Why I Wrote This Book

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 newsroom, gleefully bellowing the juicy details, sit down at the keyboard, 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 an editor, 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 more aggressively, creatively and ambitiously  when you write a news or feature story.

Newsthinking by Bob Baker

Newsthinking by Bob Baker

This book is devoted to improving the prewriting process- the thought process all reporters and other writers go through before they hit the first computer key. 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 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 2009 as it was when it was first published 28 years ago: to cut through that facade by revealing to you the thought processes and mental attitudes a highly skilled reporter uses to sort through thousands of facts and organize them into literate, perceptive and creative copy. Whether your goal is to write newspaper stories or blog analyses or commentaries or biographies or publicity releases for a community organization, you will profit by building that same sort of system for yourself. If all newspapers died tomorrow, as we are being warned they will, the new “platform” would still make the same organizational demands.

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 don’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 magical- 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. 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 publication or web site remains woeful.

To avoid getting caught in that quagmire, you have to stop concentrating on merely the results of good writing -the examples they show you in most textbooks. 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.

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 strengthening 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 -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 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.

Let’s start by introducing you to your brain.

Take a few minutes. Look around your newsroom or journalism classroom and find the best writer. Watch her type. Why is she better? Why, if all of you collected the same information before writing a story, would hers be the one that an editor would run?

The answer lies in the brain. Or, if you wish to use a broader term, in the mind. That skilled reporter’s brain has organized the thinking and writing process into a highly efficient series of steps–a far more refined process than the one you use. From there, her brain has learned that basic structure so well that many of the steps begin to come in clusters–she doesn’t have to worry about performing them one step at a time.

Remember, we are not talking about her physical capacity; you don’t increase the number of muscle fibers in your arms when you do three sets of ten curls a night; you merely increase the strength and endurance of your existing muscles. In the same way, that reporter has developed her ability to organize a story not by increasing the number of active nerve cells in her brain (adults can’t do that), but by improving the extent and subtlety of the nerve cells’ interconnections and their readiness to fire.

That’s not magic.

But that’s why she appears to have a “quick mind,” to “jump” several thoughts ahead in crucial situations. Her brain has learned to combine a series of steps in her basic composition process without having to monitor the feedback step by step. That’s what allows her, for example, to read through a city budget and quickly glean the correct lead, while you move more slowly, not as sure of what you’re looking for, lacking that sense of structure between each thought.

That’s why her stories always feature good transition between paragraphs, while yours keep being rewritten. That’s why her stories always seem to provide the correct perspective on an event, while the copy desk. has to do so much inserting in yours. That’s why her leads are always crisp and never butchered by the desk. That’s why her features are usually bright and creative, as though a separate voice–not the usual bang bang bang, hard news voice–were composing them.

Now, when we walk across the room to ask this reporter to explain how she does all this, we run into an eighteenth century German philosopher:

“When the psychical powers are in action,” Immanuel Kant says, “one does not observe oneself, and when one observes oneself, those powers stop. A person noticing that someone is watching him and is trying to explore him will either become embarrassed, in which case he cannot show himself as he is; or he will disguise himself, in which case he does not want to be recognized for what he is.”
And so by the time we finish asking that reporter just how it’s done, she is ready with answers like:

“I dunno, it’s just there”
Or: “Some days, it’s just workin’.”
Or: “I never know what I think until I see it on the screen.”

What you’re hearing is, “It’s magic. I have it, you don’t. Tough luck.” We’re back to where we started. It’s the kind of attitude–even when voiced kindly–that explains why some very good reporters turn out to be mediocre editors: They can’t teach because they have never understood their own processes.

Remember, even magic has structure. Psychologists and engineers have been studying human skills since World War II, examining people like assembly line workers, executives and athletes in an attempt to answer the misleadingly simple question “How does he do it?” In each area, they have tried to break down the broad components of a skill that had been largely taken for granted, trying to explain how the brain issues commands to the body and then regulates the action. They have learned the basic techniques man uses to achieve “skilled performance.”

One of the most significant conclusions, derived from studies of complex industrial processing operations, is that the skilled operator appears to build a “conceptual framework” or model of the mental and physical processes he is using and the manner in which they function. He uses his imagination to construct a mental picture of the way he does his job. Often, he can’t put it into words without a tremendous amount of effort, but that doesn’t bother him. All he wants is a standard–a sense of how it should feel to do the job the right way, whether it’s running a loading dock, assembling part of a jet plane wing or sorting mail for a Post Office route.

And that’s what we’re after here: to force you to build and then streamline a model of your writing process, to make you conscious of the need to program your reporter’s mind the same way a computer is programmed.

Your central task is the creation of a series of mental “filters,” one for each step in your prewriting process. Each time you prepare a story, each decision–each rough outline, each question, each new fact–will be run through several or all of the filters.

Depending on how proficient you become, this review may take seconds or long, painful minutes. But it is the only way to aim for excellence. Your filters are your standards, tests of completeness that each fact and impulse must undergo. The order in which you subject your facts to your filters is yours to choose; it is an intimate, personal test. So are the kinds of filters you decide to create. The filters described in the following chapters represent a good starting point, but don’t be afraid to augment or change them. What’s important is to begin formally developing this kind of process, to experience it, to examine it, to know what it feels like when you’re working at full blast and to know when you’re off, when your system needs to be strengthened–when the sophistication of that computer program inside your head has to be increased. As the process of subconsciously routing each story through your filters and monitoring the results becomes more automatic, you can begin taking more risks, ever confident that your chain of standards will test the experiment and reject it if it doesn’t work.

Remember the battlefield: Newswriting is not “writing.” No more than shooting a basketball at your front yard hoop is like playing in a basketball game with nine others. Or strumming a guitar is like playing in a band in front of three thousand people. “Writer” connotes the sun, reflecting on the forces around it. The reality of “newswriter” is the asteroid, being tugged at violently from every angle–sources, bitchy competitors, bitchy editors, bitchy readers, deadlines, space limitations and the emotional fragility those pressures create.

You may love it, but that’s not enough. You have to consciously define your skills by these pressures. You have to examine your talents and build them with the goal of bringing order out of chaos. Quiet and air-conditioned as our newsroom feels, our craft remains etched in noise and sweat and the millions of pieces of news and non news that have to be handled. Conquer them or they will kill you.

Your newsthinking must be tailored to the reality of news. We want to create a system that heightens the unity between your newswriting skills and your brain’s natural talent for making rapid fire choices and double checking the results. With this writing process, you judge each piece of information as soon as it arrives: “Does it belong in my story?” you demand to know, the same way your brain and nervous system constantly screen out useless data that would otherwise bombard your senses. The information that qualifies for your story is analyzed and combined by passing through the filters. Choices are continually being made, in much the same way as your brain initiates, monitors and regulates behavior through “yes” and “no” impulses fired by its nerve cells
. Does that sound cold? Remember, your brain is your life. You and your writing are an extension of it. It contains an amazing wealth of power, logic, efficiency and creativity. The known scope of its resources has grown furiously as neurology and psychology merged in the past few decades. “We are the privileged onlookers in a Copernican phase,” one British journalist said, “when men are putting their conscious experience into orbit around the brain. We may be waiting for the Isaac Newton of the nervous system who will reveal what holds this (mental) universe together.”

Even in a profession as literal-minded as ours, you have a stake in such lofty perspective. New discoveries by brain and mind researchers have helped us to define the structure of our magic and our potential to improve it. A quarter-century ago, a kind of cult built up around the study of the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain. Most of us are aware we have two cerebral hemispheres, often performing widely different functions. The left side handles speech and numbers and perceives the world strictly by the chronology in which events happen. The right side is “holistic”–it expresses itself by nonverbal, subjective, intuitive impulses and allows you. to understand relationships between parts and wholes.

Applied to newswriting, the popular right hemisphere theory maintains that when a reporter writes a good feature story, she uses the right half of her brain to develop a creative angle. She then “shifts” to her left hemisphere, using it to convert that angle into words and analyze the results, then moves back to the right side for further inspiration, then back to the left side to check it out, and so on.

Is that what really happens in your brain? Can you control it? Scientific opinion is mixed, but the separate talents of the dual hemispheres are clear–the potential is there. Why wait for science to catch up if envisioning that kind of back and forth process between your logical and emotional sides helps you write better features?

That’s the cutting edge: The more clearly you perceive the way your mind collects, shuffles, reshuffles, retrieves and then spits out the components of your stories, the more you’ll write with perspective, authority and speed. You’ll do it because you’ll feel, subtly, the chaotic flood of ideas narrowing into a line of thought that will suddenly race from your head to your fingers and produce the story. You’ll know something about why it happens, and you’ll know something about how to make it happen more often.

The chapters that follow are organized by their importance in the prewriting process, not necessarily by the sequence in which you will use them, Part of the agony and wonderment of newswriting is that nobody can predict the order in which these steps will come into play. You’re like a mathematician who must invent a new equation to solve each new problem because the variables are always different.

Each individual’s strengths and weaknesses will dictate which stages he needs to concentrate on more. Some reporters who have had trouble writing feature stories may ultimately find the “creativity” filter their most important one. Others may rely most heavily on the “self editing” filter, Briefly, here’s where we’re going: Chapter 1 examines how to develop the arrogant stance needed when you begin sifting information. Next come two chapters on fundamental thought strategies that come into play as you move closer to typing: Chapter 2 will illustrate the construction of a mental filter to test your lead paragraphs. Chapter 3 will deal with the development of a “sequencing” filter, which will monitor whether all of the story’s facts have been put in proper sequence.

From there, we will concentrate on supplemental filters that will force you to continually ask yourself whether you have made the story relevant to the reader (Chapter 4); whether you have supplied the proper factual perspective (Chapter 5); whether you have made good use of your “inner voice” in composing the story (Chapter 6); whether you have pushed your creative resources hard enough (Chapters 7 and 8), and whether you have remembered to edit your own copy carefully (Chapter 9). Finally, in Chapter 10, we’ll discuss the impact of pressure—a perpetual enemy in newsrooms–on your work.

At the end of most chapters, you’ll be referred to specific parts of the book’s appendix. The appendix consists of excerpts from a Los Angeles Times monthly newsletter on writing I created and edited from 1998 to 2001. The excerpts are examples of good and bad writing techniques, primarily from my old newspaper, along with a number of insightful essays on specific techniques by my colleagues. Moving from the end of one chapter to the relevant appendix entries gives you a taste of real-world journalism. Or, you can save the appendix for one full meal at the end of the book.

Before we begin, however, a bit of guidance:

Rule Number 1: There Are No Rules

If you remember nothing else, remember Rule Number 1. It is a joyful tribute to the fact that each reporter has to be in control of his story because circumstances change so often. When talented people work together, they eventually wind up throwing out all policies except Rule Number 1.

Rule Number 1 makes it clear that if any rules or policies have to exist, they can be broken–crushed whenever the news requires it. Rule Number 1 symbolizes the kind of thinking that keeps newspapers vibrant, living entities. It stands flatly against the breed of publishers and editors who use words like “product” to describe what they put out.

Employ that rule while you read this book. Some of its ideas will work for you. Others may fall flat. Building a conceptual framework of your own process is an asset only if it comes from your soul. Your kind of mental filters may feel completely different from mine. You may visualize their operation as doggie doors or windows, through which your stories are processed in the forms of poodles or flies. Does it help? Then do it.

For the most uninhibited approach to improving the efficiency of your reporter’s mind, remember this: There’s no consensus about what’s going on “up there.” Psychologists, neurologists, physiologists–their fields are still separated by generations of rivalry and disparate terminology.The model does not have to be scientifically proven, but it does have to be built. In the following chapter we begin to lay the foundation.

Hey, Bob! Where’s the chapter on newsthinking your way through the Web?

It was tempting to add that–with one exception: There is no universal model, and there never will be. As with all other writing processes, you’ll build your own, personalized one. Shorter sentences? More audacious style? Aimed at a less-patient reader? The pressure of 24-7 updating? If somebody wants to give you his one-size-fits-all formula, nod pleasantly and incorporate only the filters that work for you. That’s how you’ll newsthink your way through the Web.

Yours truly,
The Department of Trial & Error.