Writers on Writing

Writers on Writing

Thoughts to help you tell an investigative story well

"You can't apply good writing after the fact, like some kind of lacquer. The reporting has to be there."— James Gannon

"While reporting, keep searching for a narrative thread — a timeline, an internal debate. Create a storyline by asking interviewees for their take on the same incident or anecdote. A narrative will blossom."— Ken Auletta

"A reporter here recently used in broad daylight,' and I told her, 'Think about this phrase. Have you ever heard of narrow daylight?' Wouldn't it be better to use a concrete description of the light, where you can really see it? I mean, think of the light in Edward Hopper, think of the light in Vermeer. 'In broad daylight' is like 'strife-torn Bosnia.' I mean, what the hell is 'strife,' anyway?"— Pete Hamill

"Everybody's got time for a story that makes a difference to them."— Richard Ben Cramer

"Writing has much in common with cooking. A dish is likely to be edible if goodingredients are combined in the proper order, but if a cook puts in the pickled beets before the turnips, it's a fallen souffle for dinner."— James J. Kilpatrick

"Don't say the old lady screamed. Drag her on stage and make her scream."— Mark Twain

"Avoid adjectives and swear by the little verbs that bounce and leap and swim and cut."- Stanley Walker

"Read your story aloud as you go. Imagine you are telling it to your person. Rewrite anything that sounds stiff. If your tongue trips, rewrite."- Kate Long

"Anonymity is an invitation to exaggerate, embroider, embellish, slant. Or take the cheap shot. This is true for the reporter, as well as the source. It is a bad habit and it is getting worse."- Gene Miller

"Most writers will gladly spend five days reporting a 1,200-word story, but they won't spend five hours writing it. I'm shocked at how little time they spend, even when they are not on deadline. Writing is hard work. It's time grown men and women were told this."- Alan Richman

"A good writer is merciless in deciding who gets into his piece. Each person must have a story purpose or be excluded; scores of sources may have been interviewed, but that's the worst reason for putting them into the story. As the number of characters diminishes, those remaining loom larger in the reader's mind."- William Blundell