A few columns ago I told readers that I was willing to work with a reporter on a story, coaching him through the process from idea, reporting, structuring, writing and polishing. Daniel Jackson, who attends Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., contacted me. He is the assistant online editor for the Bryan Triangle, the school’s paper, and writing is in his blood. Before enrolling in college, he freelanced for his hometown weekly.
He told me he was going to cover an Occupy Chattanooga protest. I gave him some marching orders — things I consider necessary to make a narrative work — and he hit the streets and later sent me his draft.
He had questions: Did I organize the story effectively? I put everything in chronological order, but is there another way I could have told the story? I have a hunch that if I told the story in a different manner, I could tell the story with less space. Would you agree? I was struggling for finding a satisfying conclusion. I finally decided on a mixture of looking ahead while providing a description. Does this ending make sense for this story? What are some other endings that you use?
He told me the story was twice as long as his editor expected it to be. But he said because it was a narrative, he didn’t mind that the story was long. But he wondered if he could tell his story in less space, or did narratives need the length to develop?
I edited the story and sent it back to Jackson with a series of questions. I wanted him to figure out what I did with his story and why. (See the final, published version here.)
Here are his answers:
• You found the story, the moment when the protesters were yelling into the parking garage and the fact that they had been waiting hours for that moment to occur. This allowed you to tighten your writing down to the word limit placed on the story.
• The story is clearer because instead of following time, you followed the action. It is clearer to the reader when you give the reader one continuous stream of events. This is more logical in their mind.
• You cut much of the description from the story because the description bogged the story down. Readers don’t need a huge amount of description; they will find the images in their mind.
• You did another technique in the story; you brought a broader perspective to the story when you talked about the college students protesting with people the age of their parents and grandparents.
• You also did this with the woman sitting against the building by making the figure, $10,000, accessible to college students. Quite honestly, I did not even think of looking at the broader world and then providing context to facts of Occupy Chattanooga in my own words.
• When the story ended, you ended. Your last sentence accomplished three things. First, you told the reader you ended. Secondly, you doubled back on the story by mentioning the wait and thirdly, you gave additional information with the hours they were waiting.
After it ran, I asked Jackson to tell me — and you readers — what he learned, specific things you can start working on immediately. Here is what he sent me:
• Tight writing is still needed for any kind of journalism writing. After Hallman edited my article, I tried to duplicate what he did. I got it down to about 630 words, but he still told a more complete story, in a more relaxed voice, in his 570 words. I realized that narrative writing cannot be an excuse to ramble in stories. Every word must be used toward the flow of the story.
•In the interview, go when your subject is in the action and observe. The best thing we can do is shut up and watch the action unfold. A traditional interview makes people watch what they are saying and doing. Narrative writing needs candid moments.
• Journalism always comes first. Don’t forget the basics when looking for a story that sparkles. The wonder of narrative stories is that they are true.
• Treat the people as characters rather than sources. I have noticed that I started treating people as nuts to crack to get the quotes and the information. After working with Hallman, I’m going to start treating them as characters.
• Narrative pieces don’t have to be long in order to be good.
• There are places that are not appropriate for narrative writing. I can see situations where narrative writing could appear as yellow journalism if the writer were to record a sensitive and difficult subject, such as a rape or sensational murder.
• Narrative writing can become too gritty. Readers don’t need to know every belch, um and profanity in most stories.
• Narrative writing does not equal a paper full of candid quotes. Use the best, most telling voices.
• When working on the outline, don’t worry about the time; worry about the action. Follow the action when finding the structure of the piece.