Thursday, December 29, 2011

Stories vs. articles

I tweeted this last night, and a couple people (Kate Harmon and Chris Dunn) already responded, picking out favorite parts of an interview with Ben Montgomery of the St. Petersburg Times.

There's a lot of great stuff here and it'd be tough for me to pick a favorite line or whatever. But one thing that resonated with me was that early on in his career, he said, he "quickly came to understand that I wanted to do stories, not articles." And he set out to get to a place and a position in which he could do that, and did.

Almost all of us start out doing articles, or the equivalent of them in whatever job we have. If you really want to do stories instead of articles, it'll take a lot of hard work and a lot of feeling like you'll never have the time to do stories because you're doing articles, but don't stop trying. Stories are the thing.

Here's more on Ben.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Roy Peter Clark on writing complicated stories with clarity

Poynter's Roy Peter Clark guided us through a list of great tips on how to make a complicated story easy to read and understand during the last of NewsU's series of writing webinars this afternoon.

They're so good I'm going to list them all here (my notes from Clark's powerpoint). You can also see his webinar at (see me for access):

  • Use shorter words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs at the point of greatest complexity (from writing coach Donald Murray). You have to report well to do this effectively. But the point is: Guide people through the heavy stuff with your writing choices.
  • Slow the pace of information. Use periods to make the reader pause, at which point he/she can absorb information before moving on.
  • Translate jargon. Kind of self-explanatory. But basically, you don't need to use the same specialized language your source does in order to help your reader understand.
  • Lift numbers and technical info out of text and convey it in images (graphics, breakout boxes).
  • Engage readers in conversation. Blogs, social networks, etc. You'd like to get to the point where you know what language your readers are comfortable with.
  • Find a microcosm -- a small example that represents a larger reality. Clark gave the example of a New York Times reporter who told the story of 9/11 by focusing on one person, because the overall story was too big.
  • Introduce difficult concepts one at a time. I like this at the story level, but also at the sentence level. I think a lot of times we think we have to introduce several facts or concepts in one sentence, because they're related. But (see above) use the period and give readers a chance to absorb one piece of info, then the next, then the next.
  • Reward readers with high points. As Clark puts it, "gold coins" sprinkled throughout a story tell the reader, "Thanks for coming this far. Here's your reward. Keep going."
  • Keep boring parts short. Be selective. Use your best stuff. Self-edit and cut 10-20 percent of your text.
  • Assume responsibility for what readers learn. Can the reader ID the most important points of the story, pass that info on to another person, or pass a test on the main points?
  • Watch the separation of subjects and verbs. The further apart they are, the less understandable the sentence will be.
Terrific teaching, as usual, from Clark. Thoughts or elaboration on any of these points, anybody? 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

To anyone who has never understood why some people won't comment ...

...even when the story in question is harmless, and maybe even fun, I give you this blog post from This American Life, in which the writer details his and his producer's effort to get a police officer to talk about a turkey attack. On him. Well, maybe he didn't think it was funny. Anyway ... the story is funny. Take 15 minutes for it after reading the blog post.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wicker's Kennedy assassination story: Helped by dictation?

I believe I've read that Tom Wicker dictated this story, which would make sense, since it was 1963 and I don't think anyone in the field was using even the old Radio Shack "Trash 80s," on which you could see all of six lines of your story at a time.

Anyway, I wonder if that's why the piece is so unadorned and reads so much like he's talking to you. Of course, no one would dictate a story like this (or would want to) these days. But it's a great lesson on lean writing. As an exercise and to build writing muscle, try listening to yourself as you write, and try to go lean like this.

Kennedy Is Killed By Sniper As He Rides In Car In Dallas; Johnson Sworn In On Plane: |
Nov 1963

Tom Wicker was without a notebook on November 22, 1963. Instead, reported Gay Talese, he “scribbled his observations and facts across the back of a mimeographed itinerary of Kennedy’s two-day tour of Texas.”

Here’s the 3,700-word masterpiece he filed.

[full story]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Intersection: York + D.C. photojournalist

I was fiddling around on a website called Intersect the other day, because I'm bound to at least investigate anything that bills itself as a new way to tell stories.

While I was there, I was surprised to stumble across a set of stories based in York. The stories, by Washington Post photojournalist Michael S. Williamson, were small riffs on info or meaning behind photos he'd taken while in York earlier this year.

Underneath a picture of an old warehouse, for example, was this text:

You’ve got to love a place that’s so wonderfully blue collar that you can’t tell just by looks what businesses are actually still open or shut down. York, PA’s nickname is the “Factory Capitol of the World,” and rightly so. It’s the home of the famed York Barbell, and though there’s a retail store and museum in town, the company headquarters are in Canada and most of the products are made in China.
The mini-stories by Williamson (see his Washington Post bio page), who has shared in two Pulitzer prizes, were an unexpected treat.

I haven't figured out whether/how to use Intersect, though I usually try anything once. The site describes itself as a way to present stories that are linked by place, a way to "to share and see your stories and interests in the context of your life, showing where you are now ... and when and where you've been in the past. And who else was there."

Did you know of this or have you tried it? Let me know.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Patterson story lets humanity infuse the news

Rick Lee pulled off a kind of double-lede to his story about the death of York County Judge Chuck Patterson that I think serves the story well.

In the first two grafs, he delivers the news that Patterson collapsed and later died, though it's through the action of the flags being lowered, not an official quote, which comes later.

In the next four grafs, Rick writes about Patterson's last moments at the courthouse: His afternoon greeting with district attorney Tom Kearney, and Kearney describing what happened. It's poignant, reveals a level of respect for Patterson that is reflected elsewhere in news coverage, and it brings the story back to the point where you hear the official word about the death from the coroner.

It's a major news story that, through its construction and its key anecdote, allows the human emotion to come through.

UPDATE: Rick says he was thinking about leading with the Kearney anecdote, but thought the story really needed to be treated as a hard news story, and starting with the anecdote wouldn't do that. Hence the first two grafs. That's good thinking and decision-making.

Monday, November 21, 2011

New look

Yeah, so Tell Me a Story is on its third new look in the past week or so. Sorry to anyone who's checked in and wondered where they were. I think this one will stick.

Friday, November 11, 2011

For Veterans Day, a video package brings together veterans from America's past and present

From our AME visuals Brad Jennings this morning:

If you're growing weary of Penn State stories, here's something a little different you can check out. For Veterans Day, Kate Penn profiled veterans from the current wars, all the way back to World War II, and conducted video interviews with them.
Sam Dellinger created an interactive presentation that you can see here.
This is a great example of multimedia storytelling. You'll notice few printed words, and short video clips. But if you watch them all, you'll come away learning a lot about a diverse group of local people.
You can see George Eyler get emotional as he remembers getting shot at in Korea. You can hear Michael Janis talk about having blood and excrement thrown at him when he returned home from Vietnam. And you can listen to Dawn Hicks describe how woman in Saudi Arabia must eat in a separate room at their local KFC so they can uncover their faces to eat.
I'm glad we were able to meet these veterans and let them share their stories in this way.

Really cool effort by Kate and definitely worth your time to watch the videos and meet these people.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Phrases to run away from

Check this out: A blog that says its mission is "to showcase linguistic crutches journalists employ."

 It breaks 'em down, folks, with links and everything. Like "rolling in his/her grave" and "as a matter of fact." 

Good stuff.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Notes from reporting and writing webinar

Today we had webinar with Tom Huang, Assistant Managing Editor for Sunday and Enterprise at The Dallas Morning News and Ethics and Diversity Fellow at The Poynter Institute. Tom talked about reporting and writing scenes.

Here are some bullet points.

·    Scenes are the building blocks of dramatic storytelling
·    A story is a string of pearls, think of it as a sequence of dramatic scenes
·    Scenes involve strong characters, action and dialogue
·    Think about turning points, moments of discovery. Bring protagonist face to face with a dilemma. Know what the complication or main obstacle is

To read more, go here

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A heady device

If done well, devices such as repeated (but varied) references to a particular thing in a story can make a piece of writing stronger.

I thought Bill Landauer did that in his story on people who were hoping to see Vice President Joe Biden in York. Bill kept referring to Biden's head/hair as, in a way, a symbol of what people were hoping to see. The reference starts in the the third graf -- "Now they all waited for the white haired dome in the black car to zip past ..." -- and reappeared a couple times:

Inside, behind tinted windows, white hair flashed.
The rear door opened and the coiffed white mop bobbed into daylight.
Then, to the back of Biden's head, "We voted for you!"
I thought by using one of Biden's most notable physical characteristics, Bill captured what it's like to try to catch a glimpse of someone famous in a crowd.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

This piece could have been dry; it's anything but

This story, by Lauren Boyer about the Occupy York meeting last night, is one of the best-written news stories I've seen in our paper recently.

The writing -- from the lede through to the end -- is lively and original. It sounds like Lauren is talking directly to you, and you alone, the way good writing should sound.

But, importantly, the story doesn't bury the news (it's in the second graf) and never fails to deliver the news of the night: that the group is here, that it after discussion it settled on a name and that it decided what its first public effort would be. Excellent work.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Notes from Jan Winburn webinar

Hey folks, just wanted to share a post I did on our Writing Successful Profiles webinar with Jan Winburn. If you were unable to attend, Jan had a lot of great things to say. Jan is senior editor for enterprise at She edited Lisa Pollak’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story “The Umpire’s Sons” and was named a Times-Mirror Journalist of the Year in 1997 for improving writing at The Baltimore Sun.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cliche-writing results are in, and the winner is ...

Will Hanlon.

Congrats, Will. Your $25 Rutter's gift card will be in your hands shortly.

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on what you learned by doing this contest. I think we often use cliches because they come to us automatically (they're cliches, of course they do) and we don't push ourselves to come up with something better. Everyone who did this contest pushed themselves to come up with the most cliches they could -- and if you take that energy and put it toward replacing cliches with fresh phrasing, you're a better writer.

The judge was Skip Wood, formerly a reporter at USAToday for more than a decade who covered the NFL and other major sports. Skip and I have been friends since the day I walked in to the Harrisonburg (Va.) Daily News-Record's newsroom and he welcomed me to the sports staff there. He later worked for several years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch before going to USAToday. He now works at in Washington, D.C., doing stories and a morning e-mail alert designed to set up the day for Washingtonians. He's on Twitter.

 We've spent the past couple of decades talking about anything and everything journalism, including amazingly good writing and insufferably bad writing. And he's one of the most entertaining writers I've known. So he has a keen eye for this kind of stuff.

I asked him to judge this based on who did the best job trying to write poorly, since that was the point. So if he's complimenting you on writing cliche-filled tripe, well, take it as the compliment it's meant to be. (One note on judging in case you were wondering: Some of you had headlines, some of you didn't; I asked him not to add or subtract for hed/no hed.)

Click 'Cliche writing contest' on the left rail to read everyone's entries. 

Here are Skip's comments:
These people are good. I mean bad. 
Here’s my take from each one, in alphabetical order:
--Buffy Andrews: Loved the fake name, first of all. ‘Buffy.’* Too funny. The clich├ęs slayed. One after another after another after another after another.
--Joan Concilio: Just really, really bad. Loved “that aforementioned rain.”
--Will Hanlon: Smart. Just smart.  Not only that, but FAIRFAX COUNTY --
--John Hilton: Second graph nails it. Shot? What shot?
--Tom Joyce: I mean, you gotta love, “Bertha Muckenbaugh.”
--Bill Landauer: This was Gene Weingarten funny.
--Andrea Lazarus: The more you read it, the more you get it.
--Susan Martin: This is one of those stories you see sometimes when, oh, I don’t know. . . you’re reading a middle-school newspaper.
--Erin McCracken: “. . .strapped on his fishing gear.”
--Stephanie Reighart: Please. Just read the last sentence from the second graph.
Winner? Hanlon.
I liked it because it was written in the manner of a wordsmith who really thinks he’s a wordsmith when, actually, he doesn’t know anything about being a wordsmith. 

*This was Skip being his humorous self. I asked him about it and he said, "I was 99.99 percent sure 'Buffy' was, in fact, her real name."

What don't you know?

I had a great editing-for-voice conversation with another editor here this morning, and it reinforced my belief that every time I have a conversation about writing or editing like that, I learn more than the person I'm talking with.

It was a great reminder to try to know everything you can about what you're doing; understand that you'll never know everything; and work hard to know what you don't know ... and then learn those things, and figure out how to use them.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

'Encounters' in the St. Petersburg Times

Today after Jan Winburn's webinar on profiles via, Leigh asked if profiles might be found in everyday things that strike a reporter's interest -- such as a man she's met a couple times who was passing out fliers to local events.

Yes, was the consensus, as long as there's a story there -- something that has a promise, as Jan put it, or a reason for someone to keep reading.

That made me think that the St. Petersburg Times has an occasional feature that various writers produce, but I couldn't think of the name. Well, it's called 'Encounters' and described like this:

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson ...

Here's a recent example of one. And you can find several more here. Happy reading. Let me know what you think. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Two great stories. One's a little better. Why?

I had this Twitter conversation yesterday and thought I'd share because in just three tweets, Andrea Pitzer of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation really got me thinking about the differences between these two fantastic stories by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post.

One is "The Peekaboo Paradox," about a children's entertainer with a secret. Pitzer called it the best story he's written. And, she wrote, Weingarten agreed it was his best. That immediately made me think of "Fatal Distraction," Weingarten's haunting story about parents who forget their children in the backseat of locked cars on hot days. I wondered why Pitzer and Weingarten thought Zucchini was better than 'Distraction,' and she broke it down. Here's the conversation (and the point of this post is mostly in our mutual agreement at the end -- if you have not read each of these stories, you must).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thoughts on 'Carrying Darisabel,' an Emmy award and a journalist's choice

We got news last night that YDR visual journalist Jason Plotkin won a regional Emmy award for his documentary "Carrying Darisabel." A 2-year-old girl had been viciously beaten, and Jason told the story of the people who tried to save her life, and how Darisabel's death haunted them.

It's a huge moment for Jason and for the YDR: As his editor, Brad Jennings, noted, it's the first time a newspaper organization has won a mid-Atlantic Emmy, as the competition is made up mainly of television news organizations. Historically, newspapers take still shots and TV gives you video. Not anymore.

The Emmy award is fantastic news. I was privileged to see Jason at work on this film from beginning to end, to see the daily devotion. He believed in the story so strongly he practically willed it into existence. His focus never faded or frayed, and yet, where some journalists by their nature would have resisted too many voices offering their best advice, Jason invited people in. He listened, and, through a combination of skill and personality, took the best of what others had to offer and still kept the film true to his vision.

I've been a reporter and editor for 25 years. I've never seen anything like it.

But it is odd to celebrate a "victory" in the Emmys because -- and I know Jason believes this too -- this film should never have existed. Darisabel should still be here. There should have been nothing to make a film about.

And that is where a journalist stands at a crossroads.

Do you turn away from something so painful to a family and to a community, so fraught with damage, so incomprehensible to so many? Do you decide we're all better off if we don't look for too long at what happened here? Do you pull up short because, to do the story, you will be seen as taking advantage of a tragedy?

Or do you tell the story and draw your community in? Insist that they look? Embrace others' pain as part of the storytelling? Understand that some will see you as an opportunist, and do it anyway?

 For a journalist like Jason, there really is no choice. You tell the story. You tell it because you know it's real. Darisabel died. Her family was devastated. The people who tried to save her life have holes inside. Yet they go on. When they tell their story, we come closer to knowing how -- and maybe we walk away a little bit better equipped to make our way in this world, to understand what's going on around us, and to decide what, if anything, we would like to do about it.

Watch and listen. It will hurt. But you will see both darkness and light.

Friday, September 16, 2011

YDR writing challenge: Write trite (for a reason); win a gift card

Buffy's post on her blog about getting rid of trite expressions in your writing got me thinking: What if we challenged YDR staffers to see who could write the most cliche-filled passage, with the winner being the "worst" of the bunch?

So, yeah, we're doing it. A friend of mine, a creative writer and career journalist whom none of you know, will judge it. (Thus I won't be entering). 

Your assignment: Write the first three paragraphs (150-word limit) of a main day-after-flooding news story, using the photo below as your inspiration/reference. Although this is a real picture, your entries do not need to be completely nonfiction. However, do write something that could be printed in the next day's paper as the main news story; in other words, don't write opinion or something silly, and be courteous to the gentleman in the photo.

 For example, if I was allowed to enter, you know how I love ad-campaign-based newswriting, so my entry might be something like, "Waders: $75. Waste-deep water: Free, from Mother Nature. Beer and dog food to ride out the flood: Priceless." And so on.

How to enter: E-mail me your submissions. One entry per person, please.

Deadline: 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23

Open to: Anyone in the YDR newsroom. (If any YDR alums or anyone else reading this want to participate, leave your passages in the comments, but only YDR staffers are eligible to win the gift card).

Prize: $25 Rutter's gift card.

Why are we doing this? Because by intentionally writing cliche-filled passages, we can become better self-editors by recognizing when those cliches are creeping in to our own stories ... and we can rub them out and replace them with fresh phrasing.

For your reading (and perhaps research) pleasure, here is more from this blog on cliches. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

When fiction isn't fiction

If writers stopped writing about what happened to them, then there would be a lot of empty pages." -- Elaine Liner

I wanted to share this post from my writing blog (Buffy's Write Zone) because many of you know the true story from which this was taken. In my novel, Tom works in the ER. 

Here's a scene from WIP that came from "real" life:

Joe told me that the paramedics brought a toddler into the ER who had been bludgeoned to death by her mother’s boyfriend. He had whipped her repeatedly with a video game controller and she had so many bruises on her tiny body that the doctors couldn’t find a patch of white skin anywhere. He beat her because she had a dirty diaper. She was two.

The neighbors heard the toddler screaming for her mother. She was in the next room stuffing her face with potato chips and watching the soaps. The screamin' got so bad that the neighbors called the cops. But it was too late. Katie was dead.

Great take on an unusual folo story

Don't know if any of you read the Washington Post's story about a rookie F-16 pilot who was one of a couple pilots scrambled on Sept. 11, 2001 with orders to crash their unarmed fighter planes into Flight 93.

Turns out that she didn't mention one huge part of the story to the reporter: That her father was a United Airlines pilot who flew 757s from the East Coast -- meaning he could have been the pilot on Flight 93. I thought the Post handled that "holy cow" folo story with just the right touch.

Reporters reading this, you have to click on the story to see how the Post found out that piece of information. Tell me you haven't been there in one way, shape or form.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Upcoming NewsU webinar: Writing successful profiles

Those of you who know me well probably know that I look at Jan Winburn, the presenter in the next NewsU writing webinar (2 p.m. Sept. 29 in the newsroom conference room), as one of the all-time great editors. What you might not know is that Jan was, in part, the inspiration behind the YDR's "Year of Storytelling" in 2007, which gave life to this blog, among many other efforts in our newsroom.

In late 2006, I went to an Investigative Editors & Reporters seminar in Atlanta. I remembered that Jan,  formerly of the Baltimore Sun, was then at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wouldn't it be awesome to talk writing with Jan Winburn? I thought. So I e-mailed her and asked if she had any time. Sure, she responded. And we set up lunch.

At lunch we talked about a lot of stuff: narrative, character, ethics, the post-Katrina series "Through Hell and High Water" about two New Orleans hospitals in the days after the storm. Needless to say, it was a blast.

I didn't have a notebook with me, but after lunch, I got in my car and wrote down things we talked about or tips that I remembered. Among them:

  • character (development) is most important in narrative. people disliked a woman dying of cancer in one story, Jan said, and so the series did not go over well.
  • what she reads -- New Yorker, New York Times (for economical storytelling), writers on their craft
  • Jan said she prefers immersion narratives over reconstructive, but advised that in reconstructive narratives she would italicize quotes the way the person said they remembered them.
  • she wanted to broaden the definition of investigative reporting to be more inclusive -- she was/is shooting for investigative narrative
  • and, when I asked her how to keep up the momentum, she said, "Writers just want to succeed."

I don't know if I was specifically looking for a way to kick-start some writing energy in the newsroom (and in myself). But on the drive back from Atlanta, I started thinking about what we could do to really focus on narrative writing.

By the time I returned to the office, I had some ideas. I went to lunch with Buffy and bounced them off her, and she was all for it. We got started planning and pitched the idea around the newsroom. In January, we brought in Lon Wagner and Diane Tennant from the Virginian-Pilot, and that kicked off the "Year of Storytelling."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A personal Sept. 11, 2011 story

I was driving on I-81 today, the young lad and I headed to Hawk Mountain, and I had MSNBC's anniversary coverage on satellite radio.

They cut to the New York ceremony and a man's deep voice said he was Jimmy Smith, the husband of Moira Smith, a New York police officer. Wow, I thought; I had just edited Bill Landauer's story of three York County people whose lives had changed after 9/11 -- and one of them was Moira Smith's cousin.

Jimmy finished talking. Then a young girl's voice: "Mom, I will always be proud to be your daughter ..." Oh my God, I thought, here is Moira Smith's daughter, who, by the sound of her voice, couldn't have been more than a toddler 10 years ago.

She stopped talking. There was a brief pause. And then I heard the first few notes of a forlorn but ultimately hopeful song, a child's lullaby that doubles as a farewell song: James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes."

So close your eyes
You can close your eyes, it's all right
 I don't know no love songs, and I can't sing the blues anymore
 But I can sing this song
 And you can sing this song when I'm gone 

I've internalized that song over decades, and at that moment it hit me square. I drove the next couple miles with welling tears. Not for America or its institutions or our way of life, but for the people in the towers, the people in the planes, the people in the Pentagon, and the people who loved them. It is, to me, less a national day of mourning than a personal one.

Friday, September 2, 2011

If you read just one thing about Sept. 11 as the 10th anniversary approaches ...

 I just sent this link to a writer who hadn't read it, and, with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 coming up, I figured I would post it here.

 It's Tom Junod's story in Esquire, "The Falling Man," in which Junod reports to find out who the man is in an iconic picture from Sept. 11 -- a man who jumped, or is falling, from one of the World Trade Center towers.

 The story, as you'll see, ends up being about so much more than identifying the man in the picture.

 I wouldn't be so bold as to say it is the only thing you ought to read as the anniversary approaches, but if it is the only thing you read, it will stand for everything else about that day.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Frank Bodani on Rosey Grier and what really matters

Randy called this column by Frank Bodani to my attention, saying it was an example of great work by Frank. He's right.

I doubt Frank set out to write a column about how Rosey Grier is dealing with the recent death of his wife. But he didn't miss the chance when it presented itself.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wise (and brief) words on narrative writing, editing

Sharing this after discovering it via

Thursday, August 25, 2011

'Girl in the window,' three years later

This was an incredible story when it came out -- a seven-year-old girl neglected to the point that she could not connect with other human beings -- and three years later, it still is.

The follow-up is beautifully written and shows the girls signs of progress. The then-and-now photos are remarkable.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Do stories, do stories, do stories, get better

 Wow: This, from Ira Glass of This American Life, hits home.

 You have an idea. This could be a great story. You can see it, feel it, taste it. You report, write, revise. You finish and think: That's not what I wanted it to be. You deflate.

 But you can't stop. You have to keep trying to execute those ideas, because only in doing that, over and over and over, can you ever get closer to the actual vision you see in your head when you think, This could be a great story.

Glass puts it better here, and lets you know: You're not alone.

Friday, August 19, 2011

New stuff here. And it's good stuff.

 I did something long overdue: I've added several examples of excellent storytelling by YDR staffers to the blog.

 Under "YDR documentaries" (see link at left) you'll find Paul Kuehnel's video about a woman who, as a 3-year-old, witnessed her mother's murder and visits the scene 39 years later.

 Under "YDR success stories" you'll find Mike Argento's piece about that woman. You'll also find two other great pieces by Mike -- one about a medal of valor winner, and one about a couple whose health forced them to part after decades of marriage.

 There are other great reads there, too, including "Her wild life," Frank Bodani's piece about a legendary exotic animal rehabilitator who, with age, has had to give up most of her animals.

 Check 'em out.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How does one photographer capture all three outs of a triple play?

To visually tell the story of a major-league triple play with a video camera is no great feat; every game is televised and shot by multiple cameras. But to capture all three outs with stills takes anticipation and preparation, as Boston Globe photographer Jim Davis says. It's a lesson that can be applied by any photographer or reporter in almost any situation, be it breaking news, a sit-down interview or anything in between.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Killer lines (Gay Talese)

"My mother was betrothed to the dress business. As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, she had outfitted her dolls with a varied wardrobe that she changed with the seasons, and she never permitted these pampered idols to be played with, or even touched, by any of her four sisters -- my aunts, who, in recalling this fact to me years later, conveyed the suggestion of a slight yet everlasting sense of resentment toward the unsharing, aloof little girl my mother perhaps once was."
 --Gay Talese, "Unto the Sons"

Monday, August 15, 2011

When people disappear in plain sight

 This story in The Washington Post is about an accomplished man who "served 10 presidents, but died alone in squalor."

I'm calling it to your attention for a couple of reasons.

One, it's an uncomplicated, straightforward story, but the writer chose the ending perfectly, and in so doing really elevated the piece, I think. The story details efforts to get this man help and how agencies declined, claiming they couldn't force help on someone ... and then shows how persistent an agency can get when it is owed money.

Two, journalists regularly deal with head-scratching responses from public officials. In this story, you have at least two agencies refusing to release information about a dead man. Privacy reasons, they say.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On editing and revising: When less is more, FEMA style

The federal government, or at least one office of it, sees the light. "We had letters that took three paragraphs to say four words: 'We need more information,'" a FEMA rep said.

 He was talking about some Alabama residents' complaints about a letter they got from FEMA about their desire for help after tornadoes scoured the state in April. Some letters to people in blown-away houses told them they had "insufficient damage" to qualify for certain kinds of aid. No good, FEMA realized.

So FEMA revised, and simplified, its letters.

Friday, August 12, 2011

In a narrative, how much info on sourcing should you provide?

Really interesting piece on Eric Schmidle's story in The New Yorker, "Getting Bin Laden," how it was sourced, and whether he/the magazine was clear enough with readers about how it was sourced.

Disclosure: I haven't read the story itself, only the story about the sourcing. If you've read Schmidle's story and read the Poynter piece linked to here, let me know what you think about how much information a reader deserves to know about how you sourced your narrative.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Inside the hospital at Kandahar Airfield

A former colleague of mine, Lauren King, who's now at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, shared this series by a Pilot reporter & photographer. "A Chance in Hell" takes you inside the place that's supposed to save "the war's worst casualties."

I've only had time to read the first section of the first installment, but, um, this is going to be good.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Costumed crusaders save the day! (Seriously)

Must read: Jeff Frantz's piece on two guys who dress up in superhero costumes, call themselves the Keystone Crusaders and go around Harrisburg -- a city more or less in freefall -- cleaning graffiti and dog crap, giving water to the homeless, helping out people who need help and doing whatever else urban despair-fighters might do.

A snippet:

They begin — as they have at least twice a week since March — in the Market Street tunnel. 
“Good Morning!” they bellow, warming up their superhero voices to the office workers walking west, and the residents heading east. 
How can anyone, Commonwealth asks, feel good about their city if their first sight of it is this cavern of filth? 
The battle is joined, and Commonwealth’s three utility belts/fanny packs, come open. 
A hand-held vacuum for cigarette butts. “L.A.’s Totally Awesome,” the Dollar Store industrial cleaner they don’t bother diluting. Spray paint bought on clearance. Their real superpower is bargain hunting. 
When danger arises, they reach for the original crime fighting tools. Broken glass is no match for Kevlar-lined gloves! No clogged gutter can withstand a steel baton! 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Joplin tornado: Two days in Joplin, and the inspirational work being done there

 One day two weeks ago, I took the exit ramp off I-44 and headed into Joplin, Mo., wondering when I'd see tornado damage on my way to the Joplin Globe's newsroom.

 A couple of minutes later, I was in it. For block after block after block.

 An EF5 tornado churned through the city May 22. It was three-quarters of a mile wide -- wide enough to have an eye, the Globe reported. It gouged a path several miles long. It destroyed one-third of the city, the paper said. It killed more than 150 people.

 It also made that city's newspaper indispensable. Joplin residents are looking to their newspaper/website to tell them more about what happened and how, to read about what's happening next, and to connect them with volunteers and donations that are pouring in to the city. The Globe is covering all of that and more. Metro editor Andy Ostmeyer told me that circulation (normally about 30,500) has gone up by several thousand since the tornado.

  I thought about how hard those journalists would be working now -- a small staff with the added stress, of course, that some lost their homes or cars in the tornado. A former newsroom staffer died. I had read that journalists from around the country had sent care boxes or other signs of support to the staff, and that a few had volunteered to help in the newsroom.

 In early June, I e-mailed editor Carol Stark and told her that my family and I would be visiting relatives in Verona, Mo., about an hour from Joplin, and if she thought I could be of use, I could put in a couple of shifts doing whatever she needed, if just to show support. I told her I felt connected in two ways: our newsroom had worked through stressful times, too (though nothing like what happened there in May); and my wife's family had lived in Pierce City, Mo. when a tornado destroyed pretty much the whole tiny town in 2003.

 She graciously welcomed me two weeks ago Tuesday and introduced me to Andy, who introduced me to Emily Younker, a young reporter who was working on a story about how 16 people in a skilled nursing home died, and whether anything could have been done to prevent it. Here is a mind-boggling before/after picture of the nursing home and the church and school across the street. (I took several photos there; see below.)

Emily, who had interviews set up with people who had been in the home and with other key sources, needed someone to call industry experts/other experts to get their take. She also had several PDFs' worth of state nursing home inspection reports that she hadn't had time to mine for anything that could be related to the building, staff training, emergency planning and so on.

 So that's what I did (along with offering a few editing thoughts at the back end). She took a lot of info and distilled it into a fine story.

 In my two days in the newsroom, I was struck by the vibe. As an outsider, I couldn't have guessed what they'd just been through and are still going through. That's what I love about committed journalists: They understand what their community needs, and they simply put their heads down and do their jobs.

 I heard Emily patiently working to get sourcing, as well as giving a veteran editor his assignments. I heard Andy making calls to help push the reporting. I heard reporter Josh Letner interviewing for a fascinating story about a homeless camp that sprung up after the tornado. At lunch I met Wally Kennedy, introduced by Andy as someone who's done pretty much everything at the paper, and learned how he's diving into tornado history in the region.

 I heard and saw a newsroom at work at a most critical time. What a privilege to be part of it for just a little while.

                                          Scrap metal seekers are out.
                                          St. Mary's Church.
                                      View looking west from the hill leading to St. Mary's.
                                          Lampost in front of St. Mary's Parish Center.
            The empty, cleaned-up lot is where Greenbriar nursing home used to be.
                           Books and part of a classroom from St. Mary's Elementary.
Looking northeast from W. 25th St., in front of St. Mary's Church.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Verbs do ... pretty much everything

 Thanks to the 10-12 people in the room today for Jacqui Banaszynski's webinar on verbs, via She covered so much ground about what verbs can do in your writing that she buzzed through some of her 10 verb tools too fast for us to take notes. Fortunately, the webinar replay is already up at the link above.

The 75-minute webinar was full of great stuff; if you don't have time to watch the whole thing, scroll to the part where Jacqui starts going through the 10 tools. She ends with a way you can vet your own copy for verb use -- print it out and highlight each verb/verb form in your story; see the patterns; revise as necessary. (There's much more to it -- scroll to about the one hour, 10-minute mark of the webinar and hit 'play.')

The group talked a bit after the webinar. Couple thoughts from me (and anyone who was there, please add your thoughts in comments):

  •  I was really interested in Jacqui saying that verbs can "bend time" -- you can change tense and tone to accomplish time changes in a story without losing clarity, as she put it. I need to go back into the webinar to focus on this part. I suspect some of you/us do that without realizing it, but if you don't realize you're doing it, you're probably not using it to its maximum advantage. 
  • I was struck by several examples she used that showed a paragraph crammed with action verbs -- so that, physically, there is a lot of activity in the graf -- followed by, or ended by, a line with a more "quiet" verb or verb form. The effect was almost physical for me -- a flurry of action and then a soft settling down of the language, of the story. Again, that is something worth learning how to do, learning to master.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Killer lines (Philip Roth)

"At dinner -- outdoors, on the back terrace, with darkness coming on so gradually that the evening seemed to the Swede stalled, stopped, suspended, provoking in him a distressing sense of nothing more to follow, or nothing ever to happen again, of having entered a coffin carved out of time from which he would never be extricated -- there were also the Umanoffs, Marcia and Barry, and the Salzmans, Sheila and Shelly. Only a few hours had passed since the Swede learned that it was Sheila Salzman, the speech therapist, who had hidden Merry after the bombing. The Salzmans had not told him. And if they only had -- called when she showed up there, done their duty to him then ... He could not complete the thought. If he were to contemplate head-on all that would not have happened had Merry never been permitted to become a fugitive from justice ... Couldn't complete that thought either. He sat at dinner, eternally inert -- immobilized, ineffectual, inert, estranged from those expansive blessings of openness and vigor conferred on him by his hyperoptimism. A lifetime's agility as a businessman, as an athlete, as a U.S. Marine, had in no way conditioned him for being a captive confined to a futureless box where he was not to think about what had become of his daughter, was not to think about how the Salzmans had assisted her, was not to think about ... about what had become of his wife. He was supposed to get through dinner not thinking about the only things he could think about. He was supposed to do this forever. However much he might crave to get out, he was to remain stopped dead in the moment in that box. Otherwise the world would explode."
--Philip Roth, "American Pastoral"

Monday, July 4, 2011

Joplin, Mo. tornado: First the video, then the narrative

Two storm chasers shot incredible video of the tornado that destroyed a chunk of Joplin, Mo. in May.

Then the Joplin Globe's Carole Liston reported the story behind that video and produced this compelling piece about how the storm chasers helped alert officials about what was happening, documented the tornado, and then helped people after the devastation.

The story published less than two weeks after the tornado.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A "best-of" journalism collection

One man's list of the best journalism of 2010, by Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic.

Nearly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism - Atlantic Mobile
Published with Blogger-droid v1.7.2

Friday, June 24, 2011

A little dialogue + vomiting baby = effective scene

Laura Burkey wrote about one of those classic parent moments and delivered the payoff in a nice little scene.

We settled into one of the back pews, just in case Amelia decided to announce her presence. We stood as the priest, altar boys and lector proceeded up the aisle and Amelia finished the last sips of her bottle in my arms.
I turned my 19-pound 11-month-old into the upright burping position.
Pat, pat, pat
"Good afternoon."
Pat, pat, pat
"Good afternoon, Father."
Gurgle, sputter, choke
I stopped patting. Horrified, my eyes met my dad's as he shoved his hankie toward Amelia.
"Oh my!" the elderly woman whispered behind me as liquid hit the pew and my Gram's shoes.
Now think about how that could have been written with exposition -- "I turned her into the upright burping position. I patted her on the back as the priest said, 'Good afternoon,' and we responded, 'Good afternoon, Father.' Then she started making sounds like she was about to spit up. ....' -- and see how much more effective it is the way Laura wrote it.


'Write as if you were dying'

This is kind of amazing. Chip Scanlan shared a link to author Annie Dillard's essay in the New York Times about  writing.

Some of you may be writing a book, I don't know. Most of you probably aren't; most of you are probably working on something for tomorrow's paper, or the next day's, or Sunday's or some Sunday down the road.

The essay is quite a read, although it would be tough for someone in a newsroom to apply Dillard's vibrant advice -- "What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?" -- day in and day out.

But there is almost certainly a piece within all of us that demands, and deserves, that kind of effort and dedication. Find it, and do it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mobster or kindly old man?

You may have heard that an accused organized crime leader named Whitey Bulger was caught yesterday by the FBI. I found this 1998 Boston Globe story about Bulger via It caught my eye because of the way it introduces Bulger from a completely different point of view -- that of a family in Louisiana who he'd befriended and who could not be convinced he was an alleged violent criminal:

From Shelley Murphy's story:

     The Whitey Bulger who is accused of holding a knife to a mortgage broker's throat at a South Boston variety store while extorting $50,000 was driving around this remote island offering dog biscuits to strays from a bag in the trunk of his Mercury Grand Marquis.
The Whitey Bulger who was branded a reputed killer, crime boss, and bank robber by the 1986 President's Commission on Organized Crime often shut off the Gautreaux television, lecturing them on how bad it was to expose children to violent shows, including the local news.
This Whitey Bulger wept when a dying puppy was shot in the head to end its suffering. He went fishing once and tossed back all the small fish.
When two of the Gautreaux children came home from school with a note saying they had vision problems, Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, bought them glasses.

NYT's new editor on narrative

Jill Abramson, who will be the New York Times' new editor, spoke recently at a narrative nonfiction conference in Boston. Prof Chris Daly's Blog reports Abramson said narrative nonfiction is "a distinct American art form" and predicts it has a "very robust future." More here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Killer lines (W.C. Heinz)

"We walked back down the driveway and I noticed then for the first time that the seed pods of the swamp maples had put out their dark red dollhouse chandeliers and that the forsythia along the driveway was chartreuse, ready to break out into yellow. Beyond and above the roofline of the hotel the long, thin, crowded branches of the top of the big willow by the lake hung in yellow fronds so that the whole, moving in the breeze and the bright sun, seemed a golden fountain."
 --W.C. Heinz, "The Professional"

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Chip Scanlan: 'We have to write badly to write well'

Writer & writing coach Chip Scanlan wants you to embrace revising your stories, even if you don't think you have time. "You don't have the time not to revise," he said during a webinar.

And he wants you to understand that it's OK to write poor first draft. And editors, he said, "need to let reporters know -- you can write badly, because I know you're gonna write well." 

Chip was one of the faculty members at a writing/editing conference I went to at Poynter years ago, so I knew he was going to be good. I just love his attitude about writing and editing. He understands what's hard about it as well as what's great about it, and understands the work it takes to work through the hard stuff to get to the great stuff. He values the relationship between a reporter and an editor, and much of what he teaches revolves around those two people working together for the reader and for the story. 

A quote he put up at the end of the webinar captures that optimistic attitude: "Accept the flaws of your first draft to find the promise of the final story."

 He also offered fresh, concrete tips on how to do what you do better. Here are some other key points from his webinar:

To revise effectively (and there was more, I'm condensing here):
  • Print out your story and read it. Mark each thing that strikes you as needing work; number each; write a note as to why you flagged it; then go back into your story and take on the changes one at a time.
  • Do you have text-to-speech on your computer? Make it read your story to you. Revise what sounds off.
  • Use 'find and replace' to scrub 'ly' adverbs from your copy.
  • Check word counts of sentences, paragraphs and your lead.
  • Keep quotes to somewhere around 6-20 words.
  • Get rid of is/was/were verbs; they can reflect insufficient reporting. Replace with active constructions.
  • Role-play the reader.
  • Study others' work, dissect it, learn from mistakes (as well as what's good) and bring that to your own work.
  • Find a co-reader who will help you work through your drafts.
  • Budget time to revise early in the process.
  • Never give up.
Here's more on revising, including a great story about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Red Smith speaks the truth

En route to rectifying a glaring omission in my reading life -- I have never read W.C. Heinz -- I ordered three titles the other day. One, "The Professional," came today. I flip it over and on the back cover of this 1958 edition is Red Smith's testimonial. The great sportswriter and columnist basically takes three sentences to define great writing:

Heinz's book, about a boxer and his trainer, he said, "taught me again that of all the qualities that make truly fine writing, the one that really counts is truth. Here are the people; this is what they are like, how they think, how they talk, how they behave. It happens that I've been there but I know that readers who never have been there will recognize this as real."

He is, of course, talking about fiction. But think about it: Those words apply just as firmly to nonfiction.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Word from Boston U's narrative conference: Long-form narrative is anything but dead

Highlights, via Bill Kirtz at

  • Jill Abramson, ME of the New York Times, said tablets and iPads give narrative a new way to reach new readers.
  • New Yorker writer Ken Auletta says nonfiction writers should use blogs and other new media, not whine about it.
  • Susan Orlean said new technology means the packaging of a story might be different, but content is still the thing.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

'Beautiful story-telling must survive no matter the medium'

From Tim McGuire, journalism professor at Arizona State, in a speech to high school graduates, in which he details what moved him when he read an Arizona Republic story on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her recovery from a gunshot wound:

Great story-telling always has a grand story arc. Sometimes, it’s jealousy. Sometimes it’s hate. For me, there were two grand story arcs in the Giffords and Kelly stories–love and perseverance.
A great tale well-told is like a homily, full of meaning and lessons.
Please notice I have not mentioned the words newspaper, computer, book or magazine in this discussion of what makes great story-telling.
Beautiful story-telling must survive no matter the medium.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Writing about the intersection of one person and a big issue

Excellent interview on Nieman Storyboard with the Washington Post's Eli Saslow, who discusses how he writes about "people who are otherwise not known, but they're intersecting with something at an important moment." For example, his piece on what the federal budget debate meant to a family in Wisconsin.

He also talks about self-editing, working with an editor, story ideas, reporting, and keeping himself out of the story.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dialogue of the day

The gang is sitting down to dinner, and Andy, swooning over the spread, says something like, "Now Aint Bee, those mashed potatoes are something no artist could paint a picture of."
Aunt Bee: "Oh, flibbertigibbet."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Knowing the way to the end

Freaking cool story by Ben Montgomery of the St. Petersburg Times on a diver who went missing in a deep and dangerous cave, the people who looked for him, and what happened ... and what didn't happen.

The ending knocked my socks off, and it made me think of two things:

One, he didn't suddenly discover that ending as he wrote the last few grafs of the story.

Two, he didn't just tack on the ending when he felt like he was about near the end of the story.

I'm betting he knew where he was going from the start, and wrote with that destination in mind the whole way. And that's why it's such a great ending -- it's a nifty line or three, to be sure, but its power derives from everything that comes before it, everything that he reported, how he prepared/organized the story, and every choice he made as he wrote it.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Stories, direct to you , which allows you to 'bookmark' long-form stories to read later via Instapaper or Read It Later, now has another deal: Send Me a Story. You give them your e-mail, they send you a nonfiction story every Saturday morning (plus one right away when you sign up).

I got "Can You Say ... Hero?/a profile of Mr. Rogers" by Tom Junod from Esquire in 1998.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

For those who like a little long-form storytelling

If you "like" The New Yorker on Facebook this week, you get access to a Jonathan Franzen story that would normally be behind a paywall. (Disclaimer: the mag's FB page won't take you to the story on a secure internet connection and asks you to go there on an unsecure connection. When I click "continue," the page just sits there ... so I haven't actually gotten to the story yet.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Find stories by paying attention ... then acting

I absolutely love this advice from Walt Bogdanich, investigations editor for biz/finance for the New York Times, who's won three Pulitzers. He told a group at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (this via a blog post from Talking Biz News) that you should be alert for when a source says something unexpected or note when you see something that seems out of place. There might be a story there.

An excerpt from the blog post: "Bogdanich doesn't decide to find a story within a subject, and he doesn't try to find a story in a massive database. He acts when he's inspired, and loves to look into what nobody else is ..."

My thought is, we do our share of "let's do a big story about (topic)" or "let's get this database and do a project on it." Setting out to do a story on a topic can be deadly because there is no true focus. You may be able to have more success extracting a story out of a database. But the best stories rise out of a reporter hearing or seeing something and asking, "Why is it that way?"

More from Bogdanich at the blog post itself.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Conversations with your muse

One Melissa Nann Burke let me know about RadioLab, a fantastic NPR program that takes a look at the human side of science through very "This American Life"-esque kinds of stories. If you don't listen to it already, it's really interesting and not so sciencey that the un-sciencey among us won't appreciate it.

So, I've been catching up with RadioLab podcasts the past couple weeks so that I have some grown-up voices in the house periodically (otherwise it's just cooing, crying, meowing and barking).

One of their recent episodes "Help!" had a segment called "Me, Myself, and Muse" in which two writers, Oliver Sacks and Elizabeth Gilbert of "Eat, Pray, Love" fame talk about the bargains they make with themselves and their muses when they're writing (or not writing).

I loved that one of the producers described taking care of your muse or creative spirit as petting a golden retriever. Such a great image and I think pretty true in some cases. The segment might be a little metaphysical for us practical-minded journalists, but hopefully you can glean something useful or relatable from it.

Photo courtesy of Kymmie_xox on Stock.X.chng

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spot news as narrative

We've talked a lot about this over time, but it's worth mentioning again: Spot news doesn't always have to be written in traditional news-story format. A narrative can work as well or, in some cases, better.

The key, of course, is thinking about doing narrative before you get to the scene, so you can do the reporting (including both observation and interviews) that will allow you to write a tight narrative. If you only have a few details and a broad or loose chronology, it's probably not going to work.

 I thought of this after reading a piece by Lauren Fitzpatrick, who did work for us as a Medill correspondent several years ago, in the Southtown Star in Chicago, about rescuers pulling a woman from her car that was submerged in a pond. Things to note:
  • The line that cranks up the tension -- "Then the passer-by calling 911 said the words that set him off: The car is underwater."
  • An observed detail about the cop's injury: "The 33-year-old ran to his own car and tore over to the corner where the Rupari Food Services plant sits, he told reporters late Friday afternoon, shivering in a light jacket, his left hand clinging to his bandaged right one."
  • Action verbs: "Frausto ignored the chilly drizzle. He shucked his coat and his shoes. He stripped off his clothes and threw away his gun. Frausto grabbed a baton, and in briefs and an undershirt, he dove into the water."
Ted Czech often writes a narrative out of spot news, including recently about a man who went into a burning home and helped an elderly lady escape. To note from Ted's piece:
  • He uses a question as the engine to push the story forward: "Sipe often wondered what he would do if there ever were a real fire at the home. Would he get scared and run, or would he stay and help, possibly risking his own safety?"
  • Dialogue, reported from his interview with the man, helps capture the feel of what happened: "Ma'am, are you in here?" he called. "You've got to come out of there. You can't stay in there." He heard her say something but couldn't make out the words. Then he saw her. She stood in front of him, motionless. "My pets, my pets," she said. "I got to get my pets."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Instant story: The plane with a hole in it

Several passengers documented the Southwest Airlines flight's emergency landing after its fuselage ripped open. @BluestMuse on Twitter, in particular, had a series of compelling posts that really help tell the story.

Friday, April 1, 2011

One little sentence that does a good deal of work

On its face, there's little remarkable about this sentence in today's local sidebar, by Frank Bodani and Jim Seip, to the story on allegations involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky:

"Mostly, the shocked responses went on and on, interview after interview -- from former players to those in the York community who got to know Sandusky through public appearances here."
But that sentence does a lot of work, even coming fairly late in the story as it does. Perhaps because it comes fairly late in the story. If you've read up to that sentence, you've heard from three people talking about Sandusky.

The reporters want to tell you that those three represent a lot more. They could have simply said that -- 'Those three were among many people who praised Sandusky on Thursday.' But in writing it the way they did, with the double-double of "on and on, interview after interview," they gave readers a sense of the waves of sentiment coming from Sandusky supporters, and also offered readers a bit of an insider's glimpse inside the reporting process -- I'm making all these calls, and everything I'm hearing is supporting Sandusky. 

So in addition to delivering information, they're bringing the reader closer to the process and thus to the story itself. I thought that was cool.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Personal stories from Japan

Couple posts ago I said I'd been looking for a narrative about people in Japan when the earthquake & tsunami hit. Well, I found one. This helps connect the personal stories with those stunning videos we've all seen.

Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.8

Monday, March 28, 2011

Story singles?

The Atavist is, it says, a publishing house that produces "nonfiction stories for digital, mobile reading devices. We like to think of Atavist pieces as a new genre of nonfiction, a digital form that lies in the space between long narrative magazine articles and traditional books and e-books. Publishing them digitally and offering them individually—a bit like music singles in iTunes—allows us to present stories longer and in more depth than typical magazines, less expensive and more dynamic than traditional books.
Most importantly, it gives us new ways to tell some inventive, captivating, cinematic journalism—and new ways for you to experience it."
I'll be interested to see if this takes off. Right now the stories are priced at $2.99 (for Idevices), $1.99 for Kindle and Nook. I'd probably pay that for the right story -- especially with the promise of unique features that come with the story -- although I need them to come out with an Android app (for some reason, both Kindle and Nook for Android crash my tablet). 
Let me know if you try this. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Want to step outside your comfort zone as a writer?

Hopefully your answer was a loud "Yes!" (Even if you were just talking to yourself.)

Here are some thoughts on how to do that from the New York Times' Frank Bruni, via an e-mail exchange with

A highlight:
 Journalistic training and preparedness are what they are, whether one is trying to be versatile or narrow. Read, read, read. Keep your eyes peeled for what’s interesting in the world. Pay close attention to the people you’re interviewing. Try to write up the results in a careful and lively fashion.

Monday, March 21, 2011

'A human voice'

When you're out there, asking questions, talking to people ... or even just out there not asking questions or talking to people ... make sure to listen. Sometimes sound is the story.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Little scenes, big meaning

 I posted below that I was looking for human stories out of Japan. I found a story this morning that wasn't about a person but a place: Onagawa, one of the many towns that got hammered by the tsunami.

Andrew Higgins of The Washington Post wrote about what he found there. The story includes this evocative graf, and the context of the piece invites you to imagine that this kind of scene is happening over and over and over again:

"To reclaim the world stolen by this gigantic wave, Kimura wrote his name on a wooden stake and stuck it in the ground to mark a pile of rubble as his home. Mumbling to himself, he smacked at the ruins with a cooking knife, hoping to conjure up at least some small physical connection with his previous life. All he’s retrieved is a small jar of mushrooms."

 And Higgins uses a great eye and sense of irony with the following line. He doesn't call attention to it (by saying 'ironically ...' or in any other way). He just writes it and lets it do its job on you:

"The first big building to be hit was Onagawa’s marine exhibition hall on the edge of the harbor. It remains standing. A big sign dangles above its mangled metal door: 'Images of the Sea and the Mysterious World.' "