How structure will make you a more effective writer.

The reporter sits there wringing her hands, then sighs as she throws her printout on the desk.  “It’s just a mess,” she says, “I just don’t know where I’m going with this.”

This not-so-imaginary scene in a Craft classroom, the newsroom or the writing coach office brings up the critical subject of structure and a very useful definition for any journalist trying to organize a story from start to finish.

“Writing is organized thinking” writes Jack Hart, the former writing coach and managing editor of the Portland Oregonian.  In his book, “A Writer’s Coach,” Hart starts his chapter on structure with this definition.

It’s a good place for any of us to begin to discuss structure, an issue that bedevils many a journalist.  From the moment you get an assignment, during the reporting and after you’ve filled your notebook, the critical first step is to think about what the nut of your story is. What is the absolute essential thing you want readers to take away from your story?  “So what?” “Why should I care?” Or a personal favorite: “Why have I invited you (the reader) to this party?”  Whatever question we use, we must answer it to succeed in creating a structure for our story.

If you don’t, you’re likely to be adrift in a sea of multiple possibilities, and your story will run aground.  So, first rule, decide what your story is.  That decision will help you build a nut graf,  the core of what your story is about, the roadmap that will alert readers to what lies ahead, and an organizing tool for your entire story. It will allow you to use your reporting, quotes, scenes and background in service of the story you’ve decided to tell.

Once you’ve made that critical decision, the elements of structure begin to fall into place:

* Ledes – In the words of the legendary non-fiction writer John McPhee, the lede is “a flashlight shining down into the story.” In a few seconds, it’s your best chance to convince the reader to stay with you. It takes lots of practice to learn which ledes work best for your story, but it’s always easier when you’ve decided where you want your story to go. 

* Nut Graf – See above. This graf alerts readers to what your story is about and why they should care.  It provides context and importance. It also will be your organizing tool throughout the story.   List the main elements of your story.  Then mention each one in the nut graf, the sine qua non of structure.

* Global/Barnburner quote – This is your absolute best quote that affirms/supports/crystallizes the premise of the story. It immediately follows the nut graf.  Not every story will have it, but more often than not, it’s there, particularly if you’ve decided early on what your story is about. You’ll then ask  questions that prompt your sources to speak to your main premise. To keep readers engaged,  weave in other storytelling quotes throughout.

Paragraphs/Main Elements/Topic Sentences – If you’ve written a strong nut graf, backed it up with a global quote, then your story uses each paragraph to explain and buttress the main elements of your story.  Each paragraph should be a coherent whole, with a beginning, middle and end. Don’t jam a string of unrelated facts into the same paragraph. Start with an assertion, or topic sentence, then add 2-3 sentences to back it up, and one more to wrap it up.  Pay attention, too, to your sentences.  Mix up the length. A short sentence can stop the reader.  A long one will allow you to string together important bits of information. Don’t start sentences with attribution; start with the strongest element. End your paragraphs strongly, too.  Make it surprising, punchy or, at least, something that moves the reader onto the next graf.

* Connections/Transitions/Hooks/Threads – Call them whatever you like, but a story’s flow will be immeasurably enhanced if each graf reads out of the preceding graf.  Compare it to stitching, how the needle and thread pass from one graf to the next, seamlessly leading the reader to the next thought. Nothing loses a reader faster than unconnected paragraphs that don’t relate to one another. The simplest transition can be the repetition of a key word in the preceding graf or “signal” words such as “meanwhile” or “instead” or “then” (Caution:  Don’t let these words become a crutch; often there is a nimbler way to stitch together your grafs).

* Endings – There’s not enough attention paid to endings.  Some news stories just stop but most, with planning, don’t need to just die off.  My favorite device is to bring the reader back to where you started, the lede. Come full circle, and tie it up in a nice bow for the reader.  Sometimes, another quote that looks forward or summarizes your story will work. However you do it, remember that a graceful ending is a sure way to satisfy the reader.

Bon Mots

Patrick Clark made structure work for his story for Crain’s New York Business on the racino at Aqueduct Racetrack.  He knew right away his story would be a contrast between the downmarket flea market and the big-money vision for the racetrack:

It’s easy to spot the winners in the long-awaited deal to put hundreds of video slot machines in a new racino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. New York state gets a $380 million licensing fee and future tax revenue to bank on, while Malaysian gaming company Genting gets to put 4,500 video slot terminals just three miles from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Meanwhile, the local economy gets a big shot in the arm from a project expected to generate 1,300 construction and 800 permanent jobs.

To find the probable losers, look no further than the South Ozone Park racetrack’s sprawling front parking lot. There, 1,000 vendors stage the city’s largest flea market on Tuesdays and weekends from April through December. For those small business operators, mostly immigrants, the flea market is their first toehold on the path to prosperity. With the flea market facing possible closure, the vendors’ prospects are uncertain, and they may find their lives upended.

“When  I first wrote the story for craft class, it was 1,000 words and had a slow lede that was supposed to show you the market through the eyes of a vendor,” Patrick explained.  “When I re-wrote the story for Crain’s, I knew I had to get to that contrast more quickly—both to make word count and because the original lede wasn’t working. Since it’s a story about a racetrack, winners and losers was easy. The first revision, I wrote it with the losers first, and (CUNY Prof.) Greg David asked me to re-write it the other way. That made good sense, because it let me stay with the losers after I introduced them, instead of jumping from losers to winners and back.”

The result was an effective lede and nut graf, and a structure that worked throughout the story.

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In writing, the magic is in the details.

We’ve talked often about how reporters should work hard to capture storytelling details in their notebooks and infuse them into their stories.  In writing, the magic, not the devil, often is in the details.

We were intrigued, then, with how Lily Rothman handled the story about the Swedish opera singer whose voice, more than a century ago, became the first to be heard singing over the wireless radio and whose ashes finally came to a permanent rest in a Brooklyn cemetery.  Here’s her lede in The Brooklyn Eagle:

The speed of sound is 340.29 meters per second, but it took more than 100 years for Eugenia Farrar’s voice to get back to Brooklyn.

Farrar, the first person ever to sing on the radio, in 1907, died in 1966 at the age of 93. On Wednesday morning, her ashes were entombed at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Her final engagement came more than 100 years after her song was famously heard in the borough. On an October day in 1907 — the exact date has been forgotten — the Swedish opera singer, born Ada Eugenia von Böös — sang the then-popular parlor song “I Love You Truly” into a radio apparatus in the Midtown laboratory of Dr. Lee DeForest.

The lede is a clever show-stopper in itself but we were truly hooked by the details in the third graf:  the forgotten date, her birth name, the name of the song and DeForest’s Midtown laboratory.  Those details add authenticity and shout out to the reader:  Do I ever have a story to tell you.

Indeed, Lily spun a gorgeous tale and ended it with more telling detail that put the reader in the scene, and the spirit, of the story:

And it’s true that there’s no way of telling if the sky was clear when Eugenia Farrar approached Dr. DeForest’s laboratory. No record can confirm whether the wind was chilly or the water calm when Oliver Wyckoff sat down at his station.

But this morning, when the singer was remembered properly, it was easy to imagine an October day just like this one: a bright blue sky, a dark blue river between the boroughs, a black-blue Atlantic out there somewhere, and the Baltic beyond.

And, as singers ended the ceremony with a new arrangement of her song, it was easy to imagine her voice.

We asked Lily her thinking about the story, from start to finish:    “I knew going into it that it had the potential for being a piece with more observation/description, so I was taking notes that morning on things like the color of the sky and the look of the trees, in addition to the facts of what was happening.” When she got back to the newsroom, she asked herself,  “What is my story about?” That’s a critical question for reporters to ask before they start writing, something we always recommend.  Lily’s  decision — to focus on the long gap between the singer’s death and the entombment — put her in the mindset for the lede. She then wrote an ending with a list of blue things, most particularly the blue urn in which Farrar’s ashes rested.  Then she used the middle of the story to answer the literal question of who the singer was and what happened.

“When I got back to the end I realized that the real thread was the voice, not the blueness, so I took out the urn and stuck the voice in at the end,” Lily said.

We thought it worked and so did the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who liked the writing so much he decided to use it even though the Eagle had advanced the event and hadn’t planned on doing anything further.

Bon Mots

Speaking of details, we liked what Al Barbarino did with his story about a special art exhibit created by adults with mental illness and substance abuse problems:

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — A naked woman sits in a wooden chair that rests on a cloud amid a blue sky. Two cats float nearby as the woman lifts a mirror to her face to find her hair is ablaze.

The painting, “Charlene,” by an artist known as Redd, is among the works on display at a special art exhibit that runs through Oct. 31st at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. The artists are adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, psychiatric problems, other mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.

We liked, too, what Almadena Toral did in her story on Afghan women bloggers:

WOMENSENEWS)–Shaharzad Akbar mulled it over a million times before pressing the “publish” button on April 4, 2007.

What went online then, to her blog in Farsi called “Mesle Aab, Mesle Aatash (Like Water, Like Fire),” was the first part of a series of posts called “insulting love,” which she says has brought the worst backlash since she started blogging in 2006.

The crisp lede created drama, and the details in the next graf, including the Farsi words and their translation, clinched the deal for us.

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How to write a good lede.*

Writing a good lede* is one of the most formidable challenges any journalist faces.  You’ve got an instant to catch readers’ attention or lose them forever.  You’ve got to find an organizing idea in a notebook full of information, ideas and quotes.   No wonder even the most experienced journalists quake at the prospect.

Over the years, we’ve shared lots of ideas for how to write better ledes. Our favorite description comes from the legendary nonfiction writer and Princeton teacher John McPhee, who said a good lede serves as a “flashlight shining down into the story.”  A good lede, then, not only entices the reader to find out more but illuminates where the story is headed.

Our best advice, based on the problems we see most often in student work, is to keep it simple.  Take the time to think about what your story is about, the organizing theme you want to explain and illustrate to the reader.  Then choose a simple, powerful way to reflect this theme.  Don’t try to tell the whole story in a single paragraph.  And don’t, in the words of Craft Professor Wayne Svoboda, let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Write your best idea for a lede and realize you can come back to refine it later.

Channon Hodge caught our attention with the way she got into what could’ve been a routine story about a ceremony to officially open a new housing complex in Harlem:

A new 11-story building overlooks the river on 140th Street in West Harlem. It has a rooftop terrace, new Energy Star appliances and its very own library. It also has its very own clientele: More than half of the apartments are reserved for ex-convicts.

Channon manages to lure the reader with the building’s amenities but then closes the deal with her punchline  — half the apartments are reserved for ex-convicts.  Note, too, the deft use of parallelism to set up the punchline: ‘its very own library’ and ‘its very own clientele.’ She managed, as Jere Hester noted, to accomplish a lot in relatively few words and still maintain a nice sense of style.

“This is a good time to start working on the craft of getting to the point quickly and concisely while finding your own sense of style,” said Hester.  “Part of the key is building the confidence to take control of the story and tell the reader what’s the news here. I would encourage young reporters not to bury the best material or detail — let the cream of the story rise to the top and give us a quick taste up top.”

The art of reporting

Matt Draper thought he had a story about the vendors at the U.S. Open only to find out there weren’t any.  So, in the best CUNY tradition of think-on-your-feet reporting, he found another angle — the lone hot dog vendor allowed into the grounds of the tennis fortnight.  It took him a few anxious hours of walking around to find vendor Tommy Chan but the effort was well worth it. Note some of the storytelling details Matt managed to dig up:  how much money Chan made in a day ($2,000) at the Open versus his usual take ($400), and where Chan set up his cart, between the practice courts and a Mercedes-Benz kiosk.

We liked the reporting effort, too, by Geoffrey Decker, who turned a routine interactive assignment on pests into a revealing look at how those dreaded bedbugs have found their way into New York City classrooms.  In his research, Geoff discovered no one had done a story on bedbugs in schools, and then found public documents that showed the pests had shown up there. He got a source to give him the name of a school where they’d been found and, presto, he had his story.  Geoffrey kept his lede simple and backed it up with solid information on the big increase in bedbugs at schools.  He also acknowledged some good help from editors here (David Lewis, Jere Hester) to help him get the story in the Times.

Words to live by

“Learn to be a reporter… Learn how to be flexible.  Don’t get lost in the form, get the skill,” said Adam Moss, editor of New York Magazine, when asked last week for his best advice to budding journalists.

“Bless you,” Dean Steve Shepard said.



*Footnote:  Why do journalists spell “lead” as “lede” when they’re talking about the start of a story?  Back in the dinosaur age, when newspapers used molten lead, or hot type, from linotype machines to print newspapers, the word “lede” was used to distinquish it from the “lead” used to print the paper.

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Get punctuation and grammar right — or else.

There’s no quicker way to lose readers than to use incorrect grammar and improper punctuation.  If you can’t get the basics right, readers figure, you also can’t be trusted to get the facts right.

Pronouns, punctuation and possessives seem to particularly bedevil students. So does subject-verb agreement.  So where to start?

Make the AP Stylebook your best friend, your constant companion.  The school, and much of journalism, follows AP style.  Study it. Learn it.  Heck, memorize it if you can.  Get a copy of the stylebook. If you don’t have one, find it in the school library.  For punctuation, read pages 326-336.  For the use of the possessive, read pages 196-198.  When in doubt about any usage, check it out in the stylebook.

For pronouns, here’s a comprehensive list plus some useful exercises to see if you know how to use them.

And here are a few of the most basic rules we follow, courtesy of Tim Harper:

Don’t use the serial comma. In other words, in a series, there is no comma before the “and.”

Correct: We ordered steak, mashed potatoes and Brooklyn Lager.

Incorrect: We ordered hot dogs, fries, and Bud Lite.

(Note: Some magazines and other publications do use the serial comma, so when pitching you need to check before submitting. But the serial comma is the default.)

In American English, the comma and period usually go inside the quote mark.

Correct: “I need to go see the writing coach,” she said.

Incorrect: “I don’t have time to go get help”, she said.

Don’t capitalize job descriptions unless used as a proper title in front of a name.

Correct: The report came from the parks commissioner.

Correct: The parks commissioner later spoke about the report.

Correct: Parks Commissioner Bill Smith refused comment.

Correct: Bill Smith, the parks commissioner, refused comment.

Incorrect: Bill Smith, the Commissioner of Parks, refused comment.

Incorrect: Bill Smith, the Parks Commissioner, gave the keynote.

“Who” refers to people. “That” does not refer to people.

Correct: He is one of the people who got punked.

Incorrect: She is one of the people that didn’t get punked.

“Which” often is used with a comma. “That” is usually not used with a comma. (Tip: try reading the phrase aloud if you’re not sure; if you naturally pause, it probably needs a comma.)

Correct: I have a deadline that is looming.

Incorrect: He’s got a dog, that has fleas.

Correct: We’re out of class at 5 p.m., which means the party starts at 5:05 p.m.

Make sure pronouns match the nouns to which they refer. Use singular pronouns for singular nouns, and plural pronouns for plural nouns.

Incorrect: The company gave their workers the day off.

Correct: The company gave its workers the day off.

Incorrect: Everyone waved their glow-sticks in the air.

Correct: Everyone waved his or her glow-stick in the air. (To avoid this awkward “his or her” construction, go plural, as below.)

Correct: The members of the audience waved their glow-sticks in the air.

Finally, here are some correct uses of AP Style:

He is from Peoria, Ill. (Not Peoria IL – AP Style does not always follow USPS abbreviations.)

She is from Boston. (Boston, Mass., is incorrect; some big cities do not take a state abbreviation.)

He started class Monday. (Monday through Sunday if referring to a day within a week past. Not “last Monday.”)

He will start class Tuesday. (Monday through Sunday if referring to a day within a week in the future.)

The report was issued in February. The report will be issued in December. (Use January through December – without a year – if referring to months within a year past or future.)

The school is scheduled to open in October 2011. (Use the year only because it is more than 12 months away.)

Moe left his two friends, Larry and Curly, when he had a chance to make $20 babysitting. (One through nine is spelled out, 10 and above are numbers. Use the dollar sign rather than spelling out dollars.)

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Here’s the nut of the matter.

I didn’t have to think long when asked recently for the number one problem I see in students’ writing.  It’s the nut graf, that simple but hard-to-execute idea of telling readers why they should care about your story and, importantly, why they should take the time to read it to the end.

The nut graf near the beginning of a story signals what’s truly important and why,  explains and puts into context the lede, helps organize the story for both the reader and the writer.  It’s a roadmap that suggests where the story is headed

You should start thinking about the nut graf as soon as you get an assignment.  Who cares? Why is this important?  What are the bigger issues this story reflects?   Most of your reporting – notes, research, quotes, details, scene – should be aimed at answering those questions.  When you’re coming back to the newsroom, jot down in your notebook a brief summary of what matters in your story.  After all, if you can’t answer that, you’re going to have a lot of trouble writing a coherent story from top to bottom.

Here’s a little secret.  Even if your editors (professors) disagree with your judgment about what’s truly important, you’ll still write a stronger, more cohesive story than if you can’t decide.  Here’s another little secret.  You’ve probably been warned about not drawing conclusions but if you’ve done the reporting, you’ve got the authority to summarize what really matters in your story.

Lisa Riordan Seville explained in the Brooklyn magazine, Overflow, what all the fuss has been about in a debate over whether to clean up the Gowanus Canal under the federal Superfund program:

The yearlong argument over whether to include the canal in the federal program to clean up toxic spaces was not about if the notoriously noxious South Brooklyn canal should be cleaned.  Nearly everyone agrees, at least in principle, it should.  Wrapped up and bowed in terms of agencies and jurisdictions, the Superfund fight was about the future of a neighborhood.

While I stumbled over the “wrapped up and bowed” phrase, the strong takeaway line is that the “Superfund fight was about the future of a neighborhood.”  In the second graf of a 38-graf story, Lisa hooked me into reading what turned out to be an excellent explainer on the issue and why it’s so important to the future of one of Brooklyn’s landmark neighborhoods.

For one of the best discussions of the nut graf, its history and uses,  here’s a piece by former Poynter professor Chip Scanlan.  Editors and reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Scanlan notes, described the nut graf as the section of the story that answered this question:  “You may have wondered why we invited you to this party?”

Indeed, the nut graf is the way you invite your readers to enjoy your story all the way to the end.


Another focus here at Write Stuff is story-telling detail.  In a story about how a man used the subway to move his stuff to a new apartment in NYC, Eugenia Miranda caught our attention:

Min and two of his friends from his language school transported an air conditioner, collapsible double-rod closet, dishes (including serving platters and utensils), laptop, linen, quilts, books, clothes, picture frames, a soup cauldron, Korean medicine, condiments and a 40-pound bag of rice. There was one casualty in the move; his air conditioner broke midway to his new place.

We’re glad the rice bag held up, but  it made us smile to see a reporter who took the trouble to write down every single item that was taken on the subway.  By the way, at what stop did the air conditioner break down?

Finally,  drawing on his two-year experience at a tough Chicago Southside school with Teach for America, Patrick Wall wrote this authoritative explainer:

Data, which is not just a term but an ideology in the education world, has been known to make many an old-school educator’s skin crawl.  Nonetheless, data-driven instruction — wherein educators routinely assess students’ progress according to state and national standards, then use that information to target student deficiencies in their lessons — has been widely accepted as the model of effective modern teaching.  Karen Duncan, a second-grade teacher at the school, cut through the educational jargon to explain the real-world value of student data: “I see what my kids are struggling with,” she said, “and those are the areas that I’ll use to help that child.”

Note the way Patrick really punched home the idea with a strong, storytelling quote.


Just a reminder that we’re here to help.  We’re in Rm. 413 and often in the newsroom:

Heath Meriwether, 12-6 Tues; 12-6 Wed; 12-3 Thurs.

Tim Harper, 12-2, 5-6 Tues; 12-3 Wed; 1-5 Thurs.

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Clink. Clank. Sounds of reporting, writing, fill the air.

Imagine you’re in your first weeks at CUNY and you’re assigned to interview the country’s reigning horseshoe champion.  Hey, in New York, where everyone shows up for a “press availability,” it could happen.

What do you do in the few minutes, or hours, before you’ve got to be at a New York horseshoe pit for the interview?  You want to find out whatever you can before you head out, so you Google  (or Bing) his name, Alan Francis. You also might think to yourself:  ‘I didn’t go to graduate school in journalism to interview horseshoe throwers.’

Your search will turn up an extraordinary front-page feature by John Branch of the New York Times that can teach you a lot about reporting and writing.  And reading the story should disabuse you of an attitude about what can make a great story.

Consider Branch’s opening paragraphs:

DEFIANCE, Ohio — From behind a neat, ranch-style house on Melody Lane came the clinking and clanking rhythm of iron striking iron.

Alan Francis stood more than a dozen long-legged strides from an inch-thick stake drilled deep into tacky clay. Perhaps the most dominant athlete in any sport in the country, Francis lifted his right arm, swung it behind him and forward again.

He launched a horseshoe toward the target 40 feet away. It weighed a little more than two and a half pounds and spun slowly, sideways. It rose and fell in an arc until its narrow open end, three and a half inches across, caught the stake with percussive perfection.


Francis, satisfied but expressionless, pitched another.


“Those are the sounds you want,” he said, smiling.

Built narrow like a stake, with a mustache and a crew cut, Francis is widely considered the best horseshoe pitcher in history. He has won 15 world titles, including the past seven. He hopes to extend his streak in early August at the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association world tournament in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

What immediately strikes you?  What makes this work so well?  Those are the kinds of questions that can help you become a better writer.

The quick answer:  It’s the reporting.  The exquisite details Branch gathers about a game most of us have played but know little about, the specific techniques that make Francis the best pitcher in the sport’s history.  You learn how much the horseshoe weighs, how far Francis throws it, the way he throws it, the size of the target, the flight of the horseshoe, the width of the horseshoe at its open end, and, marvelously, the sound it makes when it lands perfectly.

Branch not only puts readers in Francis’ backyard on Melody Lane in Defiance, Ohio but also lets them hear what it sounds like:  Clink. Clank. Branch introduces the sound in his opening paragraph but he really imprints it with the one-word paragraphs: Clink. Clank. It’s a sound Branch weaves throughout his story, all the way to the end.

His horseshoes tell most of the story, and their sound never lies. On warm evenings in Defiance, they can be heard for blocks, emanating from a backyard up on Melody Lane, the percussion of iron striking iron from 40 feet.



It is the backbeat of summer, the sound of perfection.

Notice, too, the strong, simple active verbs Branch uses throughout, the way the story’s cadence matches the taciturn athlete at its center; how the writer uses storytelling quotes that keep his story moving.  The opening quote — “Those are the sounds you want” – is pitch-perfect.  So, too, is the first, terse description of Francis – “Built narrow like a stake, with a mustache and a crew cut.”

There’s so much to learn in a careful reading of a finely-crafted story: the kind of reporting it takes, the use of words and quotes, the structure and cadence of a  story,  the way the kicker brings the reader back to the beginning sound the writer wants you to remember.

This exercise in what writing coach Roy Peter Clark calls “x-ray reading” is all part of the simple but effective formula to improve your writing we suggested this past summer:  Read + Report + Write (or Produce) + Review + Repeat = Better Writing.  And Enjoy!

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Here's the drill: Read, Report, Write, Review, Repeat.

Here’s an easy-to-use formula for writing at CUNY:  Read + Report + Write + Review + Repeat = Better Writing.  Let’s put the microscope on each element to give you a sense of how it works:

  1. READ – In the hurry-up lives most CUNY students live, there’s a tendency to forget this basic.  There’s simply no better preparation for writing than reading.  Read good writing wherever you find it – daily papers, blogs, essays, magazine articles, fiction and non-fiction books, anthologies of the best journalistic writing.  Make a mental checklist about what works, and why.  Writing Coach Roy Peter Clark calls it “x-ray reading” as he dissects the elements of writing in his excellent book, “Writing Tools:  50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.”
  2. REPORT – This is at the center of everything you do at CUNY.  When you get an assignment, find out as much as you can before you get there.  At the assignment, use all of your senses to collect storytelling details that puts the reader in the scene.  Take good notes, highlight the best quotes and details that tell the story.  As you return to the newsroom, write down a brief sentence, phrase or headline that best summarizes what you think the reader should take away from the story.
  3. WRITE – Organize your notes and thoughts.  Focus on what you want the reader to remember.  Try for a strong lead (or lede, in journalese) but don’t get bogged down.  If you can’t come up with a lede, write the rest of the story and come back to it.  Often,  the lede will take shape as you write the story. Use strong, active verbs and descriptive, storytelling detail.  Use the strongest quotes to propel the story.  Write a nut graf high in the story to give readers a reason to stay with your story. Give yourself time to read the finished story to yourself, or even aloud, to hear the speed bumps in your writing or understanding. Check your spelling, grammar and structure.  Hit the send button.
  4. REVIEW – You’ll get lots of chances for this, particularly in your first semester.  You’ll get in-class reviews of your work, written comments from your professors and chances to rewrite.  You also can review and rework articles with the writing coaches, and others.  Your classmates can be a valuable asset, too.  Bounce  your ledes and stories off of them. Share ideas. Critique constructively.  It’s all part of the experience.
  5. REPEAT – Don’t worry.  You’ll go through this drill time and again in your first semester.  The more you do it, the better you’ll get.  Enjoy!
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'Clear Seeing': The art of the lede.

The Write Stuff always is looking for good ledes and how writers put them together.  When Michael Cohen wrote about St. John’s University student Dariana Casado, both a model and a woman boxer aiming for the Olympics, he wanted to capture both sides of her persona.  He noticed the model’s smile and gleaming teeth but needed more to fill in her boxing side.  So he watched her fights on YouTube and was impressed by her good footwork and left jab.

Here’s what he came up with:

Dariana Casado will drop your jaw. She can do it with a look or a hook. She can use the full lips and gleaming teeth that punctuate her smile or seductive footwork complemented by a conservatively calculated barrage of punches.

Here’s how Michael thought about it:  “Jaw-dropping sounds cliche, but the dual meaning worked in this case. I was unsure about the ‘look or hook’ line but I liked the short sentence preceding a long descriptive sentence.”

We liked the punchy (you’ll excuse the expression) short sentence, too, which set up the longer descriptive sentence (although we might have left out the word ‘conservatively’).  The extra effort of watching her bouts on YouTube underscored how crucial reporting is in finding storytelling detail.

Colby Hamilton found himself at a routine and dismally attended first public meeting of New York City’s Charter Review Commission and found a way to make it interesting:

The sign outside the City University of New York Graduate Center’s Proshansky Auditorium on Fifth Avenue reads, “Occupancy of more than 489 persons is dangerous and unlawful.”

But attendance inside was far short of the legal limit at the first public — and sparsely attended — meeting of the recently created Charter Review Commission on Tuesday night. This is a major problem as the group’s aim is to decide what, if any, overhauls to city government should be brought before voters in November.

Here’s how Colby thought about his lede:  “I was outside the room, interviewing people. I’m always looking for something physical, something grounded, to put people in the place I am. The sign sort of jumped out at me. ‘Yeah, we don’t really have to worry about that,’ I thought, and then realized that, wow, that’s actually pretty important.”

The instinct to ‘put people in the place I am’ is basic to good writing and reporting.  Colby took a sign people see every day and turned it into a strong storytelling detail.

The work done by Colby and Michael underscored a theme author Stephen King makes continually in his book, On Writing:  “The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”

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Reading is one secret to better writing.

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.

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Hook your readers early and often.

With the longer, more in-depth stories required in the spring semester, there’s the temptation to use a long wind-up to pitch your story to readers.  In fact, as Jere Hester reminded Write Stuff, it’s more critical than ever on these stories to hook the audience early with a sharp lede and nut graf.  Readers will stick around for the longer ride if you let them know where your story is headed.

Almudena Toral did an excellent job of that for Women’s eNews with her look at the problem of domestic abuse among undocumented women.  At the heart of her effort was some relentless reporting on her East Harlem beat to find a victim who would talk to her.  After a lot of phone calls and visits with the woman, Almudena built enough trust to get her to talk for the record.  The result was a powerful story that described the plight of Graciela Benes who arrived in New York City from Argentina “undocumented, unmarried, without children and barely speaking English.”  For two years, she was brutalized by her boyfriend. In her nut graf, Almudena let the reader know that Graciela’s case wasn’t an isolated one:

Many undocumented women who suffer similarly don’t know they have options and fail to report domestic violence because of fear of deportation, said Evelyn García of the Violence Intervention Program, a New York City-based Latina organization that promotes nonviolent partner relationships and offers services for victims of domestic violence.

We also liked the way Almudena used specific details, like the lack of make-up, and vivid quotes to bring her story to life:

She was wearing a white wool sweater, jeans and had her hair in a ponytail on a recent evening.  There was no makeup on her pale skin, no eyeliner around her blue eyes. That’s her usual look in recent years, she said. But it wasn’t what Beines used to wear before she experienced domestic violence. “The violence is not only the blow, the violence is also, ‘Don’t wear that, who are you talking with?’ ‘You should be able to buy all the groceries for this week with $20.’ ‘I don’t want you to leave the house alone,'” Beines said. She still doesn’t wear makeup regularly because, she says, she’s too scared to look her best and start attracting men again.

Shane Kavanaugh employed the same kind of story-telling detail in his feature for the New York Times on the people who flocked to an audition of a potential reality show:

Anastasia Kurinnaya, shod in a pair of black Aldo booties with five-inch heels, stepped carefully down the 10 rickety plywood stairs that led from the coat check into the grimy basement of Passion, a popular Russian dance club on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn.  She signed the release form handed to her by a guy with a clipboard and walked inside the small dingy room where the auditions were being held for “Brighton Beach,” a would-be reality TV show hyped as the Russian-American “Jersey Shore.”

Shane talked to Write Stuff about how he got such strong, story-telling details:  “After running up and down the set of stairs a half-dozen times — listening to them creak, feeling them buckle under my feet, watching a steady stream of young women in heels struggle to get up and down them — I decided the stairs were an important scene for the story and made sure to count how many there were…I made sure to document their entire wardrobe, head to toe.  If they had visible tattoos, I noted them.  If a girl had finger nail polish on I wrote down what color it was.  Before sending off my draft to the Times, I even called every person I was going to use in the story and confirmed what they were wearing.  David Treybich, were you wearing a Rolex or Cartier watch?  Anastasia, those booties you had on?  What brand were they?  And to be certain, were those five-inch heels?”

That’s great reporting — and the kind of detail that always will elevate your writing.

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