Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Journalism Tips. 51. Writing stories. Why I think you should take I out.

Sir Humphrey: The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume; but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun.
Hacker: I beg your pardon?
Sir Humphrey: It was... I.

So far we've gone through the basics of finding people, using FoIs and the basics of making contacts. More on these subjects in a later posts.

Now we come to the business of actually writing the story.

As a general rule of thumb whenever you are tempted to write anything that is to be read by more than a handful of people go through it removing the word "I" - unless it is in quotation marks and somebody else has said it.

This goes for most news, features and reviews... and an awful lot of comment too.

If you don't believe me (again only to be rarely used) try reading a paper at random...

Pick up the Daily Express and run through its news pages. Or The Mirror... or the Bridlington Post... or the Falmouth Packet... or The Economist... even i won't have news stories with the word I (unless it is about the paper's circulation - but let's draw a veil over this).

Unless you are a fundamental part of the story - and going along to an event does NOT make you a fundamental part of the story it makes you an observer - you should never use it.

Instead what you write should be about other people. It is part of writing as a journalist. It is not to say that gonzo journalism or first hand reporting will never feature in your career it is just at this stage it is best to leave it on the park bench, give it a lolly and tell it you'll be back in five minutes - then not return to that area for at least the next five years.

"I" is what Twitter is for... not readers of your news stories.

Similar when reading student articles interviewing someone vaguely famous there is far too much what a great honour it is for the interviewer to meet them. Why "it's not every day that you get to meet global superstar and singer extraordinaire Frankie Cocoza..." (at this stage I'd like to apologise to readers of this blog from outside of the UK for even introducing the concept of a Frankie Cocoza into your consciousness. Needless to say he is some irritating little no mark who once appeared on the UK version of X Factor).

Ask yourself: Who will be interested in YOUR experience of meeting a celebrity? What will they get out of reading about you? Why would they care?

Again, stop reading stuff online and read a few properly subbed features in a newspaper or magazine. See for yourself how they are done.

The word "I" may feature occasionally but it is not the main focus.

Now before anyone starts let's put aside the writing of the brilliant Liz Jones - yes, I did say brilliant. She had a style which is often mocked but it is incredibly successful - and well read - especially among her target audience. That however takes a lot of experience because that is what she is sharing as part of her hook for readers.

Or take Hunter S Thompson who shoe horned himself into his stroies to create Gonzo journalism. This was not done on the basis of a single interview or evening. He lived and breathed the life of his subjects - or er not in some cases. You simply haven't got the time - yet.

Perhaps more importantly once you remove the "I" from your copy you begin to write differently. It naturally changes your persepective. Your copy-style changes, and quite rapidly, to one more like that of mainstream media.

To break my own rule: I once picked up a college magazine. And every single article featured the vertical pronoun and tucked away behind the reviews and the going out pages and editorials and lengthy articles of Developing World debt were two pages on the forthcoming student elections.

An important subject for most students, one might think? Perhaps an interview to hear the voices of somebody else in the paper? A meaty subject worthy of spending some time over...? Of course not each candidate was given 30 words to say what they would do if they won office.

I consoled myself with the fact the reviewer of James Joyce's Ulysses happened to enjoy it.

Update: A former colleague who has asked to remain anonymous sent me this rather glorious tale that illustrates the above beautifully...

She wrote:

This brings to mind a story told by an old editor of mine after a terrible accident involving a ferry when a number of lives had been lost. He was told at conference by the head of news that one particular junior reporter was at the hospital bedside of a survivor who had given a blow-by-account of the horror. "Great," said my old editor. "Let's clear two pages for a first person piece." Three hours later, when the 1,500-word story was submitted, it read something like this: "I was awoken at 6.30am by a phone call from my news editor. 'Get down to the ferry station', he said, with some urgency in his voice. Immediately I grabbed my notebook and my camera and headed out of the apartment, grabbing a bagel en route." And so it went on and on and on....

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