Listening to the voices in your head

Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch


Whether writers realize it or not, we hear voices in our heads.

And often, listening to them is a sensible thing to do and not a symptom of insanity.

I speak not of voices of ghosts or those generated by an overactive psyche.

Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch

Rather, they are the voices of respected editors, colleagues, friends and family members whose opinions we value highly and whose input we can draw upon without being in their presence or sharing a single spoken word.

Listening to those internal voices almost always improves your reporting, writing, storytelling and general performance on the job. I am hopeful that in 30 years of reporting and editing I have touched a few journalists in ways that help them be more effective in their work.

I know for sure that my voice still resonates with at least one former colleague, even if only in a mostly humorous way.

About 18 months ago, I embarked on research on nonprofit news organizations to prepare for a job interview for South Dakota News Watch, the nonprofit, public-service news service that eventually hired me. I decided to call Halle Stockton, the managing editor of PublicSource, a nonprofit in Pennsylvania, whom I had edited when we were both in Florida. Halle is a rising star in journalism and I was fortunate to work with her.

After we spoke for an hour or so, she mentioned that to this day, more than seven years since we worked together, she still thinks of a phrase I often repeated to encourage reporters to be efficient in their daily duties to create more time to focus on the craft of journalism. I called it being high on the “Sh!#-togetherness Scale,” a made-up measure of functioning at a high level. I laughed when she shared how she still occasionally recalls that phrase, but I also felt a small tinge of pride that I made an impact on her work habits all those years ago.

For myself, the voice I hear most often is that of my wife, Dawn, a highly intelligent, critical thinker who carries a wide-open view of the world and all its problems, peculiarities and possibilities. When writing a long piece, I think to myself: “What would Dawn want to know next?” It helps me keep the piece popping along with facts.

I also think often of her father, Miles, a voracious consumer of news who was a teacher but is a farmer at heart. As a reader, Miles feeds on context — how news/life/trends/problems in one state or region compare to another. His voice prompts me to pursue sources from other states or regions or groups of people in order to provide that comparison and contrast.

Another prominent voice is that of Jim Stasiowski, a learned retired journalist who is a skilled wordsmith, though he may chafe at such a haughty title. “Staz” is a stickler for style, word usage, grammar and clarity of meaning. I was lucky enough to spend the last two years of Staz’s career working closely with him at the daily paper in Rapid City, S.D. Thinking of him reminds me to read over my pieces one more time to seek ways to tighten copy, sharpen word usage or follow style guidelines.

When it comes to being fair and accurate in South Dakota, a number of voices chime in to encourage me to be careful when referencing the Rushmore State. My editor, Maricarrol Kueter, and a former reporting colleague, Seth Tupper, are both longtime, knowledgeable South Dakotans who speak to me when I address topics that relate to the state. I know that one misstep about state geography, place names, locations, directions, history or well-known figures would damage my own credibility but potentially, in a tangential way, theirs as well.

Voices from deep in my past also sometimes ring out. I still recall an editor who told me to always say what is, rather than what isn’t. I think of an editor who warned me off my tendency to bury the news beneath long narrative wind-ups. When a piece sometimes falls short of expectations, I cut myself some slack by remembering an editor who insisted that imperfect stories still have value, at least to some readers out there. I sometimes channel my very first editor who told me adjectives and adverbs were for lazy writers who were unwilling to seek out colorful subjects and active verbs.

I’m sure we’ve all heard that we should write with readers in mind. Of course, that is true. Still, there’s nothing wrong with listening to the voices from our past that remind us to avoid bad habits and do great work.

I encourage all writers, and editors as well, to consider whose voice they hear when they prepare for an interview or sit down to write, and listen once again to their good advice. Rather than a cacophony, those voices can form a chorus of helpful wisdom that each of us can heed throughout the long journey of our career.

Bart Pfankuch is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch, online at sdnewswatch.org. Write to him at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.