a much better job than “a car.” “The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose,” Tom Wolfe wrote in “The New Journalism.” “It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”
Choose vivid action verbs. “Michaela grabbed her umbrella and dashed into the rain” triggers the motor cortex. Strong verbs are not just words on the page. They represent action in the reader’s mind.
Avoid passive verb forms. “The body was found” is not only a flabby word choice that robs the verb of energy and fails to ignite the brain. It usually signifies weak reporting. “A seven-year-old newsboy found the body” heightens the senses.
Cultivate a “a nose for story.” Consider the power of the scented details in this sentence by Anne Hull of The Washington Post: “Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon.” The brain’s olfactory bulb not only lets us smell. It also triggers memories in the hippocampus. “Hit a tripwire of smell,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” “and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”
Neuroscience offers profound lessons on the power of story. You can use this knowledge to bring stories alive in readers’ minds. For writers and readers, the brain is a terrible thing to waste.
Two decades in journalism taught me how to type. Not always accurately, but quickly.
It’s a skill that comes in handy, especially when I’m having trouble writing. I can type so fast that I can easily outrace my inner critic that tells me what I’m writing is crap.
But the other day I decided to make a change in my writing habits after I learned that many modern writers, among them Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Elin Hilderbrand and James Patterson, prefer to draft their work in longhand.
The list is long, the writers an admirable lot.
“I do write by hand a lot, especially first drafts and plotting.” J.K. Rowling.
“I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter.” Robert A. Caro.
A friend of mine who’s a film director turned me on to the Blackwing 602. What I like is that it sharpens to a really fine point, and it’s got a great feel to it that I just can’t describe. It’s like when you taste a really good wine or a cognac: You know it’s good stuff.” Andre Dubus III
“I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that.” Susan Sontag.
“Lined index cards and a Blackwing pencil, for copying and recopying, rubbing out and writing anew, the scenes I had imagined in the morning.” Vladimir Nabakov
“I write in longhand. I like to see it come back beautifully arranged in type and then hack it up and begin again.” John le Carré
“A pencil is magic; there is the feeling that anything can be fixed, just look at the eraser right there at the top, ready to undue whatever might need to be whisked away.” Michele Filgate
I’m nowhere near their league, but I decided to give it a try. Not just as a novelty after years of digital composition, but because I also discovered that science shows that pen in hand can be good for the brain.
“There is a new body of science showing handwriting is good for us when it comes to learning,” according to Gwendolyn Bounds of The Wall Street Journal.
“Some physicians even believe it can even help aging Baby Boomers improve their minds and keep them sharp.”
That’s because sequential finger movements activate large areas of the brain linked to thinking, language and working memory, MRI imagery showed.
Definitely a plus for this Boomer.
My analog experiment started with a ballpoint pen and a blank notebook page.
At first, the going was slow. It took 38 words to warm up before the short story I’ve been working on grabbed my pen’s attention. I wrote another 115 words, much faster than if I was banging away on my keyboard.
And that’s the point, longhand aficionados believe.
“It made me slow down because it takes a long time” said Stephen King who wrote his novel “Dreamcatcher” in longhand, discussing his approach in a Paris Review interview.
“I’ve still got a little bit of that scholar’s bump on my finger from doing all that longhand,” King said. “But it made the rewriting process a lot more felicitous. It seemed to me that my first draft was more polished, just because it wasn’t possible to go so fast. You can only drive your hand along at a certain speed. It felt like the difference between, say, rolling along in a powered scooter and actually hiking the countryside.
I didn’t do it long enough to produce a scholar’s bump on my finger, but another physical problem soon surfaced: writer’s cramp or dystonia, the scientific term for involuntary muscular contractions. commonly known as writer’s cramp. (Musicians and golfers call them the “yips.”).
I took a break and the mild symptoms faded.
I found the going easier when I put my pen down and switched to a sharp number two pencil. My pace was faster than with the pen, but I was more careful with my word choice.
My penmanship improved and deleting my mistakes required nothing more than a few swipes of the eraser. Cramping aside, the advantages of longhand began to pile up, as those who chose longhand writing have observed.
“I don’t have to wait for my pen to boot up. I can write in any coffee shop, airport, plane, bus terminal, bus, beach and park, and never worry about recharging or power outlets, Michael Cahlin recounted in The Writer,
Besides the tactile pleasure of writing by hand, I noticed another salutary benefit.
Focusing on every word, I avoid one of my biggest time wasters: surfing the Web as a method of procrastination.
With my notebook open and my laptop closed, I felt no urge to turn to Google or news sites.
Analog shuts out digital distractions.
“You never get distracted trying to send a tweet from a notebook,” novelist Joe Hill said. “A notebook never pings you with an email.”
I found I also agreed with the British writer Niven Govinden who prefers a pen to pencil and enjoys the “greater sense of space.
“But most importantly, I write in a more economical way. I think harder about one good sentence following another, which for me is all that matters.”
Even so, after my brief experiment going Old School, I find it hard to believe that someone could draft an entire novel, or in Caro’s case, 1,000-page biographies, with a pencil.
But maybe there’s something more to learn about the practice of writing longhand. I’ll just have to sharpen my pencil and give it another try. I had to remind myself that, over nearly five decades as a professional writer, how, even on a tight deadline, often turning to a blank page and pen pushed me past a lead stuck in neutral and helped me break the block for narrative passages that were going nowhere. Recharged I could return to my computer.
And now I know what I want for my birthday: a box of Blackwing 602s.
Get out one of your stories and start counting. Not all the words, just the ones between quotation marks.
Chances are you’ll get quite a mouthful.
We all know the importance of avoiding run-on sentences in our copy, but too often our standards drop when those twin apostrophes enter the picture, and we end up with quotes that run off at the mouth.
Here’s a quick and easy way to avoid journalistic logorrhea, one inspired by the current national obsession with calorie and carb-counting: Put your quotes on a diet.
The value of quote reduction became evident when I asked bureau reporters at a metro daily to add up the quotes in their stories. Many quotes weighed in at 30-40 words with some tipping the scale at 40-50 and even higher.
On closer examination, it became clear that reporters were all too often using quotes as filler, bulking up a journalistic meal with the empty calories of verbiage.
By comparison, a story by Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters who were traveling to visit each other, quoted six people, but each utterance illustrates what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.” (I’ve touched on his work previously but this is an extended look.) Notice how Gettleman can use brief quotes and even sentence fragments by blending them with exposition or action, either on the front or back end.
“What are the odds of this? One in a million? One in a billion?” asked Wentworth’s husband, Brian, as he took a long, sad drag on his cigarette. 14 words
“Sometimes, it makes the hair stick up on the back of your neck,” said Bo Hall, whose mother was killed. 13 words
“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”
In 1982, Hall was driving with her son, Bo, when they skidded off a bridge and into a creek. Bo, then 12 but thick for his age, bent the door open and sat his mother on top of the car. “So she wouldn’t drown,” he recalled.
“After that, we just don’t know what happened,” said Chuck Martin, the deputy county coroner. “Did they see each other and wave? Did one lose control?”
Wentworth was the family joker. She liked to tell people about the time she was baking biscuits and asked her first husband to go get some cigarettes. “He came back 11 years later,” said her sister Billie Walker. “That was the thing about Sheila. She’d make you laugh.”
“God, there will be times when we want to go hunting together and shopping together, but we can’t,” said the pastor, Steve Johnson. “There will be times we just want to sit and chat, but now, God, we can’t.”
As the service closed, relatives walked slowly back to their pickups.
“Y’all be careful now,” the pastor said.
Bingeing on quotes is an easy trap to fall in when the people — especially when the source is a politician, school board official, a lawyer, or any of those professional types — talk as if they were billing by the word.
But a 45-60 word quote explaining a sewer bond proposal that seems like an easy solution for the writer can choke a reader. (The quote diet is a timely discipline now during campaign season when the temptation is to let politicians and their mouthpieces go on ad infinitum.)
Obviously, there are times when it’s important we get the news directly from the source’s mouth. No paraphrase would have the impact of President Bill Clinton’s declaration “I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”
Getting quotes is one thing. Using them effectively is another. Many reporters use quotations as a crutch. They forget that they, not their sources, are writing the story.
By all means, fill your stories with voices, but just as you’d steer clear of a windbag at a party, spare your readers those bloated quotes that deaden a piece of writing.
Here are some strategies for the quote diet:
1. Take ten percent off the top. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase.
2. Raise your quote bar. It’s the writer’s job to make meaning with the materials collected during the reporting. You decide which quotes convey the information and which are better paraphrased. Quotations, as Kevin Maney of USA Today put it, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.
3. Punctuate with quotes: Use quotes to amplify, to drive home a point at the end of a paragraph. A tight quote that completes a nut graf buttresses the theme of your story, as in this trend story about pre-teen dieting.
4. Watch out for the echo effect. Notice how many stories contain quotes that echo what you’ve already written: The mayor said he’s pleased with the election results, noting that his victory demonstrates his popularity with the voters. “I’m pleased with the results,” said Mayor Foghorn. “It proves my popularity with the voters.”
Echo quotes often mean the writer isn’t giving readers enough credit. Readers don’t need a paraphrase and a quote to understand. One or the other will suffice.
5. Listen. Keep your quotes lean by always reading your story aloud as you make final revisions. Reserve quotation marks for words that reveal character, advance the narrative or drive home a controversial point. Use a blend of quotation and paraphrase. Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; It’s dictation.
6. Follow the one-breath rule. If a quote takes more than one breath to read, it’s probably too long. If you’ve got a good quote that takes more than one breath, insert attribution between the two parts. It will make comprehension easier for the reader.
7. Harness the power of the paraphrase. A teacher once told me that unless a source can say it better than you, paraphrase what they say. You’re the writer after all. A well-constructed paraphrase summing up a quote accurately and punctuated with a brief quote can add a powerful punch to your story.
A great is like a butterfly snatched from the air. It’s quick and flashy. Shoot from between 6 and 20 words to keep the reader interested.
What makes a quote too long has less to do with the number of words and more to do with the content, rhythm, and purpose of the passage. The point is not to go on the quote diet for the sake of it, but to produce stories where every word counts, including those spoken by others.
In the early 1800s, an English writer named Charles Caleb Colton published a book of aphorisms, including one still popular today: “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.” (Added later, “form” rounds out the way we know it today.)
But for those of us trying to become better writers, imitation is more than flattery; it’s a powerful and time-honored way to master the craft. “Numerous writers — Somerset Maugham and Joan Didion come to mind — recall copying long passages verbatim from favorite writers, learning with every line,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
Over the years, I’ve learned important lessons by copying out lines, passages, even entire stories by other writers whose work I admire and would like to emulate.
Typing Wall Street Journal features taught me the anatomy of a nut graf, that section of context high up in a story that tells readers what a story is about and why they should read it.
Copying word for word short stories by Larry Woiwode and Alice Adams and passages from novelists Richard Price and Stewart O’Nan taught me a variety of lessons — the evocative power of olfactory details, for instance — about the art of fiction that writers in any form can profit by using.
But a freelance magazine writing experience more than a decade ago made me a believer in a practice I’ve come to call “modeling lessons.”
It was a dream assignment. The Washington Post Magazine asked me to write a profile of the first Vietnamese graduate of West Point. Tam Minh Pham was a young man who marched with the long gray line of cadets in 1974, returning home just in time for the fall of his country and six years of imprisonment. But his American roommate never forgot him and 20 years later marshaled his classmates to cut through bureaucratic red tape and bring their buddy to America for a new life.
It didn’t take much reporting for me to decide that this was a powerful story.
But when I asked my editor about length, I was disappointed when he said to keep it to about 2,000 words because the piece had been slotted as a second feature.
I protested — it was a great cover story, full of drama and detail — but the top editor’s mind apparently was made up.
Fine, I said, but asked for back copies of the magazine and downloaded several others from a database. Back at my desk, I studied several cover pieces, but it wasn’t until I began actually copying them out that I began to understand the magazine’s formula.
As a newspaper reporter, I routinely kept my leads to a single paragraph that if not brief enough would be trimmed by a copy editor less enamored of my words than I.
But as I typed out the Post magazine leads by its cover stars (Peter Perl, Madeleine Blais, David Finkel, Walt Harrington), it was clear the rules were different.
Their leads were several grafs long, narrative scenes that consumed 500-600 words and featured a vivid main character in action in a specific place and time, the classic storytelling structure.
Typically, the nut graf that followed the Post‘s “you are there” close-up openings was, in cinematic terms, a wide-shot. Evelynne Kramer, former editor of The Boston Globe Magazine called it “opening the aperture,” a passage that gave the reader the context and background to satisfy the curiosity piqued by the lead. If the lead showed the story, the nut graf told it. But unlike my 50-75 word newspaper nut grafs, the magazine version was more expansive.
After I’d typed about a half-dozen openings of Post magazine cover stories, I figured I had the formula sussed and was ready to try my own.
In my first interview with Pham, he’d recounted an experience one night in prison that seemed to have all the ingredients of a powerful opening. Bolstered by further reporting and emulating what I’d studied, I crafted a vivid 663-word, eight paragraph lead.
Now I needed to move the camera back and give the reader a firmer grasp on what they were reading and why. I loosened my newspaper writing reins and wrote I wrote another 500 words, the longest nut graf of my life.
I reined myself in after that, trying to keep to the 2,000 word limit, and turned it in. A couple of days later, my editor called:
You need to make it longer.
Because it’s going to be the cover piece. (You can read the entire story here.)
The lesson I learned was this: you can discover your own voice by listening to other writers, and one of the best ways to listen is by copying out their words.
This practice horrifies some respected writers and teachers; write your own damn stories, they say. But if we were visual artists, would anyone look askance at visiting a museum to try and copy the paintings to see how accomplished artists used color and shadow and contrast?
I’m not talking about plagiarism. Rather, modeling is copying stories to gain a more intimate understanding of the variety of decisions that writers make to organize material, select language, and shape sentences.
But now’s a good time for my one caveat about modeling lessons: I always copy the byline at the top of the story just in case I get deluded and confuse my copying with someone else’s writing.
Properly credited, I start copying.
When something strikes me, I’ll start to record my observations:
Wow, notice how that long sentence is followed by a short, three-word one, stopping me in my tracks to pay attention. Varying sentence length is a good way to affect pace.
See how Carol McCabe’s leads follow a pattern? (“Cold rain spattered on the sand outside the gray house where Worthe Sutherland and his wife Channie P. Sutherland live.” “The Bicentennial tourists flowed through Paul Revere’s Mall.” “Three trailer trucks growled impatiently as a frail black buggy turned onto Route 340.”) Subject-Verb-Object. Concrete nouns, vivid active verbs. I’ve got to try that.
I believe every writer, including broadcast and online writers, can profit equally from copying successful stories in their medium. They’d do well to study how the other writing elements — audio, video, interactivity — figure in.
Whomever you model, and however you do it, the point is to pay attention to what the writer is doing and what effect it has on you, the reader. Most of all, writing is about impact, and writers need to learn how to make one, using all the tools at their disposal.
“Do not fear imitation,” says Stephen Koch. “Nobody sensible pursues an imitative style as a long-term goal, but all accomplished writers know that the notion of pure originality is a childish fantasy. Up to a point, imitation is the path to discovery and essential to growth.”
In the end, you must use your own words to become the writer you want to be, but I’ve profited from learning how other writers used theirs. And I hope you can, too.
Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook or turn on a recording device. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.
Interviewing lies at the heart of journalism. It is the critical path to building an information base that produces a fair, complete and accurate story. Yet too few journalists have ever received education or training in this critical skill. For most reporters, the only way to learn is on the job, mostly through painful trial and error.
How do you walk up to strangers and ask them questions? How do you get people — tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed — to give you useful answers? How do you use quotes effectively in your stories?
Step One: Get smart.
If you want to flop as an interviewer, fail to prepare. All too often, journalists start an interview armed only with a handful of questions scribbled in their notebooks. Take time, however short, to bone up on your subject or the topic you’ll be discussing. When former New York Times reporter Mirta Ojito interviewed experts, “I try to know almost as much as they do about their subject, so it seems we are ‘chatting,’ ” she said. A. J. Liebling, a legendary writer for The New Yorker, landed an interview with notoriously tight-lipped jockey Willie Shoemaker. He opened with a single question: Why do you ride with one stirrup higher than the other? Impressed by Liebling’s knowledge, Shoemaker opened up.
Step Two: Craft your questions.
The best questions are open-ended. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” These are conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that deliver an abundance of information.
Closed-ended questions are more limited but they have an important purpose. Ask them when you need a direct answer: Did you embezzle the city’s pension fund? Are you a member of the Proud Boys? Closed-ended questions put people on the record.
The worst are conversation stoppers, such as double-barreled (even tripled-barreled) questions. “Why did the campus police use pepper spray on student protesters? Did you give the order?” Double-barreled questions give the subject a choice that allows them to avoid the question they want to ignore and choose the less difficult one.
Craft questions in advance to ensure you ask ones that start conversations rather than halt them in their tracks. Stick to the script, and always ask one question at a time. Don’t be afraid to edit yourself. More than once, I’ve stopped myself in the middle of a double-barreled question and said, “That’s a terrible question. Let me put it another way.”
Step Three: Listen up.
The 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” focuses on two Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon White House. At one point, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, is on the phone with a Nixon fundraiser. Woodward asks how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and you see Woodward ask it and then remain silent for several agonizing moments until the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out incriminating information.
The moral: Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow. “Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis of The Washington Post.
Step Four: Empathize.
A long-held stereotype about reporters is that they don’t care about people, they just care about getting stories. If you can show sources that you have empathy — some understanding of their plight —- they’re more likely to open up to you. “Interviewing is the modest immediate science of gaining trust, then gaining information,” John Brady wrote in “The Craft of Interviewing.”
“I am a human first,” said Carolyn Mungo, vice president and station manager at WFAA-TV in Dallas. “People have to see that journalists are not just a body behind a microphone. Even if you have five minutes, don’t rush, let them know you care.”
Step Five: Look around.
Good interviewers do more than listen.
“I always try to see people at home,” said Rhode Island freelancer Carol McCabe, who filled her newspaper and magazine feature stories with rich detail gathered during interviews. “I can learn something from where the TV is, whether the set of encyclopedias or bowling trophies is prominently displayed, whether the guy hugs his wife or touches his kids, what clothes he or she wears at home, what’s on the refrigerator door,” McCabe said. Weave these kinds of details for a richer story.
“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”
Just 11 words in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims.
Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; it’s dictation. Put your bloated quotes on a diet. Quotations, as USAToday’s Kevin Maney once said, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.
Listen for dialogue, those exchanges between people that illuminate character, drive action, and propel readers forward.
Step Seven: Establish ground rules.
You’ve just finished a great interview — with a cop, a neighbor, a lawyer — and suddenly the source says, “Oh, but that’s all off the record.”
That’s the time to point out that there’s no such thing as retroactive off the record. Make sure the person you’re interviewing knows the score right away.
When a source wants to go off the record, stop and ask, “What do you mean?” Often a source doesn’t know, especially if this is their first interview. Bill Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes exposing police abuses at The Philadelphia Inquirer, would read off the record comments back to his source. Often, he found that many sources changed their minds once they’d heard what they were to be quoted as saying.
Step Eight: Be a lab rat.
Record your interviews. Transcribe the questions as well as the answers. Do you ask more conversation stoppers than starters? Do you step on your subject’s words just as they’re beginning to open up? Do you sound like a caring, interested human being, or a badgering prosecutor? To be the best interviewer you can be, study yourself and let your failures and victories lead you to rich conversations and richer stories.
I failed. I should have gotten it right the first time.
I have no clue how to revise my story.
I don’t have time to revise.
Yippee! I’ve got another chance to make my story shine.
Too many writers would pick 1, 2 or 3 from that list. Many writers equate revision with failure. “If I were more talented,” they think.” I wouldn’t need to revise.”
“My editor’s a sadistic hack” they complain when a story has been sent back for revising. “He wouldn’t know a good story if it hit him in the face.”
Revision has negative connotations because many writers don’t know how to tackle that part of the writing process. It’s a shame because revision is the most important step. All writing is, or should be, revision. “It is at the center of the artist’s life,” Donald M. Murray writes in “The Craft of Revision,” “because through revising we learn what we know, what we know that we didn’t know we knew, what we didn’t know.”
When it comes to writing success, it’s the winning choice. Number 4 is the best choice. Successful writers recognize that revision is not failure, but another attempt to make their story better.
For many writers, the problem is number 2 on the list. They don’t know how to revise. They know their story isn’t working, but don’t see a way out.
I know. I’ve been there and so have many of my students.
“I’m at the point in the process where I feel I have utterly failed,” one wrote me.. “(Not only that, I am a talentless hack and a fraud, etc. etc.). I can’t see what is wrong with the draft or how to fix it. Please send help.
I know how you feel, I wrote back, because I’ve been there, more times than I’d like to count, and will probably be in that place many times in the future — in the despairing trough of near-completion
I was able to offer her a solution, one I developed to help me move from draft to revision. It’s an 8-step revision strategy that I came up with as a way to push back the negative feelings I had about my draft.
I know it will sound mechanical and it is — deliberately so. At this point, writers are burned out, stressed. Their confidence has ebbed. I know this state of mind very well, and have learned that resorting to a mechanical process distracts me from my despair and forces my brain to come to my aid. It’s time to ditch the Muse and bring out the toolbox: a printer and a pen.
More than anything, revision demands distance. There are two types: temporal and physical. The first is time. When the novelist John Fowles finished a draft, he would put in his desk drawer, sometimes for months. (Try selling that to your editor!)
The other, more realistic approach, is the printout, a physical product separate from the screen where pixelated prose tends to look perfect.
To go the distance on a piece of writing, you need to separate yourself from it enough to see it with the eyes of a reader — a stranger to the text instead of the creator. In fact, you need to stop being the writer for a while and assume the role of reader.
Here’s the way that works for me.
1. Hit the print button. The first step in achieving distance is to change the medium. We see words on a page differently than those on my computer screen. A cognitive scientist could probably tell me why, but the fact remains. I find it easier to detect flaws and possible fixes on a printout than when I am staring at the electrons in front of me. Open the draft and hit print.
2. Listenup “The ear is a wonderful editor — and usually a much sharper, smarter and livelier editor than the eye,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s Writing Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
Read your story aloud, slowly, or, (my preference), ask someone to read it to you. During the reading, sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut; this means you can’t write on the draft or comment or respond, just listen.
Koch paints an unforgettable scene in the life of Charles Dickens. His daughter Mamie “was once granted the unique privilege of spending several days reading and resting on a sofa in her father’s very closed-door study while he worked.” Normally, nobody watched Dickens at work, but Mamie had been sick, “was her daddy’s darling,” and promised to keep still.
As a grown woman, Mamie recalled her father, oblivious to her presence,
begin “talking rapidly in a low voice.” Even away from his desk, he
would “whisper the emerging cadences aloud,” Koch says.
“Take it from the greatest,” Koch advises. “You will hear what’s right and wrong on your page before you see it.”
3. Mark up. Read the draft a second time aloud, or silently to yourself, but now every time something strikes you — a criticism, a question, a change — make a check mark at that point in the manuscript. Nothing more. You’re just recording a response to something in your story. It may be something you like, something that confuses you, something you’d change or delete, or move.
By now, your draft is getting messy, but that’s not a bad thing.
The sepia image, below, is a manuscript page written by Honoré_de_Balzac, the prolific 19th-century novelist who helped pioneer literary realism, the precursor of today’ narrative journalism.
Never satisfied with his work, he was still making changes even after he sent them to the printer, which was an expensive proposition. One of his stories reportedly underwent seventeen proofs. It may look like a chicken has had its claws dipped in black ink and sent skittering across that page, but as an inveterate reviser, I find the sight comforting.
4. Countdown. Draw a circle next to every mark you’ve made. Number them. In the right margin, you’ll see an example of the method for a magazine story I was revising.
5. Remind yourself. Beside each number, write down why you flagged that word or passage. You will remember why you made the mark. For example, you might jot down, “cut this,” “check this with source,” “move this up,” “spelling,” “lead” or “kicker?” If the change is easy—deleting a word, correcting spelling, make it. Use arrows or slash marks to guide you.
6. Count up. Number the changes. Guesstimate how long each will take you to deal with each of them and write the number next to it. Five seconds. A minute. A half-hour of reporting. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m trying to make a game of it. Anything to keep me moving past the feelings of dread and despair a draft can inspire.
7. Get moving. Place your marked-up draft by your screen. Open up the file and start revising. After every change, hit save (always hit save unless you use Google Docs and it does the job for you). Keep moving. Delete. Add. Cut and paste. X out each circle when you’re done. If you get bogged down on one, just skip over it and move on to the next. Move quickly. You don’t want to lose momentum. You may not be able to solve every problem in this revision. But you may the next time around, or, as I’ve found, the problem has been solved..
8. Rinse and repeat. Once you have gone through the entire list, hit print again. Repeat until you are satisfied, or you have to give up this story to your editor. While this method is especially helpful for long term stories, there’s no reason you can’t do it on a daily deadline. While this method is especially helpful for long term stories, there’s no reason you can’t do it on a daily deadline, especially when you leave time for revision instead of wasting precious minutes trying to craft the “perfect” lead. On very tight deadlines, I’ve managed to hit print once, read the story over for problems and make changes in 15-20 minutes You don’t have time not to.
This print, markup and revise method works because it helps furnish the psychic distance needed to address the problem you and many other writers face: I can’t see what is wrong with the draft or how to fix it.
Sometimes we can spot a problem in our writing without immediately knowing the solution. Some problems we may not be able to identify beyond a vague sense that “it’s just not working.” But we owe it to our stories to find out why. We must diagnose first if we have any hope of coming up with a good fix for the problem. And then fix it.
I speak from experience. For many years, I would thrash around, bemoaning my inability to figure out why my story sucked and my powerlessness in coming up with ways to make it better. An experience several years ago with a short story changed my attitude. After producing multiple drafts, I still wasn’t satisfied but didn’t have a clue what was wrong or how to make it better.
I decided to give it one more read, marking up the manuscript whenever anything occurred to me as I read. I didn’t need to do anything more than make a checkmark or circle a sentence because when I read it again I remembered what it was that bothered me. (It was confusing, or repetitive, unclear, stilted, unnecessary) and in most cases I knew what to do about it; (rewrite it, move it, remove it).
When I was done and tallied up the marks I was horrified to see I’d come up
with 113 things I thought needed to be fixed. And this for a 11-page story that
had already undergone serious revision! (In fact, my wife and another writer
friend had already told me to cut it out, stop obsessing, and send it
I decided to look at it as an exercise in revision: how long would it take me to make the changes. Okay, so it’s a head game, but at least it’s one I’m playing by myself.
It took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to make the changes. I read the new version aloud and when I got to the end I realized it was still not right. But now I saw, for the very first time, that the story actually ended three paragraphs earlier. I trimmed from the bottom, in the process ending with an exchange of dialogue that captured — and climaxed — the story in a way I’d never seen before. It was later published.
Every story can be a writing workshop, one that teaches us more about the craft. The lesson I learned is that even the most creative activity involves a certain amount of routine, even tedium. The woodworker spends hours hand-sanding a piece of furniture before applying the varnish that makes it gleam like a mirror. It may be tedious, but it’s a vital part of the process.
“Traveler there is no path,” the Spanish poet Antonio Machado says in an unforgettable line. “Paths are made by walking.”
In “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” Stephen King describes a rejection slip he received in 1966 when he was still in high school.
“Not bad but puffy,” the editor wrote. “You need to revise for length.”
The editor provided this formula:
“2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10 %”
It may sound mechanical, but it’s a useful way to trim the fat off your story.
“I wish I could remember who wrote that note…” King writes. “Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly after. There was no sudden golden flood of magazine sales, but the number of personal notes on the rejection slips went up fast. What the Formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”
The Oregonian’s multi-award winning narrative writer Tom Hallman is a charter member of what I think of as the Ten Percent Solution Society.
“I really believe in being spare,” Hallman says.
“On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than 10 or 15 percent of the story,” he says. “So if it’s a 100-inch story, I always cut out 10 or 15 inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.”
As Stephen Koch advises in “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, “If your story is 10 pages long, make it nine pages long. 20 Pages? Make it 18. If your draft is 300 pages long, knock it down to 270. Do you have a bunch of pages— any bunch of pages— that needs work? They have not been worked on until they have been washed and pre-shrunk in the 10-Percent Solution.”
Passive verb constructions. “The mayor is planning” becomes “The mayor plans,” adding energy, saving a word.
Modifiers. Search for “ly” to identify weak adverbs. Replace them with verbs that communicate with power and economy. “She knocked lightly” becomes “She tapped.”
Quotes. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase. You’re the writer: Unless your sources can say it better than you, silence them and put it in your own carefully crafted words.
Boredom. Heed Elmore Leonard’s dictum: Cut out the boring parts. Replace bloated description with dialogue. Do you really need that long anecdotal lead or would the nut graf that follows do the job just as well? If your eyes glaze over as you read your draft, be ruthless. Slice and dice.
Showing Off. “Cut phoniness,” Koch says. “There are going to be certain passages that you put in simply in the hope of impressing people… We all have our way of showing off, and they rarely serve us well. When you have identified your own grandiosity, do not be kind.” Georges Simenon, the prolific French mystery writer, made it his mission to cut away “his efforts to impress..” His main job when he rewrote was to… cut every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentences…Cut it.”
Follow Stephen King’s lead and join the Ten Per Cent Solution Society by keeping the formula close at hand as you revise.
Lose a few words but gain many more readers.
Or better yet. Whittle away as close as you can to the formula or beyond for maximum impact.
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,