Classes at the Newhouse School start a week from today, and it’s time to remind ourselves how many lessons surround us every day, with every story and post that we read.
Take, for example, the increased minimum wage issue that’s been in the news. Lots of information. Plenty of opinions.
If you’re following that news, here’s a New York Times story that will enlighten you on how restaurant owners are handling the increased cost of raising the minimum wage at their establishments: “As Minimum Wages Rise, Restaurants Say No to Tips, Yes to Higher Prices” by Patricia Cohen.
Importantly, a key theme is inclusion. Several restaurant owners explain how they are trying to include all workers in the benefits of higher wages. Not just the servers, but the cooks and dishwashers, too.
A telling line from the story:
Like many owners, Ms. (Amanda) Cohen has long wanted to close the yawning earnings gap
between those who prepare the food and those who serve it.
Amanda Cohen owns Dirt Candy, described in the story as “an upscale eatery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.” With a no-tip policy, she charges patrons a 20 percent “administrative fee” and pays servers $25 an hour.
Interestingly, writer Patricia Cohen includes an all-important cosmic element in her story: What’s happening elsewhere? What can we learn here from something happening there? Who else is doing this?
Before we tell you more, take a moment to read Patricia Cohen’s story in full.
And be sure to read through the last paragraph because she also includes another important story element: a strong kicker at the end.
Three elements in a story — attribution, sources and substantiation — give credit in distinct ways. Credit is essential to give you and your work credibility.
- Attribution tells readers where information came from; it makes the story transparent.
- Sources indicate that others — not the reporter — provided information; they make the story credible.
- Substantiation gives support to information in the story; it makes the story strong.
Here are some key questions you can ask yourself about these three elements to ensure they are present in stories you write or edit and that they appear in the appropriate places.
Questions about attribution
Who is telling the news? Is it clear either in the lead paragraph or within the first few paragraphs?
Is there too little attribution? Does attribution appear in one paragraph but not in the next few paragraphs that follow? Paragraph by paragraph, is it clear where information is coming from and who said it?
Is there too much attribution? Is information attributed to the same person in each sentence of the same paragraph? Can that be streamlined by attributing the information once in the paragraph and making clear that the attribution applies to the entire paragraph?
Is attribution in the proper place? With a change in speaker after a quote, is there attribution at the start of the next sentence so a new speaker is properly introduced?
Questions about sources
Are the right sources in the story? Are they commenting on the right things?
Are the sources believable? Are they close enough to the story that they know what they’re talking about? Are they so close that they seem biased?
Are there enough sources? Are there various points of view? Is anyone missing?
Are sources fully and clearly identified? Are experts’ qualifications clear? Are there any anonymous sources in the story — and have the proper editors approved their use? Are the anonymous sources necessary? What other sources could take their place?
Questions about substantiation
Is any information in doubt? If so, why? What will remove that doubt?
Have assertions been verified? Has material from sources been supported with independent information? Or, has it been included unchallenged?
Is the content strong? Paragraph by paragraph, does the story stand up to scrutiny?
What’s missing? Should anything else be included that would make the story complete?
When you ask these questions again and again, story after story, you develop a natural and helpful habit. Your goal is to end up with a strong story that meets not only your expectations but those of your audience as well. If you don’t ask, readers will.
Story ideas come from a number of places, including your own curiosity. An effective way to develop an idea into a story is to ask yourself questions.
But the key is to ask these questions at the start of story planning, not after the story has been written. Here’s a checklist of 10 questions to get you started.
- Who are the people affected? Go for personal stories from ordinary people in the community. Prioritize your interviews.
- How are the people affected or how might they be affected? Seek ways in which a person’s behavior will change or not, how this story will affect a person’s habits or routine, opinions, emotions or attitude.
- Why am I writing this? Find out why this story is important to anyone; you might need to do a bit of research to answer this one. Be able to finish this sentence: This story is important because …
- Who are the bureaucrats? Interview people who have authority, realizing that even students can be bureaucrats if they have a role of authority in an organization.
- What are the key questions to be answered? Ask different questions of different people, remembering that sometimes there are situations when one question should be asked of everyone. Different answers to the same question will establish the kind of conflict that will make the story interesting.
- What research must I do? You must find out some background and understand how this story idea fits into what’s happening locally and elsewhere, whether it is the start of a trend, and whether something happening locally might be an evolution of a story that happened locally in the past.
- Where can I go? Use your five senses to get a feel for people by interviewing them in person — in their homes, their places of business, their favorite places to relax, such as a coffee shop or a park. Stories that have a location allow you and, ultimately, the reader to see things directly.
- What am I missing? Take some time to answer this one. You might need to do more research first. You want to go beyond the obvious questions that already have been answered; identify a person who should be interviewed; uncover an angle not yet recognized.
- How can I be creative? Have fun with this one. Stretch your imagination. Think about the unusual. Look for an interesting twist.
- What is my vision? Take your time and do your research to answer the first nine questions. Then take a personal interest in imagining what your story will look like, how it will begin and how it will end. It all has to do with which people were interviewed and how questions were answered.
Stories rise and fall on the answers to these 10 questions. Sometimes there is no story. That’s the point of having this conversation with yourself — to make a good story better or to move on to another idea if there’s just no story there.
If this process seems tedious, you are right. But it’s essential if you want to end up with a story that is better than good.
If you’re already immersed at an internship or are embarking on a new writing adventure, it seems a good point in time to draw attention to an important part of writing and the story structure: transitions.
Transitions are words that take a reader from paragraph to paragraph,
from topic to topic and from speaker to speaker effortlessly.
The best transitions are subtle.
They amplify words as if a person is speaking into a microphone, not a megaphone.
Some transitions introduce a new idea: “but,” “however,” “although.” They tip off readers that there is an exception or another side of an issue or some type of consequence that is about to be explained.
Other transitions introduce a person, especially when a new speaker follows another speaker in a story. When the quotes of two people appear back to tack, a transition to the second person is necessary. Otherwise, a reader will assume that the first person is still being quoted.
And then there are distracting transitions because they do not add anything to the story. They get in the way. Here are our Top 10:
- In addition / In addition to
- On the contrary
- On the other hand
- Fast forward to
- Considering that
How might you self-assess whether a transition works? You can ask yourself the following questions and consider the effectiveness of the transition:
- Do I understand this sequence of paragraphs?
- Am I confused?
- Does the word structure help or hurt my understanding?
- Could the paragraph stand alone without the transition?
- What is the purpose of the transition?
- Am I drawn to it as an aid or am I distracted by it?
There’s one more thing you can do: Assess how paragraphs are linked. Look for key words or thoughts in the last sentence of a paragraph. Are these followed up in some way — or even repeated — in the first sentence of the next graph? If they are, it’s a good indication that the graphs “fit,” that one logically follows the other.
The best stories don’t have a lot of obvious transitions; they flow smoothly on their own. And you — the writer or the editor — are the one who makes that happen.
If there’s one thing we learn from this interesting post about happy workers, it’s that one size does not fit all.
Not all people.
Not all places.
In her short piece, “If You Want Happy Workers, Stop Treating Them Like Children,” author Aimee Groth takes us through the options for happiness: emotional needs and physical needs.
The bottom line:
Research shows that how we feel about a job absolutely does affect our performance.
But instead of focusing strictly on meeting physical needs/desires through unlimited snacks and beer, free massages, and on-campus gyms, companies should consider motivating employees by making them greater participants in the business.
That brings us to a few tips of our own:
- Be loyal, and you’ll be rewarded. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
- Be an active player, not someone who stands on the sidelines. Empower yourself by sharing ideas and volunteering for projects.
- Be the last person out the door when you’re actually needed. But don’t linger when you should be out there getting on with your life.
Check out Groth’s piece in full and then consider all the ways to motivate yourself. We are the ones who know what approach fits us best. Ultimately, only we can make ourselves happy workers.
- Get your hands dirty
- Find your voice
- Embrace opportunity
- Share passions
- Show your enthusiasm
You really need to read these explanations in full because while they might seem like common sense on the surface, the writer brings a special perspective as an employer. She is founder and CEO of S’well.
The post is all about turning your summer internship into a full-time job. That’s a lofty and yet realistic goal if you know the right things to do.
The headline on the post is an effective one — it got our attention, and it probably got yours, too. Just remember one thing in context about being a “star.”
Stars in the sky can burn out. Rock stars can become has-beens.
So while you are working hard to get that full-time job, don’t focus on your star qualities. Those will get noticed by others as you do what you do best. Instead, focus on the five tips that Kauss shares. They’ll help you shine in ways even you didn’t think possible.