Subscribe to RSS - Tricks of the trade

The hazards of irrelevant drama

Writer at typewriter

Lisa Cron uses an example from fiction to show what happens when writers add inapt drama to a story: "Because while, sure, in the real world anything can happen (especially these days), in a story, that is decidedly not true. A story revolves around one single external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, so throwing in random 'dramatic' events cripples it, breaking the cause-and-effect momentum, and making the reader wonder, 'Huh, what the heck does that mean?'"

How to seek and destroy useless words

Pile of word magnets

Jane Friedman publishes excerpts from Keys to Great Writing, a book by Stephen Wilbers, who offers tips on how to find and remove unnecessary words from your writing. Wilbers writes: "The more frequently we hear and read certain word combinations, the more acceptable they begin to sound and the more likely we are to use them unthinkingly — not because they are the best, most natural, and concise way to say what we have to say, but simply because they sound familiar."

Roadblocks to mental illness reporting

Psychiatric hospital files

Liza Gross writes about the reporting behind her story on the risks facing workers at California state psychiatric hospitals, including her struggles to collect data and do interviews: "State facilities don’t allow reporters on the wards to interview staff or patients, outside of official tours. One psychiatrist likened the situation to North Korea. And getting access to documents, records and statistics to answer this question proved difficult."

Drawing a character in black and white

Black-and-white portrait of a man

Therese Walsh uses an interview clip with the actor who played the sadistic Captain Hadley in Shawshank Redemption as a starting point to discuss how some characters are symbols rather than fully formed, sympathetic beings: "Interesting thoughts, no? Narrative as memory play, skewed purposefully to one side because the point-of-view character thinks about another character in black-and-white terms, therefore that character can be portrayed as black and white."

A journalist's guide to accounting

EDGAR screenshot

David Trilling provides a walkthrough on corporate financial documents available through EDGAR, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission's repository of documentation on publicly traded companies: "They are a reliable source for news stories, and not just on the business beat. Understanding a company’s books helps you know which questions to ask about a company’s operations and business dealings, allowing you to look beyond the press releases."

The art of waiting for the story


Sometimes, Jane C. Hu writes, a story just isn't ready to be written yet, despite a lot of reporting: "It can take months for writers to gather story elements and wrangle them into a compelling narrative. On top of that, writers may hit other speed bumps, like waiting for a key research paper to be published, for a main character of a story to agree to an interview, or for a news peg to appear." Hu surveys writers for advice on how to recognize and overcome the gaps.

The power of ignorance in reporting

Road signs with question marks

After three decades at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mark Bowden teaches at the University of Delaware and advises students to ask "appropriately ignorant" questions: "I try to pass this lesson along to my students. Don’t be afraid to ask a stupid question, I tell them. If you don’t understand it, your readers won’t either. Besides, an early reporting lesson is that experts are not offended by such basic questions. Most people love to explain themselves and their work."

Wisdom from the Longform podcast

Microphone and laptop

Joe Freeman has gleaned five pieces of advice from writers interviewed on the Longform podcast, even though he admits it took him a while to become a fan: "The more I listened, the more I realized that the show, started in 2012 on the website and produced in collaboration with the Atavist, was a veritable goldmine of information. It’s almost as if the top baseball players in the country sat down every week and casually explained how to hit home runs."

Using data safely in journalism

CPU pins

Catherine Sheffo talks to Sean Mussenden of the Capital News Service and collects 10 tips for using data in reporting: "The first few hours of most data projects should involve cleaning up the data to make sure it’s usable, Mussenden said. He recommends running spreadsheets through an Internet-based, open-source tool such as OpenRefine to weed out any small discrepancies within fields (e.g. ATT and AT&T in an employer field)." Also, the dangers of data blinders.

Are impact factors worth considering?

Stack of journals

Tara Haelle interviews Ivan Oransky on the value, and lack of value, in using a journal's "impact factor" in weighing whether to cover a scientific paper. Oransky's advice is to be careful: "I think of impact factors, when used in a limited way, as one among many criteria by which to judge a given paper. I’d stress that it should never be used alone, and that a roster of sources to bounce studies off is much better in the long term than an impact factor assessment."