“The smell of death was overpowering the moment a relief worker cracked open one of the hospital chapel’s wooden doors. Inside, more than a dozen bodies lay motionless on low cots and on the ground, shrouded in white sheets. Here, a wisp of gray hair peeked out. There, a knee was flung akimbo. A pallid hand reached across a blue gown.”
Within days, the grisly tableau became the focus of an investigation into what happened when the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina marooned Memorial Medical Center in Uptown New Orleans. The hurricane knocked out power and running water and sent the temperatures inside above 100 degrees. Still, investigators were surprised at the number of bodies in the makeshift morgue and were stunned when health care workers charged that a well-regarded doctor and two respected nurses had hastened the deaths of some patients by injecting them with lethal doses of drugs. Mortuary workers eventually carried 45 corpses from Memorial, more than from any comparable-size hospital in the drowned city.’’
We preach a lot here about the importance of reading good writing. The announcement Monday of the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes reminded me why.
Above are the first two paragraph of Sheri Fink’s exhaustive account of the horrific things that happened at the hospital in New Orleans. It had taken Fink, a doctor herself and a reporter for ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism, more than two years to piece together from interviews, court transcripts and hospital records the story of those awful days of life-and-death decisions that doctors and nurses found themselves having to make.
Her piece ran last year in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Monday won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting.
The first lesson we should learn from such work is that it’s always about the reporting. But another important one is that, no matter how exhaustive your story, it’s critical to capture the reader in your opening. In her next paragraphs, Fink laid out the scope of her reporting but a reader could’ve dropped off without the compelling start.
As many of you begin work on your capstones, and other in-depth work, it’s important to read pieces like this that show how writers can shape their material into unforgettable images that will hook readers from the start.
The Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing provided another example of the same principle. Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post, who won in the same category in 2008, spent months reporting and writing on the tragic cases of children who died when their parents left them in cars. Again, it was an exhaustive story that ran for pages in the Post’s Sunday Magazine. Here’s how he started the story:
The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn’t want any sedation, that he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.
As this imagery sticks in your mind, it’s worth noting what author Stephen King, in his book “On Writing,” said about the importance of reading. Even though he was discussing fiction, his idea is just as important for journalists interested in improving their writing:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that…The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.’’
So Read. Then Write On.