Writing to be read: 5 keys to a great article

Doug Robinson | Columnist, Deseret News | March 2, 2015

Editor’s note: In an ongoing effort to improve, the Deseret News will ask various staff writers to discuss an aspect of the writing craft during monthly staff meetings this year. In one such presentation, Lee Benson and Doug Robinson focused on “writing to be read.” As captured in Doug’s notes below, the two shared five tips to help writers create more meaningful journalism.

Getting started — the importance of leads

A writer has only a few seconds in which to hook the reader, which means the lead better be good. Since this is an art, not a science, there are many approaches for this, depending on your creativity and the material you have to work with. For profiles and more in-depth stories, consider foreshadowing — dropping hints of some intriguing point(s) that is to be explained in more detail later in the story. You might also consider opening with some broad, sweeping statement that gives a general sense of where you are taking readers while also leaving them wanting more. It’s like oil painting — you lay down a background that is somewhat vague and general, and then you begin adding layer upon layer of more details. Along the way, drop in some foreshadowing. Here’s one example from a story about Richard Davis, whose daughter was kidnapped years ago (the foreshadowing is the second graph):

SPANISH FORK, Utah — There is no cure for the pain in Richard Davis' heart. There is no escaping it, no medicine for it, no surgery that can make it better. At night while lying in bed, or out on the highway when he is alone with his thoughts, he thinks about it and feels an ache deep in his chest.

The last words he said to Kiplyn.

Ten years. That's how long she has been gone. Ten years since she walked out the door at dawn, headed for a driver's ed class. She was 15 years old, and her family has never seen her again. Ten years. Her sister has married. A younger cousin has married. Her brother-in-law has died. Two grandparents have died. Life has gone on, or it hasn't, but the Earth kept spinning, even when Richard and his wife, Tamara, wondered how it ever could.

The power of the anecdote

SHOW, don’t TELL. Don’t just say Steve Young is unchanged by money and fame, write that he wears socks with holes in them, buys his shoes on sale and drives a car with 200,000 miles on it.

Don’t just write that Frank Layden still retains a child-like love of basketball at the age of 70. Write that he still stops by the gym en route to his office and shoots baskets by himself. Similarly, write that Rick Majerus kept a basketball and sneakers in the trunk of his car in case he stumbled upon a pickup game.

Don’t merely write that Jeff Hornacek is a family man who wants to retire to spend more time at home; write that he makes casseroles and other dinners before he leaves on road trips and stores them in the refrigerator to make things easier for his wife while he is gone; write that he took a pillowcase on road trips with him that his wife and children had embroidered with loving messages to him.

Don’t merely write that LaVell Edwards has a reputation for absentmindedness. Write that once, the day before a game, he led his team in a cheer — “1-2-3 BEAT UCLA!” Only to be corrected by his players — they weren’t playing UCLA. Write that he once drove to Idaho Falls for a funeral only to be told the funeral was in Twin Falls. Write that he is so absentminded and distracted when he’s in the car — shuffling through papers and multi-tasking — that some vow never to ride with him again and some of his assistants offered him money to let them drive instead.

The importance of interviewing skills

To achieve No. 2, you must be good at No. 3. Push your subjects from GENERAL remarks to SPECIFIC remarks. What do they mean when they say Jeff Hornacek is a family man. What makes them say that? Can they provide examples?

Aside from that, follow your own logic. If you are doing a story on Becky Lockhart and you know she’s the state’s first female speaker of the House, it follows that she probably had some pushback from men on the job. At least it’s worth taking a shot with a question about it that pushes for examples and anecdotes.

If you’re interviewing Roma Downey and you know she’s played the role of an angel on TV, you figure she might have been mistaken for one off the air by her viewers. You also know she grew up in Ireland so you know she was in the middle of the Catholic-Protestant battles. Again, it’s a shot in the dark (so to speak), but take it; you never know what you’re going to get.

Observations are another way to provide clear, solid, visible clues as to what a person is like. If you’re in the subject’s home and you observe that he’s flying a Marine Corps flag over his home, and he’s wearing dog tags that rest on a Marine Corps T-shirt, which is tucked into a belt that features a Purple Heart buckle and holds a phone carrier that boasts a silver Marine Corps emblem, and that phone plays the Marine Hymn when it “rings” and the voice mail message says he’s sorry he missed your call but he’s out fighting another battle … that pretty much paints a picture for you of a man who loves the Marines and has never gotten it out of his system, at the age of 88.

Also, where relevant, descriptions always help the reader form an image of the subject and the scene. For instance, in this profile of Roma Downey:

The first thing you notice about Downey when you meet her for the first time is that she is tiny — 5-foot-4, 110 pounds, a size 2/4 — a fine-boned woman with ivory skin, dark brown eyes and auburn hair cut to shoulder length.

The story went on to describe the setting for the interview — in her trailer, on the set, off and on between takes.

Quotes are overrated

Old-school journalism teachers won’t like this, but you are the writer and you are telling the story. Unless you have fantastic quotes, they shouldn’t rule your story. Use quotes — good quotes — to augment the story, but use them judiciously. Some writers build their stories around quotes instead of using them to add a little spice and clarity here and there. Of course, this might not apply to hard-core reporting of a news event.

Write and rewrite

It’s simple: If you have the luxury of time, write the story, then rewrite the story, then rewrite it again. Each time you will notice things you somehow missed previously, and each time it will become better and better. Again, if you have the luxury of time, sometimes it is helpful to set the story aside for a few hours and come back to it later. It’s amazing how much clarity you gain by doing this.

This is an example of several things — a lead that makes a broad sweeping statement; writing that does not overuse quotes and drops in several instances of foreshadowing (italicized):

The nights are the worst. The onset of darkness fills Rodney "Hot Rod" Hundley with a sense of dread, all those long empty hours stretching out ahead of him.

He never sleeps through the night; he tosses and turns, reads, surfs the cable shows, gets up hourly with that darn prostate problem, and then once the dark begins its slow fade to light he sleeps soundly, and this is the way it has been for 68 years. Most days he sleeps till 11 a.m.

"I hate the night," he says flatly.

But that isn't quite right, either. Hot Rod Hundley was born to the night, to parties and women and bars and life after dark. It's not just the darkness, it's the emptiness, the loneliness, the nothingness of facing his own four walls and the quiet with all that nervous energy thrumming through his body. Maybe it's as simple as this: It's too much like those nights he cried himself to sleep in his hotel-room home as the teenage basketball phenom who was adored by everybody and loved by no one.

He prefers a crowded room or a packed arena where there is noise and people to get lost in. It's later, at home, when he confronts the loneliness — loneliness he created — that the emptiness is overwhelming. But whose fault is that?

He's got a wife he hasn't lived with for 29 years who is still waiting for him to come home, and three beautiful daughters who grew up without him. Worn down by all the women in Rod's life and the long absences, his wife told him, "You go on and do your thing. I'm not going anywhere."

"And that's what I've been doing," he says, sadly.

He lives alone; she lives alone. He is lonely; she is lonely.

Hundley has been alone his whole life. Nobody knows the pain he's in because to the world he is the happy-go-lucky party boy, the lady's man, the star, the silver-tongued charmer, the court clown, but then you catch him at a certain moment and suddenly you see vulnerability and sadness in his eyes, and he's telling you he is haunted by the life he has lived. Not the life you've seen on TV and the basketball court; the other one.

He is every bit Butch Hundley's son. Abandoned by his father, he has become his father.

The only constant in his life — the only real source of love he could count on in his youth — has been basketball. Basketball made him an all-American, a first-round draft, an all-star. It made him everybody's buddy. It made him feel loved. It made him Hot Rod.

As an orphaned child, passed from family to family, he used to grip a basketball and talk to it as he ran to the playground: "You're going to get me out of this. I'm going to ride you out of here."

"And I'm still riding it," he says now.