Don Fry

Represents the Poynter Institute at journalism organization meetings and conferences, National Writers' Workshops, and the Institute for Advancement of Journalism in South Africa. Helps writers to write better, editors to edit better, and managers to organize better through coaching. Directed the Institute's writing program from 1988-1994.


How to Handle Quotes from Inarticulate People

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Writers love quotes because they add human interest and immediacy, but most people you want to quote don’t talk clearly. You have several options: don’t quote them, paraphrase, use a partial quote, ask the question again or sharpen the answer.

You use a quote because it’s the best way to explain something or to capture character. But quotes require a lot of apparatus (attribution, identifying speakers and context), so you should use them sparingly. Don’t quote just to quote. And apply even more rigor to poorly-phrased quotes. So first, just leave them out.

You can always paraphrase a quote. If you can write it better than the source said it, you probably should. Some paraphrases include short bits of quoted material, what we call a “partial” or “fragmentary” quote. For example, your source says about his mother, “Well, you know, she’s sorta with it, or not, um, in, out of it, um, you know, just occasionally lucid.”

The quote’s a mess, not worth its space or confusion, but you like the way it characterizes the speaker’s frustration with his mother. So you can drop a partial quote into a paraphrase of other things the source said, like this: Jonas’ mother, “just occasionally lucid,” seldom finishes her sentences.

Partial quotes tax the readers’ patience. Readers wonder what the rest of the sentence said, what you’ve left out. Multiple voices in the same sentence always have the potential to confuse. And fragmentary quotes easily become a habit.

The real solution is to fix the quote as you hear it and realize it has problems. You respond, “Can you say that again?” or “I don’t understand that,” and it usually comes out better the second time. You can also paraphrase on the spot, “What I hear you saying is …”

Some writers, not including me, will then write what they just said and, if the speaker agrees, punctuate it as a quote. I regard that process as illegitimate, a form of fiction, because it leads to exchanges like this:

WRITER: Bubba, do you envision using kinesthetic principles to improve your batting average 10 percent in the next fortnight?”

BUBBA: Yeah.

If you don’t improve the quote on the spot, you can always call the source later and ask the question again. In my experience, you get a viable quote, and new information.

 
Don Fry, an affiliate of The Poynter Institute, lives in Charlottesville, Va. Read more
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Reinvent Yourself after a Buyout

So they bought you out, and now you’re out of work. Wrong. You’re not unemployed; you have a new job: reinventing yourself.

Here’s how.

First of all, it’s not your fault that your newspaper’s owners did not figure out early enough that when readers change their reading habits, the paper has to change with them. And then they failed to figure out that cutting the newsroom staff lowers the quality of the product they’re trying to sell.

Next, convince yourself that the buyout probably had nothing to do with deficiencies in your skills or performance. Newspaper managers generally buy out people with high salaries. You probably earned that salary by years of solid work. Ironically, a buyout may be a compliment.

Now inventory your skills. Never say things like, “I’m just a journalist.” Your skills are not confined to your former beats, such as writing game stories and occasional columns about the Tampa Bay Bucs. You can read, write, think, talk, sort out what’s important, remain ethical without crippling yourself, train people, inspire beginners and detect liars. Good list, and that’s just the top of it. The world needs all those skills, and business leaders constantly pressure universities to turn out people who can do all that.

Next question: What business were you in? You were not in the printing business, or filling space between the ads, or feeding the beast, all the cynical, self-destructive clichés of your former profession. You were in the business of explaining things, the most valuable thing in the world. People who can help ordinary citizens understand their world are rare, and you’re one of them.

The next set of question works better if someone else asks them and then uses tough interview techniques to help you arrive at honest answers. What do you want to do now? Get another newspaper job? Forget it, ancient history. Work online? Better, that’s the future of journalism.

New question: What have you always wanted to do? Write a thriller. Teach investigative reporting. Open a snazzy restaurant. Build teak furniture. Paint San Diego seascapes. The question is what do you want to do, not what can you do.

New question, and the hardest and best one: What do you really want to do? Your interrogator should take no prisoners on the follow-up questions. This magic question moved me from working as a writing coach to becoming a sculptor, my lifelong dream.

You may already have the skills and training and credentials to achieve your new ambition, but you may not. If you want to work as an online magazine editor, for example, you may not know how to handle video and sound. Almost any new career involving information will require abilities in digital gathering and presentation. So get yourself some training. Graduate degree programs are slow — useful mostly if you need credentials. Reading, short courses and apprenticeships may get you there faster. Work for free if necessary to gain the skills and contacts you need.

Some changes, such as becoming a novelist, require a transition period without pay. Rather than delay your real future with interim work, award yourself a development grant. Depending on the settlement, your buyout may sustain you for as long as a year. Your savings might keep you afloat for a while longer. If you have a working spouse, preferably with health insurance, you can regard his or her salary and benefits as a grant for your retraining and getting up to speed. Warning: approach this topic gingerly, perhaps offering to return the favor.

All this will prove easier with a support circle, such as the “Orphans’ Group” founded by staffers who were bought out by the San Diego Union-Tribune, meeting monthly in upbeat and positive sessions. Such groups must not turn into organized mourning for a lost past.

Now what? Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and go invent the new you.

Don Fry, an independent writing coach affiliated with The Poynter Institute, can be reached at donaldkfry@gmail.com.
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White Space for Writers

Ever wished you had a private office to write in, right in your newsroom? Big stars have them, but most of us aren’t big stars. Even most editors don’t have such a sanctuary, although they may need one for discreet conferences and their own writing.

Lisa Belkin writes in The New York Times about “white space,” not the blank shapes on the page so beloved by our graphics colleagues, but a getaway at work where you can actually get something done. She describes people who hide in a huge sculpture or a church pew, or tiny conference rooms, or a spa hotel room. You probably don’t have any of these hideouts, so here’s how to get a little privacy in your newsroom.

Write Elsewhere

First, there’s no reason you have to write in the newsroom itself. Get yourself a laptop, and write wherever you please, then download the story into your paper’s system. You can buy a cheap laptop, especially a secondhand one, or your sports department might have a few spares lying around.

One fast technique involves drafting on your laptop, sending the text to your terminal and finishing it up in the newsroom. And of course, you can always write somewhere else in longhand and type the story in the newsroom.

Writers with terrific memories can write short stories by speaking them aloud and typing them from their heads later in the newsroom. Lacking such remarkable memory, you can dictate into a tape recorder and transcribe later. A former colleague of mine dictated drafts of novels during long commutes.

Reading Aloud

Most writing coaches advise reading a drafted story aloud before you do final revisions. You get a sense of everything wrong with it, experience the flow or lack thereof and achieve a conversational tone.

But how do you read aloud in a newsroom without being thought an idiot or a nuisance?

Some writers print a copy and read it aloud elsewhere, such as in a bathroom stall. (WARNING: this technique may cause embarrassing misunderstandings.) Reporters who live in temperate climates can read aloud in their cars. But here’s a foolproof way to read aloud in the newsroom: Hold your phone to your head as you read, and everybody will think you’re on a call.

Small Retreats

Some newsrooms create spaces for private conversations or small conferences. The San Jose Mercury News has a running track beside its building. Staffers can conduct meetings walking around the oval. No phone, no e-mail, no interruptions. Paradise.

At The Poynter Institute, we used to conduct small meetings by walking around together inside the building’s atrium, grandly called “The Great Hall.” The (Everett, Wash.) Herald once turned a closet and two chairs into something called, less grandly, “The Don Fry Coaching Room.”

You can even create a retreat atop your own head. The former deputy editorial page editor at The Mercury News sat among her seven lively writers. Everybody wrote every day, including her. She complained she spent so much time gladly meeting her writers’ demands that she couldn’t get half an hour to write her own piece. So I bought her a red baseball cap. We explained to the staff that she was 150 percent available to them unless she had the hat on, in which case she could only be disturbed if the building caught fire.

Six months later, I bumped into her at ASNE and asked if the technique worked. She said indeed it did, but she had discovered she only really needed 20 minutes “alone.”

Don Fry, an independent writing coach affiliated with The Poynter Institute, can be reached at donaldfry@cs.com or 434-296-6830. Read more

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The Perils of the Plateau: Helping Stuck Journalists

By Don Fry

Journalists, particularly very good ones, tend to plateau at some point in their careers. They report, write, produce or design at perfectly competent levels, even star levels, but they don’t get any better. Some remain satisfied with the quality they’ve reached, while others view the plateau as a plight, as a problem they want to solve. As their editor or manager, you may remain satisfied, or want to lift them above that plateau. Here’s how to help them and perhaps raise the performance of your whole newsroom.

Why Journalists Plateau

Getting stuck can have many causes, including lack of skill, fear of failure, peer pressure, low expectations and the commonest: boredom and burnout. Editors tend to leave star reporters on the same beat forever, because they perform well and win prizes. But the repetitiveness begins to bore the reporters, they start taking shortcuts like using the same sources over and over, and eventually they burn out. The key symptom of burnout is seeing oneself doing the same thing over and over forever, with no way to break out, and dreading it. The same affliction can affect photojournalists, producers, designers and others in the newsroom.

Some reporters get stuck because they lack a skill necessary for the next level. We assume that everyone in a newsroom has all the requisite techniques. But they don’t necessarily, or they lack sufficient skill. For example, many reporters don’t know how to ask hard questions in interviews. Their training taught them how to get sound bites or quotes and clips and facts, but not how to dig into a hostile or reluctant subject.

Reporters, especially star reporters, live in constant fear of failure, a subject they never discuss. They have their current level of performance under control, but they worry about failing at the next level. So they don’t try, or they try timidly.

Even peer pressure can stifle improvement. An old Russian proverb says, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” I once coached a plateaued newspaper reporter, universally regarded as the best writer in his paper. He wanted to get better, and his editors wanted him to move to the national star level. His editors kept urging him to write fewer but better stories. He refused because he feared the other reporters would become jealous of his privilege.

Finally, managers’ low expectations keep not just individuals but also the whole newsroom at a low level. Every paper you publish, every newscast you broadcast, every page you post online shows the staff what you expect, and they give you what they think you want. Editors and managers who demand high performance of their players and help them, get it.

How to Move Up

The solution depends on the source of the problem, of course, so you interview your plateau dwellers to find out what’s holding them back. Don’t jump too quickly on easy answers; dig to the bottom, to the root causes.

If boredom or burnout is the problem, change is the solution. Change the beat, change the section of the paper or the newscast, change the immediate editor, change the time scheme, change the workload. Move columnists to news, and vice versa. Turn reporters into editors, and vice versa. (Editors burn out too.) One paper cured its burnt-out photographers by assigning each one to a group of four reporters and an editor. Guess what. The reporters all performed better too.

Reporters who lack the skill necessary for the next level need a little teaching. I once coached a police reporter regarded as the fastest writer in his paper. He’d blast away at his terminal for just ten minutes, and then file a terrific 10-inch story, to the astonishment and admiration of his colleagues. But he refused to accept any other beat because he would have to write more than 10 inches. I asked him, “What’s so magic about 10 inches?” and eventually discovered the secret of his speed. He would write 10 inches in his head while reporting, memorize it, and then dictate it to the screen. But his remarkable memory could hold only 10 inches’ worth. So I taught him several other ways to compose stories, such as combining two 10-inch sections. Eventually he moved happily to features. If you don’t have the skills to teach your writer, someone in your newsroom does. Invest in a learning lunch for the two of them.

Fear of failure keeps reporters focused on past failures; newsrooms never forget and seldom forgive. I ask plateaued reporters to tell me about some of their best stories ever, and then we discuss what was good about them in terms of technique. Eventually I ask if they could still use those same methods, in more intense ways. One writer I coached said that her previous top-notch profiles always involved multiple speakers, whereas her present flat portraits were single-sourced. “So what should you do?” I asked, and she replied, “Interview more people.” Bingo. And when your reporter starts writing better, remember to praise in public in front of colleagues.

Peer pressure depends on models and the assumption that everyone should perform at roughly the same level. If the peer models play at the star level, as in the glory days of the Philadelphia Inquirer or “60 Minutes,” many staffers will attempt to imitate those high performers. If the newsroom peer models are slackers and cynics, you get uniform low results. So work with your best players to raise the general level of the whole newsroom. And follow up with discussions of what makes the new pieces better. In other words, control the peer pressure, and manipulate it to get the results you want.

Raising Your Expectations

I find the expectations low to medium in most newsrooms I visit. Continuous cuts in editorial staffs have lowered expectations, and reporters doing more and more daily stories inevitably lose quality. What to do in such difficult times?

As numbers decrease and stress rises, editors should raise quality expectations in their newsrooms.

Rising expectations raise morale, even in bad times. Rising morale raises confidence, and rising confidence raises performance. Here’s how to raise everybody at once in a plateaued newsroom: Select your two best reporters and work with them yourself to turn out strikingly better stories for a few weeks. Play them big, praise them in public and get everybody talking about craft. Then watch them levitate.

Don Fry, an independent writing coach affiliated with Poynter, works out of Charlottesville, Virginia. You can reach him at 434-296-6830 or at donaldfry@cs.com. Read more

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Want to Live Forever? Write Your Own Obit

Journalists traditionally earn a valuable fringe benefit: They always get an obituary when they croak, either by their paper’s obit writer or by someone else in the newsroom. Now think about your colleagues. Do you really trust those louts to write such an intimate piece about you?

Of course not — so here’s how to write your own obituary.

Obituaries have changed a lot in the last quarter of a century, mostly because of Jim Nicholson of the Philadelpha Daily News, who wrote feature obits on ordinary people chosen at random. Nicholson interviewed family and friends to extract telling details, rich anecdotes and character quotes. In an interview for “Best Newspaper Writing 1987,” I asked him how often he failed with such chancy and unlikely material. He replied, “If you’re a good enough reporter, everybody’s interesting.”

Nevertheless, most newspaper obits lack such human interest because the résumé gets in the way. Here’s Mel Mencher, telling beginners how to report for an obit, in his “News Reporting and Writing, 7th Edition”:

The following items are required in all obituaries:

  • Name, age, occupation and address of deceased.
  • Time, place and cause of death.
  • Birthdate, birthplace.
  • Survivors. (Only immediate family.)
  • Memberships, military service.
  • Funeral and burial arrangements.

Many obituaries also will include:

  • Outstanding or interesting activities and achievements.
  • Memberships in fraternal, religious or civic organizations.
  • Service in armed forces.
  • Anecdotes and recollections of friends and relatives.

The interesting stuff comes last in this list of 10 categories, almost as an afterthought: “Many obituaries also will include…” By the time most writers get around to that final item, they’re out of time and space and energy. And one more interesting life ends up flattened by data.

The secret of fascinating obits is pushing the résumé into the background.

The secret of fascinating obits is pushing the résumé into the background. Here’s how: First, you type the data
into a box, and then write the body text from the “anecdotes and
recollections.” You poke some of the boxed facts into the text as necessary; you can’t retell an anecdote about military life without framing it with the military service record. The most advanced obituaries nowadays print the box, the body text and a picture, preferably of the person in action, not an airbrushed college head shot when the subject dies at 83.

How to Do It…

Here’s how to write your own state-of-the-art obituary, assuming, of course, that someone else will finish it.

1.) BOX List this data in a text box:

  • Your name, age, occupation and address
  • Your date and place of birth
  • Your memberships and military service
  • Fraternal, religious and civic organizations you belonged to
  • Your family, both deceased and surviving
  • Any funeral and burial arrangements already made

2.) SOURCE MATERIAL List these items elsewhere:

  • Your activities and achievements
  • Your favorite anecdotes and recollections about you

3.) CORE Write a few rich paragraphs in the third person, answering this question: “What do I want people to remember about me?”

4.) LEAD Write a short lead announcing your death and telling the reader what you and this obituary are about.

5.) SECONDARY Select your “source material”
rigorously, and write a few paragraphs from whatever survives. Arrange
these paragraphs around your core.

6.) RESUME Copy selected items, such as survivors, from the box to the text.

7.) ENDING By now, an ending will occur to you, so type it.

8.) POLISH Cut the text by 20 percent, repair the
transitions, read aloud and revise. Write “DRAFT” and the date at the
top, and give appropriate people a copy.

Remember how Stanley Walker ended his famous 1924 paragraph on the ideal journalist: “When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.” They may forget you, but if you write your own, your obit will live forever.



Don Fry, an affiliate of the Poynter Institute, works as an independent
writing coach out of Charlottesville, Va. Don has not written his own
obit, hoping that Roy Peter Clark will eventually write him a funny one.
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Bigfoot in the Newsroom

Bigfoot stalks your newsroom late in the day. He (or she) marches in and takes a look at the top stories, usually the front page, and says something like this: “This is a good story, but it would be a great one if…” And the editors scramble to supply the “if,” which usually requires more reporting.

Unfortunately, the reporter has gone home, and so have the sources, so the editors do a “writing job,” making a mess of what had been a good story two hours before. In the morning critique, Bigfoot wonders why his good ideas never get carried out.
 
Bigfeet are high-ranking editors who spend their day in meetings, and like to end the day with the real fun: news and stories. They achieved high rank by having good ideas as reporters and line editors, but now their skills disrupt the editorial process. What’s the problem? They act too late in the process.
 
Sometimes rewriting or rearranging can incorporate a late good idea. But bigfooting almost always increases the scale of the story, requiring additional reporting, or more photographs or a graphic. By the time it happens, the story has usually been edited and the reporter has vamoosed.

Even if you recall the writer, the sources have vanished into the evening. The late hour also rules out shooting additional photos. A late graphics assignment may mean using only the information in the edited story, yielding a thin map or diagram. Bigfoot’s good idea gets thin treatment at best, errors and confusion at worst.

Dealing with Bigfoot
  
Ironically, Bigfoot has good ideas that really would improve stories if handled right. Or, better, if handled early. How do you get Bigfoot to stomp early?

Desk editors can usually spot stories that will attract bigfooting; generally the ones headed for the front page or section fronts.

They’re big ideas, or striking, or scoops, or controversial. So you flag them in the preliminary budget for special treatment.
 
The earlier you spot a bigfootable idea, the better and easier the handling.
 
And the best time is the first conversation with the reporter, before the news gathering starts, so you can brainstorm various ways to handle the increased potential of the story. You can judge if the reporter has gathered enough by debriefing before the typing starts. And you can take a look at a draft to anticipate needed additions.
 
More importantly, you can brief Bigfoot early, getting his good suggestions while the reporting is still in progress. Stories get harder to change once they’re typed, even harder once they’re edited, and harder still after dark.
 
Of course, bigfeet can also have wacky or just plain wrong ideas. Early briefing gives you time to brainstorm looney suggestions into good ones rather than just taking orders. And early briefing gives the reporter time to investigate and rule out mistaken notions.
 
What if You’re Bigfoot?

Are you Bigfoot? Do you help your editors by descending at dusk to read finished stories and suggest how to make them more wonderful? Yep, you’ve got big feet.

Remember that Bigfoot is a good guy, with good intentions, and good ideas that you want in the paper. Unfortunately, you’re caught up in old late habits, and so is your newsroom.
 
Change the time scheme. Instruct your managing editor to flag ideas that might profit from your early input. Set aside time daily to discuss them, preferably with the desk editor involved. Then, late in
the day, you can read your suggestions in stories about to go to press.

  

Don Fry, an affiliate of the Poynter Institute, works as an independent writing coach from Charlottesville, Va. To discuss this piece, call him at 434-296-6830, or e-mail him at donaldfry@cs.com.
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What Makes Local News Really Local?

The question top editors ask me most, especially those at larger papers, is how to make their papers local, or more local. Most of what I suggest gets dismissed out of hand.


I’ve just concluded a series of workshops and coaching for the nine papers of the Schurz group, all medium to small papers. Eight of the nine are intensely local in their practices, in very different ways, and I’ve learned a lot from reading and observing them. Here are some practices and attitudes that make these papers ferociously local.


What Makes Local Local?


First, all really local papers write stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things in their communities. A citizen does not have to win an award or get elected or get arrested to get into the paper. Local papers realize that all ordinary lives are interesting. They take it seriously when readers tell them to write stories about them and about people like them.


Now that’s common sense, so why don’t larger papers do it? Because they can see no news value in ordinary people doing ordinary things. Our traditional news values center on events that depart from the norm, and include bizarreness, conflict, scale, celebrity (or notoriety). But the lives of ordinary people seldom include any of those news values. The problem, dear Brutus, lies not in their lives, but in our unexamined news values.


Most very local papers escape the trap of defining news strictly as events. Most real people don’t have much in the way of events in their lives, beyond births (and birthdays), deaths, marriages, little things from the point of view of larger papers. In local papers, “chicken-dinner news” is a mark of respect; in large papers, a term of derision.


Local papers regard normal things that happen to a lot of ordinary people as news. Once I was about to give a workshop in a large Stockholm daily. Twenty-four reporters had signed up, but only three showed up. I asked them where everybody else was. They explained that Sweden was suffering from a flu epidemic. “So they’re all out sick,” I asked, wondering how they managed to get the paper out. No, said my class, it’s the children who have the flu, and the whole nation is struggling with child-care problems. Puzzled that I had read nothing about that, I asked if anyone had written about it. “Of course not,” they replied. “That’s not news.”


Local papers don’t just report what happens in their towns, they explain it. Their stories about local government run long, capturing the ebb and flow of debate. They include the names of citizens who speak from the floor, not just public officials. Quotes in these local stories sound like speech, not like writing, with what people said left a little shaggy. The Imperial Valley Press, for example, in a story about standardized testing, quotes a student saying, “Yeah it’s good but the high school don’t teach us the things that’s going to be on the test so we can’t answer the questions because we don’t know nothing.” And the readers can see the problem very clearly.


Local papers echo with voices of their own readers. They include guest columns, especially about what ordinary people did with their friends recently, what larger papers would regard as low-interest gossip. Local papers write about what people are talking about: they make it news. And what young people are talking about is also news, best captured by having the kids write it themselves.


Very local papers devote lots of space to letters to the editor, actually letters from citizens to the rest of the community. Editors clean them up a little, getting the typos and libel out, but leaving them conversational. A good letters page lets the readers talk among themselves, not just with the paper.


Showing the Town to the Town


Very local papers show the town to itself with lots of photographs of ordinary people doing ordinary things, such as receiving little awards. For ordinary people, these awards aren’t little. Larger papers despise “grip-and-grin” photos as having no content; local papers regard people celebrating each other as THE content. If I owned a local paper, every citizen in my town would appear in some photo annually. Clips from my paper would festoon every refrigerator door.


Such papers print lots of less-than-professional photos, including many shot by their own reporters and citizens. They print whole pages of wedding pictures, celebrating the most celebrated event in most family’s lives.


Getting Around the Town


Local papers, especially small ones, find simple ways to help their readers navigate the paper and their lives. For example, the Bedford (Indiana) Times-Mail prints a simple map of the area beside the yard-sales ads in their classified section. They use a magic marker to put a dot on the map for each address of a sale. They don’t need a graphic artist to create such a map; they simply photograph it.


Local papers bend over backwards to print lots of lists. They print all the births and all the deaths and all the weddings and every real estate transaction, and they don’t worry about the resultant gray pages. One of my favorites, The Wiscasset Newspaper in Maine, prints the police blotter almost verbatim.


Curled Lips Sink Ships


So, these practices make local papers intensely local, what I like to call “Local-Local.” The bottom line: Local-Local papers don’t regard little people as little.


If that statement makes your lip curl, maybe you need to rethink your assumptions about what journalism really is, and whom it serves. Read more

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Unmuddling Middles

Many reporters write strong leads, back them up, and finish their story with an ending. But the middle “has no recognizable sequence of ideas, no flow of cause and effect, and no narrative, just puddles of information,” as Roy Peter Clark and I complained in our latest edition of “Coaching Writers,” on page 107. Many editors struggle to bring some structure to their writers’ middles, or just give up and publish these sagging arches. How can reporters create strong middles, and how can editors help them by coaching?

Reporters fail to write organized middles for two reasons: j-schools and lack of know-how. Many journalism schools still teach the inverted pyramid as “THE form” despite all the evidence showing readers cannot understand them. Few journalism schools teach the most effective form of explaining things in words, the stack of blocks. Compare these diagrams:

The traditional “inverted pyramid” begins with a big lead conceived as a hook, followed by information arranged in declining order of importance and interest, with no ending. This form assumes readers can stop at any point when they have enough information. In fact, readers cannot understand inverted pyramids because the background goes at the bottom, somewhere between “boring” and “dull.” Without background, readers cannot understand the story, and simply give up before they get to the information they need.

THE INVERTED PYRAMID IS THE WORST FORM EVER INVENTED FOR EXPLAINING SOMETHING TO ANOTHER PERSON IN WORDS.

While the inverted pyramid is the worst form for readers, the “stack of blocks” is the best in terms of reader comprehension. The stack has three parts: beginning, middle, and end. The middle contains the information grouped by subject matter into parts arranged in logical order. The beginning predicts the middle in form and content, and the ending cements the main points into the readers’ memories.

In journalistic terms, the stack of blocks begins by telling the readers what the story is about and why it’s important, followed by sections, ending with a kicker to help the reader remember. If the story is longer, the stack of blocks may include a few “gold coins” or rewards spaced throughout to keep readers reading. Gold coins might include a delightful anecdote, a great quote, a neat turn of phrase, or an interesting new character. Instead of including a background block too late, the stack of blocks supplies the readers with context in little bits as needed.

Reporters who only know one form, the inverted pyramid, don’t write middles because inverted pyramid stories don’t have middles (or endings). They just waddle along and trickle off to nothing.

Some reporters write strong beginnings and endings, but flabby middles, because they don’t know how to organize in sections or because they think by writing leads. The latter group usually determines the strongest thing they have, leads with it, and develops that for a while until they start getting tired or run out of time. Their middles tend to have clumps and knots rather than sections of information.

How to Middle

The easiest way to organize sections goes like this. Make up a short list of important things the readers need to know. Then determine which of those items constitute sections, which others are parts of those sections, and which have nothing to do with the story. For example, reporting a story on a zoo crisis might generate the list on the left and get organized into the stack of blocks on the right:

The resultant sections form the middle, and the lead and ending frame it.

A coaching editor who wants better middles would “debrief” reporters between the reporting and the typing, asking consistent organizational questions like these:

  • “What’s your story about, and why should our readers care?”
  • “What are your sections?”
  • “Got an ending in mind?”
  • “How much space do you need?”
  • “Did you get a picture of the dead gorilla?”

If you ask the same questions over and over, your reporters will rehearse the answers before your conversation. In other words, they’ll organize the story and its middle as they report it.

*  *  *

You can think in the inverted pyramid as well as write in it, and most editors do. When you say, “This is too good a detail to leave all the way down here,” you’re thinking in the fatal pyramid. You gain nothing if the reporters write stacks of blocks and the editors rearrange them into inverted pyramids. So your newsroom might need a brown-bag lunch to talk about forms, about writing middles readers could understand and might want to read.

Don Fry, an affiliate of The Poynter Institute, works as an independent writing coach out of Charlottesville, Virginia. You can reach him with questions at 434-296-6830, or better, at donaldfry@cs .com. Read more

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Do-It-Yourself Journalism

Most editors find it hard to get their staffs to produce the kind of stories they want. They teach and nag and remind, but the reporters just don’t seem to get it, and neither does the editor. What’s the problem? Our limited newsroom vocabulary makes it hard to describe what you want, or for writers to imagine it.

So create an anthology of what you want to read in your own paper.

COLLECTING GOOD STUFF

Such an anthology would include examples of the kind of stories or treatments you have in mind. Just photocopy examples and staple them together. Writers and editors can have more helpful conversations about improving stories if they have such booklets of examples in front of them. But, by definition, your own paper does not print the kind of stories you want. So you have to go outside.

Collect five or 10 examples of what you mean from other newspapers, magazines, online, etc. Choose publications your staff admires, but not too different from your own. Underline the features you want imitated. If possible, put labels on those items so you can discuss them with greater precision. For example, you might clip an example like this:

“This precious little creature may be the very last one,” said the biologist, sheltering the tiny frog in his cupped hands.

Label it something like “Attribution with gesture.” You create your own vocabulary.

The Poynter Institute’s Best Newspaper Writing series reprints prize-winning stories each year, with interviews with the winners on how they produced the stories. Such an account by a real reporter shows the staff that such innovation can happen. The accompanying discussion will also help build a critical vocabulary for discussion.

ADDING TRAINING

Reporters find it easier to imitate something they can read. You will get even faster results if you discuss how to report and write such a piece. If, for example, you want real, ground-level people in stories, you might have to teach some reporters how to find them. Calling through the rolodex of the usual suspects dulls even the best reporter’s digging skills. And having found real people, some reporters will judge them unquotable because they don’t speak quotes the way politicians do. And few reporters know how to deal with children, especially how to get them to say anything quotable. (The secret: sit on the floor with them.)

FINALLY GETTING THERE

After a while, you’ll start to get what you want. When you do, praise the writer publicly, and clip the resultant story. You can then substitute successful stories from your own paper for the earlier outside examples. They’ll be in your format, and they’ll disarm the response, “That’s a fine technique, but this paper won’t print stuff like that.”

If you make little anthologies and convert them to your own paper’s pieces, you’ll have a powerful tool to retrain expectations. Reporters learn what’s expected of them by reading the paper. To change those expectations, you need examples. You also need to print what you want, not what you don’t. You can’t complain about single-sourced stories, for example, if you print 15 of them every day.

If you get other editors to compile anthologies, you could create a shelf of helpful examples for anyone, especially newcomers, to use. You might even create your own Best Newspaper Writing anthology for your own paper. Then you’d have what you want.

More by Don Fry

Know Your Staff: Planners or Plungers
Human beings fall into two groups: “planners” and “plungers.” Planners decide what to do, and then do it. Plungers jump in and do it, figuring things out as they go along.

Newspaper writers also divide into planners and plungers. Planners know what they want to say before they say it. At a minimum, they plan their story’s structure in their heads before they start typing; at the maximum, they compose from a written outline.

Plungers tend to “write by discovery.” They have no idea of structure when they start typing. They usually type sentences or paragraphs or sections, and then rearrange them to make sense.
>>Read more | Take our quiz to determine whether you’re a planner or a plunger

Start at the Copy Desk
Every newly-hired reporter should spend the first month on the copy desk, working as a fledgling copy editor to get firsthand experience in everything copy editors do and know.

Your copy desk knows everything going on in your newspaper. When I visit a newsroom to solve problems, I always spend several nights on the copy desk. Figuratively speaking, copy editors sit in the basement with transparent floors above them. From there, they can see everything, and it ain’t all pretty. >>Read more

A previous version of this column appeared in the February 1995 issue of “The American Editor.” Read more

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Start at the Copy Desk

Every newly-hired reporter should spend the first month on the copy desk, working as a fledgling copy editor to get firsthand experience in everything copy editors do and know.

Your copy desk knows everything going on in your newspaper. When I visit a newsroom to solve problems, I always spend several nights on the copy desk. Figuratively speaking, copy editors sit in the basement with transparent floors above them. From there, they can see everything, and it ain’t all pretty.

Knowing the warts

 After one month on the copy desk, a writer will know how the whole system works. The visitor will experience that great shocker for the new editor: raw copy. We assume all reporters can spell, explain complex issues, follow the stylebook, and write to length. We assume their desk editors apply the same skills to the copy that passes through them. What reaches the average copy desk each night dispels both assumptions.

The visitor will watch talented copy editors trying to make sense of stories when they can’t reach the writer by phone, reconcile different spellings of names in body text and cutlines, and struggle to make pictures introduce stories they match only tangentially. The visitor will understand why we need teamwork and holistic thinking.

Knowing the players

New reporters will get to know the copy editors, and vice versa. Our systems create understandable hostilities between people who get their copy changed and the people who change it, and between people who write too long and those who have to shorten it. Journalists who work separately tend to demonize each other, especially if they don’t know one another. Roy Clark and I once visited a large daily with the worst copy-editor relations we had ever seen; not one reporter in the newsroom could name a single copy editor who worked for the paper!

Knowing each other pays off big in late-night phone calls from the copy desk, a situation fraught with tension. Copy editors consult more readily with people they know than with those they don’t, and reporters treat late-night callers with more cooperation and respect if they can picture their faces.

Knowing the consequences

No one who sits on a copy desk for a month will ever submit a story late. They will experience the disastrous results of something that happens almost every night on every copy desk. About 8:30 or 9 p.m., the ceiling suddenly pops open, and a wad of dreadful copy falls on the copy editors’ heads all at once. The worst copy comes in at the same time (late), and gets the least attention from tired or absent desk editors.

Copy editors expect that deluge, and they resent it. They also start getting tired just before it arrives. Then they scramble to “shovel” all those stories too fast. In this “mixmaster,” the whirling blades of editing mince copy that was defective before it arrived.

Knowing better

The reporter visitors will probably write headlines and cutlines at first, equipping them to suggest them later. Writers who suggest headlines have a firmer grasp of what their stories are about, the primary device for focus. And reporters who suggest cutlines get pictures that match their body text.

Finally, journalists who return to writing after a stint of editing usually write better. Editing makes them more conscious of the readers’ needs in the story, and therefore heightens their awareness during reporting. Editing helps them write better sentences and design better structures. Editing builds confidence and therefore speed.

Aren’t all these good effects worth a month’s work for your new reporter?

A previous version of this column appeared in the April 2001 issue of “The American Editor.” Read more

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