Separate incidents with my two main work gigs this week have led me to conclude that my major stumbling block with pitching articles is that I think too big picture. No wonder I can't get my head around a neat and tidy pitch.
This revelation occurred during workshop for KnowledgeWorks Foundation. My challenge is to try to tell the story of big positive change through the eyes of one individual who may not be the dynamic symbol of that change. It's tough and I was very frustrated after the workshop. But a structure is beginning to take form in my head, which is a good thing considering the 3,000-word final draft is due May 30.
My one year anniversary as membership manager for SPJ has just passed and I'll have a review when I'm in Indianapolis next Friday. But I was asked to fill out a self-evaluation in advance of that review. This was a tough assignment for me because I've felt very ineffective in this job. I am one person (at only 20 hours per week), trying to mobilize a membership base of 9,500 (including 230 chapters and leaders). I feel as if I'm pushing a boulder uphill in high heels. And once again I think my problem is that I think too big.
The challenge this summer is to think smaller and believe me this is a challenge because I'm a change-the-world kind of person. I have to be satisfied with smaller accomplishments. For example, I've been working on a big story about treatment of Muslim-Americans at U.S. borders. The story of one woman here in Cleveland was my hook.
While in the shower this morning, it dawned on me how I could sell a smaller, tighter version of this story. I still think the larger issue is hugely important (and apparently so does the New York Times, Washington Post and Progressive magazine), but I'm going to work on nibbles instead of chunks.
Although I'm not writing about my life, I've turned once again for inspiration to William Zinsser's "Writing About Your Life." I have been trying to read Jon Franklin's "Writing for Story" and it's doing nothing for me. His approach seems so rigid and formulaic that it takes all the spontaneity out of writing. He's done some amazing work and has two Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing to show for it, but he's not the natural teacher that Zinsser is.
Amazing how quickly I forget his mantra to "select, focus, reduce." While skimming through my marked up copy, I found a few other gems to light my fire this Friday morning.
Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them it's because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives.
Although Zinsser is talking about memoir, this also could apply to narrative nonfiction. I recently read an article on mediabistro about how journalists manage gobs of materials when writing long-form narrative. One writer said his first step was to write from memory, because he believes that's where the most important stuff comes from. He later fills in with details from notes and tapes.
...reduce to human scale the big events.
Travel writing … depends on the gathering of dozens of small details … Mere observing and reporting isn't enough. You must make a personal connection with the place you're writing about.
…relentlessly distill and condense.
All writing is talking to someone else on paper. Talk like yourself.
I think of intention as the writer's soul.
…universal themes often come cloaked in unlikely garb.
Be ready to be surprised by grace. And be wary of security as a goal.
It's a privilege to write for one other person. Do it with gratitude and with pleasure.