October 8th, 2018 • Quill Archives
When approaching a story, you must play your cards right
About a year ago I began playing a card game that offers lessons for reporters and writers. How we approach and structure a story reminds me of how I decide what to bid while playing Pitch. The simple game is similar to poker.
During my 40 years in the business, I’ve learned to listen to anyone who tells me they have a story. Great stories come unannounced, like a soft tap on the door. You need to be alert to that sound. The series that turned out to be the story that won me the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2001 came from a telephone call to me from a reader.
I wrote in the last issue about a young reporter who discovered the critical importance of picking the right character upon which to build a story. Now I want to introduce you to Jen Kocher, a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Wyoming.
When I studied martial arts, I spent hours practicing technique. In a controlled environment, it was magic. But each student wondered if it would work on the street. And so it is with narrative storytelling. At writing conferences, we study handouts and discuss stories that have been reported, written and published — what happens back in the newsroom.
After more than 18 months of reporting, the top of my desk was crowded with files containing notes, observations and transcripts of multiple interviews. Now it was time to stop reporting and begin writing. My hands hovered over the keyboard. Hmm, better get some coffee.
April 13th, 2017 • Quill Archives
Storytelling: Report For Meaning To Find Heart And Soul
If we all agree that a good story is built on good reporting, then it follows that good reporting requires good questions. But what does that mean? A storyteller reports on three levels: 1) The most basic of facts: Gathering names, correct spelling and the news, or what makes the event special.
February 21st, 2017 • Quill Archives
Storytelling: Think Musically To Create With Purpose
Last December, I took vacation, pulled out one of my guitars from the closet and began playing again after a long hiatus. There is a writing lesson here, I promise. After strumming a few songs, I decided to get serious and go back to learning and then practicing my scales.
From time to time I receive emails from young journalists who want to eventually move into feature reporting, but they find themselves on a beat where they tell me they have no chance to work on storytelling skills. My first gig was at a weekly newspaper where I covered four small towns.
The New Year is less than a month old as I write this column, but I’m in a reflective mood. I hope it reaches a young reporter, perhaps someone at a weekly or small outlet, at your first “real” job after college.
My storytelling philosophy is simple: Look at every story, whether it’s breaking news, an assignment or something off the beat, as a way to practice narrative reporting, structuring and writing. Doing so gets you familiar with the art and craft of what it takes to tell a compelling story.
The idea bounced around the newsroom and ended up in my in-box: A family of a terminally ill girl was going to throw a birthday party for her in one week. I was assigned to the story. I want to use my approach to the story to discuss story thinking and structure, as it relates to both reporting and writing.
I’d just returned from SPJ’s New York City JournCamp program in June when I received an email that serves as a reminder of why on-going training is vital for those of us in this business. Hi, Tom. I don’t know if you remember me.
When you think about where your story starts, I bet many of you believe it’s when you’re at the computer crafting that perfect opening. In truth, the story starts with the interview. And if you can’t get the interview, you can’t write the story.
This being the first column of 2015, it’s a good time to help you get back to understanding the basic building blocks required to report, structure and write a story. The best way to do that is to tell you about the struggles I had with the last story I wrote in 2014.
I see them walk nervously into the room, unsure why they signed up for a series of writing classes I teach. This isn’t at a community college but an athletic club that also offers classes on bridge, dance and guitar. Not one majored in journalism in college.
I returned hom from the SPJ/RTDNA Excellence in Journalism conference in Nashville with a sense that the future is in good hands despite the turmoil in our industry. At the same time, I’m convinced that journalists are going to have to work harder to create and sustain long-term careers that are both rewarding and meaningful.