On Writing

An excerpt from a talk that sports columnist Mitch Albom gave to fellow staffers at the Detroit Free Press in 2001.

What I hope to do is talk a little bit about some ideas I have learned over the past 20 years in journalism.

One thing I have learned from being in the radio, television and newspaper worlds – and therefore working for all the competition simultaneously – is that we, in the print world, are not what we used to be. We are not the primary source of information for people any more. I think we’re all painfully aware of that. By the time the newspaper arrives on the porch, most people — if they’ve watched CNN or listened to the radio — already have a very good idea of what is going on. They already have the who-what-where-when and why they teach us about in journalism school.

What this has engendered in the newspaper world is a need to approach writing and our journalism from a different point of view; we have to arrest the readers’ attention. We are not just the paper of record anymore. We are not just there to give you the who-what-when-where-and-why. They’re doing that on the Internet, they’re doing it on television, they’re doing it on 24-hour cable news, they’re doing it on radio. So what do we have to offer that none of them can?

The only thing that we have to offer is our ability to write. We’re way better writers than anybody working in these other organizations, and I can tell you that because I work in all of them. There’s nobody there that can do what the people at this newspaper are capable of doing in terms of writing style. So when we mimic what they do, we lose, because they’re faster than us. When we do what we do best, which is stylize, write, detail, flow, extrapolate, then we win, because they can never do that. They don’t have the manpower, they don’t have the experience. So I want to talk about a couple of ways that I think you can arrest people’s attention.

And I do mean arrest. I don’t use that verb lightly. Because people will give you about two to three seconds now, on anything. At MSNBC, they rate by the minute. They’ll give us ratings, and they’ll say between 11 and 12 minutes after the hour, you really had their attention. That’s how they rate it. That’s the kind of attention span they’re fighting with, and that’s what we are fighting with, too, whether we want to admit it or not.

So I’m going to break down three elements of stylistic writing, and I have to say from the start that this is more for feature writing than it is necessarily for straight news stories. I think straight news stories still have to be governed first and foremost by the who-what-where-when and why. All those things you are taught in basic journalism school I still think primarily hold, although I still think there’s plenty of room for style within that. I’m going to break it down to 1) leads, 2) the middle 3) the overall idea and 4) the end, and just give you some of my thoughts as to what works and what doesn’t.

LEADS

Let’s talk about leads. The way that we’re taught in journalism school to do a lead is to get all the basic information into the first or second paragraph somehow. Well, as you all know, if you’re trying to do that, it’s hard to do with any style. You’ve got to say how old somebody is, where they live, what they did, what they’re charged with, all the rest of it, it’s hard to put a lot of pizzazz on that and make it look like anything.

I’m not sure you have to do that. I think that as long as you hold the reader’s attention until you get to that information, it’s all right to bury it a little further down. And I know that that again is a violation of an old axiom, burying the lead. In features and in columns, I don’t believe that’s true. Let me give you a couple of examples.

First of all, there’s something that I refer to as misdirection. Those of you that follow magic know they make you look over here, and meanwhile they’re doing something over there. There’s the same kind of thing in writing. I’ll read you an example. This is Jimmy Breslin’s column, that I always thought was a terrific one, and it’s from I think the ’70s. It starts off with something that I always think is an effective way to begin, which is a scene, an actual scene that is taking place. People love to be dropped in to something. We’re a movie culture. We like to see scenes play out in front of us. So when in doubt, always paint a picture with a scene to start anything, any story, any lead, any feature story, whatever. Better to start it with a scene than a declarative sentence.

They were walking along in the empty gray afternoon, three of them, Alan Burnett, Aaron Friedman and Billy Mavery. Burnett, the eldest at 17, walking up Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, and singing out Mohammed Ali rhymes into the chilly air. As they reached the corner of Kosciusczko Street, it was Alan Burnett’s turn to give his Ali rhyme: “AJB is the latest, and he’s the greatest.” “Who’s AJB?” one of them said. “Alan J. Burnett,” he said. They were laughing and they turned the corner onto Costco Street. The three wore coats against the cold.

Burnett was in a brown trench coat, Friedman a burgundy leather and Mavery a beige corduroy with a box collar. A white paint stain was on the bottom of the back of Mavery’s coat. Mavery walking on the outside, suddenly was shoved forward.

“Keep on walking straight,” somebody behind him said. Billy Mavery turned his head. Behind him was this little guy of maybe 18, wearing red sweater, dark pants and black gun.

Aaron Friedman, walking beside Mavery, says he saw two others besides the gunman. The three boys kept walking, although Mavery thought the guy in the red sweater had a play gun.

“Give me the money.”

“I don’t have any money,” Alan Burnett said.

The guy with the gun shot Alan Burnett in the back of the head.

Burnett pitched into the wall of an apartment house and went down on his back, dead.

The gunman stood with Alan Burnett’s body at his feet and said now he wanted coats. Billy Mavery handed back the corduroy with the paint stain. Friedman took off his burgundy leather. The gunman told the two boys to start running. “Don’t look back!” Billy Mavery and Aaron Friedman ran up Costco Street past charred buildings, with tin nailed over the windows, expecting to be shot in the back. People came onto the street and the guy in the red sweater waved his gun at them. The people dived into doorways. He stuck the gun into his belt and he ran up Bedford Avenue, ran away with the new coats.

Some saw one guy, some saw somebody else, others say they saw two. It was another of last week’s murders that went almost unnoticed. Alan Burnett was young, people in the city were concentrating all week on the murders of elderly people. Next week we can dwell on murders of the young, and then the killing of the old won’t seem as important.

That is a third of the column. To me the “nut graph”, if you apply the old way of looking at this – and remember this was written in the ’70s – the nut graph is basically, “It was another of last week’s murders that went almost unnoticed,” the last paragraph that I read. You didn’t get to that until a third of the way through the column. He goes later in the column into statistics and how many young people are dying and the rest of it. What was important was that he started with a scene of happy go-lucky kids walking down the street, and then I thought the most effective thing he did was:   “He said, give me the money.”
“I don’t have any money.”

The guy with the gun shot Alan Burnett in the back of the head.A sentence. That’s it. one sentence. But it’s horrifying, because you’ve  got this little misdirection going on. You’ve got this scene of these  kids walking down the street, they’re having a good time. All of a  sudden, somebody shoves them, and then this simple sentence: “Give me  the money.” “I don’t have any money.” Bang! That’s what’s supposed to  stay with you. But it doesn’t happen until the sixth or seventh  paragraph.

Now you could say, by the traditional school of journalism, why did you waste two or three paragraphs talking about what they were singing as they walked down the street? Because you establish the innocence of childhood. When kids are walking down the street and singing Muhammad Ali rhymes, you paint the picture of innocence here and – boom, it’s over.

Now, I think people will read all the way through that. Old school might say that you have to have the fact that a 17-year-old was shot in the head somewhere in the first or second paragraph. I don’t think so. Not today. I think, first paint a picture that will draw people in. That’s what I call a little example of misdirection.

Here’s something I wrote that’s the opposite of that. This uses a lead that gets as much information into the opening as I could because I knew I was going to need it later on, but I didn’t want to bore people. I didn’t want to say, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened, who-what-where-when and why. So I did it this way. This is a story about Justin Mello, the kid who was killed in New Baltimore.
One night, one town, one bullet, one kid.

The kid was Justin Mello, barely 16 years old, popular soccer player at Anchor Bay High School, with a melting smile, a tall athletic frame, a freshly minted driver’s license and a dream of buying his father’s GMC truck with the money earned working at a pizza shop.

The bullet came from a 9-mm handgun that was fired just inches from Mello’s head as he knelt, execution style, in a cooler filled with dough and cheese. The bullet ripped through Mello’s skull and exited his forehead. When they found his body, he was still on his knees.

The town was New Baltimore, population 7,000, a quiet waterfront community in Macomb County where there hadn’t been a murder since before Justin was born.

The night was Saturday, October 21st. Before this, sighs a lawyer in the case, the biggest problem in New Baltimore was the fish flies. Not any more.
Now that’s five paragraphs. That is not a misdirection lead. That is quite the opposite. That is, I’m going to get a ton of information into these first five paragraphs, but I’m going to try to do it in a way that doesn’t put people to sleep. So I did the establishing sentence, which was “One night, one bullet, one town, one kid.” It ended up being a theme that I kept coming back to over and over again. But it’s a gimmick. I’m going to be the first person to tell you that. It’s a gimmick in that it gets people to go along in that I have an opening sentence that says, “One night, one bullet, one town, one kid.” Well, don’t you after reading that sentence, want to know what kid, what night, what bullet, what town?

In four paragraphs, I’m able to tell you that the kid was 16, he was an athlete, that he dreamed of buying his father’s truck, that he was killed by a 9-mm handgun, that it was fired a couple inches from his head, in a cooler, execution style, that the town of New Baltimore had 7,000 people in it, that there hadn’t been a murder in it since before Justin was born, which means 17 years, and that the night was Oct. 21. That’s a lot of information to get into the first few grafs. I did my duty as a journalist. But hopefully, if I did my job as a writer, I didn’t just put you to sleep with a bunch of facts. I laid it out with this picture of the bullet, the town.

And what I did after that is, I came back to:

One bullet. Follow its flight and you witness a devastation that far exceeds its caliber. A swath that cuts a community in two. You see children weeping and parents dumb with grief. You see a soccer team wearing armbands and a makeshift tombstone on a high school lawn. You see accused murderers in chains being cheered outside a courthouse. You see witnesses changing their stories. You see a Christmas tree in a suburban home devoid of presents for the oldest boy. You see a father in a hospital as a yellow body bag is unzipped. He looks at the face that used to be so bright, used to be his son, and is forever shattered by the hole of one bullet.
Again, it’s a gimmick. I used three paragraphs there to set up the whole scene of what happened in this town and what you are about to see in this 900-inch story, because 900-inch stories scare people. I know that my job as a writer, and moreso as a journalist, because there is a difference in book writing vs. this, is that I have to ease the pain of what’s about to come here for the reader. So by laying out those next paragraphs, what I did was like a movie preview. In one minute they give you all these scenes from all throughout the movie and you have a general pace of what’s coming up.

I use those paragraphs to kind of say, this is what’s coming up. You’re going to see children weeping and parents dumb with grief. You’re going to see a soccer team wearing armbands. You’re going to see people in chains being jeered outside a courthouse. You’re going to see a Christmas tree scene and a family that’s rife with grief.

And then throughout the course of the story, all those things are presented in much more detail. But this is the challenge for a longer piece: how do you get something in the lead that doesn’t put people to sleep and doesn’t start in one area and go straight through until you’ve covered it all?   So try to step back and understand that it’s very important to arrest the reader’s attention, somehow, some way. You can do it with deflection, like Jimmy Breslin did on his story, you can do it straight ahead with information, but if you’re going to do that, see if you can come up with some gimmick or some visual. Follow the path of a bullet that goes through this and goes through that. It’ll hold the reader’s attention that much longer.

MIDDLES

Some of the most effective ways I have seen newspapers deal with stories is to look beyond what is apparent in front of you. See if you can tell the story through a side angle. What I mean by that is, when President Kennedy was assassinated, there were columnists all across the nation that wrote what a tragic day this was for America. It’s the easiest piece of journalism you can think of, right? How hard is that? Every columnist in America is going to sit down at his typewriter and write, what a tragic day this is for America. Good. Serviceable. Not that original, and not that arresting.

In 1963, you don’t have much alternative. But if it happened in the year 2001, can you imagine what CNN, MSNBC, Fox, all-news radio, the Internet? By the time the newspaper comes out, what is going to be left? They’ll have these wonderful images of the president, he’s been assassinated, his whole life story, his children, they’ll be doing things that we can’t do if you’re just going to sit down and talk about what a tragic day this is for America.   The best handling of the Kennedy assassination column, and I’ve read plenty of them, was also done by Jimmy Breslin. He went out to the cemetery and interviewed the guy who was digging the grave for President Kennedy. He was the only guy to think of this. His whole column was just about how this guy was digging this dirt up and how he was trying to make the hole really perfect because this was a really special grave. Through the eyes of this lowly grave digger, whose only connection to Kennedy was the fact that he was digging the hole in the ground in which he was going to be placed, he captured the heartbreak of the country way better — way better — than the hundreds of other columnists who wanted to write that big sweeping broad statement. He went and found a person, and through the eyes of that one particular person, told a story for everyone.

I don’t think until the very end paragraph did he even mention that Kennedy had been assassinated. He told the whole thing just like, he moves the dirt around, he says this has to be a perfect hole, “I’m going to push some dirt around here, I’ve dug lots of other holes in my life, but I’ve never done one like this.” He talks about who he was as an American. It was a great way to deal with a story like that, and something only newspapers and their writers would be able to come up with.

I remember a far less significant example, something I did one time with basketball player Dennis Rodman, who was holding out for more money. Whatever it was they were offering him at the time, it seemed like a ton of money and it wasn’t enough for him. I went to an auto plant and interviewed a series of people about what they made and what they did and barely mentioned Dennis Rodman, except at the end. I described what they did, and what their jobs were, what their tasks were, how often they worked, and then asked them, what do you think about the fact that Dennis Rodman can’t get by on $10 million a year or whatever it was.

I was able to capture a lot of the feeling of what people were feeling toward Dennis Rodman at that moment. I could have sat down and written one of those “what’s the matter with today’s rich athletes?” columns, which is done all the time. But that’s hardly original either. They’re hearing that on CNN and ESPN and all the rest of them. But to go out and actually tell his story through somebody else misdirects you again. That old Houdini thing is a great way to bring home what people really feel about it.

ENDINGS
One of the mistakes people make in wrapping stories up is that they think that they have to have a huge declarative ending. A big, Ta-da! I think that sometimes, the more subtle the ending, the better. One of the greatest endings I ever saw for a column was one that Mike Royko wrote back when he was in Chicago and it had to do with a guy who snatched chains from people. That was what he did. He snatched their chains and then he moved from chain snatching on to worse crimes and other things and he had been accused of rape. In this rape trial, and this woman was clear that this was the guy who had raped her, the lawyer’s defense was that this guy had had a chain stitched into his private parts. They put the woman on the stand and said, describe his private parts. If you’ve been raped by him, you ought to know what it was. She tried to describe it as best she could, but obviously she was too traumatized by the rape. And then what happened was, they put the guy on the stand, and they had him drop his pants, and show that he had this little gold chain there. And the lawyer said, how could anyone miss that? Clearly she has the wrong guy. Even though all the evidence, everything, showed that this was the right guy.

But because this woman didn’t notice this little chain, they set him free. So, Mike Royko spent the whole column just telling the story and when he has two paragraphs left to go. The first thing he says is, there’s very little that anybody can do about it now, about this guy getting off. However, it is chain-snatching season. So I suggest that if anyone should ever get an opportunity to see whatever his name was again in the buff, maybe they want to grab that chain and run with it. 

It’s a great ending, right? It’s a great ending. But you got everything you needed in terms of his opinion in that last single line. But he spent the whole rest of the thing setting it up. So that’s one way you can end a piece.   There was one I wrote about a good kid who got shot accidentally and died. You can make big sweeping statements, or you can just sort of end it with a scene. I had it ended with the mother, who was sitting at the house, and it’s around Christmastime, and these are the last couple of paragraphs.
In the tidy house on Fielding Street, a block where everyone knows everyone else and where everyone liked her son, Annette Towns has only a scrapbook of pictures to hug and kiss.    “Not too long ago, I had a dream about Daryl,” she says, forcing a smile. “He came to me said, Momma don’t worry. I’m okay. I’m always home.”   But that’s the thing. He was already home. He was shot in his home. He was already home. He was following her rules. He was doing the right thing. If they could all be like that, we say. But Daryl Towns was like that, and it couldn’t save him. And today, at the end of the century, because we can’t control our children, our tempers or our guns, there is a Christmas wreath hanging on a tombstone, and another piece of our city’s future is buried beneath it.

That’s a strong ending too. You don’t need to come out and say, what’s the matter with our society, we need to stop this now. You just paint a picture at the end, just as you do with the beginning, and let it resonate. I always try to liken good writing – the stuff that I read that I look at and put it down and say “wow” – is like dropping a stone or throwing a stone in a calm lake. The really good part of the writing is all the ripples that come as a result of it. The stone is the paragraph, the ripples are the way that it resonates. Even the way that you laugh when I said, you know, pull his chain, it’s resonating after you’re done reading it. It’s playing in your mind. Well, you can do that with humor, you can do that with images, and I think sometimes that we make mistakes because we’re trained to not leave anything unsaid.

Sometimes it’s what’s left unsaid that resonates more with the reader. When I wrote the book “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the one overriding thing that I worked with the editor at Doubleday on was raking it and raking it and raking it of emotion. You look at that book, and it’s an emotional book, right? Our only directive was to rake it of emotion. Why? Because the emotion’s built in. And if I spent time saying, “isn’t it sad about the poor old man who’s dying,” it’s too much. You can’t handle it.

The best writing just lets it sit there. Trust your readers, they’re pretty smart. They know how to read, they’re already ahead of most of the rest of the country. And they’ll get it, they’ll get what you’re trying to say. It’ll resonate with them, particularly at ends of stories. And in leads. If you’re really good, and you have really good powers of observation, you will see and you will describe. Always look for something in the room, or something that somebody says or something, that does your work for you. Instead of you saying, “this is terrible, this is sad, this is awful,” look for a picture that tells it better than you and just describe the picture.   That’s what we can do as journalists and writers that nobody else can.

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