|WORLD Magazine / Telling the Truth / Chapter Five|
|Organizing for Readablity|
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|Reporters who do not practice directed journalism often find that when they have finished their reporting and interviewing, they have a writhing mass of factoids in search of a theme. This may happen to you but it should not happen very often, because you should have been asking yourself at every step of the process: "What do I have?" Your goallike that of the great film director John Fordis to be "cutting in your head" even while the event is occurring or the cameras are rolling. Organization is not something to think about after you already have done your reporting: think about your expected outcome before and during reporting.
Thematically, you want to emerge from the reporting and interviewing process with your thesisyour idea of what the story is all abouteither supported or changed. From the point at which your thesis solidifies, you are no longer looking for evidence that disproves it (although you should take into account any that emerges); from that point on you are building your case as an honest lawyer would, bringing out supporting evidence and refuting what appears to undermine your case but actually does not.
A circular story begins and ends in the same location or situation; the reader is shown various sites while swinging around the circle. Here is how Roy Maynards previously cited story on prisons began:
A brass cross is the focal point of the chapel in the Wynne Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections system. That cross, inmates explain, will likely be removed. "It offends some of the Muslims," explains Eugene, a 35-year-old convict, doing time in this maximum-security facility for a violent crime. "So theyre talking about taking it out. Aint that something? Its about the only thing in here doing any good."
The story then proceeds through various interviews and anecdotes that show how those from various perspectives and backgrounds have come to similar views.
Eugene, the 35-year-old inmate, has been locked up for 11 years now; hes spent many hours thinking about what can change a criminals heart. "People talk a lot about education," he says. "Let me tell you, theres a whole lot of educated people in prison. Education doesnt do it. Buildings dont do it. Youve got to change a mans heart. Then youll see some rehabilitation."
The article ends where it began, with Eugene pointing to the cross and saying:
"Another thing I know is that if I had not been sent here, Id be in the ground by now. Here is where God talked to me."
A spatial story, instead of bringing readers circularly to the place where they began, tries to give them a closer look at a subject by moving them from outside to inside, or room by room through a house, or house by house down a street. Here is an example of how to start:
The Village Voice, New Yorks traditional counterculture newspaper, is housed in a crumbling tenement on Broadway at the northern edge of Greenwich Village. Almost every square foot of the buildings exterior wall is plastered with handbills for hip-sounding bands or talks at nearby clubs and meeting places: "Lunachicks," "Suicidal Tendencies," "Haunted Toilet," "Hide the Baby," and "Yogo Gupta: Trimmer Body, Calmer Mind, Self-Realization."
Then, the reader is brought inside:
The editorial department is well lit, however. Fluorescent bulbs bring out the detail of scratched linoleum floors, a broken table sitting in the hallway, and a current Village Voice that has slid off the table. The lead article in that issue complains of those who have "found common cause with the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world. On the package of issues surrounding abortion, they have allied themselves with the societys most repressive and misogynistic forces." Down the hallway lies an open area with dozens of desks; around one of them seven or eight 25-year-olds in tight jeans grimly receive a harangue about the "blow-dried fascism of the Reaganitemare" from a 45-year-old editor in Dockers.
Next comes the introduction of the main character:
Then, from a dim hallway on the other side of the open area, comes shuffling a bent-over, 65-year-old in gray slacks. The Red Sea of young people silently parts before him, and the middle-aged man offers a sullen look; but no one says hello to gray-bearded Nat Hentoff. The silence is striking, for Hentoff was one of the creators of the Village Voice and its environment. For 33 of the 36 years of the Voices existence, Hentoffs articles and columns have attacked anyone attempting to put limits on freedom of expression of any kind, whether political or pornographic. . . . But in one areaabortionHentoff is a deviate, and for that he has achieved what he calls a "difficult, sometimes pariah status."
From that point on the article takes readers deeper into Hentoffs views and background. In a sense, a spatial story is like beginning with a wide-angle lens and then moving in; it can also work the other way, by starting with a telephoto lens and providing a close-up, then moving out.
For comparing rhetoric and reality, a parallel story, which uses the cutting back-and-forth approach familiar from movies, often works better than the circular or spatial variety. For example, a story in 1994 headlined, "Congress Coddles Social Work Lobby as Children Languish in Abusive Homes," began with a discussion of legislation.
Before its annual summer recess, the House of Representatives passed the "Childrens Initiative" bill 256 to 163, a margin too small to override a presidential veto. The legislation combines three separate bills: the "Family Preservation Act," the "Mickey Leland Childhood Hunger Relief Act," and a deficit reduction measure. It provides $3.5 billion for family preservation, $3.5 billion for food distribution, and $1.2 billion for deficit reduction.
Then came the reality, italicized in the article to make clear the alternation.
Several miles away from the Capitol, in one of the District of Columbias rough neighborhoods, conversation is different. There, citizens talk of four children found locked up by their mother in two filthy, roach-infested rooms. The four childrenranging in age from nine to threehad been imprisoned for as long as four years. None was able to speak more than simple sentences. . . .
Back to the legislators:
On Capitol Hill, where lawmakers say the word and create a federal bureaucracy out of nothing, the child welfare program has a simple solutionmore money. Whenever a child is killed emotionally or even physically by an abusive parent, the story is the samethe system is overloaded and underfunded. While Congress is trying to give more money to child welfarists in order to "preserve families," critics charge that the child welfare system is so deeply flawed that bigger bucks will not help. . .
And to the streets:
Quintessa Murreld of New York City died in foster care last year at the age of three. Her uncle, who was also her foster father, pleaded guilty of manslaughter. Quintessa had been placed in foster care because her mother, a crack addict, neglected her. After six months in that foster home, she was not placed for adoption, but was moved into foster care with her aunt and uncle, who made it clear that they had no intention of adopting the child. . . .
The alternating portraits directed readers attention to the legislators distance from reality.
A linear story (sometimes euphemistically called the "string of pearls") is the most straightforward of the common organizational varieties. It starts with a lively lead, then begins adding details and characters, and stops when enough scenes have piled up to make the point. If the scenes are good enough, the artlessness of the structure does not particularly matter. For example, here is a good opening to a story about the yearning of some Americans for Canadian-style health care:
"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss."
Then come various expert appraisals, followed by the reporters analysis:
"In truth, most Canadians sleep well at night knowing that if they get the flu, they can see a provider of primary care," Canadian-born Sally Pipes notes. Ms. Pipes, president of San Franciscos Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, warns that from across the border, Canadas system shimmers and shinesbut up close, it falls short.
Next is the reporters direct summary of the various analyses:
Thats not the only problem with the systemthe issue of waiting lists is now being overshadowed by the issue of deficit-driven cuts in levels of service. And while President Clinton has begun to distance himself verbally from the Canadian system, major components remain a part of his still-evolving plan. Clinton is brushing aside conservative criticism about costs by promising spending caps. He contends he has rejected the notion of a single-payer system, but his plan embraces centrally controlled budgets and policies. The Canadian model is alive, well, and wedged firmly between the lines of Clintons musings about "managed competition."
Just when the article threatens to become a policy-wonk piece, the reporter provides "a face," someone to personalize the story, and also provides more description of the environment.
"I know its being talked about a lot in the States, but I dont really think Americans would like this system much," said Tom Muecke. His accent is the only indication that this backup quarterback for the Canadian Football Leagues Edmonton Eskimos grew up in the town of Angleton, Texas, under the Friday night lights of the Lone Star states football tradition. He played college ball and earned a business degree at Baylor University before signing with the CFL. . . . The clear Edmonton afternoon is a little briskMuecke grew up where heat and humidity drove men mad enough to build a domed stadium with fake grassbut other than that, Edmonton could easily be mistaken for a Texas oil town. Developers built out, not up, so the city has that wide-open feeling akin to Dallas. Country music and cowboy boots are common, worn with suits and Wrangler jeans alike. . . .
Concluding paragraphs provided other specific indictments of the Canadian system and led to the end.
Tom Muecke smiled when asked about his future plans, which include attending optometry school in Houston when hes finished with football. Would he like to open a practice in Edmonton? "I dont think so," he said. "The government controls all of that here, and I dont think Id enjoy that. Ill practice in America, wherehopefullyI wont have to worry about that."
Other types of structures are also usable; you need to find the right structure for your particular material and theme. Circular structures often contribute to a sense that lots of people are talking about problems but few people are finding solutions. Alternating structure works well when you are contrasting biblical and ungodly approaches. Locational structure provides a sense of looking deeper into an issue, situation, or personality.
If you are having a hard time figuring out how to tell your story, ask yourself questions such as: What interested me about this story? What is it really about? What do I want to teach the reader? If you did not have a firm focus when you started your reporting and interviewing, you certainly need one at this point. You may be able to find your focus by listing crucial conclusions and seeing what you know after doing your research that you did not know before.
The key to successful organizing of a major story is a firm grasp of your theme. You need to be able to summarize your main theme in a sentence that has a noun and a verb; in other words, subject plus action. You will then be ready to see if you have sharpened your angle enough to be able to write a tight article rather than a dithering report.
Whether you are certain or uncertain as to your theme and main points, your next step is to organize your material; if you are uncertain, you may end up reorganizing many times, but it is essential to start on the sorting process anyway. (As you organize, you often will realize that the story you thought was about "x" is actually about "y," with "x " as a subtheme.)
One way to organize as you prepare to write a story is to divide your material into main sections and subsections, either on a computer or using index cards. If you use cards, you may wish to list important points on individual cards, try out the various arrangements, and then develop a plan that can and should be rough. Elaborate outlines tend to be wastes of time as you get into the flow of your writing. As you organize, you want to develop a list of your major points in the order that you think they should go; your outline should be a spine, not a corpse, and it should be brief enough so that you can do quick spinal taps as you think about your material.
Then, as you fish through your notes and folders and try to organize within sections, remember to mix up the three types of evidences and arguments that you are about to provide: narration, description, and quotation. For example, here is the continuation of the story on the culture war in San Francisco, beginning with a long but yeasty quotation.
"San Francisco isnt Sodom," said the pastor, who looks years younger than his 47 years. "But its vying for second place. . . . What has happened in San Francisco is a grim look into the future of what lies ahead not only for other cities, but for the U.S. health care system, schools, the media, and the church itself. . . . A coup detat of decadence has occurred in San Francisco. There literally is a new rainbow flag that periodically flies above city hall announcing the new nationQueer Nation. . . . Straight society is now out of power and without influence, living on the fringes of society."
Then came a narrative showing homosexual power in San Francisco:
On June 12, 1990, the school board met to vote on the program; the meeting began with homosexuals hissing the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The bully tactics didnt surprise Donna McIlhenny; it was the boards reaction to two tearful mothers after the unanimous vote for Project 10 that shocked her.
"Two bewildered mothers cried out to the board, Youve just given our children over to those people outside," Mrs. McIlhenny recalled. "[Superintendent Ramon] Cortines just turned around and walked away."
Then description, conveyed in an active way:
The Castro district is a community of first names and hallowed anonymity. Denny and Michael accepted without question my first name and my honest contention that it was my first time to San Francisco. We walked upstream against the crowds, the gays and lesbians in groups of twos and threes. Rainbow flags adorned every business and bar, and physical affection was displayed with a sense of bravado. There were "straight" touristsidentifiable by their chiseled expressions of disoriented tolerancebut for the most part it was men with men, women with women.
After further description came a second round, beginning with a quotation.
"Its hell," Michael said. He then cited the oft-repeated round-about logic gays use to justify their lifestyle: "Why would anybody choose to live like this?"
Then narration (broken up by a quotation):
McIlhenny had plans to pastor a church he helped start a safe 115 miles away from firebombs and the Castro districtbut on the day he was going to announce to the presbytery his intentions of transferring, he instead had to inform them that the presbytery, the church, and McIlhenny himself had been sued. McIlhenny had fired a church organist who was a homosexual.
Then more quotation:
John Whitehead recalls the casehe spent two months preparing the brief aloneand says he realized then the significance of it.
But the victory was only temporary. . . .
Then historical narrative, which is not left to stand alone but is connected with the story of the articles leading subject.
If Stonewall was the gay movements moment, Harvey Milk was its martyr. He won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, touting himself as the nations first openly homosexual politician. He pushed for measures such as legalizing marijuana, but in 1978 his career was cut short. Another supervisor and political foe, Dan White, shot and killed Milk and then-mayor, George Moscone.
After showing a familiarity with the particular San Francisco scene, the author could then back off slightly and use a wider angle.
In fact, "portray gays as victims" is one of the four points for achieving the gay agenda, as outlined by homosexual writers Marshall Kirk and Erastes Pill in a homosexual magazine. The others include giving protectors a just causeif not support for homosexual acts, at least the defensible concept of anti-discrimination; and vilification of those opposed to homosexuality"The public should be shown images of ranting homophobes whose secondary traits disgust middle America. . . ."
But a little exposition of this sort goes a long way; the particular gift we can give to readers is more description.
We passed through six or eight bars in the span of two hours; Michael and Denny explained that most patrons "make the rounds," considering all of Castro a single party.
And a closing quotation:
"Its just part of the evening, part of the nightly search," he said. He didnt respond when asked, "What is it youre searching for?"
That type of movement keeps any particular section from hanging heavy. As you organize your material, make sure that you are interspersing the various ways of showingand try to use them all, so that you can keep telling to a minimum.
Pacing is vitaland you can control it by pausing for description after you introduce major characters. For example, after a rapid-fire lead about a desperate, unemployed logger, it is time for a pastoral that allows readers to catch their breaths.
The late spring landscape of Washingtons Olympic Peninsula probably favors the delicate brush strokes of a watercolor over the firmer brush strokes of an oil. The creators soft touch enhances rather than diminishes the brilliant colors.
Even in their waning weeks, the western rhododendron stipple the seemingly boundless green with fuchsias, lavenders, oranges, and pinks. . . .
Other ways to control pacing include alternation: After readers read through statistics or difficult exposition, reward them with anecdote, colorful detail, or humor. Scatter gold coins throughout the story; readers who find several will keep on reading for more. The key: Showdo not just tell.
Remember throughout that your publication can be a travel guide, taking readers to areas or situations that may be foreign to them, as in the San Francisco story or in this article from the other side of the country.
Walking down Brooklyns Fourth Avenue, Leroy Shepherd isnt talking about the New York mayors race coming next month. Instead, hes explaining how to distinguish a crack addict.
Whenever possible, try to provide part of the answer, the "who cares?" question by broadening the scope and appeal of your story: Show its relevance to a national audience. For the most part your reporting will come from one specific locale, but if you hope to show readers that the problem of culture wars between Christians and their opponents is spreading, you should bring in many examples and have vignettes about each.
For example, the story about Christians vs. lesbians was set in Ovett, Mississippi, but the author explained that it was a microcosm of:
what happens when quiet, Christian-based communities encounter the challenge of those calling for unbiblical sexual and religious reformation.
Whenever possible, put information of this sort high up in your organization plan. Announcements that suggest that cultural trends in one area will be "coming soon to a theater near you" make readers care. They help you avoid the readers reactions signified in these two acronymns: MEGO (Mine Eyes Glaze Over) and TEK (This Everybody Knows).
Editors and reporters should discuss organizational questions early on. A good editor would rather coach early in the process than fix later on; both methods improve stories, but coaching can improve journalists as well. A reporter should not be offended if an editor reads the draft and then comes back with questions like, Whats your theme? What are the most interesting things you saw? Whats your evidence for this? What did it look like? What does the reader need to know? How can you clarify this?
The editors key role at this point is in what is called structural editing, an analysis of how the story moves from start to finish. Editors may demand reorganization: The editors job is to explain why, and the reporters task is to be of good cheer through what is at times a painful process. As a reporter, you will tend to feel that everything you have written is important, but a story in which everything is equal most often has the excitement of a posed class or team photograph. A good editor is antiegalitarian, emphasizing certain elements and downgrading the importance of others.
A stickler for emphasis will place the most important words at the beginning or the end of the sentence, the most important sentences at the beginning or the end of paragraphs, the most important paragraphs at the beginning or the end of stories. He will add emphasis also by arranging ideas within a sentence from least to most important, by varying sentence length, by repeating key words or phrases, and by parallel structure. He will always insist on logical order, and so should each writer: Do not dither as you write, but order elements by chronology, by space (right to left, east to west, and so forth), or by order of climax.
Mexicans for years have told a little inside joke. They grin and say that citizens of the United States have nothing on them when they brag that they can know the results of a presidential election within a few hours after the polls close. "In Mexico," residents boast, "we know who the next president is before the polls close."
One key to a successful short article is to find the telling joke, the telling anecdoteand to do that you have to know your subject well enough to know what is important and what is trivial. In a quarter-mile sprint you particularly need to highlight the revealing exchanges.
The day last April that FBI agents assaulted the Branch Davidian compound and it burned to the ground, taking more than 80 lives, Attorney General Janet Reno took every available media opportunity to explain why she had ordered the attack. During her appearance on NBC, Tom Brokaw asked the obvious question of whether she had talked with the president about the tragic turn of events that day in Waco. Ms. Reno responded that she had not [, but] Webster Hubbell had. The exchange was revealing. Hubbell was in important respects the real attorney general.
There are practical differences as well between organizing for shorter and longer stories. If you write a long story you probably will have extensive notes on many interviews, photocopies of background material, and much else beside. You may need to organize your research by placing all of your materials in folders and then by making divisions within the folders. One folder is sufficient for a shorter article: You need one good, straightforward story to tell, and you need to go right at it.
The THAW process
Each of those four phases has several elements: If you were in my class and wanted to remember those elements, I would ask you to picture a Great Dane taking photographs, and then see the following headline describing the event: Fans Dane Uses Lens. The first word, FANSFace, Attitude, News hook, Surprisesummarizes four questions I would ask you about your story idea. First, what is your faceyour way of personalizing a story? Second, what attitude toward your material will you be able to express? (For a Christian, that will relate to the class of rapids in which the story should be placed.) Third, do you have a news hooka way of relating your story to a current event? Fourth, will there be any surprise for the readers in what you write? (The classic journalistic phrase for something that will surprise readers is, "man bites dog.")
Next, to describe the ways in which to hunt for elements of a story, picture a Great DANE: Description, Attribution, Narrative, Exposition. That means setting the scene through description; interviewing the characters to garner quotations, so that ideas do not float in nothingness but are attributable to particular individuals; showing the action in a narrative, story-telling fashion; and explaining when necessary through straight exposition. As you go out reporting, think about the elements you will need: If you have lots of quotations and adequate descriptive material, be sure to get action adventure material; if you have lots of narrative, be sure to get some quotations; and so on.
The third word, Fans Dane USES Lens, provides a way of analyzing what you have (and informing your editor) once you have finished your hunting: Will your story lead to Uproar, Sensation, Education, or Snooze? Any of the first three is satisfactory, although a publications goal is always to make a mark. If your storys potential seems limited to a sleeping-pill function, tell your editor before you spend any more time on it. He may find a way to revitalize it, or he may propose killing it; either way, you will be saving time.
The final word in the formula for thawing a frozen writer is LENS: Lead, End, Nut graf, and Substance. More about these in Chapter Eight.
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