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!