Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Coaching the active voice

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Question: How do I get one of my writers to use the active voice?

First, know that “voice” is really the absence of all affectation, conscious “style” or tricks. Voice is not ornamentation or trying to sound official or expert. In news writing, that is often expressed in “journalese,” a convoluted parallel prose style based on bureaucratic-speak and passive voice.

At it’s most basic, the active voice means the SUBJECT of the sentence does something to the OBJECT, and that expression of doing is the VERB. The passive voice, in sentence construction, is where the OBJECT is having something done to it by the SUBJECT, with the VERB transformed in many cases. Active voice usually involves fewer words, another benefit.

Bob threw the ball to Sue. (Active)
Sue had the ball thrown to her by Bob. (Passive)

So working with a writer to use the active voice means training them to see what is happening in a sentence, to understand who / what is doing what to who / what, to see how energy is transferred from one thing to another. And then to express that directly — actively.

Budget reductions were voted on by the school board. (Passive)
The school board voted on budget reductions. (Active)

Drivers face stiff penalties for broken headlights under a new state
law. (Passive)
A new state law imposes stiff penalties on drivers with broken
headlights. (Active)

People naturally speak in the active voice as they tell stories. People tend to comprehend and retain information better when expressed in the active voice.

The passive voice can also be a function of overly long compound sentences. So another tactic in working with a writer toward a more active voice is to impose a 20-word or so limit on sentence length. This forces or encourages a writer to keep one idea per sentence clearly in focus. This makes it easier to see the “active” exchange of action or energy in a sentence.

Seniors were angry that the local utility’s new tax would add more than 15% to their monthly electric bills, and vowed to have the board removed from office by taking their grievances to court. (Passive)

The local utility’s new tax adds 15% to monthly electric bills. The added cost angered seniors. They plan to take their grievances to court to have the utility board removed. (Active)

Coaching a writer to consistently revise for specific issues (e.g. sentence length; active versus passive voice), is more than fixing a single story; it shows them how to transform their writing. The key is revision, not first drafts.

Show writers some of their chronic bad habits, a list of 3-5 things. Ask that they set aside the time to revise a first draft on these specific issues. When you copy edit their work, the list then gives you and the writer a clear metric for success. This also enables the editor to highlight chronic writing the issues story to story, and not treat edit as an isolated incident. Gradually, raise the bar, add new things to the list. Over time an editor can help a writer become a better self-editor and gain more control over their material.

There are a number of good books on writing that cover active voice and other basic issues that can provide fodder for a solid revision / self-editing list. Among them:

The Magic and Craft of Media Writing, Carl Sessions Stepp

A Writer’s Coach, Jack Hart

On Writing Well, William Zinsser

I always recommend writers and editors read George Orwell’s immortal essay on writing, “Politics and the English Language,” for specifics and inspiration.

Amid many great passages in that essay, Orwell’s list of rules for clear writing:

– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


Written by mroberts8

05/15/2011 at 12:02 am

Posted in Q&A, Writing

Resources for data visualization skills

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Data visualization — the presentation of data in visual form — is becoming a bigger and bigger part of top online news sites. Tools and resources for those who want to improve their skills are also growing. Mindy McAdams offer a nice post with 10 she recommends, with a bonus link to a Quora discussion on the difference between data visualization and information graphics.

Cool recent example: a gravity map of the earth on

Previously: Google’s free data visualization tool.


Written by mroberts8

04/03/2011 at 5:44 pm

Building a news brand with social media

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Mandy Jenkins was a social media editor at until the hyper local news site decided to uninvent itself after only nine months and laid off the talent. Now she’s moving on to the Huffington Post. But on her way out, Mandy shared strategies for creating a strong news brand via Facebook and Twitter, and how news organizations can facilitate strong audience interaction with social media.

Both pieces are found on Mandy’s highly readable blog, Zombie Journalism.

Written by mroberts8

04/01/2011 at 2:54 am

Crafting a narrative account of the Deepwater Horizon explosion

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Nieman Storyboard continues its highlight list of “Notable Narratives” with the New York Times account of the April 20, 2010 explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and set off the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As part of the “Notable Narrative” treatment, reporter David Barstow, who wrote the story, explains how the story took shape, the internal mechanics of working with other reporters on narrative, and the story’s structure.

One excerpt from Barstow’s excellent discussion:

“Handling the complexity of the technology, along with the number of different characters on this rig that in and of itself is a foreign place for most readers, this was the narrative challenge. How do you structure the piece so that you create a sense of pace and narrative and keep people going through this experience and put them as much as possible in the shoes of some of the people on this rig during this couple-hour period of time? The way I tried to deal with that was keeping the focus relentlessly on the one day and on this one 9-minute period of time. That was the frame that helped anchor the piece.”

Written by mroberts8

03/21/2011 at 5:00 pm

Long form narrative critiques available

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A group of editors and writers versed in long-form narrative writing have formed a panel at the Nieman Storyboard to offer critiques and instruction on narrative pieces. Their first critique went up today, on The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy, the Time magazine piece by David Von Drehle that followed the shooting of  Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson.

Given there are eight on the panel, the amount of feedback can be overwhelming. One feels for the writer and editor behind the package. On the other hand, myriad points of view allow for some triangulation, which can be a good thing when dealing with nuances of art. Points repeated or seconded as the critique unfolds may be the place to start for readers looking for clear steps in their own work.

Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer must have felt the same way about the group’s first effort when it came to volume. She added this final note, responding to a point raised by panel member Jacqui Banaszynski:

Pondering the Roundtable approach, Jacqui Banaszynski notes that there are pluses and minuses to so many editors putting their fingerprints on a story. This kind of scrutiny is always a little unfair, as it can never take into account all the time and reporting pressures that happen in real life or the demands incumbent on a given newspaper or magazine. Our hope, however, is that seeing each editor’s take will help readers think about how stories work and ways to make them as good as possible.

Nieman Storyboard is part of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard’s growing online arm, and is devoted to the art of storytelling in all mediums.




Written by mroberts8

02/01/2011 at 6:39 pm

Data visualization as “story”

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There are a lot of discussions about how best to present data effectively on a newspaper web site. One of the most intriguing of late, mentioned by Mindy McAdams in her Teaching Online Journalism blog, is this academic study from Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer at Stanford University, titled, “Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data.”

Segel and Heer set out to:

“…further our understanding of narrative visualization by analyzing and contrasting examples of visualizations with a story-telling component.We then generalize from these examples to identify salient design dimensions. In the process, we hope to clarify how narrative visualization differs from other storytelling forms, and how these differences introduce both opportunities and pitfalls for its narrative potential.”

Through a variety of good examples and their own analysis, one of their conclusions is the value of making data interactive, even in the context of a larger story. Let the story unfold, they say, but provide opportunities for readers to stop and work with the data.

“Generalizing across our examples, data stories appear to be most effective when they have constrained interaction at various checkpoints within a narrative, allowing the user to explore the data without veering too far from the intended narrative.”

One implication for multimedia story forms and training reporters and editors to plan them more effectively is to factor into a storyboard not only the right data to include, but how to make that data accessible and interactive in a way that does not interrupt the story.

Here is one example, a playful way to compare economic indicators among a set of cities that puts complex data in chart form for easy reference. It’s from a series on key economic indicators and what they say about the future of the Phoenix economy. The interactive chart was created using Adobe Flex.

Written by mroberts8

01/22/2011 at 1:04 pm

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

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Once your have your themes, main character,  timeline and story frame, it’s time to start writing. When attempting a “narrative” of any kind, the old advice about writing to show, not tell, becomes crucial. For most people, especially journalists used to writing hard news, this is usually impossible in a first draft. Much of the attention to show versus tell will come in revisions. So a skill to cultivate in storytelling is the ability to see those places where the writer has blurred the timeline or digested events and is sharing conclusions rather than a scene.

A primary goal in storytelling is to elicit feelings in a reader. This is done by providing stimulation that the reader processes and which give rise to feelings. If the writer (and thus the story) does that processing ahead of time, and delivers conclusions rather than stimulation, the reader is left out of the process. The piece becomes a recitation of information, like a regular news story. The viseral power of a well told story is lost.

Here is a short example I like to use in training programs, from a series by Sue MacDonald called “Christopher’s cancer,” published years ago in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was the story of a young boy’s fight against cancer. Here are two versions of the same short passage, the first draft followed by the revision:

Grit and determination remained with Chris to the end. On April 5 – just 13 days before he died – he donned a tuxedo and stood during his sister’s 40-minute wedding ceremony, refusing several times to obey Barry’s hand motions to sit in a wheelchair strategically placed behind him.

“Shanna asked me to be in her wedding, and I wasn’t going to mess things up for my sister on her wedding day,” he said afterward.


On April 5 – two weeks before he died – Chris donned a tuxedo for his sister’s wedding. With slow, awkward steps, he escorted his mom, Debbie, down the aisle to her seat. He stood during the entire 40-minute ceremony. Watching from his pew, Barry signaled several times to his son to sit in the wheelchair an usher had placed behind him. Chris refused.

“Shanna asked me to be in her wedding,” he said later, “and I wasn’t going to mess things up for my sister on her wedding day.”

This brief passage illustrates a couple things.

Chronology is essential. Let events — the stimulation — unfold in a natural sequence, even down to individual sentence construction. Let the stimulation (sights, sounds, quotes) fall into place so the reader sees the moment take shape. And avoid inserting conclusions or summaries.

In this example, removing the opening sentence of summary (“Grit and determination remained with Chris to the end.”) opens up a blank canvas for the reader. After reading what happened, a reader might also feel things like grit or determination. But there may be other qualities or sensations tripped by the scene, based on the reader’s experience and perspective. Don’t limit the response. This moment of stimulus and response is at the heart of great storytelling. The art is in setting up the experience for the reader.

And one technique that supports that effort is letting chronology rule. By letting the moments come in order — “Chris donned a tuxedo for his sister’s wedding. With slow, awkward steps, he escorted his mom, Debbie, down the aisle to her seat. He stood during the entire 40-minute ceremony. Watching from his pew, Barry signaled several times to his son to sit in the wheelchair an usher had placed behind him. Chris refused.” — the reader is given a better chance to “see” or feel the raw material of the event and then feel a response.

Another helpful technique is to stick with short, declarative sentences much of the time. That makes it easier not to slip into the passive voice, or bend the timeline and interrupt the flow of stimulation building up in the reader’s mind.

Attention to writing that shows versus tells is a large part of a successful story.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling3: Pick a main character

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a chronology

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

Written by mroberts8

01/21/2011 at 6:26 pm