Anecdotes and stories are especially revealing because they’re based on the truth of experience. Here are two of the best regarding essential writing lessons:
- How humorist Nora Ephron learned to get to the point
In one of her funniest, most revealing books, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” Nora Ephron recalls a lesson from her high school journalism class on how to write a story lead:
“The best teacher I ever had was named Charles Simms, and he taught journalism at Beverly Hills High School in 1956 and 1957. The first day of journalism class, Mr. Simms did what just about every journalism teacher does in the beginning—he began to teach us how to write a lead. The way this is normally done is that the teacher dictates a set of facts and the class attempts to write the first paragraph of a news story about them. Who, what, where, when, how and why. So, he read us a set of facts. It went something like this:
‘Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium on new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, and several others.’
“We all began typing, and after a few minutes we turned in our leads. All of them said approximately what Mr. Simms had dictated, but in the opposite order (“Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty,” etc.). Mr. Simms rifled through what we had turned in, smiled, looked up and said: ‘The lead to the story is, “There will be no school Thursday.”‘
“It was an electrifying moment. So that’s it, I realized. It’s about the point. The classic newspaper lead of who-what-where-when-how-and-why is utterly meaningless if you haven’t figured out what the significance of the facts is. What is the point? What does it mean? He planted those questions in my head.
“And for the year he taught me journalism, every day was like the first; every assignment, every story, every set of facts he provided us had a point buried in it somewhere if you looked hard enough.”
- How David Poulson helps academics write smarter for the public
Professor David Poulson teaches environmental journalism and advises academics how to write more effectively for the public. One scientific paper he came across was titled “Grasshopper and Locust Farming as a Sustainable Source of Protein for Non-Ruminant Livestock and Humans in Kenya.” He quickly suggested a far better, two-word alternative: “Eating Bugs.”
Which paper would you want to read?
The abiding questions these stories tell
These stories illustrate two key questions I ask repeatedly in my writing courses and workshops about the content of headlines, leads and other essential PR/journalism writing ingredients. To wit:
- What’s the “big picture” message you want to impart to your target audience—not to yourself or your company or client?
- How can you say it clearly in the fewest possible words?
Master the inherent dynamic in these related questions, and you’ll become a better writer.
Don Bates teaches writing at New York University. A version of this post first ran on CommPro.