Wild About Writing: 'Wild Bill' Talks Feature Writing With "Write Like You Talk"

December 11, 2018 11:00

Feature stories have a place in news because they paint a more complete picture of the areas we cover. Our communities aren't just crime stories and city council meetings; they're the people we serve doing interesting, unique things.

And if they're done correctly, feature stories can also be one of the most compelling things in your newscast.

Emmy-winning Wild Bill Wood is one of the reporters doing feature stories at the highest level. At WGNO in New Orleans, Bill does 'News With A Twist.'

His stories are memorable and compelling, filled with rich characters and great writing. So I decided to ask him about writing feature stories.

1) What do you do in the field that helps you write the story later?
When I’m out on a story, I’m not really taking notes as much as I am actually writing lines for the story. If I can come up with the first line and the last line, or at least 'working lines' until I come up with something better, I start to fill in the middle of the story. 

All of this always changes, of course, but sometimes I come up with an opening line or closing line in my yoga class or in the shower. I have to write it down or I’ll forget it.

2) You work with photojournalist Justin Abshire often. What's your working relationship like? How does he help you and how do you help him?
Photojournalist Justin Abshire and I constantly collaborate. In fact, he often comes up with better lines than I do! That wouldn’t take much.

Or he will tell me what a shot looks like. Or I will tell him the line, especially the opening line or the closing line, and ask him to get a shot that 'says' what I’m writing.

3) What's your writing process like (i.e. logging, writing, re-writing, editing)?
I really don’t like logging. Ugh. But it’s necessary, I guess. What Justin and I do out in the field to cut down on the logging is to limit our interviews to two or three questions.

That’s right. I chat with them before we roll to get basic information. Then Justin sets up his GoPros and the goal is to roll on as little as possible.  I’m not a fan of endless shooting which creates mindless logging for me. And when you think about it, how much really good stuff can you use? So I try to whittle it down in the field. 

If I have time, if there’s no deadline, I’ll write the first version, print it and put it away. Then I’ll come back to it later. Maybe a day later. Maybe a couple of days later. The best way for me to think of something is to NOT think about it.

4) Your stories have excellent pacing. How important to you is pace? How do you achieve it?
Pacing. It’s the rhythm of how I write. It's how many words. How they sound together. I’ll make lots of pauses for nat sound when I write a story. My words are the cement that holds together the pictures and sounds.

As the editor, Justin Abshire will chop up my track or I’ll re-track to make the pace of the piece move. We use music in our pieces at 'WGNO News with a Twist' so that really manipulates the pace, too.

5) Your pieces have great characters. What secrets do you have for finding great characters and shining a light on their personality?
The characters of a story are the stars. That makes me the casting director. You know when you’ve struck gold. Just watch and listen to people. Notice who’s got charisma. Or not if that’s what you want.

With kids, I am a better judge at which kids will rise to the occasion than a teacher in a classroom. I just start chatting with them. I’m a clown. I play and see who responds to me. And if it’s good, I hope it happens when the camera rolls.

6) Your stories tend to be features. Do you approach those stories differently than you would a hard news story?
I really don’t do hard news stories these days. But I remember back when I did, an old news director used to say every murder story I did started out at a diner next to the crime scene with somebody eating a piece of pie. I took and still take that as a compliment. What I was attempting was to set the scene with color and texture and flavor, literally with pie. Like a movie by the Coen Brothers, a tragic story can be told with style.

7) What's your best advice to young reporters/producers in our business?
Advice. Hmmm? Don’t take it! 

When you write, don’t be afraid to write what you feel, what you think. That’s why comedians are funny. They tell the truth. They’re blunt. They say what the rest of us wish we had the courage to say. If the characters in your story really are a "bus load of losers," that’s what you should write. And in the end, everybody becomes a winner.

Wild Bill Wood is a features reporter at WGNO-TV in New Orleans. His work has earned him 19 Emmy Awards, including recently being honored for his writing at the 2018 Suncoast Emmy Awards.

Jeff Butera is the author of "Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing." He is currently the evening news anchor at WZVN-TV in Fort Myers. The writing guide is available at www.WriteLikeYouTalk.com.