Archive for the ‘Writing like a pro’ Category

Chronicles of a first time crime reporter

January 12, 2008

My past reporting experience had me covering pretty, little feature stories about tonsillectomies and ear surgeries.

Then, I arrived at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute.

I asked for breaking news and I got an assignment. What I didn’t expect was a full immersion experience in cops and court reporting. After five minutes of feeling intimidated, I got over it.

On the first day of the murder, I had to talk to police and gather as much information as I could about Tucson’s first homicide victim of 2008. When I talked to my editor, Diego Ribadeneira, he asked me if I knew the motive, the suspects or the weapon used.

I responded with silence.

I talked to the victim’s family about their son who loved lasagna, hated washing dishes and had a “Colgate smile” that went from ear to ear. I made a point to get little details, just like Diego advised. “Get the details,” he said. “Even if you don’t use them.”

Then I ran around the courthouse trying to find documents that told me about the suspects’ criminal record.

The next day, I pulled a Nancy Drew and went to the suspects’ homes to find out who these guys were. I knocked on doors and went back to the courthouse to find out more information. I never knew that I could learn about someone’s childhood, relationship status or goals from court documents.

But you can.

After mining my way through swamps of information, I found a golden nugget. A friend of the victim’s told me that the suspect arrested had a suspicious Myspace page that described his gang life.

The Institute’s Director Don Hecker and I boiled all of my documents and notes one by one. He taught me how to piece together a compelling story that hadn’t been reported by other news outlets. In the past few days, I never felt like I was going to fail because I had the support from my peers and editors. I thought I was good at covering health issues, but I know I will be an even better crime reporter.

— Tracie Morales

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Spelling it out for you: Clichés and the English language

January 11, 2008

One great piece of advice to all writers in general: use your imagination. This is particularly important if you are wet behind the ears and covering a new beat. Sounds simple enough, right? Writing is one of those creative professions. You know, the ones where you are free to express yourself, explore your feelings, and be really … deep.

But wait. I’m putting the cart before the horse.

In one of our introductory sessions on interviewing techniques, Russell Contreras, reporter and Web editor for The Boston Globe, gave us some advice that had an enormous impact on me. In fact, in terms of journalistic advice, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. And believe me, we eat a lot of sliced bread at this institute.

It went something like this:

Russ: You know when you’re interviewing someone, particularly for a disaster story, and you ask him to describe the scene and they say, “It looked like a war zone”? Say, “Oh, really. Have you ever been to a war zone”? And if they haven’t, what they say next to explain what they meant, or to describe it in other words, is where you get your best quote. If they say yes, ask them to tell you about it. Again, you get a better description and a better quote.

A light bulb went off in our heads.

And I’ve been eliminating clichés from my vocabulary and stories every since.

His basic point was to stop being lazy. It’s a lot easier to describe something using common expressions or overly used phrases than it is to actually use your vocabulary and come up with something original.

So, on to the business at hand. How do you improve your writing and use your words more effectively?

Here’s a simple suggestion, from Russ: Read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” For your convenience, and for those who have certainly not read it, here are a few rules Orwell shares toward the end:

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

And I would add, speak in layman’s terms. Sometimes using simple language is better than describing it in a “roundabout way.”

But remember, this is journalism — it’s a craft, not an exact science. So sometimes (very rarely) you may have to break the rules. After all, some things are cliché for a reason.

Orwell’s essay is actually a really good one and will undoubtedly improve your writing. Maybe not immediately, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take my advice. I guarantee it’s as good as gold.

— Arcynta Ali Childs