Narrative Writing Toolbox
During my 40 years in the business, I’ve learned to listen to anyone who tells me they have a story. Great stories come unannounced, like a soft tap on the door. You need to be alert to that sound. The series that turned out to be the story that won me the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2001 came from a telephone call to me from a reader.
I wrote in the last issue about a young reporter who discovered the critical importance of picking the right character upon which to build a story. Now I want to introduce you to Jen Kocher, a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Wyoming.
From time to time I receive emails from young journalists who want to eventually move into feature reporting, but they find themselves on a beat where they tell me they have no chance to work on storytelling skills. My first gig was at a weekly newspaper where I covered four small towns.
The New Year is less than a month old as I write this column, but I’m in a reflective mood. I hope it reaches a young reporter, perhaps someone at a weekly or small outlet, at your first “real” job after college.
My storytelling philosophy is simple: Look at every story, whether it’s breaking news, an assignment or something off the beat, as a way to practice narrative reporting, structuring and writing. Doing so gets you familiar with the art and craft of what it takes to tell a compelling story.
The idea bounced around the newsroom and ended up in my in-box: A family of a terminally ill girl was going to throw a birthday party for her in one week. I was assigned to the story. I want to use my approach to the story to discuss story thinking and structure, as it relates to both reporting and writing.
I’d just returned from SPJ’s New York City JournCamp program in June when I received an email that serves as a reminder of why on-going training is vital for those of us in this business. Hi, Tom. I don’t know if you remember me.
When you think about where your story starts, I bet many of you believe it’s when you’re at the computer crafting that perfect opening. In truth, the story starts with the interview. And if you can’t get the interview, you can’t write the story.
This being the first column of 2015, it’s a good time to help you get back to understanding the basic building blocks required to report, structure and write a story. The best way to do that is to tell you about the struggles I had with the last story I wrote in 2014.
I see them walk nervously into the room, unsure why they signed up for a series of writing classes I teach. This isn’t at a community college but an athletic club that also offers classes on bridge, dance and guitar. Not one majored in journalism in college.
I returned hom from the SPJ/RTDNA Excellence in Journalism conference in Nashville with a sense that the future is in good hands despite the turmoil in our industry. At the same time, I’m convinced that journalists are going to have to work harder to create and sustain long-term careers that are both rewarding and meaningful.
Journalists are among those professionals expected to know how to write a sentence. Whether in print, online or in a broadcast script, we reporters and editors need to know how to draft sharp, precise copy at a moment’s notice for public consumption.