The Write Life: Opt for ‘remarkable’

Saturday in Jackson’s Journal is The Write Life, a trek past the mundane and beyond the borders of creativity. This is where we celebrate the craft of writing, storytelling and connecting with the hearts, minds and souls of readers.

I love my job as a reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune. I now have 30-plus years of newspaper clips as evidence of my role as a modern-day scribe, chronicling the events and people who I’ve been fortunate to encounter.

Like most writers and reporters, my work leads me to rather paradoxical conclusions. On the one hand, I do believe that what I do is important. I’m telling and reporting history. Live. As it happens. On the other hand, I often believe that what I actually produce is gibberish and not very important because it’s so poorly done.

This week I wrote an article about a rural water district’s bookkeeping problems. Maybe the water district has only 2,500 customers, but to those payers and for the community where the district is located, that’s a big deal.

Without the aid and patience of a gifted editor, however, no one was going to read beyond the lede sentence. I mean, for crying out loud, I learned to write a lede — how to “hook” the reader — in high school. What I presented to my editor began like this: “Officials with Public Water Supply District 4 at Hallsville …”

And I lost her. SHE didn’t read beyond that bland, lazy launch into an important story. Worst of all, I filed the story knowing that the lede stunk. Did that mean I lost sight of the importance of what I do for a living? Probably. Sometimes the reporting and writing seems effortless. Sometimes it’s clumsy and confusing.

My editor, Lora Wegman, insisted on a new lede. This is what I came up with:

“Failure to pay payroll taxes on some expenses and paying a higher-than-allowed mileage reimbursement rate are just two of the bookkeeping issues a former office manager brought to the attention of Public Water Supply District 4 board members Tuesday.”

Better, wouldn’t you say? I got right to it. Still a bit wordy, but so much more interesting and readable than, “Officials said …”

My sophomore (and last) year in college I was editor-in-chief of The Muleskinner, the campus newspaper at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. The managing editor and I decided to reject any article that began with the words “the,” “a” or “an.” Our motto: “Get to the point.” We had journalism professors and all manner of academics argue about our unbending ban, but we won every argument. (Or so we thought. And it was that attitude that led me to leave college after two years because I really did think I knew it all).

Get to the point. If we’re writing something important, get to it. And in today’s newspaper world of a shrinking news hole, maximizing the words we use is top priority — well, second to the journalistic trinity of accuracy, fairness and balance.

The water district story was important to those customers, but I’m also convinced it was a big deal to all readers because watch-dogging and exposing what might be less-than-transparent operations ought to serve notice on all public entities entrusted with the people’s money.

Maybe that’s a lofty goal, but I buy into that aim. My first weekly newspaper boss used to say that photos of car crashes — and sometimes just the crashed car, because maybe we missed the actual accident — made everyone drive more safely.

I remember asking, “Then why do we keep seeing wrecks?”

My publisher, Norman Gallagher, scowled at my seemingly logical question and zinged me with a challenge. “Why don’t we do a better job getting their attention? Let’s tell the story better.”

Mr. Gallagher’s zeal for the truth was sometimes sidetracked by prejudice and personal vendettas, but he was passionate about telling the story.

“Let’s tell the story better.”

That brings me, in a rabbit-trail-chasing sort of way, to the point made by author/writer Jeff Goins, whom I consider a writer’s writer.

“What is up to you is the choice to be remarkable. As is the decision to be mediocre.”

That’s the conclusion Jeff reaches in Friday’s post, “The first day of the rest of your life.” Check out his blog.

Then choose to be remarkable.

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Filed under A reporter's life, Living Write

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