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Friday, June 22, 2007

In one word, what's the story about?

Slapped on the wall above my desk and in direct line of sight when I gaze up from my laptop screen is a golden-yellow Post-It note with the words: Select, Focus, Reduce.

Coming off two big writing deadlines in which I've had to compress a year's worth of reporting into a combined 4,500 words of narrative, these three words have been my guide and my editor—a constant check on my writing.

Any writer worth his or her salt will tell you that it's much harder to write short than long. For this project, it almost seemed impossible. But I took a different approach this year. I first relied on my memory. What were the most important themes to emerge this year? Who were the strongest characters? What scenes were foremost in my mind?

While I could fashion a list and an outline with answers to those questions, an overarching theme eluded me on my first story. But as I started to think about the links between the answers I had in front of me, the theme emerged. Everything about this year and this project involves change. So I decided that I would explore:

-- the struggle to change
-- the power to change
-- one individual's ability to effect change
-- the need to change

This is the first time I've approached a writing assignment this way, to whittle an entire narrative down to one word, or, as Chip Scanlan wrote this week one theme. His Chip on Your Your Shoulder column provided a great example of how one photograph of Mississippi lawmen from the Civil Rights era could lead to an entire book about legacies. The author had a wise editor who came up with the one-word theme. The column was perfectly timed to help in my own work. Here's Scanlan with some writerly food for thought this Friday morning:
The best (themes) resonate. They reflect universal qualities and truths about what it means to be human. They connect the domains journalists spend their time in, such as law enforcement, politics, education, with news audiences. Every domain has its own jargon, mores and rules. A theme lays down a bridge between consumers and the news they need to function as citizens in a democracy.

It's a fortunate writer who gets to work with an editor like Jonathan Segal, one who understands that a single word holds the promise of an entire book. But you can give yourself, or another writer, that same a gift: a compass that points to the north star and helps you navigate journeys that lead to places where the best stories are found. Try it.

Working on a story? What's it really about? In one word.


Jill said...

Thank you!! You know I much prefer writing short, but I wonder if that's because in life, I have such a hard time doing that. ;)

Wendy Hoke said...

Ah, but you DO know this particular struggle. :)