Ethics in feature writing

We will be discussing ethics in feature writing in class today. Here are some links we’ll be using.

Here is he Janet Cooke story that won her a Pulitzer Prize until it was revealed the story was a fabrication. She acknowledged she never interviewed any of the people in the story and that she made it up based on composite information she had gleaned from other sources. Cooke sort of explained on the Phil Donahue show why she lied.

We will be discussing this story in the context of the ethical decisions that reporters make at every turn that lead to true and accurate reporting or breaches. It is important to remember that no one sets out to be unethical. These lapses start as a series of misplaced choices, much as one small lie may lead to larger untruths.

Be thinking about what small ethical lapses you may make that could lead to bigger gaps.

Ethics is also about journalists’ decision to be impartial or stay out of the lives of subjects. When should a journalist step in?

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Better writing comes from learning to edit yourself

If you really want to improve your writing, spend some time as an editor. Being an editor makes you read a story differently. Rather than seeing the story as a collective whole, editors see it as pieces (words, sentences, thoughts, ideas.) They learn to compartmentalize, reading for content first, and then going line by line to spot mistakes, clunkiness, lack of flow.

The best writers learn to use these editing tools on their own work. They distance themselves from their writing by “letting it gel,” or writing and then leaving their work before reading it again. Then they put on their editors’ hats and spot the problems.

You can give it try here by editing each of these sentences.

Reporter ‘eavesdrops’ on Obama’s visit

Here’s the story I was talking about in class today — about President Obama visiting with some young people and a reporter capturing the moment by eavesdropping.

Give it a read. As you do so, ask yourself:

Does this work better as the writer wrote it, or would a more traditional story work better?

Why or why not?

Why doesn’t the reporter interview anyone?

Does that work?

Great feature writing makes you feel something

As promised, here’s a bit of good — great — writing that you should read. We’ll be talking about it in class next week (Jan. 22). This is a first-person narrative.

As you read it, ask yourself:

  • How does the writing make me feel?
  • What do I see?
  • What do I feel?
  • What techniques does the writer use to make me feel what I feel and see what I see?
  • What is the pace of the story?
  • How does the writer generate that pace?

Want to write well? Avoid these cliches

In class Monday, we will be talking about improving your writing by avoiding phrases you have heard before. The reason: If you’ve heard it before, it’s old, hackneyed, trite, boring.

Here’s a great list of words for journalists to avoid.

Best newspaper leads

In class Monday, we will be discussing writing leads — one of the most difficult  parts of any story. Leads are difficult because they frame the whole story, and sometimes when we are writing them, we do not yet know what the story is really about. Plus, they are the first part of the story, so without a good lead, we know our readers will quit.

Here are some examples of compelling leads from the Poynter Institute. We will be discussing why they work — and what we can learn from them — in class.

Stephen King: ‘The adverb is not your friend’

We have been talking a lot in class about writing and stripping away the unnecessary words. We have discussed using powerful verbs, rather than relying on adverbs to modify our weak or tiresome verbs.

This post, on Brian Pickings, offers an excerpt from a book on writing by Stephen King that chisels this point. According to the post by Maria Popova, King offers this advice in his book, On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft:

Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.

King, one of the most prolific writers of our time, goes onto explain that powerful verbs make adverbs redundant. Use “slammed” rather than “closed firmly” because it says what you mean, he suggests. Why use a boring verb and hope an adverb will bring it to life?

Words to remember.