Striving to write better, Jon Franklin’s book

Jon Franklin's Writing for Story has a lot of useful tips about how to make your words sing.

I operate on multiple fronts as a journalist.

One is the data front.  In each project we do, we work to get or build datasets that we analyze and use the findings we generate to drive our reporting.

The reporting is the second front.  We seek to investigate issues thoroughly, to be skeptical of conventional wisdom, and to not just surface problems, but explain their causes and point toward possible solutions.

The writing is a third and critical front.  We attempt to write compelling stories that touch some emotional chord with the reader and nudge him or her to some different understanding, and then action, on the issue we are tackling.

At times, we can get so excited about working with data that we don’t pay a commensurate amount of attention to the writing.

Enter Jon Franklin.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner has written Writing for Story,  a primer of how to write masterful narrative nonfiction short stories.

Early in the book, Franklin makes the assertion that many American literary giants cut their initial writing spurs on the short story-a format, he argues, that is one of the most difficult, yet is also one that can provide indispensable training.

He then moves on to share two stories that he wrote, one of which won the Pulitzer.  The first is about an unsuccessful brain surgery, while the second is about an intrepid lifetime learner started his post-secondary studies in earnest in his mid-60s.

Franklin proceeds to explore many of the elements-word choice,  character, structure-that he believes contribute to a story’s quality level.  He closes with an account of a writer seeking, but not reaching, great heights, but trying valiantly nevertheless, before supplying an annotated version of the two stories in which he provides more than 200 explanations of why he made the writerly choices he did.

If the book’s structure seems a bit self-promotional, that’s probably because it is.  I enjoyed the surgery story more than the one about the older gentleman, as engaging as that was, even as I questioned the characterization of the aneurysm as a monster.  Franklin is very much an adherent to the one- sentence per paragraph style of writing, which works in some places better than others.

His points about the importance of considering, shaping, and then polishing stories are well taken, though, as are his sections on writing’s key elements.   This may not be the best book about writing ever written, but it’s a pretty fair one from which you can draw some useful pointers and conclusions.

Now it’s time for some more data (Just kidding).


2 responses to “Striving to write better, Jon Franklin’s book

  1. To: Jeff Kelly Lowenstein
    I read with great interest your blog entry about Jon Franklin’s excellent book, Writing for Story. I am currently enrolled in a Masters level writing program at Kennesaw State University (near Atlanta, Georgia) and one of our assignments is to respond to a professional writer’s blog. I’m glad for the assignment because it caused me to seek out opinions of other writers and on some of the authors I’ve read recently. I read Jon Franklin’s book while taking a “creative nonfiction” class last year, a new writing avenue for me. The class focused on memoir writing and so I needed some practice and skill in making a story out of my own life experiences.
    I especially benefited from Franklin’s chapter on Outlining. Before Franklin begins any nonfiction story, he makes a three point outline under the headings of Complication, Development and Resolution. The beauty of this outline is its simplicity—all of the points under these headings are stated in three word sentences—noun-action verb—direct object. “Company fires Joe,” “Joe sues company,” “Joe regains job.” This practice of simple outlining has saved me a lot of time and energy and allows me to focus a story’s primary idea. In my experience, good story ideas come at me everyday through conversations, work, or the many, many media and Internet outlets available all the time. Franklin’s basic outline strategy allows me to put ideas on paper and focus them—think them through and ask, what’s the real story here or what am I trying to say?
    You noted in your blog that “Franklin makes the assertion that many American literary giants cut their initial writing spurs on the short story….” I thought he made a good point with that also, because most writers of our generation got their start in newspaper and magazine journalism—in hard news and not story telling. That has been my own experience—as a journalism major at Virginia Tech (right after Watergate when Woodward and Bernstein were the heroes and we all tried to emulate their investigative journalism), then trade magazine reporting, magazine freelance writing, company business magazine writer/editor and writing for a weekly newspaper here in Atlanta. All journalism and reporting—great background, but I’d like to expand to narrative feature writing—or, in short, more nonfiction story telling. I had never thought about our writing world in terms of today versus, say, a century ago. Franklin’s comments put writing in a good context for me.
    I did some thinking about what you wrote about operating, as a journalist, on three fronts—the data, reporting and writing fronts. I would have to say that the reporting and/or writing drive my stories, with the data front coming up last. It seems you are driven by the “data” front, which I assume means statistics, facts, trends, etc. I like including these in my reporting—they are essential. I just don’t think data drives the ways I think about writing articles or stories. This is why I liked Franklin’s ideas about Outlining. It helps me think about what makes a good story.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Cathy, for your thorough and thoughtful comment. I look forward to reading your work and wish you luck in the program!


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