The wonderful thing about our profession is that each story gives us the chance to practice, grow and refine our skills. But we have to make it happen. You can read all the writing books you want, but nothing is as instructive as is plunging into a story with the intent of telling it differently than you have in the past.
The critical thing is to make a conscious effort to incorporate narrative techniques — and most importantly — narrative thinking.
My mantra is that nearly any reporter can improve their writing if they start approaching their stories by thinking about them instead of grabbing onto the well-worn template of how we typically tell stories.
Last week, I received a call from Nicole Kauffman, a 32-year-old arts and entertainment reporter at the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind. She’s been at the paper for 2 1?2 years and wanted my advice on a profile she had to turn in to her editor in a couple days.
She e-mailed me her lede, and then we had a conversation that lasted all of 10 minutes. I didn’t tell her what to do. It wasn’t my story. But I asked questions that forced her to think about her story and what it really was about.
That thinking allowed her to come up with a better story structure. The improvement came not from the writing, but from the thinking that preceded the writing. Her editor liked her revised draft, and Kauffman said writing the story turned out to be “exciting.”
The piece was a profile about a world-class musician who also is a professor at the local college. She had wanted to watch him teach a master class, but because of scheduling problems she would be able to have only an hour with him in a formal, sit down interview.
“My first lede was fine,” she said. “I really hadn’t thought too much about it. I described the setting where he taught. What I wanted to tell readers was that in this school in the middle of southern Indiana are many world-renowned musicians. You’d never guess that was going on behind the doors.”
This was her original lede: The walls of the Music Annex are painted an institutional cream, and the labels on office doors noting professors’ names are equally drab. But visitors who put an ear to the door of studio 105 will recognize the sound of a master at work.
Good and serviceable.
But I asked Kauffman what she thought this story was really about. What had she seen and heard when she walked into the building for the interview? What did she remember?
She thought about it and came up with a one-word answer: Music.
“I realized I had put my ear to the door and listened to him,” she said. “The music drew me in. But it didn’t cross my mind to write about hearing him. But that was really essential. The story was about the music, not the hallway. It was the music that connected me to him, and to the readers.
“Once I changed how I thought about the story, it was fun to write, and it went fast,” she said. “I usually write a story and leave a place for a quote. But in this story, I thought about the mood I wanted, and I paraphrased a quote from one of his students. The story had my voice, and it flowed better.”
This is the opening that will appear in the paper: A fast and furious sound fills the bare halls of the Indiana University Music Annex as the fingers of a master pianist glide gracefully over keys. The playing is so fast, it sounds impossible to have been produced by human hands.
“The notes grow louder as one approaches studio room 105; each is purposeful and smooth. Behind a simple typed label on the office door – “Menahem Pressler, Distinguished Professor of Music (Piano)” – Pressler is playing one of two grand pianos in the office where he can be found on most days.”
What the reader feels in those words is the voice of a sure narrator.
Her boss, Bill Strother, the features editor, had this reaction to her work: “The old lead has too much off-the-mark detail … or not enough. If the scene is worth setting, then we almost need more. In this story, though, the music is the thing, so the newest lead is more direct and catches the reader’s ear. … Nicole is painting a picture of sound — a key to the story theme. It works much better.”
What Strother’s note reveals is that editors, at least the good ones, care about writing, focus, point of view and all the other tools we use to tell narrative stories. They want to help reporters improve. The good ones — and it’s clear Strother falls into that category — are able to offer wise perspective that helps shape the story.
But editors don’t write stories. They can work with only what a reporter gives them. Turn in bland oatmeal, and that’s what appears in the paper. There are bad editors, just as there are lousy reporters. If you find yourself struggling, ask yourself honestly about the quality of story you’re giving your editor.
By challenging yourself, you create work that challenges your editor. And that’s how great reporter/editor teams are built.
“This experience taught me to trust my observations and interpretations,” she said. “I realize that I sometimes avoid description because I am so concerned about getting it right. But feelings — what the music sounds like — are not facts.”
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.