Plus: Exploiting contrast; The case against adjectives; Breaking down your Q/A style
Here’s a tribute to a simple, handy focusing device. It’s one of the most versatile tools in your writing and editing toolbox: the colon. The colon has, to quote “The Elements of Style,” more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash–perfect, in other words, for what we do so often in complex stories: introduce new thoughts, new combinations, new worlds to the reader. Sometimes he needs to be reassured that two parts of a sentence–or sometimes two full sentences–fit together. The colon is your friendly but terse assurance that, yes, we’re moving in the right direction, stay with your narrator.
Listen to how the colon helps your writing sound brisk and purposeful as:
(1) an informal, conversational device warning the reader to shore up his concentration:
MESA, Ariz.-Here’s the theory: Make neighborhood public schools compete for students with the charter schools that are opening around the country, and they’ll improve. Just as surely as competition produced better cars, lower long-distance rates and stuffed-crust pizza, it will produce better schools, too.
Here’s how it’s working: For years, Mesa parents camped in overnight queues, entered their names in lotteries, took their places on….
(2) a foreshadowing device that neatly prepares the reader for several concepts:
A corporate duel between Italy’s two largest telephone companies unfolded this weekend with all the trappings of a Fellini epic: part drama, part farce, part mystery.
(3) an internal device to link two sentences. Here, it gives more emphasis to a tangential thought inside a political story:
…And it demonstrates one consequence of the local term limits that Riordan backed: With the mayor unable to seek a third term, the campaign to succeed him has started early and has begun to shift the focus of city politics away from the mayor himself, even though he has nearly two years left to serve.
(4) a dramatic device, in this case the second paragraph of a medical story:
One of public health officials’ darkest predictions had come to pass: A strain of Staphylococcus aureus, the most common source of life-threatening bacterial infections in hospitals, had arrived…
(5) a tool to set up the context for an important question:
After years of cajoling and lobbying, of pleading their case to the National Football League’s 31 owners and winning over Los Angeles’ political leaders, the men who want the league’s next team still have one big question to answer: Why should a little old lady in Fresno pay even a cent of additional tax so Southern California’s richest men can buy a football team?
Contrast is one of the strongest devices you can use to explain how the world works: the contrast between what somebody planned on doing and what they did; the contrast between what most people do and what your protagonist did; the contrast between what a government agency was supposed to do and what this one did. What’s tough is that this requires a lot of language to explain both sides, and often takes the writer into a quagmire, at least on first draft. You have to put pressure on yourself to distill “process” language to make sure the contrast between “x” and “y” is clear.
“Then and now” is a simple, powerful style of contrast. Check this example that compresses a lot of history into a small space:
Five years ago, Michael V. Aloyan caused the Compton City Council no small amount of embarrassment. In federal court, the businessman admitted passing bribes to two council members on behalf of the trash and casino corporations for which he worked.
Now the City Council–minus the two bribe-taking members, who went to prison–is on the verge of awarding Aloyan a no-bid contract to collect Compton’s trash, worth about $25,000 a month. Four of five council members have said they support Aloyan.
With their support as a backdrop, a public hearing tonight promises a bitter look back at Aloyan’s past and a messy period that many in Compton would rather forget. Opponents are expected to raise concerns about future rate hikes and criticize the council’s traditional willingness to grant second chances.
The resulting debate could create headaches for…
More sophisticated stories require contrast to be heightened, reinforced and simplified throughout the story. The following piece opened by introducing the need for change by showing the stakes:
After years of watching customers chase cheap labor south of the border, garment contractor Esther Chaing had to retool her Harbor City operation to survive.
Then the story introduces the dimensions of change:
Her strategy would contradict much of what she had learned in nearly two decades of apparel making. She would have to cross-train sewing operators in a piecework trade where workers are used to doing a single task at lightning speed. And Le Bouquet Costumes Inc. would have to make garments one at a time, forsaking the batch production that’s the backbone of the local industry.
“I was skeptical, but I had no choice,” Chaing said. “I was losing $10,000 a month and about to close my doors.”
Then the story showed the contrast between resistance and success:
Although the changes seemed counterintuitive to Chaing, her payoff has been soaring quality and productivity–and for the first time in years, prospects for growth.
Then came the perspective graf that put the change in context:
Le Bouquet is one of a modest but growing number of small Southland manufacturers embracing Japanese-style “lean” production techniques. Long used by some large U.S. firms, the practices are trickling down to mom-and-pop companies under pressure to slash costs and boost productivity. One of the most potent weapons in the lean arsenal is “cellular manufacturing,” which is the antithesis of the traditional U.S. plant structure.
The a more specific contrast between old and new production methods:
Among other things, going cellular means that goods are produced one at a time, not in large batches. Employees work in teams performing a variety of jobs rather than specializing in a single task. And the shop floor is divided into self-contained work “cells,” instead of separate departments for grinding, milling, assembly and the like.
Inexpensive and low-tech, cellular manufacturing is producing powerful results for small firms such as Chaing’s. By repositioning existing equipment….
The following expose on the FDA’s change in drug approval policy recognized that the contrast could not be handled entirely in the first two grafs. The subject was too complicated, requiring deliberation. So the first two grafs gave you merely the contrast between (a) ancient history and (b) recent history, setting the table…
WASHINGTON — For most of its history, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved new prescription medicines at a grudging pace, paying daily homage to the physician’s creed, “First, do no harm.”
Then in the early 1990s, the demand for AIDS drugs changed the political climate. Congress told the FDA to work closely with pharmaceutical firms in getting new medicines to market more swiftly. President Clinton urged FDA leaders to trust industry as “partners, not adversaries.”
…so that the third, fourth and fifth grafs could show you the “now”–i.e., the tragic consequences:
The FDA achieved its new goals, but now the human cost is becoming clear.
Seven drugs approved since 1993 have been withdrawn after reports of deaths and other severe side effects. A two-year Los Angeles Times investigation has found that the FDA approved each of those drugs while disregarding danger signs or blunt warnings from its own specialists. Then, after receiving reports of significant harm to patients, the agency was slow to seek withdrawals.
According to “adverse-event” reports filed with the FDA, the seven drugs were cited as suspects in 1,002 deaths. Because the deaths are reported by doctors, hospitals and others on a voluntary basis, the true number of fatalities could be far higher, according to epidemiologists.
Some reporters I know thought that lead was sluggish, taking too long to get to the point. What you have to ask yourself is: What’s the greater good in a story like this? Is it merely the findings (seven drugs cited as suspects in 1,002 deaths) or the change in regulatory philosophy that caused them? By the time you finish the fifth graf–and the clarity of the writing makes it hard to stop–you’ve absorbed a terrific amount of context about how this part of the world works, and are intellectually ready to absorb the greater detail that follows.
WHEN BAD ADJECTIVES HAPPEN TO GOOD STORIES
Competition to get on Page 1 has historically created a pressure to add superlatives to copy–sometimes from editors, rather than reporters. Too often, these adjectives give the paper a strained feel. The very fact that a story is being placed on Page 1–or in the paper at all–is evidence of its importance. Check these stories and see if they could have survived had a superlative been axed:
1. Did “astonishing” have to be in the second graf? Aren’t the circumstances remarkable enough as stated?
Through determination and pluck, a few dozen immigrant production workers have achieved what years of wrangling by labor leaders and anti-globalization activists have not: They stopped a factory from moving to Mexico.
U.S. District Judge Carlos R. Moreno sided with the newly unionized workers Tuesday, handing down an astonishing preliminary injunction that prevents a Gardena jewelry manufacturer from going through with a planned relocation to Tijuana.
Quadrtech Corp., which employs about 120 minimum-wage assemblers, was also ordered to bring back two truckloads of equipment it had already shipped south.
The injunction, which was sought by the National Labor Relations Board, will remain in effect until…
2. Did “prestigious” have to modify the grant program, especially with”genius” already there?
…In recognition of his imaginative approach, Hayes this year was awarded one of the prestigious “genius” grants given to thinkers, scientists, writers and other innovators by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
At its heart, Hayes’ windmill project underscores a brewing debate over …
This is tricky, relative stuff, and reasonable people can disagree, but let’s agree with this much: As often as possible, the facts themselves should communicate the truth. Be tougher on your use of adjectives.
BREAKING DOWN THE STAGES OF INTERVIEWING
Frank Edward Allen, president of the Missoula, Montana-based Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, has broken down the interviewing process into what he calls “15 natural stages.” It’s a way to evaluate your own interviewing skills and shortcomings. Like so much presented in these pages, it’s unspectacular common sense that 95% of us will admit we could do a better job of practicing. In this case, use the list to break down the way you set up, prepare and conduct interviews. Are you being methodical enough? (I caught one that immediately that reminded me of a personal bad habit: interrupting too often, noted in Stage 9.)
Stage 1. Purpose: Determine the purpose of the interview.
Stage 2. Research: Find out about the topic-and your respondent. Do your homework.
Stage 3. Request: Ask for the interview. Pick an advantageous setting. Use bait.
Stage 4. Prepare: Select topics. Rehearse tough questions. Anticipate likely answers.
Stage 5: Break the Ice: Help the respondent relax. The first impression matters.
Stage 6: Get down to business: Restate the purpose. Reassure the respondent.
Stage 7: Seek rapport: Try to reach mutual comfort.
Stage 8: Pursue: Gather plenty of examples. Ask why. Fish for anecdotes.
Stage 9: Never interrupt old Indians while they are telling legends.
Stage 10: Drop the bombs
Stage 11: Recover from the bombing: Restore equilibrium. Show empathy.
Stage 12: Summarize: Check for understanding.
Stage 13: Invite: Seek suggestions. Ask for documents. Offer to follow up for accuracy.
Stage 14: Conclude: Express thanks. Offer a last chance to add. Put away the notepad.
Stage 15: Linger: Stand around in the doorway…and keep listening.
Allen adds these other techniques when warranted:
To convince a reluctant prospect to grant an interview, offer sample questions.
If necessary, re-explain the purpose and volunteer to set some ground rules.
When anecdotes aren’t forthcoming, illustrate by sharing one of your own.
When anecdotal details are thin, invite reconstruction: “Tell me more about…”
When the respondent grows uneasy or evasive, exercise the power of silence.
Frame open-ended, open-minded questions.
Always look for see-it-in-action opportunities.