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Archive for the ‘Workshop handouts’ Category

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 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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Journalists learn (or could be learning if we took the time) about new tools almost weekly. As I started writing this Sunday morning, I had already learned about a couple new tools this week: Facebook’s Timeline Movie and Screenr, the screencasting tool I used to record my Facebook Timeline Movie and upload it to YouTube and embed it below.

But some journalism skills are timeless. They were as important when I started my career using a typewriter and fat editing pencils as they are today. And I think they will be important 40 years from now, when today’s journalism students are men and women of middle age, teaching the skills to young journalism students.

I will be leading four workshops today for students at Northern Kentucky University. The first three workshops will deal with issues of digital journalism. For the final workshop, we will deal with timeless skills that should serve them throughout their careers:

Get your facts right

Accuracy will be as fundamental to these students’ careers as it has been to mine. Trust still matters and you build trust by the diligent, unglamorous work of accuracy and verification. As Craig Silverman teaches, a simple checklist helps you ensure the accuracy of your work. (more…)

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Reporters and editors everywhere battle and complain over length of stories. Even online, where newspaper space or tight broadcast schedules aren’t an issue, you need to write tightly to hold the reader’s attention and keep the story moving. You need to hone your ability to organize information and write tight stories that make every word count.

Plan to write tight

Coordinate with your editor. Discuss story ideas in some detail with your editor before you start gathering information. Make sure you agree on the probable scope of the story. This can save time wasted gathering information you don’t need. As you are gathering information and writing the story, you will need at some point to agree on a probable length if you are writing for print. If you delay this discussion too long, you may waste more time and effort and invite more frustration.

Consider the reader. A failing of some long stories is that they are written for sources, rather than for readers. Consider why you are including information in a story. To impress sources with your knowledge? To keep a source happy? Or to inform the reader? A tougher challenge is to decide whether you are writing for the reader with strong interest in the issue or for the reader with average interest. For most stories, you should write primarily for the average reader who would read the story. (more…)

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Grammar matters

Even professional writers have difficulty with some grammar points. Grammar matters in any writing format, including tweets and other social platforms. I won’t try to cover everything here, but I’ll pass along some tricks to help with some of the most common grammar challenges I’ve seen trip up journalists:

Who and whom

A general rule is to use who as the subject of a verb or the person who is doing the action of a verb. Otherwise, use whom. (Same with whoever and whomever). (more…)

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I’ll be leading an #ASNEchat about newsroom training today at 2 p.m. Eastern time, 11 a.m. Pacific.

We’ll discuss a variety of challenges and opportunities in newsroom training during an exciting and volatile time in journalism.

Panelists will be:

Training is a longtime passion of mine. It’s been at least a part-time pursuit since 1997 and it was my full-time job from 2005 to 2008. Many of my blog posts are handouts for my workshops or supplemental resources related to my training. To promote and supplement today’s chat, I have compiled links to my own training resources as well as other links that might be helpful in planning and delivering newsroom training. (more…)

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