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.

Craft Lesson: Knocking on Doors

Craft Lessons

Let me begin with an epiphany. In 1973, I was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, studying for a master’s degree. One day in the middle of a lecture, my professor, Melvin Mencher, casually said, ”If you’re going to be a reporter, you have to be counterphobic,” and moved on. 

My hand shot up. “What does counterphobic mean?”

“You have to do,” he said, “what you fear.”

Mr. Mencher didn’t know it, but he had struck a nerve.

Before I went to grad school, my journalistic experience consisted of only a year on a very small newspaper in Connecticut, where I grew up. I had a big problem interviewing people, whether they were hostile police officers who wanted nothing to do with the media, or perfect strangers I had to talk to for a story whether it was at a Town Council meeting or for a feature. Knocking on doors was especially tough. Frankly, I was really scared. Scared of rejection, of doors slammed in my face, of angry shouts of, “Beat It!” Even physical violence. (I had an active imagination.)

After that day in class, doing what you fear became a sort of mantra for me that guided my career for the next two decades as a reporter and beyond as a writer, author, publisher, and writing coach. The fear—of harsh rejection and failure—has never gone away. Honestly, I had the jitters this morning hoping my visit with this class today wouldn’t suck. 

In 1994, I left the newsroom for the classroom to teach at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida. One of my responsibilities was running a six-week reporting and writing program for recent college graduates. I soon realized that many of my students were afraid of the same things I had been as a reporter. So, I assigned them to head out onto the streets and interview five strangers. They had to get their name, address, age, and a comment on a current story. I could see the fear in their eyes, but to their credit, they did what they were told. 

When they came back, I had them answer three questions, 1. What did they learn from the experience? 2. What surprised them about it? 3. What did they need to learn next? 

Their answers were terrific. Here’s a sample. “​​I was surprised the most by the fact that I was able to get over my fears of doing the actual reporting. No matter how the writing of the story turned out, 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.” That student, Steve Myers, went on to a sterling journalism career, leading investigations at  USA Today and a month ago, moving to ProPublica, the outstanding nonprofit investigative reporting group.

Many writers, working ones as well as students, experience the same fears, not only about interviewing strangers, but the entire writing process, from coming up with story ideas, pitching their editors, getting enough information, writing and revising the story, and being edited. 

But I noticed something different when I spent a year as a visiting professor at my alma mater, Columbia Journalism School, in 2009-10. More than a few of my reporting students were more comfortable surfing the Web for information, happier in front of a computer than going outside. To be a reporter. I told them, you have to talk with people, whether they’re experts or ordinary folks caught up in the news, whether it’s on the phone or the best route, in person. I love the internet, but it’s no substitute for coming face to face with a human being where they can look you in the eye and decide whether to open up. That’s the way you get great quotes and compelling details. 

“Basic reporting is not about looking things up on the Internet,’ says Carl Bernstein, who with his partner Bob Woodward at The Washington Post. helped drive President Richard M. Nixon from The White House in 1974 after uncovering his entanglement in the Watergate scandal.

 “What we need to be doing now is knocking on doors, getting out into the communities we cover,  persistence, perpetual engagement with the story, not taking no for answers,” he said in a recent podcast about his new memoir, “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom.” “Not going to easy places  like people in their offices where there are other people around and they’re liable to tell you a tale that isn’t true, but knocking on people’s door at  night like we did on Watergate.” (Learn more about their shoe-leather reporting methods in their book about reporting the Watergate story, “All the President’s Men,” later made into a classic movie.

When I would interview someone in their home, I always asked for a tour. No one ever objected. I got one when I was interviewing the widow of a man who smoked all his life and died of lung cancer as part of a series on tobacco injury litigation. She took me into her bedroom. I was scanning the room for a detail I could use. There was a small photo of him stuck into the mirror, but that wasn’t enough.  Suddenly Marie DeMilio said, “You know, at night, I sprinkle his aftershave on my pillow, just so I can feel close to him.” I had my ending and a moment I believe would never have happened if I wasn’t counterphobic and gone to her home. Certainly not something I could get on my computer. 

Journalism demands courage and that’s one of the aspects that makes it such an honorable profession. You can always tell safe stories, and there are safe stories all over the paper and all over the broadcasts. Think of a tightrope. Every day, walk across it. Who’s the one person you’re afraid to call? Where is the one place in town you’ve never been because you’re afraid to go there? It may be a poor neighborhood or the top floor of a bank. Ask yourself every day, “Have I taken a risk?”

Be honest: Are you spending too much time at your desk instead of being out in the community or the area covered by your beat? If you’re not on deadline, get out of the office right now.

People want to know how I cope with fear.

I take deep breaths, sucking in as much air as I can into my lungs, and slowly let it out. That relaxes me. I take a hot shower. I prepare, or over-prepare. I’ll record my fear in my journal and then make a point of check-in back, only to learn everything turned out okay. Some reporters drink chamomile tea to soothe their nerves

I remind myself that it’s always gone well before and of something my wife has told me for 40 years when I’ve been anxious. It’s going to be fine. She’s never been wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t face fear anymore.

Assertiveness reflects a belief in yourself and your role as a journalist in a democracy. You have the right to knock on doors, to ask questions, to approach someone for an interview, to request information. The flip side, of course, means that the person you’re asking has the right to say no. Assertiveness also demands empathy. You have to understand that you wield power as a journalist. Your press pass will get you places the general public can’t go. As a reporter, I’ve watched doctors try to impregnate a woman through in-vitro fertilization, sailed on a freighter, followed police on a drug bust and a seven-year-old blind boy through his day. 

What may surprise you 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, told my reporting students at Poynter:

“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.”

When writer’s block—again, fear of failure—surfaces, my counterphobia attacks it with freewriting, letting my fingers race across the keyboard, never stopping to correct spelling or punctuation or even gibberish. Soon, something magic emerges: a coherent thought, a story idea, or an insight that I can follow and revise until it makes sense and grows into a story. It never fails.

Whether it’s talking to strangers or facing a blank screen, don’t be afraid. Or, rather, be afraid, but do it anyway. 

(Adapted from a Jan. 13, 2022 talk to introduction to reporting and writing students at Duke University taught by Stephen Buckley.)

CRAFT LESSONS: Ten Favorites

Craft Lessons

More than two years ago, I began posting essays devoted to the craft of writing. To kick off 2022, I offer this tidy collection of craft lessons that I think best suit the needs of all writers, no matter the genre or length, or deadline. May your writing go well in the new year.

  1. Why I Write, and Why You Should, Too.
  2. Tune Out USuck FM and Free Yourself to Write.
  3. Do the Writing Only You Can Do.
  4. Eight Steps to Better Interviewing.
  5. Finding Any Story’s Heart with Five Questions and 70 seconds.
  6. Five Ways to Build Memorable Characters.
  7. Braiding Your Narrative to Tell a Complete Story.
  8. Writing with Your Nose
  9.  Best Writing Advice: A Roundup.
  10. Gulp. And Go.

Craft Lesson: Keeping a Writing Workshop’s Spirit Alive

Craft Lessons

Over the years, I’ve attended dozens of writing workshops. I’ve taught at some, while at others, I sat in the audience, scribbling furiously as craft tips tumbled from the lips of accomplished writers and editors.

I’d come home, pockets crammed with business cards, piles of handouts, scraps of paper with jotted emails and reading lists, a notebook bulging with quotes and a contact high from a day or weekend surrounded by inspirational talk about my craft.

Invariably, however, the excitement would wither and I’d forget the great lessons I learned. 

The other day, I came across a column I wrote for Poynter Online after a National Writer’s Workshop in Hartford in 2003. Until the early aughts, Poynter teamed up with newspapers around the country to stage these weekend-long gatherings that brought writers and speakers together to share crucial lessons about writing and editing. Reading over the piece, I realized that keeping track of a speaker’s central message could keep alive the spirit of those heady two days. Here are ten lessons that stuck:

1. Identify an ambition. For Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down” and other best-selling narrative nonfiction, the secret of success lies in his habit of thinking big and doing stories that scare him. Try his method and pick a story “you’re not sure you can do.”

2. Figure out what your editor wants. “Editors are looking for ways to say yes,” said Debra Dickerson, who told the story of her rise from sharecropper’s daughter to best-selling writer. One easy way: ask your editor what she wants from you.

3. Put a snatch of dialogue in your next story. “Dialogue makes you feel like you’re actually there,” said literary journalist Walt Harrington. Start listening — and writing down — what people say to each other, whether it’s two council members battling over a proposal or two kids talking about their favorite Harry Potter “Bertie Bott” jelly beans. You can do the same with physical description, a scene, or any of the other elements of storytelling.

4. Dig out your copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lynn Franklin advised writers to do what scientists do: “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Harper Lee’s classic tale of racism in a southern town is full of lessons about how to write about characters and place; John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” can teach you how to foreshadow and William Faulkner’s short story “The Barn Burning” is rich with lessons about symbolism, rhythm and pace.

5. Think like a storyteller. Ask the kinds of questions that Lisa Pollak, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer for the Baltimore Sun, poses to herself:

• Who in this story has something at stake?

• Who is most affected?

• Who is nobody paying attention to?

• What about this story moves me? (Pollak’s favorite)

6. Get in the game. More than one writer this past weekend asked “How do I break in … on a magazine, writing creative nonfiction, the job market, writing a risky personal story?” There’s only one way, and that’s to take the first step — submit a story or a pitch — and not be deterred when you get rejected. Rejection is part of the writing life, and may not have anything to do with your story; your piece may really not meet a publication’s needs at this time. One Hartford speaker, small press publisher and novelist Ira Wood, counseled against heeding criticisms in rejection letters: consider rewriting only if you see a definite trend in editors’ responses. So write that pitch, finish that story even if you worry no one else will care or pick a subject that interests you and start reporting.

7. Become a document freak. That’s what helped Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Kiernan, who teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, share the award for explanatory journalism with her colleagues while at the Chicago Tribune. Follow the paper trail–court records, police reports, transcripts–and then mine them for the details that are a storyteller’s gold.

8. Stop introducing the person with the camera as “my photographer.” R-E-S-P-E-C-T for your newsroom’s other craft disciplines, said Poynter’s visual journalism leader Kenny Irby, is the key to better collaboration and news storytelling.

9. Pick a perennial. Want to take a stab at the kind of riveting storytelling that Oregonian Pulitzer winner Tom Hallman Jr. talked about? Lower the risk by volunteering for one of those assignments journalists grudgingly have to write about every year (post-Thanksgiving shopping day, the day-after Christmas stampede to return presents, the circus comes to town, etc.) and use the occasion to try a narrative — a story that follows a store manager, or a bored husband, a circus first-timer. (Make sure you file a sidebar with the obligatory numbers, Chamber of Commerce quotes, etc.).

10. Before you write, ask The Washington Post’s David Von Drehle’s four focusing questions.

  • What’s the point?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Why is this story being told?
  • What does it say about life, the world, the times we live in?

Add one more: What is my story about in a single word? When you’re done, you’ll have a theme for your story and will likely have the first draft of a nut graf that sums it up for your reader.

The next time you have the good fortune to attend a writing workshop, take good notes. After the bloom fades, the lessons that captivated you but that you may have lost track of are there again for the picking.