Do no harm: Four Questions with Jan Winburn

Interviews
Jan Winburn

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

First, do no harm. What I mean by that is with every story I read as an editor, I want to first find something to like. Even the novice writer, or the experienced one struggling through a bad patch, will produce at least one thing that sings — a riveting passage, revealing description or unforgettable snatch of dialogue. I want to begin our conversation by talking about that high point in the writing (or reporting) before sharing more critical thoughts. It breaks the ice, and it also says, this is what works, I want more of that. I’m not talking about being disingenuous. I’m talking about trying to call upon my most generous self. That often creates in the writer an openness to hearing more, even if it’s critical.

What has been the most important surprise of your editing life?

That I would get to live vicariously through my writers, that they would let me into their processes so completely and willingly share their adventures. I am grateful for the amazing journeys they have taken me on.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?

What I aspire to be is a magician whose contribution to the storytelling is invisible to the reader and regarded by the writer as a welcome act of wizardry.

What’s the best piece of editing advice anyone gave you?

Lary Bloom, who I worked for at Northeast Magazine at the Hartford Courant, once said to me: “Don’t be the editor of the greatest unpublished work.” What that meant was take a risk to like something, to champion it and polish it and then publish it. You’ll never face criticism for the manuscripts you turn down; no one will see them. As an editor, you have to open yourself to scrutiny for what you choose to publish, and then stand behind it. That’s your job! 

(Lary, by the way, was the legendary one-time editor of Tropic Magazine at the Miami Herald before founding Northeast in the heyday of Sunday newspaper magazines.)

Jan Winburn is a fan of artful storytelling, kickass reporting and the powerful melding of the two. She spent more than four decades working in newsrooms as a narrative editor, writing coach and investigative editor and now teaches in the University of Georgia’s MFA program in Narrative Nonfiction. She edited Lisa Pollak’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, and the Dart Society recognized Winburn’s career work with its 2009 Mimi Award  given to editors “who encourage journalistic excellence.” Her writers have won many of the top prizes in journalism, including a Peabody Award, a Murrow, The Livingston Award for Young Journalists, the Ernie Pyle Award, the Al Neuharth Award for investigative journalism, the John Jay College Award for criminal justice reporting, the Wilbur Award for religion coverage, and the Batten Medal for public service. She led reporting teams at CNN, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. She is the author/editor of “Shop Talk and War Stories: Journalists Examine Their Profession” and co-editor of two e-books,“Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism 2013” and 2014.

Where Stories Are: Four Questions with Tom Hallman Jr.

Interviews
Tom Hallman

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Read. Everything. Constantly. If you don’t read, you can’t be a writer. Want to be a musician? Then you have to listen to music. I often ask writers what they are reading. They tell me what TV shows and movies they watch, but struggle to come up with anything they are currently reading.
Books, magazine pieces, short stories and news stories need to be part of a writer’s ongoing curriculum. 
Working on a moody crime story?
How would Elmore Leonard handle it?
Trying to tell a historical story?
Look at what William Manchester did with Winston Churchill.
Want to grab a reader?
Get Harlen Coben, Stephen King or Lee Child. 
Learn from others.
If you work at a newspaper, get out of the office. Stories don’t exist there, but out in the world. Stay in the office and you will be re-writing press releases or covering news events that every TV station has already covered.
Want originality? Get out there where people are living.



What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The ability to continue to grow and learn. I feel like am always in grad school, learning how to be a better interviewer, better storyteller. I like the process of storytelling. There is no finish line. I want to get better with each story.
I remember my first big story in my career. I thought I’ll never get a story that good again. I was wrong. I just had to go find it.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer what would it be?

A cat.
I’ve been around Hells Angels, surgeons, cops, kids, teachers, loggers, drug dealers, gang members, nuns. I’ve watched a baby die. I never act like I am better than anyone else. I never judge anyone. I act the same around people whether that is a CEO or a janitor.
Most days my lunch hour consists of me walking around downtown Portland. I’m curious, like a cat. 
I overhear conversations. I wander into places. I talk with strangers – usually people who rarely get noticed.
A few months ago, I was walking to work early in the morning when I saw this man reading a book in his truck. I stopped and asked him what he was reading.
He held up a book: The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941.
This was a scruffy looking guy, the last person you would ever imagine reading that book.
I asked him why.
He said he loves to learn by reading books about all subjects. He was on a break, which means he was working while the rest of us were sleeping. He told me his job is cleaning the city’s public toilets.
No higher education.
Yet every morning he reads in his truck, his classroom.
That’s how you find stories.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

The tip came from Jack Hart, my editor on some of my best work: Read a story out loud. Such a great way to hear the flaws in a story.
My tip is this: When I have something long, be it for the paper, or a book or a piece magazine piece, I always make a hard copy. I edit that. I always end up cutting about 20 percent from what I thought was a completed story.


Tom Hallman Jr. a senior writer for The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, including the Pulitzer Prize, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. A common thread in all of Hallman’s stories is the exploration of the character’s heart and soul. 
He is a frequent contributor to Readers Digest. He is the author of four books. His book, “Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask,” was published in 2002. He writes a column on writing for Quill Magazine. Hallman has been a speaker at National Writer’s Workshops and at papers across the United States. He has taught at USC, Notre Dame and Brown University.




May the writing go well.


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Mastering the Other Side of the Story: Four Questions with Bill Marimow

Interviews
Bill Marimow/Elizabeth Robertson, The Philadelphia Inquirer

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

On stories about a controversy or a subject of sensitivity, do whatever is required to master the other side of the story. This is especially critical in investigative stories. Not only is it the right thing to do, journalistically, but it also will prove very valuable if you’re ever sued for libel. It would be very difficult for a plaintiff in a defamation case to prove that a reporter has written a story “with a reckless disregard of the truth” if the writer has done everything possible to master and communicate the other side of the story. Equally important, once a writer has secured both sides of the story, it will lead to writing with more nuance and authority. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

Writing about how civil service exams for aspiring police commanders were compromised, I received dozens of phone calls from officers who had taken the sergeants, lieutenants and captains tests, explaining in detail what I had missed and pointing out specific test takers whose results were highly suspicious. The callers offered dozens of leads and thanked me for exposing what appeared to be a pattern of preferential — and illegal —  treatment for some officers. These stories were published just a few years after my colleague Jonathan Neumann and I had written a series about criminal violence by the Philadelphia police, and we were considered “public enemies” by the mayor Frank L. Rizzo, a former Philadelphia police commissioner. A typical call from one of the police tipsters began this way: “Marimow, I never thought I’d be calling a newspaper. Especially not The Inquirer. And especially not you. But, pal, you’re telling it like it is, and the Police Department wants to thank you.” Before ending the call, the tipster would often supply the names of specific officers who had failed the civil service tests in the past and were suddenly ranked in the top handful of more than 5000 cops who had taken the sergeants test.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?

A Haverford Township sanitation engineer, a job that I had one summer in college for $1.80 an hour: Like an editor, I took pride in my work; I got to know my colleagues and the people who lived on my route. I’ve always tried to focus on the fulfillment of a job well done — whether making a difference through our stories or hauling trash on the streets of Havertown. In the case of my summer job, the fulfillment came in knowing that the trash was off the streets until the following week; I was getting into excellent physical condition, and I learned that everyone — especially my full-time colleagues on the sanitation crew — had great life stories to tell.

What’s the single best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

I think the best advice I ever got about writing was from Gene Roberts, who used to say that every good story should be brimming with “color, quotes and anecdotes.” As I recall, one of Gene’s first editors at the Goldsboro (NC) News-Argus was blind, and he demanded that Gene’s stories make him see. And as with all Gene Roberts’ kernels of wisdom, he delivered it in his inimitable North Carolinian drawl.

Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, has led three news organizations — The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun as editor in chief and National Public Radio (NPR) as the vice president of news.    As a reporter at The Inquirer, Marimow received the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1978 for stories he wrote with a partner on criminal violence by Philadelphia police, and again in 1985, for his investigation of the Philadelphia police K-9 unit.  In addition, Marimow received two Silver Gavel Awards from the American Bar Association and two Robert F. Kennedy awards — the first, for his work as an Inquirer reporter and, the second, for his work as vice president of news at NPR.      He was editor in chief of The Inquirer from 2006 until spring 2017– with one year off teaching at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University. He is a 1969 graduate of Trinity College from which he received an honorary doctorate degree. Marimow studied First Amendment law at Harvard Law School as a Nieman Fellow.   After retiring from The Inquirer in January 2020, Marimow joined Brian Communications as a senior adviser to Brian Tierney, the former publisher of The Inquirer.

A benevolent machete: Four Questions with Maria Carrillo

Interviews
Maria Carrillo

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

Listen much more than you talk.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How many jobs are actually rolled into this one: teacher, coach, counselor, therapist.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?

I  really struggled with this, so I asked my three reporters.

Here’s what I got back.

One said:  “How ‘bout a benevolent machete, cutting away the stuff we don’t know we don’t need. And at least part therapist.”

Another: Mary Poppins: Fun, firm, kind, punctual, polite, collaborative, innovative … able to wrangle naughty children (and their parents) and make them want to please you … administering spoons full of sugar with each bitter dose of medicine … with all kinds of tricks in your bag

The third: My brain headed to plants for some reason. I feel like you nourish us to grow, making the conditions best so the most beautiful plants can flourish. You trim us exactly how we need it and give us darkness or sunlight depending on how we are doing. You fertilize us with a great writing road map, clearing away the overgrowth so we can stand straight up.  Reporters can grow awful healthy under those conditions.

What’s the single best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

A lot of things raced through my head thinking about this question, but I think the advice that has stayed with me the most wasn’t specifically about editing— in terms of handling copy — but about managing people and it came from Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maria Carrillo is senior deputy editor/enterprise at the Tampa Bay Times, where she oversees a team of reporters and works with journalists across the newsroom on ambitious stories. She was previously enterprise editor at the Houston Chronicle and, before that, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot. She has edited dozens of award-winnings projects, frequently lectures on narrative journalism, co-hosts a weekly podcast (WriteLane) about storytelling and has been a Pulitzer Prize juror five times. She was born in Washington, D.C., two years after her parents left Cuba in exile. She now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with her husband, and they have two grown children.

Riding a Ferris wheel: Four Questions with Tommy Tomlinson

Interviews
Tommy Tomlinson
Photo by Jeff Cravotta

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

It’s all about the reporting. We don’t write with words — we write with information. Every time I get stuck in writing a story, it’s because I don’t have the information I need and I’m trying to write around it. But fancy writing won’t patch the potholes. Make the extra call. Read the extra clip. When you’ve got the goods, the writing will be a whole lot easier.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How much people don’t stop and think about their own lives. I’ve written a bunch of stories where the subjects told me later that they learned things about themselves. What I’ve learned from that is that most of us spend most of our energy just getting through the day, and don’t step back to dwell on where we’re headed and why. I’ve realized that I’m not good at this, either.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I think of the job sometimes as riding a Ferris wheel. You’re in this constant loop of diving down low to the ground, then rising up to look from a higher vantage point. It’s the text and subtext — what’s happening in the story and What It All Means. I spend a lot of my time circling up and down, from text to subtext, trying to make sure the reader stays along for the ride.

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I don’t remember who gave me this advice — I suspect I learned it by osmosis from watching some very good reporters. But here’s the advice:
If you hang around people long enough, eventually they become themselves.
At first, everybody a reporter talks to is likely to put up a front — some people suck up, others are mean and try to run you off, still others are fearful about the whole process. It’s hard for your first interactions to be authentic. But not many people can put up a front forever. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see the real person.


Tommy Tomlinson is the author of the memoir “The Elephant In the Room “(Simon & Schuster), about life as an overweight man in a growing America.He is also the host of the podcast “SouthBound” in partnership with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station. He has written for publications including Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Garden & Gun, and many others. He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. His stories have been chosen twice for the “Best American Sports Writing” series (2012 and 2015) and he also appears in the anthology “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.” He has taught at Wake Forest University as well as at other colleges, workshops and conferences across the country. He’s a graduate of the University of Georgia and was a 2008-09 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.


Holding fire in your hands: Four Questions with Jon Franklin

Interviews
Jon Franklin

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer

That it’s all about psychology . . . Yours, the reader’s, the characters’.  As time passes, literature and psychology may well merge.  Modern psychology grew from literature, after all; people forget that.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

John Steinbeck once wrote that he’d held fire in his hands, and I figured it was his right to use any metaphor he damned well chose.  Then, ten years later, I did a series of things right and, holy damn, I held fire in MY hands.  I think it has to do with focusing a lot of human experience into a small number of words.  Under certain circumstances, the writer as well as the reader can experience a momentary transcendence.
The point is that the magic is there, but reaching it requires a lot of technical skill as well as the inspirational kind.  I had not really been expecting magic.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m a science person, in the end.  That is, I believe in rationality.  But my sciences are literature and psychology, both of which are close to my central interest, the human condition.  After all, journalism can and frequently does become art.
All this is to say my own work is very science-like, but the universe it explores is literary.  For example, I once used a computer program to pick out the overlapping rhythms of steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
But I think I like “naturalist”, to describe me and my work.  Writing is part of the real world, and as such is subject to observation and experiment.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

 My first editor, G. Vern Blasdell, said that if you find the heart of a character and you’ll have your story; find the story, and it’ll point to your character.  Sort of like yin and yang.  Each is the backside of the other.
Vern also introduced me to the idea that modern literature is mainly a reiteration of the stories the Greeks told.  Don’t look for a new story, you’ll fail.  Find an ancient one in new clothes — they are everywhere, and they never wear out.
And then, of course, the only way you learn to write is liberal application of ass to chair.  
Did you know about a condition known as writer’s ass?  If you sit on your tail bone too long, the tiny vessels in your coccyx become occluded and die.  The result hurts, aches, throbs, sometimes for decades and sometimes forever.  That’s why Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway, among others, wrote standing up.  I discovered that when I was diagnosed with it.  Talk about hurt!

Jon Franklin is a pioneer in creative nonfiction. His innovative work in the use of literary techniques in the nonfiction short story, novel, and explanatory essay won him the first Pulitzer prizes ever awarded in the categories of feature writing (1979) and explanatory journalism (1985) for his work at The Baltimore Sun. His books include: “The Molecules of The Mind,” “Writing for Story,” “Guinea Pig Doctors,” (with J. Sutherland) “Not Quite a Miracle, (with Alan Doelp) and ” Shocktrauma, (with Alan Doelp). He spent eight years (1959-1967) as a journalist in the U.S. Navy, and, finally, as a staff writer for All Hands Magazine. He taught at the University of Maryland College of Journalism from and was then professor and chairman of the Department of Journalism at Oregon State University and director of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon before joining the Raleigh (NC0 News and Observer as a narrative writer, special assignments editor and writing coach. In 2001, Franklin returned to the University of Maryland as the first Merrill Chair in Journalism. He retired as an Emeritus Professor in 2010.

The Stone Wall Builder: Four Questions with Anne Fadiman

Interviews
Anne Fadiman/Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

Anne Fadiman’s most recent book, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir, was an NPR and Library Journal Best Book of the Year, won the Readable Feast Award for Memoir & Food Writing, and was chosen as one of The Guardian‘s Top 10 Culinary Memoirs of all time. The former editor of The American Scholar, Fadiman is also the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction, and two essay collections, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

My friend the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, who died in January, visited my writing class almost every year since I started teaching it in 2005. In her own writing, she always embraced whatever subject lay at the center of her life, however difficult or unpleasant—mental illness, addiction, breast cancer, the discovery in her forties that her father wasn’t the man she’d been told was her father. And she always wrote in a voice that sounded exactly like her: funny, bitchy, contrarian, grumpy, warm, brazen. 

She told my students to be themselves, too.

One year, when the students around our seminar table introduced themselves to Elizabeth, one of them said he came from “a suburb of Chicago.” 

“What’s the name of it?” asked Elizabeth.

“Flossmoor.”

“You don’t come from a suburb of Chicago! You come from Flossmoor! Always say you come from Flossmoor! Be proud of it!”

As we become better writers, we may become deeper, more skilled, or better versions of ourselves on the page. But we should never try to become different selves. The moment we stop sounding like ourselves, we should remind ourselves that we come from Flossmoor, and we’re proud of it.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That anyone would want to read about me. 

I spent nearly twenty years as a reporter before I started writing personal essays. I’d always assumed that my own life—both exterior and interior—was too small to be of interest to anyone but myself, so I figured I’d gain some height by standing on the shoulders of people more interesting than I was. Hence, reporting. Then, at age 40, I was stuck in bed for eight months during a problem pregnancy. I started writing personal essays only because I could do them horizontally.

The essays were enormous fun, and some people actually wanted to read them. The baby turned out fine and is now a writer.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe you as a writer, what would it be?

A stone wall builder.

I tried writing fiction in college, but I was terrible. I’m a nonfiction writer through and through. I’m decent at recognizing which stones are beautiful, and how to fit them together, and in what sequence I should lay them in order to build something that won’t fall down. Those suckers are heavy! I’m willing to grunt and sweat as I pick them up. But if I tried for a million years, I could never make the stones themselves.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

My husband, George Howe Colt, who is also a writer, once said, “The difference between a good piece of writing and one that’s absolutely as good as you can make it is all the difference in the world.”

Insecurity travels with every keystroke: Four Questions with Jacqui Banaszynski

Interviews

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

There are no small stories. Every story is important to the people it’s about, and every story should respect the people it’s for.

An extension of that: Don’t confuse the size of the masthead, the circulation or the assignment with the value or quality of the work. People in a small community deserve the same level of journalistic care as those in the big-dog markets — and they probably need it more. And the only real limit to your aspirations is you.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing (or editing) life?

As a writer: Good writing comes from good reporting. Great writing comes from great reporting. This came as a happy surprise that revealed itself over years of struggle (late-night tears and insecurity that would have been debilitating if not for my belief in answers to No. 1 above and wiring for No. 3 below.) I have never been, and am still not, an easy or eager writer. Insecurity travels with every keystroke. But I’ve learned to let that be, and trust that if I have the right goods in my notebook, and am determined to communicate clearly and effectively with readers, I can find my way through the writing.

As an editor: No one wants me to be the editor I had always wanted or needed; they want me to be the editor they want or need — even if it’s not me. And nothing much good comes of pulling punches. (See reference to “brickbat” in No. 3 below.)

As a teacher: I can’t teach anyone anything. All I can do is put knowledge in their path, try to light the way and clear the rocks a bit, but then accept that they will — or won’t — pick up that knowledge when they need it to go forward.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer (or editor), what would it be?

I don’t trust that how I see myself is how others see or experience me. Isn’t that why we resist the one-interview profile? So I crowd-sourced this one. (It was a small crowd.) Responses ranged from Fairy Godmother to Story Whisperer to Story Doctor to Xena Story Warrior to Brickbat. For now, I’ll go with one that I hope is true:

ER doc. Which means (I hope) I am calm, focused and effective under pressure. I care about the patient — or why would I do this work? — but don’t fold in the face of blood or chaos, and don’t indulge in my emotions to the extent it gets in the way of the work that needs to be done — which is never about me. (The same person, who knows me well, says I could probably land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in rough seas. I think he said this knowing we would never have to test that theory. He also knows I love to fly, and have always wanted to be in the cockpit. Alas, both metaphors are challenged by the reality that while I’m OK with blood, I puke at the smell of puke. And I get seasick.)

A funny variation on the above: An editor-boss once told me that one of the reasons he valued me was because “You’ll do dishes.” The feminist in me bristled — but I knew him well enough to know it was meant as a compliment: He could count on me to do what needed to be done and not feel I was above the mundane work. That allowed me to push back a bit for a discussion on what higher-level work I could/should be doing, and how he could support it.

What’s the best piece of writing/editing advice anyone ever gave you?

Two things:

  1. Every story prepares you for the next story. So quit obsessing over the story someone else is doing, and give your best to the story in front of you. (Longer backstory here, but that’s a large part of how I did “AIDS in the Heartland,” the project that won a Pulitzer. I couldn’t have done that series 10, or even two, years before I did.
  2. Hit the send button. This wisdom came to me back in the early ’80s, when I was busting deadline as I obsessed over some basic civic story, probably from a planning commission meeting. So many planning commission meetings! The AME (Thank you, Steve Ronald.) stopped by and told me to put a period at the end of my next sentence, peel out the process BS, and hit SEND. The story was going inside the B section no matter how it was written. And it needed efficiency and clarity — not gothic prose.

The second answer above may seem to contradict the first. But it doesn’t. What I learned from this is to pay attention to the purpose of a story, and let that purpose guide the prose. An informational story needs to be just that: direct and utilitarian. It can open the door to follow-up enterprise pieces, but it shouldn’t ask the reader to wade through my writerly ego. And it shouldn’t ask the copy desk to wait through my angst.

This taught me not to fall in love with “creative” structures when the best thing for the reader is a quick list or Q&A or, yes, inverted pyramid. It also helped me get more efficient, and save time and creative juice for the stories that called for them.

That lesson has informed all my writing, editing and teaching — and reminded me of one of my mother’s many no-nonsense wisdoms: Don’t dress up a pig. Bacon is fine on its own. (If she were alive today, she would scoff at the trend of bacon bits in muffins and ice cream. She wouldn’t be wrong.)

After more than three decades in newspapers, Jacqui Banaszynski is now editor of Nieman Storyboard, a global website which celebrates and examines the art and craft of narrative journalism. She is an emerita professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute.

Her reporting career took her to all seven continents, including three trips to Antarctica. She has written about corruption and crime, beauty pageants and popes, AIDS and the Olympics, dogsled expeditions and refugee camps, labor strikes and political strife, traffic fatalities and family tragedies. While at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, her series “AIDS in the Heartland” won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.  She was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer in international reporting for coverage of the Ethiopian famine and won the nation’s top deadline sports reporting award for coverage of the 1988 Olympics.

Banaszynski has edited numerous award-winning projects, including on that won ASNE Best Writing, Ernie Pyle Human Interest Writing and national business and investigative prizes.  In 2008, she was named to the Association of Sunday and Features Editors Features Hall of Fame.  

Cultivating a Sense of Wonder: Four Questions with Stephen Buckley

Interviews
Stephen Buckley

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

It’s tempting to think that good writing just calls for us to stitch together the fine tips and techniques we find in newsletters like yours.  The tips and techniques are awesome, but they are no substitute for thinking deeply about a piece of writing. What’s the story about? What’s the theme? What’s the focus? What’s missing? Am I being intellectually honest? What am I really trying to say? Doesn’t matter whether it’s a piece of fiction, a column, or a longform newsfeature: The deeper the thinking, the more original and compelling the writing. This takes patience, which I don’t have much of these days. So I find that I have to be savagely intentional about not cutting intellectual corners. But, in the end, that’s the only way to find my way to clarity and meaning.


What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I’m going to cheat and give you two surprises:   One is that cynicism kills creativity. When I was younger, I equated cynicism (which I think of skepticism poisoned by hopelessness) with sophistication. But the best writers cultivate a sense of wonder that only grows with age. It’s not that they are Pollyannas. It’s just that they see the world at odd angles, are generous and openhearted, and are always asking impertinent questions. They’ve trained themselves to be surprised. And as a result, their work gleams with beautiful simplicity and insight.    The other is that writing doesn’t get any easier. After 30-plus years of writing professionally, I can’t get over how much I still have to learn. It’s like a marriage: attention must be paid. And I haven’t always paid attention to my writing. Growth is humbling—and more than a little painful sometimes. Which is why I’ve finally accepted that writers need community—virtually or in person, informal or formal. Because meaningful growth almost always occurs in community.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Gosh, this one is tough. None leaps to mind. If anything, I’d say I’m an owl. I always think of owls as being the best observers and listeners in the animal kingdom (I have no idea if that’s true), and I think that’s the writer’s first duty: to take in the world as it is and then transport readers to that world. As the late James J. Kilpatrick said in The Writer’s Art: “We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently….” He said that’s the only path to original, precise language and images. And I agree.

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I got a lot of good advice over the years, but two thoughts come to mind. The first was from Roy Peter Clark, who taught me that how we order words can enhance or dilute their impact. I think about this all the time, particularly given how impatient readers are today. Their attention always feels brittle, tenuous. And so, beyond insights and clarity, I feel like I can tug them along with language that’s precise and compelling—especially at the end of a sentence or paragraph. And I often think of something John McPhee says: Writing is selection. I find this oddly liberating, especially if I’m writing a long piece. McPhee’s advice frees me to just lay everything on the screen before I go back and slash away, and reorder, whole sections. Don’t get me wrong. Selection is hard. Sometimes really hard. But it’s also fun, even exhilarating, especially when it yields writing that’s both clean and muscular.

For most of the past decade, Stephen Buckley has taught journalism, communications, and leadership in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, the United States and Asia.  He began his career with The Washington Post, where he spent 12 years as a local reporter and international correspondent, based in Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro. He later worked at the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), where he was a national reporter, managing editor and digital publisher before turning to teaching. Stephen served as the Dean of Faculty at the Poynter Institute and has conducted workshops at numerous writing conferences.  Stephen won the International Reporting Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1999 for his coverage of Africa, and in 2002, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors named him the state’s best reporter.  He served as a Pulitzer Prizes juror four times. In  2015, he joined the faculty of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi where he served as an associate dean in charge of professional and executive programs. He is now a media consultant based in Nairobi.

A choice, not a gift: Four Questions with John Woodrow Cox

Interviews
John Woodrow Cox

What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

So much about the way I approach stories has changed since the start of my career, but one lesson I learned early on has remained constant: Nothing matters more than the reporting. The most meaningful words in any story are the ones journalists earn before they ever sit down at a keyboard. I sometimes wish that wasn’t true, because capturing a revelatory detail or scene never gets easier. In a way, though, I also find comfort in that reality. I’m not the most naturally gifted writer I know, but the best reporting days are, more than anything, a product of hard work, and working hard is a choice, not a gift.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

My obsession with structure. It’s inconceivable to me today, but there was once a time when I didn’t outline anything before I wrote it, and I’m sure readers could tell. Now, I start thinking about a story’s potential architecture well before I’m done reporting it.

I just finished the draft of my first book, and it felt like I spent as many weeks working on structure as I did on writing. A blueprint of openings and endings — for the whole book, the chapters within it, the sections within them — migrated from dozens of notecards, spread out across the floor, to two massive sheets of paper taped to the wall in my home office. The journalist I was in college could never have imagined that scene.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Get out of the way. In other words: don’t overwrite; let your reporting do the work; cut the superfluous, whether that’s the unnecessary turn of phrase or the repetitive detail. I don’t know who first gave me that advice — or, rather, order — but I’ve heard some version of it from many great editors through the years. It’s always true.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer. what would it be?

I don’t use many metaphors in my writing and am reluctant to apply one to myself now, but I guess I could go with woodworker? A good woodworker, from what I gather, invests in his raw material. He fixates on small details and cares about precision. He plans before he builds. And, in my case, he works for a wise forewoman who knows just what to do when he saws the leg off of a chair.

John Woodrow Cox is an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post, currently working on “Children Under Fire,” a book being published by HarperCollins imprint Ecco. It will expand on his I series about kids and gun violence, a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.

He has won Scripps Howard’s Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Storytelling, the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, Columbia Journalism School’s Meyer “Mike” Berger Award for human-interest reporting, the Education Writers Association’s Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting and the National Association of Black Journalist’s single story feature award. He has also been named a finalist for the Michael Kelly Award, the Online News Association’s Investigative Data Journalism award and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. In addition, his stories have been recognized by Mayborn’s Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest and the Society for Features Journalism, among others.

John previously worked at the Tampa Bay Times and at the Valley News in New Hampshire. He attended the University of Florida, earning a bachelor of science in journalism and a master of science in management. He has taught narrative writing at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications and currently serves on the Department of Journalism’s Advisory Council.