‘Pick three things and just keep working on them, keep reinforcing them.’
Think of each of your reporter/writers as a one-year investment. Match the assignment to the writer, but stretch it each time. Give them things to work on. But the key is to identify what you want them to work on so they’re not working on everything at once or they’re not working on one thing this week and another the next and another the next. Sit down and assess where you think that writer can go and pick no more than three things, in any given year, to have them really work on. And keep finding assignments that reinforce those.
If your reporter really needs to learn how to interview, keep finding assignments that reinforce that. If she needs to learn how to do narrative description in little moments, teach that reporter that moment by moment, paragraph by paragraph, story by story. They’re becoming Rick Bragg because, guess what, he didn’t pop out of the womb able to do this stuff any more than I did. It was a story by story, brick by brick process.
Pick three things and just keep working on them, keep reinforcing them.
Second trick: Give them edit memos where you reinforce that. You say, “Here’s what you did well. Now, here’s three things I want you to work on when you do a rewrite.” Or “The next time you do a piece, I want you to pay attention to these three things.” Be very specific. Anywhere from the depth of your interviewing skills: “Ask five more questions after every interview.” Or things like, “You use too many intransitive verbs and here’s how it slows down your copy.”
Last little trick, I call this the Magic Marker trick. I love this. It really works. Every month, grab your reporter/writer, your “young baby,” and have them print out maybe five pieces of their work. Take a Magic Marker, pick one thing, one thing only—pick verbs, pick dependent clauses, pick “-ly” adverbs, pick metaphors, pick description, pick attribution, only one thing at a time, and go through their hard copy with that Magic Marker and in each of their pieces underline every time they do that. What they will get is a visual road map of their patterned strengths and their patterned weaknesses. And then when they sit down at the computer they’ll see that pink Magic Marker blinking in their face every time they write an intransitive verb or a weak transition. But do it piece by piece. Don’t take it on all at once. And very specific stuff.
Don’t forget the skills of a reporter, because we’re all storytellers. When I was a reporter out in the field, my job was to find people who were doing something, who were interesting, and it was to get them to tell me a story, to turn them into a storyteller—that’s what narrative journalism is. I turned people into storytellers when they didn’t know they were one, and I turned around and I wrote their story.
As an editor, your job is to interview writers and get the story out of them, turn them into storytellers. Writers get lost in all of the mass of information they know, and it’s all equally important and every source they talk to is very important and they’re very committed to it all. Your job is not to say to them, “When’s your story going to be in? How long is it going to be? What’s the structure? Do you have pictures?” but to say, “Tell me a story. What happened? What was the most interesting thing? Did you like the person? Why did you like them?” Re-interview your writers and turn them back into storytellers and then give them overt permission to go write that story. Then write down what you did and stick it on your terminal. That’s very helpful.
‘If the reporter feels like he stubbed his toe, then believe me the reader has, too.’
The best tip I think in getting a reporter to better organize his story is just say, “Okay, you can use as much color and imagery and detail as you want as long as it’s going somewhere. What does it illustrate?” Hold them to this standard. “Write as much, as effectively, and as poignantly as you want, but it has to say something. It has to be leading me along.” If the reporter feels like he stubbed his toe, then believe me the reader has, too.
What is this story really about?
I learned this lesson because of the way this editor taught me. A guy I worked with in Providence was forever asking, “What’s this thing about?” The instance that comes to mind is this story about a seven-year-old blind boy. “Go out to do a story about him. He’s in public school. He rides a bike. And, you know, he’s got a very normal life, which has been very calculated on the part of his parents.”
I turned in the story, and this editor came up to my desk and said, “Have you spent an entire day with this kid?” Of course I was very defensive and said, “Well, jeez, I mean, did you see the pictures? Where do you think I’ve been? School with him one day and I went to camp and I had dinner with his family and interviewed his parents.”
“No, no. Have you spent an entire day with him?” And I said “Well, no.” And he said, “Well, what is it about? What is it really about?” I didn’t know what to say. And he said, “You know, what is it like to be seven years old and blind? What does that mean? What is your life like?” And then he said, “What’s the first thing you do when you have a baby? What’s the first thing?”
And I didn’t have any children then, and I didn’t know, but it turns out he was right. He said, “We count the fingers and toes.” That’s the first thing you do when you see this newborn. Before the baby’s born, you’re begging, pleading, beseeching, “Make my baby healthy and happy and normal.” So for them, this is an incredible nightmare.
But, he says, “The question is, what do you do about it?” And then he said, “Now get your ass back there. Get there before the kid wakes up and stay until he goes to bed, and let’s do it again.” And for me, that was a pivotal moment because I realized that I had to decide what the story was about, then support it with evidence.
There probably should be another person saying to all of us “It’s about the reporting.” Because that’s what narrative comes from. It comes from being there and watching and being bored and waiting for something to happen. That reporting can be governed by critical thinking. You are almost roaming around your story like one of those auto-focus cameras, the lens going in and out. So that’s the way an editor helped me, by forcing me to confront what the story was about. Then, in a sense, everything that story became grew out of that exercise in critical thinking.
‘If it sounds bad when it’s read out loud, it’s bad. No exceptions.’
Editors who have helped me with voice have done just a very simple thing. They’ve told me to read my stories out loud and hear what they sound like. That’s all it is. If it sounds bad when it’s read out loud, it’s bad. No exceptions. Hear what it sounds like.
I do this all the time now to my writers. And writers who have a problem with voice, I get fairly aggressive about it. If they’re not reading their stuff out loud, I’ll read it to them or even have a conversation with them, try to talk to them in the voice of their story. Say something like, “Hey, Jack, did you hear about the midnight rampage that broke the stillness of our affluent neighborhood? I hear that club-wielding police rushed to the scene and subdued a roving band of youths.”
If the writer has any chance at all of learning anything in this business, he goes, “Please, give me my story back and let me do something about that.” It’s very simple.
“More Tips for Editors”
– Jack Hart and Richard Read‘You can’t really build a story that just keeps rolling out in front of you without any interruption.’
One of the tricks in terms of being an editor is that if there is a lot of material in the course of a big, sprawling documentary project, break it into chapters. Doesn’t matter how long the chapter is—it can be six minutes long, it can be 15 minutes long. Break it into chapters or acts. Acts work wonderfully, by the way. Classic Shakespearean five acts works really well.
Give each chapter a title and know what that title means, and then cut that piece to make it work and then move on. Otherwise, you can’t really build a story that just keeps rolling out in front of you without any interruption. It needs natural pauses and dramaturgy.
We think in terms of drama and we think in terms of acts all the time. When we’re sitting around looking at the material you’ve brought back, we sit down and do the boxes. I have this habit of making boxes with little arrows that join them, and each box has to have its idea in it.