Shed your assumptions about what's expected.

After a two-month immersion into grading admissions tests for the Class of 2011, your humble Write Stuff scribe is ready to think and talk about writing again.

Shed your assumptions:  That’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard about reporting and writing.  I was reminded of that the other day when I read a magnificent little essay by the Times’ Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writing teacher himself:

Lately I’ve been thinking of the things my parents taught me — all those habits that were handed over to me one by one when I was a child. These are the sorts of thoughts I always have when I’m teaching writing, which is partly the act of revealing bad habits to their surprised owners.

That he was talking about the seemingly simple act of tieing his shoes made his point all the more powerful.

We bring a lot of assumptions to what we report and write, and they can get in the way.  I’m often surprised in conversations with students about what’s assumed:  That there’s a certain, formulaic way that “journalists” write; how you’ve got to use a bunch of quotes, no matter how boring, to prove you’re a dutiful journalist; how journalists must report the details of a process more than the specific details that tell a story.

As a first step, it’s important to at least question, if not lose, those kinds of assumptions.  They wall you off from telling a powerful story.  Use your senses in your reporting. Let readers see, smell, touch, hear and taste where you’ve been, the people you’ve met, the physical setting of the events you’re describing.  Put the reader into the scene.  Show, don’t tell.  Use vivid story-telling details that you can only get if you let your senses and your intelligence work for you, and the reader.

Another simple piece of advice:  Read good writing.  I was reminded of that when I took the advice of a Times book reviewer who, in effect, said I should drop everything and read A Gate at the Stairs, the latest book by Lorrie Moore, also a writing teacher.  The book tells a coming-of-age story of a young college woman in the Midwest who learns a lot about herself and life in a year of heartbreak and terrible loss.  That hardly does the story justice but here’s an excerpt when the main character talks about old times with her younger brother.  Notice how the author uses specific, exquisite detail to put you into the scene:

When the gnats weren’t bad I had sometimes accompanied him, sat in the waist-high widgeon grass beside him, the place pink with coneflowers, telling him the plot of, say, a Sam Peckinpah movie I’d never seen but had read about once in a syndicated article in The Dellacrosse Sunday Star. Crickets the size of your thumb would sing their sweet monotony from the brush. Sometimes there was a butterfly so perfect and beautiful, it was like a party barrette you wanted to clip in your hair. Above and around us green leaves would flash wet with sunsetting light. In this verdant cove I recounted the entire plot of ‘Straw Dogs.’ . . . Now we stood at the cold stream’s edge, tossing a stone in and listening for its plonk and plummet. I wanted to say, ‘Remember the time . . .’

One last piece of advice.  Talk about your reporting and writing with your professors, your fellow classmates.  You can learn a lot.   I was reminded of this as I read over Damiano Beltrami’s Commencement Day speech from last December.  Even as we learn to use tools such as crowd-sourcing and tweeting in our work, Damiano kept returning to what truly matters:

The key to success in this digital age is what we’ve learned in the streets of New York City, Tel Aviv and Brussels: REPORT, REPORT, AND REPORT.  Because if there is no good reporting, there is little to link to, nothing to blog about, and even less to share in Twitter.

Those are words to live by in any age.


This is the occasional newsletter from the Writing Coaches at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Contacts and hours this semester:

Heath Meriwether   

Tim Harper                   Room 413 (or hanging out in the newsroom)

Tuesday, 1-5 p.m.,  Wednesday       1 – 5 p.m, Thursday 1-5 p.

Or by appointment:

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The magic of mystery in your writing.

Here at the Write Stuff, we see a lot of leads that try to do too much. But as the weeks go by, we’re noticing more students who’ve discovered the magic of mystery.

Rather than cramming every theme and angle into the first graf, students use seductive sentences that lure readers to find out more.

Check these out:

The window of Zaytoons looked decidedly unadorned. (Christopher Schuetze)

Trina Pietz and Alecia Gersh layered on the same shade of lipstick, donned turquoise sequined tops, teased their hair, put on identical black pumps and marched out on stage. (Megan Finnegan)

Water doesn’t trickle down from the right basin of Jeanette Davis’ sink – it pours. (Alana Casanova-Burgess)

He picked the wrong park to play in. (Jessica Simeone)

What do you notice about these leads? They’re simple subject-verb sentences. They use active verbs. Most importantly, they create a whiff of mystery. They make us read on. They reward us with stories that fulfill the promise of their opening sentences. Check them out: Schuetze, Finnegan, Casanova-Burgess, Simeone.

It’s a technique, says writing coach Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute, that works for both mystery writers and smart journalists. Here’s an irresistible example Scanlan cited from a crime story in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer:

Three bodies, two counties, one case, no suspects.

Like Scanlan says in his book, “Reporting and Writing: Basics  for the 21st Century,” news consumers don’t have the patience to wait a long time for the answers. But it’s the mystery that worked its magic on them in the first place.

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An excellent adventure in reporting, Part II

Valerie Lapinski fell in love with Studs Terkel’s work a few years ago when she was preparing a radio series about jobs in a small southeast Alaska town. Little did she dream then that the death last year of the renowned chronicler of working people would start a process that ended with her own powerful scoop of how the FBI kept a dossier on Terkel for 45 years.

But that’s getting ahead of our story, which includes Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the arrival of 147 redacted pages from the FBI, an intense weekend of pulling together a piece with the help of professors/editors Andy Lehren and Jere Hester, and the utter satisfaction of beating major media players to the finish line and watching them pick up her dust.

Valerie was inspired to take Lehren’s Investigative Reporting course when ’08 alum Cristina Alesci obtained the FBI file on the late, great David Halberstam. Valerie couldn’t wait to get her hands on documents the public had never seen, and it didn’t take long for Lehren to give her that chance. As a warmup assignment for Lehren’s fall course, Valerie last summer asked for Terkel’s FBI file, which, under law, the agency had to relinquish once a subject had died. The FBI sent a reply that it was working on it. In September, having heard nothing, Valerie filed a follow-up letter to the FBI. In the crush of school work, Valerie nearly forgot about her request until the envelope arrived Nov. 13.

With a 147-page, mini-phonebook of a file in hand, Valerie walked around town, completely intimidated. “What was inside, and how on earth was I going to know what to do with it?” she thought.

Lehren to the rescue. He lit a fire under Valerie to get started ASAP in case other media had received a copy of the same file. He reminded her to look for the initials, the stamps, the little checked boxes, mostly to see if the file had reached the upper echelons of the FBI. She also took care with the FBI’s exact wording and list of informants (which are blocked out, or redacted, in the documents). She brushed up on Terkel’s life, the political tenor of the times, and researched each of the personalities mentioned, such as actor Paul Robeson. All day Sunday, for 12 bleary-eyed hours, she cranked out a story with the help of Lehren and Hester. Finally, she had a complete piece up on the News Service, plus the documents.

With a nudge from Hester to journalism colleagues in Chicago, where Terkel is still a local hero, it didn’t take long for the AP, the Chicago Tribune and several blogs to pick up the story and give it the distribution it deserved.

The lessons? There are many but here’s a great summary from Jere:

* Every moment that passes puts you one moment closer to being scooped. Valerie could have said to herself, “Ah, I’ll just wait until Monday.” But she dove into it, and turned around a strong piece in short order.

* Do your research. Studs Terkel lived a very eventful 96 years. Valerie needed to know quite a bit about him to separate the wheat from the chaff in the file, to discern what was new and significant, to give the story context. In a story like this, that’s half the battle.

* Don’t hesitate to promote your own story. Once the story is posted/published, the reporter’s job isn’t done. Use your network — Facebook, Twitter, journalism contacts — to get the word out. Never be afraid to ask your editors or other trusted veteran journalists for help.

Terkel, who knew the FBI had tailed him for much of his career, would’ve been proud of Valerie for exposing to the public what the agency had done.

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An excellent adventure in reporting.

It started with an e-mail just past midnight Nov. 3 and ended with a Nov. 12 story on the Metro front of the New York Times. But what happened in between for Damiano Beltrami was a classic case of a good story in the hands of a good reporter and editor (and good teachers, it turns out).

But let’s start at the beginning. At 12:02 a.m., Nov. 3, Andy Newman of the Times’ Local staff asked four reporters by e-mail whether they’d be interested in a story in which the DA’s office confirmed an armed robbery suspect’s alibi that he was posting on Facebook in Harlem at the time when the crime occurred in Brooklyn. Even though busy with his capstone and other CUNY work, Damiano said he was fascinated. A bit later, Newman said the story was his.

First lesson: Raise your hand.

Damiano picked up a camera at school and headed to Harlem where he interviewed the now-free Rodney Bradford (he’d spent 12 days at Rikers Island jail), his father and step-mom. They all said Rodney had been in Harlem at the time of the crime and used his dad’s computer to post to Facebook. He took down their stories, shot pictures of Bradford at his dad’s computer and a screen-shot of his Facebook page.

Now what, Damiano asked himself. He felt he needed an expert to put what happened in a larger context. After tirelessly calling law professors at Columbia and NYU, he couldn’t find anyone who had anything to say about this intersection of social media and the law.

Mary Ann Giordano, the editor of The Local, pushed Damiano to keep trying. He spent most of a Saturday night searching Lexis-Nexis and Factiva (“social networking and law”) until he came up with John Browning, a Dallas lawyer who’d written articles on the topic. Damiano e-mailed Browning. Bingo! The next day, Browning responded, and gave Damiano examples of how social networks had been used in both criminal and civil matters. But this was the first time, the lawyer said, he’d heard about Facebook being used as an alibi.

Giordano pushed Damiano to get another expert who might not agree with the DA’s handling of the case. Damiano called almost everyone on the faculty in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He made himself such a presence that a frustrated receptionist finally put him on hold and found a professor eating in the cafeteria.

Joseph Pellini provided Damiano with some great quotes suggesting it wasn’t hard to create a Facebook post that could be traced to another computer. (That may be a whole other story; after Damiano’s story was posted on The Local, techies filled three pages of comments about all the possibilities.)

Finally, Damiano was ready to put together his story, along with quotes from Bradford’s lawyer. But Giordano wasn’t through with him. She sat down with his copy, and used a yellow highlighter to note all the fact-checking she wanted, including verification of everything from the Dallas lawyer. Damiano couldn’t immediately contact Browning so it was back to searching Lexis and Factiva, and employing every stratagem he learned from research professors Barbara Gray and Anne Mintz. He verified everything and learned he’d misspelled the first name of one of the victims in the armed robbery case.

Lesson learned: Even if you only have five more minutes, you should check one more time. You have to make those calls if you want to report at a higher level. Keep on harassing people until you get the other side, more information and better anecdotes.

During the whole process, Damiano said he appreciated the lessons he learned from Craft professors Dody Tsiantar and Rebecca Leung (I) and Indrani Sen and Jan Simpson (II). They’d drilled into him the importance of making sure all the names in his stories were correct, and to always include a source contact list with phone numbers. “It shows that you are really serious about what you’re doing,” Damiano said.

Damiano filed his story on The Local, and then a shorter, edited version appeared on the Metro front. But in today’s media world, a story never really ends. The story was picked up by AP and The Huffington Post, and several tech sites. It created a flashfire of comments and conversation across the Internet.

“News is the kindling for conversation,” said Jim Schachter, head of the Times digital operation, at CUNY’s New Business Models for (Local) News conference last week.

We’d add that reporting like Damiano’s is the kindling for the kind of superior journalism that will always get talked about, whatever its format.

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What's different about blog writing, and what's not.

Space. Time. Shape.  Interactive professor Jeremy Caplan used those three words to explain the differences in how we write for online or for print.  In a follow-up to Trudy Lieberman’s discussion last week, we found Caplan’s descriptions quite useful in understanding the two forms.

First, the differences:

Space — A blog can be any length, from a very short post to a four-part series (or longer).  You’re not restricted to a defined number of words, lines or space.

Time — In print, a story is a snapshot in time.  It can be a powerful, evocative, provocative piece but it is bounded by what you know at a certain time.  The online piece allows a story to evolve over time, and provides a natural place to update a situation and add new information.  The format also allows  multiple posts on the same subject over time.

Shape — Online is three-dimensional.  You can see it, hear it, read it.  Print is flat, one-dimensional (you can only read it although we might argue the best writing allows the reader to imagine, or see, the scene).  Online gives the reporter more ways to tell the story.

What’s the same?

Storytelling, Caplan says.  Whether online or print, your story needs a beginning, middle and end, with a protagonist (person, place, organization) and conflict or tension (some action that needs to be overcome, dealt with).  In either form, if the content isn’t there, if the reporting isn’t there, it doesn’t work for the reader.

We also asked Interactive Professor Sandeep Junnarkar what he tells his students about blog writing.  It’s useful advice:

* Be fair, accurate and balanced.  Don’t have an axe to grind.

* Be level-headed.  Don’t fire off wild opinions.  It’s not only rash, it will hurt you when potential employers, or interview subjects, check your work.

* Be authoritative based on your reporting, not your opinion.

That’s something on which we can all agree, whatever form we’re writing in.

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A long-time print journalist finds her voice in blog.

When Trudy Lieberman started a blog on health care coverage two years ago for the Columbia Journalism Review, she felt like she’d been let out of prison.  Suddenly, after four decades confined to the strictures of print journalism — 5W’s, nut graf, inverted pyramid, a limited space — she found her voice, one based on her authoritative reporting of health care policy and how it’s covered.

“I could be edgy, irreverent, engaging and analytical,” said Lieberman, CUNY’s director of the health & medicine reporting program and a long-time contributing editor to CJR.  “Because I know the subject so well, I could cut through the BS and be totally honest.”

We asked Trudy to share her thoughts:

WRITE STUFF (WS):  How’d the blog start?

TRUDY: Two years ago, I asked CJR Editor Mike Hoyt if I could do something online about health care coverage and he suggested the blog with at least three posts a week.   I gulped.  Three stories a week after I was used to spending three months or longer on stories for Consumer Reports and for the print version of CJR?    Suddenly, after all these years, I would be doing daily journalism again. By the second week, though, I realized I really could do this, and I loved it.  An old newspaper person (I worked at the Detroit Free Press for eight years) never totally leaves the beat.  I could write fast because I had great knowledge of the subject, and it was so easy to connect the dots that too often go unconnected.   It was very easy for me to switch to this form of journalism.  My work  only got better.

WS:  How?

TRUDY:  I got looser in my writing. I realized the constraints of the (print) format, the prescriptive style, had confined my writing all these years.  I always was focused on ledes and nut grafs that sometimes are still hard for me to write.  When I began the blog post, the nut graf turned into a nut sentence or two high up that answered the question:  What is this post about?  It’s the question I always ask myself when I start to write.  Instead of spending hours creating an outline on paper, it was simpler to write the main points of the nut graf and then come back and add the documentation or my take on an issue.  It was still an outline but more concise. The blog format helped me find my voice as a writer.   At Consumer Reports where I worked for 29 years,  I wrote in the voice of the magazine rather than in the first person, which made it hard to be breezy.

WS:  And now?

TRUDY:  When I started blogging, it was like I’d been let out of a pen.  My voice just took off.  I didn’t have to worry about the 5W’s or the other constraints we’ve talked about.

WS:  You’ve talked about how well you know the subject.  Obviously, most of us, particularly our students, haven’t had that kind of experience.  What’s your advice for them?

TRUDY:  It’s not about pretty writing.  It’s all about the reporting.  And I don’t mean storytelling, the term of art that’s in vogue today.  To me, those words mean something different and often convey to student journalists that all they have to do is find an anecdote, add a couple of grafs based on a quick web search, and the story is done.  The term does not imply a thorough investigation or understanding of an issue, large or small.  Reporting is about understanding what you want to say.  If you don’t thoroughly report the subject, it’s hard to have a blog post that says something meaningful.  Unless you can tell a reader what something means, the post can be useless.

WS: Talk more about the reporting, which is so central to what we talk about here.

TRUDY:  You can free yourself from the constraints of the print format, but you can’t free yourself from reporting if you want to be a good journalist, and that means  interviewing the eleventh person who may say something that blows up your story.  Young reporters have to learn to make that last phone call.  It can be a hard lesson to learn.

WS: Health care is a complex subject.  Does the blog help you explore and explain the complexities?

TRUDY:  Yes.  The truth is a lot more complicated than ‘He said, she said’ journalism, a dictum that goes hand-in-hand with the tenets of the old journalism we all learned.  That means blog posts should be more than two-source journalism.  You’ve got to go out there and do the reporting, no matter what medium your work will appear in.   You can’t sit on the Internet and do it.  You’ve also got to read deeply about the topic you’re writing about.  The challenge of using the new tools is to figure out how to report complicated stories in short form, perhaps as a long-running series or with context added by engaging the public.  I feel like we can really invent something here, and the new digital journalism gives us a clean slate to do it.

WS:  Your best advice?

TRUDY: Reporting is the foundation of everything we do.  Reporting for one story helps build a base for the next one.  That’s what good reporters have learned. I urge students to first do a thorough clip search before starting a story, learn what the topic is all about, and then go and report the hell out of it.

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How to get A-hed in feature writing.

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.

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Get active to improve your writing.

“Reduced to its essence, a good English sentence is a statement that an agent (the subject of the sentence) performed an action (the verb) upon something (the object).” — John Ciardi, American poet and writing teacher

“Those of us lucky enough to write in English have no excuse for using anything less than the strongest verbs.”– Jack Hart, “A Writer’s Coach.”

We can’t improve on Ciardi and Hart. But we join them on their call for more sentences that derive their power from a construction of subject, strong active verb and object. You diminish the power of your sentences when you construct them in the passive voice. The reader senses little urgency and abandons your story. The passive voice also encourages the use of unneeded words and forms of the weak verb “to be” — is, are, was, were.

What do we mean by the passive voice? Jack Hart gives this simple example: PASSIVE: The ball was clobbered by the cleanup batter vs. ACTIVE: The cleanup batter clobbered the ball. What usually happens, Hart says, is that the writer takes the original object of the verb and twists it into the subject of the sentence. It’s important to find the passive voice in your writing and ask whether the active voice would work better. Check, too, how often you use a form of the verb “to be” and see if you can rewrite to use an active verb.

The active voice encourages you to find the strongest possible verbs, too. While the use of gerunds and participles (creating nouns and adjectives by adding -ing to verbs) sometimes adds vitality to your writing, their overuse often suffocates strong verbs yearning to be free. (In other words, strong verbs yearn to be free). Here’s an example from a recent edit:

ORIGINAL: That technology was on full display, with the giant screen showing the tug-of-war, broadcasts blaring in two languages, chefs in both cities trying out recipes.

BETTER: The technology was on full display as the giant screen showed the tug of war, broadcasts blared in two languages and chefs in both cities tried out recipes.

OR The technology was on full display: The giant screen showed the tug of war, broadcasts blared in two languages and chefs in both cities tried out recipes.

Here are two more simple examples of how a switch to the active voice can move your sentence faster, eliminate unneeded words and convey action:

ORIGINAL: It was not until around 2005 that the situation improved.

BETTER: The situation improved in 2005.

ORIGINAL: However, his 8 years as mayor has also given Mike Bloomberg ample opportunity to offend various groups of voters in one way or another.

BETTER: Bloomberg’s eight years as mayor gave him ample opportunity to offend voters in one way or another.

So get active and make yourself a better writer.

P.S.  Craft professor Dave Lewis provided a wonderful example of the active/passive issue —  Which would you prefer hearing from your significant other? I love you or You are loved.  Case closed.

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The secret to getting published.

Mike Reicher followed up on a tip to the Times’ Metro desk. Eleanor Miller used a cold-call e-mail to pitch the Brooklyn Rail. Emily Johnson walked in the door of the Canarsie Courier and talked to two of their editors.

What really helped them get published, of course, was good old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting.

Mike, who works for the Times’ local blog, went to the historic Harlem building that was losing its top two floors and got in touch with all the players. He didn’t get bogged down in the building’s confusing history or the legal machinations surrounding it. Instead, he stayed focused on the news and the most recent developments, and succinctly summarized what had happened in the past. Result: A print version of his story in the Times, with byline.

Besides her all-out hustle to get the story, we liked the energy of Eleanor’s lead and how her strong description set up the rest of the story:

The actors ran barefoot on a sandy beach and projected their lines over the cries of seagulls. The audience sat in 1,500 white folding chairs on a boardwalk across from a mural of Henry Hudson’s landing on Coney Island.

This was not a typical production of The Tempest.

Here’s how Eleanor pitched her stories to editors:

This Saturday and Sunday, 1,500 audience members are expected to crowd the Coney Island boardwalk to watch a one-of-a-kind theatrical performance. Brave New World Repertory Theatre, a company based in Brooklyn and made up entirely of Brooklyn cast members, will present its rendition of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in an extraordinary beachfront performance that is free and open to the public. The setting in Coney Island was certainly no accident, and Claire Beckman, the artistic director of Brave New World, willingly draws parallels between “the magic and mystery of Prospero’s island and Coney Island, and the allure of it. We’re sort of drawn to it without knowing why. We can’t let go of the magic of the place.”The play will use both the boardwalk and the beach as a stage. “The sea is a character,” Beckman told the cast at Thursday night’s dress rehearsal. “You have this incredible set.”

Eleanor’s pitch showed that she had done some reporting, had access and could get the story.  We don’t want to pitch stories that fall through.  The main thing Eleanor’s pitch shows is that if we raise our hands and step forward, good things happen. We can’t get published unless we pitch.

Emily, who chose last in the CD lottery and picked Canarsie, asked the Courier editors to give her a call if they ever needed anyone to cover anything. Oh, and she could take photos, too, which they loved. No surprise, then, that the next morning she got a call to cover a civic meeting where she heard residents complain bitterly about getting tickets for double parking. Talk about a classic New York story.

BTW, the editors already have given her another story to work on.

These reporters’ tales of getting published echo so many we’ve heard in the last few years: Work your beat, create opportunities and report, report, report. Check with your Craft professors, writing coaches and the News Service’s Jere Hester.

Here are Jere’s simple but elegant ideas about getting published:

•Go in with a good story — if you’re not sure, some tests: Can you say it in a sentence? Are you excited about the story? Are you breaking new ground? Run it by some friends, trusted colleagues, mentors.

•Do you have art? If you don’t, get some – ASAP. If it’s a photo/video/multimedia story, make sure you have some companion text.

•Is it exclusive? Editors love something no one else has.

•Corollary: Do your research. Check the clips — see if the publication/outlet you’re targeting has tackled the issue before. Other outlets also might have taken a crack. Think about what you need to do to push the story ahead. You don’t want an editor to tell you, “We did that story last week.” That may be the last conversation you have.

•Know the publication/outlet you’re targeting. Don’t pitch a 2,000-word piece on citywide housing policy to a community paper that runs 400-word stories focusing on a certain neighborhood. You might want to consider a 400-word piece on how the new citywide housing policy will affect one neighborhood…

•Be flexible — express a willingness to work with the editor on doing whatever has to be done to get the story out to the world.

•Not sure where to pitch a story? Check with your friendly neighborhood News Service director or the writing coaches.

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Make sure your quotes help tell the story.

It’s important to be selective about the quotes you use in stories. Too many stories get larded with quotes that don’t advance the story, quotes that provide information rather than insight into a character, a cause or a theme. Our advice: Paraphrase the informational quotes with attribution; tell the story in your own words. Use only quotes that help move the story.

We were encouraged to see a strong ear for storytelling quotes in recent clips. Kerri Macdonald for the Queens Courier went to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Astoria with Tony Bennett and made his quotes sing:

“The fact that in Life magazine he called me his favorite singer – I’ve never gotten over that,” said Bennett, who was born Anthony Benedetto 83 years ago. “So that’s where it’s at. That’s why this school is called the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts,” added Bennett, whose quip got a laugh out of Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy.

Kerri also captured another musical hall-of-famer, Quincy Jones, at his pithy best: Jones offered the students some words of wisdom that Frank Sinatra once gave him, “Live every day like it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right.”

Kerri wasn’t the only CUNY reporter to dance with the stars. Megan Finnegan for Irish Central interviewed actress Julia Stiles, who’s starring on Broadway in David Mamet’s play, “Oleanna,” in which her character confronts a professor with whom she had a sexual encounter. But the play’s about more than that, Stiles insists, and Megan lets her quote end the story: “It goes beyond sexuality,” says Stiles. “There is no right and wrong in this play.”

Using a quote to end your story isn’t always the best way. But when it neatly summarizes your story, it’s a good strategy. Jessica Dailey in the Brooklyn Eagle used a quote to end her story of how a new school playground/park worked for both students and residents in Crown Heights. She quoted 76-year-old Florencio Cruz, a longtime resident, to suggest how the new park has revitalized the neighborhood.

Cruz, who remembers playing baseball on the lot when it was just dirt, said the new park gives the community a safe place to spend time. “The neighborhood has a bad reputation. I used to be afraid to walk around,” he said. “But now we have this. My wife and I can walk here and feel safe.”

Kristen Joy Watts did a delightful post for the New York Times Lens blog on a former newspaper photographer, Dave Yoder, who made the transition to fashion photographer. She made us smile at Yoder’s memory of his first day on the new job:

Mr. Yoder’s initiation to his new subject was unceremonious. He showed up with a few cameras, and, standing in the middle of the fray backstage at his first show, suddenly realized he was in a room full of mostly naked women. He panicked, thinking that he was in a lot of trouble. “I thought somebody was going to spot me,” he said. But he quickly learned that there is a code of honor backstage. Photographers avert their lenses while the models are changing, and if they don’t, the other photographers present will make sure that they do.

Instead of quoting Yoder at length on his first day, Kristen tells his story. That’s far more effective writing than a long quote. The quote she uses acts as a springboard into the rest of what the photographer learned that day. But when she hears a storytelling quote from the fashion photographer, she lets him speak in his own words: “When I was working on newspapers, we called publication the daily miracle. Fashion week is the hourly miracle.”

Now that’s storytelling.

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