Cheers to a semester of writing, learning and growing.

Voice. It’s been on my mind since I started Intermediate Writing this semester. It’s the free, sarcastic tone I take in this blog, the tone I still can’t quite infuse into my journalism. But I’m working on it. And the stories I’ll publish in a couple weeks are my best examples of it so far.

Voice was the topic of class this week, and my takeaway was that it’s not something you can happen into over night. “You know it when you see it, you know it when you hear it, and you stumble into it when you write it,” my teacher/editor, Jacqui, said.

Here’s what voice isn’t:

  • Grammar
  • Syntax
  • Style
  • Using big or little words

Voice, ultimately, is what happens once you master your craft, or at least begin to master it. Once you’ve internalized the skills necessary to be a competent writer and journalist, it’s easy to lose your voice when focusing so intensely on craft skills. I feel like this is the stage I’m at. I’m learning so much about writing and reporting that I can hardly figure out my own take on it in the midst of the opinions of so many excellent writers and journalists. We will, Jacqui assured us, gain our voices back in time.

That said, during our last round of edits for my field stories, Jacqui asked me what I thought my voice was. Admittedly, I had a very hard time answering that question. I can quite articulate it. The best that I could offer was that I think I’m funny, so I usually try to play that up and include sarcasm. I have a wry kind of wit, if I do say so myself, and I think I turn to that because I’ve heard those kinds of sentiments my whole life.

My father is a teacher, and a well-liked one at that, so I could count on any combination or iteration of these statements when visiting him at a speech tournament or school play: “Your dad is so funny!” “He’s a riot, is he this funny at home?” “Mr. C. is so cool, he’s always cracking jokes at practice,” and so on and so forth. His sense of humor is a mix of wit, slight self-deprecation, well-timed comments and sheer performance. The older I get, the more I hear his humor in my voice, both on paper and in person.

My mother is sharp and passionate. She was the one who’d always take on unreasonable teachers who accused my sister and me of asking too many questions, and similar instances of injustice. Those of you familiar with my caustic remarks and shrewd rebuttals in arguments would be able to see them mirrored in her own behavior.

So I guess you could say I inherited my voice from my parents. I’m still trying to get it to match up with the voice I have when doing journalism. During our meeting, Jacqui gave me some insight into what she thinks my voice is, or at least how I portray it in my writing.

She says I’m precise and very explanatory, even to the point of over-explaining. I don’t use very many metaphors or similes, and my voice sounds  educated with high-level language. I write cogently with many prepositional phrases.

I can’t say I was very surprised to hear her summary. My dad is a teacher, my mom was one, and both my parents are educated and have a deep appreciation for literature. I read all the time and have ever since I learned how before kindergarten. None of Jacqui’s comments are inherently bad or good, either. She said it’s just a matter of understanding when those traits add positively to my writing and when they are negative.

Last semester was easily my best reporting semester; I talked to so many people and made sense out of a hugely complicated issue. This semester is easily my best writing semester. I’ve paid more attention to how I write and why I write that way than I ever have before. I’ve learned so much, but more importantly, I’ve learned the skills to make sure I can keep improving long after this class.

If any of you Mizzou j-schoolers reading this are looking for a challenging but completely worthwhile elective for next spring, take Intermediate Writing. This Tuesday is my last class and I’m sad to see it go.

Look for my culminating stories in the Missourian during the second week of May.

Until then, cheers, and Happy Writing!

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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.

A New Kind of Writing

The end of last semester was jam-packed with life events:

  • I finished my undergraduate degrees in journalism and economics
  • I turned 22
  • I completed my last semester on the Missourian’s education beat, where I’ve been for almost 2 years.

It might not seem like much, but it felt like a lot, especially for only 24 hours or so. Now, I’m finishing up my first week of graduate school back at the Missouri School of Journalism, and starting a whole new set of classes and goals.

For my Intermediate Writing class, I’ll be keeping a blog about my experiences learning about in-depth immersion writing. This is somewhat new territory for me — while I’ve made it a goal in the past to improve my feature and descriptive writing, I’m really a more break-it-all-down kind of girl. I’m trying to use my time as a graduate student to explore the areas I think will serve me best as I move on to my career, and first and foremost of those is writing.

So far, I’ve only had one class session, but I can already see where I’ll find welcome changes and where I’ll find challenges.

The notion of storytelling isn’t new to me. I’ve always loved reading and talking and socializing, and on occasion, I think I can spin a decently amusing yarn. Some of my favorite books are narrative non-fiction written by journalists or with a more journalistic style, including Lynn Povich’s “The Good Girls Revolt,” Nick Kristoff’s “Half The Sky,” Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City,” Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies,” and Laurence Rees’ “Auschwitz: A New History.”

I’m drawn to narrative writing, like most humans, and can relate to the authors’ desires to bring some part of history or the unknown world alive to readers. It’s how to integrate that with reporting that makes me freeze up, especially when it comes to what my professor Jacqui Banaszynski calls “telling or revelatory detail.”

I love writing that allows me to infuse my own personality in it, which is why, in large part, I’ve been writing this blog on and off for four years. It’s a way to express myself in writing that isn’t quite as restricted as journalistic articles can be, at least as far as humor and sarcasm are concerned. Journalistic writing can be humorous and amusing and beautiful without compromising it’s elements of accuracy, ethics and public service, but it doesn’t feel nearly as free as writing this blog does. Yet.

In our first class, we focused on the elements of a good story — elements traditional, inverted-pyramid style hard news can lack.

  • Suspense
  • Conflict
  • Rising tension/action
  • Universal themes and relevance
  • Irony
  • Repetition and cadence
  • A sense of timelessness
  • Characters and their relationships
  • Dialog
  • Emotion
  • Telling or revelatory detail
  • Setting and scene, and the plot that happens there
  • A beginning, middle and end.

It’s a long list, and I don’t expect to hit every item. I want to start with the basics: a narrative arc structure (beginning, middle, end), scene, detail and dialog. I tried to do that in my first assignment, a first draft of a personal essay about my connection with reading and writing.

I’ll be posting at least once a week as the semester continues, sharing my work, class insights and discussions and outside materials that relate to what I’m learning or reflecting on. Feel free to chime in at any point!