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).