How to increase the maturity of your writing
More ideas, analysis and sweat. Less wordplay, quotes and artifice
It wasn’t only that the feature came racing out of the gate, grabbed you by the throat and never slowed down. It wasn’t only that just 93 of its 1,265 words were in quotations. It wasn’t only that it found an intriguing nexus of two subjects we rarely put together–commerce and culture. It was the fact that all of those things occurred within one story: Mark Magnier’s 36-inch front-page story about Japan’s fascination with high-tech toilets.
By being smart, taut and original, the story relied on the power of ideas rather than the more self-indulgent style of wordplay that too often makes newspapers superficial and alienating to read. It’s a choice we need to make more often.
Mark’s feature and two others published in my newspaper during the same week were marked by a sensibility of enthusiasm. This emotion was communicated not by adverbs or adjectives or gushy asides, but by a more direct, stripped-down rush of information–a pure need to tell a story, to make you feel the way the writer did as he discovered it. Complimenting this enthusiasm was a sense of purpose and seriousness–a grown-up way of storytelling that gave the reader credit for his intelligence and endeavored to tell him something he didn’t know.
None of the three stories were projects or stories with literary aspirations; they were meat-and-potato enterprise features (averaging 48 inches), the kind everyone on every beat should be shooting for. They hold some of the keys to higher-quality writing, to an unwritten but tangible standard for what a newspaper story should endeavor to do–and what it should feel like to read.
One key is stripping out writing that tells more about the writer than the story. Another is getting rid of soft or overlapping quotations. Both of those standards need to be applied so that we can discover a higher level of stylishness, a writing voice that shows off by not showing off.
Consider this trio, starting with Mark’s, told almost exclusively in Mark’s voice. The first 11 grafs had no quotes. Same for an even longer middle stretch–grafs 13 through 27. It began:
KOKURA, Japan–It’s got wings, it’s sensitive, it’s smart. It cares, it knows when you’re around, it bleats when you arrive. Ignore it and you could be sorry. Treat it well and it will comfort you in your old age.
A new kind of house pet? No, it’s the Japanese toilet in all its glory. And if you believe its makers, it’s only getting better.
After those two grafs of engagement, the payoff:
Japan has an enduring fascination with the toilet, replete with cutting-edge intelligent-toilet research, toilet Web sites, symposiums, antique toilet museums, solid 24-karat-gold johns and official Toilet Days. Nowhere else on Earth do so many people spend so much money on such expensive thrones.
Then the global/cultural perspective:
Japan’s enthusiasm is largely lost on foreigners. In sharp contrast to their receptiveness to the Japanese cameras, autos and Walkmans that have taken the world by storm, few Americans or Europeans seem to covet Japan’s super bowls–some of which can cost $4,000.
Then what’s new:
Now major Japanese manufacturers hope to change that by creating something with more universal appeal. Their latest project: a toilet that doubles as a doctor’s office.
At Matsushita’s research center in Tokyo, scientists explain how they are working on embedding technology in the porcelain that will catch a urine sample, shoot it full of lasers and in short order test it for glucose, kidney disease and eventually even cancer.
One of the researchers, Tatsuro Kawamura, says future smart toilets will compile and compare medical results day by day, allowing doctors to spot important changes.
Now, the story focuses in on one company:
Japan’s undisputed king of toilets is Toto Ltd., which has noticed the enormous profits ahead in serving Japan’s rapidly aging population, although it’s moving slower on the medical front.
Toto set the industry standard in the 1980s with its high-tech Washlet, which got worldwide publicity at the time. With the slogan “Even your bottom wants to stay clean,” it built mass appeal in Japan for the $1,000-and-up toilets previously confined to sanitariums and hospitals.
Nearly 20 years later, these once-luxury items can be found in about 30% of Japanese homes. The fully configured Washlet, the Lexus of toiletry, has enough lights, hoses, buttons, remote controls and temperature and water-pressure adjustments to bowl over even the most avid gadget freak.
Master the Washlet’s controls–many foreigners don’t and emerge soaking and embarrassed–and your bum will be warmed even as your undercarriage is squirted with warm water and blow-dried, obviating the need for toilet paper.
Miss your quotes yet? The first one followed:
“Once you use it, you wonder how you could ever do without it,” says Mariko Fujiwara, a researcher with the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living.
And then Mark went back to the races:
What’s behind Japan’s keen interest in toiletry?
Takahiko Furata, director of Aomori University’s…
When I complimented Mark, he credited his editor, Don Woutat, with shaping the story. Natch, there were painful trims: “One big chunk that we decided to cut was a history of toilets down through the centuries,” Mark said. “The museum is housed in Toto’s headquarters and shows a toilet timeline dating back to Mesopotamia. In the end, though, we decided to be ruthless to keep things more concise and focused.”
To write a story that is only 7% quotes is as impressive as cutting your body fat to 7%. Take one of your own stories, do a word count on the quotes and see how you measure up.
Two days after Mark’s story ran, John Daniszewski of our Cairo bureau did the same thing: a 51-inch story that was only 8% quotes profiling the ruler of Oman, who had transformed his country from a Middle Ages relic. The writer was confident enough to not use a quote–even though this was a profile–until the 16th graf. The middle of the story contains two 10-graf sections with no quotes.
Where Mark had used a mock sales-pitch voice, John modeled his after what might have been a desert fantasy:
MUSCAT, Oman–There once was a boy who was shunned by his wealthy and powerful father. He was sent to a foreign land to be educated. To support himself, he had to join a foreign army. When at last his father sent for him, the young man hurried home full of expectations–only to learn he was to be kept out of sight.
It was an unpromising beginning to an Arabian tale, but it has had a happy ending for the boy, now known as Sultan Kaboos ibn Said, supreme ruler of the Sultanate of Oman, and especially for his 1.7 million people.
Having engaged the reader, John proclaimed the story simply:
There are few countries in the world that have come so far so fast under the rule of one man.
At a time when many people think of the Middle East as unsafe, prone to violence, discriminatory toward women and minorities, chaotic and backward, Oman presents an opposite picture. It is clean, pleasant, stable, progressive. It prides itself on creating opportunity for all its citizens.
Then, how it happened:
This has much to do with Kaboos, who in 1970 deposed his father, Said ibn Taimur, in a bloodless coup aided by relatives conspiring with the British army. His father was tied to a stretcher and put on a plane for London. And Kaboos went straight to work letting fresh air into what previously had been known as the hermit kingdom of the Middle East.
Most of us would have stopped and inserted a quote, perhaps to express how drastic the change was. John used detail to say it better:
Three decades ago, the customs of Oman harked back to the Middle Ages. The wooden gates to Muscat, the capital, were closed each night to keep out intruders, and anyone walking about in the darkness (there was no electricity) was required by law to carry a lantern or risk being shot as a thief by city guards. The country had only three miles of paved road and 12 telephones.
Today, Oman is a paragon of development–webbed by thousands of miles of highways, linked to the rest of the globe by the Internet and cellular telephones, open to commerce and tourism, and building one of the largest container ports in the world to take advantage of its location on the world’s main east-west shipping lanes.
It also is one of the most tolerant countries in its region. The sultan himself has built churches and a Hindu temple for the Christian and Indian minorities amid the overwhelming Muslim majority. He has spearheaded the cause of women’s rights, admitting women to his Consultative Council and allowing them to serve as deputy ministers, a first for any government in the Persian Gulf. He also appointed the first female ambassador from an Arab gulf country.
It is rare on the eve of the 21st century for a traditional monarch to rule a state absolutely. The idea of a hereditary autocrat deciding what’s best for a people began to go out of fashion in Europe more than 200 years ago.
But the 59-year-old Kaboos…
I still didn’t miss my quotes because I was still enjoying the way the greater idea–the difference between then and now–was being played out. This is offered not as a diatribe against quotes, but rather as a plea for better reporting that gives the writer enough confidence to write with more authority.
The day after John’s story ran, higher-education writer Ken Weiss took a potential eyes-glazed-over subject–the state university system in the post-afffirmative-action era–and made you pay attention. You know that cliché about putting the reader in the subject’s shoes? Ken did it by speaking to the reader in the second person, instantly achieving a conversational style to make an abstract topic accessible:
Interested in reading some good sob stories? Try sitting in the chair of an admissions officer on any of the University of California campuses.
There’s the essay written by an aspiring UC Berkeley student whose family home and possessions were turned to ashes by a wildfire–everything except her dad’s Berkeley class ring. Or the one from a UCLA hopeful whose grades dipped while she worried about her girlfriend’s drug problem.
And then there are the deaths of beloved grandfathers. Hundreds of them.
“If you believe these essays, California is the most unhealthy state in the union,” said Rae Lee Siporin, UCLA’s director of undergraduate admissions. “There are more sick parents. There are more dying grandparents. There are more burned down houses and natural disasters than anywhere else in the world. That is what we hear about over and over again.”
The early quote worked because the speaker used vivid language that expanded upon the theme of absurdity that Ken had unveiled. Ken then leads you to the heart of the story:
But if UC officials are tired of these stories, they only have themselves to blame. They asked for them.
No longer able to consider race or gender in picking the freshman class, the officials are trying another approach to maintain diversity in their student body: “We are really looking for kids who have achieved something in the face of obstacles,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl. “‘We just can’t take race into account as one of the obstacles.”
The middle of the story did a good job of using interpretive language to put the “hardship” con game into a social context with passages like:
Perhaps no other piece of writing carries such weight in determining one’s destiny. Living in a material world, teenagers are suddenly supposed to turn introspective and spill their guts on paper in a way that will sum up their accomplishments, demonstrate their maturity and perhaps even show a flair for writing–all in a couple of pages.
Tugging on the heartstrings of college admissions officers comes naturally for many students. They know these stories sell. After all, they are bombarded with them at the movies, on television and sports pages: The hero or heroine must surmount daunting hurdles–or suffer through a life-shattering event–before emerging as the champion or the queen of the ball.
In an example of art imitating life imitating art, the hip television writers on the hit show “Felicity” explored the trend of fudged tragedies. Felicity, the show’s namesake character who developed a crush on a boy and followed him to a New York university, secretly reads his application essay while working part-time for the university. He had written a three-hankie tale about his older brother, who died of brain cancer. The problem was, as she later discovers, he never had a brother.
The command these three writers exerted allowed them to say more with less room. They were tough enough to say “no” to tangents, a distraction that is too often brought upon us by both writers (who worked hard to find the information and are determine to jam it in) and editors (who imagine a reader asking a question that few normal readers would consider). The reality of contemporary newspapers–less space, less patience–favors reporters who are storytellers, who take control of the story, who abandon wordplay for the greater, more direct power of ideas.
The power of a true news analysis
For beat reporters, another way of taking command of the facts is to use the expertise that is too often hidden behind standard journalise. Our assignment editors should be pushing their beat reporters harder for news analyses of that give the reader a better explanation of how the world works–locally as well as nationally and overseas. Too often, our news analyses fall back on presenting the consensus of experts rather than offering an independent observation. If you’re looking for a model of a stronger intellect at work, pull up some of the news analyses by Maura Reynolds in our Moscow bureau.
What’s striking is Maura’s willingness to be assertive, and to use “experts” merely as occasional supplemental instruments; there is no doubt she is fronting the band. Check out this news analysis, published on Jan. 2, 2000, two days after Boris Yeltsin resigned, leaving the future of democracy in Russia an open question:
MOSCOW–Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin’s resignation speech was filled with fine words, but “democracy” wasn’t one of them.
In fact, while he referred four times to the constitution and six times to national elections, Yeltsin made no mention Friday of what the constitution and elections are supposed to bring: participatory democracy in which the will of the people determines who rules.
The omission is telling because Western observers usually credit Yeltsin with bringing at least an elementary democracy to Russia during his eight years in power, listing it near the top of his achievements.
But in Yeltsin’s own words, what he accomplished as president was to create “a vital precedent for a civilized and voluntary transfer of power from one president of Russia to another, newly elected one.”
Which raises the question: Is this transfer of power, in addition to being voluntary and civilized, also “democratic”?
Yeltsin’s supporters would say yes. They point to Russia’s regular elections, to the fact that ballots have multiple candidates and that since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has built many of the institutions needed for democracy.
But Pavel I. Voshchanov, a former Yeltsin press secretary, points out that although Russia got a new president Friday, power hasn’t really changed hands.
Acting President Vladimir V. Putin was picked and groomed and promoted by the same set of Kremlin power brokers who have stood behind Yeltsin. Known popularly as “The Family,” they include Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, media tycoon Boris A. Berezovsky and Yeltsin chief of staff Alexander S. Voloshin. One of Putin’s first moves as acting president was to name Voloshin his own chief of staff.
“The Yeltsin epoch isn’t over yet,” Voshchanov said. “The people who are loyal to him are still in power. The Family is still in charge. And they have no intention of ceding the reins of power to anyone else.”
Some might even ask whether the Kremlin has, in fact, hijacked the democratic process.
Kremlin leaders would defend themselves on legal grounds. They stress, as Putin did in his first address to the nation, that Yeltsin has scrupulously followed the current constitution. In an interview with Echo Moscow radio, Constitutional Court Judge Nikolai Vedernikov went so far as to proclaim Yeltsin’s resignation and hand-over of power “legally pure.”
Certainly, Russia has the constitutional and electoral procedures needed for democracy. But when analysts evaluate their outcome, it becomes harder to call Russia’s political system a true democracy.
For one thing, constitutionality and democracy are not the same thing. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was also scrupulous about his constitution…
Where do you draw the line? How far do you push beyond standard interpretive reporting until you create a news analysis? How much farther can you push without venturing into the netherworld of an opinion piece? Maura’s boss, Simon Li, says he lives by a 1938 pronouncement by CBS news exec Ed Klauber:
What news analysts are entitled to do and should do is to elucidate and illuminate the news out of common knowledge, or special knowledge possessed by them or made available to them by this organization through its sources. They should point out the facts on both sides, show contradictions with the known record, and so on. They should bear in mind that in a democracy it is important that people not only should know but should understand, and it is the analyst’s function to help the listener to understand, to weigh, and to judge, but not to do the judging for him.
Maura looks at it this way:
For me, writing an analysis is very personal. I often remind myself that I’m the most important analyst in the story. It can be useful to quote newsmakers and motley experts, but ultimately, an analysis needs a guiding mind. I have access to information and experiences unavailable to the reader, and it’s my job to draw on them.
What I try to do is imagine the family and friends who have read my recent news stories and are wondering how to make sense of them. I can’t tell them what to think, but I can offer them some ideas about how to think.
I don’t think it’s a matter of being smart or clever. I think we reporters often fail to appreciate just how much we know about the people and places we cover. I’m often amazed that what to me seems to be a simple observation is to others a profound insight. In fact, when I’m writing an analysis, I often feel like I’m simply stating the obvious. But what’s obvious to me is not obvious to the reader.
I find it’s often helpful to zero in on an irony or contradiction–something that will intrigue the reader and launch the rest of the piece. That’s also a way to write a story that makes an argument without writing a story that takes a side. It never hurts to challenge conventional wisdoms; by the time they become conventional, they aren’t usually very wise.
I also think it’s important that an analysis have a sense of direction. If it is too much of an ”on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” laundry list of other people’s opinions, I think readers feel they are spinning in circles and wind up where they started. I think they appreciate a writer who is going to lead them along a new line of thought and point out things they wouldn’t have seen on their own.
I think the reader wants to be challenged, to feel like the writer is engaging them and thinks they are smart enough to appreciate what’s behind the news. They don’t want to be told what to think, but they do want to come away with something more to think about.
Ultimately, I think it helps to feel comfortable with the difference between analysis and opinion. In American journalism, reporters rightfully don’t take sides in debates or promote certain points of view to the detriment of others. But I don’t think that means we can’t share our thoughts. In fact, given our privileged access to information, I’d argue that we have a responsibility to do so.
The power of getting your butt out of the office
Too often, newspaper stories about government are written without the perspective of how governmental decisions play out on the street. When we combine street reporting with policy analysis, we create stories of greater power–stories whose humanity remind citizens why government, and the political decisions that shape it, matter.
Jim Newton’s story about a painful technique the Los Angeles school district may use to solve its overcrowding crisis was a good example. It began:
As the need to build classrooms grows in one of the nation’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse communities, the Los Angeles Unified School District is considering a traumatic solution: evicting hundreds of families from their homes to create space for schools.
The district’s willingness to consider so controversial a course reflects the enormous pressure in the mid-Wilshire neighborhood, where every year, on a Sunday night in May, parents line up and wait for morning so they can get the first chance at signing up their children for the local school.
Some succeed. Most do not, and the children of those who are turned away pay the price. In this one small community, more than 1,000 children, some as young as 5, board buses every day and ride for as much as an hour to attend schools in less crowded areas.
School district officials understandably want to end that, and at the same time they are trying to limit evictions…
But the district is still weighing plans that would eliminate more than 200 residential units–some of them densely crowded ones housing extended families, others that are home to elderly men and women–to make way for classrooms….
The middle of the story included good detail about the neighborhood in question:
In mid-Wilshire, ground zero is a roughly 100-square-block area strewn with Craftsman-style houses on some blocks and large apartment buildings on others. It is an area of vast diversity. Stores have signs in Spanish, Korean and Arabic; English ranks a distant fourth. Local stores race to keep their food inventories apace with changing demographics. One sign of the times: Two neighborhood markets recently dropped kimchi for frijoles.
Soon after, the story began to introduce us to those afraid of losing their homes:
But if the need for schools is clear, so is the hardship that could be created by the school district’s plan for building them.
Take the case of Vila Tweedt. She is 86 and has lived in the same apartment for 29 years. She suffers from asthma and doesn’t drive. She pays $400 a month for her small but tidy apartment, conveniently located a half-block from the bus stop, two blocks from a market.
”What am I supposed to do if they take this place for a school?” she asked. ”I’ve lived here for a long time, and I really don’t know how I would manage if I’m displaced at my age”…
”They say they’re trying to help the community,” said Greg Havens, whose son is in third grade. ”They’re going to destroy this community, at least for us.”
As much as anyone, Havens is emblematic of this neighborhood. He worked for Fedco and moved to the Cahuenga community last year for its schools and sense of place. He and his wife have an 8-year-old boy–bright and mischievous, handy with a crayon. When they came to Los Angeles, the young family rented a relatively inexpensive apartment and began to sock away money in hopes of saving enough to make a down payment on their first home.
Then, last summer, Greg Havens was laid off. Money suddenly tightened. Their low rent went from a luxury to a necessity. Now the district may take the building, and the family is anxious.
Havens wants two things, and reconciling them is extremely difficult in that community: He wants to keep his home and send his child to a nearby school. That’s such a common refrain in the neighborhood that it’s almost universal. That’s why parents stand in line overnight in May, when enrollment at Cahuenga [Elementary] opens for the following fall.
Jim’s observation on the piece:
If there’s a lesson that I find myself learning over and over, it’s that there’s no news is the newsroom–and no substitute for getting out of the office.
I was reminded of it in the reporting on this weekender, a folo, really to an earlier story about Mayor Riordan’s role in identifying commercial sites and helping develop them into schools. After the initial story ran, some tenant advocates called to say the search for schools was taking a different turn in Mid-Wilshire, where residents’ homes were being threatened by a school district that desperately needs new classrooms.
The neighborhood happens to be on my route to work, so for a couple of weeks I stopped by each morning, sometimes with appointments, other times just to look around and knock on doors.
That helped with detail–the street signs, the shifting goods offered by local markets, the residents’ love for the local elementary school principal.
Just as importantly, it gave me authority and confidence when it came time to write. When a school official claims the system is working well and avoiding harm to residents, I normally might be tempted to believe him. But not when I’d just come from the apartment of an 86-year-old woman who doesn’t drive, suffers from asthma and is faced with being thrown out of her apartment, the one where she’s lived for 29 years. She’s not an abstraction.
Conversely, the tenants and others who resist new school construction like to make the school district bureaucracy the enemy–and with good reason: It’s a big, inhuman, insensitive, an easy target. But parents lining up to stand on the sidewalk all night to get their kids into the local school are not impersonal, nor are 1,300 little children getting up at sunrise every morning to ride a bus across town because there’s no room at their local school.
Those people aren’t hypothetical. They’re real, they have compelling stories. And they’re not in the newsroom.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK: “What’s the dumbest rule that has ever been imposed in your newsroom?” I’d like to compile a list and reproduce it here, hopeful that if it’s stapled to enough bulletin boards it will slow our executives from their creative use of “don’t.” To reply, click the “Interact” logo on the upper left side of this page.
RECOMMENDED READING: Anthony Lewis’ retrospective on the Pentagon Papers, published on the June 9 Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Thirty years after the Nixon Administration tried to censor the publication of a secret government history of the war, Lewis reminds us how high the stakes were, and what our constitutional protections mean. It’s also a great refresher course for those of you who didn’t live through that week in 1971, when the Times printed its first excerpts but was legally blocked from going further until the Supreme Court ruled against the White House.