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Home > Publications > Quill > Narrative Writing Toolbox



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Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Lessons learned from talking shop

By Tom Hallman Jr

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. From telephone conversations I’ve had with journalists over the past few months, I know many feel not only isolated, but uncertain as they walk on a dark path with no light ahead.

I view this column as not just a place to talk about narrative reporting and writing, but as a way to build a community. Yes, I still get mail from people who want to talk about a specific story technique, or who are seeking advice on how to turn a news story into a feature, and a feature into a narrative. In some ways, those are easy questions to answer.

And then I get email that gives me pause.

I’m cutting out a few words here and there to protect her identity, but I want to run it mostly in full because I believe she taps into what I hear is happening in many smaller newsrooms around the country.

“I just read your piece on narrative writing in the May/ June edition of Quill. The reporter who sighs at the end of your piece that ‘it’s nobody’s fault, it just happens,’ resonates with me. I’m in a small newsroom with resources that are so few you almost can’t call them resources anymore. I’m a very low-level editor and it does feel as if the focus is gone and writers are just ‘doing the job.’

“I read stories every day from them — and it does appear as though they are just getting something in the paper. No one appears interested in digging deeper and I’m out of ideas as to how to motivate. I know mostly it has to come from within, but they need — I need, I WANT — to know the process behind the great stories.

“It’s renewing to know how other writers work and it always brings great ideas that I would try when I once worked a beat. I miss working the beat and I miss hearing from others. I’m glad I joined SPJ and that I saw your timely and well-written piece in Quill. It can only help as we navigate these hard times and yet still do good journalism. Thanks.”

I gave this woman a call in August on a day when she said she was resting and gathering the emotional strength she needed when she walked into her newsroom to start the new work week on Monday.

With a sigh, she told me her newsroom — once known for producing work that made everyone proud — has become a place where reporters are being taught the technical aspects of our changing business: posting online, linking photos and shooting videos, all critically important tools that will help us stay relevant as we move deeper into a digital world.

But she fears something is being lost.

“No one is taking the time to help reporters learn the craft of how to find, report and write the kind of stories that I know matter to readers,” she said. “What makes a story? How do you incorporate narrative? How can you learn and improve? We just lost a few reporters, and I was told this week that the paper isn’t going to spend the money to replace them.”

Young staff reporters, she said, have embraced the new technology, but they have difficulty moving beyond writing the standard stories that can be found on the website of local television stations that newspapers compete against.

At the same time, she said, some veteran reporters who are leery of new technology are burned out and don’t seem to care.

“We all know that the newsroom has people of different abilities,” she said. “What’s happened is the newsroom has young reporters, but no one to help them. Veteran reporters who were good have moved out of the industry because they could leave. What we’re left with is young and eager to learn, and old who need help getting better.”

In the middle is this editor, juggling story assignments, scheduling, budgets and trying to post to the Web and fill the paper each day.

“It’s very discouraging,” she said. “Young reporters think narrative, or even a great feature, just requires an in-depth interview. They don’t understand the thinking that goes into the story. The veteran reporters have other problems. I have a writer who is very clean, but what I call a ‘surface’ reporter. I saw a potential narrative and the reporter worked on the story. When I read it, I sat down with him to talk about it. He just kept putting more facts in the story and didn’t care about pushing himself to do what it took to get the story. Finally, he said he was tired of re-writing.”

The editor, herself a veteran, started in the business as a reporter and then moved to the editing ranks.

“I came up at a time when the story mattered,” she said. “We always wanted to take it to another level, to try narrative or a serial narrative.”

I asked her if she was discouraged.

“Very,” she said. “Some days I think about getting out of the business.”

She laughed.

“But I realize that deep down I still have passion for what I do,” she said. “I believe in what we can do and should be doing. That hope is what keeps me going.”

I said goodnight.

She had to be in the newsroom in less than 12 hours.

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