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.