Tag Archives: william ruehlmann

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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William Ruehlmann, journalist and educator, retires from VWC

Dr. William Ruehlmann, a journalist and author who taught at Virginia Wesleyan College for 18 years, gives a wave and a smile. Photo illustration courtesy of Meghan See/The Marlin Chronicle.

Stories do not come to the writer. He must go out and meet them, and when he encounters one he must fasten himself to it like a fat man on a free lunch.

— Dr. William Ruehlmann, Stalking the Feature Story

William Ruehlmann is an educator, a journalist, and the author of two terrific books, Saint With a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye and Stalking the Feature Story. For the past 18 years, he’s been a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, teaching young people how to contribute to the world through writing and reporting. At VWC, he’s been the guiding force behind the award-winning campus newspaper, The Marlin Chronicle, and a longtime national leader in the Society for Collegiate Journalists.

He’s retired from VWC, which is why I am writing this. I was one of the fortunate students who gained practical knowhow, inspiration, and even a much-needed senior year kick in the behind from him. Students saw him off May 6 at the college, in a hospitality suite in which a projector showed picture after picture of an educator surrounded by his students. Naturally, we took more pictures.

I studied U.S. history at VWC after I got out of the Navy, but I spent a fair share of time with the communications students and contributed a few columns to The Chronicle. I remember discussion of reporting, fact-checking, ethics, and structure with Ruehlmann. His trust in students to make decisions when covering difficult topics. And how many of the stories written for his classes – rewritten and sometimes re-reported after his notes (always in green, as it is a less punishing color than the dreaded red pen) – were among the first that got me noticed by The Pilot.

I remember learning from Ruehlmann that writing, perhaps especially journalism, isn’t about the writer, but about the subject and those who will read what you write about it. In Stalking the Feature Story, he wrote:

Some egocentric scribes just can’t seem to prevent themselves from popping in and out of their copy like ‘Tennis anyone?’ types in midcentury melodramas. They interpose themselves between the reader and the subject, setting up a picket fence of I’s across their page.

Stay out of the story unless you affect it in some crucial way. Keep your eye on the material, not the mirror.

He led me to that water, anyway. I’ve tried to be as good as can be about drinking it.

Ruehlmann has a way of making the tough lessons a bit more tender. He is one of the first of many mentors and friends who have helped me learn that writing is something you need to feed in return – with fact, with judgment, and voices other than you own. When you get out of the way, and write at the service of the story, writing fulfills the writer. Better yet, it probably gets read and fulfills the reader.

Writing for Ruehlmann’s old paper, The Pilot, I returned to VWC in 2006 and spent time with The Chronicle staff while they made decisions about their coverage of a great tragedy, the murder of a security guard at the campus. Young journalists, many of them feeling the crime so profoundly, carefully consider each and every word they would publish. The decisions were to be their own decisions, with only the gentlest of guidance from their mentor. I remember a line from their editorial:

We are changed.

This past month, The Chronicle carried the news that Ruehlmann was retiring. The man ain’t done, The Chronicle reported. He’ll travel. He’ll keep writing his book column for The Pilot. He’ll write.

Ruehlmann, asked what he would miss about VWC, told The Chronicle‘s Kaitlyn Dozier:

The students. Unequivocally, absolutely, and entirely. I look around this newsroom, at the hundreds of students I have loved and who’ve loved me back. Yes, I will miss them greatly.

Meghan See, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle, told Dozier:

But he wasn’t just a good professor. He taught more than just classroom material. He showed me how not to be afraid of voicing my opinion, uncovering the truth, and sticking up for something I believe in. I honestly think that without Dr. R, I wouldn’t have uncovered my passion for journalism. I often catch myself thinking, what would Dr. Ruehlmann do?

I had a bit of a smile on May 6, when amid the party I first saw The Chronicle‘s report on Ruehlmann – the story of the heart and soul of that paper ran downpage, below the fold. The staff had led the edition with the new student government officers, a room squeeze, and so forth. You know – the news of the community.

Chances are, Ruehlmann would not agree that he was the heart and soul of The Chronicle. Were this post on paper, he’d probably write a note right here (in green, of course) about how it’s the students who breathe life into their newspaper. He might mention later, in the hall or as we passed on the wide field near the chapel, that the editors of The Chronicle played his story just right.

Ruehlmann taught classes called Advanced Newswriting and Feature Writing and what have you, but what he taught all along were judgment, skepticism, open-mindedness, passion, freedom, and that there is truth, or sometimes truths, that must be discovered and shared.

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