So you wanna be a reporter, huh?

Absolute Blank

By Rhia Perkins (Kittlekatt)

Writing journalistic nonfiction is one of the easiest ways to break into paying markets. And while there are pricey journalism schools out there that purport to teach you how (and they do! I went to one), following the basic tenets of good journalism will let anyone do a great job on reporting on local events and characters.

Remember, journalism is just storytelling. The main difference is that you let real people and events form the basic facts of the story. You must use the actual words of real people, and suppress your voice as much as you can. But the weaving of the piece is still up to you.

What are these basic tenets, you ask?

  • Be Fearless
  • Ask Good Questions
  • Never Assume
  • Focus
  • Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy

Be Fearless

One of the most important things a reporter must do is find the “experts” who can provide the information for a story. This can be a person who you are profiling, a researcher at a university, a public official, or just about anyone.

Once you’ve identified who you need to find and back up the facts of your story, you have to do the scary thing–cold call them.

Don’t be afraid–but don’t feel bad if you are. Just pick up the phone and dial. Generally, people will be more than happy to speak with you. But be persistent–even if they’re busy, they’ll often make room in their schedules for you if you explain exactly what you want, and how long you think the interview will take.

Make sure to be polite to receptionists and secretaries. Very often they’re the ones who’ll control whether or not you get a chance to talk to your expert. But be extra polite when you are calling individuals. They may be nervous about talking to you, so you must work hard to gain their trust.

Ask Good Questions

The only way you will get good quotes for your story is to ask good questions.

Make sure to ask questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”. Ask one question at a time, and make sure it’s a question, and not a statement.

The best open ended questions start with one of the 5 Ws. Who? What? Where? When? and Why? Don’t forget the H-questions, too. Asking “How?” can get you great detail.

Make sure to follow up on answers.

  • “What happened next?”
  • “What examples of that can you give me?”
  • “How did that make you feel?”
  • “What does that mean?” or better yet “How would you explain that to a six-year-old?”
  • “What led up to this?”
  • “How much did it/will it cost?”
  • “Where will you find the funding?”
  • “Who will benefit?”

If you’re working on a profile, ask questions that will give readers an idea of the person’s personality. (You could even ask your characters this kind of question when writing fiction.)

  • “What’s your earliest childhood memory?”
  • “What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you?”
  • “How do you feel when you do XX?”
  • “Where’s the most exciting place you’ve done XX?”
  • “If you could be anyone in history, who would you be?”

And always end interviews with the following questions:

  • “Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask you?”
  • “May I contact you again if I need clarification or more information?”

Be scrupulous in writing down your subject’s answers. Use a tape recorder if your notetaking can’t keep up with the conversation. But most important…

Never Assume

You cannot assume that your interview subject is telling you the truth.

They may not be lying, but may be working under false assumptions themselves. This means your probing questions are essential. If you have reason to doubt an answer, it’s okay to ask, “How do you know that?” or “What documentation do you have?”

For facts and figures, always try to get the paperwork. Try to confirm factual information through other means (the Internet, encyclopedias, library databases). Interview enough people to ensure you’ve looked at as many angles as you can. If there’s a point of contention, call back your subjects to confirm or clarify.

Focus

Now that you have your interviews, your additional research, and a good idea of your story–it’s time to focus it.

The scope of your article depends greatly on its length. If you’re writing 500 words, you can only look at one or two very specific aspects. If 1,000, you can dig a little deeper, or write a little broader. At 2,000 or more words, you’re reaching a point where you can look at all the aspects of a simple story, or the most important ones of a complex story.

Identify which points are essential to your readers. This is the meat of your story, those five Ws and one H. Next, you should identify the motivations, the causes for the what. These two aspects must be in every story. The next step is to write a clear focus statement: This person is doing this thing BECAUSE this reason is happening.

Hang the rest of your story off that statement. If a detail doesn’t apply to that sentence, it doesn’t belong in your story. And remember to tell most of the story through your QUOTES.

Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy

This phrase is often referred to as the three tenets of journalism. What it means is, GET EVERYTHING RIGHT! Sounds easy, right? It’s not, always.

Some good tips. Ask people to spell their names, and those of any people or organizations they refer to. Don’t assume you know how to spell a name. There are always alternate spellings. (Spike Jonze for example.) Repeat figures back to the person giving them to you (or better yet, get the paperwork.) Look up addresses in the phone book.

Go over your work several times to make sure you’ve got the facts right. There’s nothing that makes a writer look worse than a letter saying they’ve got basic facts wrong. But don’t worry, everyone screws up sometimes.

And make sure all the information is attributed to its source. Use “says”. “According to” makes it sound as though you doubt the source.

Basic Structure

When you sit down to create your story, keep just a few things in mind.

  1. A strong lead is essential. Your first sentence should grab the reader’s attention and get them reading. Stay away from wasting it with clichés (It’s that time of year again…) and from dry recitations of too many facts (Claire St. George, 43, was run over by a blue Dodge Neon at Barrington and Gottingen at 5:45 Tuesday morning). But do try and get enough detail to get people’s attention. Try: A fatal accident in downtown Halifax Tuesday morning marks the city’s 5th traffic fatality this month.
  2. The most important info goes at the top.
  3. Weave together info and quotes. Make sure to attribute all your quotes, and to insert plain paragraphs between quotes.

Now who do you write for?

A great market for beginning journalists is the alternative media. Look around the town you live in. It’s very likely there are several small publications distributed free of charge. Start picking them up. See what sort of stories they run, what sort of viewpoints they look at, what sort of audience they cater to.

When you’ve found one that interests you, make an appointment to speak with the editor, whether you have story ideas ready to go or not. You can even telephone or e-mail, but be sure to introduce yourself and give the editor an idea of your background and your interests. Ask them to assign you a small story when they have one. When they do, ask them if they have an idea who you should call for info.

Meet your deadline. Ask for feedback. Because most alternative papers publish weekly or less often, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to spend some time going over your story with you. Pay attention to their feedback, and be sure to follow up on any questions they’d like to see addressed.

You may have to write several drafts, but don’t lose hope. When you and the editor agree the story is ready to go, you’ll get your byline in the paper, and a cheque (hopefully!) to boot.

And when you’ve built your confidence, don’t be afraid to roam further afield. Try alternative papers in nearby towns, or send off an idea to a magazine. There’s nowhere to go but up.

Final Poll Results

Approaching Nonfiction Creatively

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Creative nonfiction. Peculiar term, isn’t it? The first time I ran across it I thought, “Get out! What is this a joke, an oxymoron? An apologia for lying in print?” I swatted it away like a pesky mosquito. And like a pesky mosquito, it kept coming back; in articles and news programs attacking memoirs such as Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest and the biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris. Then, I began noticing ads for university graduate programs in Creative Nonfiction: what a contrast; journalistic outrage and academic codification. It didn’t look like a purple martin was going to swoop out of the sky and gobble up this pesky mosquito. So I figured if it’s going to keep buzzing around, I might as well learn about this thing called creative nonfiction.

So what is it? An easy definition is that creative nonfiction is a hybrid of literature and nonfiction; combining the literary elements of fiction with the facts and information of nonfiction. I like to think of writing creative nonfiction as an adventurous quest. Imagine going on a dream vacation, what would you do as a writer? Absorb every moment. Immerse yourself in the setting. Record every detail, every person, every conversation and, when you are home, regale your friends and family with stories so complete and engaging they think they’ve been there. As long as you don’t make anything up to enhance the story, you have the essence of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction (also called literary nonfiction, or literary journalism) uses a global, or holistic approach to explore and relay information. The writer engages the reader by including the details, scenes, action and dialogue of real life. The elements more often associated with fiction, poetry and drama. Resources are available, here at TC and elsewhere, on the elements of effective fiction. What frequently isn’t discussed is combining those with nonfiction. Just as we all had the three “R”s in elementary school, here are three elementary “R”s for creative nonfiction.

Reliability

Put aside your creative hat for a moment and remember you are writing nonfiction. There is a basic trust on the part of the reader that nonfiction contains reliable, valid information. The reader is relying on you to be honest, no matter how artistic or literary your style of presenting the facts. It is a disservice to both the reader and to you as a writer to manufacture or alter the truth. I remember reading an article in The New Republic about teenage computer hackers being hired by software companies to help prevent other hackers from breaking into their databases. (Washington Scene: Hacker Heaven, Stephen Glass,The New Republic, May 18, 1998). I thought it was so wonderful. I told several folks about how industry was putting the intelligence and energy of young miscreants to positive use. In the next issue, the editors of the magazine announced they had fired the author because he had manufactured the entire article. I felt disappointed and embarrassed. I’d been sharing this great information, from a magazine I trusted, and it wasn’t true! If there is one thing that continues to make creative nonfiction an annoying mosquito it’s authors who forget that the basic tenets of accuracy, validity and truth are the foundation of creative nonfiction writing. Your literary style and creativity are adornments based on and supporting those facts.

Research

This is the fun part. Research helps bring life to your creative nonfiction. Be excessive in your research. Include everything in your notes, even what it’s like pouring over musty archives in the basement of the library. Nonfiction is about life, whether you are writing about history, a City Commission Meeting, cellular biology, or a memoir. Intimate details, like the spindly, dusty begonia on the loan officer’s credenza or the Democrat County Commissioner’s collection of porcelain elephants, humanize and bring alive a nonfiction piece. Allow your research to include every aspect that surrounds your subject: color, texture, sound, space, weather, or the nuances of body language.

In the course of your research adventure, an equally important element in your research is ferreting-out appropriate sources. They may not always be reliable: in print or on the Internet. Let me give you an example from my own experience. This year I grew a tremendous amount of garlic. As June rolled around I knew it was about time to harvest the bulbs. I decided to do some research about the optimum moment for pulling them out of the ground. I checked my notes from an organic garlic production workshop I had attended a couple years ago: “Ted harvests in June”—great. I scratched my head wondering why I attended that workshop. Then I looked up garlic in three Rodale Press gardening books. I found the following: “harvest when all leaves are brown and dying” or “harvest when half the leaves are brown” or “harvest when one third of the leaves are brown and dying”—now what? Time for an Internet search. After about fifteen contradictory sites I found some real information, “harvest when the top leaves are brown and 5 or 6 lower leaves are still green, as they will form the papery skin around the bulbs when dry.” Don’t be satisfied with one or two references; dig deep, dig far and dig wide. It often takes extensive research to find real and relevant information. Which brings us to our third R.

Relevance

You may be able to recount your visit to the Bahamas with great literary flair, but if it doesn’t contain some observations or insights to which the reader can relate your writing won’t have a strong voice. Writing about the stunning hotel, the glittering white sand, the romantic starlit nights, would only result in one more travelogue. What would resonate with relevance is discussing the unpainted homes of the hotel workers within walking distance of the glitz and glamour of the hotels, or your conversations with local Bahamians about life “on the other side” of glamour. Let life fly into your non-fiction, not only with creative literary devices but let it take wing with relevant slices of life. Nonfiction writing is an adventuresome outlet (and excellent market) for your creative talents. Explore a slice of life and enjoy writing reliable, well researched, relevant creative nonfiction.

I’ll end with an excerpt from an article by Emily Hiestand about a waste water treatment facility near Boston (can you think of a more exciting topic)? 😉

“The Sri Lankan engineers were almost bubbly with excitement about the facility. Me too. The operation room rivals the deck of the Starship Enterprise; there are monster pumps, and in the dome of each egg a lovely oculus, a functional cousin of that calm, all-seeing eye in the Pantheon. But what really sends me is the transformation this plant is working on Boston’s once sullied harbor, restoring it to a sparkling realm clean enough to please bluefish and seals. And people, who are rediscovering the harbor islands-a sapphire necklace of tide pools, wild roses, swimming coves, and ruins of, for instance, the Asylum for Indigent Boys. From the catwalk windows now the view was of sailboats and water taxis, the Boston skyline ghostly in the distance, and, directly below, the plant itself-a sprawling Rube Goldberg number with Corten-steel stacks, clarifying ponds, and pipes galore, all of it surrounded by the Atlantic and coursed by fresh sea breezes.”