Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A hard and beautiful read

This story is so good on so many levels ... and it may be the most difficult thing you will have read in quite some time.

But do read it.

It's Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post writing about what happens after a parent forgets a child in the back seat of a car, and the child dies. This story will hit you hard. Many times.

From a writing/editing standpoint, when you start to break down some of the parts of the story that make it as effective as it is, there are a few things (at least) that I'm paying attention to. First and foremost, the breadth and depth of the reporting; he couldn't have written this story without a towering reporting job. Beyond that:

  • Start with the 'readout.' I don't know if this was Weingarten's focusing statement, or if a copy editor wrote it after reading the story, but it captures precisely what the piece is about: Forgetting a child in the back seat of a hot, parked car is a horrifying, inexcusable mistake. But is it a crime?
  • Weingarten parcels out some of the horrific details throughout the piece. For one, no reader could take that kind of stuff graf after graf. But by using details when they matter, he never lets you forget how horrible it is when this happens. And you have to carry that with you to truly understand the story.
  • Little things. Example: At the top of page 2 (of the online version) he explains what happens when a parent forgets a child in the car. And how often it happens, and roughly during what time of year. And then: "The season is almost upon us." Wow. Subtle and full of power at the same time.
  • Big (almost invisible) things. Watch how he characterizes Lyn Balfour (she comes in late in the story ... and actually, also pay attention to how he gets to her in the story). He shows you her character by description, but he also tells you something important about her. And then, as he continues to tell her story, he describes her in ways that may make you think differently about her, about the person he first described. In a chat about the story, he said he was trying to do that. It worked for me.
These are just a few things. Let me know if you see more about this story that you like, or can learn from, or whatever.