Secrets of storytelling

Have you heard someone drone on and on?
They love their story and tell it again and again.
All of us want to be good storytellers, orally and in print.
If you retell a story, give it a fresh slant.
Share new lessons the experience taught you.
Make the lessons ones that will benefit your audience.

Here are tips from experts, courtesy of Elizabeth Bernstein.
Elizabeth writes for the Wall Street Journal.

  1. Make a point.
    This why you tell stories.
    You don’t have to state it but keep it in mind.
    I tell the story of how we started our 1st newspaper.
    The facts are the same but the way I tell it differs.
    And I draw different points in each telling.

2. Open dramatically.
You need a “James Bond opening.”
One of my favorites is one Charlie Farrell tells.
Charlie was a Marine fighter pilot.
His story is about his 1st landing on a carrier at sea.
The carrier deck looked like a postage stamp from above.
It is a white knuckle run.
Charlie makes you feel what he felt.

Paul Zak, who studies the neurobiology of storytelling, says:
• You must have reasons for us to want to read or listen.
• An exciting opening produces dopamine in our brains.
That helps to focus our readers’ attention.

3. Put flesh on your characters.
What are the people in your story like?
How did they act, feel and look?
Make readers care about your characters
Their brains will produce oxytocin, the bonding hormone.

4. Build tension.
Deepen your story. Create cliffhangers and surprise.
These give a reason to care about your characters.
It will engage them with your story.
When they are emotionally engaged, they bond with you.

5. Make personal disclosures.
Research shows that self-disclosure helps people bond.
But don’t exaggerate. It kills credibility.
You can make yourself the butt of the story.
Readers love those of us willing to show our vulnerability.

Final tip: If you’re retelling a story, admit it.
Research shows repetition makes you look inauthentic.
But if you admit it, it seems to make it all right.
Write or say, “One of my favorite stories is…”

What should your obit reveal?

What should your obit reveal?

My Seton Hall University reporting students’ 1st writing exercise was simple:

Write a 250-word obituary you would want read at your funeral.

Bear in mind that it will appear in the local newspaper, too.

Your loved ones will read it and smile.

“He (or she) was sui generis,” they will say.

If you don’t know what sui generis means, look it up.

None of my students had the audacity of Thomas Mathews.

His sui generis obit was submitted by a funeral home to our local daily:

It prompted my wife to ask, “Why don’t we get obits like this for our newspaper?”

Thomas A. Mathews, 51, passed away on Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2019, from total heartbreak due to a severe case of Dallas Cowboys Fan Syndrome.
Thomas was born July 6, 1967, in Washington and traveled around the world throughout his childhood while his father served this great country.
He settled down in South Carolina where he worked as a Corrections Officer at multiple prisons around the state.
He worked part-time as a bartender while competing in local billiard leagues and enjoyed the misery his Dallas Cowboys brought him on Sundays.

Mathews’ obituary inspired me to write this.

I asked my wife to use it when I pass on to that great newsroom in the sky.

Much-feared newspaper editor dies.
After he lost his hair, many elected officials wondered where Jerry Bellune hid his horns.
Utility executives, corrupt politicians
and other miscreants wondered the same thing.
Two of his life’s great tragedies were being a Carolina Gamecocks and Philadelphia Eagles fan.

No sentences longer than 15 words. Short and to the point.

Here’s this month’s challenge for you:

Write your own obituary.

Show you have a sense of humor.

Make it light.

Give your readers a laugh or 2 among the otherwise grim data about your life.

Send me a copy and I will share it with others.

All of us could use a good laugh in these politically-dark days.

If yours makes me laugh, I’ll send you a complimentary copy of my new book.

It’s called “The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.”

It has a few laughs in it, too.

Make Me See

The grey sea and the long black land 
and the yellow half-moon large and low. 
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep.

That’s how poet Robert Browning set the stage
in his poem about young lovers “Meeting at Night.”
You can see what he was seeing.

Editor Gene Roberts tells how his first editor,
a blind man in Goldsboro, N.C. had to have his wife
read him the newspaper each day.
He insisted to all his reporters “make me see” what they had seen.
Among his other duties, Gene covered farming.
His editor insisted that he close his column each week
with “This Week’s Prettiest Sight.”

Gene didn’t like doing it.
His friends kidded him about it.
But the experience and discipline
of doing it made him a keen observer.
That skill led to success at
The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

All good writing, said Saul Pett,
one of the Associated Press’s great stylists,
is two sides of the same coin.
How is this man different from me?
How are we alike?

Does the richest man in the world
have everything he wants?
Does he bother with the prices on a menu?
Or on a yacht?

Tell me the large and tell me the small.
Identify with me. Plug into my circuit.
The eye of the writer is sharper than
the television camera because it is
linked to a brain and a heart.

Here is how award-winning reporter David Waters
of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.,
helped his readers see his subject:

Big Teddy Carr was big enough to have his way
and bad enough to lose it.
Kids made fun of his size until he found out
his size could put a stop to that.
Teddy’s bearlike stature was a source of shame.
Then it become a source of income, mostly illegal.

Journalist Jimmy Breslin wrote of 
the Dublin poet Patrick Kavanaugh:
His tie is loose and the long end thrown over his shoulder. 
He had on two pairs of eyeglasses. 
Both sat cockeyed and were steamed up in the hot pub. 
He sat hunched over in his rumpled overcoat 
with his arms folded and the pint of stout in front of him. 
His shoes were open and the laces caught under the soles.
Breslin makes us see Kavanaugh. 

Here’s an exercise if you’re game.
Write a description of every thing
and every person you can see
from where you are.
Now get up and move around the room.
Add anything else you noted that you
could not see from your desk.

This tip will appear in “The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.”
If you like me to include a comment from you about these tips,
please email it to me at

Show rather than tell

Good morning,
Here we are again, thinking about improving our writing.
Today’s topic is geared to feature writing although it will work in news stories, too.

We talk a lot about storytelling in writing.
What we really mean is “Show your readers – don’t just tell them.”

Most of us are aware that it is more convincing to show something through action, behavior or dialogue than it is just to tell it.
Our ability and effort to show may determine if our readers think our story is realistic and that we are credible as storytellers.

This applies more to feature writing than traditional news reporting.
Yet it can be useful in both.

Here are 3 hints:

  1. Describe scenes with real people taking action or talking with each other.
    Let your readers hear what you hear and how you heard it – not only what they said but how they said it. Let them hear the noise of cities and the quiet of mountains and forests, the music of surf and wind.
  2. Let the reader experience what took place and how it made you feel.
    Take them inside the scene and inside yourself.
  3. Use concrete detail.
    Describe what happened as you saw it.

Relate strange places and people to places and people you and your readers both may know.
For example, show them an elderly man who “looked like Winston Churchill.”
Describe sunrise over a peak “like the Blue Ridge mountains.”

Bring your readers into the scene with you.
Think and write as if you were setting a scene in a work of fiction.

A fine reporter, Roger Beirne, was troubled after interviewing the mother of her son killed in combat.
His account told simply what he saw, the neighborhood where the family lived, the look of the house where the boy grewn up, how his mother appeared when she came to the door, what she told him about her son. It was a moving account.
Roger did not need to hype it up. He simply showed what took place.

During the Nazi bombing of London in 1940, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote:
They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night. Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead.
In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.

Australian journalist Helen Garner opens her account of a murder-suicide:
It happened in broad daylight one April afternoon in 2015, while the ciitizens of Melbourne were peaceably going about their business.
A chef on her way to get a tattoo, was driving past Lake Gladman, a reedy, rock-edged wetland, when the blue Toyota SUV in front of her suddenly pulled off and stopped. As the chef drove by, she caught a glimpse of an African woman sitting huddled over the steering wheel with her face in her hands. Kids behind her were rioting. A little one was thrashing in his booster, a bigger one dangling off the back of the driver’s seat.
Minutes later, a passing teacher saw the Toyota “drive full bolt straight into the water.”

These highly dramatic examples show what is possible.
Your story may not be as dramatic as these.
Yet similar human energy is there in most stories.

Here is an example from our newspaper:
It all began with a phone call Chapin Town Councilman Al Koon made on Monday, June 25, to his friend Paul Kirby.
Kirby is editor and publisher of the online Lexington Ledger and a former firefighter and correspondent for the Chronicle.
“Al called me about noon to chat as we often do,” Paul said. “It was unusual for him to call me mid-day as we normally talk in the morning or when I am driving home.
“When Al’s speech changed as we talked, it did so quickly and dramatically. He was completely unintelligible and it was clear that something was very wrong.”

Try it in your next story,
Make us see, hear, even smell and feel what you are experiencing.

Writing tip: Do your darned homework

Research will pay off

Do your homework BEFORE interviews.
It’s vital. You walk in blind if you don’t.
You waste a lot of time asking dumb questions
your research would have already answered.
Here’s an example of what I mean.

John Maxwell could have been a reporter.
He was diligent in his preparation.
He read about his subjects and took notes.
In the age of Google this is easier than ever.
If you don’t research, it’s your own fault.

When he was here last year, John told a story.
He had admired John Wooden for years.
Wooden was an amazing man.
He coached basketball for over 40 years.
In that time, he had 1 losing season – his 1st.
His UCLA teams had 4 undefeated seasons.
They won 10 NCAA championships.
7 of them were in consecutive years.
It is a record that may never be equaled.

Maxwell and Wooden had a mutual friend.
The friend offered to introduce them.
In preparation for a breakfast meeting, John:

  1. Read everything he could find on Wooden.
  2. Read all of Wooden’s inspirational books.
  3. Filled a legal pad with questions.

They met at Wooden’s favorite coffee shop.
After breakfast, Wooden invited him to his home.
They talked throughout the day.
Maxwell said they got to half of his questions.
But as a result, they became friends.

Some of the people we cover aren’t famous.
We won’t find them on Google.
They are local people – just plain folks.
They have written no books for us to read.
But they do have friends we could seek out.

Here’s a story that illustrates this:
My friend Bruce Locklin was a tireless reporter.
We worked together at 3 different newspapers.
In investigating a corrupt lawyer, Bruce talked with:

  1. Lawyers who had opposed him in court.
  2. Judges he had pleaded cases before.
  3. Former clients who would talk with him.

After all that, Bruce called the lawyer.
The man was anxious to give his side.
He knew Bruce had done his homework.

Bruce took 2 recorders to the interview.
He made 2 tapes of the conversation.
He gave 1 tape to the lawyer.
That was Bruce’s sense of fair play.
The tapes also would back up the story.

You may not need this much preparation.
But it’s good to know how others do it.

PS. The above will be in a new 2019 book:
“The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing”
Please email a comment on these tips.
We will include it in the book.
My address is

Writing Tip: Memorable thank you notes

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

This week’s tip will be unusual 
but appropriate for the 
winter gift-giving season.

Some of our friends put me
to shame. They are ardent
thank-you note writers.
They don’t write by email or
anything looking like a form letter.
Their notes are hand written and
ring of personal authenticity.

I suspect you will need to write
several such notes this month.
This is an almost lost art.
Here are a few tips to help.
At the end of this tip you will find
a masterfully-written example.

1. Use no fancy words. 
You’re not trying to impress. 
Write the way you speak. 
That’s the real you.

2. Write them by hand.
Make sure they are legible. 
No chicken scratching.

3. Be specific. 
Say what you are grateful for.
Use such words as:
Thank you for the …
I am grateful for …
I appreciate the …

4. Tell how they made you feel. 
A few examples:
• You made me feel like part of 
your family during our visit.
• Thanks for sharing your delicious 
cheesecake recipe. It will make me
the envy of all my friends.

5. Close with an old-fashion hug. 
Write something like this:
• Affectionately (and your name)
• Love from your best friend ….
• Fondly as always …

I promised you an example. 
Here’s a small masterpiece of thanks 
as well as of apology. 
It was written by the late President Bush
to a military mother.

Dear Mrs. McGrath, 
Your thoughtful son, Bryan, wrote me a very nice letter 
about you and it appears that I owe you an apology. 
Bryan tells me that during the Gulf War 
when he was serving on the USS Thomas S. Gates,
you wrote me a letter of support which was never acknowledged. 

Belated though this is, I want to, first, apologize for not having written 
to thank you for your letter. I have boundless respect
for the men and women of our Armed Forces.
I was so proud of their professionalism and commitment to duty. 
You must be so proud of your Navy son. 
As a former Navy man myself, I share your pride.

I hope you forgive me, Mrs. McGrath, for not having written sooner. 
Just know that this former Commander-in-Chief, now a happy private citizen, appreciates your family’s patriotism and support.
Sincerely, George Bush

Your thank you letters do not have to be
as eloquent as the late President was.
But they should be simple and sincere. 
They should come from your heart.
Write the kind of thank you notes 
that you would want to receive.

All of us at the Chronicle wish you a memorable holiday.

PS. Our publisher has advised that we are 
burdening our readers and our colleagues 
with too many weekly writing tips. 
Realizing the learning curve is steep, 
I will give you a break between tips 
to let you catch your breath.

This will be your last writing tip in December. 
Watch for your next one in January.

PPS. If you have not yet ordered your copy of 
“Maverick Entrepreneurs’ Million Dollar Strategies,”
now is the time to do it. 
The books make great Christmas or New Year gifts 
for clients, colleagues and friends in business. 
They are a modest $20 each.

The books are to arrive from the printer this week. 
Get your order in by credit card and I will personally
autograph it and pay the $3.95 postage. 
Just call Katie or me at 803-359-7633.

Writing tip: Make ’em forget

Good morning, fellow scribbler.

Have you wondered why TV keeps
remaking once-successful series such
as “Magnum PI,” and “Hawaii 5-0”?
Not because they’re out of ideas.

Correct answer: If these series
once attracted and retained
wide audiences, maybe they
could do it again.
TV is counting on characters
and plots that once intrigued
enough people to sustain
any number of seasons.

Why do you think many people
love Turner Classic Movies?
Same principle: If it worked
once, it may work again.

People change. Tastes change.
But human nature doesn’t.
We like strong storytelling
with credible heroes and
really evil no-goodniks.
We like stories that challenge
the good guys but give them
enough guts to finally prevail.

Why do you think Harlequin
gives prospective novelists
their guidelines for writing
successful women’s novels?
Beautiful damsel in distress.
Handsome hunk arrives.
Together, they save the day.
This is a winning formula
any of us can practice and use.

Why do you think formulas
like this work time after time?
Because many people desire
to escape their daily lives.
Many deal with drudgery,
bosses who victimize them,
spouses who don’t value them
and children who lack respect.

On TV and in a movie or book
they can live somewhere else
and become someone else.
They can experience excitement,
affection, chills and thrills
and escape the stresses and
disappointments of daily life.

TV producer Peter Lenkow says
the winning formula is simple:
“Make them forget everything else.”

Think about how this applies
to whatever you write about.
It may be a feature story,
a letter, a research paper,
ad copy, a speech, you name it.

This is harder when you
are writing a news article,
But think of it this way:
• How will this news affect
the readers I write for?
• Who is involved in
the story and how can I
show them more visually?
• What did they say that
may be memorable or explain
what’s happening clearly?
• If not, can I paraphrase it
so my readers understand?

Tap into the dramatic,
the exciting, whatever it is
that interests or affects readers’
lives, needs and wants.
Touch their emotions.
Make them forget everything else.

What we can learn from weather forecasters

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

This may sound like a weird formula for
successful writing and communication but
think about what TV weather forecasters do:

In a 90-second forecast they:
1. Explain what will happen.
2. Compare it to what has happened.
3. Advise what you can do about it.
4. Use visual aids to help them.

90 seconds isn’t a lot of time.
It’s 225 words to the rest of us
That’s 9″ of type in many newspapers.
It’s 75% of a written letter page.
It’s 9 times longer than a classified ad.
And a classified ad must sell something.

TV forecasters know they talk to:
1. General viewers who don’t want much.
Will it be hot, cold or rainy tomorrow?
That’s all they’re interested in.
2. Weather freaks who want everything.
They are addicted to it.
3. Fellow experts and climatologists.
These people know if they fake it.
They must satisfy all 3 groups.

Let’s apply that to what we do.

Our readers are the ones who:
1. Want to know what happened.
How does it affect my life?
What should I do if it does?
2. Are news junkies.
They are addicted to news.
They read us cover to cover.
3. Those in the story.
They know what happened.
Or they think they do.
They are checking our accuracy.

Here’s a checklist you might
post beside your computer:

1. How does what I’m writing
affect or interest my readers?
Does it affect their taxes or costs?
Does it affect their family?
Does it affect their well being?

2. How does it affect those involved?
And what can they do about it?

3. Is it factually accurate?
Did we quote sources right?
If we paraphrase what they said,
does it reflect what they meant?

4, How can we illustrate this
with photos, maps, charts, etc.?
Will this improve our readers’
understanding or interest?

You will find tips like this
and others in our new
“Little Red Book of
Compelling Writing.”

Send me 75 to 100 words
about the value of these tips
and we will include them
in the book next spring.

Writing Tip: Attention grabbers

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

All of us should write snappy openings.
It may be a news article or a letter.
Even a note to our kids.
Lets grab their attention and hold it.
Is that snappy enough?

Here’s why you should bother to do it:
Short, direct openings command attention.
We don’t want to put them to sleep.
Lets wake the old boys up.
They will thank us for it.

Here’s an example of how we should not write:
Florida’s protracted Senate election proceeded to a manual recount on Thursday, the next phase in an increasingly bitter and litigious fight, while Republicans declared victory anew in the race for governor.

That’s 30 words in a newspaper I enjoy.
It’s also one at which I sometimes cringe.

It could have read this way:
Florida’s drawn-out Senate election rolled to a manual recount Thursday.
It is the next step in an increasingly bitter and litigious fight.
The Republicans also declared victory in the race for governor.

A good rule of thumb to practice:
One thought per sentence.
The Wall Street Journal version had 3.

We aren’t dumbing down the writing.
We’re making it easy to understand.

Here are two examples of what we mean:
First the more traditional 10-word approach:
Two lawmakers wrangled over open public records last night.

There is nothing wrong with this version.
But here’s a snappier 4-word version:
The gloves are off.
A row between Sen. Joe Jones and Rep. Sam Smith erupted last night.

Here’s another example.
Traditional 13-word lead:
State lawmakers agreed yesterday 115-0 to open voting on bills affecting your taxes.

Snappy 3-word lead:
The taxpayers won.
In a 115-0 vote yesterday, state lawmakers agreed to open voting on bills affecting your taxes.
This was a victory for local lawmakers who pushed for open government.

If you’re into exercise, here’s one for you:
Pick at random one of your recent stories or letters.
Rewrite the opening.
Rewrite the opening again – differently.

I coached a magazine writer who wrote 15 openings to one story.
3 of them could have been prize winners.

Try for snappy leads of five words or less.
You’ll find it actually easier than it might seem.
You will even come to enjoy doing it.

Writing tip: Tell it to Mom

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

4 words can make a huge difference.
When you write, do it like …
… you’re telling it to Mom.

One of our writers had a good story.
She just wasn’t sure how to present it.
She had spent two hours with owners of:
• A “perfectly” restored 218-year-old house.
• 3,000 square foot barn converted to a home.

As her editor, my advice was simple.
Write as if you were telling it to Mom.

Many of us have writing problems.
Me, too, and after all these years.
Writing conversationally is the key.

As fact gatherers, we write like fact gatherers.
The fire that killed 5 comes across as cold.
It reads like a government report.
It needs to be, pardon the expression, warmed up.
It need to be about the lost people, not just the fire.

Some years ago, my son and I visited a friend.
George James had worked with me earlier.
George was a fine writer who cared about people.
He was working at the time as a crime reporter.

He filed a story about a fire with his editors at the NY Times.
The Times prides itself on being a newspaper of record.
It falls a bit short about being a newspaper about people.

George had just written an account of a fire that killed 5 people.
He showed us a printout he sent to the city desk.
It read like a police incident report.
Its 47 words contained who, what, when, where and how.

“George,” I said, “this doesn’t read like your work.”
He nodded and produced another printout
“Here’s what I originally sent,” he said.

It began: “Samuel ___ collected people and furniture.”
It talk about the owner of the building.
It told who else lived and died there.
George had talked with neighbors.
He found the owner furnished it with Salvation Army stuff.
He rented to people who could not afford to pay him.
They weren’t evicted. Samuel ___ had a heart.

The version the city desk rejected was a human story.
We asked George why he would work for such editors.
They obviously had tin ears . . . and no hearts.
“It’s THE New York Times,” he said.
“They usually accept what I write.”
“They pay well, too.”

“Tell it to Mom” is a technique we teach our writers.
It doesn’t have to be a news article.
It could be a sales letter or an advertisement.
The principle applies to whatever you may write.
Make it about people and tell it to Mom.

Think about this:
If you told Mom the story, what would you say?
Would you say “The owner and 4 homeless people were killed in an suspicious apartment house fire in lower Manhattan late Monday night”?
Probably not although that’s what most editors expect.

But you wouldn’t write that if you knew about:
• The big-hearted owner of the building.
• His 4 tenants who could not afford to pay rent.
You might tell Mom something like this:
“Mom, this guy Samuel ___ had a big heart.
“He let people live in his apartment building.
“That was even if they couldn’t pay him rent.
“In a fire last night, he and 4 of them died.”

Tell it to Mom and you can tell it to the world.

Here’s an exercise for you journalists:
Take a news article you have written.
Rewrite it as you would tell it to Mom.
Then boil down the conversational version.
Write short sentences with powerful verbs.
Make Mom see and hear what you saw and heard.

Here another one for you:
Imagine someone from Mars has arrived on earth.
She knows little about us but understands English.
What would she make of your prose?
Could she understand what you writing about?

This helps avoid jargon from police, politicians and others.
They talk in a special code we have learned.
Most of our readers don’t understand it.
Translate. Keep it simple. Help them understand.
By all means, tell it to Mom.