Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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

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

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

Interview skills: Share the destination with your subjects

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Lisa Mullins, chief anchor and senior producer for Public Radio International’s “The World,” recently talked about interview tactics and skills with Andre Pizer for the Nieman Storyboard. Mullins had a lot of good tips to share. But the best was about how to begin, how to give your interview subject a sense of where you wanted to go. Mullins explained:

“I tell them ahead of time what I might want. If we’re on deadline, and the person we’re going to be talking to is what we call a kind of ‘normal person,’ maybe part of a couple in Dublin who is talking to us about how the seismic financial cuts are affecting them personally, they may be reluctant, they may be shy, they may be reticent to reveal too much. If I say, ‘What I’d like to leave the audience with is an idea of what your life is like right now,’ then they will start telling me the information I need in the form of a story.”

That is one of those simple but rarely done parts of a great interview. Too many reporters feel they have to lead a subject down a path. Instead, engage the person in leading you down the path by taking the time before you begin to sketch where you would like to go, what you hope to write about, and, perhaps, how their story will likely affect readers. That also means a reporter, and hopefully their editor, have talked about the focus of the story ahead of time to make the most of each interview.

And this is not just great advice for broadcast or video pieces, but print as well.




Written by mroberts8

01/03/2011 at 9:30 pm

Art of the profile

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This New York Times Magazine piece on Mikhail Prokhorov is a great example of centering a major profile on the defining characteristic(s) of the subject, and not just dragging the reader through a resume history. The young Russian billionaire is the new owner of the New Jersey Nets. The opening scene sets up the notion of Prokhorov’s ability to adjust and adapt, framed in the context of a specific martial arts skill. That becomes the thread as his story unfolds and his colorful personality arrives in New York and the world of professional sports. There is still lots of personal history in the piece, but animated with this key to his character. Some very nice writing as well.

Written by mroberts8

11/04/2010 at 3:34 pm

Posted in Editing, Writing

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a choronology

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Comes the time to sit down and begin your story. First develop an outline that, in most cases, lays out the chronology of events. Once the timeline you’ve reported is complete, the question is what part of that timeline will be your story.

Consider the simple diagram below as your completed outline timeline. Each vertical hash mark represents an important moment or development in the story.

But that does not mean your piece needs to cover the entire timeline. So the next step is to settle on the point or meaning of the story you want to tell, and then identify which part of the timeline contains the material that will tell that story most effectively.

In the second diagram below, the yellow portion represents that portion of the total timeline that will be used to tell the story. Events that come before the yellow section become “exposition,” or material that may need to be woven into the story to help explain how events developed. Events that fall after the yellow portion are likely irrelevant, or may be briefly mentioned in touches of foreshadowing.

They key is to be clear in your mind about the story you want to tell — in terms of events and meaning — and then be disciplined about focus. Selecting a portion of the total timeline to focus on also allows for greater detail and variations in pace. And in addition to weaving exposition (earlier events) into the story, the occasional use of flashbacks can bring important moments into play in the flow of the partial chronology you’ve selected.

Next you will divide the highlighted chronology into sections. Using classic story structure, consider the three-act model wherein the first block introduces the main character and the conflict or complication, the second block shares how the main character works to resolve the problem, and the third block conveys the resolution.

With that basic story structure in place, go through your notes to determine what material goes where, including dialogue, description, exposition, etc. Jon Franklin, in his book, Writing for Story, recommends using file cards, with one card per scene or key moment. Note on the card what happens, the telling details, and the meaning of this specific event. How does it advance the story? What does it reveal? Lay the cards out in a line, like a storyboard, and try to see and feel the story as that sequence of events conveys. Franklin calls this “chronology with meaning.”

Determine if the meaning is the one you wanted to convey to readers. Are there scenes or moments that blur the meaning, take readers off on an unnecessary digression? Or is there a missing piece, either within the time frame you’ve selected, or an element of exposition needed to shore up a gap? This is how you preview the story you want readers to see and feel.

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

05/07/2010 at 5:45 pm