In response to the semester I’ve had, I’ve completely stalled on completing one of my take home finals and have begun digging through the Pulitzer site for beautiful writing. I found it — in several places. But, none of the stories I read through were quite like what I encountered in Thomas French’s series “Angels & Demons.”
Continuing to put out of my mind the nagging political science readings I have strewn about my desk, I read a little bit about French. I easily forgot about him as I spent last night and most of today reading through this series and others. But, it’s my belief and probably others’ that a good writer shouldn’t make you think about the person crafting the story.
Here’s a bit about what French has to say to young writers (it applies beautifully to my own quest):
On finding stories: When French was a younger writer, he thought great stories came from above. “As a high school journalist, I thought the heavens would open up,” he said. But he quickly realized there were plenty of great stories right before his eyes. Writers must see the world as potential stories, French said.
On conducting interviews: French said the most natural — and often the most awkward — approach is best. Be yourself and be honest about why you want to talk with potential sources. “Don’t have assumptions or hidden agendas,” he said.
On staying on the record: French advised being clear on the terms from the start. Set ground rules that your source understands. Different people mean different things by “off the record,” he said. To avoid potential misunderstandings later, French said he tells sources that he likes all comments to be on the record. That way, if they’re not comfortable having certain information in print, they know not to say it.
On asking dumb questions: “The worst thing is to pretend to understand that which you don’t,” he said. You should ask dumb questions because “you learn by admitting what you don’t know.”
On asking difficult questions: “Ask them tough and straight,” he said. For example, if you’re interviewing the principal and have to ask whether he or she stole money from a student club, don’t dance around the issue. Ask directly.
On gaining respect: French said you can’t control how others view you. Young journalists should take their job seriously and ignore and deflect patronizing attitudes from administrators, teachers, and other students. “They’ll learn quickly that you are for real,” he said.
On firsthand observations: French said interviewing experts can be helpful, but often there is a simpler way to gain insight into a subject. For example, if you’re writing about cliques, hang out and observe people in the cafeteria before contacting a mental health expert about the sociological structure of cliques. “Are there boundaries? Are there people who cross over from one territory to the next? Find out why people sit where they sit.”
On details: “The world is not made up of generalities,” French said. “The world runs on details: specific, concrete details.” For example, if you’re writing about a rock thrown through the principal’s window at dinnertime, find out where the principal was sitting. What was he or she eating? To set poignant and vivid scenes, you must explore the details.
On the art of zagging: “When everyone else zigs, you should zag.” For example, French said that high school football is often covered “to the ends of the earth.” While football is important, he said, so are all the other sports. Instead of always focusing on what’s happening on the field, some of the best action occurs in the stands, on the sidelines, and in the locker room.
On starting to write: Many writers, even the most accomplished ones, often find the writing process frightening. French said writers need to “put your terror aside and jump in.”
On finding your voice: “The voice is in you,” he said. “Your voice is everything that makes you you.”
On big words: While French suggested that young journalists should “raise expectations” for readers, don’t be a showoff. For example, French would not advise using “he retorted” when you could write “he said.” But if a so-called big word fits or is most appropriate word, by all means use it.
On rewriting: French said all writers must rewrite. “A lot of times this is where you learn the most,” he said.
On monitoring your time: French said how much time you spend on a story is defined by the nature of the story and the deadline. “Some stories deserve an hour or a day, and some a whole year.”
On getting more time when it’s truly needed: “When you have a story that warrants more time, ask your editor for an extension,” French said. “Asking for an extension is like asking your parents to borrow the car for the weekend. Be creative in fighting for more time. Be convincing and use persuasion.”
On telling it like it is: French said you need to feel something about the person you’re writing about. “Empathy is important,” he says. “Your job is not to judge them, it’s to understand them. And your job is not to make your high school look good, and it’s not to make the high school look bad. It’s to report how it is.”
On accuracy: French said get the facts right. Then double-check yourself. Then check again. “Be tough and scrupulous on yourself,” he said.