Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch
We all know what they say about riding a bike, but I always wondered if the same holds true for writing.
Over the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to find out.
After spending the past 12 of my 28 years as a journalist in the editing chair, I’m adjusting to a new gig in which I’ve returned exclusively to reporting and writing.
Here is my long story short. I’m a Wisconsin native who reported at newspapers in Madison and Eau Claire, Wis., then in Jacksonville and Tallahassee, Florida. I edited two lifestyles magazines before serving as city editor in Sarasota, Florida. In 2012, I became editor of the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota. I left there last fall and in January, I took a job as investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch, a new non-profit, public-service journalism news service.
So that’s me in a nutshell — other than being a decent golfer and barbecue cook who is married to a drama publisher and who owns three dogs, a cat, a guinea pig, a chinchilla and a talking Amazon parrot.
One constant in my career has been my devotion to developing, honing and sharing my skill set as a reporter, writer and editor. While I cannot fully stand in the shoes of Jim Stasiowski or match his bounty of facial hair, I will note that I launched my first writing-coach program at the Jacksonville paper in 1998 and have presented at several newspaper conferences around the country. I have some coaching chops, so no need to worry that the only reason Staz “hired” me as his replacement for this column is because I can hold my liquor and possess a mean wedge on the golf course. Staz, by all reports, is fully enjoying his retirement — visiting friends across the West, sunbathing in Maui with his wife, Sharon, and playing golf poorly a few times a week.
I must admit that despite decades of newspaper experience, this new reporting job has me occasionally shaking in my loafers and facing some tough questions.
Can the editor write, and not just edit? Can the teacher do, and not just teach? Can I rediscover my voice among the cacophony of other writers whose thousands of words I have edited?
The answers — while true but certainly unsatisfying — are yes and no.
Using techniques honed over years of practice — methods I will share regularly in this monthly column — I feel I have been able to write with some coherence and clarity. My stories so far have a defined beginning, middle and end. They contain a few strong, telling details and interesting characters. I believe they make sense.
To accomplish those basic goals, I engaged a few of my tried-and-true methods. First and utmost, I did extensive research before I approached a source so I could confirm the essentials and spend more energy discovering the unknown, the story behind the story. I thought deeply about how to move a story forward and then developed a reporting strategy to generate fodder for great writing.
This approach worked well on my first assignment. I traveled to Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota to do a scene-setter on a fire that burned 54,000 acres in and around the park a month earlier. After a clip check, I settled on a “tick-tock” approach in which principal players in a dramatic event retell the story in a minute-by-minute fashion. It allows a writer to get in their heads and forces them to reflect on what they did, why and how it felt. I hoped it would be a fresh approach to a month-old news event.
The key to success was letting all the sources know of my plan in advance and cluing them in on specifically what I hoped to accomplish. A very helpful public affairs officer then arranged a table-top interview with the three key players, who she prepped by sharing my tick-tock strategy days in advance.
Once I arrived, the sources were off and running. At times, they shared how they had double checked facts in the days prior so they wouldn’t misspeak. They had thought through what the firefight was like and were prepared to share with me in fine detail what they did and when. After a 90-minute interview (which I taped for accuracy) and a drive with them through the fire zone, I had my tick-tock.
As I approached a keyboard and blank screen, it was clear my planning paid off. The structure was chronological, and the tension of the fire was abundant. I’m pretty happy with the piece, which begins with a dramatic cliffhanger. Perhaps most importantly, my editor and wife both liked it.
Still, I know I’m not in form just yet. I am conversational but wordy. I telegraph transitions and routinely break comma rules. My attributions are at times clunky. I was guilty of notebook dumping on an investigative piece about railroad safety.
As a writer, I am on an excursion of rediscovery. My hope is to provide a monthly column that writers and editors will enjoy but also find useful in honing their craft. We’re on this journey together, and I think it will be quite a ride.
Bart Pfankuch, a Menasha, Wis., native, is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. During his time in Wisconsin, Pfankuch had stints at the Fitchburg Star, The (Madison) Capital Times and the (Eau Claire) Leader-Telegram. Before joining News Watch, he served as editor of the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal.