“Write Like You Talk” talks to a Murrow winner for writing

May 7, 2018 11:00

One of the best ways I've found to improve my own writing is to watch others tell stories, examine their methods and then see which techniques I can utilize in my own work.  

So, this week, I sat down and watched the winners of the 2018 Regional Murrow Awards for "Excellence In Writing."

It was truly a master class in writing, although the contrast in style was fascinating.

Some employed short, crisp, conversational sentences, using great pacing and powerful sound bites to tell their stories. Others dismissed a conversational style and instead relied on intricates turns-of-phrase ("mental manifestations of the otherwise inexplicable") to make an impact. Both worked.  

But it was Eric Johnson, anchor at KOMO-TV in Seattle, whose winning entry had the biggest impact on me.

I strongly encourage you to watch it. His writing immediately made me care about both stories. Each time I felt like he took me on a journey with the powerful characters he'd found. His stories have surprises, moments and impact.

After sharing his submission on my Twitter account @WriteLikeUTalk, attached to my book "Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Conversational News Writing," I messaged Eric and asked if he would answer a few writing questions. He kindly agreed.

1. WRITE LIKE YOU TALK: What do you do in the field to help you write the story?

ERIC: I think the best thing you can do out in the field is to be aware. Not just listening to what is said and keeping track of facts, but REALLY being aware. I try to take things in. I look for little details that I might show or mention in the story to give it texture.

I'll give you an example: A few years ago I did a story about a very old little lady whose husband had died. He didn't want to be cremated, and she didn't have enough money for a funeral. So she was selling all of her belongings to pay for a funeral service. There was a framed picture of Jesus in her little home, and I noticed it and asked her if that was for sale too. She said no. That struck me. That is a detail that helps tell the story, that helps us understand who this woman is. She would sell everything to bury the love of her life... everything BUT her framed picture of Jesus.

If I see something like that, I very quietly say to my photographer, "Get me a shot of that..."

I try not to just collect a bunch of information... I try to get a “feel” for every story... and then when I sit down to write, I try to summon up that feel[ing] in my mind, and re-create it with words. But, of course, that can't happen if I'm on auto-pilot during the shoot itself, if I'm just going through the motions.

I rarely use my questions in a story, and the reason for that is that they are rarely compact and well formulated. I try to just have a rambling conversation with the subject, because well-crafted questions rarely get me the natural reactions that I'm looking for. So I talk to them naturally, and if I'm doing my job well, they'll respond naturally.

I want my stories to be human... and the only way to make that happen is to be human myself at the beginning of the process: looking and listening, but also feeling.

2. WRITE LIKE YOU TALK: How do you handle the logging process? What are you hoping to accomplish?

ERIC: I log everything. And I mean EVERYTHING! One major reason is that if the shooter knows I will look at every shot, they are more apt to go that extra yard out in the field to get one more shot just in case. They know I won't necessarily USE every shot, but I think they appreciate that at the very least I LOOK at every shot and log it.

I use a star system when I log, so I remember what the really striking sound is, or the really great shots. It's very simple: 4 stars means I HAVE to use it... down to 1 star, which means that I should at least be aware of it as I begin the writing process.

Then, if I have enough time, I'll just skim through the logs again to refresh myself before writing.

If my logs are thorough enough, they also help out the editor.

3. WRITE LIKE YOU TALK: How do you approach writing the story? What's the most important thing for you?

ERIC: In the writing process, time can be my enemy or my friend. Sometimes when I HAVE to get a story written “right now,” my brain kicks into some kind of “emergency mode” and the words and ideas just come flowing out. I can't really explain it, except to say that when it's happening, it's happening... and when it's not, it's not.

When I have a lot of time -- in other words, I'm not on deadline -- I sort of wait for inspiration. If I'm trying to write and it's just not happening, I'll get up and walk around, or do something else, until the little 'creative window’ opens up.

There are things you can do to increase the chances of that window being open. I look through the video again, and listen to the subject's voice. I revisit some of the sights and sounds of the story, to help me get to that place again.

And I am very musically inclined... so I use music a great deal.

I'll think about what a particular story should “feel" like... and then I'll put on some headphones and play some music that matches that feeling. Sounds weird, but it just helps put me in the right frame of mind.

The newsroom can be a noisy, distracting place... same with out in the field. The music helps isolate me and get me going.

I have a couple playlists that I go back to over and over. The music on them is so familiar to me, I've listened to it so much, that it's just a wall of sound that allows me to block everything out.

I want every story to have an idea, or a theme. Sometimes I'll make a universal statement at the beginning, and then revisit it throughout the story. Or come back to it at the end.

But mostly, I have a little concept that I always repeat to myself while I'm writing: "I want my stories to remind people what it feels like to be a human being."

Sounds corny and overly-dramatic... but what I mean by it is that I want my stories to touch those familiar nerves in all of us that remind [us] of those qualities in our species that set us apart. That thing that can't be described, but we all know it when we feel it. I call it "being reminded what it feels like to be a human being."

4. WRITE LIKE YOU TALK: You “write to video” extremely well. So much of the story about Will and the story about heroin is simply explaining the video to the viewer, almost like a tour guide. Why is that so important to you?

ERIC: Look, I feel like I have something to say. I have ideas and concepts and feeling that I want to communicate. For the kinds of stories I tell, I want to do more than just narrate some video and tie together sound bites. I was there. I saw and I listened, and I have some things I want to say.

You mentioned the Will and Becca story. This line is an example:


She didn't SAY those words... but I maintain them to be true, and I feel it's a better, more illuminating way of saying, "Will and Becca are friends."

At the end of the story we said this:


Again, that's my interpretation of what I saw at the celebration. And, you'll notice that I came back to the "Heart that is pure and true" statement... which is something I find myself doing over and over.

I'll say something once... and by the time I bring it up again, having seen the body of the story, you know why it is true, and it feels like the viewer has come full circle.

And, I should point out, that these stories are not “news” stories; they are for the most part feature stories, so the rules are a little different.

5. WRITE LIKE YOU TALK: What is the best piece of advice you can offer young reporters in our business?

I've said this to a thousand young aspiring reporters and storytellers... I've said it to my own kids, and anyone else who will (or won't) listen: "Read good books. Read things that have passed the test of time. Look at the sentence structure. Dissect how the writer said something early in a paragraph that perfectly set up something at the end of the paragraph. Don't just float along with your mind OVER the words... dive INTO them, submerge your mind in them, pick them apart and put them back together again so that you begin to understand not just the genius and natural skill of a writer, but the tricks and devices they use as well."

I'm not sure that many young people actually take that advice to heart. It sounds so old fashioned, and it takes work, and plus, who really reads anymore anyway? But it's worked for me.

I remember being younger and watching a great story, or reading one, and thinking to myself in a state of awe, "It's magic! It comes so easy for that person... I'll never be able to do that..."

But it's NOT magic. It's a craft.

And a craft, by its very nature, is learned through repetition, and experimentation, and by studying those who are better at it than you are.

If you were hoping for an easier path... you don't really want to be great.

(...said the old man...)

Eric Johnson anchors the 5:00 p.m. newscast on KOMO-TV (Seattle). He served as the station's sports director for many years. You can reach him at @EricJohnsonKOMO.

Jeff Butera is the author of "Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing,' which is available at www.WriteLikeYouTalk.com. You can reach him at @WriteLikeUTalk.