News next: a journalism teacher's diary

May 21, 2013

Advice on writing and reporting

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 9:23 am
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Students ask me all the time about perfecting their craft. Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute recently posted the notes he took at a conference after “listening carefully to four of the [Washington] Post’s most accomplished writers and reporters: David Finkel, Bob Woodward, DeNeen L. Brown, and Ezra Klein.”

My favorite advice came from Finkel, who said in part about reporting from Iraq:

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.

Here’s some of what I told students in my opinion writing class:

You have to respect your readers.
You have to investigate—to be a reporter. Telling people what you think they should know and care about is a heavy responsibility. You need to be certain the facts are straight.
You have to give issues a human face or a human voice, to let readers know why they matter.
You have to write well. There are only two ways I know to learn to do that: by writing; and by reading.
Like athletes, writers need to stay in shape. If you take a week off or a summer off, your eye will be less keen, your voice will squeak, your prose will get flabby.
And you need to read omnivorously. Not just newspapers and magazines, but novels, poetry, history, philosophy, science. In particular you need to read what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said”: all those dead white men who are so scorned—the Greeks; the King James Bible; Shakespeare; Tolstoy; Hobbes; Marx; Freud; Melville; Mark Twain.
Reading good writing is like eating good food. You incorporate it as muscle and energy. It enters the bloodstream of your prose.

March 6, 2010

Stop, thief, continued

Gerald Posner's Facebook photo

When award-winning writer Gerald Posner admitted that he had plagiarized a substantial part of his story about a sensational murder case from the Miami Herald, he blamed the World Wide Web.

The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.”

That’s like a carpenter blaming his hammer when he hits his thumb.

Here’s how Posner describes his working methods, the methods he says made him an “accidental plagiarist.”

For the Beast articles, I created master electronic files, which contained all the information I developed about a topic – that included interviews, scanned documents, published articles, and public information. I often had master files that were 15,000 words, that needed to be cut into a story of 1,000 to 1500 words.

In the compressed deadlines of the Beast, it now seems certain that those master file were a recipe for disaster for me. It allowed already published sources to get through to a number of my final and in the quick turnaround I then obviously lost sight of the fact that it belonged to a published source instead of being something I wrote.

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