March 27, 2008

Writing Tips

During my deep dive into Southern writers this spring, I’ve often been struck by the juxtapositions they make between the grotesque and the ordinary, the cosmic and the insignificant. It’s an important reminder to stay alert in your reporting to disparate elements that play off one another to create a dramatic effect.

Consider this passage in Willie Morris’ autobiography, “North toward Home,’’ in which he recounts seeing a tragic train accident that killed a little boy in the Bronx as Morris commuted from his New York editor’s job to his summer home north of the city:

In the orange glow of late afternoon the policemen, the crowd, the corpse of the boy were for a brief moment immobile, motionless, a small tableau to violence and death in the city. Behind me, in the next row of seats, there was a game of bridge. I heard one of the four men say as he looked out at the sight, “God, that’s horrible.” Another said in a whisper, “Terrible, terrible.” There was a momentary silence, punctuated only by the clicking of the wheels on the track. Then, after a pause, I heard the first man say: ‘Two hearts.

In your writing, I haven’t seen a lot of what writing coach Roy Peter Clark calls “ironic juxtapositions.” To be fair, a lot of the news writing you do doesn’t lend itself to this technique. But I’d challenge you to go back over your stories, or your notebooks, and see if you can’t find examples. If you do, see if you can use them to heighten the dramatic effect.

Last summer, December graduate Tim Catts employed this writing strategy in Business Week as he profiled an Ohio waitress who was soon to be the $1 million winner of a stock-picking contest.

It’s Friday afternoon in the tiny Appalachia town of St. Clairsville, Ohio, and Mary Sue Williams is about to begin her shift as a waitress at Undo’s, a spacious Italian restaurant that overlooks Interstate 70. She enjoys taking care of her regulars, she says, and after nine years in her job, she has accumulated plenty of them. Even with dozens of the restaurant’s tables empty, she cuts quickly across the floor to the bar to refill an empty water glass. “I’m going to do this until I can’t walk,” Williams says, insisting that she wouldn’t quit for a million dollars.

That conviction may soon be put to the test.

Tim juxtaposed the woman’s everyday act of refilling an empty water glass with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, winning $1 million. That’s powerful writing. It takes the willingness to over-report your story, crowding your notebook with details that, properly selected, can transform writing from adequate to outstanding.

More writing Tips

Several Craft professors have mentioned they still see students struggling with nut grafs, the graf that answers the “So What?” question. Writing Coach Chip Scanlan, who writes daily on the Poynter site, recently passed along four questions that prize-winning reporter David Von Drehle (now with Time, for years with the Washington Post) asks himself to help get to the center of the story. Scanlan suggested the writer do a freewrite in answering these questions, betting that the answers would help a reporter frame the story.

  1. Why does it matter?
  2. What’s the point?
  3. Why is this story being told?
  4. What does it say about life, about the world, about our times?

”Newspaper writing, especially on deadline, is so hectic and complicated—the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure—that it’s easy to forget the basics of storytelling,” Von Drehle wrote in an essay published in Best Newspaper Writing 1995. “Namely, what happened, and why does it matter?”

Thanks to Tuan Nguyen for passing along links to Scanlan’s advice.

Shout Outs

AnnMarie Costella scored with this clever lead on a Daily News story about the possibility that Harry Houdini died from poisoning:

Harry Houdini escaped from handcuffs, straitjackets and water-filled oversized milk cans – but the one thing he could never get away from was publicity.

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