Archives for category: the writer’s craft

Beginning journalism students often try to insert themselves into the story, and they have a hard time understanding why they shouldn’t. It was explained to me that the reporter shouldn’t be part of the story. So here’s how I explain it: I ask, “Did you ever watch the movie ‘Men in Black’? Well, as a reporter that’s what you are. When they went out to investigate space aliens and UFOs, did any of the civilians remember they were there? No.” And this student today was like, “No! Because they used their neuralizer!” And I said, “That’s right! They used their neuralizer! Reporters are like the Men in Black in that way. They are not seen and they are not heard in any news report that they write. They are visible in the byline. That’s it.”

I made that analogy during a discussion among journalism professors on a Facebook post a few years ago. It resurfaced yesterday, and I’m so glad that it did during one-on-one consultations with my public affairs reporting students. I’d actually forgotten about this tactic because it hadn’t been necessary the last couple of years.

Well, one of my students who just couldn’t resist inserting himself into the story with stuff like “In our short interview, X told me …” and “X said when we talked about Y for this story” finally got it when I brought up the Men in Black analogy.

And as a bonus, I thought of another way to explain why synonyms for “said” are wasted creative energy: The NBA All-Star Game. There’s a place for creativity on the court and a place for discipline on the court. Go wild all you want in the lead and with your ending, which are the Slam-Dunk Contest in this analogy. But use “said” at the free-throw line, which is about quietly getting it done without thinking by putting your feet place, using the same amount of force, launching the ball the same way, following through the same way every single time. Anyway, I think he got it.

Buried leads (or to the old-school journalist, “ledes”) are a common problem for beginning journalism students. As I read a particularly long, throat-clearing buried lead, I had a Chance the Gardener thought. If you have seen “Being There,” you will get what I mean by that. If not, watch this. If you don’t need the reminder, here is what occurred to me. It is quite lengthy; I will try to remember it all:

It is important to remove the weeds from the garden. If you do not remove them, they will take up all the sunlight and the flowers in the garden will die. But if you remove the weeds, the flowers will get sun and bloom. You must be careful to keep weeding because they will try to come back and overgrow the garden.

Getting to the point matters.

That is particularly true in a relatively short story of, say, 500 words. Throat-clearing leads — those that take too long to deliver the most critical information and/or the news peg — waste space. Say in 75 words what you could say in 20 and you choke out room for a couple of quotes or more details about the event you’re writing about.

Throat-clearing leads also try your reader’s patience. A short story is usually not the right piece to attempt a scene-setter lead. Adequate scene-setting takes space. It is a form of ornamentation that works extraordinarily well if you have the space for it. There is a place for narrative and scene-setting leads in the news just as there is a place for certain kinds of plants in a large-enough garden.

But plants that are beneficial in one context are harmful in others. In the wrong place, they become weeds. I love mint, but if you let it out of a container and onto your yard it will take over the whole place and the other plants will die because the mint consumes all the water and sunlight and soil nutrients.

Put the plant of ornamentation in the wrong space and you have introduced weeds to the garden of your words that choke out quotes, context and details that would help the reader learn more about the subject rather than wonder what you left out in order to write that lengthy lead.

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