The Secret to Making Your Facts Fall into Place
I hated it.
A reporter would break his neck for hours or days, come up with first-class information and then write a second-class story. A piece that missed the point or was far too wordy or just didn’t live up to its potential. He or she would romp into the city room, gleefully bellowing the juicy details, sit down at the typewriter, and an hour or two later I’d be reading the copy, shaking my head and asking myself, “What was all the fuss about?”
Of all the frustrations I encountered as a rookie city editor a quarter century ago, that kind of disappointment was the worst.
“You didn’t think!” I’d complain. But the reporter could just as easily have shot back, “What the hell do you mean, exactly?”
I hope this book is the answer. I hope it teaches you how to think when you write a news story.
This book is devoted to improving the prewriting process–the thought process all reporters go through before they hit the first computer keystroke. It is an intense examination of those moments in which you make your facts fall into place. This is newsthinking, where the genius of great writers–their creativity, their imagination, their willingness to take risks–unfolds.
Much of it is subconscious, but most of it is also structured. The reporter or book author or magazine essayist you admire may appear to be an artist who launches his impulses from a deep, mysterious font, but in fact he is producing his mastery in a laboratory. With the sophistication of a scientist, he has built and refined a complex set of thought strategies, a system in which nothing is left to chance, where each sentence and paragraph is automatically and rigorously tested.
He knows that writing is not merely an aesthetic ballet in which words dance onto paper. Writing is thinking.
All good writers understand this, but they also know that the process is an intensely personal one built on layer after layer of habits so deeply ingrained and complex that they defy simple description. How can any writer tell you, in five or ten minutes, how he thinks a story through? As a result, many reporters–especially the successful ones–adopt the pose of artist rather than mechanic, and it’s hard to blame them. After all, we merely admire proficient mechanics; we marvel at artists.
The goal of this book is the same in 2001 as it was when it was first published 20 years ago: to cut through that facade by revealing to you the thought processes and mental attitudes a highly skilled reporter uses to sort though thousands of facts and organize them into literate, perceptive and creative copy. Whether your goal is to write newspaper stories or novels or biographies or publicity releases for a community organization, you will profit by building that same sort of system for yourself.
Newsthinking, the inner game of newswriting, is a marvelous performance, a testament to the human brain’s capacity–and yet it is almost never analyzed. It is one of those achievements regarded as “natural” by those reporters who write well and as “magic” by those who can’t.
Whom should we believe? Both sides sound logical: Newswriting is natural, a blend of hundreds of mental and physical steps ordered and monitored. by the brain. And it’s magic–at least, when you’re working at the peak of your game and the words are flowing and the creative impulses are coming out of nowhere and the story writes itself, it seems like magic, right?
Forget it. If you want to keep thinking like that, you’re settling for less. You’re squandering your talent. You’re taking the easy way out.
Because writing, while one of the most complex mental and social acts a human can perform, is nevertheless a definable skill like any other. You improve it by making more efficient use of your inherited attributes. The people who best succeed at increasing their efficiency are those who concentrate the hardest on doing so.
Sadly, among most reporters and editors there is little emphasis on either concentration or improvement of writing…and it shows. The quality of writing in the average newspaper remains woeful. It discourages potential readers from delving more deeply into the news and it discourages people with first-rate minds from devoting themselves to news work. They bum out or grow disenchanted too quickly.
To avoid getting caught in that quagmire, you have to begin looking at the world of newswriting in a different way. You have to stop concentrating on merely the results of good writing–the examples they show you in most books. You have to begin thinking about the causes–the thought strategies that created those polished samples.
To do that, you need a massive injection of vision and imagination. Because the only way to improve your prewriting process–your ability to organize information and make the right choices–is to look inside yourself, to look hard at what you’re doing. There is no physical evidence here, no scrapbook of story clippings; instead, you must visualize the stages of mental preparation you now go through, and then begin bolstering them. You must build them into a more thorough, more efficient information-processing system.
Even the least skilled reporter works according to some kind of subconscious mental formula, some crude, unspoken plan by which he decides how to conduct an interview, what questions to ask, when to take notes, how to use his memory, test his creativity, write his leads. The trouble is, this unskilled reporter has no idea that his mental processes are shallow because he seldom talks to another reporter about the inner game. He rarely compares, so he rarely learns.
But we will.
We will show you, for one thing, that the mental development of any story–news, feature, obituary, whatever–follows a general chain of thought. Some of the steps in this cycle of information processing may seem obvious to you, but what’s more important is the unity among them. The steps–we have nine elemental ones–are an obstacle course that no one ever runs perfectly or without variation. What’s so enticing about writing is finding out how close to perfection you can come. As you study the steps, you’ll realize that you–and most other working newsmen and women–are far, far away from your optimum level.
By the time you finish this book, you should be building your skills with goals far higher than those of the average journalist. You should never again have to worry about competing against another reporter, because there will be a new, more challenging target to take aim at: your own potential.
This book is not a miracle cure. It assumes you have or will acquire sound news instincts and a passion for newswriting. Without them, you may build an elaborate, polished mental system but you’ll still crank out nothing but well-structured oatmeal. You may turn out to be just what the “happy news” television consultants want, but you won’t be a good reporter.
This book wouldn’t be needed if so many newspapers–and so many of their reporters–weren’t so willing to settle for so little. Pick up any newspaper and examples abound. There’s the feature story that was blown because the writer didn’t use his heart. The news story with the real news in the ninth paragraph because the writer didn’t have the guts to depart from the chronology and define the essence of what he observed. The half-hearted analysis of a local water district audit, so thickly littered with uninterpreted financial details that only an accountant–not the average reader who deals with the district only when he pays his bill–could understand it. Spread the blame all you want to. (The way they don’t teach writing in high school any more…the way newspaper staffs are kept too thin…there are a dozen more excuses if you’d like to fill them in here.) But the spotlight inevitably falls on the reporter. He wrote those stories; he blew them. He had the control. He had the power. He had the facts. And he had the keyboard. What went wrong was inside his head, and if we want to improve the quality of newswriting, we have to start there.
Subsequent chapters cover your reporting “stance,” leads, sequencing, knowing the reader, the perspective paragraphs, your inner voice, creativity, self-editing and coping with pressure. An appendix offers more than 80 pages of excerpts from “Nuts & Bolts,” the L.A. Times’ newsletter on writing, linked to specific chapters of “Newsthinking.”