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.
  • The fact that I stayed in the war zone made all the difference.  I was a continuing presence, not someone who parachuted in and out.
  • Go to a place where other reporters aren’t.  Go to the hidden place, the unseen place.
  • If the tractor with bread and water is headed to feed the refugees in the field, take a flying leap onto the back of that tractor.
  • Assume nothing, ask everything.
  • If a refugee is wiping his face with a handkerchief, ask about the handkerchief (turned out to be a gift, a “love letter” from his illiterate wife).
  • You reach the point where you are “living with people” who become characters in your stories.
  • Hardest decision was to use this sentence in his book:  “That’s a toe,” he said. After a soldier was blown up.  It’s transporting. It’s intimate.  But would it hurt those who knew and loved him?  Operate on the principle that our first obligation is to the story.
  • Be ready for those moments that you can’t plan for.

Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, one of the most influential reporters and authors of the last 40 years, sharing advice on why people talk:

Bob Woodward and Roy Peter Clark
Woodward and the author (Photo by Gerald Martineau)
  • Goal is still to provide readers with the “best obtainable version of the truth.”
  • The best time to knock on the door of a four-star general who will not answer your calls is 8:17 pm — on a Tuesday.
  • When the general opened his door and saw Woodward he asked him, “Are you still doing this shit?”  And then waved him in.
  • He “deplores email reporting.”  His most powerful method is showing up.
  • He gets people to talk to him by proving to them, from his preparation, that he is genuinely interested in who they are and what they care about.
  • To get access to President George W. Bush, he sent to him a 22-page memo, detailing his reporting goals and interests.
  • He is after evidence:  meetings, decision points, memories, diaries, and loves people who take notes at meetings.
  • While he takes notes during interviews, “there’s an evidential purity to a tape recorder.”  For key interviews he uses two tape recorders.
  • He keeps two filing systems.  One is about people.  The other is about chronology.  In most cases, the chronology will provide the blueprint, the narrative line he needs for a book, but it’s not “an engineer’s drawing.”
  • He and Carl Bernstein sold their Watergate papers to the University of Texas for five million dollars, which is why “you should save everything.”
  • (In answer to RPC’s first question, he grudgingly admitted that he had seen the movie “Deep Throat.”)

DeNeen Brown is a veteran feature writer who shared dozens of tips of how to turn articles into stories.

  • We all crave stories.  Her kid asked her, “Tell me the story of it.”
  • Tries to infuse journalism with what she learned about literature in English 101:  irony, theme, tone, voice, rhythm, rising action, falling action, plot.
  • An editor, unsatisfied with her draft told her, “Evoke the soul of the story and send it back to me.”
  • Reading your story should be an experience.  Write like a narrator, who has a voice, and who is taking the reader on a journey.
  • Think about story, what readers need to know. It’s thinking about the story that is the essential act.
  • Figure out the meaning of the story, what it says about life.
  • Look for metaphors, practice similes, even though her son argues that “newspapers are no place for metaphors.”
  • Gather specific, non-stereotypical details.
  • Use a camera to capture the details of setting.
  • Primary values are accuracy, integrity, credibility.
  • The reading of literature remains the primary source of education for a writer.  Recently picked up an old literary anthology from college and began re-reading it.  Her son:  “What are you reading?” Mom: “An old book from college.” Son: “Haven’t you finished that yet?”
  • “Persist until you succeed.”

Ezra Klein, a versatile journalist who works in print, television, blogs and social media, discussed what it takes to make hard policy facts easy reading.

  • If you can’t make an important story interesting, you have done something wrong as a journalist.
  • Hates the phrase, “we need to give them their vegetables (or spinach.”
  • Believes that if you do it well, readers will line up in the cold to get it.”
  • This is important:  Try to give readers the “feeling of a key turning in a lock.”  Important, secret knowledge will be revealed.
  • He appreciates the approach of columnists Krugman and Brooks in the NYTimes, who, in spite of their ideological differences, share the ability to get you to see something important in a new frame.
  • Also appreciates Stewart and Colbert as policy journalists who gain audience by “covering it with sugar.”
  • First task is to understand it yourself.  Read the academic journals and research reports.
  • Take readers on the same journey that you took, just take out the parts that didn’t lead anywhere.
  • The “reverse pyramid” is not your friend.  Prefer the list.
  • Time to blow up the form, to innovate from paragraphs of undifferentiated text.
  • Lift the heavy cargo out of the text with charts and graphs.  Learn to do the math.
  • Q and A — all the way.
  • The editorial meeting is just death.  To write for your editor is the worst thing you can do for your reader.
  • Tom Friedman is a stylistic genius, even if he mixes his metaphors.  His best metaphor will change how you think:  the world is flat.
  • Repeat what is important, rather than what is less significant but new.
  • Reduce the “cognitive anxiety” of the reader.  A technique:  “This is everything you need to know in two minutes about X….”
  • Think hard about the lead.  Don’t be afraid to begin with your best fact.
  • Don’t be afraid of hard stories.  This is the best moment ever to cover complicated topics.  We are in a lucky moment as journalists.

My thanks to all of these great journalists for sharing their experiences and their knowledge.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Common Cents

    I love all these journalist and am a big fan of Roy Peter Clark. I just wish he’d interviewed more than one women. The impression left is that serious journalism is mostly for men. I’m sure he doesn’t feel that way, but I hope in future he’ll push for more women interviewees–even at the Washington Post.

  • kencarroll

    These observations are excellent. Mucdh wisdom. Thanks. There’s so much in it it takes time to digest, but Klein’s ‘key turning in a lock’ is a fantastic metaphor and a great way to say a lot with just a few words.