Mary Pat Flaherty
Metro Projects Editor
1150 15th Street NW
Washington DC 20071
A well written story starts at the same point that any story starts: with the interviews.
Reporters who pay attention to the way in which they conduct an interview uncover the telling details and truly representative anecdotes that enliven copy. Retaining that spark is in the writing process.
Some thoughts on interviewing and writing:
1) View the people to be interviewed as people, not merely as subjects. Recognize that they bring their own expectations, emotions, skills and deficiencies to the interview --just as you do -- and you'll need to adjust to them. If you fall into viewing people as subjects, you'll wind up with the detached, clinical perspective that the word "subject" suggests.
2) Structure your interview schedules. You will need first to talk to pathfinders (people who can direct you to others who know about the topic); then generalists (who know about a topic but not necessarily the particular situation at hand); and finally, actors (with direct knowledge of the story you want to report). If you work in this order you get the advantage of the generalists' thinking before you talk to the actors, which should help you form better questions and will help you avoid having to plug holes late in the game.
3) Avoid asking questions that can be answered with "yes" or "no." This is an acquired skill and you will never believe that you fall into this trap. To convince yourself that most reporters ask questions that can be answered with "yes" or "no" eavesdrop on reporters who sit near you as they do phone interviews. They're asking this type of question.
4) Interviews are on one level conversations. Most people cannot abide silence during a conversation. Make this work for you as a reporter, particularly when you've asked a question that is difficult or seems to demand a fuller answer. Ask the question. Get the short answer. Then SAY NOTHING (a very hard thing for most reporters). Your subject will almost always fill the awkward gap that ensues -- and as a reference point to restart the conversation will go back to the last thing you two were talking about: that question you wanted to have answered. Test this. In the midst of a conversation say nothing for just 10 seconds -- a blip of time in most people's minds but an eternity of dead air.
5) Practice asking pointed questions without apologizing or being rude. Too often, reporters who are uncomfortable with the fact that we intrude into people's lives for a living try to compensate by becoming touchy-feely during an interview (which may leave a person feeling duped when they see their comments on paper) or by becoming Rambo (which leaves a person feeling abused). Broach tough questions in a direct manner. That's professional.
6) If you're losing track of the tale you're being told, ask the person to detail the chronology. For editors assigning a young reporter to a story this is especially helpful, since when it comes time to write, knowing the chronology of events presents a ready-made organization for a complex story.
7) Admit it when you're out of your league on a topic. Say that you don't understand and ask for a simpler breakdown of the information. This doesn't mean you don't have to do your homework but it recognizes that newspaper reporters (no matter how familiar they are with a beat) write for a general audience. You've got to understand it to write it.
8) If an analogy occurs to you during the interview, test it out on the person being interviewed -- or ask the person for an analogy that will help readers get the point. There's nothing worse than writing that X is like Y and then finding out that X is nothing at all like Y.
9) Be as aggressive about pursuing a line of questioning that elicits colorful details as you would questions that uncover wrongdoing. Knowing that a mom plans a homecoming meal for her injured Marine son is nice, but what dish is she making? Does it take long? Family recipe? His favorite? If you can say that she left a pot of marinara with those "tiny meatballs he loves" simmering for a few hours while she ducked out to get him at the airport it's a better read than "she plans a special homecoming meal." What was on the TV when the neighbor heard the gunfire from next door? What seat was the passenger in when the pilot said there was engine trouble? Was there an inflight movie on? What was it?
10) Ask questions that allow you to be as specific as you can in your storytelling without losing your readers. Cat is fine, Persian cat is better, white Persian cat is even better, and the Latin for the subgenus is too specific.
11) Always ask for the numbers for home phones, car phones and pagers --especially if things are going just great. Then keep them. You may not need them for this story, but they can come in awfully handy later.
12) Wrap up with the question: "Is
there anything else I should have asked?" It gives you an insight
in what the person thinks is important and gives them a chance to volunteer
something you may not have known they knew.
1) A story has several stages: Idea, reporting, organizing, drafting, rewrite. Organizing is the step most often glossed over. Code your notes in a fashion that suits you. Develop a system you can use while you're in an interview-- something that lets you flip through your notes before you leave an interview and quickly see what questions are hanging, what documents were promised to you, what phone numbers the person promised to get.
2) Ask yourself what's the point of this story and then eliminate any notes -- no matter how interesting -- that don't service that point. This is very tough to do but helps you avoid having to cut out the underbrush in a story later.
3) Plan the writing of a story. Sketch out a lede, write a line or two about what the first point will be, what the second will be, what the kicker will be. Journeys of discovery are nice but having a plan will save time and heartache, especially on deadline.
4) Draft first, revise later. Every story will have "sag" (sentences that are disjointed, weak transitions) but catch them on the revision.
5) Think about your kicker. A story should end, not merely stop -- and endings shouldn't always degenerate into some pithy quote. That's lazy.
6) If you have a problem with writer's block, the problem isn't where you are in the story, it's one step (or one graf, or one section) back. You did something that took you down a bad path, but it wasn't until you were on the path that you realized it. Retrace one step and you'll find the problem.
7) If you can't organize a story go back one step: to the reporting. You don't have enough information from your reporting to determine what the point of the story is.
8) Numbers are deadening in stories. Be sure you need everyone you use.
9) Make graphics part of the story. Convey statistics there, let a map show distributions of problems, use a yearbook or rogue's gallery with a box of type to show principal players.
10) Recognize the value of repetition, especially in complex stories. You may have to say several times, in slightly different ways, what an antigen match is, what bonding authorities are, etc.
11) Consciously pace a story. Short sentences enhance drama. Longer ones relay the rush of thoughts that may have gone through a person's head. Short sentences and small grafs dissect complicated information into chunks that are more manageable than a set of dependent clauses.
12) Think about how you will manage the flow of characters and difficult concepts. Act as a stage manager does. Bring a character onstage, introduce him, let them talk, them move them off stage.
13) Let the reader know that you know some passages are going to be tough sledding. Signal tough concepts by saying flat out that "the earned income tax credit works on a complex formula tied to household income." Rather than spring something on the reader, you've asked him to stick with you.
14) Reward the reader after a difficult passage with either a great quote or a great anecdote.
15) Stay vigilant about bad habits even in your stories that aren't "important", like police briefs, board meeting accounts, sports roundups. On big stories, reporters seem to take greater care in avoiding formulaic writing and tired phrases. But they'll lapse into it in those 2- and 3-graf briefs that make up most of any paper, which explains why the words "blaze" and "structure" appear so often in print. Along with that dynamic duo of every city paper: "Area man and local boy."
16) Reread your own byline clips every six months or so to discover what phrases and words you use out of habit. There will be some. Mine are "indeed" and -- amazing as it may seem --"nettlesome."