News next: a journalism teacher's diary

May 21, 2013

Advice on writing and reporting

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 9:23 am
Tags: , , , ,

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.

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