Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dan Barry does my talking for me

In his turn at "Talk to the Newsroom," Dan Barry answers several readers' questions about reporting and writing. His words are very wise. Funny too. Tomorrow is the last day to submit a question. (The Times' page has links to all the stories he refers to.)

Here are a few highlights for student writers:

On developing story ideas
First, I’m a curious guy, and I keep thoughts in my head and on scraps of paper about little things: Where are the Munchkins today? Who gets to be judge at a county fair baking contest, and does the power go to the judges' heads? What are auditions like for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Who are the Odd Fellows?
Sometimes, these thoughts are more serious, and go more along the lines of bearing witness. For example: What is it like to witness an execution? How do you cope when the Mississippi is threatening to flood your town? Who are these boxers who travel the Southern Circuit, getting their brains beat in for a couple of hundred bucks?
So I keep these ideas and questions swirling in the back of my head, and I look for an opportunity to write about them.
Second, I scan newspapers from around the country through this wonderful series of tubes called the Internet.

The first pargraph
When you strip away all the nonsense, I am just trying to tell stories. So after I have done my reporting, which usually takes a while, I will use anything at my command to try to coerce you into reading the first paragraph. I believe that people read newspapers now looking for stories not to read. This is counterintuitive, but that is my sense. Everyone is too busy, so they look for things not to read. This means my only chance is to grab the reader in the first paragraph: using humor, outrage, vivid description, curious language — anything that will seduce the reader into bearing with me for at
least another paragraph

How he deal with reluctant story subjects

I ask for an interview with respect. I explain what I am interested in, and why I think a part of their lives should be shared with a national audience. If they say thanks, but no thanks — or, more commonly, “Get off my property” — I request only that they think about it overnight. I don’t send flowers, or lottery tickets, or backstage passes to a Times Talk event.
And if the dawning of another day has not changed their minds, I leave them my business card, and I set out to find another way to tell the story.

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