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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox


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Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Advice for 'young' and 'older' reporter

By Tom Hallman Jr.

This is the time of year when we get serious. Gyms are crowded and we poke around the basement looking for that weight set gathering dust. When we hit the grocery store, we head straight to the produce department and never linger over the cakes, cookies and doughnuts.

But what about writing?

No one is going to care as much about your career and your future as you will. So what are you going to do differently this year? What are your goals?

I’m 55, and I’ve been in the business nearly 35 years. I’ve got some suggestions based on my life.

FOR YOUNG REPORTERS:

1. Approach any assignment — no matter how insignificant it may seem — as a chance to develop your story thinking.

I’ve seen too many young reporters, ones with true talent, wait for the “big story” to drop onto their desk. Unless you get tapped to help cover a natural disaster, it doesn’t happen that way.

The most powerful stories are often quiet, hidden away and just waiting for someone to see the potential. By developing story thinking, you hone your ability to “see” a story.

Last year, my editor could find no takers when she wanted someone to do a follow-up on a routine story about a barber who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. I said I’d do it. I like the challenge of trying to “find” a story.

I found one during my interviews. Readers liked it, and then I turned it around and wrote it for Parade Magazine.

2. With every story, vow to practice at least one technique: opening, transition, quotes, dialogue, ending.

You can attend every writing seminar given and read every book on how to be a better writer. But until you get familiar with how story techniques actually work, you’re fooling yourself into thinking you are getting better. By using techniques on so-called small stories, you’ll understand them and be ready to use them on bigger features or narratives.

The first story of mine that generated real attention came when I was covering the police beat. Years of getting reluctant cops to talk with me, seeing how scenes were different than anecdotal openings and how a story ending is more important than the opening allowed me to approach it as a narrative.

3. Find an older reporter and ask for advice.

At my first paper, I gave an older reporter a ride to Portland every two months. During the three-hour trip, I didn’t talk office politics. I asked questions: What makes a reporter good? What does an editor look for in a reporter? What would you do differently if you could do it again?

If you want, ask me: tbhbook@aol.com

FOR OLDER REPORTERS:

1. Remember why you wanted to be a writer.

First, I am an older reporter. When I started, I sat near a group of “old guys” who were probably younger than I am now. What I remember is sitting in their midst and hearing them complain constantly: bad editor, stupid assignments, horrible copy editing, lousy play.

We all have our bad days. And yet being a storyteller is an amazing career.

In the past two weeks, I’ve written about: a choir made up of developmentally disabled adults; a church that turned unused space into a coffeehouse; a Christmas party at a senior center; and a woman who threw herself a 60th birthday party and gave each of her 24 guests $60 and told them to make the money grow for charity. They took that $1,440 investment and made nearly $24,000.

None of those stories are going to win a Pulitzer Prize. But I got to meet interesting people, ask questions and then write stories that readers liked well enough to write me and say why they continued to buy the newspaper.

2. Look for stories that have meaning.

You’ve been in the business long enough to not get excited over every three-alarm fire or winter storm. Use your life experiences as a compass to find stories that matter.

For example, one day I drove to a high school to see if I could find a story. I talked with a secretary, asking about people who had been at the school a long time. She said something that clicked: The woman who ran the lunchroom had been at the school for decades. I went downstairs, talked with her and turned around a nice story about the anonymous people who work in the school, the adults who were once kids with dreams.

3. Embrace the new technology.

The Internet can allow us to build relationships with readers because we can write short pieces that would never make it in print.

For example: Near my house is an old fast-food restaurant that has been vacant for years. One day I noticed a crew tearing it down. I took a photo and wrote a post with a bit of a voice. The story was maybe 10 paragraphs, but I gave some historical perspective and asked readers what they thought should go in the spot.

That post got 6,000 hits and more than 50 comments. Better than that, one reader contacted me with a story idea that has great potential to be a classic narrative.

I’m a believer now.

Tom Hallman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. You can reach him at tbhbook@aol.com, on Twitter @thallmanjr or his website tomhallman.com later in 2011.

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