Read it: He said he didn’t really know what day he was born. His parents were both dead before he turned 5, he said, and he’d never celebrated a birthday in his life. But Jerry Joseph’s birth certificate read January 1, so on New Year’s Day 2010, his family gathered around him. It would be a new year, a new decade, a celebration of Jerry’s brand-new life. There were flimsy cardboard hats and streamers and wrapped gifts. Jerry, who at six feet five and 220 pounds was several inches taller than anyone else in his adoptive family, was presented a white cake adorned with candles in the shape of a 1 and a 6.
Also, in the comments section at the end, he says, “No, the fact is, there’s been more bad sportswriting committed in the name of Gary Smith than any other writer going.”
I think I know what he means — only Gary Smith can write like Gary Smith, and if you try and fail, the results might be grisly.
Incidentally, I could have been indicted for Attempted Impersonation of Gary Smith with any one of my first three stories in Sports Illustrated. One of my writing heroes told me, about the first one, “I have a few qualms: there’s an awful lot of Gary S. in it, in both sound and structure, and you’ll have to find your own way one day; and not everything resonates on a higher plane, not everything is mythic. Sometimes I think sports is the least mythic thing of all, and that we get in trouble when we expect a few moments on a court or a field or a diamond to be transformative.”
Anyway, what do you guys think? When you try to sound like someone, who is it? How old were you when you finally found yourself sounding like yourself?
If you’ve been around the past few years, you’ve probably been witness to plenty of talk about the Editor Wall (see this and this) and how to best deal obstinate bosses or newsroom cultures that prompt the old “narrative is essentially rejected at my paper” lines. I still get a fair amount of mail from folks struggling against such forces. They’re “beaten down,” as Dave put it in that last link, which is sad.
That’s why I was so glad to see some cool stuff recently from William Browning, who covers crime for the Casper Star-Tribune. You’ve probably noticed a few on here in the past few months (Scottie, The Sweeper, A man with a past in a fading town, etc.).
William’s work — and his engaging voice, and the fact that he’s writing stuff like this on a cops beat at a paper with a city staff of, what, six or seven? — made me curious about who edits him, and what their relationship is like. I just today read this one, in which he saves the payoff until graph 14.
His editor is David Mayberry, assistant managing editor for city and sports. I showed David some of our previous discussions on the topic and told him we’re a friendly crowd. He was kind enough to answer some questions. Maybe he’ll join us on here if y’all have more, and I hope you do.
Could you share a little about your philosophy on editing? What do you look for in a story?
Based on the responses to some of the prior threads, I need to make a key point that is often lost in the daily grind of newspaper reporting: Both the editor and reporter need to understand, embrace and complete job expectations as outlined by their supervisors.
Those can sometimes be in conflict with individual needs and wants, but if both sides can begin each day with an understanding of what’s expected and what needs to be accomplished, there is a better chance both sides will succeed. Communication improves, and the final product is what both sides will be satisfied with.
If a reporter has a different vision for his position, conflict will be the norm. The same is true for the editor. Trust will be a neverending hurdle.
The more trust I have in a reporter, the more leeway I’m going to allow in time, resources and leeway in narrative writing.
Also, every editor has writing peeves that makes him cringe. As a reporter, learn what pushes your editor’s bad button and stop doing it. Write around it. Use sticky notes to remind yourself. And if you have to break some in-house writing rules have a good reason for it and be ready to defend it.
Back to the questions…
For narratives from my reporters, I read through the story without noting, changing or marking anything. The motive in the first read-through is to identify the voice of the writer and the tone of the story. If I can’t identify either, major work will likely be needed.
This is a critical development point for most reporters, and the time at which they find and utilize that voice varies. There isn’t an umbrella answer for when it happens, but I can usually ask this question to find the answer: Is it unique for the purpose of the story or simply over-written?
My biggest concern entering the editing process is losing the writer’s voice. I’ve seen too many reporters submit good pieces only to have other editors rewrite them completely with little to no tangible improvement in the final product. The stories read like the editor’s writing without his byline. The negative impacts far outweight the lone positive of just finishing the story. While that may be OK and sometimes necessary with daily pieces, a narrative can’t be pushed this route for it to be successful.
Once I’ve completed the first read, I note themes and topics, people and places, degrees of description, and the effectiveness of transitions. I ask myself if the characters, experiences and emotions are relatable to readers. While there may be few or no people who have experienced what is told in the story, there needs to be a connection through the words. Without it, the writer is simply writing for himself.
How does a reporter earn your trust? And how are you defining voice?
How does a reporter earn your trust?
* Knows that he is a reporter first, writer second.
* Understands and completes daily duties.
* Submits copy that is consistently factually sound.
* Submits copy that is (relatively) clean.
* Consistently communicates reporting plans or changes to the existing plan.
* Meets agreed upon deadlines and eliminates excuses for missing them.
* Demonstrates an ability to report before writing. I’ve cringed more than a few times when reporters have outlined stories before talking to anyone. Let the sources speak before you write.
* Demonstrates an understanding of the difference between equal coverage and fair coverage.
* Shows an ability to elicit information from difficult sources.
* Shows an ability to judge the importance of a story and uses the right words to illustrate that context.
How are you defining voice?
I’ve been thinking about this for some time, hoping to find a formula to help myself and others get rich off our words. That hasn’t happened. Yet.
But the timeline for defining and developing a writing voice is what interests me the most, given the size of our newspaper and the talent we typically attract. There’s a crucial career point for a reporter who grasps the items I outlined in earning trust:
Am I going to be a straight-forward, data-driven, AP-style focused reporter?
Or am I capable of adding depth to my stories?
The former isn’t a bad thing or a career-ending fork; there are several amazingly talented people who are better at news reporting than narrative writing.
That said, reporters – for the most part, we’re obscenely competitive – will almost always make an attempt at the latter. It comes with an understanding of the beat, the environment, the readers, the topic.
Will was a solid writer before he arrived here, and his writing voice has evolved since then. There’s uniqueness to his voice, most notably in the pacing. That, I think, is the most difficult challenge in developing a successful narrative tone. But there are other aspects that help define that.
To find the writer’s voice, I look at the emotion, pacing, variety, restraint and transitions.
By its label, a narrative needs to read differently than a daily story. There’s a depth and sense to the tale not found in other stories. The reader needs to feel the words, not just read them.
Problems with pacing and transitions will be evident if you read the story aloud. If it’s choppy, it’s sloppy.
There needs to be a variety in sentence and paragraph length; and appropriate and restrained use of dashes, ellipses and italics. Keep me surprised and engaged, but don’t use a grammatical tool just because you think it looks cute on the screen. The words must drive the story.
Do you read stories aloud with reporters? Do you find that helpful?
Rarely, but I’ve certainly suggested writers do it. Maybe I need to start …
As noted earlier, after the first read, I identify themes and topics. This goes back to part of my response to an earlier question:
Once I’ve completed the first read, I note themes and topics, people and places, degrees of description, and the effectiveness of transitions. I ask myself if the characters, experiences and emotions are relatable to readers.
I may suggest reorganizing some sections based on the above or simply note places where the story requires more detail or better transitions. That by itself forces the writer to concentrate on those areas and improve them. If he finds the improvement by reading it aloud, great. I suppose it depends on the writer and editor.
You’ve got to read Christopher Goffard:
He kept thinking that there had been a mistake, that he’d be out in no time. That the system, set into motion by some misunderstanding or act of malice, would soon correct itself.
That was before the detective informed him of the charges, and before the article in the Ventura County Star. “Man held after woman found raped and tortured,” read the headline, and there was his name, along with a quote from a police officer: “In 19 years of police work, this has to go down as one of the most brutal attacks I have ever seen.”
The sky was beautiful that afternoon. Louis Gonzalez III remembered it felt like spring.
He was standing on the sidewalk outside the Simi Valley Montessori School, having just flown in from Las Vegas, hoping to get a look at his 5-year-old son’s new kindergarten. Standing there, waiting for the door to open so he could scoop the boy up in his arms and fly him to Nevada for the weekend.
The first officer arrived on a motorcycle and headed straight for him. He did not explain the charges as he snapped on the handcuffs. As Gonzalez stood there stunned, he noticed little faces pressed against the schoolhouse glass, watching, and asked if he could be moved just a bit so his son didn’t have to see.
Steve Hendrix (h/t Dan): David Sharpe finally hit bottom on the bedroom floor of his apartment in Yorktown, Va. That’s where he sat, legs folded, ready to finish the fight with the demons that had followed him back from the war zone: the sudden rages; the punched walls; the profanities tossed at anyone who tried to help.
There was little in the room but dirty Air Force uniforms, some empty Jaegermeister bottles and a crushing despair. He took a deep breath. Shut his eyes. Closed his lips a little tighter around the cool steel.
And then something licked his ear. He looked around and locked gazes with a pair of brown eyes.
Cheyenne cocked her head to one side.
Michael Brick: NEW ORLEANS — The season is lost. The numbers don’t lie: Defeats to teams from Georgia, Oklahoma, Illinois, Arizona, two places in Pennsylvania and three in Florida, one of them twice. Shut out at home, in The Graveyard. Yes, there have been turnovers. Yes, there have been injuries. Yes, there have been transactions. Lord have there been transactions. On the active roster of 24 players, 11 remain from training camp, some of whom joined through open tryouts at City Park, paying $60 for the chance, which was all they were ever promised, a chance, that and a T-shirt. The latest addition is 37 years old. He’s a skill player: A defensive back.
Maybe these are just the breaks of Arena Football, the bouncehouse sport of also-rans. Maybe this is just the function of a bankruptcy reorganization designed to concentrate power in the league office. Maybe this is just the fate of an expansion team, even one with a venerable name bought and paid for. These men earn $7,200 for the season — $3,690 below the federal poverty level — plus any treatment that counts as sports medicine from Tulane and complimentary lodging at the Magnolia Ridge Apartments between I-10 and the Causeway in Metairie. Their coach, Derek Stingley, still in the game despite what it takes away from his family, or maybe because of what it already has: He rides the sleeper bus too. Their quarterback, Danny Wimprine, the hometown ace out of John Curtis Christian School, a minor folk hero in a town with more of them than it can use; he gets $400 a game too.
But who among us isn’t making a last stand?
Warning: This is disturbing. Sickening even. But let’s talk about this. What do you think of it? Is it too much? How would you have written this story?
Eli Sanders: The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night—which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?
She answered the prosecutor’s questions, pointing to a map of the small South Park home she used to share with her partner, Teresa Butz, a downtown Seattle property manager. When the two of them lived in this house, it was red, a bit run-down, much loved, filled with their lives together, typical of the neighborhood. Now it was a two-dimensional schematic, State’s Exhibit 2, set on an easel next to the witness stand. She narrated with a red laser pointer for the prosecutor and the jury: These windows had curtains that couldn’t be seen through. These windows had just a sheer fabric.
Would your silhouettes have been visible through that sheer fabric at night?
Probably. She didn’t know for sure. When she and her partner lived in the house, she noted, “I didn’t spend a lot of time staring in my own windows.”
Read Lee Hancock: I felt jittery and ridiculous lifting my hands toward the hulking silhouette. I told myself to squeeze. I stared at the paper target 20 feet away.
I jerked my index finger and jumped at an explosive flash and bang that sounded like a high-powered rifle. Yet my hands absorbed only a bump, and the barrel of the FN Five-seven barely bounced before leveling on the target. Soon, 20 holes riddled the paper man’s chest. I felt a frisson of adrenalin-jacked amazement as I ejected the empty magazine, slapped in another and leveled the gun at the paper man’s head.
After months of covering the Fort Hood massacre, I felt a compulsion to shoot a semi-automatic pistol like the one used that awful day.
I had an emotional hangover from all I’d seen and heard since an identical gun cut down 44 soldiers and a civilian at Fort Hood, killing 13. I realized picking up a Five-seven probably couldn’t assuage that, much less answer the unfathomable: why the horrific happened again. Yet by holding a pistol identical to U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan’s, I might learn more about how the worst bloodletting on any U.S. military installation went down.
Hasan’s last public utterance was his scream “Allahu Akbar” — the Muslim exhortation “God is great!” — before he mowed down colleagues he’d sworn to lead and heal as an officer and physician. He has maintained silence for months in a solitary Bell County Jail cell, awaiting a decision on whether Army prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
So I turned to his gun. With each visit to a gun store or range, I realized how easy it was for nearly anyone bent on violence to find the right gun and learn to use it with deadly efficiency. With each trigger pull, the unthinkable became more a thought problem, an equation solvable with chemistry and physics, zealotry and rage. With each staccato burst, I would discover viscerally how that lightweight weapon would transform even a military misfit into a mass murderer.
Tim Botos: Kasey (Barton) Proehl has matured from a giggly little girl into a 24-year-old woman. A statuesque 6 feet tall, with gray-blue eyes like her dad’s, she holds a master’s degree. She teaches high school sciences and embraces her new life in Indiana.
Most days, though, she still thinks of her dad, Kirk Barton. And on this Father’s Day, she may even write to him in her journal. It’s where Kasey empties her feelings about a dad who helped shape the person she has become. A man who remains an enigma, though, to friends and to relatives on her in-laws’ side of the family.
“He’s everywhere and nowhere,” she explained.