Monday, August 23, 2010

747 The Bigger the Story

747 The Bigger the Story the Shorter and Faster You Write it

This old saw comes back into focus with the completion of a one thousand word item about the future of independent pharmacies in the rural northeast. It took five weeks, dozens of phone calls a fair amount of re-writing and it's still not accepted for publication. You can sum it up quickly: It's a tough racket, especially when these little shops are surrounded by Wal-Mart and Target and CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, a bunch of supermarkets and a convenience-crazed public. Business is off and getting offer all the time. Survival is doubtful. There it is in 40 words. All you need to know. But not good enough, of course. Gotta do set-ups, explanations, get quotes. Make phone calls galore to all the main characters.

Then submitted it to the editor who will have questions. As pointed out in an earlier post, there always are questions, sometimes real requests for information but often just to show you who's in charge, which, if you've done this for more than a day or so, you already know. This is why little features like this and long convoluted political stories are as complex and sometimes byzantine as they are. When you get to do a big story, it's much easier.

How long do you think it took John Herbers of the New York Times to write this lead in August of 1974?

"Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, announced tonight that he had given up his long and arduous fight to remain in office and would resign, effective at noon tomorrow."

Half an hour? Ten minutes? Guessing something in that range. Anyone misunderstand that collection of 33 words?

But it's not only huge national stories that can be told in ways that are both brief and fairly complete.

"PEDESTRIAN KILLED BY SPEEDING CAR ON MAIN STREET." Then, a few details, like who the victim was, who the driver was, whether there'll be charges against him. And if it's at one of those places where accidents regularly happen, maybe a line about how many people have been killed by cars in that spot. Of course, a singular incident like this one doesn't require a lot of detail.

If a news item is the end piece of a long-running story, it's much easier and faster to put together. We no longer have to explain who Sarah Palin is, for example, so most of the articles about her can be fairly simple and straightforward and fast and easy to write and to read.

You could summarize this whole 500 word thing thus: Big is easier than small.


--We banjo pickers used to stuff rags or towels into the back of the instrument to mute the overtones and quiet the thing a bit to play in a quiet location without waking the neighbors. But modern technology has improved this crude and primative practice. A paper back book works better.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

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