Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Four lessons from mentors (& tormentors) at WSJ, AP & SF Chron

On the brink of writing a warm, fuzzy appreciation for my favorite writing mentors, I realized that I grew the most as a journalist only after having been insulted.

Will this post be about my mentors' fine contributions? Or my resilience? Let's find out.

Mentor No. 1: Urban C. Lehner, then of the Tokyo bureau of the Wall Street Journal, taught me that the most important question a news reporter can ask is “why.” The insult: “You’re a better writer than you are a reporter.” I hated him for this comment, for about 10 minutes. After that, I delved deeper into every story to find the back story, the precursor events, the underlying dynamic.

That worked for me. I immediately became a Page One regular at the small-town daily I worked for at the time and soon thereafter won first place for feature writing in California’s newspaper equivalent of the Academy Awards. I didn’t get to accept the award in person because no one told me I’d won. That’s because I’d left the little daily to go work for The Associated Press.

Lesson 1: “Dig, dig, dig until you find out why.”

Now a writing coach in the high-tech PR industry (Yahoo, Intel, Google), I’ve changed this to “dig below the surface for insights” and “look for causal factors.”

Mentor No. 2: Rob Haeseler, then of the San Francisco Chronicle, never insulted me. But people who worked for him did. One of them completely re-wrote one of my stories and made it really bad while leaving my name on it. Another gave me wrong info in a confident tone of voice that I later passed along and got called on. It was embarrassing.

But when Rob spoke, it was like finding precious, tiny rivulets of gold. I rather felt like a spy when we talked on the phone. He would utter a seemingly simple one-liner so rife with impact that it was almost like he was speaking in code. Here’s an example: “At the Chronicle, we have a rule. Every lead must have conflict or tension.” That was it. Conversation over. I took that and ran with it.

Rob’s advice, combined with Urban’s, led to my getting a memorable note from a Chronicle reader. He said I’d turned “a sow’s ear” of a story into “a silk purse.”

At the time, I was still at the small daily and stringing for the Chronicle on the side.

In PR, I’ve repackaged that nugget as “look for subtle tension.” I’ve even got a two-page handout with examples. It’s important in pitches and award submissions in particular and sometimes also in e-mail subject lines.

Lesson 2: Look for contrasts and juxtapose them. That's one way to achieve subtle tension.

Mentor No. 3: Joe Bigham of The Associated Press was the most kindly, even though he was a gruff, old-school guy. He was personally conservative but stunningly tolerant of others. It’s like he knew how to flip a switch in his brain. In professional mode, he could accept any aberration of humanity and tell his/her/its story with accuracy and compassion.

He never insulted me, either. But we worked in a two-person office for about 14 months and I was reminded every day by his example that I was a flea to his dog, Hamburger Helper to his beef bourguignon, a bead of water to his tidal wave.

He sometimes asked me to stand over his shoulder and watch him write. He sometimes narrated his thought process. It was from him that I learned the technique I call “first three words.” This came from the fact that Joe would type three words on a blank screen and then pause. It was an unconscious habit, not an intentional lesson. But I would then gasp because he had already captured the essence of the story.

Adapted to PR, I call this “making the best use of the best real estate.” My spiel includes a reminder that we write nowadays for skimmers, not readers, so you have to put your best stuff in a location where the skimmer will see it: the first three words. (The opposite is true if you're writing for the ear rather than the eye.)

There’s more to that, but I need to be brief.

Lesson 3: Start fast. No need to set up what you will say and then say it. In fact, you are likely to lose readers if you do.

I learned so much more from Joe that this little anecdote almost does him a disservice. He’s also the reason I advocate what I now call “side-by-side writing,” which has been extremely popular at A&R Edelman (my employer). It lets you guide writers with your questions while capturing their thoughts as they speak them aloud. You can capture the writer’s threads and weave them into fabric. The writer in turn learns to weave.

Mentor No. 4: Dennis White of the Manteca Bulletin (the small daily) told me my writing was “wooden.” I angrily examined my work in search of examples of how wrong he was.

After all, I’d been praised for writing all my life. I got my first prize for writing in third grade when I submitted what I did on my summer vacation to a comic book. They sent me $25.

Professors read my essays aloud in class and said, “This is what I’m looking for.”

Wooden? Me? How dare he!

Of course, he was right. In my analysis, I discovered that I had acquired the bad habit of using college verbs. Generic, multi-syllable, Latinate. Yuck.

To cure myself, I made lists of verbs I found in stories I liked and kept them at my keyboard. That was good but not good enough. I soon realized that I had to capture the verbs while still out on the scene, that I couldn’t conjure them after getting back to the office. So in the office and out, I became a verb collector.

Lesson 4: Choose highly specific, one-syllable verbs. For example: tug, flip, lock, find, build, send, flow, choose, dig, start, bring. Not: establish, initiate, enhance, construct …

Naturally, there are as many lessons as there are editors and stories, so I could go on. But now you have a sense of what I mean when I sometimes say in my classes, “I’m not telling you anything new. I’m just channeling the wisdom of the forefathers.”

All of this advice and more is available in my favorite book on writing, which was intended for journalists but works beautifully for anyone. When I was at The AP, we got quiet-looking copies of it with “The Word” printed in gold on a brown cover.

I recommend “The Associated Press Guide to News Writing” by Rene J. Cappon. It's the same book with a different cover. You can find it on Amazon and elsewhere.

It’s even a little bit insulting. So I know it will work for you, too.

Just remember to be resilient.