‘I want my writing to be more sophisticated’
Here are 14 techniques to make it happen more often
Well, me, too.
Who hasn’t wished they could wake up just a bit more stylish–the same way they went to bed wishing they could wake up just a bit thinner? Sophistication, alas, is not magical or purely emotional. It’s mechanical, the same as every other quality in writing. The writer you admire for her sophistication employs specific sensibilities aimed at creating moments in her story when the piece rises from functional to meaningful, when it connects with the reader on a higher, more complex, more rewarding level.
In an effort to illustrate the wide range of sensibilities that can lift good stories to very good, I pulled the following excerpts from my newspaper during a two-month period. I’ve given you 14 sensibilities to think about, but as you’ll quickly recognize there are scores more to discover and refine.
Remember, this is not simply about “writing.” In each example, the writer made good, hard choices in reporting–the extra trip to observe, the extra phone call in search of perspective, the extra clips pulled from the library to better distill contextual wisdom. These reporters knew the quality of material they’d need to sound the way they wanted to sound. (In some examples I’ve underlined particular language; in others, I want you to weigh the entire passage.)
Make yourself a promise: The next story you write, try to inject at least one of the following sensibilities. The story after that, try to use at least two, and so on. No story allows for these qualities to be injected simultaneously or to the same degree, but we need more stories that use more of them.
I. Be direct
1. Use the 2nd person singular. We overdo this in everyday features, but it’s a good technique if you need to create a feeling of immediacy in order to sell a complex notion:
BANGALORE, India–The latest wave reshaping the global economy springs not from Silicon Valley, nor from the canyons of Manhattan, but from offices and warehouses here.
Visit your doctor and there’s a chance your file, dictated over the phone, will be typed up in India and shot back overnight into the physician’s computer.
Miss the monthly payment on your new refrigerator, and the person who calls to bug you may be sitting in an office in New Delhi, 8,000 miles away.
Request a different flight, and your plane ticket, scanned into a computer, may flash on a screen in Bombay, where a young college grad will punch in the change.
As technology obliterates distance in the global marketplace, this impoverished country seems paradoxically poised to seize the latest opportunity like no other. Full of English-speaking university graduates desperate for work, India is rapidly becoming a magnet for service jobs ranging from the mundane to the cutting-edge.
2. When you’re writing about something with a deeply shared context, like a blockbuster movie, jump into it. By the 2nd graph in this example, the writer is already full of the character’s defiance:
With her skimpy skirts, bulging bustiers and “cha-cha” heels, real-life toxic avenger Erin Brockovich is challenging conventional wisdom that dressing for success means wearing a power suit. Her signature sexy style, which she adopted as a teenager, has been both a tool and obstacle in her work as a researcher investigating ground-water contamination with attorney Ed Masry.
She is judged by movie critics–and in real life–by how she dresses. But would Brockovich ever dream of changing? Hell no. She is a woman of substance who always seems to be overshadowed by her love of short skirts. But now she’s a poster girl for those who are tired of being dismissed as bimbos. Her personal style has clearly become her professional style, and she flaunts it.
“Certain days I’ll come into work and Ed says, ‘Brockovich has her war paint on,’ because of the way I’m dressed,” says the 39-year-old bombshell, who is played by Julia Roberts in the film that grossed just over $28 million on its opening weekend. “On days like that, I generally know there’s going to be someone in my life, either from another law firm or on a case–usually a man–and I think it may give me an edge.”
3. Talk about arcane subjects (such as university financing) with unvarnished terminology and simple conceptual truth:
NEW YORK–Strip away tradition, ivy-covered walls, fancy laboratories, gray-muzzled scholars and what’s left at the foundation of all great universities is the same thing: money.
That’s the stuff that made Harvard, Yale and Princeton great over the past couple of hundred years. It’s what Stanford spent lavishly in the ’60s to build a world-class faculty and its reputation.
And it is the stuff that in a relatively short time has transformed New York University from a mediocre commuter school into one of the nation’s premier private universities–one with enough allure to attract thousands of students from California each year.
NYU’s make-over is emblematic of a resurging interest in urban education nationwide that has come with falling crime rates and a shift in what students want out of college.
4. Be audacious in profiling: Know enough about your subject to speak through her mind, as in this piece about a fallen Vietnamese aristocrat who made it rich in America as a restaurateur:
…It isn’t difficult to imagine her as a girl who was taught social skills, including how to address the help. The picture that’s harder to conceive is of Elizabeth, then known as Ngoc, as a gawky teenager in San Francisco, who was teased for having a funny accent, a weird name and the wrong clothes. It’s doubtful she would be here now, presiding over the elegant party that happens nightly at the corner of Bedford Drive and Little Santa Monica Boulevard, if fate hadn’t messed with the good life she knew in Vietnam.
Remember the moment midway through “Gone With the Wind” when a ragged Scarlett O’Hara, silhouetted against a fiery orange sky, swears, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”? Elizabeth An and her sister Hannah could play that scene perfectly and mean every word. Except in their case, the oath would be, “You’ll never look down on my family again.” Like Scarlett, they saw a society crushed, then used intelligence, determination and charm to fulfill private promises made when times were hard.
5. When you’ve got news, proclaim it:
SAN FRANCISCO–The wild dot-com party is ending for some companies. And as the hangovers take hold among Internet stocks, many of the Web’s retailers and information services may soon become dot-gones.
In the last few days auditors for several well-known Web businesses issued warnings that the companies’ survival is in ”substantial doubt.” On Thursday, drkoop.com, a leading health-information site, and Value America, a PC retailer, received such warnings, sending their share prices near all-time lows. A day earlier, CDNow, a top online music seller and one of the most popular sites on the Web, saw its share price plummet on news of a severe cash crunch.
And Peapod.com, an online grocery service, said it is urgently seeking a buyer before its dwindling cash reserves run out.
II. Add historical perspective
…as in a middle segment of this news analysis about the LAPD Ramparts Division scandal and the unwillingness of the LAPD to cooperate with the D.A.:
The explosive conflict between the chief and district attorney occurs against two backdrops, one historically rich, the other politically hot.
For years, police and prosecutors have battled over one thing or another, from the Police Department’s resistance to allowing prosecutors to wade too deeply into the scenes of police shootings to the testy disagreements about which agency was most responsible for blowing the case against O.J. Simpson. In some cases, those disputes have grown personal. Garcetti and his deputies feuded with then-Chief Daryl F. Gates over prosecutors’ rights to inspect crime scenes and interview witnesses to police shootings.
Those disagreements continued through the 1980s and 1990s, by which time Garcetti had been elected district attorney, and Police Chief Willie L. Williams was at the helm of the LAPD.
For the most part, however, those spats have been run-of-the-mill flare-ups between police and prosecutors, higher profile than in most cities but otherwise not that unusual.
This one is much bigger than a spat. Parks repeatedly has said Garcetti was going too slow in his Rampart investigation, refusing to prosecute the Rampart officers accused of wrongdoing. Garcetti has insisted that he wants to go further and deeper, gathering evidence for major felony prosecutions in Rampart and, if necessary, in other police divisions.
That has made the latest confrontation something else altogether…
III. Use a question as a focusing device
Watch the relationship between this interior graph and the question that follows:
So far, newspaper companies are holding their own against Internet sites in the battle for classified advertising, source of 45% of the revenue of large papers. Technology research institutes predict that newspapers will lose 18% of their classified revenues in the next four years.
Why then is Tribune, one of the most profitable newspaper companies in the country, making this bid? Because it wants to expand its efforts on the Internet and prove those predictions wrong. Tribune believes that the mass media’s ability to attract and deliver customers to advertisers “are undervalued today,” said Jack Fuller, head of Tribune’s publishing division….
IV. Use your own voice instead of quotes
Report the story hard enough to develop a voice of authority that lets you push quotes out of the way for at least six or seven graphs to let the story fully develop:
The class sweetheart is Fatima Anda, always smiling, always sitting in front. Her baby son is named for a childhood friend, recently murdered.
Seated behind her is Diana Acosta, who had been to the funerals of four friends by the time she was 18. Nearby is Jesse Salcido, whose childhood friends were all in gangs. And there is Rachel Goytia, who thinks her father may have been the victim of a gang murder when she was 6, but she isn’t sure, because no one will give her a straight story.
They are classmates at East Los Angeles College, and they share a goal: to work in law enforcement.
It is a social phenomenon in tough Eastside neighborhoods. You see it in juvenile camps, high schools and colleges. I want to be a probation officer, they say, or, I want to be a cop. An East Los Angeles probation officer says half her offenders want to work in probation. At Bell High School, a counselor says law enforcement rivals teaching as the most popular career goal.
Some make it; most don’t. But the simple aspiration offers a glimpse of Los Angeles at its best and worst. Dreams of a life in law enforcement are a legacy of the violence that has touched the lives of a generation of young people, who are now hungry for redemption.
It’s like a morality play–a kind of revenge of the decent: Certain kids may spend half their lives acting friendly with the gang members down the street, avoiding fights and biding their time. But they’re coming back someday–as cops.
Fatima Anda, 21, explained it this way: “You came from here. You were raised here. You have to do something for your little brothers, your nephews, your neighbors.”
Like the Irish and Italians before them, Anda and her classmates represent the talented offspring of urban working-class immigrants…
V. Use only those quotes that matter
…as in this story, in which the writer kept re-interviewing her subjects, determined to get quotes that could bring common-sense wisdom to the abstract.
PALO ALTO–It’s happening again. Some physicists are claiming to have solved the greatest mystery in the universe.
They say they have found “dark matter”–impossibly elusive particles that make up nearly all of the universe, yet have never been captured, created in a lab or even detected.
Previous claims have popped up regularly since the early 1980s. But as the charmingly named dark-matter candidates–neutrinos, monopoles, MACHOs, black holes and dwarfs of various colors–fail to stand up to experimental and theoretical proofs, they fade faster than presidential campaign promises.
“It’s like Elvis. There are sightings every so often that are never confirmed,” said Rocky Kolb, who heads the cosmology department at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.
…Even if the Italian-Chinese team has fallen short, the theoreticians believe somebody is on the verge of snaring their quarry–thanks to spectacular leaps in technology that can detect barely perceptible flickers of energy and motion.
“We’ve ruled out a lot of suspects and now an arrest is imminent,” said Mike Turner, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. “When you’re working a big case–think JonBenet Ramsey or O.J.–you’ve got to check out every lead.”
These were the last two graphs:
It’s also possible that dark matter could be made of something so strange that it hasn’t yet been theorized, something so elusive that humans may never detect it.
“There’s no guarantee that it will be in a form that we can ever discover,” said Kolb. “That’s what wakes me up at night in a cold sweat.”
VI. When you work hard enough to get great quotes, have the guts to use a lot of them
…as in a section of this column that watched a march by striking janitors. Look how well the underlined language sets us up for the quotes that follow, and how each quote illustrates a specific desire–a technique that could be employed in many feature stories.
…Marches don’t happen unless the people involved have begun to see themselves as players. Unless someone has found the voice to ask: What do we want?
“For my children to get ahead,” said Rosalia Lopez. She marched, sweating, past a gleaming Chevy Suburban, hunter green, leather interior, parked curbside. “For them to maybe someday have”–she gestured–“one of those.”
“Maybe one house, someday,” shouted Carlos Santana, new father, over the ear-splitting chants of “Si! Se Puede!” “Maybe in Santa Monica.”
“For each of my children to have their own rooms,” dreamed Enrique Gaspar.
“To take my little girl to Knott’s Berry Farm once a year,” Karina Martinez replied.
“To send my son to university,” said Daisy Herrera.
“To be able to afford a computer with a hookup to the Internet,” said 17-year-old Manuel Rincon, marching at his father’s side.
“To finish my education, because I am going to school, so I can work as electricity–I mean, work as an electrician,” Max Salvador offered, his broad Oaxacan face concentrating hard on his second language. “And to own a house. Not a big house. But a house that is in a quiet place, like this place. And maybe”–now he was laughing out loud–“one Land Cruiser! Hey, who knows?”…
VII. When writing a review, draw a clear line between the work’s aspirations and its results
…as in the middle of this arts commentary on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in which the most important perception–“we needed a place to grieve”–was carefully set up:
…the Vietnam memorial is successful precisely because it’s modern, not in spite of it.
A traditional, representational statue in marble or bronze, complete with the standard classical repertoire, would have spelled disaster. There are two reasons, and they are intimately related.
First, a traditional memorial would have instantly historicized the Vietnam War. The bronze statues and classical motifs familiar to most war memorials would have anchored the event being commemorated firmly in the past. The soul- and body-shattering trauma of war often demands just this sort of public response. Imagery redolent of the past solemnly sanctifies the dead, who immediately join a collective pantheon of ancestral authority. And the living, faced with a familiar and comforting symbol of history, are reassured through an implicit declaration: “We have survived.”
No event since the Civil War has had such a profound and wrenching effect on the national sense of self. America was literally torn in two, split into raw, polarized and seemingly irreconcilable camps. The war had been over for just six years when the competition for the memorial’s design concluded, and the wound in the American psyche remained fresh and deep. However much we wanted to put the awful episode behind us, there was important work left to do.
We needed a place to grieve. It had to be a public place, too, where the personal expression of loss could be shared…
VIII. Connect the macro and the micro
1. The writer profiled a striking janitor in order to humanize the impact of economics, and kept making the human connection:
By the time janitor Rosa Alvarenga left El Salvador nine years ago, forces were already in motion that would push her to a picket line in Woodland Hills.
High immigration from impoverished countries, weak unions and an economic downturn all combined to lower paychecks for a whole class of semiskilled workers. Now low wages for blue-collar jobs are a given in Los Angeles, even in a booming economy, even as workers like Alvarenga struggle to make ends meet.
What is perhaps more significant, outsourcing and corporate consolidation–two of the sweeping economic changes of our time–have obscured the chain of responsibility between those who directly benefit from manual labor, such as building tenants, and those who do the work, such as janitors.
Alvarenga’s employer, OneSource, an Atlanta-based subsidiary of a company headquartered in Belize, is as anonymous to her as she is to the office workers whose toilets she cleans.
The effect is that both sides in the countywide janitors strike, which entered its fourth day Thursday and has become increasingly heated, are fighting a war with phantoms, loaded with symbolism and misunderstanding.
To Alvarenga, who cleans two floors of a gleaming high-rise, working alone from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m…
2. The writer noticed that a planned major realignment of bus routes played havoc with a route traveled primarily by the working poor as they made their way to jobs in the homes of the affluent:
The sun is still sleeping as nannies, maids and hotel workers wait for the first Route 57 bus in downtown Santa Ana. The time is 4:57 a.m.
These Spanish-speaking immigrants are already commuting to jobs that begin at 7 or 8 in the morning on south Orange County’s tony coastline.
The longest leg of the trip, to Newport Beach and beyond, is on the 57 bus, which traverses 16.6 miles of Orange County from northeast to southwest, from working class to upper class, from roofs of aging gray shingle to those of new Spanish tile.
The 57 bus has become a second home for a tight-knit immigrant community of thousands of riders. They spend about four hours a day traveling on it, transferring to it or waiting for it. Now, a plan to end 57 bus service to Newport Center has them facing even longer commutes–an extra 22 minutes each way by one estimate–and in some cases, a third bus connection.
Transit planners say the change will straighten circuitous routes and make the system more efficient. The modifications will result in even less time with families for the riders on the 57, many of whom already work 10- to 12-hour days. Some worry that the commute time could threaten their jobs, or at best force them to pay higher bus fares.
To them, something less tangible is also at stake. Without the Newport Center as a transit hub, they will be robbed of the few short moments of camaraderie that break up long, numbing days of caring for other people’s children, tending to lawns and cleaning homes.
Every morning when they arrive in Newport Beach, halfway to their destination, 30 or so nannies and maids form a human circle just blocks from Fashion Island, one of California’s poshest shopping centers. Waiting for connecting buses or rides from their employers for as long as an hour, they thrive on gossip, tacos and sales pitches from one maid who doubles as an Avon lady…
IX. When you engage in wordplay, connect your playfulness to the organization of the story
1. The surfing terminology is sustained through the nut graph:
When it comes to riding killer waves, David Skelly totally rips. It’s only when he surfs the paper swells of bureaucracy that he gets full-on thrashed.
Skelly, an Encinitas marine engineer, has designed what is expected to be the nation’s first artificial surf reef: a 2,000-ton pile of sandbags to be submerged off the shores of El Segundo, near Los Angeles International Airport.
The proposed reef is intended to reverse the wave-flattening effects of a 17-year-old jetty there and transform Dockweiler State Beach into a surfing mecca, a place where overjoyed wave riders won’t even notice the blast of jets overhead or the smell of the bordering Hyperion sewage plant.
Trouble is, members of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, which conceived the idea and hired Skelly for the job, figured the warehouse-sized reef would be finished four years ago. Instead, they’ve found themselves caught in a protracted funding and environmental riptide.
2. Here, the punchy lead graph leads to a newsy second graph, but returns to a playful tone in the third:
Memo to Disneyland cast members: Walt had one. Now you can too.
Walt Disney Co. said Monday it has scrapped a 43-year-old ban on mustaches for its theme park employees. The move is a minor concession for the Magic Kingdom, which continues to have one of the strictest grooming codes of any American employer.
Beards are still prohibited. Nose rings and purple hair? Forget it. And no Elvis look-alikes please: Sideburns below the bottom of the ears aren’t allowed.
But in a letter going out this week to 12,000 workers at Disneyland and its four parks in Florida, Disney Attractions President Paul Pressler said the mustache edict was lifted because…
3. Parallelism works when it’s truly parallel:
He was a young engineer not long out of college and recently married. His new job: Help build a nuclear reactor.
Thirty-five years later, Jarlath Curran is nearing retirement age. But he’s got one more thing to do: Help tear down that reactor.
Curran, 61, is one of the reasons Southern California Edison Co. decided to start decommission now of Unit I of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The company wanted some of the engineers who built and ran it for years to help dismantle the 450-megawatt reactor before they retire.
X. Find an emerging trend on your beat
…as in this piece about how an increasing number of home sales were being affected by feng shui, a tale a real estate writer kept hearing from her sources. That was quantification enough (see underlined material):
Nerissa Rosete fell in love with a pricey South Orange County home, especially its impressive view of the mountains. She entered escrow, putting $20,000 down.
But she walked away from the deal, losing half her down payment, after a consultant noted the way the backyard steeply dropped off to meet Interstate 5. It was, he warned her, bad feng shui: The receding yard would prompt energy to rush out of the home.
Once again, the 3,000-year-old Chinese practice of feng shui, which teaches manipulation of one’s physical surroundings to bring about balance and success, had shaken up the real estate market.
Nearly every real estate office in Southern California seems to have a tale about how buyers or sellers, including a large proportion of non-Chinese, have made surprising compromises in pursuit of good feng shui.
One sign is the rapidly growing field of feng shui consulting. Other signals include transactions like Rosete’s that are falling through when a consultant vetoes a home. Some deals are taking longer to close because of buyer demands for a feng shui inspection. Some feng shui consultants are issuing certificates that sellers can use to prove a home’s worthiness.
XI. Use your life–even the mundane part–as a source for stories
…like the reporter who was so aggravated by the unreadable jury summons in his mailbox that he wrote a Page 1 piece:
The Los Angeles County court system has come up with a new jury summons form so dense that even some judges can’t make sense of it.
The form, resembling a cross between a mortgage application and a deli menu, has generated a flood of complaints–including one from a Pasadena resident called to jury duty: Judge Lance Ito. He filled it out incorrectly.
“Even the IRS couldn’t dream up something so complicated!” Ito fumed. “Holy smokes, this is horrible.”
The new form was drafted for the Los Angeles County courts’ new jury system and is designed to streamline the process for the 4.5 million prospective jurors contacted yearly.
But as court officials and committees insisted that more and more information be included, the summons form that was once relatively easy to understand has become a complex, text-laden document with folding instructions that appear to require a knowledge of origami.
XII. Create an explanatory tone
Here, in the middle of the story, the reporter distilled complex information into a chronological flow to show us how a coastal construction permit was muddled by power politics. Admire how the simple language and transitional structure (underlined) compensates for the complexity, and how those two colons in the 4th graph of the segment also make the ride easier:
…The conflict started conventionally enough. Trusts established by billionaire Eli Broad, television magnate Haim Saban and Nancy Daly, Riordan’s wife, picked up six Malibu parcels from Pepperdine University and set out to demolish the houses that stood on them and then to replace them with three larger homes.
Given the size and configuration of what they had in mind, that meant cutting off the view of the ocean from Pacific Coast Highway. The Coastal Commission begged to differ, and demanded that each of the three home sites–which average about 100 feet along the highway–include 20 feet of “view corridor.”
That didn’t sit well with the trio. Broad, for instance, envisioned a house designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier, the man behind the Getty Museum, and understandably was not happy with the idea of his landmark home constrained by a corridor so that passing motorists could glance at the water as they shot by at 50 miles an hour.
So Broad and his friends made the Coastal Commission an offer: If the panel would let them cut off the ocean views around their homes, they would buy an 80-foot stretch of a nearby beach and protect it from development. Their argument: The Riordans, Sabans and Broads would get their houses, and the public would not only get more view–in many ways, a better view, since it would be in one chunk rather than three 20-foot intervals–but also public access to that beach.
That was all well and good for them, and it satisfied the Coastal Commission staff. But for the neighbors who live near the beach, it was no good at all. Why, they asked, should their beach be made more accessible to the public just so their famous and powerful would-be neighbors wouldn’t have to put up with anyone looking over their shoulders at the sunset?
And, this being Malibu, the neighbors who complained–though not necessarily of the stature of a big-city mayor and a couple of business titans known for their political savvy and lavish contributions to candidates and causes–are no slouches.
XIII. In a profile, use enough detail to let the reader truly visualize your character
From a profile of a disabled rocker/surfer:
…Days by the coast have left Tuduri perma-tanned. His hair is ’70s long and feathered like David Cassidy’s, only grayer now that he is 52. His voice is tinged by the drawl of rocker culture, but is disarmingly upbeat. There is no bravado from a man who knows he probably should be dead. He looks deep into your eyes when he speaks, peering over the top of red glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose and from beneath bushy gray eyebrows. His left thumb, which occasionally quakes, bears a red star, so worn by the chafing of a drumstick it looks like a prison tattoo…
2. From the lead of a news feature about a battered woman who benefitted from donated plastic surgery:
Hard as she tries, Tosha McClintock can’t get used to her new face.
Her chin, which had been beaten until it was barely visible, feels full and heavy now, the result of a reconstructive implant. Her ears, which resembled cauliflowers from repeated pummeling, feel small and flat against her head, sewn closed, no longer bulging with cartilage.
And she can breathe out of her nose again. It had been flattened for so long–a favorite target of her ex-boyfriend’s fists–that McClintock, 29, forgot what it was there for, what it had ever really looked like. She touches her new nose absently now, tracing over it, pushing on it. Sometimes she’ll catch a glimpse of her profile when she turns to look at something, and she has to remind herself what it is.
XIV. Show your readers the nuances of how the world works
Check this language (underlined) in the sixth graph of a labor dispute story. It let you know that what you were watching was part stunt and part serious:
More than 2,000 teachers gathered at Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters Tuesday to decry a labor contract proposal offered by interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines that for the first time would link teachers’ pay to performance.
Chanting, “The district says take-backs, we say fight back!” teachers from schools as far away as San Pedro arrived downtown by the busload to oppose the proposal to rate their performance with test scores, as well as Cortines’ plan to take away teachers’ authority to elect coordinators and department chairmen…
…On one level, the protests are typical of the maneuvering that often occurs early in labor talks. But the outpouring underscored the degree to which Cortines’ proposals have struck at issues that are hot buttons for many union activists.
Any other techniques or examples or lessons work for you? Let’s hear about them. Go back to the home page, click on “Interact” and share ’em.