The secret of short writing? Long reporting. Feature writing tips from US 'pen-in-hand superhero' Barry Newman

In 43 years at The Wall Street Journalist (from 1970) Barry Newman was never an editor or a reporter.

As he writes in his book, News to me: “I’m a machine operator. I bang keys to make words.”

He began his career covering mining and metals and went on to write colour features on, seemingly, everything under the sun.

His book (available via this link) is subtitled: "Finding and Writing Colorful Feature Stories" and is packed with useful tips for journalists and writers.

Pulitizer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal bureau chief Douglas Blackmon provides one of the book's opening quotes:

"Barry Newman is some kind of pen-in-hand superhero—endowed with a power unlike any other journalist to survive the apocalypse that wiped out almost everything that was ever enchanting in American newspapers.

"He has not only endured the editors, hacks, billionaires and web designers who spoiled the art of publishing newspapers, he is still writing, still charming every reader, and in 'News to Me' showing everyone who cares about words the quiet magic that makes them sing."

Here are some of the nuggets I've mined from its pages (direct quotes from the book with US spelling retained):

News to me, by Barry Newman

Technology

Technology has affected my writing. I know, I know. Can we discuss something else? Did Medieval monks talk about nothing but technology when moveable type killed the illuminated manuscript? Or did they get on with their true vocation: spreading the good news?

Let the bean counters agonize over digitization.

Stories are stories. The reporter’s job is finding and telling them.

And technology, I’ve learned, can be a terrific help, except when it gets in the way….

I have faith in the primacy of print. Photos and videos can’t pick up mumbled asides or peripheral incidents. Cameras and microphones invade the intimacy of interviews. A video camera, I’ve noticed, has the power to turn schlubby Americans into hucksters who emit sound bites laden with puffery suitable for the lamest of nut grafs. Yet pictures—especially the talkie-movie kind—perform feats beyond words. They have the potential to supplement print without supplanting it. So I have a compromise: With pen and notebook, collect the scenes, the dialogue and all the color a color story demands.

Then put it all away and with a new mindset, and a set of the latest digital hardware, take pictures and make videos.

Ledes (or intros as we call them in the UK)

A lede should lead directly to the story underneath it. Its purpose, whether it concerns lead, small steel mills, or carrots, is to charm readers into reading paragraph two. Dozens of other stories encircle every story in a newspaper, every newspaper is encircled by magazines and books, and they’re all engulfed by the Internet’s torrent of clickbait.

And here's an example from a piece Newman wrote in New York in 2001 (the book is interspersed with his features)

Why wait until the next story about coagulated fat in sewers comes along when you can read this one now?

District Council 37, the municipal employees union, has been putting up posters in the subway lately, praising the “everyday heroes” who work for the City of New York. The posters have pictures of a tree pruner, a museum guard, a dental hygienist. Do the guys who get rid of fat clogs in the sewers rate a picture?

Nah.

Being organised

Every reporter has a system. One fellow I knew walked the newsroom, mumbling, before he sat down to bash out a complete story in 30 explosive minutes. Another never glanced at his notes while writing; later, he flipped through them for quotations to insert. Me, I make lists. In my National 1 Subject, the notebook that opens like a regular book, I take notes on the right-hand page only. I number the pages and list each interview in a table of contents on the cover.

Later, I underline the quotes, facts and descriptions that look good enough to use in my story. On the left-hand page, I assign a label to each underlined item, by category: “history,” “background,” “opponents.”

I also underline my typed notes from phone interviews, leaving space in the left-hand margin for the labels. And I underline my stacks of documents, moving (or typing) the underlined passages to a single text file, labeling each of those passages, too.

Outlines

It took me three years to learn the Wall Street Journal  formula: lede, nut[in a nutshell paragraph], quote, to-be-sure, history, and so on.

Once I got the formula down pat, I wanted to mess with it. Is that creativity? I’m not sure, but it does have its satisfactions…

An outline’s mission is to keep readers reading. The formula’s requisite block of components, packed in after the lede, conspires to stop them. When do the preliminaries end? When does the storytelling begin? My ideal is to crush up the block and sprinkle it through the story like a trail of Grape-Nuts in the forest, giving readers reason to read on. Stories all have story lines.

Keeping it short

Strunk & White give the best advice for writing short: “Omit needless words.” But which ones? Deciding takes time. To appropriate a line from A.J. Liebling: I can write shorter than anybody who can write faster. Writing short is like packing and repacking a small bag for a three-week trip, and has the same advantage: no excess baggage…

A secret to short writing is long reporting. The closer I get to mastering a subject, the better I am at separating what’s worth saying about it from what’s not, and at compacting techno-speak into plain words.

Interviews

Here’s what I don’t say for openers: “Excuse me, sir, I see you’re waiting for the bus to Canarsie. Would you care to talk about mammoth tusks?”

No, for mammoth interviews I go to the ticket line at the Natural History Museum. “Hey! Are you waiting to get into the mammoth exhibit? Me, too! I’m a newspaper reporter. I’m doing a story about mammoth tusks.” The stranger on the museum line then says something about mammoths, and I say, “Wow! What an amazing thought. I’ve got to write that down!” Out comes the notebook. I don’t put it back in my pocket until everybody on the museum line tells me what they think about mammoth tusks…

Settled in and comfortable, people love nothing more than to talk about themselves. It’s therapeutic. Psychologists have a 50-minute hour, but I listened to Mike Twigg for five hours and filled 43 notebook pages.

Twigg was a slip-house foreman in England’s potteries who had been out of work for two years. In his two-up-two-down row house, he sat on the couch beside his gas fire, smoking, sipping tea, and reviewing a life of work, unemployment and regret.

Twigg said, “It’s a lack of confidence problem. I’m going stale. I have funny spells. I feel as if I’m dying. I put it down to being idle.”

He said, “Something’s got to come up. I like to go to work, you see. Look at my hands. They’re like a baby’s, they are.”

And he said, “Don’t write me off. For God’s sake, don’t write me off!”

When I closed my notebook and got up to leave, he followed and stood in the doorway. He asked me about a “check.” Would he be getting a bit more? In Mike Twigg’s mind, I had metamorphosed from a reporter to a caseworker for the Department of Health and Social Services. Mike, I told him, I’m not from the DHSS. I have an American accent. I’m an American journalist.

Remember? Oh, yes, Mike remembered. Not to worry, he said. He had enjoyed the chance to talk.

Formal interviews make people say the dullest things

Delightful utterances often fill the moments before interviews begin or just after they end. Phew, that’s over with, people think, now we can unwrap our wit.

After a conversation with a British port shipper whose forebears had been expatriates in Portugal for 300 years, we retired to the drawing room for a glass of port with his wife. The gentleman mentioned that he had served in the Scots Guards, and his wife said: “One is entirely prepared to die  for one’s country. One isn’t prepared to live  in it.”

Unguarded flashes of brilliance prove that formal interviews make people say the dullest things.

The importance of dialogue

Scenes contain dialogue (ask any screenwriter) and dialogue creates scenes. Dialogue happens when people talk to each other.

At the Rakovica Motor Works in Belgrade to interview one union man, I was shown into a room with a long table. Six union men sat around it. I tore a page from my notebook, drew a circle for the table and squares for the chairs. As each man spelled his name, I gave his chair a number and added his name to a numbered list. I said I was interested in the factory, and for an hour they smoked, drank tea and debated among themselves. I got my dialogue, no questions asked.

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