Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch
Among all the changes in the news industry, perhaps the most impactful for writers is the dramatic expansion of outlets to obtain information.
The grand old print paper and hard-copy magazines are still clinging to life, but now there is Facebook, MSN and Yahoo, blogs and Twitter feeds, and more than a handful of news channels with even the cheapest cable TV package.
For writers, that puts even more pressure on us to perform. Gone are the days where we could quickly grind out articles, stick to the simplicity of the inverted pyramid, and assume that readers hungry for information would muddle through even the wordiest, stodgiest copy to get their news.
Now, everyone has new, ever-evolving options.
As writers, we must try harder than ever to create compelling content, write with authority, be clear and concise, and hook readers with engaging style and compelling construction.
To aid in that task, here are a few basics to keep reader eyes on your copy.
Use active verbs and precise subjects; avoid adjectives and adverbs.
Nothing slows copy down or zaps prose of its power more than weak word choice and bland descriptions. Remember the adage “Show, don’t tell,” and you’ll be on your way to crisper copy.
Compare: “The sad young man walked slowly out of the courtroom.” Not the worst sentence ever, but it doesn’t exactly conjure up a clear image in the reader’s head bubble. How about this instead? “The 18-year-old, barely a legal voter, trudged out of the historic courtroom toward his new reality, his face drooping and eyes watery as each footstep fell with a thud on the oaken floor.” More powerful, more exact, more attractive to readers.
Use direct quotes sparingly, and only the best.
Direct quotes are critical to effective newswriting, but they should not be a crutch or used as proof that you interviewed someone. Each quote must advance the story by providing a bit of news or insight or deeper clarity. Quotes should not be used to introduce basic facts or figures. They should not be wordy, unclear or overly long. They should not reiterate what was just stated in the story except in rare cases where they provide evidence of truth or confirmation of a newsworthy stance by a significant source.
Instead, they should breathe life into a story, illustrate the character or personality of a source, add humor or sadness to a piece and create an image in the mind of the reader. As an editor, the first thing to cut when trying to shorten a story is a boring quote. Your job is to make sure your quotes are so strong they could never be cut.
Report from the field, not just from the phone.
In recent reporting on concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOS, I visited a large hog farm in South Dakota to meet the farmer and take a tour. I had written about CAFOs before, but now I am positioned in the future to do it right. I know how the animals are housed and treated, how the wastes are processed, the sights and smells (and yes, there are many!) and can now “show” my readers how these operators and their operations function. Going places, meeting people and seeing things for yourself allows for more thorough reporting, a deeper understanding of your topic, and the ability to write with clarity, vigor and authority.
This can play out simply even in meeting coverage or on daily stories. If you’re covering expansion of a landfill, you should drive out there and perhaps take a tour. If you’re covering assessments for repair of crumbling sidewalks, you should walk the sidewalks and witness their condition. When a new business comes to town, go to the store and interview the owner in their element. In the field, don’t forget to be curious, ask questions that make sources reveal unobvious things, watch for key details, record what you see in your notes, and then use those lively images wisely in your writing.
Push yourself – the first draft is never the final draft
The surviving victims of my editing know well this phrase: “Try and fail, try and fail, try and almost succeed, try — and oooh baby!”
Using new reporting and writing techniques will undoubtedly lead to failure at first. That’s when persistence, writing and rewriting, welcoming constructive criticism and collaboration and modeling others’ great material come into play. “More work, more thought,” I used to say to young writers. Reading your material aloud to someone else and asking for their honest opinion is always a good test of success.
Writing with flair, having control over your copy and telling important stories are more important than ever. But it will be worth it when readers begin to seek out your byline as an indicator that excellence awaits.
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.