Simplifying the Reporting/Writing Process

I recently presented to a group of Austin (TX) middle and high school journalism teachers my dog and pony show regarding narrative and voice, and they all seemed receptive and appreciative, but I felt that my message was dampened by their frustration with the larger details of their professional lives, like obtaining licenses from Adobe so they can actually put stories on pages while working with kids who don’t know the difference between a noun and a vermicelli. 

I assured them I felt their pain, then added, “Every kid isn’t going to get this. If you can find two students who are willing to report and write, then that’s what they should be doing: reporting and writing. Some other kid can bang the erasers together and remove staples from the exchange papers.”

And I got looks that said, “Oh, what I would do for two students who want to report and write.”

So, I thought, “How can we simplify the reporting and writing process? Is there a way to reduce the anxiety students feel about interviewing, writing and re-writing? Can we exchange archaic formulas (inverted pyramid and the QTQ in particular) with something easier, more intuitive, more enjoyable that produces more dynamic results?

Frankly, I’m not sure, but these tips should help: 

Part I

1. Make a list of every of club, activity, organization, secret society, whatever.

2. Create a page in a 3-ring binder for each group. 

3. Write on that page each group’s mission statement.

4. Write on that page the group’s three main events, projects, activities or whatever.

5. Instruct (or, better yet, threaten) your reporters, “Never, ever put any of the information on this page in your story. This information is not news. It’s just information.”

6. Ask, “What is news?” News is information readers want and need but don’t already possess.

7. Figure out, “What is new and fresh about this story? What might interest readers?”

Part II

1. Find the person in charge of each organization. Let’s call her Ms. Jones. Get contact information — email and, if possible, a phone number — from Ms. Jones.

2. At the beginning of each publication cycle, talk to Ms. Jones. Ask, “Of all the students in your program/organization/association/team/gang/criminal enterprise/whatever, who has the most interesting journey story?”

“Journey story” means, “Who has overcome the greatest obstacle to now be in a position to achieve something special?” 

3. Get a name and contact information about this person. Let’s call her “Linda.”

4. Contact Linda. Tell her you would like to interview her. Do not ask her if she’d like to be interviewed. Tell her you want to interview her. 

5. Tell her why you want to interview her, what kind of story you’re searching for.

6. Arrange a time and place. It must be a time that’s convenient for Linda. It must be a place where she feels safe and comfortable.

7. Do your homework. Find out as much about Linda as possible. Who do talk to? How about Ms. Jones? You just need to know why you’re doing a story on Linda. Also, I’m not above asking a source, “What do you think this story should be about?”

Part III

1. Interview Linda, face-to-face. No phone or text interviews of people you pass in the halls six times a day.

2. Do not ask questions that will produce predictable answers. While judging a national sports writing competition, I learned the following about athletic events:

·       Blood pumps

·       Hearts race

·       Adrenaline flows

·       Sweat drips

·       Tears roll down cheeks

·       Crowds cheer

·       Excitement ensues

·       Rivalries exist

·       Winning is better than losing

3. I can’t imagine what kind of questions were asked to produce such dead-on-arrival copy. Instead, ask these questions: Most. Least. Highest. Lowest. Worst. Best. 

4. Ask, “What were you thinking before, during or after the “most this” or “worst that?”

5. If the answer is “awesome” or “exciting” or “unbelievable,” ask, “What was the most awesome or exciting or unbelievable thing about it?”

6. Ask for examples. “Give me two examples of how it was awesome.”

7. Ask for an anecdote. If someone says, “He is a great coach,” ask, “Tell me a story about what makes him so great.”

8. Ask for a specific person. If someone says, “The program is a life-changer,” ask, “Tell me the story of one student whose life has been changed by this program.”

9. Focus on the person during the highest and/or lowest moment. Don’t gum up the story with pitter-patter details.

10. Don’t allow the interview to ramble or meander. Keep it lean and mean.

Part IV

1. Transcribe your notes as soon after the interview as possible. Remember to double record every interview..

2. Repair incoherent or broken quotes. You will almost certainly need a second interview to correct them. Do not use an ellipsis or a bracket. Just fix the quote. If the quote is unclear, read it back to the source and ask, “What exactly did you mean here?”

3. Make sure you understand what your story is about. Write it out in a single sentence. “This is a story about Linda. This is her journey over/around/under/through this obstacle.” If you can’t write it out in one sentence, then you probably don’t yet have a story.

4. Think it through. What is it about Linda that makes her special? How did she get that way? What is her defining moment so far? Where is she going?

5. Interview again, then put all of your information into a logical chronology.

6. Locate your lead. When in doubt, take your best quote. Paraphrase it. That’s your lead.

7. Find your ending. When in doubt, find the quote that takes the reader forward in time. If you don’t have one, get one. Ask, “Where do you go from here?” Or, “What happens next?” Or, “What is your big takeaway?”

8. Now, build your story internally, moving from the lead through to the final quote.

9. Maintain tight control of the chronology. Do not ramble. Do not repeat information. If it goes without saying, don’t say it. Don’t babble or preach. 

Part V

1. Punch out a first draft quickly.

2. Read it aloud to yourself. Fix and repair.

3. Read it aloud to a friend. Fix and repair.

4. Double-check facts with Linda and Ms. Jones and other sources.

5. Do not assume facts not in evidence. Do not project onto Linda your thoughts, emotions, reactions. 

6. Do not ask readers to imagine.

7. Never open with a statement of the obvious.

8. Never end with an editorial statement.

9. Write naturally. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.

Assignment: Homecoming

1. Do not ask, “Were you excited to win.” Ask, “When you were standing out there in front of your friends and family and total strangers, what were you thinking?”

If you’re lucky, you might end up with this direct quote. It’s from a girl who didn’t win, but that’s OK. It’s interesting and revealing. You could run it as a stand-alone quote, or you could work it into a story.

Stand-alone quote

“It was really cold, and we were standing out there in our little dresses, and I kept saying to myself, ‘Just smile. Look happy. Everybody is watching you.’ We didn’t know who had won until they actually announced it, so there was a good bit of anticipation. I can’t say I was disappointed that I didn’t win because the girl who did win is one of my best friends. I was happy for her.” 

— senior Hailey Brooks

Feature Story

1. Ask, “What kind of dress were you wearing? What color was it?”

2. Ask, “What was the weather like?

3. Let the quote drive the story. Do not try to become a writer. Just tell the story in natural voice and a logical order.

Senior Hailey Brooks stood at the 47-yard line in her tiny blue cocktail dress and she whispered to herself, “Just smile. Look happy. Everybody is watching you.”

Like the six other homecoming queen candidates, Brooks braced against the bitter northern wind that rolled in earlier that day.

“We didn’t know who had won until they actually announced it, so there was a good bit of anticipation,” she said. “I can’t say I was disappointed that I didn’t win because the girl who did win is one of my best friends. I was happy for her.”

4. Run the story with a powerful photo of the moment at its emotional apex. Include a caption that tells readers something they don’t know or can figure out in two seconds or less.

5. Celebrate and move on.

Dead on Arrival Leads

• A lead that begins with stage lights coming up, curtains rising, audiences applauding and performers beaming.

• A lead that contains the words like partake, amidst, betwixt or festooned.

• A lead that jumbles past, present and future tense in the same sentence.

1.   Last week, the school board voted on a proposal introduced last month to begin a new program called “Integrated Grading Dynamics,” starting next fall.

2.   Following last week’s proposal for a partnership with a leadership group for next year’s seniors, the school board will vote next week after hearing from citizens the day before.

• A lead that opens with a general statement:

1.   Football is often referred to as a man’s game, but in this case, it is a woman who shows the passion.

• A lead that assumes or overstates a fact:

1.   Most young girls dream of one day being a princess.

How would you know what most young girls dream? Why would you assume most young girls dream of one day being a princess? It might be true that some or many dream of being a princess, but most means “at least 50.1%.” Now, you have to prove it.

The following sentence: Many young girls dream of one day being a princess…” works only if the next sentence is “Molly Alexander dreamed of being a pirate.”

• A lead that’s wordy, pretentious, overwritten.

In a room with innocent faces illuminated by wide smiles, cheeriness and a big group hug with a Special Education instructor, the words “I will never be invited to the prom,” expounded less than half a year ago by a weeping 14-year-old girl, Emily Blake, seemed to vanish from existence as the possibility for her to become a princess, even if just for a moment, popped into actuality.

Say what you mean clearly and precisely. Read it aloud to make sure it says what you meant for it to say. My first comment regarding the writing sample above: Do special ed kids “expound?” Who any kids? I doubt it. Compare the piece above to the one below:

A year ago, freshman Emily Blake told her Special Ed teacher, Ron Crenshaw, “I’ll never be invited to the prom. Nobody in this room will.” Then she cried, and then Crenshaw cried and then he vowed to work to see that every kid in school who wants to attend prom will attend prom. This spring, they will.

• A lead that’s vague, careless, wordy, redundant.

He was worked and studied countless long, hard hours night and day and was not at all surprised to find out that he was named class valedictorian. It goes without saying, he was happy, and he said so in response to a reporter’s question. 44 words

If you can count the number of hours he worked, then they’re not countless.

“Worked and studied” is redundant. He studied…

Hours are 60 minutes. There’s no such thing as a 61-minute hour.

He expected to be named valedictorian. You don’t need “class.” It goes without saying.

Tighten. Change "find out" to "learn."

“It goes without saying,” so don’t say it.

He was studied three hours minimum, every night. He studied three hours on his birthday and four hours on Christmas day. Asked if he was surprised to be named valedictorian, he answered, “Not in the least.” 36 words


Brush off the tag-alongs.

I call them “tag-alongs.” They’re unnecessary words and phrases that spout the obvious, gum up sentences and chew up space. Here are a few examples:

1. The boy gripped a pencil in his hand.

Where else would he grip it? If he gripped it in his teeth, you’d say so.

The boy gripped the pencil.

2. Looking briefly at the bright sun, she blinked her eyes.

The sun is bright. If she blinked, she blinked her eyes.

Glancing at the sun, she blinked.

3. Her heart pounded in her chest.

She should hope her heart is in her chest. 

Her heart pounded.

4. As the bagpipes played “Carrickfergus,” tears streamed from his eyes.

Tears stream from the eyes. If it streams from the nose or mouth, it's unlikely to be tears.

As the bagpipes played “Carrickfergus,” he blotted his eyes with his shirtsleeve.

5. She thought to herself, “That cat needs a bath.”

Who else can you think to?

“That cat needs a bath,” she thought.

5. A crowd of people gathered near the stadium.

A crowd gathered near the stadium.

6. Hector Robles said his goal in the future is to be a winner on "Jeopardy."

A goal suggests "in the future." You can't have a goal "in the past."

Hector Robles' goal is to be a "Jeopardy" champion.

Hector Robles intends to be a "Jeopardy" champion.

7. An idea formed in her head.

Where else would it form? Her foot? 

Hector Robles' goal is to be a "Jeopardy" champion.

8. The school will host a board meeting to seriously consider a proposal administrators are hopeful will give motivation to students to perform their duties more dutifully by offering gifts as incentives, free of charge. President of the School Board Mr. Donald Exler said he is onboard with the proposal.

So many mistakes, where to begin?

The school board will consider. If considers a proposal, it "seriously" considers it.

Administrators hope. 

The proposal will  motivate, not "give motivation."

Duties implies dutiful.

Incentives are gifts. Gifts are free. Free means "free of charge."

School Board President Donald Exler. Avoid the multiple titles.

He is on board, not onboard. They're not the same.

Writing With Passion

A friend sent me this question a few days ago: "I seem to have a group of very apathetic and passive writers. How do you bring in some passion?"

My response: Get them to write about what they care about. Forget covering the school and timely issues and all of that. Ask them, 

"When was the last time you were really angry at someone?" 

"Have you had a big argument with a friend or family? Over what?"

"What do you worry about the most?"

Let them come to you with a topic, then say, "OK,  how do we make this interesting for all of our readers?" It can't be a rant or an off-the-top-of-my-head moon trip. It has to be relevant and it should be timely, but keep in mind, the human condition is always timely. 

For example, a few years ago, I was teaching a class of mostly underclassmen, and an older girl — a senior, I learned later — sat in the back, bored stiff. So I approached her, and I rolled out all of my tricks. None of them worked. Finally, I asked her, "When was the last time you cried?"

And she told me this story. 

A year ago, her grandmother was admitted to the hospital. The girl had volleyball or basketball practice and wasn't able to get to the hospital before 8 or 9 p.m. When she got there, her father told her, "She's asleep. You can see her in the morning."

"No, I want to see her tonight," the girl said. 

"We're not going to wake her," Dad said. "You can see her in the morning."

Her grandmother died that night.

She said she was still angry at her dad, and then she began to cry.

This is a true story. 

By the way, around 2 that next morning, the phone in my hotel rang. I'm an insomniac, but I was asleep and very upset that the front desk or some drunk in another room had misdialed and awakened me. 

"What???" I snapped.

"It's me," she said. "I want to read this sentence to you. I want to make sure it's perfect."

So, she read the sentence. And it was perfect. It said what she wanted and needed to say, in her own voice. 

The next morning, she read the entire piece to me. I got a little misty-eyed and gave her a hug and told her, "You absolutely must let your dad read this." 

I wish I could say that she did. But it doesn't matter. All that matters is that she wrote it. With passion.

Much obliged. Too much, in fact.

I read a story recently about a girl who was a Teen Jeopardy finalist. It wasn't a horrible story, but it reminded me of one of the biggest bonehead journalism myths ever: "All stories must contain quotes from two or more sources." 

This is not true. The story above should have focused exclusively on the girl. What was the best moment? The worst? How did she prep? Has the experience changed her, and if so, how?

Instead, the reporter devoted quarter of the story to the parents. He asked them, "How do you feel?" and "How proud of your daughter are you?" I was hoping Mom and Pop would respond, "We feel with our fingers," and "Proud? Are you kidding? She's a royal pain most of the time. Thinks she's Queen Elizabeth. We just want her to clean her room once before she's out of here, which can't come soon enough."

But they didn't. They gave obligatory quotes to obligatory questions. "We feel so blessed to have such a smart daughter," and "We're so proud of her amazing accomplishments." And blah, blah, blah. So, now that I think about it, the story was horrible. 


In Your Own Words

     My air conditioner went out, so I called a local company that handles such things, and a couple of hours later, two guys showed up. One crawled up into the attic. The other stood in a hallway next to my office, and we began to chat.
     "Are you a writer or something?" he asked me.
     "Yes. I'm a writer, or something," I replied.
     "I hate to write," he said, shaking his head. 
     And I said, "Let me guess. In high school, you were forced to write about things you didn't care about, in a voice that wasn't your own."
     He thought for a second, then answered, "That's exactly right."
     So I said, "Back in high school, if you could have written about anything — age appropriate — what would it have been?"
     And he said, without hesitation, "Motorcycles."

     Of course, he didn't mean "motorcycles" as a thing. He meant motorcycles as an experience. So, I told him, "If I had been your teacher, and if I had had the liberty to permit it, you would have read and written about motorcycles — in your own voice — and we both would have learned something.
     Point: Knowledge comes from experience far more quickly and profoundly than it does from reading. Granted, it is easy to misunderstand or misjudge an event or experience. Understanding comes from discussion, reading, comparison and guidance.
So, before you teach "Romeo and Juliet," consider asking your students this question: Have you ever had your heart broken?
     Then ask them, "Tell me about it. In your own words."  

Improve Your Writing: Verbal Abuse

Years ago, I was chatting with an English teacher, who told me he had warned his students, “If you use a passive verb, it’s an automatic ‘D.'”
I replied, “Congratulations. You would almost fail most of the great writers I know.” For example:

James Joyce: “There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.” The Dubliners.

Joseph Conrad: “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.” Lord Jim

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The large room was full of people. One of the girls in yellow was playing the piano, and beside her stood a tall, red-haired young lady from a famous chorus, engaged in song.” The Great Gatsby

Herman Melville: “Upon searching, it was found that he casks last struck into the hold were perfectly sound.” Moby Dick

Even Ernest Hemingway: “Catherine Barkley was greatly liked by the nurses because she would do night duty indefinitely.” A Farewell to Arms

One of the most powerful opening lines for a breaking news story in the history of American newspaper journalism was four words long, and one of those words was a passive verb: The President is dead.

So, rules exist, but exceptions to the rules exist as well, and the trick is knowing when and how to break the rules. Speaking of which, here are a few rules:

Eliminate unnecessary passive verbs

weak: He is a banjo player.

strong: He plays the banjo.

weak: The squirrel was run over by the garbage truck.

strong: The garbage truck ran over the squirrel.

stronger: (although a bit insensitive, especially if you’re a squirrel): The garbage truck pancaked the squirrel.

Use specific verbs

• get | grab

• put | plop

• talk | jabber

• walk | traipse

• look | glare

• carry | lug

Eliminate unnecessary adverbs

• walk slowly | slog

• talk quickly | jabber

• write messily | scribble

• pull aggressively | pluck

Eliminate “ing” verb phrases

weak: The band will be performing Friday.

strong: The band will perform Friday.

weak: The volleyball team will be competing in the Midwest regional tournament.

strong: The volleyball team will compete in the Midwest regional tournament.

Eliminate verbs disguised as nouns

• secured an acquisition | acquired

• had an admiration of | admired

• in anticipation of | anticipated

• made a projection of | projected

weak: The car wreck provided her the motivation she needed to stop drinking.

strong: The car wreck motivated her to stop drinking.

Do you read the newspaper?

The adviser is young and talented and ambitious, and he’s building a first-class high school journalism program, so I was more than willing to speak to his newspaper class — 20 or so teens of all stripes. Geeks. Whip-smart girls. Smart-ass boys. Kids just trying to find a place and a purpose.

I liked them immediately. At first, they had a hard time figuring out why this old guy wanted to talk about himself so much but they warmed up to my humor and occasional use of profanity and, toward the end, even asked two or three intelligent questions, which is rare. Typically, asking an American high school student “Do you have any questions?” is like asking porch dogs “Did you enjoy King Lear?”

At one point during my presentation, I casually mentioned a story in our local daily newspaper and, as an afterthought, added, “Did any of you read that?” No one had.

“Do any of you read newspapers?” No, they did not.

“Really? You’re in a newspaper class and on a student newspaper staff, and you don’t read a newspaper?”

I compared it to choir members who never listen to music, to film critics who never watch movies. So, I instructed them to read or at least read-through a newspaper occasionally, though I doubt many of them will. It’s not in their blood. All this chatter about administrative censorship and budget shortages and such is a lot of silly hand-wringing compared to the real threat to scholastic journalism, and that is this: Most kids don’t read. Those who do don’t read enough. You can take it from there.

It’s so easy to identify a young person who reads. They know stuff. They understand tone and pace and flow. They know how to use dialogue and how to describe a scene. They understand irony and satire. They can use sarcasm without offending their readers too much.

So, your New Year’s resolution should be to read a good daily newspaper at least once or twice a week. You don’t need to read the entire thing. Just look for a story or two that piques your interest, then study the lead, pay attention to voice, and notice how the story is woven together. The more you do this, the better writer you’ll become.

Here’s a little example: I found this story in the Dec. 2, 2011 edition of The New York Times. It’s by James Dao, and it concerns military veterinarians who are treating combat dogs for post-traumatic stress disorder.

SAN ANTONIO — The call came into the behavior specialists here from a doctor in Afghanistan. His patient had just been through a firefight and now was cowering under a cot, refusing to come out. Apparently, even the chew toys hadn’t worked.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, thought Dr. Walter F. Burghart Jr., chief of behavior medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. Specifically, canine PTSD. If anyone needed evidence of the frontline role played by dogs in war these days, here is the latest: the four-legged, wet-nosed troops used to sniff our mines, track down enemy fighters and clear buildings are struggling with the mental strains of combat nearly as much as their human counterparts.

Is that great or what? First, it’s an entirely original story. It doesn’t regurgitate information I got eight hours earlier on ESPN or MSNBC. Second, it’s beautifully written. I can picture the German shepherd, cowering under the cot. Third, it hooks me with this sentence: “Even the chew toys hadn’t worked.”

I feel for that dog. Also, I’m going to remember this story. Down the road at some point, I am going to be working on a story, and I’m going to need help because my piece won’t be coming together quite right, and I’m going to employ some of the tone and pace and flow in James Dao’s story about military dogs with post-traumatic stress disorder.

That’s why I read newspapers. It’s why you should too.

Q&A: Social Media, Writing and Reporting Tips

Two years ago, I met a young woman while teaching at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s summer newspaper workshop. She was a student at a high school in Seoul, South Korea, and I totally adored her. (Note to self: avoid meaningless adverbs like “totally.”)

She returned to South Korea and gushed about me to her newspaper adviser, Carolyn Brown, with whom I’ve enjoyed an e-mail relationship with since. Each semester, she has her students write me letters in English that are as delightful as they are a slightly clueless, inasmuch as her students tend to think I’m important.

The students politely express shock that, despite my advancing years, I still retain a sense of humor and most of my hair. They’re sweet and naïve and utterly charming. More importantly, these students ask really intelligent questions about reporting and writing. (Note to self: See comments above regarding adverbs.)

Here are my responses to a few of their queries.

• “How did you decide to use humor in your book when so many textbooks are boring and humorless?”

First, my book isn’t about names and dates and places. That gives it a slight advantage out of the gate. Secondly, the important point about the Radical Write is the emphasis on honesty and voice. From the first chapter of the first edition, I wanted the writing to sound like me, and it’s always satisfying when someone says, “You write just like you talk.” That’s my intention, and it’s what I emphasize to students. Write like you talk, and trust your voice.

• “How do journalists use blogs, iChat and other social media?”

My answer: just like my generation used encyclopedias and back issues of Time magazine. Research is crucial, but research isn’t journalism. People want to read stories, not research papers. Second, it’s not important where you get your facts as long as they are credible. Third, it doesn’t matter where the story is to be published — a newspaper, yearbook, blog or bathroom wall. A good story is a good story, whether it’s printed or broadcast or digitized. The bottom line is that Facebook and Google are tools, a means to an end. They’re a resource, not a source.

• “I always seem to pick the wrong angle for my story, and it becomes boring. How do I avoid that?”

Here’s how: Life is like war. It’s 59 minutes and 30 seconds of predictable, repetitive boredom and 30 seconds of ecstasy, agony or Hell. As a reporter and writer, concentrate on the 30 seconds. Ask questions about the highest, lowest, most, least, best, worst. This will provide material from which you can select a powerful angle.

• “I want to write shorter stories but I feel that I need to use all of the information I’ve gathered, so my stories tend to be long and boring. What can I do to correct this?
Here’s how: Be prepared to kill your babies. That’s a rather blunt way of saying you should never use all of the information you gather. Sometimes, people make boring, irrelevant statements. Don’t use them. Remember: Less is more. Keep your story tight, efficient and focused. As soon as readers feel the story begin to rattle and ramble, they bail.

• “I’m never sure in what order to present my information. Is there a formula to help with this?”

Aside from the antiquated inverted pyramid, there’s no particular formula. However, there is a philosophy. Just tell the story in a logical order, as if you were talking to a friend. In that case, where would you begin? Where would you end? For example, you wrecked your new car last weekend. You weren’t injured, but the car was totaled. How would you tell the story to a friend? Would it sound anything like this?

Many students in this country drive automobiles. They use their cars to go to work, to visit friends, to go shopping and to do other chores. Occasionally, a student will become involved in an automobile accident. Sometimes, the accident is a result of bad luck or of negligence or of mechanical failure. In my own instance, I became one of the thousands of young people across the nation who has been involved in an unfortunate vehicular incidents.

This is how this event transpired: I was texting and looked up and ran into a motorcycle owned by a member of the Hell’s Angels. His name was Steve. He and a couple of other of his buddies chased me down and beat me with a baseball bat, thus explaining why I am communicating with you from my hospital bed. I am in great pain and misery. I have a broken leg and a cracked skull. My car has been since taken to the junk yard. Well, that’s my story. Gotta run. The neurosurgeon is here. He doesn’t look happy.

Is that how you’d tell the story? If not, then don’t write it that way. Write it the same way you’d tell it — and in the same words, the same voice.

I’m in the hospital. My leg is broken. My skull is cracked. My car is totaled. And why? Because I needed to answer a text message, or thought I did. I looked down, looked up and then piled into a Harley, owned by a guy in a black leather jacket named Steve. I soon learned how he got his nickname, “Tire Tool.”

• “How do you end a story? My stories always seem to trail off, and I hate the way they end.”

I often find my best quote, paraphrase it and use it for my lead. Then, I look for the quote that takes the reader from the present and moves him or her into the future. This gives the story a kind of timelessness.

Hawthorne said he’d never again text and drive.

“I learned my lesson,” he added. “I survived my first bout with Tire Tool. I don’t intend to have a second.”

• How do I keep my story interesting from the beginning to the end?”

Focus on the narrative. Don’t bog down in data. Don’t  print boring, predictable quotes. Often, writing becomes tiresome — cliché — when it answers questions that readers can figure out themselves or information the reader has no interest in. For example, I was interviewed not too long ago, and the reporter asked me who my mentors were. I wasn’t trying to be rude, but my answer was, “Your readers won’t know any of them.” So why publish a list of my mentors. If she’d asked me, “What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and who gave it to you,” then I could have told her an interesting story.

• Which writing books do you recommend?

All of them. If you find a book — any book — that’s well written, interesting, powerful, then study the author’s writing. Fiction. Non-fiction. Doesn’t matter. Pay attention to sentence structure, the nouns, the verbs. Which literary devices are used? What is the tone? What’s the imagery? And if the book you’re looking at is the Radical Write, send me a note saying, “You write just like you talk.” It’ll totally and utterly make my day. Really.