Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch
When I returned to full-time reporting and writing three months ago, I had to skip the warm-up period.
As the lone writer for a new non-profit, public-service news service, my task was to immediately develop enterprise material of statewide interest in South Dakota.
It hasn’t been easy, but with the help of a great editor, and reliance on some tried-and-true tactics developed earlier in my career, I have pulled it off (I hope!)
One of those methods is worth sharing with writers who are advancing toward more complicated topics or who have long struggled with in-depth pieces.
Let’s call it the “Mini Story Method” and dovetail that with the “Logic Pattern.” The technique is essentially this: a complicated topic is broken down into smaller, more manageable ideas or issues; each smaller topic becomes its own mini story with its own lead, nut graph and evidentiary material; the sections are arranged logically and connected through transitions; and the piece starts with a short summary section or abstract of the entire issue.
One beauty of this method is that it drives both the reporting and writing of a story. Of course, you always need a strong lead and whether it is anecdotal or hard news, it must be compelling. In fact, each section should begin with a relevant anecdote, the introduction of a new character, the setting of a scene or with new facts that jumpstart the reader’s interest each time the story takes a new turn.
The sections can be written in any order because they can always be reordered later. By tweaking kickers and reworking transitions, the sections can be moved up or down as you or your editor see fit.
To get the right order, create a Logic Pattern. Write down each key topic or idea in a few words on a white board or sheet of paper. Then think about how those concepts could flow out in a sensible manner. Chronology, logic, relevance, context and timeliness are factors. Order and write the sections, tie them together with transitions and voila – a complicated story is broken down into meaningful chunks. At that point, you can combine two into one, reorder them or even move one up to become the lead.
Remember that each section must have a catchy, compelling lead; a clear, thoughtful nut graph; and new data, voices and facts to illustrate and illuminate the issue.
Here’s the lead of a story I wrote long ago on a rural Florida county that endured the closure of a huge paper company and chemical plant, and then was dinged by new federal rules threatening its logging industry. After first working the phones, I made a daylong trip to the county to gather insight and information.
HOSFORD — A man pulled into the Chevron Station in Hosford the other day, pumped $2 in gas and paid the clerk with four 50-cent rolls of pennies.
“It’s ’cause I’m broke,” said the man with a gray-haired ponytail, who said he is a truck driver. “I’m unemployed and that’s all I’ve got.”
As he drove off, the man lifted a Busch beer can from the console of his car and took a long pull. It was 10:45 a.m. on a Wednesday.
Mornings can be tough for some residents of Liberty County, a sparsely populated Panhandle county that is suffering through a long-term economic crisis and appears to have little immediate hope that things will improve.
That first 10-inch section briefly summarized the entire situation with facts, figures and forlorn statements from locals and officials. Then, the piece broke into three more 15-inch sections: why logging was ending; how the depression had hurt real people and especially the schools; and what the future held.
Here is the top to the section on economic impacts. While out reporting, I couldn’t resist stopping at a school festival, which provided this gem:
RABBITS AND SQUIRRELS
Liberty County School Superintendent Hal Summers dug his hands into a tub of skinned rabbits and squirrels last month and dropped some into a pile of flour for frying.
Summers had skinned hundreds of the critters to prepare an old-fashioned Panhandle meal for the district’s annual Heritage Day Celebration at its elementary/middle school in Hosford. The event included butter making and candle dipping and seemed the epitome of rural pride, highlighting how success comes to those who can live off their will and skill.
But the modern reality in Liberty County doesn’t hold such promise. And the school system is increasingly unable to help children work their way into successful adulthood.
Now, consider how this anecdote midway into the story re-energized the piece for readers, but also how in a pinch it could have worked as the lead for the entire piece. That flexibility is another strength of this technique.
This method will surely take a period of trial and error, but it’s worth the effort to provide readers with a thorough, thoughtful way to understand a complicated topic. Now, get out of the office and go report from the field!
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.