Journalism & muscle memory

I had a bit of an epiphany about becoming a better writer in Intermediate Writing this week. 

Jacqui told us how a friend of hers holds workshops where each participant brings in a few pages of their favorite writing. Then, instead of talking about the writing styles of each author or reading them, her friend has the participants sit down and retype each page.

At first, this confused me — how could that possibly help? But then, I remembered one of my dance teacher’s oft-repeated terms during class: muscle memory.

And suddenly, it all clicked.

As Jacqui went on to explain, we don’t learn to play good music by playing solely original works. And I didn’t learn ballet by choreographing my own pieces. We learn through copying the great works of others.

That’s why I spent summers at my dance studio learning Coppelia and Giselle variations, even though my teachers knew we were unable to do them at a professional level. Your body just learns to remember and make connections, and through that, you can improve your technique and artistry, bit by bit. Writing, it turns out, is no different. 

By feeling the cadence of sentences and experiencing someone else’s word use and style, you as a writer have more to draw from. In that moment in class, I wondered why we’d never had to do that exercise before in any of my journalism classes. It made so much sense and seemed so natural. Once I have time away from tons of schoolwork, I want to try it.

Aside from craft issues, we talked this week about exploratory and pre-reporting. I’ve already started doing this for my stories, and it was really helpful to break down some of the questions I should be asking myself going forward.

When pre-reporting, look for these things:

  • What’s already been published
  • Where the story idea came from (context)
  • Thinking about access to sources (Who’s out there, who hasn’t been talked to?)
  • Finding a “pocket expert” to give the story more context and background
  • Verifying basic facts

Awesomely enough, I got a great tip from a classmate about a pocket expert to contact. This person, Jacqui explained, should be your go-to for background and significance for a specific topic. They might not be a source or even really quoted in your story, but they’d definitely be the first stop for learning and trying to figure out where the story is.

Unfortunately, my pocket expert isn’t local, so I’m counting on remote methods of communication to get in touch. But, I’m very excited to talk to her and get a broad take from a master on what I should be thinking about and looking for as I begin talking to sources.

When conducting exploratory interviews, think about these things:

  • Finding your focus and possibly a fresh take on the story
  • What might tank the story or turn it into another story altogether
  • Challenges or obstacles you might face
  • Finding people, and not just direct sources (who to talk to)
  • What’ is the most important thing to understand?
  • What documents should I read/have?
  • What is it that people need to know when reading this story?
  • What do I need to know to report this correctly, and who can tell me?
  • What do I want to know, and who can tell me?

Above all, Jacqui said that journalism is problem-solving, and that’s a take I really relate to. When something comes up in your personal life to deter your reporting, you have to find a way to fix it. When stories veer in another direction, you have to gather your reporting and reassess what your focus is.

And when a winter storm dumps 11 inches of snow on your city and you have to cancel all your preliminary interviews, setting you even further behind, you have to dig out your car and reschedule (welcome to my week).

ImageSo now, thanks to the snow, I have been spending some quality time with the research of my potential sources, trying to learn their history and philosophies so I can ask better questions. I’m going to try, this time, not to over-research as much as I did for my Common Core stories (no promises). I want to do just enough to get a solid background going in.

Next week, I’ll have my basic research and interviewing done, and I can hopefully start setting up observation time and having more in-depth discussions with teachers. Keep your fingers crossed for mild weather!



Moving forward after pre-reporting jitters

Put bluntly, I probably could’ve done without this last week.

After being lulled into a nice semester schedule, complete with time to socialize and work out, I got the great joy of seeing my check engine light go on early Monday morning. Lots of frustrations, $100 and one poor, dying Saturn SL1 later, I’m exhausted.

However, on the reporting side of my life, I feel pretty damn good.

Unrelated from class, I found out a team of fellow reporters and I won a top-10 spot in the Associated Press Sports Editors awards for breaking news in an under-30,000 circulation. We placed for our coverage of basketball player Michael Dixon’s transfer from MU after a series of allegations of sexual assault. (Top-5 rankings TBD in April).

This week in Intermediate Writing class, we took our story pitches and talked about how to move them past pre-reporting into an actual plan for action. Like I said in one of our reading posts last week, my biggest reporting fear is doing a load of work and having it go to waste, or having my story pulled out from under me.

It’s slightly irrational, because no reporting ever really goes to waste, but it speaks to my fear of having to react to a dying story idea. Fortunately, I learned this week how easy it is to make sure no idea every truly dies.

It’s easy to get locked into one set story plan, whether that be a narrative, a Q&A or a specific type of explanatory piece. It feels so much more comfortable to go out into the field with a clear-cut plan. But what about 8 plans? Nine? Fifteen?

Usually when stories get big and nebulous, I feel out of control. That might be true of big projects with myriad interviews and notes, but a big set of story paths is strangely comforting. Jacqui said that the more potential story plans we have, the more options we have for reporting, and the more directions we can turn in if one path doesn’t pan out.

That way, you only have to shift gears slightly to accomodate the new plan. Narrative profile doesn’t pan out? No problem. Turn it into a comparison of two characters instead. Investigative piece fall flat? Repurpose that reporting into a gripping explanatory piece. Usually the new plan will involve some additional reporting or researching, but in no way does it mean starting from scratch. Hearing that this was an option made me feel immensely relieved. It wasn’t all or nothing. I had options, great options, even.

Story formats we talked about (not an exhaustive list):

  1. Narrative
  2. Profile
  3. Explanatory
  4. Investigative
  5. Trend
  6. Voices/perspective
  7. Compare/contrast
  8. Issue
  9. Timeline/history

Any of these could be applied to my topic, taking it down a slightly different path, but including what would be much of the same reporting.

Later on, in what seemed like some karmic payback for all the bad car luck I’d been having, Jacqui used my story ideas as the jumping off point for a brainstorm to demonstrate how to find story paths and give examples of the formats we discussed. The tightness in my chest eased as we started to consider all the ways I could begin to move forward. I breathed easier with every spoke added to the stakeholder wheel.

After class, we all made plans to meet with Jacqui to discuss our story ideas further. Because I had the benefit of class brainpower behind me, my conversation with Jacqui focused a lot on the kind of writing I want to do. For me, I’d be playing to my strengths if I took on an explanatory issue piece. That type of writing and reporting comes easily to me, and part of me desperately wanted to make the easy decision for once.

But, I owned up to what my goal was when I signed up for Intermediate Writing: to learn to write descriptively and gain experience with immersion journalism. Jacqui and I talked about what strategies I could use to get scenes and characters into my stories and foray into immersion journalism while still incorporating explanatory bits in the larger story of the issue at hand. First, I must identify key topics that need to be included to understand the issue. Second, I need to start reporting to see where I’ll find characters or scenes so I can decide just what type of story path I should move down. Those scenes and characters will then “open the door” to the other information I find while reporting. If I could draw it, it’d look like this:


It might change halfway through, and likely I won’t end up where I planned to. But I just keep telling myself that the discomfort and hard work is going toward a greater purpose to improve my writing and storytelling.

I think my hesitation to write this way comes from the remnants of being a painfully shy child. I don’t want to disturb anyone, and I’m still uncomfortable walking into an environment where I am unfamiliar. I don’t want to be the center of attention, and I tend to be a people-pleaser at times. But to effectively write and report immersion-style, I need to be confident and have a plan and execute it. I have to be bold enough to work with my sources and direct many moving parts to end up with the story I want to tell.

I’ve got my big google outline brewing, and I’m feeling good about where I need to go from here. This New York Times pieces about a little girl dealing with a condition where she feels no pain was a great example, in my opinion, of telling a complicated science-y story through scenes. We follow the author’s interactions with the family for much of the piece, but there are also paragraphs explaining the condition and its medical history interspersed throughout. As Jacqui put it, the scenes are the spine holding the story together.

Before this class, this NYT piece would’ve intimidated me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still appropriately respectful of well done journalism, but now that I understand the underlying strategy behind this kind of piece, It’s more uplifting than intimidating. In my own small way, I’m going to do something like this.

Writing Therapy

As the title lets on, I can already tell that Intermediate Writing is going to be a mixture of catharsis and anxiety, and it was only day three. This week, we started off with a story salon, where the class read a piece and discussed its merits or critiques as they related to components of narrative storytelling and descriptive writing.

I chose an Oxford American story written by a former reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, called “New South Journalism: The Sometimes-Picayune.” I chose the story because of it’s telling detail and the way the author, Chris Rose, uses himself as his own best source. I really enjoyed the discussion our class had about the plot, the descriptive way the author wrote and the way he portrayed the newspaper and the city of New Orleans as characters. The way Rose writes reminded me of another piece I read in Esquire Magazine about a memorial after the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Both these pieces included detail that really put you in the moment. They used more than just common words or phrases to describe what was going on, they made you see, hear, feel and taste every part. Unlike Rose’s piece, the Esquire story took place in a series of small moments, rather than the history of a newspaper and its relationship with a city. But still, you got the same kind of description, the kind that really let you picture every detail in the setting. Many in our class agreed that this kind of writing is what set Rose’s piece apart from other kinds of journalism, even with his own personal story included.

This is an exercise our class will repeat every week, with a different student leading the discussion each time.

The writing therapy part set once we began talking about the steps of the writing process. Jacqui had us draw out in pictures, symbols or words what our personal writing processes looked like, from the first instant we got a story idea to the time we hit send and sent a copy to our editor.

I was a little thrown at first. Usually a writing class doesn’t include arts and crafts time, but this class, as I’ve come to realize, isn’t really like any other I’ve taken before. Once we rolled out pieces of butcher paper and found different colored markers we wanted to use, we began to draw. Stick figures, arrows and exclamation points littered the papers, everyone caught up in their own pictures.

So far, this is been one of the most helpful writing activities I’ve ever done. Just looking around the room at my classmates’ work made me realize that we all go through some of the same types of panics and preparations. In fact, that was the subject of the rest of our class: everybody panics at first, even long-time, award-winning writers. The trick is how to manage that panic and turn it into something useful.

Jacqui boiled down the writing process into six discrete steps:

  1. Conceive (brainstorming story ideas)
  2. Collect (reporting, researching)
  3. Focus (what is it you’re really writing about?)
  4. Organize (outlines, notes)
  5. Draft (just get it all down)
  6. Revise (self-edit, copy edit, rework, polish)

Then, we went through and talked about where we felt confident and where we felt weak. I’m a pretty good focuser and organizer — I’m an outline convert and now use them to keep my thoughts straight and plan my drafts after I’ve reported. But it was even helpful to recognize where I am weak. I’ve never felt like I can easily or successfully come up with story ideas. I’m not confident about it, and it’s incredibly hard for me, even with the brainstorming strategies I’ve learned, to develop in my time reporting.

But here’s the best part: Jacqui reminded us that we might always be weak in some areas, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t good writers and journalists, it just means we need to learn when to step back and ask for help. We don’t have to do it alone.

Now, we’re embarking on phase 2 of pitching story ideas; working on vetting those ideas further, drafting mission statements and questions, and finding sources who we can gain access to. I’m most nervous about the last part, as I usually am when asking a source for a lot of their time or a peek into their lives and routines. Getting this access would make or break my story, and like one of our readings from this week said, is a risk that a reporter usually takes on alone at first.

I want to be able to do the kind of immersion journalism that Kristina Rizga does in this Mother Jones story about misconceptions about failing schools. But to do that, I need time; my own and my source’s. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t be asking so much of a person, access to their job and such. But part of me is tired of apologizing for trying to do my job to the best of my ability.

Nine times out of 10, I care immensely about the subjects I am writing about. I’ve done so much education reporting mainly because I feel so passionately about it’s role in people’s lives, and I want to offer them comprehensive, clear and helpful coverage about their schools. To do that, I need my sources to let me in and trust that I will portray them honestly. The first step is on me to be someone worth trusting and to make sure they know what I’m about and that I’ll follow through.

So, this is me gearing myself up for a day of phone calls, emails and outlines, trying to make others care as much as I do and keep my momentum going. When I remind myself how much I want to write about education, or anything I care about, It’s less scary to pick up the phone and start the story idea vetting process. It’s just mind over matter, right?

Keeping it short, sweet and simple

Sometimes, I forget what it feels like to write just for the sake of writing. Most of my writing is purposeful, either for an essay or on deadline. One of the reasons I’m taking Intermediate Writing is so I can loosen up my writing and experiment with a different style.

This week in class, we did a short, 5-minute free-writing assignment associated with a personal object we brought. Although I left most of my very personal items at home, I did still have the prayer book I used in my bat mitzvah. I wrote about the thoughts that flitted through my head when I saw it, what it symbolized and why it continues to be important in my life.

After we all read our pieces aloud, we talked about what narrative components we had included in them without even really thinking about it. Characters, scenes, details and narrative arcs appeared.

Slowly, I think the mood in the class lightened. We could do this. We could write this way, and you know what? It really wasn’t so hard after all.

I think my biggest stumbling block is just getting out of my own way. Granted, my short piece was no work of genius, but it was genuine and unknowingly used one of Anne LaMott’s, author of Bird by Bird, writing techniques. She advises to take a one-inch picture frame view of a single scene, a single moment. The shorter assignments allow you to break through the distractions and random thoughts running through your head to actually accomplish something. And that’s what this free-writing assignment felt like.

I like how a lot of these theories can apply to bigger writing, such as putting together a series. Dan Barry, a reporter at the New York Times, who wrote a series on the small town of Elyria, Ohio. In a Poynter chat, he answers questions about how he put his series together, and he mentions writing about scenes.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to begin with the early morning, when Elyria is mostly asleep, and then take you to that moment when the OPEN sign is activated. After that, it was trying to give sense of place with specifics

Even in longer pieces, writing one scene at a time can still be an effective way to move through the process. His series spans months of observing, writing and getting to know the city, but he uses the same narrative components we’re learning about now.

In a way, it’s intimidating because he uses them with such artistry and skill. On the other hand, it’s reassuring that the rules for doing this kind of writing won’t change up on me down the road. If I could learn to approach all my pieces and projects scene by scene, or in one-inch increments, I think I’d get a lot more accomplished. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use some of these strategies as the semester goes on.

This week, our big assignment is coming up with four relatively fleshed out story ideas. The ideas can come from anywhere, but we are encouraged to use the “story seeds” we brainstormed last week. I always get panicky when I have to pitch stories, but lately, I’ve been trying to see them through a very specific structure that my editor last semester helped me develop.

She taught me to think in questions and then move to more specific questions and keep breaking it down like that. It’s been a method that works for me, and led to a big ol’ outline I kept for my project on the new Common Core State Standards in Columbia Public Schools. The first was general with lots of questioning that changed along the way, but the second was reworked based on the interviews I had done, and it brought my story’s purpose into much stronger focus (with many incomprehensible notes).

I’m going to go for a similar approach for my pitches this week. Based on my loose ideas,  I’m going to try to form large, broad questions. Then, I’m going to whittle them down a little further and add suggestions for sources. I’m also going to include information about the context of each story, what’s been done before, and why the idea is relevant.

My goal is that by breaking my ideas down into one-inch bites, I can start working in some of the narrative strategies I’ve learned so far.

Wish me luck!