The Paragraph Stacker

Uncensored columns from an exiled newsmane

My friend Ken Fuson, the greatest writer in the history of the Des Moines Register, died in January. I wrote the news obituary about his death. My first paragraph: “Ken Fuson would have written this better.”

I feel the same way as I explore my thoughts about writing and teaching writing as I study at Drake University to earn my master’s degree and teacher certification.

I hope to teach writing and journalism. I hope to spark that creative flame in others the way Carol Liechty at Winterset Elementary and Middle schools and Chris Madison did for me at Winterset High School.

Bob Woodward, my mentor, teacher and friend at Drake when I was an undergraduate, shaped and directed my passion. It led to a 23-year career in journalism. I wrote Woodward’s obituary the same day I did Fuson’s.

I remember people often asked Fuson for writing advice. It seemed as if they wanted some poetry or a magic trick. He had neither.

I can do no better, except to offer some thoughts. This is how I prefer to write. These are the stories I prefer to read. There are many styles. There are many ways. There are many ideas.

These are mine.

Writing is work. It is damned hard work for which most of us who do this for a living are paid a pittance by people who’ve never composed a paragraph worth reading.

Just tell the story. Stay out of the way. Keep your judgements to yourself. Let the reader decide based on the volume of facts you provide.

Journalism is not advocacy. Your work should be easily distinguishable from advocacy. Just tell people what is going on.

Journalism is also not fiction. The late, longtime New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell is quoted as saying, “A newspaper can have no greater nuisance than a reporter trying to make literature.”

I agree. Report. Ask people what is going on. Follow the money. Check the documents. Let facts, stated simply and clearly, dominate your story. Leave artistic flourishes to middle school poets.   

Read. Read a lot. Read often. Keep a book by your favorite chair. Keep magazines or another book in your bathroom. Keep another one by your bed. Read things you admire. Read writers you hate.

Read about what you know, but especially read about what you don’t know.

Example: Don’t like sports? Read one sports story a week or a sports biography a year. We don’t stack paragraphs for ourselves.

We write for the masses. The masses like sports. They like sports better than politics. Learn about them. Learn about TV and other crap, too.

Remember: This is journalism. You can’t afford to be a dummy about anything.

Think while you read. Interview the text. Why did the writer choose this detail? How would I get these facts? How would I structure this sentence?

Teach the voice in your head to speak slowly and clearly, but don’t write like you talk. Write like you wished you spoke: with grace, elegance and clarity.

Your writing can only be as good as your reporting. Never say you’re a better writer than a reporter. There is an old story about baseball pitchers who can’t field their position. They are destined for mediocrity. A writer who can’t report won’t even be that good.

Avoid adjectives and adverbs. They make sentences longer and are seldom objective. They are never as telling as you think they are.

Avoid gerunds. If you don’t know what a gerund is, look it up. Then avoid it. A sentence can almost always be rewritten to avoid a gerund.

Favor verbs. To be or not to be may be the question. It is not the only verb. Verbs are the engines of language. Without verbs, your sentence is dead.

Use words everyone can understand.

This is not original to me: The reader does not need an excuse to stop reading.

Short sentences are better than long ones. The same is true of paragraphs.

Use bad assignments to practice things you’re not good at.

Keep quotes short. You’re probably a better writer than your source is a talker. Boil it down. Treat it like fractions in math: simplify.

Avoid “color.” Color is adding facts that don’t matter. Does it matter if the candidate ate vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Does it matter if he or she was eating at all?

Don’t write about the weather unless it’s a weather story or the weather is part of the story. It’s hot in July and August. It’s only interesting if the candidate dies of heat stroke or people pass out in the audience. Otherwise you’re just whining.

Stick to the point. Avoid clutter.

Ask: How did you come to know this? Never, ever write faux facts.  

If you say the truck roared down a road with a diesel rumble, you damned well better have heard it or seen it. If not, attribute it to the person who told you.

On second thought, does the diesel rumble matter? Remember, avoid clutter.

You might get away with flowery faux facts, but you’re making up stuff. You’re lying to the reader about what you know to manipulate them emotionally.

Knock it off. The readers are lied to and manipulated enough.

Ask: What does it mean to the reader? Don’t impress me. Don’t impress yourself. Don’t impress the boss. Just tell people what the hell is going on. Do that effectively and consistently. That will be impressive.

Admit it when you don’t know something. If you don’t, at best you’ll seem like a jerk. At worst, you’ll be a liar.

Work fast. Think faster. Favor facts. Keep it simple.

That’s all I have. Ask other people. They are probably better at this than me.

Daniel P. Finney searches for his brain inspection hatch at ParagraphStacker.com.

Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life ignored by the oligarchy.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I launch this new venture continuing the journalism you’ve demanded. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on teaching journalistic writing

  1. David Hubbard says:

    ok…You must know..I like tailing you…In high school at Marshalltown I think I read almost every journalism book in the high school library. When i would go sit at Iowa Job service–waiting for day jobs–took the J books. It is still listed as 070 in the library..I think… ok..While a rookie–one time I did a free lance story.Sent it to the new Managing editor at the Register. He was a newby from up by Waverly/ His name-blank for now.But was a great helper for me. I did a story on a Vietnam Vet who came home…all ok…Wrote the story/ The paper didnt buy it.Whic was ok…His words were…let the guy tell his own story…Good. learned on that one.,And rhe soldier was GOOD SPEAKER.,,i THINK i DID PLACE THAT ARTICLE SOME PLACE.bUT GAVE THE rEGISTER FIRST RIGHTS TO SEE IT….aLSO–THERE ARE PLENTY OF REASONS WHY A STORY CAN BE REJECTED. dO NOT TAKE IT SO PERSONAL….i ONCE ME MET THE LATE mRS.mADLYN eNGEL-SHE WROTE NEWBERRY AWARD WINNER–WRINKLE IN TIME—A JUVE FICTION…. sHE SENT HER MANUSCRIPT OUT 37 TIMES BEFORE IT HIT…,,THANKS mR.dAN….

    Like

  2. Good stuff, Danny. I’m glad you’re heading into teaching. Based on what I’ve just read, you and students will benefit from it.

    Like

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