Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, Newhouse School, Syracuse University. Editing for print and digital, new media journalism.

Seeing is believing — show, don’t tell

By · Friday, July 25th, 2014 · Comments Off

Three elements in stories keep the audience interested and prevent a story from becoming just a recitation of statements and quotes.

  1. Anecdotes
  2. Examples
  3. Details

How you use these in stories will make a difference in the end. More important, however, is capturing them in the first place. It takes time and patience and lots of follow questions.

Consider that a reporter plans to write a profile about full-time college students who also work full-time jobs to pay for tuition. How could the reporter show the story, not merely tell it? Following is a suggested process to elicit details, examples and anecdotes.

Details. During interviews, ask follow questions to get rich detail. If the student works and studies “long hours,” how many hours a day is that? What time does the student wake up? Go to sleep? How many of those hours are spent working? Studying? And where does the student study — in the library, in the residence hall, on a bus? What is the student’s job? What does it entail? Is it physical work? Does the student get a break? For how long? What does the student do during the break?

Result: Answers to these questions will provide details that show the long hours spent working and studying.

Examples. After these details are in hand, probe further to elicit examples. Ask about a typical day. Account for every hour of the student’s schedule at work, at school and at home. You might hear a great example such as the following one.

There was one day last week when the student slept for only 90 minutes in the student lounge after classes ended and before the job began, and another 90 minutes after the eight-hour shift ended. Getting by on those three hours of sleep, the student freshened up in a restroom, put on a clean shirt, grabbed a muffin and coffee, and crammed in some studying before a test.

Now ask more for more details, which will provide color and description for that example — a kind of cascading effect. Where was the restroom? Exactly what did the student do to freshen up and how often does this happen? Where was the clean shirt and what kind of shirt was it? What color? Was it in good shape or was it wrinkled? What kind of muffin? Where did the student eat it? How many minutes or hours did the student study for the test? And in what subject was the test?

Result: You can show the story by utilizing memories from personal interviews — what you saw, heard, experienced or asked.

Anecdotes. These are like little scenes — vignettes — in a movie, and they involve readers in the story.

Result: Good anecdotes support the story’s vivid details and examples. A classic anecdote for the story about the sleep-deprived student would be a vignette about … 

… the time the student fell asleep in the front row of a lecture hall, forehead touching the tabletop, quietly snoring in front of 83 fellow students and the professor, whose voice gradually lowered to a whisper in mid-sentence until — wham! — the professor yelled out the student’s name and asked the student a question. Startled, the student’s head sprang back, and a cup of coffee spilled.

How would you even get this anecdote? By asking. This means asking question after question, seeking detail after detail, and using every piece of information that will show, not tell. Everyday people usually are not in the habit of talking in specifics; they tend to share general information until a reporter asks. Three key questions will get you started on capturing those specifics.

Put yourself in the place of the audience. Ask yourself: What would I want to know about this person? Can I visualize this person’s busy life? Keep asking questions until you can see it.

New ‘Storyline’ tells it like it is

By · Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 · Comments Off

The Washington Post just announced the start of a new storytelling site: Storyline. Jim Tankersley, editor of Storyline, explains.

Today we launch a new destination on Washingtonpost.com, dedicated to the power of stories to help us understand complicated, critical things. We’re focused on public policy, but not on Washington process. We care about policy as experienced by people across America. About the problems in people’s lives that demand a shift from government policymakers and about the way policies from Washington are shifting how people live.

Any storyteller should be excited about what this site promises:

Stories are fundamental to communication, and journalists are trained storytellers. In an evolving profession, journalists are learning to tell stories in different ways, on multiple platforms. The constant is why they do it — to enlighten, entertain and engage.

These themes also are paramount to an evolving audience — people who want more and expect more, who want it now, who want it their way.

Let’s watch and experience what it’s all about as The Washington Post gets started.

A tip from actor James Garner — RIP

By · Sunday, July 20th, 2014 · Comments Off

Sometimes profound insight is found in the most unexpected places. This short piece of advice comes from James Garner, as reported in USA TODAY’S obituary of the actor, who died July 19 at age 86.

“I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor,” Garner once said. “His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn’t [or] looks for the easy way out. I don’t think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.”

It seems that this sage advice could apply to so many aspects of a person’s professional life — and certainly could be the essence of a journalist’s credo.

Simple. Direct. Practical. Selfless. Think about it.

A checklist for jet crash coverage

By · Friday, July 18th, 2014 · Comments Off

With the tragic news of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine, here are some tips for covering breaking news of this kind as more details are uncovered and stories are updated — by the minute, hour, day, week and beyond. Keep track of and check the following in every story.

Sometimes news organizations will report conflicting information. As appropriate, include that information in coverage and explain the reason for the discrepancy. Breaking news is fluid. Knowing what you don’t know — and why — and explaining that to your audience is just as important as being accurate with the kinds of details that won’t change.

Sources are important, too. As you gather information and report it, be sure to include where you obtained the details and from whom. This helps you to be transparent with your audience, and it also protects your credibility.

 

Lots of lessons from fake shark video

By · Thursday, July 17th, 2014 · Comments Off

Another hoax. Surprise, surprise.

How many people published, posted, shared, liked, tweeted, retweeted and commented on the YouTube video of a shark sighting in Lake Ontario — without a bit of skepticism?

Hooray for those who at least suspected it was a hoax.

Even more important, how many people were genuinely concerned? Here’s a sense from a story published on syracuse.com that asked its audience: “A Hoax or the Real Deal?”

“I think a lot of people aren’t sure if it’s a true story or not,” she said. “But it’s got a lot of parents being wary.” 

About a week after the shark story broke, cable channel Discovery Canada announced yesterday that it was all part of a promotion for its upcoming Shark Week programming in August.

Fake videos as promotions. Remember the YouTube sensation “Lonelygirl15″ that attracted a lot of attention? A few viewers got wise and uncovered the truth — that was not teenager “Bree” pouring out her heart in a series of videos posted online. She was a scripted 20-year-old actress helping create buzz for a hoped-for movie.

Hoaxes and gimmicks can make incredible video stories. Editors must be especially vigilant to prevent them from being posted as news — or posted at all. Sometimes editors must be the messengers who alert readers about fakes. Use your resources to check things out for your audience. The site snopes.com routinely investigates and reports about all kinds of truths and myths, for example.

People don’t like to be fooled — or alarmed. Even Discovery Canada says it cut short its promotion when it found out people on Wolfe Island were concerned.

Perhaps the best way to think about this is through the comment of University of Guelph marine biologist Jim Ballantyne, who had theorized the creature could not be a shark.

“It sort of seems a bit unethical to frighten people,” he said after learning of the prank.

 

Tips to achieve lively language

By · Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 · Comments Off

Writers love words, right? And there are so many choices. Choose wisely. One way is to focus on strong verbs and the active voice. Make it a top priority to achieve lively language. Following are some tips to get you started.

How to strengthen verbs

Weak: There are good reasons to use strong verbs when writing and editing.

Instead: Use strong verbs when writing and editing.

Weak: There is a meeting of editors at 3 p.m. today.

Instead: Editors will meet at 3 p.m. today.

Weak: That player elevates higher than anyone.

Instead: That player jumps higher than anyone.

Weak: Lawmakers drew comparisons among their proposals.

Instead: Lawmakers compared their proposals.

Weak: If you don’t agree, fill out a complaint form.

Instead: If you disagree, file a complaint.

Avoid the passive voice

The passive voice weakens the message. Instead, use the active voice with strong verbs. Follow the subject / verb / object structure. Let the subject do the action. When a message is delivered in the passive voice, an action is put upon the subject.

Weak, passive: The message is weakened by the passive voice.

Instead, active: The passive voice weakens the message.

Weak, passive: The story was improved by the editor.

Instead, active: The editor improved the story.

Weak, passive: A special series about global warming was written by a reporter who had been in Antarctica for two months.

Instead, active: A reporter who lived in Antarctica for two months wrote a special series about global warming.

Tips to ensure strong verbs

Consult a thesaurus. Use every opportunity to make a good verb better and a strong verb stronger. Choose precisely the right word. Rewrite and rethink.

Weak: The judge will make a decision before Tuesday.

Good: The judge will decide before Tuesday.

Better: The judge will rule before Tuesday.

Check definitions. Be sure words convey their intended meanings. A quick look in the dictionary can uncover a better word for the message. Pay attention to nuance. Visualize the action.

Weak: The contestants hastily ate hot dogs. (To put food in the mouth, chew if necessary, and swallow — Webster’s)

Good: The contestants stuffed their mouths with hot dogs. (To eat too much or too quickly — Webster’s)

Better: The contestants gorged themselves with hot dogs. (To eat gluttonously; to swallow greedily — Webster’s)

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