City Lights, June 17, 2007: Remember: Writers write, unfortunately

2013-12-29T06:54:00Z 2013-12-29T07:17:06Z City Lights, June 17, 2007: Remember: Writers write, unfortunatelyBy ED KEMMICK City Lights The Billings Gazette
December 29, 2013 6:54 am  • 

Everywhere I go, young people come up to me and ask, "Ed, how do I break into the reporting business?"

And I tell them, "Hang around the perimeter fence just as an established reporter is breaking out."

I'm kidding! What I actually tell them is that they need to learn the tricks of the trade. Beginning today, I will from time to time share some of these tips with aspiring writers. If you start young and check in often enough, you can skip journalism school.

Before you even think about writing, remember this: "Accuracy, accuracy, accurasy!" I think that means you should check everything three times, which I will do before submitting this column.

You should be particularly careful with the spelling of names. You don't want your editor calling you into his office to inform you that the "Bob Brown" you quoted extensively in your story is actually Bobb Browne. And it's perfectly allowable to ask people in certain professions — strippers named Chastity, Lexxie or Raven, for instance — whether they're using their real names.

And if you can't be accurate, be vague. Above all, remember that "recently" is your friend. If you are unable to nail down a date, "recently" will work just fine, as in: "The International Association of Space Scientists recently announced that the world is likely to be destroyed within 10 days by an asteroid the size of Manhattan Island."

The good book

You should also learn to use the dictionary. A good reporter knows hundreds of thousands of seemingly useless facts, and the dictionary is littered with them. You might be looking up, for the umpteenth time, the spelling of "hippopotamus," and find out, on the same page, that "hirudin" is a substance found in the salivary glands of leeches. Who knows when that bit of information will come in handy?

Also, remember to leave yourself out of your stories. If it's absolutely necessary to include yourself, use the third person: "District Judge Bill Crumbley was calling the court to order Wednesday morning when the head flew off his gavel, striking a Daily Strumpet reporter in the temple and rendering him incapable of saying what else occurred in court on Wednesday."

But enough about details. Let's talk about one of the most important elements of the news story — the "lead," or opening sentence. Among themselves, reporters often spell it "lede," supposedly to avoid confusion with lead, the base metal. I think the real reason is that reporters, when they're off the clock, simply enjoy misspelling words.

By far the most compelling lead is the cliffhanger. If you start a story off by writing "When Lester Glumshaft woke up Monday, he never imagined he'd go to bed dead," the reader will stick with you until you spill the beans on what happened to Mr. Glumshaft, no matter how long the story is.

The question mark lead is another attention-grabber: "Did you ever wonder how many people could possibly escape from the county jail in one night?"

The narrative touch

An advanced method of jazzing up a lead, or the whole story for that matter, is to use what is known as the narrative form. Your garden-variety reporter might write: "There will be no trash pickup Monday because of the Memorial Day holiday."

Now look what happens to that same item in the hands of a highly trained narrative-writing reporter: "Stabbing his cigarette butt into his ashtray, in one of the few city offices where smoking is still allowed, Public Works Director Bob Fishbinder looked out the window at a beautiful May morning on Friday. But his thoughts were elsewhere.

"'This Memorial Day,' he said, choosing his words carefully, 'our trucks won't be picking up any garbage.' He swung around in his chair, facing a visitor, and said, 'Are there any more questions?'"

Whatever you do with the lead, keep it short. Don't write, "The Burgtown City Council voted 7-3 Monday night to implement changes to the city ordinance governing special improvement districts, following recommendations delivered last week by the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Committee on Special Improvement District Regulations."

Instead, try this: "The tall blonde in the black high heels didn't look like she was used to holding a gun."

The only difficulty with that lead, of course, is that you'll have to find some plausible way of easing into the boring city council story.

We'll work on those techniques in the next installment of Tips for Aspiring Reporters.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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