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Describe, Don't Decide

By Elizabeth Walters

"Make every word count" is a phrase many beginning journalists are instructed to remember and write by. It can be a difficult process cutting out all those little extras we constructed so carefully. But in his session "Shaping Realities," Jack Hart showed us that we can't stop at a spare, accessible style and call an article ready. In our exercises, we learned that, in fact, every word does count, so we'd better be sure that we mean each word we place on the page.

The assignment seemed innocuous -- we were given some facts and a description of a man and then had 10 minutes to write a narrative lede about him. In the first exercise, he'd won the lottery; in the second, his son had died in Iraq. We wrote our paragraphs, using only the information on the paper -- and then found out that much of our writing was based on assumptions we couldn't prove.

How did we know he'd change because he won the lottery? How did others of us know he wouldn't change? How did we know the drought was to blame for the failed crops? Maybe he was just a lousy farmer. How do we know he's sad about his son? Maybe they hated each other.

And so on. We quickly learned that much of what we hold to be truth in a story, especially in description and characterization, is based on our own assumptions and values. But Hart made it a painless lesson -- after all, once we're aware that we're working from assumption, we can do more legwork and work from truth.

But Hart cautioned that we shouldn't shy away from description. "We also go wrong," he said, "by holding back too much of ourselves."

P.S.: He also said everyone needs to read "The Art and Craft of Feature Writing" by Bill Blundell.

Elizabeth Walters is a copy editor for the Concord Monitor in Concord, N.H.

Posted in ethical reporting, mistakes in reporting, sessions.Ethics of Framing the World with Narrative, speakers.Jack Hart on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink