Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reminder: Jacqui/Aug. 5/4:30

Just a quick reminder to those who check in here that Jacqui Banaszynski's next videconference with us is 4:30 p.m. next Wednesday, Aug. 5.

In response to what some of you have asked for, she plans to talk about structuring stories on deadline, quick focusing devices, etc.

I'll post more as I know it.

Meanwhile, if you can be thinking of questions to bring in to the session, that would help. It's neat that we can do the videoconference thing, but by its nature it doesn't encourage the type of interaction you'd normally get face-to-face. So if some of us can come ready to engage in discussion, I know that will help Jacqui, who loves nothing more than to go back-and-forth with people and finds it tougher to do on videoconferences.

Monday, July 27, 2009

For the love of revising ... circa 1776

Thomas Jefferson labored over a declaration of independence in July 1776, then brought it before a Congressional committee, which tweaked the language -- including, for example, changing "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

Then Jefferson and the committee brought it to the full Congress, where
"change after change was called for and approximately a quarter of what he had written was cut entirely," writes David McCullough in "John Adams."

Jefferson was not comfortable, McCullough wrote, but nobody recorded that he protested (out loud, anyway).

They took out some big stuff -- Jefferson had assigned the blame for slavery to King George, and he had written that Americans must forever break their relationship with the British people, whom he held partially responsible for the King's actions. And they made some minor changes -- instead of the King inflicting "unremitting" injuries on the colonies, the document would say he inflicted "repeated" injuries.

At one point, McCullough writes, Ben Franklin "leaned over to tell [Jefferson] a story ... that he had once known a hatter who wished to have a sign made saying, 'John Thompson, Hatter, Makes and Sells Hats for Ready Money,' this to be accompanied by a picture of a hat. But the man had chosen first to ask the opinion of friends, with the result that one word after another was removed as superfluous or redundant, until at last the sign was reduced to Thompson's name and the picture of the hat."

In the end, though, as McCullough points out, the "eloquent lines of the second paragraph" -- which were, "when all was said and done, [Jefferson's] lines" -- survived and still glow today:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

I think the revising stage of a great piece of writing -- the stage where you really get down to examining sentences and words and such -- can be the most fun and the most rewarding part of writing (if also among the hardest, particularly, perhaps, for the writer). I think there are a few of you out there who would second that thought.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Making use of minor characters

At the end of Laura Blumenfeld's story in this week's Washington Post mag taking readers through Secret Service training, there's a note:

"Although a few subjects asked not to be identified, in most cases the Magazine chose to omit the names of minor subjects to make it easier for readers to follow the story."

This is a long story, a couple thousand words. Blumenfeld follows three trainees -- Krista, the 4-foot-11 former social worker, Dan, the new father, and Scott, the Iraq veteran who lost three fingers in combat. She also introduces us to their teachers, who have protected past presidents.

The trainees we don't spend much time with are only identified by their background: The Home Depot manager, a sky diver, the Tulsa cop.

I think it worked. Had the Tulsa cop been David Johnson, I probably would have forgotten who he was until I saw "the Tulsa cop" offset by commas. For a story with so much going on, I think it was cleaner. I think it makes better use of the characters. Of course, some would argue you're keeping something from the reader.

It's a damn good story. Give it a read, and let's hear what you think of the device.

How do you create a great narrative?

Jan Winburn, a great, great narrative editor who worked with Ken Fuson at the Baltimore Sun and later worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, won an award from the Dart Society, a group of journalists that work toward sensitive coverage of victims of violence. The awared recognizes exceptional work by an editor.

According to the Dart Society's Web site, some of the people she's worked with -- including Lisa Pollak, who won a Pulitzer for feature writing while at the Sun -- nominated her, saying in part:

“We learned from Jan about the indelible link between reporting and writing: that successful narratives are not just the stuff of pretty writing (as some editors believe). Instead the power lies in intensive yet delicate reporting that yields intimate anecdotes and details that allow Jan’s reporters to write with authority from another person’s view."

That's about as strong a definition of what goes into making great narrative as you'll find, I think.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A plug (of sorts) for bad writing

This is either gratuitously mean and arrogant, or pretty funny/possibly educational, or maybe a little of both. But apparently it's a regular feature of Mediaite, the site created by former MSNBC reporter/anchor Dan Abrams. It's interesting, if nothing else.

Worst News Ledes | Online | Mediaite

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You know you're an editor when...

Lets have some fun here folks. Join in.

You know you're an editor when:

-- You edit the handouts your child's teacher sends home from school.

-- You follow AP style no matter what you're writing.

Can we come up with ones for reporter?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Good warnings

I like this post from John McIntyre, former chief of the Baltimore Sun's copy desk, for a couple of reasons:

One, it's good for a couple of chuckles.

And two, it's always good to be reminded of the writing minefields that sometimes are only a step or two away. Knowing what territory to avoid can sometimes be just as helpful as knowing where you want to go.

You can see it coming

This story wants to set off your radar. How does Lane DeGregory do it? What does she give you, and what does she hold back? How does she set you up for what is to come?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Staffers win AASFE awards

Congratulations to Sue Haller, Mike Argento and Jen Vogelsong, winners in this year's American Association of Sunday and Features Editors' Excellence-in-Feature-Writing Contest. Writers and copy editors from across the country compete in this national competition.

Sue won third place in headline writing. The submission:
1. Tradition kneaded: Jewish faithful re-connect with heritage with sweet bread (Oct. 1)
2. Indiana Clones: Latest 'Indiana Jones' attracts new generation of fans (May 23)
3. Cater tots: Kids learn their way around kitchen (Nov. 19)

Mike won first place in general commentary. The submission:
1. Myers' story shows us how far we've come (Nov. 14, Living page)
2. Cancer victim camps out at county prison (Oct. 24, Living page)
3. Sweepstakes hobbyist wins artistic immortality (Sept. 26, Living page)

Jen won honorable mention for Three sisters (Feb. 24). This was the fire girls story.

Congrats to our winners! Great work gang.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Congrats, AASFE winners

From a Buffy e-mail: "hey gang, just got the winner of aasfe national contest. this is a major contest and very difficult to place in. we had three winners this year: Sue won third in the headline category (this is a first for YDR that I'm aware of), jen won honorable mention in narrative writing category and mike won first in column category. i have attached the complete list.

and for those of you who didn't know, melissa burke placed second in the religion news association's national Cassel's competition. this is the second consecutive year she has won this coveted award.

congratulations to everyone."

And from me: That would be the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. I second Buffy's congratulations, and recommend that you check out the winning entries here. Jen won for "Three sisters, five angels," about the aftermath of a fire in which several members of a family were killed.

I need help from Buffy or Mike about which Argento columns were entered. And from Buffy or Sue about which of Sue's headline(s) was/were entered. I'll post them here as soon as I can.

Fan of narrative

In a reckless ramble through social networking sites*, I saw a tweet roll by in my Twitterfall that said, 'Become a fan of The Narrative.'

OK, I like narrative. I'm in.

Clicked the link. It's a Facebook page for an indie band in New York called, 'The Narrative.'

OK, what the hell. I like narrative, so I'll 'friend' The Narrative. (Bio: We like music.)

One day, these impetuous decisions to reach out to people I don't know will make me sorry, I'm sure. But for now, I skate.

If you're reading this, and have a tab up for your Facebook page, and really, literally have nothing else to do, but are looking for a reason to go on Facebook and lose a little more time from your day, click here and become a fan of The Narrative, capital N.

*Productivity disclaimer: This post created in the 2 minutes between posting an online story and going to grab dinner.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It's great to be edited (and I mean, I'M being edited)

If I've ever worked with you on a story through revision after revision, and you were like, 'Dang, I thought I was done!,' I just want you to know that right now, I'm in your shoes.

I've been working with my wife on what would be a picture book for young grade-school kids about a matter of great import: What would happen if the Tooth Fairy ever met the Easter Bunny while they were making their rounds.* (This is fiction. I have not been staking out little kids' houses the night before Easter to do research.)

Both Betsy, my wife, and Buffy have been my editors on this. I wrote it a while back and sent it to them for a read. I figured I was done. Great sense of accomplishment; I'd taken an idea and actually created a beginning-to-end conflict/resolution story that, by God, wasn't half bad.

And then Betsy and Buffy weighed in. And I revised it. And they suggested things. And I revised. And so on ... and this morning I finished probably the 10th revision of the story. (And it still needs work.)

It is now so different, and so much better, than it was the first time I put it down, I can hardly imagine why I thought I was done. But that, I realized, is what a writer/editor relationship is all about -- the writer creates and the editor helps see around the corners the writer can't see around when he/she is writing.

It's a great learning experience for me to be on the other side of that equation. In the last edit, for example, Buffy even flagged me on using 'ing' verbs instead of 'ed' verbs ... which is something I am attuned to as an editor but something I missed in my own work as a writer.

Betsy, who used to be an early childhood teacher and can tune in to the frequencies used by little kids, has helped me with the tone of the story -- that is, making it more silly. Once during revisions, I had to think long and hard about the weighty issue of what, exactly, a rabbitt would exclaim upon bashing into a fairy; and what a fairy would say at the same moment.

I know all this work will make me a better writer; I'm hoping it makes me a better editor too.

*You're welcome to read it if you want.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Using your senses

We've talked a lot about sensory writing giving life and detail to your stories. I came across this song, by Jesse Winchester, that I thought was cool because it's written to be nothing but a sensory story about what you'd experience walking down a road or across a field in rural Mississippi. Just shows how evocative this kind of writing can be. Check it out:

Mississippi you're on my mind

I think I see a wagon rutted road
With the weeds growing tall between the tracks,
And along one side runs a rusty barbed wire fence
And beyond that sits an old tar paper shack.


Mississippi, you're on my mind,
Mississippi, you're on my mind,
Oh, oh, Mississippi you're on my mind.

I think I hear a noisy old John Deere
In a field specked with dirty cotton lint
And below the field runs a little shady creek,
and there you'll find the cool green leaves of mint.


I think I smell the honeysuckle vine,
The heavy sweetness like to make me sick.
And the dogs, my God, they're hungry all the time
And the snakes are sleeping where the weeds are thick.


I think I feel an angry oven heat,
The southern sun just blazes in the sky.
And in the dusty weeds, an old fat grasshopper jumps.
I wanna make it to that creek before I fry.