Great Writing Is More Than Just Words
Nineteenth century poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Talent alone cannot make a writer." It’s a phrase most journalists can relate to. Because sometimes even the best ideas, combined with top notch reporting and research, can be hard to translate onto the page.
Still, some writers just seem to know how to turn complex, even tedious, material into compelling stories. With that in mind, some of this year’s winners and judges for American Business Media’s Jesse H. Neal Awards were asked to weigh in and give their advice on how to craft award-winning articles.
While writing "Asian Soybean Rust Takes Root in the U.S.," the series that took this year’s Grand Neal Award, Pamela Henderson, crops and issues editor at Farm Journal, says she had purpose behind every element. "You don’t want to waste the reader’s time," she says, adding that when she reads an article, "I want it to identify with me and tell me what I need to know. But it also has to be written in a way that holds my interest. The topic must be big enough, important enough, to warrant the coverage."
Henderson’s series focused on soybean rust, an invasive fungus that has wiped out legume crops from South America to the U.S."This was not an easy topic to present," Henderson says. "Dying plants are not a sexy, positive thing. We had to show some of the disease and show what happens when treatment is not done in a timely way," she says, adding, "To shake things up, I worked with an artist to illustrate the disease cycle. Reading about a disease cycle isn’t very compelling, but seeing the disease from the inside out, now that’s interesting."
Neal judge Abe Peck, Sills professor of journalism and chairman of the magazine program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, says Farm Journal won the Grand Neal because, "quite simply, it is an excellent package. Every element speaks to how farmers can combat a disease that puts an important U.S. crop at risk," he says. "There isn’t an ounce of fat on the entire package, which goes beyond sidebars to present material that is vital, integrated and useful."
For Scott Berinato, an editor with CSO Magazine, who won a "Best Single Article" Neal Award for his narrative, "How a Bookmaker and a Whiz Kid Took on an Extortionist," the most important feature of compelling journalism is finding a personal connection. "I think the human stories always win," he says. "The Grand Neal winner was about soybean rust, but it was also about the farmers, who are at risk of losing everything to this disease."
Berinato’s article chronicled the seamy world of Internet extortion with a focus on gambling Web sites targeted by hackers demanding large sums of money in exchange for not crippling the lucrative sites. The 8,800-word epic defied modern-day magazine standards by offering readers very few pictures and few graphics. "I initially wrote it at about 10,100 words. I had to take out whole sections because of space and time constraints. But people who read said it doesn’t feel that long. And it always gets back to the main focus."
Neal judge Diana Henriques, the financial investigative reporter for The New York Times, says CSO succeeded in not only finding the humanity of its subject, but in also connecting with its audience. "CSO understood that anyone trying to conduct business on the Internet desperately needed to know this story," she says. "But too often, editors stop there, assuming that ‘Read This’ is a substitute for ‘Enjoy This.’ CSO’s achievement was to deliver a necessary dose of reality to their audience in a riveting, dramatic way that made the medicine go down so easily."
In the How-To category, Buildings senior associate editor Leah Garris took the Neal for "Make-or-Break Steps for Disaster Preparation." Garris says every how-to story should offer readers a set of action items or a start-to-finish process they can easily follow and begin to implement the minute they’re finished reading.
"The information provided needs to be detailed enough that the audience finds value, but not so detailed that it seems overwhelming and impossible to put into practice," she says. "You act as a filter, sorting through the information you collect and presenting the pieces that are most useful and significant."
Henriques says Buildings took this instructional article from "complete and competent" to "awesomely authoritative." "The story doesn’t just sound an alarm, it marshals an army of intellectual resources to help its readers respond," she adds. "That, really, is what marks the best of service journalism."
Garris says she never mentally formats an article until she’s finished reporting and researching an idea. "It’s hard to choose a specific angle or format for a piece when you haven’t done the research/interview process," she says. "I let the information act as a guide. It’s easier to see how the information will best fit together as I gather more and more of it."
Garris then says she puts an outline together and comes up with a plan for presenting the information. "If I find holes or missing facts as I form the outline, I go back and do some more investigating," she says.
Although time is usually a problem for journalists, Berinato says he was lucky in that his supervisors afforded him the time he needed to write the narrative. "The thing with projects like this is that they kind of consume me," he says. "It’s hard for me to balance it with all the other day-to-day things. I’m pretty linear. I’ve got to focus on whatever is in front of me."
The key to getting the space to focus on one project, says Berinato, is giving your supervisors updates on your progress. "If they don’t know it’s something this complex, they’re not going to give you the time to do it," he says. "But if you show them the work you’ve put into it, like the timeline I built, then they’ll give you the space to do whatever is possible to get the story."
Unlike Berinato (who describes himself as old school), Garris and Henderson believe graphics and photos are integral to story-telling. "They’re often the first thing the reader notices and can influence whether they stop to examine the words on the page," Garris says. "Graphics should attract the reader and clue them in to what they’re about to read."
Likewise, Henderson used graphics to show the readers her story. "We explained very simply, very graphically how (soybean rust) infects a crop," she says. "I didn’t want to insult the reader, but rather give them that feeling of Aha, now I get it.’ I also did a FAQ section. I don’t normally like those, but it worked with this story because I tried to pick questions that I knew were top of mind. It was a good way to target information and divide up a complicated topic into a digestible format."