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Few techniques helped me more when I was a reporter than when I learned the value of writing as I reported. It challenged my discipline, but when I succeeded at incorporating writing into my reporting process, I found that it improved both processes.

With today’s digital formats, many journalists have to write as they report: liveblogging events, covering breaking news stories as they unfold, reporting routine beat news or even investigative stories over time as you nail down important developments.

But this was one of my most popular and effective workshops back when I was doing lots of writing and reporting workshops. And I think lots of reporters still cling to the old linear process of reporting first, then writing, when breaking stories don’t force them to write as they report. I think learning the value of writing when you report, even if it’s not a breaking story, will help improve your writing and reporting, as well as helping you succeed in situations where digital formats demand better integration of your different work processes.

So I offer this old workshop handout, not much updated except for this intro, because I think it might still have value.An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I often paired this, either in the same workshop or in companion workshops, with my teaching about Using Story Elements. The process of writing as I reported and the mentality of thinking in terms of story elements were critical to whatever success I achieved as a reporter.

I addressed both the process and the use of story elements in telling how I wrote the homecoming and twins stories, two of the best narrative efforts of my career. (more…)

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This is an updated writing workshop handout from one of the workshops I first presented in the 1990s, about using story elements. An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I didn’t add a lot of digital tips to this one, but I updated the reference to my age by more than a decade.

I used to like teaching this workshop in combination with Writing as You Report. The combination of my storytelling process and using story elements drove much of whatever success I enjoyed as a reporter.

Think beyond the 5 W’s

Don’t limit your inquiry, or your thinking, to the basic questions of journalism: Who, what, when, where, why, how. Think in terms of story elements: setting, character, plot, conflict, climax, resolution, action, dialogue, theme.

Elements shape reporting

The story elements shape not only your writing but your reporting. For instance, you can answer “who” with a name and some basic details, perhaps age, hometown, occupation: Steve Buttry, 60, an LSU journalism professor. However, if you’re developing a character, you seek and find considerably more: Air Force brat, preacher’s kid, Yankee fan, cancer patient (and survivor), unpublished novelist, father, grandfather, husband, former editor, former reporter, lousy athlete, Eagle Scout, writing coach, itinerant journalist, game creator, wise guy.

“When” may be a place on the map, “where” a point on the calendar or clock. Setting is a place and time where the writer transports the reader. Setting demands description. It evokes the senses. It demands relationship in time and place to surrounding places and to the events that came before and/or after.

Plot is not a set of events, but a series of events, each flowing from the one before and leading to the next.

Conflict demands resolution, or explanation of the pursuit of resolution or the inability to resolve.

Elements shape lead

Story elements may help you write your lead. Which is the most important element for this story? Perhaps that should be the focus of your lead. What is the climax? Perhaps that’s where you should open the story.

Does the intersection of two elements (a character in a setting, the setting of a climax) bring the reader immediately to the point of a story? Then establish both immediately, link them clearly and develop them simultaneously. Is one element secondary to another but still essential? Then introduce the secondary element but keep its development clearly secondary, so you don’t shift or confuse the focus.

Use dialogue, not just quotes

If a quote just gives the reader information, perhaps you should do that in your own words. Use quotes if a character is speaking as a character, telling her own story, giving his opinion, showing emotion, using colorful or distinct language.

Too many journalists confuse quotes with color. Colorful quotes provide color, but quotation marks don’t make information more colorful and don’t turn a dull sentence bright. Paraphrase when you’re giving information or when you can say something better than the person you’re quoting.

Use dialogue, though, to give voice to your characters, to bring a scene alive to your reader.

Video, audio and official transcripts can be effective tools for capturing dialogue and bringing the characters’ actual voices to your stories.

Where recordings or transcripts aren’t available, ask people to reconstruct dialogue for you. “What did you say then? How did she respond?”

Consider non-human characters

Sometimes in a news, feature or issue story, you can make a character of something other than a person. In a medical story, a disease might be the primary character. In a religion story, a church might be a character. When you treat an institution or something intangible or inanimate as a character, you develop it more fully. You are more conscious of the actions of the character, of conflicts with actual people or other institutions or objects.

Consider mythical characters

You can create a mythical “average” character to bring statistics to life. A mythical average person of a certain demographic can allow you to discuss statistics in terms of what is likely to happen, or not happen, in the person’s life.

If you can find someone who is almost or exactly average, you can use the real character to bring life to demographics and statistics.

Gather detail on setting

As you are reporting, you do not know whether setting will be the key element or an important secondary element. So gather information as though it will be. Go to the crime scene or the disaster scene. Interview the character in her environment: home, workplace, school, church, place of leisure or recreation (hopefully more than one).

When you can, a moving interview is effective: start out in the workplace, go out to eat, ride home in the character’s vehicle, ask him to show you the house and the yard.

Video and photos can be important tools for helping place the reader/viewer in the setting.

Learn plot details

If plot may be important, make sure you know the sequence of events. Ask characters to show you who was where when critical events happened. Have them walk you through the events if possible. Seek documentation that may clarify or verify what happened and when and who was present. Watch any videos that may be available.

Look for contradictions and inconsistencies in people’s accounts and see if you can resolve them. They may not mean anyone is lying, but may indicate the different ways people perceived an event, or they may show how confusing it was.

Decide how long your story should be

The success of some news sites specializing in long reads and the phenomenon of binge-video-watching demonstrate that people will stay with a story that’s well told. Decide whether your story justifies binge-watching or reading, and use story elements to hold your readers/viewers’ attention.

But many times, either the nature of the story or your editors’ expectations or limits of print space or broadcast time will require you to work quickly in establishing story elements. You may not have time or space to develop all the elements. After you’ve gathered all this information, identify the most important elements, the most compelling characters, the key moments, the most telling details. You may develop one character fully but have only a few words to establish minor characters.

Watch how quickly a good television commercial establishes a character or setting, or how quickly it resolves a conflict. Read my post on learning narrative techniques from songwriters.

Other writing workshop handouts

Make routine stories special

Strong from the start: advice for writing leads

Getting personal: Learning and telling life’s most intimate stories

Make Your Story Sing:  Learn from songwriters how to tell stories in just a few words

Finding and developing story ideas

Organizing a complex story

Make every word count: Tips for polishing and tightening copy

Grammar matters

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I led a workshop Wednesday on presentation skills for board members of the American Copy Editors Society.

Many of the workshop’s tips are reflected in my 2010 post on preparing and delivering workshops and presentations.

These were slides for the workshop:

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I am leading some workshops for the Southern Regional Press Institute at Savannah State University today. 

I participated in a panel discussion on “Ethics, Urgency and Accuracy” this morning.

Here are some links relating to ethics, urgency and accuracy (I made some of the points you’ll see in these links).

How to verify information from tweets: Check it out

Suggestions for new guiding principles for the journalist

My version of Craig Silverman’s accuracy checklist

The Verification Handbook is now available

I led a morning workshop on using Twitter to cover breaking news. In addition to the links above, this workshop covered information from these workshops:

Denver Post staffers’ #theatershooting coverage demonstrates Twitter breaking news techniques

You don’t tip competitors on Twitter; you beat them

Twitter is an essential reporting tool

Here are my slides for that workshop (I developed them knowing we weren’t likely to cover all the topics. We covered the first three and skipped to verification):

I developed these slides to use in either the panel discussion or the breaking-news workshop. I ended up using them to wrap up the breaking-news workshop:

I also will lead an afternoon workshop on showcasing your work and your skills in a digital portfolio. This workshop is based primarily on this blog post:

Use digital tools to showcase your career and your work

The workshop also will cover points made in some of these posts:

Your digital profile tells people a lot

Randi Shaffer shows a reason to use Twitter: It can help land your first job

Elevate your journalism career

Tips on landing your next job in digital journalism

Job-hunting advice for journalists selling skills in the digital market

Here are my slides for that workshop:

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I’m leading workshops today on doing better stories. In two 90-minute workshops, we’re going to cover a lot of ground at the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association Symposium in Calgary.

The workshop will cover material in these blog posts:

Finding and developing story ideas

Suggestions for livetweeting

You don’t tip competitors on Twitter, you beat them

Tips on verifying facts and ensuring accuracy

My version of Craig Silverman’s accuracy checklist

How to verify information from tweets: Check it out

Organizing a complex story

Make Your Story Sing:  Learn from songwriters how to tell stories in just a few words

Strong from the start: advice for writing leads

Make every word count: Tips for polishing and tightening copy

I’ll discuss these stories:

The Homecoming

The Farragut Admiralettes

Roy Wenzl’s “mystery child” story

The rescue of the twins

Here are my slides for the workshop:

I’m going to use some songs and a video clip to make some points. Here they are (this will be more helpful for the people in the workshop; if you weren’t there, they might not all make sense):

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I’m in Regina, Saskatchewan, today to lead a social media workshop for the Saskatchewan Media Guild.

I’m delighted to be working with my old friend Don Gibb, Canada’s leading writing coach. We tag-teamed four regional workshops for the Canadian Association of Newspaper Editors starting about a decade ago, but I think the last time we worked together was 2006 or 2007.

While I won’t be talking only about Twitter today, the most helpful links accompanying today’s workshop are from my #twutorial series.

Here are the slides I’ll be using in today’s workshop.

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I have spent most of this week at the Marin Independent Journal, working with new Editor Robert Sterling and his staff. Here are links and slides for some of the workshops I’ve led (the slides are from earlier workshops on the same topics and might have been updated or edited some for this workshop):

Links on social media:

Facebook engagement

Livetweeting

Liveblogging

Liveblogging sports

Twitter search

Using Twitter on breaking news

Other Twitter tips

Writing tight

Writing leads

Attribution and linking

Beat blogging

Telling the Truth and Nothing But

Slides on engagement and social media:

(more…)

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