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!