By Laurie Hertzel
Special to Poynter Online

Here I am at Harvard with Malcolm Gladwell. Well, actually, here I am at a hotel in Cambridge with about 900 other journalists who are here to listen to Malcolm Gladwell, Katherine Boo, Molly Ivins, Jon Franklin, Ted Conover, six or seven Pulitzer winners and a bunch of other writers.

We're all at Harvard's Nieman Conference on Narrative Writing (so-named even though it's held at a Hyatt Hotel smack dab in the middle of the MIT campus).

It's been pretty interesting so far. Today, I listened to Lisa Pollak, a Pulitzer winner from the Baltimore Sun, and her editor, Jan Winburn, talk about the reporter-editor relationship. Theirs seems like a charmed partnership at a magical newspaper -- Lisa so diligent and hard-working and smart, Jan so affirming and encouraging and smart, the Sun so enlightened about narrative. But they weren't afraid to let us see how difficult it all actually is.

To do that, they walked us through the most recent story they'd worked on together -- a feature about a newly-minted activist.
First startling revelation: Jan, affirming and encouraging though she might be, assigned Lisa a deadline before Lisa even had a subject picked out. This seemed particularly daring, given one of their axioms: "Take time to find the right subject. The story has to be compelling to the writer for it to be compelling to the reader.''

Despite the looming deadline, Lisa interviewed and rejected four or five people before settling on one. I think I would have panicked if I'd been in this situation -- and to be honest, Lisa and Jan panicked a little, though nothing drastic -- but they both agreed that finding the right person is 80 percent of the work.

Second startling revelation: I was pretty grateful to hear Jan admit that when Lisa comes to her with a need for direction, sometimes Jan doesn't have a clue what to tell her. In other words, the wise editor gets stumped, too, on occasion.

When that happens, Jan suggests asking insightful questions -- questions about meaning, questions that help the reporter make connections. Ask what the story is about. Can you put it in six words? Three words? One? Move from a description of the content to a description of the meaning.
And when in doubt (as happened with the newly-minted activist story), when there seems to be a morass of material and neither is sure of the best way to shape it, Jan suggests freewriting -- writing without looking at notes, writing without worrying about form or attribution, writing down the stuff that made the reporter excited in the first place.

Lisa agreed that freewriting was the answer -- that and having an editor who showed faith and enthusiasm. She also had some other suggestions for getting better:

  • Read voraciously and deconstruct what you read -- figure out what the writer was doing and how they did it.

  • Seek out those on your paper who also love writing.

  • Set a deadline! (Perhaps this advice will sit better with reporters when they hear that it came from a reporter.)

Still, as interesting and useful as all this was (and it was), I couldn't help but think about some of the reporters I've known who didn't respond as brilliantly as Lisa -- reporters who, when faced with a nearly impossible deadline, didn't just start working the phones and trying really hard but instead called in sick and disappeared.

Fortunately someone else in the crowd was braver than I am and asked that very question -- how do you work with reporters who aren't as skilled or as trustworthy as Lisa? And Jan just smiled her beautiful smile and said that all her reporters were potential Pulitzer winners. 

Maybe the Sun is a charmed and magical place after all.

Laurie Hertzel is a Writing Coach/Team Leader at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.