Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch
More art than science. More craft than vocation. More a calling than a profession.
All these statements are true about our chosen field of journalism. Taken together, they shine a light on the maddening beauty of reporting and writing — the fact that one can become good, even great, at journalism but never master it.
Once a journalist understands perfection is unattainable, and mastery only a mystery, it stands to reason that we should all embark on a career of constant discovery and realize that our education never ends.
This is important for journalists both young and old. The young-uns should heed the advice of elders (and their fellow newbies who are showing promise or trying new techniques), model best practices of more seasoned veterans, and certainly read, read, read the work of others to pilfer practices they use successfully.
However, it is critical also for veterans to keep eyes and ears open to learning new methods and relearning approaches perhaps forgotten.
The best journalists are lifelong learners, and they understand there’s no shame in admitting you don’t know it all, and that there is value in accepting advice given by colleagues at any level, including those younger or less experienced.
Even after nearly 30 years in the business, I am frequently humbled in the best way possible by the realization that I still have a long road to hoe in order to do my best work either in the field or at the keyboard.
I still remember lessons taught years ago by mentors who likely did not even realize they were mentoring. There was the editor who told me that when one wishes for a certain outcome that they have “druthers” and not “rathers” as I had quoted a folksy source. I have never forgotten the moment that Dave Zweifel, an elder statesman editor in Madison, nonchalantly dropped a scrap of paper on my lap with the word “sheriff” written on it. I was 21, and from that day forward, I never again misspelled that word that to this day still looks odd to my eye.
Lately, as I have moved out of the editing chair and back into the role of reporter and writer, I still receive advice and input that helps me sharpen my game. Just the other day, a very seasoned colleague reminded me that “a period is a writer’s best friend.” As I considered his words, I realized that he was right — I was packing too much into some sentences and inadvertently diluting the meaning of passages crammed full of data and ideas that sounded right to me but became garbled when read aloud.
Just as those of us who are more experienced in newsgathering or storytelling should be willing to share our techniques and tactics with the next generation of journalists, we old dogs must also be open to accepting input from those with fresh minds and a better understanding of the reach of new media and information outlets.
The biggest impediments to accepting and absorbing constructive criticism are ego and attitude. More than once as an editor or writing coach I have provided colleagues or students with a tip or a suggestion: don’t over alliterate; rely mainly on verb-subject-object form; use details to add meaning and not distract; capture scenes and characters but don’t lose sight of the news; make the stylebook your friend to add credibility to your work.
I accept rebuff a time or two, as I know it is not always easy to receive advice and I know there were times years ago when I too thought I had the tiger by its tail. However, it won’t be long before I or others who provide constructive criticism give up and go silent. That makes it incumbent on all of us to keep our minds open and receive advice with grace.
In presentations on writing and reporting, I urge reporters to seek knowledge or story ideas from wherever or whomever they can. I tell of the time an ad salesperson alerted me to a new industry coming to town that would employ hundreds and whose arrival generated for me numerous front-page stories. I share with them the time a news assistant told me about white rats that escaped from a pet store, bred like rabbits and then infested her neighborhood (if ever there was a fun front-page reader, that was it!) I remind them of how I learned of a clothesline bandit in a small town after stopping for a soda and chatting up the store clerk.
Whether accepting story ideas or tips on how to improve copy and strengthen stories, we must all keep our eyes, ears and minds open for there is so much to learn and only one lifetime to learn it.
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.