May 2, 2008

There’s a tradition among journalists of “collecting string,” facts and impressions gathered in daily reporting that can become the stuff of a far larger story with wider sweep and a richer texture. Here’s how Jere Hester describes the practice: “Fill your notebooks – and your minds – with impressions, details. Take the time to ask those just-curious questions that seemingly don’t have anything to do with the deadline piece you’re working on. The stuff you don’t think is important now will make sense later as the story grows.” “Collecting string” is one of the most useful habits any reporter can develop.

Laura Silver’s extraordinary essay in the City Section of the April 20 New York Times, “The Fire, and the Mystery”, reminded me of this. Laura had been collecting string – both factually and emotionally – for more than a decade about a chance conversation she had with her aunt and grandmother 12 years ago:

It was the spring of 1996. The three of us had spent a pleasant afternoon on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk at the famed Russian restaurant Tatiana: my grandmother, she was alive then; my Aunt Deena, we were on tentative speaking terms that year before her death; and I, the only granddaughter.

We drank hot coffee with vanilla ice cream in clear glass mugs. I was 25, Deena 51 and Gramma somewhere past 90. But then Deena blurted out something that stopped me midswallow. “You had another aunt, you know, who lived right around here,” she said. I took notes on a napkin: 1950s. Fire. Mermaid Avenue. Dead.

The image of the napkin says so much about the power of reporting. So, too, does the writing. The period can be the most effective weapon in a writer’s arsenal. It forces the reader to stop and think. In Laura’s essay, I found myself unable to get those five words out of my mind — 1950s. Fire. Mermaid Avenue. Dead. They created the framework for an essay about a mystery and a quest for a deeper understanding of a family and a life.

Before I turn this over to Laura, there’s one other writerly aspect of the essay I’d like you to consider. It’s Voice — the affect, or tone, of the writer. I’m often uncomfortable with writers who insist they’re trying to find their voice, which sometimes can result in overly self-conscious, even self-involved, writing. And I think it’s a big danger for people starting out in the business. My advice is to let the reporting do the work. Again, through the image of scribbling on a napkin, Laura established the personality of a reporter who would visit graves in a cemetery, sift through decades-old records, all to find out more about this mystery. That allowed her distance even as she explored the intricate emotional landscape of her family history without making a reader feel uncomfortable or intrusive. That voice had a lot to do with the authenticity and power of the essay.

Here’s what Laura had to say about the reporting and writing process, which began a few years after the initial conversation, and went through about 30 drafts before she sent it to the Times:

I’m not sure if I have that original napkin, but the idea stuck with me so strongly that I didn’t give up on it for 10 years…I wrote this piece in fits and starts, gathering steam, then losing it, then taking a break for additional research. It started as a more reported piece, with a visit to the site and interviews with local residents and shopkeepers. But that wasn’t the most compelling part of the story, for me or for readers. The more I worked on it, the less I thought about the site of the Mittlemans’ house and the more I pushed myself to explore the hard, personal parts of the story.

Whew. It was worth all those hundreds of hours. Seeing the photo of my long lost relatives in the paper was a moving experience and a real gift, as if, finally, they were receiving an honor that had not been bestowed upon them in their lifetimes.

Shout Out

In another example of Voice, Damian Ghigliotty and Matt Townsend spent a night with the smokers at “smoke-free” Shea Stadium. The story had a lot of attitude, but more the smokers’ than the writers (although one of the writers did get thrown out even when he wasn’t smoking). The story adopted a conversational voice with the reader, as you’ll see in this kicker that ended with a zinger:

How far we’ve come from the days when pitcher Johnny Podres used to light one up between innings on the way to winning the World Series for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955.

So what will the rest of the season be like for smokers at Shea? Head for the top of the upper deck? Employ a lookout for security guards? Or come up with another strategy?

“This is my first game of the season,” Mr. Rhoades said. “But I guess I’ll have to now.”

Of course there is one other option, but it was not discussed that day.

Writing Tips

It’s difficult to explain how to write with voice. It’s easy to sense the writer’s voice when you read William Faulkner, Mark Twain or Tom Wolfe. But it’s not as easy with a journalist, when some of the conventions of the craft can seem to smother a writer’s personality. Often, the problem comes when you use journalese rather than simple, direct language. Another error is when you use the insider jargon of courts or cops or whomever you’re covering. Keep reminding yourself how you’d tell the story to your best friend. But perhaps the most common mistake young reporters make is trying too hard and coming off as forced or, even worse, false or pompous. I like the writing coach Jack Hart’s advice:

The best strategy for developing an authoritative voice is simply to be yourself…You create an individual style once you start to feel like yourself when you write. The words must become as comfortable as your skin. If you’re relaxed at the keyboard, your audience will feel a personal connection as they read.

E.B. White kept his advice simple. “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity,’’ he said. Keep yourself in the background, at a remove, so that the personality comes through in the reporting, not in your calling attention to yourself or the writing.

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