Putting it all into perspective

Many of you who read this know me personally.

So you know I’m a little high-strung.

And you know I can get a little ahead of myself.

Clearly, this semester and Intermediate Writing was no different. Every since I registered for this course I had a picture in my mind of the type of writer I wanted to turn into, the types of choices I wanted to make, and the types of pieces I wanted to publish. Everything I’ve done so far has been in an effort to get to that point.

Well, it’s almost that point. With just about two weeks left in the semester, I got to sit down with Roy Wenzl, a reporter from the Wichita Eagle who came to our class this past week to sub for Jacqui and impart some wisdom. During class, we talked a lot about his series for the Eagle about Father Emil Kapaun. Much of the story was recreated scenes from Roy’s interviews with former POWs from Korea. It was amazingly descriptive and a beautiful, engaging narrative. It’s the kind of piece we all hope to be able to write someday.

Roy was generous enough to use his free time on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with students from our class and talk with them about their stories or whatever was on their minds writing- and reporting-wise, really.

I was very humbled to hear that Roy liked my drafts; it’s one thing to get feedback from professors and Missourian editors, but it’s a nice change of pace to hear from someone who isn’t familiar with your work and only judges what you put in front of them, not past history or personality or anything else.

But aside from that, we talked about maturing as a reporter. In my head, I’ve always thought there was this switch that flips to turn you from a “nuts and bolts reporter,” as Roy termed it, to a “narrative reporter.” Either you have it, or you don’t, and getting there is a challenge regardless.

As a quick rehash, I feel pretty confident about my ability to lay down all the nuts and bolts. I explain things. I could definitely learn to do it better, but for now, that’s where most of my comfort is as a reporter. I don’t think I’m a great writer, and for whatever reason, I feel inhibited in my ability to become a good narrative reporter.

But Roy gave me some much-needed perspective. It doesn’t just happen like *that*. To become a different writer, a better writer, a more mature writer, you have to live. You have to read constantly. You have to take risks and try new things, even if it’s just a little bit at a time.

After a semester’s worth of hard work, I’m still not the writer I eventually want to be. And that’s OK; I’m 22, and I’m off to a good start. But I still have a long way to go, and that will happen as I write more and work more places and try different stories. “Duh, Shaina,” you might be thinking, but I can’t express how much of a wake-up call our conversation was.

Sometimes it’s nice to let go of the expectations of perfection we have for ourselves. It feels like a tight spring in my chest has uncoiled, and it’s freeing me up to take edits more easily and less personally. In two weeks I’ll publish these stories, confident that it’s my absolute best work and best writing to date. I feel more capable and competent with every project I report. From the initial learning to the last-minute polishing, I can see myself grow each time.

Above all, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made, even if I haven’t accomplished every single goal. If I did, there’d be nowhere else to go and no way to move forward. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to keep learning and  improving my craft.

And if that’s all I walk away with, it’ll be more than enough.

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Literary forensics: Not quite CSI, but close

It should come as no surprise to any of you that I write a lot. It also should come as no surprise that I think a lot.

Put those two together, and you get a prolific over-thinker. So when Jacqui introduced our class to literary forensics last week, I found a new pastime.

The crux of the practice is to identify specific places in your writing where you can improve, little by little. You pick a part of speech, such as verbs or clauses or quote use, and mark it in unedited drafts to get a sense of how you use it. The more you do this, the better you get to know your writing. I see it as a way to get into the editing process with a very sharp focus, which is a little different from how I normally edit.

Usually, I prefer to macro edit first. And while I don’t think that’s a bad idea, it does mean that I don’t leave as much time for micro-editing. This semester is all about doing what’s hardest for me writing-wise, so I figure it’s good to shake up my writing and editing practices.

So after my literary forensics primer in class, I sat down armed with colored pens and fresh second drafts. Then, off I went. This is what happened next:

photo 1

  • Verbs (green): I need to choose verbs with more action and fewer “ings.” I also use to many helping verbs and state of being verbs. I think I could do this better if I wrote with more scenes and action. It’s hard to describe ideas and concepts that don’t do anything.
  • Dependent clauses (purple): My tendency is to begin sentences with them, but fortunately those aren’t always sentences that start paragraphs. Jacqui told us these types of sentences slow down the pace of a story, and that’s the last think I need. Mostly, I use dependent clauses to mark chronology, which in the case of the narrative I was using, made sense here.
  • Adjectives/Adverbs (blue): Put bluntly, they’re too boring and too few and far between. I rely on “more,” “less,” “new,” and clinical words like “effective” and “proficient.” I need to add color and get away from just describing size.
  • Quotes (red): In these drafts, my use of quotes is pretty good. In ones I edited in Jacqui’s class, however, I kept falling into that paragraph-quote-paragraph-quote trap. Jacqui said this can be symptomatic of writing too much or not knowing enough about your subject.

As I write this now, I am constantly self-editing. Literary forensics is a habit I could get used to and one I think will help me clearly identify what I need to change and why. I think a lot about what I’ve learned. I’ve worked so hard to be a better, freer writer this semester, and it’s exciting to find ways to make that happen. Part of that has been an exercise in confidence, in myself and in my writing. And part of it has been learning the tools to help an explanatory reporter and writer dabble in narrative journalism.

Starting out in this class, I didn’t think I could do this kind of reporting. But I made a promise to myself to make the harder choices and do what I was nervous about. It’s been hard to try to imagine how this would all play out, how I’d put these drafts together and do the interviews and write in a way that feels unnatural. But now, I’m proud.

Editing session 1: In which I realize I might not be nearly as boring a writer as my journalism would have everyone believe

I’m about to make a whole bunch of excuses about why this post is late. You can pick whichever one(s) you think is/are most convincing.

  1. I’m in grad school. For those of you not in-the-know, this means I’m constantly reading and translating into APA style. An annotated bibliography deadline is looming.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, I have other classes that don’t have anything to do with journalism. Unfortunately, these classes require some of my time.
  3. I, too, eat and sleep and (attempt to) engage in physical activity.
  4. Some of my best friends in the world are about to graduate college and scatter all over the country. I’d like to savor the time I have with them. Therefore, a night at our favorite pizza place and a day in Kansas City took precedence over this blog. I can’t promise this won’t be happening more and more in the weeks to come.

On to my first editing session, as promised.

I won’t lie: I was pretty nervous to edit with Jacqui last week. I’ve worked under her in class settings, but less so in traditional reporting ones. So I’m still learning about her style.

Spoiler alert: I shouldn’t have been so worried.

That’s not to say she wasn’t (constructively) critical, or that she let me off easy or that she didn’t give me a lot to think about to improve on. She did a few things that cemented to me how good of an editor she is and how much I can learn from her as I try to improve my own skills as a writer, reporter and editor.

First, she told me I needed to tell her what I liked from these drafts. Sandwiched between self-deprecating statements, I managed to stammer out a few things I didn’t hate. This helped me relax. It also helped set the tone for the rest of our discussion: one of mutual understanding and encouragement, not overt criticism.

What stuck with me was a remark she made, slightly off-handed, but powerful all the same. She said she was an editor who knew how to read a first draft, and not all editors can. I’ve worked with a number of editors and edited a fair amount of copy, and I never thought about how a first draft should be edited. Jacqui didn’t go into great detail about this, but these are aspects of our talk I picked up on, and I don’t think they were an accident.

  • Thou shalt not get caught up in copyediting.
  • Thou shalt not be critical without also being constructive.
  • Thou shall focus on nut graphs, big ideas and structure.
  • Thou shall send thy reporter off with clear instructions and good spirits.

We didn’t obsess over details. Instead, Jacqui outlined the big issues I needed to work on: eliminating jargon, getting to the point and drawing clear connections in my nut sections, and aiming for a voice that’s as vibrant and passionate as it is when I write recreationally.

When I left her office, I knew I had a lot of work to do on my rewrites, but I also felt confident that I could make those changes. Part of that is my slow acceptance that I’m not a horrible writer, just an improving one. I’ve been stunted in finding a journalistic voice that is closer to my casual writing voice. I know I’m not nearly as boring a writer as some of my journalism might let on. To get there, I need to relax and divorce myself from my notes.

And part of my growing confidence is how Jacqui handled the edit. She let me go on a mini-rant about why I think I’m struggling. She didn’t rush our edit despite the fact that it was after 5 p.m. on a Friday. And she didn’t make a criticism without justifying it and helping me understand how I could improve. I’m not ready to submit my drafts to the deadline gods just yet, but after digesting everything we talked about and trying to apply it, I was happy with my progress when I sent her second drafts this past Friday.

My editors constantly remind me how big a role compassion plays in the editing process. I could easily tear down a reporter who makes a mess of a crime brief or comes back bewildered from a city meeting. And as reporter, my editors could easily get on my case about using too much education-speak and writing veritable novels. But what’s the point? Nobody wins by acting powerful and throwing their weight around.

So with my head held high, and my bag weighed down by about 100 pages of education-themed research, I march on toward my deadline.

Endings: How to get there without pushing your readers off a cliff

Between drafting and editing and graphics-ing and, you know, living, it’s been a busy first week post-spring break.

On Tuesday, we talked about story structure, specifically as it pertained to the ending of the story “Netherland” by Rachel Aviv.

While many of us agreed that the subject matter was fascinating and her access brought about stories from compelling characters, we talked a lot about how she ended the story and how the whole piece was structured. The ending showed a scene where a formerly homeless young woman was comforting a friend by telling him everything would work out and be OK. Generally, my classmates had three views of it:

  1. It was ironic given the fact that not much had worked out for her.
  2. It was a glimpse into her new role as the caretaker of her street “family.”
  3. It was abrupt and felt resolution-less.

The third one was where I set up camp. Although I can see the problem with ending every story tied with a nice bow, in a piece wrought so full of problems, I wanted some more closure, or at least more time to adjust to the character’s new life before we left her.

Jacqui imparted this writing adage to address closure and how to take your subjects gently to the end: Long sentences read fast, and short sentences read slow. Basically, be aware of your pacing when you write and develop your structure. Don’t plop readers down in front of a cliff and expect them to walk off happily into the sunset. Approach the edge carefully, being mindful of words and phrasing and sentence length, so that when you leave your readers, they understand how they got to that point and why.

Generally, she advised, longer stories should pick up the pace in the last third or so. This can happen with more “muscular” and quicker scenes and action, but that should not change the fact that a good, satisfying ending still needs a lead-up.

From there, we moved on to overall structure and how to lay out a road map before you write. Somethings to think about:

  • What are the topics and sub-issues that need to be included?
  • How might they group together to form a natural structure, or at least, bigger sections?
  • How can I juxtapose scenes against the issues I need to illustrate?
  • How can I include multiple characters?
  • What pegs or mile-markers do I need to leave my readers so they can follow along comfortably?
  • What do I need to be reporting on so I have options if my structure needs to change?

All of these questions can help guide you toward an understanding of how to start placing parts of your story. For more complicated narratives, Jacqui introduced us to the braided narrative, which looks something like this:

  • Lede with all your characters, quickly and concisely.
  • Give a strong nut and summary section.
  • Drop back in with each character in scenes, showing one aspect of an issue they need to illustrate especially well.
  • Go back and forth with the characters, showing where they meet and connect with each other.
  • All throughout, weave in summary information and general or background information that works with the scenes.

Two of my favorite books, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and “The Devil in the White City,” make use of this structure. In the former title, the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman whose cancer cells spawned a tidal wave of change in the medical field, is juxtaposed against Rebecca Skloot, the reporter who wants to finally get the real story about HeLa cells and where they came from. In the latter book, the professional trials of Daniel Burnham, an architect who organized the building of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, is juxtaposed against the sinister life of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man who became notorious after the fair for killing as many as 100 women in the hotel he built.

I’ve found just through my own recreational reading that the braided narrative makes for a very exciting, slightly suspenseful story. Because you’re usually always taking parts from one subject’s point of view or set of experiences, it can make what is usually drier information captivating because it is highly relevant to the character it’s connected to. Braided narratives with multiple characters work so well because our lives are little more than the connections we have with other people. What better way to tell a story than through those connections?

In the vague way we try to quickly sift through the hundreds of books we’ve read, I get the sense that I’ve happened across the braided narrative many times, but I never considered using it for my own stories. I suppose part of that is subject matter; there’s usually no “gotcha!” at the end of a school board story. However, I could try using the technique to reveal telling details and connections even if they don’t have that element of surprise. It doesn’t hurt to practice for when that “gotcha!” moment finally does arrive.

Up next!

Stay tuned for my post next week on my first editing session (took place this past Friday) and my rewrite experience (second draft due this coming Friday). The tentative title: My first editing session: In which I realize I might not be nearly as boring a writer as my journalism would have everyone believe.

How will I fix ALL the problems?

How can I eliminate ALL the jargon??

How should I rewrite ALL the nut sections???

Excited? Good, me too.