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William Blundell–Art and Craft of Feature Writing

The art and craft of feature writing

By JOE GRIMM
Detroit Free Press
Recruiting and development editor

For a two-day engagement, William E. Blundell brought the live performance of his book, “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” to the Detroit Free Press.

Blundell played himself; the cast included an assortment of imaginary friends and pet peeves. In one scene, Blundell had drinks and talked story with the intelligent, interested and totally imagined friend whom Blundell writes for — and who reels him back in when his writing gets gassy and bloated.

In another scene, Blundell nearly came to blows with his mean alter ego, who jabs Blundell mercilessly with questions and challenges to write leaner, cleaner copy.

Blundell’s toughest lines, though, pilloried his pet peeves:

“I’m a strong opponent of outlining. It’s deciding in advance what the story will be, and then just bolting the whole thing together like something out of a hardware store. Tortured transitions are the mark of an outlined story.” … “The anecdotal lead is a plague on newspapers. It is half destroying our business.” … “I believe that one of the things that is ruining our stories is the presence of way too many people saying way too many banal, stupid and unnecessary things. We’re not writing research reports; we’re writing stories.”

Blundell has a plan, as well as peeves, and you can read the plan in his book. Let’s meet some of the peeves.

ORGANIZATION

Blundell really does believe that there is an art to writing, an art that

William Blundell
WILLIAM BLUNDELL

precludes good writers from outlining where the story will go. He prefers to do the reporting and then begin writing — the lead need not be there yet — and to ask the creation, “Story, tell me where you want to go.” This is the art, he says, and a question that our minds answer subconsciously as we sift and organize the raw material of the story.

In truth, the story’s organization should have been taking shape as the idea was refined, the reporting conducted and the conclusions analyzed.

Blundell, who spent 30 years swinging back and forth between writing and editing gigs, is exasperated with writers who say they can’t get anything done until they have their lead. He says they have the least organized stories.

He organizes stories around a main theme statement that may or may not later turn out to be the lead or the nut graph. This statement is hatched at the idea stage; it might evolve through the reporting, it might not. It organizes the story.

In a general way, he organizes stories along the lines of what he calls progressive reader involvement:

Stage 1: Tease me, you devil. Intrigue the reader. Get them to invest a little time in reading the lead.

Stage 2: Tell me what you’re up to. OK, enough teasing. I’m here. Now, what is this story really all about?

Stage 3: Oh yeah? Prove that what you’ve just said is true. Show me. This is about 80 percent of most stories.

Stage 4: I’ll buy it. Help me remember it. Make it forceful. Put an ending on it that will nail it into my memory.

ANECDOTAL LEADS

Newspapers use way too many anecdotal leads, Blundell says. “We are seduced by the lead,” he says. “We have the idea that this will turn a frog of a story into a prince.”

It won’t, of course.

Blundell has three tests to see whether an anecdotal lead is right for a story. If it flunks any of the three, it’s wrong.

The first is simplicity. If the anecdote requires explanation, it is too dense or complicated for a lead. Save it for later.

Next is theme relevance. The lead anecdote must illustrate the central point of the story. “But it’s the best thing I’ve got,” wails the writer within. Don’t use it. It sends story and reader off in the wrong direction, and will make the reader feel misled.

Finally, to lead the story, the anecdote must have intrinsic interest. It must be good all by itself. “If you put the lead on an index card and took it out to Woodward Avenue and asked people to read it by itself, would their eyebrows go up? Even by a millimeter?” If not, Blundell says, don’t lead with it.

If we’ll be using a lot fewer anecdotal leads, what should we write instead?

PEOPLE and QUOTES

Writers know that full reporting means going to more than one source. The problem, Blundell says, is that we want to show all this hard work to the reader, and we include everybody. “In the end, only blood relatives of sources will read the story, and some of them will only say they have,” Blundell says.

He compares stories crowded with superficial sources to a stage jammed with actors who speak just one line each.

In his book, Blundell writes, “A good writer is merciless in deciding who gets into his piece. Each person must have a story purpose or be excluded; scores of sources may have been interviewed, but that’s the worst reason for putting them into the story. … As the number of characters diminishes, those remaining loom larger in the reader’s mind. They become more than talking heads and begin to take on identities of their own. The storyteller wants this to happen and works to advance the process.”

Quotes, too, are better pruned and pared: “favor the short and sharp over the long and dull, and trim the statement down to its nubbin of meaning.

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Written by bsmietana

October 20, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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