Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Plotkin's words and pictures

Shout-out to Jason Plotkin for not only the photos but the story he put together on Dan Nied, director of the York Time Institute, for today's Living cover.

He wrote probably a 10-inch story, the first five grafs of which are a conflict/resolution anecdote -- and the anecdotal lead works because it represents the core of the story. Nice work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another thing about that Chris Jones story ...

I've since read other stuff by him, some of it good, but nothing nearly to the level of 'The Things That Carried Him.' And I would bet there is a lot of work in Jones' background that is decent or good but not great.

So I think anyone who dreams about reporting/writing/editing/photographing a truly great story should not be discouraged when they read something like Jones' story or Gene Weingarten's in the Washington Post on children who suffocate when their parents accidentally leave them in the car. There's a thread on Gangrey.com where people are discussing why a story like Weingarten's makes them feel inadequate; i.e., I'll never be able to write that, so why bother?

To which I'd say:

It may be true; you may never be as good as Weingarten or Jones, never good enough to pull off that kind of a story.

But I guarantee you that all of the stories that Weingarten and Jones did before they reported and wrote those stories prepared them to report and write those stories. (Not to mention all of the life experience). Neither went to sleep one night as idiots and awoke the next morning as terrific observers, interviewers, fact-finders and writers.

Every time we report and write, or edit, or shoot, we're creating something, and trying to make it as good as it can be. But we're also preparing ourselves for the next story. We're learning something we can take with us down the road and put to work on a story we don't even know exists yet.

That's why you bother -- because it's how you get better. That's how you prepare yourself to do something great.

It's OK to be in awe of Jones and Weingarten after you read their stories. Just turn that awe into a tool, and use it to focus on what you can bring to, and take from, your next story.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stop to listen

Calling attention to good stories from 'This American Life' is a little like shooting fish in a barrel.

Or, is that shooting fish into a barrel, as was offered at our dinnertime conversation last night. Or is shooting fish in a barrel really that easy, my older son said last night, because of the light refraction and the fish is moving around and stuff. You can see how weird things can get around our table.

Anyway, the point is, you could click on any archive of TAL and be rewarded. But I just listend to this and got a kick out of it, so thought I'd pass it on: Go to This American Life's archives, and click on 'Wrong Side of History.'

Ira Glass is talking to a guy about something that has been covered to the nth degree in national media, but he does a slow reveal here, and it made me smile. And then the rest of the piece kept offering humorous little moments. It's just good storytelling.

You couldn't tell it this way, exactly, on paper. But think about how you could do it -- the interviewing you'd have to do, how you'd describe the way the people in the story talk, how you'd use dialogue and when you'd narrate to bridge the gaps and give people information they needed to understand what was happening.

Was I just talking about short narrative? Hmmm.....

Well, I just wrote something about short narrative, so to balance things out ...

Gangrey.com posted that this story is a finalist in some magazine award contest. I or someone else may have written about it before, but if you haven't read it, it's worth the read. (UPDATE: It was someone else. Thanks, Jeff.) It's about the trip home of a soldier who died in combat. And it's very, very long.

It's incredibly ambitious -- from the practically minute-by-minute, scene-by-scene reporting to the reverse chronological structure of the story. But Chris Jones, the writer, obviously was able to pull it off.

If you read it, try to use what's in the story to deconstruct the things he did, from concept to reporting to focusing to organizing to writing to revising. As a bonus, the Esquire page has a link to an interview with Jones about the story (warning -- right now I can't get the Esquire site to do anything but load the first page of the story).

Anyway, the thing I try to do with stories like these is not figure out how I could write (or help you write) that story. I try to learn from the things Chris Jones did in order to apply them to the next story I'm working on, and the one after that, and the one after that ... so that I'm essentially developing a greater ability to do the things that make a story good. That, I think, helps me get ready for when the really great story comes along.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A quick way to better interviewing

Wanted to let everyone know that we're working on firming up the schedule for Jacqui Banaszynski's video workshops, and Amy and I are planning our own baggers to complement Jacqui's and take us through most or all aspects of the reporting/writing/editing process during the year. Stay tuned ...

Meanwhile, I was going through the notes I took at Poynter's Newspaper Writing & Editing seminar in 1997, and came across this from Jacqui, who was talking about some functional things to do to make stories better.

She referred to the "Banaszynski beer rule": Take your story idea to someone other than your assigning editor. Ask them, if you could have a beer with the person I'm writing about and could ask them anything, what would you want to know?

A small but good thing to remember as you're interviewing & reporting.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Up for challenging yourself?

Harvard U.'s Constance Hale writes an intro to a couple of stories on the Nieman Narrative Digest that carries the headline, 'Narrative is not a synonym for long.'

I love that.

We've been talking about short narratives since we started focusing on narrative in '07, and several of you have written some (check the left rail for the story about the missing scarf, the guy caught on the York Fair fence, the hero dog who died ... there are lots).

No question, we can (and will) do narratives that are short, long and in-between. None is easy. But don't be intimidated into thinking that if you want to do a narrative, you're going to have to take months to do it. Be open to finding the right story, and it will appear.

Then you can be challenged about how hard it is to do short narrative well ... but after all, the challenge is the fun part.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Art & narrative

This Boston Globe piece is neat for a couple reasons -- it's a "how" narrative about the creation of something that's a big part of its community; and the thing it's about is an art museum ... not necessarily the most-written-about subject.

We've done stories here about how projects came to be, and the hurdles they faced, how those hurdles were overcome, etc. This story is a good example of that kind of approach, and a nice read.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Present tense, or past?

Writers often like present tense when they write about something they've witnessed; present tense makes the scene feel more fresh, more there somehow. But past tense is powerful, too, and to me, present tense has to clear some hurdles before it gets in the paper.

If I come across present tense in a story I'm editing, I'll ask at least a few questions about it -- why use present tense? What are you accomplishing? Can you sustain present tense all the way through the story?

That last one is key. If the writer's answer is no, I usually advise the story be written all in past tense.

However ...

I've edited two stories in the past couple weeks, both of which opened with a scene in present tense. One was Melissa's story on Eric Sajko, and the other was Jeff's on Sean Brame. I thought past tense worked better in Melissa's, and she changed the present-tense scene to past. I thought the present-tense scene worked in Jeff's, and it's in the paper.

I remember talking with Melissa and saying, if you wanted to do the opening in present-tense, I think you'd have to set it off as its own part of the story, to put us in that scene as a way of making a point or showing us something important about the story; then make a clear break to a new and different part of the story. You couldn't write in present tense for several grafs and then suddenly shift to past in the middle of the story. It just doesn't work.

In Jeff's story, the opening scene is set off; it shows us something important about the story and it does so by allowing us to be in the scene as it unfolds. And there is a significant break in scene/topic when you move into the second section.

Bottom line is, I'm comfortable that both stories were well-served by decisions on verb tenses. Both are very good; both have descriptive scenes with good action verbs and bright observations rendered in fresh language by the writers. They were both a pleasure to read, let alone edit.

Read the openings to both stories, and let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dialogue that does a lot of work

Here's a quick heads-up on effective use of dialogue. Check out this passage from Jeff's story on the couple who wants to live a self-sustaining life:


They passed a farmhouse on the left, with a few acres of visible land. Fred imagines that one day, he’ll build a hobby farm on land like that.

"I really want to get a goat," Fred said. "Eggs from the chicks and milk from the goat. That would be awesome."

"Babe," Towanda said, "you don't even drink milk."

"I'd drink it if it came from a goat," Fred said.

Then it was past an Amish house, with clothes stretched out on a line between the house and a side building. They just paid to have a dryer fixed.

"Look at those clothes out on the line," Fred said. "I could have gotten a clothesline or drying rack and it would have been free."

"Babe," Towanda said, "we're not hanging up our clothes outside."

"I didn't even think of that," Fred replied. "It could have been free --"


"Basically free."

As Fred laughed, Towanda's eyes made the trip around the car again.


The dialogue does several things: It reveals some things about Fred and Towanda's relationship, which is important to the story; it gives you information about their goals that is essential to the story; and it's funny, which should make most readers like Fred and Towanda, at least on some level ... and that's important to a story, too.

That passage, written another way, could have been a series of paragraphs describing things: Fred said he wanted this and that; Towanda reminded him that he didn't drink milk; Fred said he wants clotheslines but Towanda said no; and maybe there would have one line between quote marks.

When you deconstruct it like that, it's easy to see how much more engaging that dialogue is.

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.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Take a fresh look at Nieman narrative web site

Nieman Narrative Digest just unveiled its redesigned Web site. It's as good a reason as any to check out the site. The folks at Nieman post good narrative stories, do Q&As with the authors, and explore the craft in other ways.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

More on Jacqui

You'll be hearing more about Jacqui Banaszynski in the weeks to come, leading up to the videoconference seminars she'll do for our newsroom.

But a couple quick things:

-Her bio is on the left rail of this blog.

-She has her own tag, also on the left rail. Click on it to see blog entries relating to her. The one titled "Inspiration" will give you a pretty good idea of the kind of passion you're in for later this year.

-She won a Pulitzer in feature writing in 1988 for "Aids in the Heartland." Here it is.

Bright writing, part 1

Check out Nickie Dobo's story on the Christian-school headmaster who died.

On a tight deadline, she wrote the first seven grafs as a narrative that really pulled me through. We've since talked about how the entire story could have been written as a narrative, and talked about her doing that as an exercise to be ready for the next time a narrative possibility arises.

What she did with today's story, though, reads well and reminds us that narrative can work in daily stories just as well as in longer pieces.

Bright writing, part 2

Take a look at Wade Malcolm's story in today's Living section for a couple reasons:

One, note how the sentence length and rhythm gives you the sense of the physical action that's taking place. The splitting up of 'Again and again' into three lines goes for the same effect.

Two, note the verbs -- flipped, twirled, juggled, spun, snapped. Lots of strong verbs that make the action vivid.

And, as a bonus, the words above, around and over -- which aren't necessarily the most active words -- are stronger because of the way the piece is constructed. They almost change into verbs because of the action they convey.