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Posted, Sep. 9, 2004
Updated, Aug. 18, 2005


QuickLink: A70451

Writing Tool #22: Get Ready
Take a tip from Hamlet and always be prepared to tell the big story: Expect the unexpected.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Get ready.

That great writing coach Prince Hamlet said it best: "The readiness is all."

Great writers get ready for the big story, even if they cannot see it. They expect the unexpected.  Like Batman, they cinch up a utility belt filled with handy tools. They report and report and research and then report some more, filling up a reservoir of knowledge they can use at any time.

Sports writers are the world champions of readiness. They write big stories under deadline pressure against formidable competition with the outcome of the event in doubt. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times was ready when Justin Gatlin won the 2004 Olympic gold in the 100-meter dash:

His first track event was the 100-meter hydrants, a kid running down Quentin Street leaping over every fire plug in his path.

His second track event was the 100-meter spokes, the kid racing in tennis shoes against his friends riding bicycles.

A dozen years later, on a still Mediterranean night far from home, the restless boy on the block became the fastest man in the world.

The advanced reporting makes that great deadline lead possible. The readiness is all.

Another great sports journalist, Red Smith was ready when Bobby Thomson shocked the world in October 1951 with the most dramatic home run in baseball history:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead.  Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

Writing the big game story requires readiness enough.  Now try to imagine what it took for AP correspondent Mark Fritz to write this 1994 account of the genocidal massacre in Rwanda:

Nobody lives here any more.

Not the expectant mothers huddled outside the maternity clinic, not the families squeezed into the church, not the man who lies rotting in a schoolroom beneath a chalkboard map of Africa.

Everybody here is dead. Karubamba is a vision from hell, a flesh-and-bone junkyard of human wreckage, an obscene slaughterhouse that has fallen silent save for the roaring buzz of flies the size of honeybees.

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Few journalists are as versatile as David Von Drehle of The Washington Post, who in 1994 was assigned to cover a big story, the funeral of former president Richard Nixon. Von Drehle knew he'd be writing on deadline against a small army of competitors. "Deadlines always make me shiver," he admits, but the shivers are a physical manifestation of his readiness to produce prose like this:

Yorba Linda, Calif. -- When last the nation saw them all together, they were men of steel and bristling crew cuts, titans of their time -- which was a time of pragmatism and ice water in the veins.

How boldly they talked. How fearless they seemed. They spoke of fixing their enemies, of running over their own grandmothers if it would give them an edge. Their goals were the goals of giants: Control of a nation, victory in the nuclear age, strategic domination of the globe.

The titans of Nixon's age gathered again today, on an unseasonable cold and gray afternoon, and now they were white-haired or balding, their steel was rusting, their skin had begun to sag, their eyesight was failing. They were invited to contemplate where power leads.

"John Donne once said that there is a democracy about death," the Rev. Billy Graham told the mourners at Richard M. Nixon's funeral.

Such powerful work is no accident, and Von Drehle generously shares the secrets of readiness:

At a time like that, you have to fall back on the basics: Sit down and tell a story.

What happened?

What did it look like, sound like, feel like?  Who said what?  Who did what?

And why does it matter?

What's the point?  Why is this story being told?  What does it say about life, about the world, about the times we live in? ...

I learned long ago: Don't get fancy on deadline. Keep the structure simple; start at the beginning, march through the middle, end at the end. That's what I did here. There are no flashbacks, no digressions, no interwoven storyline. Just beginning, middle, end. Lead, chronology, kicker.

What else? Lots of short sentences. Active verbs. Clear metaphors. Pithy quotes. Vivid details ... Fall back on the basics. They'll get you through -- even when you feel like you're going to freeze.

I end with the story of Laurence Stallings, a famous reporter and writer who got to sit in the press box at a 1925 football game between the universities of Pennsylvania and Illinois. During the game, Red Grange scored at least three touchdowns for the Illini, as the legendary Galloping Ghost amassed hundreds of yards of offense. Illinois beat Penn by a score of 24 to 2.

Stallings was awestruck. How could anyone cover this event? "It's too big," he said. This came from a man who had once covered the Russian Revolution. Someone should have quoted Shakespeare: The readiness is all.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox
Workbench:

1. With the help of an editor or friend make a list of some possible big stories that could emerge from your beat, specialty, or area of interest. Begin 'saving string' on these topics, material that will help you down the road.

2. As you watch big sporting events, such as the World Series or the Super Bowl or the Olympics, rehearse in your head possible leads you would write for the most dramatic stories that emerge. Compare and contrast your ideas with those that appear in the print or on the air.

3. Big stories need big headlines and titles. Get ready for the next big story by re-writing the headlines you see on important contemporary stories. Consider also what you might have written if you were writing headlines for the following events: the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the devastation of Hurricane Andrew; the destruction of the World Trade Center; the Oklahoma City bombing; the destruction of the Berlin Wall; the death of Elvis Presley.

4. For your eyes only, write a memo to persuade an editor to give you the time and resources you need to cover a big story.

CORRECTION: In the original version of this article, Illinois' opponent was incorrectly identified, as was the year the game was played.


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