William Safire, Wordsmith, R.I.P.

William Safire, the Nixon speechwriter turned Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, cared deeply about words and the way we use them. It’s fitting, then, that his obituary today paid homage to his longtime column on language as well as his famously alliterative phrase about the press, “the nattering nabobs of negativism.” The Times’ Robert D. McFadden also showed us how the use of small but specific details add up to a masterful description:

He was hardly the image of a buttoned-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.

The obit also included, for both our edification and amusement, Safire’s “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid cliches like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

Safire lived by words.  And he left us words to live by.

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National Punctuation Day!:?{-}(–)",;'…!

Rejoice, it’s National Punctuation Day! The brainchild of a former newspaperman turned newsletter writer, Jeff Rubin, the day is dedicated to the correct use of punctuation. Naturally, newspaper columnists and editors hungry for any idea they can turn around quickly have pounced on punctuation as a worthy cause. Here’s an amusing but pointed reaction from the Washington Post’s John Kelly, who characterized Rubin’s quest as “one man looking for comma ground in a world where most people don’t know their apostrophe from a hole in the ground.”

Punctuation can make a mighty difference in your writing. Here at The Write Stuff, we’ve long maintained that one of the strongest weapons in a writer’s arsenal is the period. Caught in a long, meandering sentence, long separated from its subject and verb, a writer always should ask whether it wouldn’t be better to end the sentence or break it in half. All that’s needed is a period. OK, sometimes a semicolon will work, too, although many people don’t how to use the semicolon (the most prominent use is to separate independent thoughts, both of which could stand alone as independent sentences, e.g. This is a sentence; this could be another.). A couple of Craft professors highlighted some other punctuation issues: The lack of punctuation in quotes (treat them the same as your writing and apply proper punctuation) and the overuse of punctuation, especially the comma, which allows too many writers to keep alive those meandering sentences. Which brings us back to the period.

Finally, to punctuate the day, here’s a quiz for your enjoyment.

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Want clips? Know your audience.

By Tim Harper and Heath Meriwether

It’s great to see the clips being generated by so many CUNY students. They’re a fresh reminder about how important it is, when you’re “selling” an article, to understand the audience you’re trying to reach.

Two quick examples from this week’s clips.  Hannah Rappleye scored with the kind of short, punchy, informative writing a reader expects in the Daily News. Jenni Avins took a lighthearted, chatty approach in her Fashion Week post for Dossier, an arts-and-culture journal that adopts an insiderish tone with its readers. We thought both pieces worked for their respective audiences and we asked both reporters how their stories came together.

Hannah sent the News a well-reported article with a newsy top. An editor there reshaped the tone with a jauntier first sentence. {“Bye, bye, biscotti.”} Said Hannah: “He was definitely responsible for shaping the tone to fit the Daily News audience–and it was very, very Daily News, wasn’t it? If I knew I was writing for the Daily News, I would adjust my writing accordingly–make it punchier and shorter.”

For the record, we liked what Hannah sent the News the first time. But it isn’t unusual that an editor there shaped it to fit the audience, particularly the “biscotti” opener. Jere Hester, who fashioned many such a lead during his 15 years at the News, made an astute point about this kind of approach: “I think they can be a great way into a story, as long as appropriate and not overused — and amusing, of course.”

Hannah made another fascinating point about writing for different audiences: “I’ve developed the ability to write in voices that are completely opposite than my own; it’s sort of like when the writer has to become the actor…Or perhaps all writers are actors, all the time. I haven’t figured that one out yet.”

Jenni Avins became an actor in her first-person approach in the Dossier file. The online journal, Jenni says, gives her the freedom “to use my own voice.” She had “loads of notes from the show about the fabrics, the makeup, the setting, the models, the music, etc., but in the end I tried to take a little moment that I thought encapsulated what it felt like to be there, as well as the mood of the collection…and write in that mood as well: pretty, but practical (as opposed to snarky, aggressive, or funny–all of which might have their place elsewhere on Dossier). Does that make any sense?”

Actually, we thought it made quite good sense. We don’t often advise a first-person approach but it works here because it establishes an intimacy and immediacy with readers, which writing online often demands. Yet it still has all the classic elements of a newspaper or magazine story, with a nut graf that tells you, without intruding, what was going on and what the writer thought.

We thought the approach paid off for her audience.

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How to write good leads.

The lead’s the thing. Editing sessions with new students last week suggested many of you struggle to come up with leads that hook readers.  A common flaw:  Too much information crammed into the first paragraph.  When you stuff most of your notebook into that first graf, you drown your readers, and yourselves. Consider some leads Jere Hester highlighted for us from this summer’s internships. You’ll see how a writer can use imagery (Lindsay Lazarski on, arrgh, the smells and sights of rat infestation),  contrasts (Damiano Beltrami, on a Spanish speaker at an Arabic-speaking university) and contradictions (Carla Murphy, on how African-American jazz greats were treated at home and abroad) to entice readers to stay with your story.  Some, like Joe Walker, even violate the usual strictures against quote leads.  The true test is what works.

How do you know when something works?  Bounce your leads off professors, editors, colleagues.  Talk about what works, and what doesn’t.  Analyze good leads in newspapers and magazines.  Think about some ideas we shared last year.  From that list, my favorite advice is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Don’t worry, you’ll get lots of practice trying to write the best possible lead.

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To write better, read better.

The first step in becoming a better writer is to read good writing. Sounds basic but I’m often surprised by how often this is ignored by students, and others, who want to improve their writing. The excuse that ‘I don’t have time to read’ doesn’t make much sense for someone in our profession. Here’s a suggestion that should help develop your creative reading muscles: Every day, look for a piece of good writing that grabs your attention, and analyze why it works for you. It doesn’t matter where you find it, whether it’s a magazine or newspaper article, a speech, in fiction, a blog, a broadcast script. On Wednesday, with the saturation coverage of Ted Kennedy’s death, I found the eulogy he delivered after his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in June 1968:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Ask yourself why this works so well. For me, it’s the use of strong, simple words that play off each other: “wrong” and “right”, “suffering” and “heal”, “war” and “stop.” I love the crispness of each thought, and the parallel construction of “saw” and “tried to” in each phrase. It’s little wonder that the speech is considered one of the greatest in the history of American rhetoric and still studied today.

I don’t expect students to reread that speech and immediately apply its strategy in their next story on a Queens community board. But if each day, we find writing that excites us, and we analyze why it does, we’ll develop a reading muscle that will help us strengthen our writing.

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How to make the best possible pitch.

Most of you are about halfway finished at the J-School – the midpoint of the middle semester – and you’re realizing what it takes to be a professional, to get the OK to do the stories you want to do, to get someone to publish them and even sometimes pay you for them. You’re realizing how important a good pitch can be.

As coaches, we get a fair number of requests for help with pitching, and we’d like to get more. The goal is to get more work published, and to get paid for it whenever possible. Don’t think that pitching is for freelancers only; even if you work in a large news organization you’re constantly pitching to be able to get the assignments you want.

Preparing a good pitch not only helps us get assignments and clips, but also makes us more productive. When you know you can get a good story, you work more efficiently. Yes, it takes more time to do a good pitch, but it’s worth it.

We’re going to start assembling a file of good pitches and queries for you to peruse, and we have books that offer prescriptions for good queries. Get in touch if you have a story you want to talk about pitching. Something you’re working on? Something from first semester? Something that can be expanded? Something you’d like to do in the future? We’ll help.

For now, here’s Tim’s pitch checklist. If you can answer the questions below before you pitch a story verbally or send out a written query, you’re going to increase your chances of getting the assignment, the clip and the paycheck.

Tim Harper’s Pitch Checklist

Main questions:
– Is this a story?
– Or is it just an idea/topic?
– How can I make it into a story?
– Is my premise true?
– Am I sure I can get the story?
– Do I have the critical source or facts or statistics? Or am I going to be embarrassed if I can’t do the story because some key sources don’t call me back?

More questions:
– Can I sum up the story in one sentence?
– The focus of this story is… The heart of the story is…
– Do I have a prospective nut graf or cosmic section? Maybe it will get better, but it would be helpful to be able to write out a possible nut graf/cosmic section.
– Would the prospective lede and/or nut graf of the story make a good pitch? (Most editors say yes.)
– Can I back up or support or expand on the elements of the story identified in the nut graf?
– How much work have I done on the story already? What research/interviews have I done? What statistics/facts do I have?
– Who or what are my sources? Who will be the people in this story? Are they only talking heads? Or will they be real people doing real things, people with a stake in what happens or doesn’t happen?
– Will those people talk to me? In the time and the depth I need for the story?
– How will I report this story? Sit-down interviews? Phoners? Statistics/reports? Historic background? Live-in? Fly on the wall? Attend an event or go along on a task?
– How am I going to structure this story? Anecdotes? Are there opportunities for narrative?

And maybe the most important questions:
– Where is this story going to run? Where will I pitch it?
– Why is it suitable for this market? What stories has this market run that make me think the editors will like my story? Has this market run stories so similar to my mine that the editors won’t be interested?
– Where else has this story been published? How are the previous stories different and/or not as good as mine? Is mine fresher, with new information, a different angle, more personalized, a narrative?

Shout Outs

We’re all awash in story after story about seized-up credit markets, subprime mortgages, securitizations and enough acronyms (TARP, TARF) to drown in. The result is a lot of repetitive, headache-inducing information without much understanding or context. That’s where CUNY reporters, with boots squarely on the ground in New York City, help tell the human stories unfolding in this recession.

Karina Ioffee and Damiano Beltrami provided excellent examples of street-level stories that provided sure indicators of what’s happening in our economy. Karina reported in the Daily News on strong citywide sales of private safes for the past six months. Damiano, in The Hunts Point Express, followed the plight of John Hyun who may have to close his small market in the Bronx after 10 years of operation. We liked Damiano’s nut graf that summarized the challenge facing people like Hyun:

The economic crisis that has affected New York and the nation in recent months has hit small business like Hyun’s hard. With rising rent, electric and heating bills, owners have faced an up-hill battle. The Big Brother Market is a portrait in miniature of these large-scale troubles, one of many Bronx businesses battered by forces beyond its control.

Damiano was well ahead of the competition, which is the way we like it at CUNY.

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'Bursts of life': How to use quotes.


We like the definition of quotes as “bursts of life.” Good quotes brighten up a story, speed it along and draw the reader in. Marcella Veneziale showed how to use a quote right after the nut graf – always a prime spot for a good “global quote” summing up the story – in her piece for Chelsea Now on the struggling art market:

“For this sector, I would not call this a recession,” said art economist David Kusin, founder of the art market research firm Kusin & Co. “It’s a full-blown, sustained depression.”

A Reminder: Doing Things the Write Way

Hemingway said good writers borrow, but great writers steal. Hemingway didn’t have the Internet, which makes borrowing – and stealing – both easier and more dangerous.

It’s tempting to cut and paste stuff from the Web into our digital notes – a quote from an e-mail, a stray statistic, some background from the “About Us” corner of an organization’s web site.

We as journalists must be very careful that these digital clips don’t find their way into our stories. At best, it’s laziness and sloppiness. At worst, it’s plagiarism. Either way, it’s trouble.


Here’s a fascinating site that lets you scan the U.S. map with your computer mouse – and up pops the front page of that’s day’s paper in that city:


That’s it for another fun-filled edition from your cheerful writing coaches. Come see us, or send us your stuff. We’ll try to help you improve it and/or get it published.

How to contact Writing Coaches:

Tim Harper Room 413 (or hanging out in the newsroom)
Tuesday noon – 5 p.m.
Wednesday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Thursday noon – 5 p.m.
Or by appointment: tim.harper@journalism.cuny.edu

Heath Meriwether heath.meriwether@journalism.cuny.edu

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John Updike, a writer remembered.

The death of one of our great writers, John Updike, sent me on a search for memories. Although best known for his novels and short stories, Updike was an extraordinary observer of real life, whether it was the glories of a pencil or the last at-bat of baseball legend Ted Williams. Here’s a memorable piece from Oct. 22, 1960 that had me on my feet cheering from the first sentence to the last:

The afternoon grew so glowering that in the sixth inning the arc lights were turned on–always a wan sight in the daytime, like the burning headlights of a funeral procession. Aided by the gloom, Fisher was slicing through the Sox rookies, and Williams did not come to bat in the seventh. He was second up in the eighth. This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us, and applauded. I had never before heard pure applause in a ballpark. No calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the Kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-two summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his bat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy, the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass, the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs–hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.

Although his writing often seemed effortless, Updike worked hard at his craft. Here’s an excerpt from an interview in which Updike, even though he’s discussing his short fiction, teaches an important lesson to those of us trying to write good stories:

With any short story you try to write first sentences that will in some way pique the readers’ interest, and then a lot of middle, and then you try to write a last sentence that will in some way close the case, close the issue, resolve it all, and leave him or her with a satisfied feeling of having seen a complete picture.

Take another look at the passage about Williams’ last at-bat. See how Updike applies his formula — a stage-setting first sentence, a middle that builds on it, and an ending that leaves readers satisfied. Then try to use his advice in your own work. You’ll be glad you did.

For more of Updike’s advice to writers, check out this excellent summary.

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Words to live by.

The occasional newsletter from the Writing Coaches at the
CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Tim Harper        Room 413 (or hanging out in the newsroom)
Tuesday         noon – 5 p.m.
Wednesday         10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Thursday         noon – 5 p.m.
Or by appointment:  tim.harper@journalism.cuny.edu

Contact Heath Meriwether anytime at heath.meriwether@journalism.cuny.edu

“The language we use matters.” — President Barack Obama, Jan. 26, in interview with Al Arabiya network.

While President Obama was referring to the words used to describe the situation in the Mideast, he provided a refreshing reminder about the power of language in what we do.

Joshua Cinelli, in his commencement speech for the Class of ’08, conveyed what life was like for his classmates. His words bear repeating:

“We wrote beat memos, went to community board meetings.
“We went on cop ride-alongs, we studied Near vs. Minnesota and freedom of information laws in legal and ethics, we learned the research methods of the 21st century from a document frame of mind.
“We learned boots-on-the-ground journalism.
“As one professor is fond of saying, journalism today is more than twittering in your underwear.”

Joshua’s words underscore what is said every day in classrooms and the newsroom around here. The new technologies for telling a story, like Twitter, are useful but it is the “boots-on-the-ground” reporting that will define us as journalists.  Joshua capped his speech with an homage to Studs Terkel, who spent a reporting lifetime listening to the stories of ordinary people:

“The lesson Studs Terkel can teach us is one of the most important we can ever learn and I hope you take it with you.
“To listen. Let me say that again in case you missed it. To listen.
“Asking the questions is only half of our job. The other important part is to listen carefully and with great skepticism. And not just to the politicians and the power brokers, but to everyone who has a story to tell.”


As Jere Hester already has noted, there’s been no shortage of good work between semesters.  We particularly liked how Rachel Geizhals provided not just a news lede but some historical context for the Bushwick neighborhood that gave her Brooklyn Eagle story far more meaning:

BUSHWICK — The FDNY’s plan to cancel night shifts at several firehouses — including one in Bushwick, which was ravaged by arson in the 1970s — is reawakening bleak memories and igniting new fears for some New Yorkers.
Bushwick’s Himrod Street firehouse will be one of four to lose a night shift come mid-January as the FDNY reduces expenses to meet budget cuts. Company 124, the search-and-rescue unit at Himrod Street, will still serve round the clock, but Engine Company 271, the fire-dousing unit, will only operate from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“Fire service is like insurance,” said Rodrick Wallace, an epidemiologist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who has studied Bushwick’s fire history. “To save money, are you going to cancel your health insurance over the weekend?”

BTW, what a strong storytelling quote!

Hats off, too, to Collin Orcutt, who has started a web site, Box Score Beat (http://boxscorebeat.com/), that reports on the people reporting on sports.  Without getting on a soapbox, Collin makes a compelling case for why beat writers make such a difference.  Because they’re there every day, learning about the people they report on, they can uncover such delightful insights as Jack Quick of The Oregonian recently revealed to his readers:

Remember the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” where Andy Dufresne wrote a letter every week to the state to get books for the prison library? Well, the same concept is under way with the grandmother of Blazers center Joel Przybilla. The octogenarian plans to write NBA commissioner David Stern a series of letters complaining about the $7,500 fine Przybilla received for his part in an altercation with New Orleans center Tyson Chandler on Friday. Chandler was ejected and suspended a game for throwing a punch. Przybilla said he was stunned at the fine, but was handling it better than his grandmother.
“She said she is going to keep writing Stern until she hears back from him,” Przybilla said, smiling. “And believe me, she will.”

Speaking of sports, Tim Persinko scored a knockout with his Canarsie Courier feature on boxer Dmitry Salita, a practicing Orthodox Jew who cannot work or travel on Saturdays.  We particularly enjoyed the observation from Salita’s long-time trainer, Jimmy O’Pharrow:

At sundown on the Saturday of his Garden bout, Salita hurried from his home in Midwood, to make it to the Garden in time for his 9 p.m. match. Before entering the ring, Salita had a rabbi say a prayer in the dressing room. After that, O’Pharrow said his own prayer in the dressing room.
“It wasn’t the same thing but I guess it was the same thing,” said O’Pharrow. “Go out there and kick some butt, period. I didn’t say it like that when I said it to the man upstairs, but that’s what it basically meant.”

With that as our inspiration, let’s continue to kick some journalism butt during the rest of the semester.

Heath & Tim

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Roberts' Rules of writing and reporting.

Gene Roberts’ first editor was blind but it didn’t deter him from teaching the young reporter out of the University of North Carolina one of the most valuable lessons of his long, storied career.

“Make me see,” the editor of the Goldsboro (N.C.) News-Argus would demand after he’d heard Roberts’ daily farm column read to him. It’s a lesson Roberts never forgot as he went on to cover the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War for the New York Times and, as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, lead his newspaper to 17 Pulitzer Prizes in his 18 years there.

The journalism icon, now 76, who teaches writing and the history of the press in the civil rights movement at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism, spoke at CUNY last Thursday to students in Prof. Michael Arena’s investigative journalism class and, yes, a few awestruck professors.

Here are Roberts’ Rules of reporting and writing, some suggested reading and one plan for how to get a job:

•    Make Me See. Whether it’s a sweet potato that looks like Gen. Charles DeGaulle or the scene of a brutal civil rights confrontation, write visually so your readers feel like they’re there..
•    Make your writing conversational. His News-Argus managing editor had Roberts read both the print and radio versions of the AP Wire.  The radio wire was far easier to read, which taught Roberts another valuable lesson.
•    Make sure you understand what your story is about. Write a simple description of why your story matters.  We call it the nut graf.
•    Get the height of the smokestack. Roberts told a story about legendary editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who sent a reporter back to the streets when he couldn’t tell him the height of a factory smokestack.  The moral of the story:  Details matter. Specific details matter even more.
•    Read good writing and ask why it works, and apply those lessons. Roberts recommends the annual “America’s Best Newspaper Writing,” an annual compilation by Poynter of the reporting and writing winners of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) awards; he also suggested “Writing for Story,” by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin, who annotates his book with his writing strategies.
•    Learn your craft. Learn  how to report and write. Don’t get hung up on whether you’ve mastered the latest technology of delivering news; it’ll probably change by the time you graduate.
•    Do it all. Luckily, that’s part of the curriculum here.  In his early years, Roberts covered everything at small dailies — cops, courts, government, politics, breaking news.  He also bounced from being a reporter to an editor and back, which made him even better.  Here at CUNY, you work online, broadcast and print.
•    Work for a small daily or broadcast outlet where you have to learn to do it all (See above).
•    How to get a job, according to Roberts.  Go to a small newspaper, show up at 8 a.m. and stick around all day to talk to the editors who can hire you.  That’ll show the initiative and aggressiveness editors want to see (and it’ll save time-starved editors from having to respond to a letter or email).

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