Narrative Writing Toolbox
The new book The Craft of Science Writing is a curated collection from The Open Notebook, a primary resource for science journalists. It offers a primer on how to report and write about science, including how to read a scientific paper and how to explain complex concepts and processes clearly.
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.
When my colleague stopped in the managing editor’s office to discuss a story, it was just the police scanner and me nearby, the start of what looked to be a quiet Monday morning. Then everything changed. You likely heard the rest on the news, or reported it yourself: a shooting at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore.,
In a previous column I turned to readers to see if any wanted to participate in an on-going experiment to help writers make the leap from news to features, and from features to narrative. We work in a cluttered and competitive media world, battling for the attention of consumers who can choose radio, television, hundreds of newspaper sites and websites that aggregate news.
With this column, I’m launching something that will be an added feature. Yes, I’m going to continue discussing specific writing techniques and thoughts writers can use to improve their narrative attempts. But I’ve heard from many new writers who want to get started.
One of my goals with this column is to strip away the mystery and intrigue that so often surrounds writing. Because writers are insecure about what we do, it’s easy to feel as if the hand of God touched only a select few who are simply so brilliant that it would be folly for anyone to attempt what they do.
Stripping out expectations of news writing By Tom Hallman Jr. In past columns I’ve written about the use of voice and why it matters in your stories. Scenic structure, theme and character are critical elements in a powerful narrative. So, too, is the use of voice.
As happens at any journalism conference, some of the most powerful conversations occur in coffee shops, bars and hotel lobbies long after the formal seminar is over. Away from the crowd, people feel free to ask the kinds of questions that touch on their concerns as they move forward in an industry that’s changing — and will continue to change dramatically in the coming months and years.
Just when curriculums started getting their arms around multimedia storytelling — a slow and sometimes painful journey — a new bully showed up in the schoolyard: data. Not that the idea of telling compelling stories using data is new. It’s not.
I recently heard a song that made me think about writing. Performed by Wooden Wand, “Winter in Kentucky” features character and a story, and it left me thinking about the twists and turns in a life. After hearing it, I thought about the lessons we can take away from songs as writers.
When you sit down to finally write, it’s natural to plunge in and think of the story in terms of reporting — flipping through your notebook for a great quote — and working to craft a snappy lead. That’s fine when it comes to breaking news and briefs, but for a feature you need to think differently.
If you haven’t seen The New York Times’ amazing online package from Dec. 20 titled “Snow Fall,” you should. The article is about a devastating avalanche in February 2012 at the Tunnel Creek section of Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains of Washington.
Since my teammates were working on other stories, it fell to me to grab the press release, scan the information and write something to post to the Web. I made a call, got a quote and within 15 minutes had this on the paper’s site: Authorities took a 2-year-old boy into protective custody Wednesday after police found his mother had died, apparently two days ago, of natural causes inside her Southeast Portland home, the Portland Police Bureau reported.
You know that weird phenomenon wherein you say a word over and over, and suddenly it doesn’t seem a word at all, just an unintelligible collection of letters? It can be any word — trilogy, say, or bunkhouse, or millisecond. You repeat it until your synapses stop firing or whatever, and you slap yourself in the head and say trilogy — wait, is that even a word?
When you’re a reporter, there comes a time in your career when you have to knock on a stranger’s door. The questions you ask and the answers you receive will linger long after the “news” is over. The news of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.,
In a profession that often seems gloomy, I offer an optimistic column containing a lesson for all of us, but especially for young reporters. A while ago I ran into a woman I casually know. She told me her daughter was majoring in journalism and was looking for job leads in anticipation of graduation.
Staff cutbacks have greatly affected media editing as well as writing and reporting — and we see the unfortunate consequence everywhere. The mistakes range from grammar to structure to the more challenging areas of organization, logic and reason. The best defense against embarrassing errors in language basics — grammar, spelling, punctuation — is for writers and reporters to submit more polished and professional work, at least in terms of simple mechanics.
One of the joys I get from writing this column is the opportunity to engage in conversations with readers who not only write me, but who also include a telephone number because they want to talk. As our industry deals with buyouts, furloughs and tight budgets, we have fewer opportunities to meet at conferences or training sessions.
A few months ago I wrote a story that’s received more attention from readers than my series that won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Although it reads quite simple, in many ways it was a much tougher story as I grappled with choices and structure.
A few months ago, a reporter in another state took me up on an offer to work together on a story. After a few emails, we settled on something. She called and told me about her story structure. I suggested she try something much different, an approach that would allow her to develop a theme.
By the time you read this column, my latest book, “A Stranger’s Gift,” will have been published. The book grew out of what I thought was going to be a routine Sunday-morning assignment, a daily story that I would report and write in a couple of hours, and then be done with it.