See the discussion tab for questions about how best to adapt these basic journalism lessons to OLPC's target age laptop users, and other ideas for using the XO as a reporting and publishing tool.
by Jack Driscoll, originally for the Media Lab's Silver Stringers project
- 1 RESEARCH
- 1.1 Research is an important part of reporting.
- 1.2 Decide where you wish to look.
- 1.3 Notes save you the trouble of memorizing.
- 1.4 Make note when you are taking notes.
- 1.5 Where do I begin?
- 1.6 How best to use search engines?
- 1.7 Human beings sometimes are fountains of information.
- 1.8 When in doubt, check it out.
- 1.9 Never guess!
- 1.10 According to whom?
- 1.11 Be as accurate as humanly possible.
- 1.12 Separate the wheat from the chaff.
- 2 REPORTING
- 2.1 Swimming alone is not a good idea.
- 2.2 Take note of your surroundings.
- 2.3 The smallest detail sometimes speaks volumes.
- 2.4 Two is better than one; three is better still.
- 2.5 Take notes on top of your notes.
- 2.6 Credibility is key.
- 2.7 Chew it over, then digest it.
- 2.8 Face to face is best.
- 2.9 Don’t believe everything you read.
- 2.10 How do you know when you are done?
- 3 INTERVIEWING
- 4 WRITING
- 4.1 I don't know what you mean.
- 4.2 Just let it flow.
- 4.3 Focus
- 4.4 What moves you?
- 4.5 Every word has a function.
- 4.6 "a lightning bug and lightning"
- 4.7 Read what you have written aloud.
- 4.8 Help the reader see, hear and feel.
- 4.9 "Unusually" is useful
- 4.10 Getting your thoughts on paper
- 4.11 There's no right way.
- 4.12 A beginning, a middle and an end
- 5 REVISION
- 6 EDITING
- 6.1 Get the feel of a story first
- 6.2 Why editing is so important
- 6.3 Editing is black, white and gray
- 6.4 Editing may require adding
- 6.5 How to make a story whole
- 6.6 Punctuation has meaning
- 6.7 When comma goes before “and”
- 6.8 Variations complicate editing
- 6.9 Slang understood by some, not all
- 6.10 Remember: It’s the writer’s story
- 6.11 Four elements stories should contain
- 6.12 The last step: Read and listen
- 7 PHOTOGRAPHY
- 8 IDEA DEVELOPMENT
- 9 ISSUES
BASIC TOOLS—A pen or pencil and paper. Good enough? Veteran reporters prefer pens and usually carry two, in case the first one runs out of ink. If you use a pencil, carry at least two. Lead breaks easily. Spiral notebooks that fit in your hand or are a little larger and can fit in your pocket or in a purse are practical. Another technique is to fold a piece or paper (or two pieces) into a size small enough to fit into your hand for ease of taking notes. Be sure to number each page.
Research is an important part of reporting.
Research is an important part of reporting. For most stories it is the first step. Before going out to report on an event or do an interview, do as much preparation as possible. Research is a form of searching. Ask yourself the question: “What am I looking for?” You would never go on a search without knowing why you are wandering through the woods. You do so, because your dog is lost or you want to gather wild flowers. The same is true of research: Be as clear in your mind as you can about what you are trying to find. Write it down. Otherwise you will waste a lot of time wandering.
Decide where you wish to look.
Decide where you wish to look. Think of yourself as an explorer. The more sources of reliable information you can find the better: a library, which has books, newspapers, magazines and other materials; websites on the internet; certain government offices where records are kept; people who are experts on the topic What motivates an explorer is the prospect of discovery. It’s an exciting feeling to dig up information that clicks. Often you will hit dead ends before you reach that moment of discovery, but bear in mind that exhaustive research, which you should strive for, can be exhausting.
Notes save you the trouble of memorizing.
It is pretty impossible to do research without taking notes that you write on paper or type into your computer. Notes save you the trouble of memorizing. They save you from looking up a piece of information a second time at a later date. They also help you absorb the information in your mind. It is better to have too many notes than too few. One technique is take careful handwritten notes, then type them when time permits. You might wish to organize notes by subject matter. Retyping gives you a better grasp of the material you have gathered. Well-organized research notes translate into easier writing in the end.
Make note when you are taking notes.
Make note when you are taking notes. Note the name of the book; jot down the name of the publisher and author or authors, the year of publication, what page your notes are taken from. If necessary, make note of any footnotes as well.
If your source is a magazine or newspaper, note the official name (is it The London Times or the Times of London; is it New York Times or The New York Times); note the author, the date of publication, the page number(s).
Be especially careful when researching website material, because the information frequently comes from another source. Clicking on links sometimes leads to the original material. Some web stories list references at the bottom of their stories.
Where do I begin?
Let’s say you pick up a textbook with a title something like, “The History of the World”. It has more than 1000 pages. It would make a good doorstop. You stare at it and finally say to yourself, “Where do I begin?”
Rather than start at Page 1 and read the entire book, what you want to do is look for clues. The best clues are in the front and in the back of the book. Something called The Table of Contents usually is found in the front and contains chapter titles. In the back is the Index, an alphabetical listing of names and words with page references. In some books the Index is thorough; other books only list important names and words. In either case the Index can send you right to the pages you most need to look at.
Photographs often provide valuable clues, too. Sometimes there is a listing of photos in the front of the book with page numbers. Sometimes books are printed with the photos all clustered together on successive pages. At worst, you might have to flip through the pages to find pictures connected to your research. Occasionally the photographs will lead you to significant information because of what they depict or what is mentioned in the caption or because of some information you get visually from the photo.
How best to use search engines?
Internet search engines are like double-edged swords. They are easy to use but contain the most inaccurate information. It’s best to have at least two sources for information that is taken from the internet, making sure one isn’t copying from the other.
Take the time to study how best to use these search engines. Sometimes the best results come when you use the fewest words in your search query. An owner of one of the biggest sites has said that three search words get the best results from his search engine.
Use quotation marks around words or phrases that are exactly what you are looking for, such as a name or a phrase. “Old King Cole” without quotes may retrieve more references to Nat King Cole, a popular 20th Century singer, than to the merry old soul.
Let’s say you are a little hesitant about a phrase. Was it “one if by land, two if by sea” or “one if by sea, two if by land?” Try both. You may find that neither is correct. The correct phrase is: “One, if by land, and two, if by sea”. Or maybe you know the exact phrase, but you are unsure whether the title is “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” or “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Searching the phrase will quickly tell you the title is the latter.
Take the time to familiarize yourself with the tricks of the search-engine trade. Most have similar rules, but some have tricks or shortcuts that speed your research.
Human beings sometimes are fountains of information.
Research doesn’t always have to entail pouring through drawers of file-cabinet folders with moths flying out or slogging through a half dozen thick encyclopedias.
Human beings sometimes are fountains of information that may never find its way into a library: The 85-year-old who could tell what the Great Depression was like in about 20 states, because he was a hobo; the Irish wood carver whose intricate designs were passed down from his County Meath ancestors; the nurse who worked with Mother Theresa in India; the botanist, the butcher, the baker. Humans enjoy talking about what they are good at or about subjects they have expertise with.
If you have access to a tape recorder, ask the person you are interviewing for permission to record what is said. But you should still take notes as best you can for two reasons: (1) it will help you find important quotes on the tape when you are organizing in preparation for writing; (2) the tape recorder might fail to work!
When in doubt, check it out.
We have established that a researcher is a good advance planner, an explorer, a collector and a keeper of notes and an organizer. We also have suggested that good note taking avoids the need to look up a piece of information a second time.
However, bear in mind that second checking is often a plus and never a minus. The ultimate aim is accuracy. You may be able to remember what year the War of 1812 started, but do you know when the Peloponnesian War began and ended? If you are unsure, even if you looked it up once, double check it.
Editors frequently spout the following: When in doubt, check it out.
The need for accuracy cannot be overemphasized. So what causes inaccuracies? Generally the original mistake is made in the research phase and copied in the writing phase. If you jot down a wrong date in your notes, it’s likely to inaccurate when you write.
Care should be taken when it comes to bits of information: the spelling of a name or a person’s middle name, a date, a geographic location, a person’s exact title, etc. Be especially careful that you correctly spell the main subject of your research.
Usually a second reference can be used as a double-check on factoids: an encyclopedia, a dictionary, an atlas or book of maps, even a telephone book. When in doubt, check it out. I already said that, you say? Right. And I’ll say it again and again. You prefer a shorter version? OK: Never guess!
According to whom?
Certain information is common knowledge: The Earth is round, airplanes fly; horses have four legs. Other information is less obvious or may even be controversial (only a few hundred years ago many believed the Earth was flat). Be sure to make note of the source of your information when taking notes on less obvious or controversial facts.
Here’s a piece of information: Modern horses have only one functional toe.
It’s not common knowledge, certainly is not obvious and even could be controversial. So how do you handle it? You need attribution. You need to answer the question: According to whom? Be sure your notes reflect the name of the person or other source for any information you collect. Like the antique dealer who needs to be able to tell the customer who previously owned the flower vase, the researcher needs to tell the reader on whose authority a certain statement is made.
Not only does the name of the original source add to accuracy but it also helps the reader judge whether the information is believable.
Be as accurate as humanly possible.
As efficient as we may be, we often have to do research on our research.
When it comes time to write, we look at our notes and frequently question whether they are thorough enough or even whether they are totally accurate. After doing a lot of research on a subject, we sometimes find that little inconsistencies in our own early notes sometimes jump out at us.
It’s time to re-research. Even the best researchers at times end up going back to the library or to the web to double-check certain items. Never hesitate, because you want what you ultimately write to be as accurate as humanly possible.
Double-checking is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength and wisdom.
Separate the wheat from the chaff.
You’ve finished your research, and you’ve got all this material piled high. Now what?
Assumedly you have organized your notes in the course of your research, putting apples in one pile, oranges in another and pears in another. Still, you’ll usually find you have too much information. This is a plus.
One way to determine what’s important is to start writing without looking at your notes. Write from memory. Do a fast draft. What’s most important will pop into your mind. Then go back to your research notes and get the exact date, the exact quote or whatever. As you are browsing, you may also stumble across some additional facts you had forgotten about.
Grain farmers refer to this process as “separating the wheat from the chaff.” For you that should mean identifying what information in your notes is important and what is fluff.
Swimming alone is not a good idea.
Two heads are better than one. Three are better still. Rather than plunge into the reporting, it’s a good idea to take a short time to plan your reporting strategy. Sitting down with one or more other persons and brainstorming is a valuable technique. What is the main point of the story you are reporting on? Where can you go to find out the most about it? Who are the best people to talk with? In what order? It like swimming in a river: You don’t want to just jump in without thinking. You want to find the best spot, where it’s not too shallow and not too deep; where boats are unlikely to be buzzing around; where the current is right; where others are nearby (swimming alone is not a good idea).
Even a few minutes spent sharing ideas with a parent, a brother or sister, another student, a teacher or a librarian will save wasting a lot of time in the end.
Take note of your surroundings.
Your story should deliver to the reader more than just the facts you collect. Words are symbols. You use them to convey to the reader what you’ve seen, felt, heard, smelled and, yes, maybe even tasted.
A television camera allows the audience to see and hear what the photojournalist chooses to shoot. Word pictures often can go beyond pictures, revealing what the camera might not be able to focus on; describing feelings (“the doorknob was so cold that the skin of your fingers stuck to it”) and aromas (“as you walked through the Italian section, the smell of pizza baking made your mouth water”).
You are a painter. You are creating a picture that illuminates and even awakens the senses of your readers who might chuckle or grimace or even shed a tear as they not only read but also experience what you are writing.
That’s why taking note of all the elements of your surroundings when reporting makes sense.
The smallest detail sometimes speaks volumes.
A court stenographer records everything that is said during a trial; a reporter takes notes on the important questions and answers but at the same time is aware of details that may or may not have anything to do with what is being said.
When you are interviewing someone, details also can be more revealing than the words that are spoken. Let’s say the health teacher tells you she is announcing a school campaign to promote better eating. On the same day you see the teacher leaving the cafeteria with a pile of French fries, a slice of cake, and an extra-large soda on her tray.
The above example is only in jest, just to help make the point, which is: No matter what type of story is being reported, the smallest detail sometimes speaks volumes to the reader.
Two is better than one; three is better still.
A veteran editor told his staff again and again: You must engage in over-reporting.
He knew the value of details. And he knew the value of corroborating information.
If one person tells you that the mayor likes to make phone calls for an hour early every morning, is that enough corroboration? Having two sources for that information is better; having three is best. Verifying this information through the mayor is ideal. The more important and sensitive the information is the more sources are needed. Over-reporting is the only way to be sure. (When you have more than one source, attribute your information to the most significant and credible source, such as the vice mayor rather than the city hall intern.)
Take notes on top of your notes.
Accuracy results from careful, meticulous reporting. Errors result from failure to keep good notes of what you see and hear. Errors can also result from bias. So always avoid inserting your own opinion into what you report.
Here’s a tip: Take notes on top of your notes.
What does that mean? Reporters often find a quiet corner after completing an interview or after covering an event. There they huddle with head down, feverishly writing in their notebook while their memory is still fresh.
They might find certain quotations in their notes that lack a word or two due to haste. Or they may wish to jot down certain observations that are still clear in their mind, such as the color of a dress, the number of people in a room, the make and model of an automobile that might be part of the story. From experience they know they may not remember some of these points when it’s time to write.
Few of us have a photographic memory. Time tends to make memory murky. Notes that build on notes can produce near-photographic results.
Credibility is key.
“To err is human.” If Alexander Pope hadn’t written that, we would all have a guilty conscience, because we all make mistakes. But we can’t use that as an excuse.
If your story contains inaccuracies, it becomes less believable. Credibility is key.
Most errors occur in spelling, use of names and titles, numbers or geographic locations.
Double-checking never hurts. No one likes to be misidentified in print, so never hesitate to ask, “Could you spell your name please?” Or, “Your title is chancellor of the exchequer, correct?”
Getting the basics correct is a good start. Then you can worry about the subtleties, such as whether the actress sits straight in a chair at the table and looks you straight in the eye or slouches in a big, pillowy sofa and stares out the window during your interview.
Chew it over, then digest it.
As you gather information, stop every so often and asks, “What do all these details mean?” It is not enough to pile up fact upon fact. When you eat, you place a portion of your food in your mouth, chew it over, then digest it. It is the same with reporting.
The process is known as providing perspective.
When you are taking photographs, you often take several close-ups, then adjust your lens to get a broader view. The same is true with writing.
Another way to gain perspective is to use comparisons. If you refer to the average number of students in a classroom at your school, how does it compare with the number of students per classroom in other schools in your community or nearby?
Making comparisons in order to gain perspective often is useful when referring to amounts of money. What does it mean to say the government is spending $3 million a year on a certain type of children’s program? If we can compare that figure with the amount of spending on similar programs as well as including the total annual government budget figure, it helps the reader digest the significance of all those numbers.
Face to face is best.
Asking a person questions face to face is recommended. Most people respond better in person. It also lets you get a better sense of the person. You can observe and note expressions and even hand gestures.
Email and telephone also have their place in reporting. They are especially useful if you have just a quick question or two, or if the person you wish to interview is too busy to meet with you. An advantage with email is that you can send as many questions as you wish whenever you wish. The problem is that you might not get the answers you asked for. They might be too short or are not quite a response to what you asked. You don’t have the opportunity for a follow-up question the way you do when you interview in person.
The advantage of using the telephone for reporting is that you can get a quick response (assuming the person is available to take the call). The disadvantage is that people generally don’t have time for a lot of phone questions. If you have more than a couple of questions, the best tactic is to call and ask for a time when you can call back. Give an estimated amount of time it will take. Here’s a tip: Never ask for more than 20 minutes. You risk getting turned down altogether.
Don’t believe everything you read.
Nicholas Gage was a well-known New York Times reporter. It is said that he got hooked on investigating/reporting while he was a Boston University student. A building on the college campus had earlier been a hotel, where the famous playwright Eugene O'Neill died. Gage read in a book that in the playwright’s dying moments he turned to his wife and asked her to burn his unfinished manuscripts in the hotel room fireplace.
Gage checked the room. No fireplace. So he checked the blueprints. No plan for a fireplace. So he called the widow, who told him she gave the manuscripts to a janitor who burned them in a basement furnace. Gage called the publisher and the book was changed.
Moral: Don’t believe everything you read. Indeed, don’t assume any fact is true. I checked two sources before writing this Nicholas Gage anecdote.
How do you know when you are done?
How do you know when you’ve finished your reporting?
Well, after you’ve collected enough information to support your story, you should take two more steps:
1. Test the old formula sometimes known as the "5 W’s and an H.” The letters stood for: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How? If you can’t answer one of those questions, you undoubtedly need to do more reporting.
2. Put yourself in the place of the reader. What questions, large or small, would you want answered in the story? If you can answer those questions, then the fun is about to begin: It’s time to write.
Here are a dozen do’s and don’ts:
1. Do as much research as you can before you start your interviews.
2. Decide whom you wish to interview and in what order. (Tip: The most important interviews should be done last).
3. Write out your questions ahead of time and in the order you think they should be asked and never start out with a big, important question. Ease the person into the interview in a conversational way.
4. Make an appointment to do the interview. After introducing yourself, explain briefly what story you are working on.
5. Ask all the questions you have written out but be alert. You’ll find that added questions often will pop into your mind as the interview unfolds.
6. Be sure to have enough paper and pencils or pens.
7. Use a tape recorder when appropriate and ask permission to use it. Don’t totally rely on the tape recorder. Be on the safe side. Take notes.
8. Be a good listener, but don’t let the person you are interviewing ramble. Try to draw out specifics: How much, how long, when, etc.
9. Make mental or written notes about the person (gestures, mannerisms) and the place (color, size, decorations, furniture, etc.).
10. Exchange contact information in case either of you wishes to contact the other at a later date with new, added or corrected information.
11. Don’t forget a photograph. If you are having someone else take a picture at a later time, make the arrangements at the end your interview.
12. While the interview is still fresh in your mind, go to a quiet place to review and reconstruct your notes.
I don't know what you mean.
Writing involves having a conversation without sound.
You are conveying information to others using words that are written rather than spoken.Indeed, some good writers move their lips when they are writing. Others make believe they are writing for their favorite aunt or a good friend in an effort to remind themselves that they are writing for an audience rather than for themselves.
The advantage of the written word over the spoken word is that you have time to correct mistakes or explain something more clearly.How many times have you said to yourself, "O, I wish I hadn't said that." Or how many times has someone said to you, "I don't know what you mean."
Writing is a luxury. It gives you time to correct your "conversation" or to be better understood.
Just let it flow.
Good writing is good thinking.
Words, sentences and paragraphs are a reflection of what's on your mind. Well-known writers understand this, so they write as fast as they can, not concerning themselves with spelling, punctuation or even sentence structure, because the mind works faster than they can write or type. They can go back and fix things up later. The famous 19th Century poet and essayist Walt Whitman once said, "I just let her come till the fountain runs dry."
In the process of emptying the mind a writer sometimes uncovers a surprise in the sub-conscious. It's like cleaning the attic. You often find things you forgot were there. This element of surprise or discovery is part of the magic of writing.
So as Whitman suggests, just let it flow.
Writers start with a blank sheet but not a blank mind. With all those millions of thoughts running around in your head, how do you know what to write.
The solution: Focus.
Just as you need to adjust the lens of your camera to get a clear photograph, so too do you need to get your thoughts in focus.
Three techniques are recommended.
Novelist William Faulkner is said to have written down on a card the three or four words that best summed up the point or theme or focus of the book he was writing. He propped up the card over his typewriter and kept it always in front of him as he wrote. So that's Technique No. 1: Write down in a few words what the focus is. In fact try writing it a dozen ways until you have precisely the focus you want.
Technique No. 2 is to bear in mind that, with few exceptions, stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Technique No. 3 is to write an outline. It doesn't necessarily have to have Roman numerals, capital letters and all that goes with a formal outline. But it is worth jotting down the order of points you want to make in the beginning, middle and end. Then start going through your notes to figure out where they fit within the outline you've designed.
What moves you?
Tom Wolfe, author of the best seller The Bonfire of the Vanities, once told the story of a Buddhist monk who sat at lunch with executives of a major newspaper in their private dining room. After they had each described their role, the monk asked, "But why do you do it?"
Motivation makes a difference in writing. What moves you?
It can be the subject itself. You may have a strong position on a particular issue and feel compelled to explain why and maybe convince others of your ideas, positions or opinions.
It can be a desire to pass on what you have learned, to educate others by conveying the results of your research.
It can be a hope to bring a smile to the reader, to entertain, to provide a diversion.
It can be a fulfillment of a wish to serve others, providing information that the reader has the right or need to know.
In reaching out to our audience through writing we often succeed best when we reach inside ourselves. So ask yourself, "Why do you do it?"
Every word has a function.
Words draw a picture in the mind of the reader. Some words add color and life; others draw a blank.
Analyze the following sentence: "Paris is interesting, but it is very hot in July." What does "interesting" mean? What is the difference between "hot" and "very hot"?
"Interesting" and "very" are weak words that should be avoided.
Another frequently useless and misused word is "different"? If you write, "We visited Mexico City on two different occasions, the sentence would benefit by dropping the word "different".
However, if you wrote, "Buenos Aires and Calcutta are different," the word "different" would provide a useful function, providing you then explained what the differences are.
Be sure that every word in every sentence has a function.
"a lightning bug and lightning"
The more you write the more you learn to write.
You learn that clarity often results from revision of what you first wrote. You learn that rhythm or flow is as important to writing as it is to music. You learn that writing is like a puff of smoke unless it is based on facts (even opinion writing is more compelling if it is based on factual information rather than on random thoughts spouted by the writer). You learn that writing is like cooking, because too much or too little of certain ingredients can ruin it. You learn the importance of word choice. When you are re-reading what you have written, the change of a word here and there can add clarity, it can enhance rhythm, it can lend authority, it can add spice to the ingredients.
Mark Twain, author of Tom Sawyer, once wrote, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning."
Read what you have written aloud.
How can you be confident that what you write is smooth yet tightly written, clear yet vivid? Three easy techniques seem to work well.
One is to read what you have written aloud. If it sounds even the slightest bit awkward, you probably need to do some revising.
The second is to have it read critically by a friend or family member or interested person (teacher, editor, etc.).
The third requires some time. Put aside what you have written for at least an hour but preferably overnight. Then re-read it. You'll be surprised what new perspectives you will bring to what you have written.
Help the reader see, hear and feel.
Think of adjectives as being describers. They describe a noun ("The floppy rim of her hat.") or a pronoun ("He is red-headed.").
Author Thomas Wolfe was a master of description, who could write page after page about what he saw looking out the window of a train. Here's a sentence about a truck from his book, You Can't Go Home Again:
- The heavy motor warmed up with a full-throated roar, then there was a grinding clash of gears, and George felt the old house tremble under him as the truck swung out into the street and thundered off.
His use of adjectives helps you see, hear and feel the truck.
"Unusually" is useful
Think of adverbs as being assistants to adjectives and verbs. Often but not always they end in "ly".
Adverbs add meaning to adjectives and verbs. Avoid adverbs that fail to add meaning.
Good use: "When the bell rang, she left her classroom immediately."
Weak use: "When the bell rang, she immediately remembered she needed to meet her friend."
Only use adverbs that play a useful role. Words such as "generally", "usually" or "occasionally" serve to qualify (for example: "It's usually hot in Rome in July.").
Words such as "frequently" or "forever" answer the question "When".
Getting your thoughts on paper
You've done the research. You've organized your notes, sketched out an outline and written a sentence or phrase that reflects the focus. Now what? How do you begin?
If you're not too sure, write a topic sentence and keep going from there. You can always go back and change the opening. Another approach some writers use when a good beginning fails to pop into their minds is to begin with the second paragraph and wait till they've finished before writing the first paragraph. Some write a quick draft, just to get thoughts on paper. Others put their notes aside, rather than becoming bogged down by looking back and forth. They then fill in the gaps with specifics such as dates, first names and middle initials, exact quotes and the like.
Probably the best way to start is to dash off twenty or thirty potential first sentences. Then go back and pick out the best. Lots of writers do this, because they find that they arrive at certain words and phrases that click after the first dozen attempts. In some cases they'll decide to use the best sentence in the middle of the story or as an ending.
There's no right way.
You best writing may occur away from the keyboard. When you least expect it, the exact point of the story or a special turn of a phrase might leap into your mind.
A newspaper reporter mentally writes her story while returning to the office after covering an event. A magazine writer comes to grips with writing themes while cooking dinner. A feature writer goes for a walk, head down, not noticing passersby, ideas churning with each step. A deadline writer, with the clock ticking away, leans back in his chair, feet on the edge of the desk for balance, and closes his eyes. A couple of minutes later, he sits upright and writes a flawless story from beginning to end as fast as he can type.
These are not fictional examples. They describe real people approaching the writing process differently. There's no right way; there's only your way.
A beginning, a middle and an end
Newspapers once had a theory that the most important information should go at the top of the story and the least important should go at the end. The theory was known as the "inverted pyramid". If a story needed to be shortened, it was cut from the bottom up.
Today newspapers, magazines and websites generally agree with the theory that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Indeed, many believe the ending is the most important of the three, because it is what is most remembered by the reader.
Frequently writers decide how their stories will end before they determine the beginning.
The beginning and the ending should echo one another, holding together the middle, as though they were two pieces of bread in a sandwich.
Speaking of food, do you often leave the last good bite of a meal till the end? Readers of stories also like to savor that last bite of information.
Revision is the key to improved writing
1. Revision IS writing. It's almost impossible to write a story perfectly from top to bottom on the first attempt. Don't even try. Write the first draft fast, then go back, at least once, and revise.
2. Embrace revision as a part of the writing process, whether you are writing an essay or an email message. Make it a habit. It can only improve what you write.
3. Read aloud what you have written. Listen as though it were music. If a note is off, change is in order. If it's not crystal clear, smooth out the wording.
4. It takes a while even for good writers to get used to criticism from others. Yet, when we criticize our own work, which is what revision is, it's fun.
5. What to look for: Is what you've written accurate? Is it focused? Too long, too short? Can one sentence be better than two? Have you selected the right key words?
6. If someone gave you a coin for every word you could delete without hurting the meaning, would you think harder about the function of each word? Make each and every word count.
7. The tone should be appropriate to the subject matter. Bouncy writing would not be in keeping with a story about illness.
8. In re-reading your story, does it sound like something you would write or does it sound like someone else? It's your story and should be told in a way that is most comfortable to you.
9. Look at the beginning. Is it likely to encourage a reader to continue on? Does it set an appropriate tone?
10. Look at the middle of your story. Is there enough detail to reveal the main message of the story? Are there anecdotes you might add to make your points more understandable?
11. Look at the ending. If it sounds like preaching, you probably want to change it. The ending should be like an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence.
12. One more point about endings: Bear in mind that, when the reader leaves a story, he or she will most remember the ending. Is your ending memorable?
13. Finally, are you satisfied? That's the final test. When you reach that point, the story is written.
Get the feel of a story first
Teachers of speed-reading tell us that before reading a book we should scan the cover flaps and the table of contents, then quickly flip through the pages of the first couple of chapters.
The goal is to get a feel of the subject matter, see what names and key words pop up frequently and generally get acquainted with the text. Research shows that this technique improves reading speed.
The same goes for editing. Before making any changes, even as simple as fixing a typing error, read the story from top to bottom to familiarize yourself with the big picture.
Why editing is so important
Editing is a form of polishing, preferably using a soft cloth rather than sandpaper.
In short, it involves making sure words are spelled correctly, language is used properly, punctuation is in the right places and the facts are accurate.
Sloppiness can undermine the reader’s understanding of a story and can put in question its believability.
Editing is black, white and gray
Spelling, correct word use, punctuation and accuracy are pretty specific. Generally there is a right and a wrong.
Other editing issues are more general and require judgment. Among those issues are clarity, awkwardness and focus.
Is the story clear to anyone with average intelligence? Are there sentences, clauses or phrases that would make you stumble if you read them aloud? Does the story stick to one point?
So the two roles of editing are: 1. Make right what is wrong;; 2. Use your best judgment as to whether the story is told well.
Editing may require adding
Editors are often thought of as butchers waving a meat cleaver. That description, of course, is an exaggeration, known as hyperbole.
While it is true that an editor should tighten up a story by cutting out excess words, it is also important for the editor to make sure the story is complete. Sometimes writers assume that the reader knows basic information: When World War I took place; who Mahatma Gandhi was; where Rio de Janeiro is. Use your judgment as to whether to expand on this kind of information. If you think one out of ten readers is unsure, it’s better to include explanatory information.
Doughnuts have holes in the middle, but stories shouldn’t. If you think more detail or description is needed, fill in the hole.
How to make a story whole
The easiest way to find holes in stories or to find other flaws that need editing is to put yourself into the mind of the reader.
What questions would the reader ask? Does the story answer those questions.
Odd as it may sound, the best editing often occurs when an editor finds something that's missing.
An easy example would be something like: "The teacher made three points." And then the story only lists two.
More difficult is the process of realizing that a piece of information necessary to make the story complete is lacking. A story with a hole cannot be whole.
Punctuation has meaning
Driving down a road you notice a variety of signs. Most signs have symbols, such as a curved arrow, meaning there’s a bend in the road; some have words, such as STOP.
Punctuation in a sentence is like a sign along the road; it is intended to be helpful in guiding the reader through sentences and paragraphs. Each punctuation sign has a function. The signs are not for decoration, a dab here and a dab there.
If in editing you see a punctuation mark that performs no role, take it out. The reader, like the driver of a car, doesn’t need needless distractions.
When comma goes before “and”
The comma is the most misused punctuation mark. Some writers think they should throw one in every time there is a pause in a sentence. Not true.
The word “and” seems to trigger the most problems. Examine the following two sentences:
Marguerite went to the store, and Juan rode his bike.
Marguerite went to the store and bought some yummy candy.
Note that the first example has a comma; the second doesn’t. The reason? Example #1 is a compound sentence. How do you know? If you take away the word “and”, you have two sentences. But in Example #2 you can’t take away “and”. Marguerite is the subject of “went” and “bought”.
A comma is unnecessary unless it serves a specific purpose. Pause and analyze the role of each comma but don’t let one be used every time there is a pause.
(How necessary are commas? Notice that only one comma is used in this tutorial).
Variations complicate editing
A close look at spelling, punctuation, capitalization and the like will reveal differences in usage between one publication and another.
Red, white, and blue
Red, white and blue
In a series (Example #1) formal grammar calls for a comma before the word, and informal grammar, often found in newspapers, leaves out that comma. This practice originated because of the need for speed when type was set by hand.
“Labour” is a common British spelling used in many countries around the world.
Publishing groups develop manuals for what is known as style, because there can be so many variations. Textbooks set the style in schools.
Whether you labor or labour doesn’t matter much; what’s most important is that you are consistent.
Slang understood by some, not all
Slang is a form of language fashioned by those who share a special interest. Sports enthusiasts refer to the baseball field as a “diamond”; basketball players “dunk”; volleyball players “spike” the ball. Just about every profession has its own slang or lingo.
The advent of email has also brought with it a slang that is almost like a foreign language. The use of email slang is fine if the recipients understand it.
Stories on the web or in print more often than not are written for a general audience. Slang should be avoided.
By the same token obscure words, particularly those with four syllables, should also be replaced with common words, unless you are writing for an erudite audience. Erudite? It describes those who have extensive knowledge, mostly from books. Probably a good word to avoid most of the time.
Remember: It’s the writer’s story
Editing requires common sense, because rules cannot cover every situation. Still, any changes should be made with good reason, because the story belongs to the writer.
An improvement in the choice of a word or a phrase or a clarifying insertion or the correction of mistake are appropriate in the editing process.
What happens when substantial changes are required, such as the insertion of a paragraph or putting paragraphs in different order or reducing a story to half its original length?
In those cases the writer should be consulted. Major changes should be agreed upon between the writer and the editor before a story is published. The fine line between editing and rewriting can be dissolved by discussion and agreement.
Four elements stories should contain
Stories need to contain certain elements that make them worthwhile:
1. They should inform, educate, guide and, in some cases, entertain the reader.
2. They should be of general interest to the reader.
3. They should provide readers what they need to know or have the right to know.
4. They should contain timely information.
In short, stories should not be written for the writer but for the reader.
The last step: Read and listen
The first step and the last step in the editing process are the same: Read the story from beginning to end. When practical read it aloud. Occasionally you’ll hear a bump in the story that needs smoothing.
How clear are the answers to the four basic W questions: Who? What? When? Where? Most stories also should clearly explain the How and Why as well.
Also, editors occasionally leave a stray comma here or a mistyped word there. Those need to be fixed, because this is the final polishing process. The next step is publication.
Publication is a gratifying last step that follows a long process involving the forming of an idea, researching, reporting, writing, revising and editing.
1. Understand your equipment before taking any important pictures. Read the manual. Test the camera. And, if the camera has batteries, make sure they are fresh.
2. In some cases a photo stands alone and tells a story; in other cases it goes with written words, and together they tell a story.
3. You have control over some photos you take. You choose the angle so that the sun hits properly. You decide where the subject stands. You pick the background.
4. When “shooting” a news or sports event, you have little control. The action occurs quickly. You may have no choice over the angle or framing of the photo.
5. Take general scenes and close-ups. Professionals carry more than one lens: 24mm or 28mm wide-angle or regular 50mm; 200mm for close-ups.
6. Anticipate action. Set your camera focus on an object where you guess the action might occur. Be ready to shoot quickly. You may get only one shot.
7. Carefully and accurately write down names, titles and affiliations of those you photograph. Without that information a photograph is seldom usable.
8. Group photos often present particular problems. Set up clearly defined rows. If someone is straddling two rows, the identification explanation may be awkward.
9. Posed photos generally should be avoided. Having the subject(s) engaged in normal activity makes a more natural and thus more appealing photograph.
10. Written explanations with photograph are usually called “captions” (sometimes they are called “cutlines”). The trick is to make them complete but brief.
11. Photo layouts enable in-depth storytelling. Thumbnail photographs that can be clicked on and expanded are an effective, space-saving device on web pages.
12. Slide shows should be used sparingly and only for a special reason. Web readers often are in too much of a hurry to watch them.
Best ideas? Yours
Stories begin with an idea. That raises the question of where ideas come from.
They can come from someone else, of course, but writers who develop their own ideas tend to execute them better. They are more enthusiastic, more inquisitive and have more of a sense of ownership (it should be quickly stated, however, that the improvement of an initial idea can best be achieved in collaboration with others: Two minds are better than one).
You arrive at a good idea by answering the following questions:
What interests you? What creates emotion: makes you mad; makes you happy/sad; makes you inquisitive?
Who interests you?
What do you want to look into more or learn about?
How good is the idea: Will it contain information? Will the information be significant enough to be of interest to others?
Capture your brainstorms
If you sit down and try to answer questions like the above, you probably will come up with some possibilities for stories to write. But generally ideas are generated more spontaneously. A brainstorm. You see, hear or read something that triggers another idea. A conversation gives you an idea.
The problem is that ideas tend to go in one ear and out the other. Ever wake up in the middle of the night with a great solution to a problem and then wake up the next morning and forget what it was?
Ideas, for many of us, are like jokes: We tend to forget them.
Most writers carry a little notebook or keep a journal. It is a way of capturing the germ of an idea that can be built on.
The power of what’s ordinary
The late Don Murray, an American author and writing guru, never went anywhere without his daily journal, an 8x11 spiral notebook in which at various times during the day he jotted down thoughts or descriptions of what he literally saw or things he saw in his mind's eye. Here's how he describes the evolution of an idea:
"My columns usually begin with the ordinary. My eye catches a glint from an insignificant element in my life or the lives of those around me, and I see it suddenly with humor, anger, sadness, amusement, nostalgia, concern--emotion gives it significance."
Putting ideas to the test
Here's another little exercise that might be worth trying: Write down three ideas you think may be interesting for your publication...for your eyes only.
Take your best idea. Write an answer in a word or two or three to the basic questions each story should contain, if there is an answer: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?
Talk over the idea with someone else before you start working on it.
What are the criteria for a newsy idea?
1. Does it have timeliness?
2. Is it of importance (affects many)?
3. Will it be of general interest to the reader?
4. Is it relevant?
5. Does it involve the public's right to know?
6. Does involve the public's need to know?
7. Will it inform/educate/guide/entertain readers?
Ideas come from living
Few of us our Einsteins, but that doesn't mean we don't have good ideas. The test is whether we are conveying information that is relevant to the reader. Take it from Susan Trausch, who has been a humor columnist, business writer, Washington correspondent and editorial writer at the Boston Globe newspaper:
"Ideas come from just living and doing the daily battle--standing in line at the bank and always being in the wrong one; spending a day trying to get the funny noise out of the car and discovering it's a tube of lipstick under the seat; living in an apartment with cardboard walls; having your credit card rejected in front of your fellow man. I write about the little annoyances that are big pains, and those are everywhere."
“Progress is our most important product.” Those words were used as a motto for many years by General Electric. Adapting the motto to those who publish, you might say, “Fairness is our most important product.”
All sides should be reflected in a story involving a controversial subject. Another well-known saying is that “there are two sides to every story.” Unfortunately it is sometimes inaccurate, because many issues have more than two sides. A simple example would be a story about the proper age to get a driver’s license. Some may say age 16, some 17, others 18. Others might say a license should be available only to those who need to drive at age 16 because of a job.
Even if you are writing a opinion piece, it is a good idea to summarize the positions of others. Oddly, it helps clarify your viewpoint for the reader.
Conflict of Interest
The reader deserves to know if a writer has more than a passing interest in a subject.
Surely it would be inappropriate to write a review of a play without telling your readers that you were an actor in the play. That is called having a “conflict of interest”.
If you are part of an organization that you are writing a story about, you should say so in the story or in an italic line at the end of the story. Full disclosure when necessary is only being fair to the reader who otherwise would assume you had no connection.
A favorite expression of little children is, “Says who?” Big sister says, “It’s time to go to bed.” The child responds, “Says who?�” Actually it’s a pretty smart statement. The sister doesn’t have the authority to determine bedtime unless she is told to do so by a parent.
If a reader stops in the middle of the story and thinks, “Says who?”, the writer and editor have failed to do their jobs properly. The story needs to state where information comes from. We call this attribution.
Common knowledge needs no attribution (the sun rises in the East); nor does a description of something you witnessed with your own eyes (the car turned left on Main Street).
When passing on what we have learned during research or reporting, we should tell where the information came from. It’s best to include the “Says who?” in the same sentence that contains the information, often at the end. An easy way to do so is to add a comma and write, “according to…”.
Links are an effective way to give attribution if you are writing for the web. By enabling a reader to click on a word or set of words to go to a source, you are “giving credit”.
Whether the story is on the web or on paper, another common device is to provide a citation at the bottom of the story, saying something like, “Material in this story came from…” List the sources and page numbers when you can, somewhat as you might do when using footnotes at the end of a report or an essay.
Giving credit is not only being honest but it also lends authority to whatever you attribute.
Quotations obviously need to be attributed to whoever said or wrote the words.
If you are using quotations based on an interview, there is no limit to the number of words you can use. If you are using quotes from another publication, there is a limit, known as “fair use”. It’s fair to use a certain amount of direct quotations that have been published elsewhere, but extensive use requires written permission from the publisher.
Copyright laws, which are similar from country to country, protect the original author from having too much of his or her work quoted without permission.
My rule of thumb is that the use of about 50 words of a direct quotation, is fair use. That, of course, assumes you give credit.
Direct, indirect quotations
Newspapers and websites sometimes run full texts of important speeches. The story that accompanies the text reports some of what is said but not all of it.
Two devices are used in stories to summarize interviews and speeches without using every word.
One device involves selecting the best quotes. If it doesn't alter the meaning of the speaker, some quoted sentences can be shortened. However, if words are omitted in the middle or end of a sentence, three periods, known as ellipses, should be inserted to signal to the reader that part of the quote has been taken out.
As an example, using the last sentence: “However…three periods should be inserted to signal to the reader that part of the quote has been taken out.“
A second device is the use of an indirect quotation. As the writer, you use your own words to summarize what a person said. This is especially useful when someone says something important but the quote is too long or not too interesting. When writing indirect quotes, you still need to attribute Most stories rely on a combination of direct and indirect quotations.
Use of photographs published somewhere else, whether on a website or in print, requires written permission from the “owner”.
It is not permissible to just give credit. Permission must be obtained in writing. In fact, you might have to pay a fee in some cases. When written permission is necessary, email is adequate if the owner agrees. Be sure to keep a copy in your file.
We all hold up honesty as an ideal. Some writers occasionally slip up.
The two most dishonest acts in writing are plagiarism and fabrication.
Using someone else's work or words and passing them off as yours is called “plagiarism.” It's a no-no.
Fabrication occurs when you simply make up facts or quotations out of thin air. One of the worst cases I ever heard of had to do with a quote from Voltaire, an 18th Century philosopher-writer. Perhaps you've heard the quote:
"I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it."
Trouble is, he never said it. Someone made it up and attributed it to Voltaire. We can defend a person who says something we disagree with, but we cannot defend a person who makes up quotes out of thin air.
Why should the reader believe what we write? Believability has to be earned.
We earn believability or credibility through accuracy, through documented information, through fairness, through projecting a sense of caring, through consistency and through dependability. Believability has to be earned over time.
We need to realize the root of the word “publication”. It derives from "public". And credibility in a story derives from being public-oriented.
Occasionally more than one person works on the reporting and/or writing of a story. Who gets the credit? No rulebook exists to provide the answer.
However, there is what is called the “rule of thumb”. When two persons do a substantial amount of work on a story, both should get a byline, even though one might do more work than the other; that is, their names should be at the top of the story preceded by the word “by”.
If someone contributes to the reporting, that person should be given credit at the bottom of the story. Usually the credit line is in italics or in parentheses.
Editors traditionally get no credit.