Tag Archives: feature writing

Twelve journalism truths by William Ruehlmann

William Ruehlmann retired this year after 18 years teaching journalism and communications at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va., and I recently wrote about his work here.

Ruehlmann is the author of Saint With a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye, The Feature Story Strikes Back (written for the Society for Collegiate Journalists), and Stalking the Feature Story. The latter is a terrific book about writing and reporting for a newspaper. It has a keen eye toward finding and executing the stories that become great features. It has a spot of honor on my office bookshelf.

I’m not the only fan. A fellow VWC alum recently noted that upon arriving at an internship, an editor handed her a copy of the book. And a reader left a neat comment and a question in the comments of my last post. Addressing Ruehlmann, David Wilson wrote:

Stalking the Feature Story is a book that gripped me way back in 1981, when I was a journalism major at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. After all these years, I keep it on my shelf as one of my favorites on writing. It is definitely among the best. I have a doctorate in educational leadership and work as one of the assistant principals at Jefferson City High School in Jefferson City, Mo. One of the duties I enjoy the most is writing and editing staff newsletters. Your work has helped me tremendously and is much appreciated. Any chance you will be writing another book on journalism?

I put the question to Dr. R. His reply:

(I) appreciate your friend’s approval of Stalking, but no other journalism books planned, though writing will go on in various venues.

You can track down copies of Stalking the Feature Story through sites such as Amazon and Bookfinder, among others. I highly recommend it for those in the business of newspapering or simply writing better stories of any kind. It’s useful. Great read, too.

I recently revisited Stalking the Feature Story, as I have from time to time, and pulled out some cool lines Ruehlmann wrote that are as great and true as anything you’ll find in any other book on writing. These quotes are just a hint of the great professor I was lucky enough to have at VWC.

1. On inspiration:

Read everything. Observe everything. Become earth’s well-travelled eavesdropper. The stories aren’t scarse – they’re too plentiful.

2. On hard work:

The engine started daily runs the most reliably.

3. On reading pretty much everything as research:

That is to say, from now on you are never off duty. Your mind never runs on automatic pilot. In everything you see and read, you are subtly digging.

4. On keeping your eyes open:

What’s worth seeing on the way to work? Simply everything. A world is waiting for those with the eyes to see it; the writer knows that the miraculous happens routinely, the extraordinary is commonplace. … All of this is material. It’s around you, too. You are no longer a pedestrian – you are a witness.

5. On the difference between a writer and a reporter:

If you remain merely a writer – that is, one more consistently at home in the library than on the street – you are not going to get the kinds of stories that matter in this business. You must take the native curiosity of the scholar out into the field and approach the pauper and politico with equal persistence. There will be those who won’t want to talk to you. You’re going to have to go through them to get the story.

6. On accuracy for and honesty with the reader:

If you like to improve on reality and dress up quotes to make a better story, perhaps you’d better get back to that Gothic romance you were thinking of writing.

7. On healthy skepticism:

Trust nobody.

The copy you turn out is your best testimony to the truth, so you have to be very careful what you believe. Even if your sources are honest – and some of them won’t be – they have a way of getting matters mixed up. You’re going to need corroboration to protect yourself not so much from mendacity as from human error.

Legend are the eyewitnesses at the scene of any situation. One will tell you the mugger was a fat man in an Afro who left in an emerald green sedan; another will insist he was a skinny bald guy who escaped on foot. Both are absolutely convinced they are right. Chances are fair the mugger was a woman who took off in a taxi. This is the kind of thing that keeps detectives and reporters amused.

8. On focused, but still expressive writing:

Albert Einstein once explained his theory of relativity to someone on a moving train by asking, “When does the next town get here?”

If it can’t be stated clearly and simply, an idea is not profound. It is merely uninformed.

9. On showing rather than telling:

A writer is a performer who must never ask for the reader’s emotion. He or she must earn it.

10. On economy:

Delete excess.

11. On starting strong:

(W)riting an effective story is like facing a mean drunk twice your size. You’d better get in the first punch, and it had better be a damned good one, or he’ll chew you up. And he won’t even remember in the morning.

12. On finishing strong:

If you want to maximize the force of your piece, the knockout must come at the end.

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Writing Craft, Vol. I: Mike D’Orso’s “The Project and the Park”

Mike D’Orso and I had a little fun the other day regarding his new book, written with the actor and activist Ted Danson.

I also asked via email about the craft of feature journalism writing. His answers are reflected in this post.

Among his writings, some of my favorites include sports journalism stories from Pumping Granite. A big favorite is “The Project and the Park,” the story of an evening at Tidewater Gardens, the housing project near Harbor Park in Norfolk, Va. Harbor Park was new when the story was penned for The Virginian-Pilot.

Here’s the lede, which instantly establishes two settings, the distance between them, and a main character:

It was an hour-and-a-half before game time at Harbor Park. The bleachers were empty, the grounds crew had yet to chalk the foul lines, but Catherine Newby was already settled into her seat – behind third base, beyond the left field parking lot, across ten lanes of interstate highway.

She’s 63, and has lived in the neighborhood for decades. Mike shows her appreciation for the park – the sound of music from the stadium, the lights in the sky. It’s a lesson in great reporting – not only going to a place and reporting through interviews and observation, though Mike is expert in such things, but also doing the research that allows telling detail within a narrative:

It is not a hopeful place. Nine out of every ten families living in its brick row buildings are headed by a single woman. Nearly half those households have an annual income of less than five thousand dollars. Ninety-seven percent of them are black.

None of which means a thing to Catherine. All she knows is this is her home. Those are her gardenias and petunias planted at the edge of her small concrete stoop. Those are her three metal folding chairs set up outside the screen door of her apartment. And that new stadium, its light towers looming above the traffic whooshing past on Tidewater Drive, is Catherine’s pleasure.

People from the neighborhood recall the story of opening night, as seen from there. There are scenes effectively, but it’s basically the narrative of the visit, interspersed with the game. The difference is a reporter with the ability to listen for great, telling quotes like this one:

‘Oh, what an evening!’ said Catherine. ‘You could hear the mayor, and Father Green, and the Star Spangled Banner. We all stood up and put our hands on our hearts when they played that. We sure did.’

Of course, not everybody is so thrilled, and the story ends with some real tension, and then also a gentle image seems to strike the right note while still being beautiful. I won’t spoil it, since you surely will go buy the book now. Anyways, I asked Mike a few craft questions about that story via e-mail. They follow.

Q: How did you find that story? Was that story assigned or hunted down?

Harbor Park was about to finally open, after months and months of construction, accompanied by dozens of stories about every aspect of the park, right down to how the hot dogs and buns would be shipped to the stadium.

It occurred to me, as I exited off I-264 one day, right by the ballpark, that this stadium literally cast a shadow over the housing project on the other side of the interstate – Tidewater Gardens. I thought about the fact that these people had watched this behemoth grow right before their eyes, and that it was a symbol of the monstrous class-and-economic divide that exists in America today between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ I doubted that many residents in Tidewater Gardens could afford a season ticket – or even the cost of a single game (including the exorbitant cost of concessions at a ballgame). In other words, though these people lived closer to this stadium than anyone, it may as well be a universe away.

Frankly, it also angered me that whenever The Pilot did a story involving a community like this, the reporters always interviewed and quoted the ‘usual suspects’ – a couple of community leaders and local politicians who always ‘spoke for the people,’ rather than approaching and allowing some of the people to speak for themselves. This was certainly the case in the one or two stories The Pilot had done in the previous months concerning the neighborhoods near Harbor Park – including Tidewater Gardens.

So I got Lawrence Jackson, a brilliant photographer with The Pilot at the time (and now an official White House photographer), to join me, and we simply went over to Tidewater Gardens on the night of a home game and roamed the neighborhood from about 5 p.m. (a couple of hours before game time), all the way till the final out was made, at about 9:30 or so.

We just played it by ear, chatting with people we happened upon, talking with them about their feelings concerning the ballpark, and always, inevitably, having the conversation expand into their feelings about their lives in general and about their community.

One point I hoped the story would make, although this wasn’t a stated or intended agenda, was to show that this community and so many like it – which are so often reduced to the broad, sweeping, and negative stereotypes that accompany terms such as “inner-city,” “public housing,” and “project” – is not filled with just crime, violence and poverty, but is also home to people and families, who have the same values, wants and needs as people in any other community … people who care about their neighbors, who take care of one another because so much care is needed and so little is provided, and who, yes, would love to be able to have a seat in that stadium over there and take in a ballgame. If they can’t do that, Lawrence and I found, some of them do the next best thing, pulling a chair outside the front door of their rowhouse, tuning the radio to the ballgame, and enjoying the evening like any other fan, some even standing for the national anthem, just like the people under the lights over there, across the highway. Just normal, ‘good’ people, making the best they can of their lives – that’s what that story boiled down to.

Q: How did you begin reporting it? Did you research the neighborhood or just drive out there?

I always like to do as much research as I can before going out for the actual ‘reporting.’ This gives me some understanding of particular issues, an idea of some issues I might want to explore, and it also gives me a few nuggets of fact that I can sprinkle throughout the narrative – not so many that they bog down the story to the point where it reads like a government study, but enough to illuminate a particular scene.

That old writers’ saw about ‘show, don’t tell,” should actually be “show AND tell,” in just the right proportion.

Q: You use numbers very quickly and very effectively in the story, to make a sort of point that quickly is humanized by shifting back to the people in the narrative. At what point did you gather your statistics on the neighborhood?

As I said, I gather a good amount of statistics before I go out and report. Then, when I come back,  I’ll almost always find myself looking up a specific fact or statistic I didn’t have before, prompted by something seen or said while I was out ‘in the field.’

Q: Why did you think this was an important story to tell?

I think I answered this earlier.

Q: What was the editing process on this story?

Very little, if any.

Q: Did it change from the first draft?

Very little, if any.

Q: Did you outline? Why?

I always outline before I write. I believe it’s always necessary to have some kind of map to follow. Nothing rigid. I ‘outline’ much like a filmmaker ‘storyboards’ his movie. That’s how I arrange and prepare a story prior to writing. I think in terms of scenes, very much like a filmmaker. Once I’ve arranged my ‘scenes,’ I then take my raw material – research, ‘field’ notes, etc. – and distribute it among the scenes, putting this quote or factoid in this scene, and that quote or factoid in that one, and so on. Then I begin to write, always with the flexibility that the scenes might be reshaped, rearranged, or restructured as I go along.

Again, you can learn more about Mike’s writing and books here. And this is the link for his new book with Ted Danson.

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