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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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