The greatest gift for a writer, author Tom Wolfe says, is reporting. The reporter gets to use all of the senses to give the reader the sights, sounds and smells of a scene. When writing leaves you feeling as if you were there, that’s good writing.
Listen as Danny Massey, who covered a memorial for the former slaves and freed blacks who were buried and forgotten in the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, captures the call and response of a church audience:
“Forgive us, please,’’ shouted the senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church in Manhattan. “Forgive us for disregarding your precious gifts to this world, for the desecration of your hallowed ground where you laid your loved ones to rest. And forgive us for almost forgetting you. Say again, ‘Forgive us, please.’ ’’ The hundreds who gathered in Lower Manhattan called back, “Forgive us, please.’’
Watch as Dmitry Kiper paints the scene for the debut of lead violinist Sergey Ryabtsev for the gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello:
The next day, he arrived at Joe’s Pub—a 180-person-capacity music venue in the East Village—with his violin in hand. Hutz told him to go on stage after the fifth song. Being a classically trained musician, Ryabtsev put on a tuxedo and waited for his cue. When he finally came out on stage, he looked into the crowd and was stunned. People were half naked, drinking from bottles and dancing crazily beside broken furniture. Hutz, standing on top of the bar in his underwear dancing with two women, yelled in Russian, “Sergey, play!”
Reporting also is about persistence. Andy Greiner wouldn’t settle for a press release about the annual survey of employer-provided health insurance by the Kaiser Family Foundation. He called Drew Altman, the head of the foundation, to get this tell-it-like-it-is quote for his kicker:
“In the next couple of years we’re either going to have a new national system in place or people are simply not going to be able to afford care for their health needs. I can’t make it any more clear.”
Every writer needs an editor. Gretchen Morgenson, an extraordinary New York Times business reporter, reminded us of that in an appreciation essay on her former editor at Forbes, James Walker Michaels, who died at 86 last week. Michaels did not serve tea and crumpets to writers who failed to meet his exacting standards. Morgenson culled some of Michaels’ comments on writing from what was called the Abuse File at Forbes. They’re worth sharing:
- This is badly written and badly edited. It would be an insult to foist it on the reader.
- Please fix this quickest. It lacks most of the ingredients of a Forbes story. The quotes are room emptiers.
- This is the kind of sentence that drives readers to stop reading.
- If I can’t stay awake editing this, how can a reader stay awake reading it? What’s the point? If it has a point, maybe we can make a story of it.
- This is exactly the sort of lazy writer jargon that will put us out of business. Please use the rich resources of the English language.
- Too bloody complicated. That’s not writing. Make it simple and interesting. That’s writing.
- Here’s another one I can’t understand without help from a lawyer and accountant.
- This is more an essay as written than a Forbes article. It badly needs the concrete images, the real people that will anchor it to reality. It’s called shoe-leather reporting.
If you’ve committed any of these writing sins, you’ll recognize the truth of what Michaels was saying. Morgenson surely did. That’s why she has so cherished his teaching throughout her career.