His Wall Street Journal editors call Barry Newman the dean of A-heds, the elegantly crafted feature stories that for years occupied the middle column of Page One. Now ensconced in a box at the bottom of the page, the A-heds could become a thing of the past, Newman fears, if Rupert Murdoch and his new editors get their way. But not yet.
For Tim Harper’s Craft class this week, the thin, graying, avuncular Newman opened a window into how he puts together these 1,200-word gems, which sometimes take a month to prepare. He writes about 10 a year, which, in these times, may sound like an unaffordable luxury. But when combined with other Journal reporters’ A-heds, Newman and colleagues produce a daily surprise and delight for readers, and the sort of reporting and writing that burnishes the Journal brand for excellence.
Newman has written about everything from grape nuts (hint: no grapes, no nuts) to a business called “Going out of Business” (we’re not making this up) to Moammar Gadhafi’s tent problem in Englewood, N.J. (For the record, his Englewood story was a one-day turnaround, but displays Newman’s trademark humor and punchy writing). One more anecdote of Newman’s resourcefulness, taken from a foreword to a Journal anthology of A-heds, “Floating off the Page”: Thirty-one years ago, banging about the Australian Outback, Newman learned that Australian sheep farmers, to keep dingoes (wild dogs) away from their sheep, had put up a barbed-wire fence longer than the Great Wall of China. A distant New York editor didn’t think the story worth more than $200 in expenses. Undaunted, Newman rented exactly $200 of air time from a local farmer with a small plane and got the color he needed from above.
Here are a few of the many tips Barry shared with Tim’s class:
* Test market your story idea with your colleagues. If they don’t like it, neither will readers.
* Build your story around an observable event or action to provide a narrative thread.
* Establish a sense of place, so that readers understand how the story couldn’t happen anywhere else.
* Keep the mystery alive. Don’t try to tell the reader everything in the first few paragraphs.
* Interview more than one person at a time. There’s nothing like dialogue to speed up your story.
* Use short, punchy sentences.
*Organize your notes into themes or categories. Newman indexes his notebook. Whatever works.
* Omit needless words. Be obsessive-compulsive about it. Compress, compress, compress!
* Be willing to kill your children. OK, he didn’t say that but it’s what he meant. Sometimes you’ve got to throw away your best stuff when it gets in the way.
* If you’re passionate about your subject, you can excite readers. If you’re not, you can’t.
* Do the reporting. Without it, you can’t write with confidence and authority.