Prem Panicker is generally considered to be India’s best cricket writer. Formerly with The Indian Post, Mid-Day and The Sunday Observer, Prem is now editor of rediff.com, India’s premier portal. In this piece, he discusses the essential elements of feature writing—and the books that you should read or have by your bedside.
NINE STEPS TO EDITORIAL NIRVANA
On the pin board backing my computer, there is a chunk of text I found in a book on writing. It is for me the best credo anyone dealing with words can have, hold, and live by.
This is what it says:
“Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry. Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life. Lift me out of my skin, and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there. Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space. Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them. Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope. Demonstrate for me possibilities I have never thought of. Ease my sorrows, increase my joy. Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me. Above all, tell me a story.”
If you think about it, every story you can possibly write—as reporter, feature writer, or even as fiction writer—has to fulfill one or more of those needs of the reader. The real question for the news reporter/feature writer is, how?
Much of reporting/writing today is painting by numbers.
Here, with a recent example, is how it works: There is, in New Delhi, major political convulsions in the aftermath of the announcement of election results. The editor calls his correspondent, and he says, ‘Get me a mood piece from the centre of the drama.’
The reporter puts the phone down, grabs his notebook, and without pause for thought, rushes off to the road outside 10, Janpath. In the course of half an hour, he collects: (1) A gut feel for the number of people gathered outside; (2) An ‘anecdote’ – typically, some bloke threatening suicide if his preferred leader does not become Prime Minister; (3) ‘Sound bytes’, from one or two groups/individuals who all say pretty much the same thing; (4) One VIP quote, from some leader waiting outside the gates for a darshan of the day’s deity.
Job done, he rushes back to office, sits at the computer, and hammers out, “Hundreds gathered around the 10, Janpath residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Some shouted slogans (insert slogan here); others threatened suicide; all congregated there with the sole purpose of forcing Gandhi to accept the post of prime minister.
“Ramsharan, from Bihar, said… insert inane quote…”
And so on, for 700 words or more. You can, without ever being within 100 miles of the place, write the same thing—in recent times, several American journalists have been caught doing exactly that. (Indian journalists do it too—only, they haven’t been caught yet).
The problem here, and the reason why the pages of our newspapers and newsmagazines are filled with stories all cast in the same mould, is that we have reduced the essence of journalism to its bare bones—get mood, get two quotes, get one anecdote, thread it all together.
So what can you do that is different?
Simple—define your story. Examine the brief, question it, walk around it and see it from different directions, different points of view. Take pencil and paper and list down all the possibilities you spot. Then figure out how you want to do the story. And only after you have that mental clarity, that map of where you are going with this, do you even begin work.
What follows, is a checklist. These are all ‘types’ of stories, different roads through which to travel towards the same subject.
A nine-step path to editorial nirvana.
Issue or Trend: Does the event of the day tie into something bigger, something ongoing? Is this event a window, through which you can revisit an issue or reveal how that issue plays out in myriad ways? (For purposes of definition, an ‘issue’ is serious, and tends to look at policy, social problems, etc. A ‘trend’ is lighter, and typically centers around cultures, lifestyles).
Try this as an exercise: In the recent political drama in New Delhi, what were the real issues? (No, it is not about whether Sonia was right or wrong to relinquish the post). Secondly, is the drama indicative of an emerging cultural/social trend?
Explanatory: Can you show how something happens, or how something works? Will such an exposition teach the reader about how his world works?
Is there for instance, in the example we have taken, grounds to explain the process of government formation and the appointment of the prime minister? Will a no-frills, fact-based exposition of the process as outlined in the Constitution shed reflected light on the situation? Will it help the reader understand better the various options before the President, the party, its leader, the opposition, and in fact the people who exercised their franchise?
Profile: Is there an interesting character at the center of an event or issue? Can this character—neatly limned—serve as a tour guide to help the reader understand the issue, at a human level?
Voices: The interview is a staple for journalists, often with the ‘Exclusive’ tag attached (‘Exclusive’, to a journalist, means simply that the person interviewed did not speak to anyone else at that particular moment; even if the subject gives five interviews to five different media outlets in course of an hour, each touts his version as ‘Exclusive’). And interviews – in depth and detail – have their place, their utility value.
When dealing with a news event, though, ‘Voices’ are a sadly underused, but very effective, option.
For instance, if you were trying to capture the drama outside of 10, Janpath, why not do it through the medium of focused sound bytes? Stamp-sized pictures of the people you talk to, and focused quotes from each person, which when laid out together create a mosaic of voices, impressions, feelings, sentiment? Human faces, human voices, are one of the most effective means of capturing mood; this is best done by taking the reporter out of the frame and letting the voices speak direct to the reader.
Dueling Voices: Every issue has a pro and con side to it. Try picking one voice that is representative of each side, getting them to talk, and juxtaposing them on page – it is the best way to capture the essence of conflicting thoughts and moods and emotions.
For instance, by picking one vocal member of the pro-Sonia brigade keeping vigil outside her residence; then finding someone (a good place to look would have been outside the BJP office or ABV’s home) equally passionate in his opposition to her. By having each talk of their viewpoints (edited for crispness and clarity) and by putting the two together, you could easily capture the national mood, for and against the lady.
Or if you chose to tackle it at a more serious level, find an expert who can argue the Constitutional/political/electoral case for Sonia, and an expert who can argue the counter view. Keep them on topic—tight, crisp arguments sans jargon, easily understood by the lay reader. Juxtapose them, and you have presented both points of view, leaving the reader free to think for himself and make up his own mind.
Descriptive: Is there some place you can take the reader, to show in an up-close form an event or an idea? Is there a take-me-there element to this story?
For instance, about six months ago there were a spate of stories in the US press about the fact that Silicon Valley real estate prices were rising again (the prices had fallen dramatically after the dotcom bubble-burst). Almost all the stories I read on the subject painted the picture using the same numbers—some figures, some quotes from prospective buyers and from real estate agents.
One story, if I remember right, it was in the Seattle Times, went the extra step.
The technique used was simple. Through a graphic and accompanying text, the writer showed us where our money goes. When we say, for instance, that we spent $500,000 on a home that, three years back, cost $300,000, it really tells us very little. What the ST writer did was, on a graphic, broke down the money we spend (how much for the land? How much for permissions and other paperwork? How much for cement and concrete? How much for the small items? How much for electricity and plumbing and all the rest of it? Every little thing was itemized and accounted for. The cost then, and cost now, was juxtaposed. In one glance, it told me why costs had gone up, and where my money was going.
This freed up the writer to focus on the larger story: he did a walk through (again, with maps accompanying) of the Silicon Valley area, showing us where prices were going up, where they were stationary, where they were dropping, and why.
That story gave me clarity; the other stories on the topic, in other papers, just gave me words.
Investigative: Is there something wrong with the picture? Can we follow the money/power to self-interest, corruption, dishonesty? Is public interest at stake here?
Narrative: Is there a feature story behind the event – a story with character, plot, action, tension, conflict, resolution, and a forward spin; in other words, a story with a narrative arc?
Visual: Is there the one speaking image, or images, that can tell the story better than words can? Can you put away your pen, use the eyes to capture the essence of the story, sum it up in one visual or a series, then use the pen to write minimal explanatory text/captions that round the story out?
Not every story falls into all nine categories. But almost every major story can be seen simultaneously through two or more of these. An interesting exercise is to take a contemporary event, and see how interesting a ‘package’ you can create, by incorporating as many of these forms as are relevant.
The ideal reporter/editor is the guy who can go beyond the scattershot method of developing stories—“Get me a mood piece”; “Do an interview with Sonia Gandhi”—and see stories in the round, devise packages in which each element is vital and where all elements, together, provide the reader with all the information and enlightenment he needs to understand the event in all its dimensions.
There are hundreds of books on journalism out there. My personal collection falls roughly into three categories:
Basic how-to books (News Reporting and Writing by Melvin Mencher; The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook by Tim Harrower; The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn; Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale, et cetera).
Books on long form/narrative journalism (Stein on Writing by Sol Stein; Literary Journalism by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer; Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell, et cetera).
Collections (The Faber Book of Reportage; The Art of Fact; The Esquire Book of Great Writing; The Best American Essays/Travel Writing/Sports Writing/Magazine Writing et cetera; the Poynter annual collections in the Best Newspaper Writing 1995/96/97… 2003 series, and so on).
And then there are my all time favorites:
Writing and Reporting News by Carole Rich: The best basic textbook on journalism you can probably find, and a recommended text in the New York University and Columbia University journalism schools, among others. The book has clear, concise explanations of the basic styles and techniques of news and feature reporting (all the jargon you hear tossed around about style – Pyramid, Inverse Pyramid, Ellipsis, whatever, are all lucidly explained, and exemplified); there are sections on Internet reporting and Computer Assisted Reporting; there are Ethics segments that go into the ethical dilemmas a reporter can come up against – this book has, in short, got it all. It belongs on a journalist’s work table – to provide quick answers when confronted with a problem of style/structure, or for random browsing as a memory refresher to all that is possible.
Newsthinking – The Secret of Making Your Facts Fall Into Place by Bob Baker: Writing stories is easy – it is the period prior to the writing, when you are working on collecting the relevant information, that is the problem. This book is the solution. It is not a how-to in the conventional sense; what it does is explore the way we reporters think through a story, analyze that process, show how the mental blocks come up almost unknowingly, and in essence, revise our entire concept of how we think through our stories. Brilliant book, written in easily accessible style and with a sense of style and humor. (Baker has a site— http://www.newsthinking.com/—that is a very good resource; see the left hand panel, where you can browse the full archives, or search for information/insight by theme)
Story by Robert McKee: McKee is Hollywood’s resident guru in the arts of story, script and screenplay, and this is his best textbook on the subject. For people in the movie business, it is mandatory reading, easily the bible of the profession. Journalists as a class are seemingly yet to buy into this big time – but for me, it is a perennial favorite. The book breaks a story down into its component parts, explains each beautifully, and shows the inter-relationships, the dynamic; it explains structure and pacing in ways that you won’t find in classic journalism texts. Ideal for those interested in long form/narrative writing in particular.
The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neil: This one might seem like a weird choice, but isn’t. Check out that note I have on my pinboard – this is where I got it from. Comic books tell stories, in pictures and text; they build in the classic narrative arc of exposition, conflict, escalation and resolution; they are limited by considerations of space and hence need to be crisp, to move the story along; by their nature, they tend to use language accessible to all, without relying on writing tricks and polysyllabic profundity – and if you think about it, these are the real secrets to good news writing as well.
Besides these, there are two books, by two masters of the narrative/profile styles, which I tend to re-read often. There is this story about an editor of a US newspaper who was blind. When a reporter submitted a story, he would have them read it aloud. His most common criticism was, “I can’t see! Make me see this story/person/event!”
These two writers make you see. They are separated by generations, but both bring the same techniques to the task of crafting impeccable stories. Both are experts at structure and pacing; both paint brilliant word portraits; both have the ability to make even the commonplace interesting.
The first is Gay Talese—his Fame and Obscurity is the best collection of his work, though more recently another anthology The Gay Talese Reader was published.
The other, more modern, writer is Susan Orlean, her best work is contained in the collection The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.