Here are four mistakes to avoid in journalism and human interest:
I. TOO LONG – the Interview. The editor of The Times sent me off on my very first article. With high heels clicking and briefcase swinging, I knocked on the door of a soon-to-be-100-year-old. I settled myself in her antique rocker and began firing questions. After I’d filled two pages of notes, the centenarian nodded and fell sound asleep. I snuck out of her apartment with a half-written story and vowed to keep my interviews shorter.
The Short of it: Interviews should be 10 minutes for musicians and 20 minutes for everyone else. Do your research ahead of time. You’ll have a satchel full of pertinent questions to ask. The rest you can get from their website, or call them back later.
II. TOO LONG – the Write-Up. The first full-length feature the editor assigned me was about an airport used in World War II. Fascinating stuff! I found several people in the community who had connections and stories and facts and…Soon my article was thousands of words long. Oh, but each story was so good! How could I cut any of them? When I look back on that story, I’m red-faced. The question I ask now is, “How could anybody stand to read such a long article?”
The Short of it: I’ve learned to do theme writing. Hone in on ONE, yes one meaningful idea from their story and structure the rest of the story around it. Build it like a ship: The bow is your opening – the statement of your theme; the stern is your ending – a tying up of that theme and re-statement. The ribs of the ship are all the individual stories that build your main idea.
III. TOO LONG – on facts and too lean on the psychological meanings. Facts are vital as a reporter, but readers also want to know about feelings.
The Short of it: Write the Human Element. Laser in on one emotion. How does the drunk-driver feel after killing her friends? Regret? How does the singer feel when the audience grows quiet at the end of a song? Awed? Humbled? The Five W’s can be seen as more than fact finders. See them as … “Who cares? What does this person feel now? When did this person change? Why does this person feel this way?”
IV. TOO LONG on grace. Some people will insist on their own words, but soon the article is not yours, and in my opinion, not very effective. They are business owners, singers, story-tellers. But they are not writers. Don’t let them re-write your story.
The Short of it. Gain their trust by showing them the article before it goes to print. Assure them that you will change anything necessary. I’ve learned to negotiate. If they still insist on their own words, a sentence or two will usually satisfy them.
Disclaimer: I have only dealt with one person who was adamant about including her own wording. “All or nothing,” she said. I included her words and they took up about ¼ of the article but I regretted it. They did not fit the tone of the article.
If Pam could spend all day in her kitchen baking pies, brownies, and making turkey dinner for friends, she would. But Murray Pura once told her to write first and then bake—advice that she is trying to stick with these days, except, of course, when her grandchildren stop in for milk and cookies.