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Bob Woodward and Roy Peter Clark

Writing and reporting advice from 4 of The Washington Post’s best

Last Saturday I had the honor of teaching at a public writing conference at The Washington Post.  After I finished my part of the program, I spent the day listening carefully to four of the Post’s most accomplished writers and reporters:  David Finkel, Bob Woodward, DeNeen L. Brown, and Ezra Klein.

I took copious notes, wrote down anything that struck me as wise or useful, and want to share with you what I learned from them.  Please don’t take these as direct quotations, but as handwritten paraphrases containing the gist of their advice.  Particularly notable were the shared values of craft and sense of mission and purpose in a gang of four that ranged from the 70-year-old Woodward, still cranking out books, to the young phenom Ezra Klein, who is trying to re-invent how to make policy stories interesting and relevant.

I’ll take them in the order of their presentations:

David Finkel, author of reports and books on soldiers returning from war, talking about how to report for story:

  • My intent was to answer a question that needs answering for the reader:  What was it like for a soldier to be there in Iraq.
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Thursday, May 16, 2013


What writers see in life, language and literature

At the end of this essay, I will be asking for your help in writing a proposal for a new book: “What Writers See: In Life, Language, and Literature.”

What do I mean when I ask the question “What do writers see?”

I once heard of a clever writing prompt given to school children: “If you had a third eye, what could you see?” Writers, I would argue, already have a third eye. They use it to see life, language and literature in special ways.

This third eye has a number of different names. It’s called vision (and then revision), curiosity, inspiration, imagination, visitation of the muse. When an ordinary person says “I see,” she usually means “I understand.” If she’s a writer, she means that and much more. For the writer, seeing is a synecdochic and synesthetic gerund. It stands for all the senses, all the ways of knowing.

Even blind and partially blind writers — from Homer to Milton to Joyce to Huxley — see. Read more


Wednesday, May 08, 2013


How some narratives can benefit from more translucence, less transparency

Transparency, transparency, transparency. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.

Transparency is the new pillar of responsible practice, inside and outside of journalism — including at Poynter. When it comes to reporting and writing, we are told (and I’ve said it myself, [an example of transparency!]) that readers not only want to know what we know, they also want to know how we’ve come to know it, and the practical limits of our knowledge.

Transparency plus humility.

“We want to be transparent about this,” reports the hypothetical anchor. “We have reporters in the field trying to get to the bottom of this, how the explosion happened, the number of dead and injured, whether there was foul play — but it is very early in the game, and we know how easy it is to get things wrong.”

When straight reporting turns to storytelling, the ethic of transparency becomes more complicated. Read more


Thursday, May 02, 2013


How to include narrative elements in a hard news story

During this week’s writing chat, we talked with Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz about his story that describes the experience of a young man who was carjacked by the Boston bombing suspects.

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark praised Moskowitz earlier this week for the way he wrote and structured the piece. During the live chat, Clark talked with Moskowitz about the challenges he encountered while reporting the story, what he learned from reporting and writing it, how he decided to structure it, how editing factored into the piece, and more. Moskowitz also offered general advice about how to include scene, dialogue, character details in a hard news story.

You can replay the chat here:

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Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013


Boston Globe reporter shows how news writing can unfold ‘like a story in a book’

A story from the Boston Globe has been getting a lot of buzz, and rightly so. It was written by Eric Moskowitz, and describes the harrowing experience of a young Chinese man carjacked by the two Boston Marathon bombers.

The man is called “Danny” in the story (more about that later), and his capture, dangerous odyssey, and eventual escape has the feel of a “Tarantino movie” (more about that later, too).

When a story rings a bell — for both the public and professionals — my inclination is to read it several times, study it, talk with others about it and then engage in a process of X-ray reading. The goal is to reverse-engineer the work, describing for other writers and editors not just why it works, but how it works.

If you haven’t yet read the story, I would suggest you do so now. I quote from it several times in my analysis, but it might help you to experience it uninterrupted from start to finish. Read more


Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013


From ancient Greece to modern Boston, how stories help us survive

The events of recent days — from the bombing of the Boston marathon to the explosion of the fertilizer plant in Texas — should remind us of the power of stories. In a daily sense and over the course of human evolution, stories help us survive. But how?

We discussed this during our most recent writing chat. Our conversation was informed by the work of Brian Boyd, a scholar from New Zealand, and the author of an important book: “On the Origin of Stories.” The title evokes Darwin and evolutionary theory. It works this way: Our brains evolved to give us language; and that language gave us the ability to tell stories, even fictional ones.

We would not have that capacity, if stories did not help the species survive in these ways:

1. Stories enrich our experience. If experience is a teacher, consider how much more we learn, from inspiring and cautionary tales, about the nature of the human condition, its triumphs and tragedies. Read more

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Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013

Vague descriptions in Boston bombings hurt more than they help

My colleague Al Tompkins reminds journalists to remember the case of Richard Jewell as they cover the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Jewell was the security guard wrongly accused of the bombing at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.

But there is another cautionary tale to be told, and this one comes out of Massachusetts itself. It is not the Salem witch trials, but it can stand in that tradition of paranoia and scapegoating. It involves racial identifiers in stories about suspects.

In 1989, a young Boston man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife after childbirth classes, shot himself as a cover, and then told police that his family had been mugged by a black man. After a wide and aggressive dragnet by police in the city’s African-American neighborhoods, an arrest was made and Stuart identified a black man as the killer of his wife and unborn child. Read more

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Friday, Apr. 05, 2013

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Why Roger Ebert was a good writer

Before I tackle what made Roger Ebert a good writer, I’d like to tell  a story about why he was a good colleague and good person. It was 1978 and I was spending the year as a substitute film writer for the St. Petersburg Times.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were flying high with their tag-team television show, and I had the chance to interview them over the telephone.

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A few months later, Ebert visited St. Pete to check in on the making of a disastrous Robert Altman movie called HEALTH, a political parody so lame that it was never released, in spite of a cast that included James Garner, Glenda Jackson, and Lauren Bacall.

I wrote more than two dozen stories and profiles about the making of the movie, and Ebert must have been paying attention because he recommended me to the Detroit Free Press for a job there. Read more


Thursday, Apr. 04, 2013

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January.  (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

AP dumps ‘illegal immigrant’ but not neutrality

All big political wars are fought more often with words than with weapons.

Your “terrorist,” so the saying goes, is my “freedom fighter.”

Your “illegal alien” may be my “undocumented worker.”

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

But what if you do not see yourself as a combatant in a culture war? What if your job is to report on that war in a responsible way?  What if you see language as a gateway rather than a battering ram?  All those questions, and many more, come to the surface with the AP’s decision to dump “illegal immigrant” as a supposedly neutral news label.

But let’s begin with the language wars. Read more


Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2013

Copy - Paste

Why we should stop criminalizing practices that are confused with plagiarism

Editor’s note: This essay represents the personal and professional opinions of Roy Peter Clark and should not be used to characterize the opinions of Poynter or the standards and practices of Poynter.org.

It is time to decriminalize certain practices now described under the rubric of plagiarism.

There has been too much loose talk about plagiarism since I first wrote about the topic in 1983. I’ll share some of the blame. The result is that serious acts of literary theft have been mixed up with trivial ones. Carelessness has been mislabeled as corruption. Clear norms of personal morality and professional ethics have been confused with standards and practices.

A classic case of overcharging occurred in 2007 when journalism teachers at the University of Missouri condemned a colleague of plagiarism after he used quotes from a student newspaper in an opinion piece without attribution. I argued then that while the practice may have been sloppy, to call it plagiarism was like “shooting a fly with a bazooka.”

I raise these issues again in advance of the April 5 plagiarism summit on the eve of the annual meeting of ACES in St. Read more