Writing the Reported Essay, Part 2: Lessons Learned

January 29, 2003
Category: Uncategorized

“For the 9-11 special section, we’re going to try something different. We’re talking here about a rare journalistic species. But it does exist and it’s a beautiful thing.”


That’s how Dan Meyers, projects editor at the Denver Post, opened his pitch last July for a different kind of journalistic story form — a reported essay — that he wanted four reporters to tackle for a special section that would examine the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and its aftermath.


Meyers made the sale. “Four essays on a healing America” appeared in the paper’s “9/11” section that appeared last Sept. 8.

Earlier this week, I shared my thoughts on the reported essay and a role model in the work of Seattle Times reporter Alex Tizon. Today’s installment of this two-part column on the reported essay goes behind the Denver Post stories to learn the lessons learned from the experience. Meyers’ memo and my e-mail interviews with him and three of the four reporters offer a behind-the-scenes look that may furnish a helpful road map for others.


Less ons Learned: Three Reporters and an Editor Reflect on the Reported Essay


I posed the same questions to everyone on the team:


  1. What surprised you about reporting and writing (in Dan’s case, editing) a reported essay?

  2. What lessons did you learn from the experience?

  3. What were the biggest challenges of the assignment and how did you overcome them?

  4. What advice (tips, techniques, cautions, etc.) would you give to someone interested in producing a reported essay?

Nancy Lofholm on “Locked doors, open hearts.”


1. I was suprised at the level of detailed reporting required. It took weeks of work just to get to square one on this. My topic — the effect of 9-11 on the American family — was very broad. I spent a lot of time just trying to pull out statistics from polls and speaking to people around the country to determine where I would take this essay. Ultimately, I ended up not using a lot of that material in the essay, but it needed to be done to validate my own assumptions about 9-11 effects.

2. I learned to overreport for this kind of piece. I went to a small town in Nebraska not sure of what I’d find and also not sure what I would focus on when it came time to write. I interviewed many people and visited dozens of homes and businesses. When I returned and sat down at the computer, I
wished I had gathered more details — right down to the numbers and make of the locks on one family’s doors to the page numbers of the civics book middle schoolers were studying when news of 9-11 hit. I thought I had gathered lots of color, but I learned no detail is too small for this type of essay.


3. Deciding what to focus on to illustrate 9-11’s effect on the American family was the biggest challenge. I knew early on that I wanted to illustrate the subtle fear shift that I believed most American families had experienced. I did not want to build my piece around families that had direct losses from 9-11. I chose a small town that sits just about at the geographic center of the country, a town that is linked by name to the mideast and is two hours away from the Air Force base where resident Bush holed up on 9-11. I went in initially with the thought that I would find mothers who had waited anxiously at rural mailboxes to gather up their kids after school on 9-11, and I planned to build my lede around that. I was totally wrong — all the mothers work in town nowadays. I had to regroup, back up and find a new focus point out of the myriad family-life tableaus I encountered. Another big challenge was putting myself into the piece. It’s a hard switch after so many years of keeping myself out of stories. It took a good editor like Dan to help nudge me in that direction.


4. Gather more facts and details than you think you can possibly use. Be prepared to delve into some psychology and spend more time than normal just “thinking” your piece — looking for the subtle connections and the meaning behind small things you observe — in this case, things like a young boy crashing toy planes into block towers and the flash of fear in a man’s eyes when he is saying he has no post-9-11 fears for his own family.


Kevin Simpson on “Attitude can’t mask the pain.”

1. The shocking thing was how much of the reporting never found its way into print — at least in the literal sense. I knew upfront that much of the work would serve primarily to educate me about my particular subject (New York’s “recovery”), but when it came down to the actual writing, I found it troubling to have to leave out so much interesting information, or distill poignant anecdotes and hour-long interviews into perhaps a sentence or two of more general observation. Granted, the best of the best got in, and I knew this would be the case when I started. Still…as a reporter, I’m not used to leaving this much in my notebook.

2. I think it took me one pass through the writing process to really understand what we were looking for, stylistically speaking. I didn’t fully realize how much freedom this form allowed (despite past experience as a columnist) and I found myself affected by the gravitational pull of traditional reportage. My second stab, guided by Dan’s observations, proved much more effective and I began to feel more comfortable with the form. I was too cautious, too traditional with the first effort, which had a sense of writing style but lacked voice. The most obvious lesson I took from this process was how to inject style with voice over a longer piece.


3. Writing was by far the biggest challenge, for the reasons mentioned above. Reporting is reporting, but the reported essay form represented an interesting stretch. Also, it became a challenge to winnow the notebooks full of information to the best, most telling tidbits and anecdotes. Any
number of people I interviewed would have made great stories all by themselves, but in the end, some barely rated a mention.


4. Trust yourself and your reporting. When you think you’ve got the topic down cold, make your writing reflect that. Stretch yourself, and your voice, on the first draft. You can always pull
back.


Karen Augé on “Lessons learned, and ignored.”


1. One surprising thing was that writing it wasn’t as hard as I had thought. Maybe I’m just naturally opinionated, or maybe it didn’t seem hard because I didn’t get it right and was too dumb to realize it, but I had expected to struggle a lot more writing it.   
 
2. I learned never to trust a man who says hate-mongers burned down his hotel. Although in my defense, everyone else, including the police and the whole town, believed him too. And the town’s response — which was genuine — was as much a part of the story as the fire.


3. One of the biggest challenges was simply getting the time to work on it. Shortsighted editors (is that redundant? except in Dan’s case of course) kept wanting daily stories, and I was an easy target because the essay wasn’t due for weeks. Eventually I think Dan put his foot down. Another challenge
was to resist the temptation to interview the world. My topic seemed huge and I was darting around in all directions. That problem was solved only by the realization that I would never have time to talk to everyone I wanted. (See above). Lastly, I was challenged by the topic — Has Sept. 11 made us
more aware of and interested in the rest of the world? That’s a hard thing to quantify or prove one way or the other.
  
4. Tips:


  • Keep an open mind. In an essay, you probably have, and probably should have, an hypothesis going in. But be open to changing that as your reporting dictates; fight the tendency to discard information that doesn’t support your theories.

  • Do oodles of reporting. Unless you’re really good at faking, you can’t write an authoritative essay unless you’re really really confident of what you’re saying.

  • Have a good editor (Dan, for example) and make sure you’re on the same page and working toward the same thing.


Dan Meyers on editing “four essays on a healing America.”

1. It’s harder than you think. You think, “Aw, journalism is so limiting for a creative, poetic soul like me. If only the stolid powers-that-be would let me break away from the formula.” And then you are asked to break away from tradition, and it’s scary. I chose four excellent writers for this project. We spent some time upfront talking about the goals, making suggestions, discussing what a reported essay should be. Each one of them, wonderful writers though they are, initially had some difficulty working outside the usual boundaries. Then, on the second try, each one of them found a way to soar.


2. These are writing muscles that aren’t used that much, so expect it to take several tries to get into
shape. One good thing we did: talked to people at Poynter and elsewhere beforehand so I could articulate to the reporters what we were trying to do. I’d written precisely one such essay in my career, as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I sort of knew in my bones what I wanted but that wasn’t going to be very helpful guidance. By talking with Chip Scanlan and, at his suggestion, Alex Tizon of the Seattle Times, I got lots of good advice on what to do, what not to do and how to express all that to others. I ended up writing it down and handing it out (as well as talking about it) so they’d have something real to refer to.


3.  The real challenge was overcoming the perceived safety of standard journalism and taking chances in a realm that was new to us all.

4. Be really clear about what you are going after, and then be patient about how tough it is to achieve at first.



What’s your take on the reported essay?