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
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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.