A Man’s Journalistic Writing Advice

Barry Newman started working for the Wall Street Journal when Nixon was president. His book News to Me recounts what he learned over five decades of reporting. Each lesson is coupled with a feature story to showcase the observation or technique. (Newman likes to write stories about people doing unusual – even inhuman – jobs: the men who search for the US-Canada border, people who decode bad handwriting on envelopes, the guy who blasts sewer fat-bergs.)

Though I’ve never done a feature story like the ones Newman writes, I found much of value in this book. Here’s a list of tricks I learned:

Where to get ideas:

  • Look for lonely causes, solo workers, individuals driven by an unusual passion. When you see the press, head in the other direction. Reporters crowded the US-Mexico border to research immigration, so Newman went the other way and did a story about the five guys in charge of the five-thousand-mile US-Canada border.
  • Look for things that make you go “huh?” Cock your head and take another look. Why is the cold tap on the right side of the sink? Why are the titles on the spine of books oriented one way in English and the other way in French?
  • Follow family connections. Your uncle has a friend whose wife is involved with a badminton league? Chase that down.
  • Look out the window. One of the great gifts given to writers is a penchant for looking at the world upside-down. Maybe you’ve passed the same weird sign in your car every day but never bothered to stop and ask the question: “What is a Christian Science Reading Room, anyway?” My apartment complex got a new roof a few weeks back. The whole roofing crew spoke Spanish. Do Mexicans have a monopoly on roofing and construction in Birmingham?
  • One idea will lead to another. A feature writer never has room for everything. Details are dropped that may crop up in the next story.
  • Ask questions without obvious answers. If the reader can guess what the answer will be, you’re asking the wrong question. Bad: Do Multinational Corporations Create Jobs in the Third World? Good: How does that pimento get in the martini olive? Why don’t Seattleites use umbrellas? Where do pounds bury the animals they euthanize?
  • If you know the topic or the direction, start taking notes and gathering clips. When the deadline approaches, you have a backlog to draw from. It reminds me of the strategy (popularized by Ryan Holiday) of gathering materials in folders (or on notecards) that you may have an opportunity to use “someday.”
  • Everything has been written before. There are no new ideas. Newman’s response: Who cares? You can’t do it first, so do it best. Also, don’t stop at the wisecracks. Go deeper. There’s always a story there.
  • Stories are about things that happen to things. Don’t write encyclopedia entries. Write about what happens.

Reporting:

  • I’ve heard many writers and reporters and workers of all stripes say that the kids need to learn to leave their desks and get out in the world. Newman agrees. He often leaves the office to hunt down a story before he even knows what the story will look like. He tells his editors he’s leaving and that he’ll let them know when he gets back whether he found a story. (Such freedom would be nice, wouldn’t it?)
  • On the other hand, a proposal can be a cool cloth to a sweating editor’s brow. Newman’s advice is to do enough research to justify the trip, but don’t write the story till you get back. (He has a good example of a proposal on page 91. It has all the information one could glean from the phone or the internet, but no scenes, word-pictures, or live quotes.)
  • Gather string. Take time. One tidbit may take years to merge with another and create a story. Quite a lot of a writer’s time is spent waiting and taking notes (physical and mental). Observation is work.
  • To circumvent PR reps, go to lesser competitors, yesterday’s heroes, and unrecognized experts. Thanks to Amazon’s PR, Newman couldn’t talk to IMDb about cinematic goof-ups, but its “pipsqueak rival,” Movie Mistakes, was only too happy to chat.
  • Accidents take effort. Be in the right place and wait for the right time. This ties in with a key tenet of reporting: why now? You might have all sorts of ideas to write about (I know I do), but you need an angle. Newman calls it a vehicle that your story can ride. It’s some specific person, situation, or place that metonymizes an entire cultural trend. (That said, remember the specific. More on that further down.)
  • Every story needs pictures. Not photos, necessarily, but word-pictures. When you read Newman’s stories, you notice that almost every one of them starts and ends with a description of a person doing something. You get a picture in your mind right away. Short story writers, make a note.
  • When doing street interviews, find people who stay put. Don’t chase them down, notebook in hand. Approach folks at park benches, stadia, bars, parking lots, hotel lobbies, movie lines, bus stops. Also, find people who want to talk. Don’t ask Joe Briefcase about fracking. Ask the protestors at an anti-fracking march. Ask people in line for the natural history museum about their views on cloning mammoths.
  • In interviews, people always say what they think you want to hear. The best stuff comes when they think the interview’s over. Find dialogue and you will find a scene.
  • Find talkative, unimportant people who feel ignored and have lots of time. Find people who work or live parallel to the rich and famous. And don’t make them out to be emblematic of a group, even if they are members of that group. They are themselves, and that’s what makes them interesting. Avoid pickle barrels. Find the one and only.
  • Find contrasts. An old journalism adage says, “Get the other side.” When you pair up the opposition, both sides show their colors a little more.

Some great practical advice:

  • Newman’s notebook is a National 1 Subject, Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease (R) Paper, 80 sheets. He has over 700 of them lined up on shelves in his office. Their chief assets are they lay flat and have a hard back cover that provides a portable writing surface. He uses a BIC (R) Cristal Easy Glide Bold 1.6mm, unless the temperature’s below-zero, in which case he carries a pencil and a sharpener.
  • Plan ahead. Bring cash. Don’t waste time. Your objectives are efficiency and security.
  • Get a great lede, or your reader will move on. Put your best stuff up front, even if it’s not the main point of the story. (Yet another lesson for short story writers.) Take a look at this opener: “Before he pulled the trigger, before the car chase, before the cops ran him down and threw him in jail, Jim Stevenson had a calm look at the Texas penal code, and judged that it would permit radical measures in defense of a piping plover.” Don’t you want to read that story?
  • Find a nut, a kernel, a peg. Somehow, you have to convince an editor that your story needs to run now. Relevance often feels forced, but hunting for the right nut can strength your reporting. It doesn’t have to be political at all. It just has to tie your story to the here and now. The nut is not the story, either, so Newman likes to end his nut-graf on a note of expectation, not finality, so that the reader won’t bow out early. The challenge is to stick with the formula (lede, nut, quote, to-be-sure, history, etc.), but weave a storyline through it from beginning to end, so the reader keeps reading.
  • Indexing – a great idea. Newman indexes all his interview notes, research, books, clippings, press releases, academic studies, and scribbles, then groups them according to topic. Related ideas and observations coalesce into paragraphs. No stone is unturned. The process of going through each note line by line reveals the shape of the story and unearths connections that were invisible before.
  • Last, keep it short. The secret, Newman says, to short writing is long reporting. Know your stuff so you can leave it out.