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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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: email@example.com