When it’s ‘off the record’

A colleague recently asked a procedural question:
Should he comply with a source’s request for “off the record.”
He wanted off the record after the interview was over.

It’s a tough judgment call. You must choose between:

  1. Burning a future source of critical but reliable information
  2. Preserving the relationship by complying with their request.

In covering Washington and other officials we’ve found:

  1. Most will tell you almost anything if you cover their butts.
  2. Many want everything off the record.
    Pentagon officials have leaked defense strategies to us.
    State Department officials have done it, too.
    The only agreement was that they weren’t to be identified.

We once taped a Congressman off the record.
He knew we were taping but felt comfortable “off the record.”
We later played back parts we wanted to publish.
Surprisingly, he agreed. It was a controversial story.

We’ve found that going into such interviews that we agree:

  1. They ask for “off the record” before they answer our question
  2. They wait for our consent before they say anything else.

Officials have told us nasty things about other officials.
In retrospect, they realize this could damage their own careers.
When asked not to publish, we did as they asked.
We had already decided against publishing as it was petty.
For that, one told us what went on in “executive sessions” for years.

Our agreement was that we would:

  1. Never ID him as the source.
  2. Publish details that would lead back to him.

About 25% of what he told us was interesting enough to publish.
But that 25% led to much other critical information.

We protected another source years later.
He told us of a disgruntled cop’s plot against us.
That was quickly quashed when we talked with the mayor.

You may rarely face choices such as these.
It helps to know you have choices.

Want to benefit from other reporting and writing tips?
A copy of “Compelling Writing” is an affordable $9.99.
For an electronic copy when it’s released, just call us at 803-359-7633.

Pump up your prose

Are you old enough to remember Charles Atlas?
It was probably not the name his family gave him but an apt pseudonym for a man who marketed a muscle-building program he called “Dynamic Tension.”
Without weights or other traditional gym equipment, he turned his 90-pound weakling body into a model of muscular magnificence.
I tell you this story as a metaphor for what you might do with the words you choose, those you discard and the results you get.
With this small volume, you will be encouraged to be ruthless with your prose.
Here are several examples of how a few simple, muscular words can touch emotions and reveal visions far better than long passages, no matter how eloquent.
Martin Luther King, Jr., with a lifetime in the pulpit, used 4 words powerfully again and again during his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. As former Times of London editor Harold Evans wrote in Do I Make Myself Clear, Rev. King invoked the cadences of the Old and New Testaments, “I have a dream.”
Abraham Lincoln stirred listeners at the Gettysburg battlegrounds with words today’s Washington bureaucrats seem to have forgotten, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
While waiting for the isolationist United States to join World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill promised America and his own people, “We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire.” Then he finished a broadcast heard on both sides of the Atlantic and on Nazi radios, too, with 10 taut words of appeal to America: ”Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
This is not literary elegance. It is workmanlike. No tears/ No whining.
Not a single wasted word, Evans writes.
Can we pare down our words? You bet. Make your surviving words stronger by paring away weaker ones surrounding them.
Here is an example from a 31-word news story lead, written and edited by professionals at the Washington Post. They should have been mindful of the simple power of words from King, Lincoln and Churchill.
Newly released data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows a trend in pill distribution that, according to plaintiffs suing the drug industry, can’t be passed off as reasonable therapeutic medical treatment.
Still puzzling that one out? Me, too.
Here is what I suspect they meant to convey to their readers:
Physician pill-pushing can’t be passed off as reasonable pain relief.
That’s what Drug Enforcement Administration data shows and lawsuits against the drug industry claim.
2 paragraphs, 25 simple words, 5 beginning with the letter “p.”
The longest one, “Administration,” has 5 syllables and 14 letters. It was unavoidable in this case as it is in the proper name of the data’s source.
Look at your words. How many can you cut to strengthen the survivors?

Find the shattering moment

I once thought there was a story in everyone. 
Silly me. But I still believe it.
All of us have moments of triumph and tragedy.
It’s what life is about – one test after another.

Once I thought I had met my match.
A good friend of ours called with a story suggestion.
One of his employees was retiring.
Would a feature story about her interest our readers?
He gave me her name and phone number.

We sat down in her living room.
I asked her the 20 questions I often ask.
(For all 20 questions, email me.)
I started with softball ones, then harder ones.
She blew me off. 
Her life had been tranquil, she said.

Bull, I thought, and asked:
1. What is the worst thing to happen to you?
2. What do you most regret about your life?
4. If you could redo anything, what would it be?

She was evasive. She shook her head.
No worst moments, no regrets, nothing to redo.
I finally left without a story.
She had a story. She just didn’t want to share it.

Interviews aren’t always disasters.
A reader recommended interviewing a friend of hers.
I called and arranged a meeting.
We sat down in her garden and talked.
She, too, was evasive about her own life tests.

I finally asked the biggie;
“What was the worst thing to happen to you?”
She was silent but I could see it in her eyes.
The videotape was running in her mind.

“It was about this time 12 years ago,” she said.
“My husband was across the road on his tractor.
“It was growing dark and he was heading home.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw headlights.
“My husband did not see them.”
That night a truck hit and killed him.

We talked about what it had been like for her.
How it changed her life, left her feeling abandoned.
She seemed relieved to be able to talk about it.
Tragic as it was, she gave me a story people would read.
They could relate to it. All of us lose loved ones.

Am I only looking for tragedies in life?
No. Readers love stories of triumph, too.
Particularly if the odds of success are slim.
What makes good stories are these 2 elements.
Without them, we don’t have much of a story.

Suspense writer James Scott Bell preaches this:
“A short story is about one shattering moment.”
He’s not just talking about fiction.
Stories of life’s shattering moments are powerful.

His theory works in newspaper feature stories.
“The characters will never be the same.
“Life for them has been ineluctably altered. 
“That’s what a shattering moment does.”

My recommendation is to find those moments.
They come in tragic as well triumphant form.
Give your readers a story that will move them.

Did you like this writing tip?
Here’s another: Order a copy of my new book:
“The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.”
It’s filled with tips to help you write better.
Email me at jerrybellune@yahoo.com and I’ll notify you when it’s available.

10.5 internet posting tips

Getting started in journalism is tough.
You don’t know what you need to know.
Find good mentors and listen to them.
I did and they taught by example and advice.
Now I try to do follow their example.

Some rules have changed, thanks to technology.
Here are 10.5 tips we gave our newspaper intern,
They are for posting on our site and social media.

1. Check news sites Monday – Friday, These include: 
– Print and online newspapers and news services.
– TV and/or local news radio station sites. 
– Your own inbox for news releases 

2. Stories we need to post should have:
– Local people or angles involved.
–  Be of high interest to our readers.

3. Always attribute where the news came from.
-“according to ___”
–  “___ reported.”

4. Write headlines with the names of towns involved:
– “Gaston wife kills unfaithful husband”
– “County team wins Super Bowl”

5. Remember WIIFM (what’s in it for me). 
Always think about what readers need or want:
– To know that will affect their lives.
– That involves local people they may know.

6. Keep sentences short – 15 words on average. 

7. Use active verbs. Forms of “to be” are static.

8. Use simple 1-, 2- and 3-syllable words. 

9. Translate police and governmental jargon.
Use language the rest of us understand. 

10. Keep postings to no more than 150-160 words.
Our audience is made up of busy people.

10.5. Ask if we need a longer story for print.

And when in doubt, ask us for help.

For my Little Red Book of Compelling Writing;
– email JerryBellune@gmail.com.

Make them see, hear, smell and feel

You may find this hard to believe.
Our outdoor writer Cole Stilwell is 16 and a high school student.
I wish I could have written at 16 as well as he does.

Cole’s hiking buddy is his grandfather, Chuck McCurry.
Chuck wrote our popular Church Buzz column.
Writing well must be in their genes.

All of us are pleased by Cole’s progress.
He started with us as an internet intern.
He still posts news on our website and social media.

Recently, Cole wrote about 2 park rangers in nearby Aiken.
Here are 3 suggestions we shared with him that may help you, too.

1. Always get their life stories. 
People like to tell their stories.
Readers like to read them.
Unfortunately, too often no one listens to them.
They are pleased if you take an interest in them.

Our readers would have liked to know, for example:
– How the park rangers picked their careers.
– What it took them to get there.
– What they love about their chosen work.

2. Use the Big Eye, Big Ear approach to reporting. 
Give readers details so they see and hear what you saw and heard.

For example, they would like to have known what it:
– looked like, 
– sounded like, 
– smelled like, 
– even felt like
kayaking down a blackwater river such as the Edisto.

3. Make them see. 
Our journalism colleague Gene Roberts, a Pulitzer Prize winner at the NY Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, started his career working for a blind North Carolina publisher. 
The publisher’s wife read him the stories for each week’s edition.

Gene’s publisher insisted that he “make me see what you saw.”
He even had Gene write “This Week’s Prettiest Sight.”
Gene hated doing it. The guys at the pool hall kidded him about it.
But he learned a valuable lesson in observation and writing.

I hope this helps you as well as Cole. 
Keep watching, listening, feeling – and writing.

PS, Let me recommend Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life.”
It will inspire you as it has done me.
For an exciting chapter from her book, visit
https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/06/24/annie-dillard-dave-rahm/ .

Properly pacing your prose

What did popular newspaper advice columnist Ann Landers and World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle have in common with journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway and journalist-turned-politician Winston Churchill? She, like they, wrote an average sentence length of 15 words.
Here is her reply to a philandering husband who asked advice on changing wives and merging families:
Time wounds all heels—and you’ll get yours. There are five children involved in your little racetrack romance. Don’t be surprised if you wake up and wish you had your wife and sons back. You are flirting with a muddy track on Black Friday and, the way you’re headed, you will get exactly what you deserve.
Ann wrote four no-nonsense sentences of 56 words. Her longest was 22 unsparing words. She averaged 14 words a sentence.
Here is a brief example of Hemingway at work:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving in the courtyard. It rained hard.
Four sentences, 41 words, 10.25 words a sentence.
Note the absence of commas or other forms of punctuation. Only periods. Not all of Hemingway’s writing is this staccato. But he sought an effect. 
Here is a brief example from Winston Churchill:
It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is an admirable work and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts.
3 sentences averaging 12.3 words. No commas. Only periods.
Here is Ernie Pyle’s moving account of the death of infantry company commander, Capt. Henry Waskow:
The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.
Four sentences, 60 words, 15 a sentence.
Here one of mine in covering a blizzard that trapped hundreds of families in the mountains of western North Carolina.
They could hear the whir of helicopter blades. It came over the ridgeline and hovered over the house. A soldier in parka and boots was lowered with a metal stretcher. His sons helped their crippled father into the stretcher. Then the copter pilot winched them up and soared off into a chill blue sky. 
Five sentences, 55 words, average 11 words a sentence.
Try it. It takes work to pare your sentences down. But the more you do it, the more you are conscious of it. You will begin automatically to pare down your sentences as you write them.
Your readers will love you for it.

My “Little Red Book on Compelling Writing” gives you inspiring tips such as this to enrich your own writing.
For a $9.99 electronic copy for only $4.99, please call Katie with your credit card at 803-359-7633, Monday – Friday, 9 am – 4 pm, or email me at JerryBellune@gmail.com.
This offer expires in 5 days.

Be obnoxiously friendly

Pat Conroy loved to show visitors around Fripp Island.
He lived on the SC island at the end of US 17.
One visitor was his New Yorker father in law.
Pat waved and spoke to all his neighbors.
He knew all of them by name.
His father in law was amazed by this camaraderie.
Most Yankees are surprised by our friendliness.
“Pat,” he asked, “are you running for mayor?”

The late novelist loved to tell this story on himself.
He called himself “obnoxiously friendly.”
He bowled over fellow writer Cassandra King.
The first time they met, he grilled her about herself.
Cassandra admitted she is “extremely private.” 
But she said she “fell under his spell.”
She ended up marrying Pat.

Pat, she said, quizzed readers at book signings.
He wanted to know about them, hear their stories.
Of course, his readers loved his attention.
Many of their stories ended up in his books.

You’ve already figured out why I’m telling you this.
Being obnoxiously friendly is a great writer strategy.
People are hungry for appreciation and recognition.
They get too little of it at home or at work.

When we show interest, they open like flowers.
Sincere interest in someone is a compliment.

My wife says I “interview” strangers. 
She’s right. I do. 
It’s more than just a journalistic skill.
I’m interested in others.
I hear about their frustrations and problems.
Their likes, loves, triumphs and victories.

It takes little prompting from me.
Strangers enrich my life with their stories.
You’re smart. Let them enrich yours, too.

You will love The Little Red Book of Compelling Writing.
It’s full of stories like the one on Pat Conroy.
A $20 advance order is a great investment.
We will have a printed copy to you in a few weeks.
For advance orders only we’ll pay the $4 shipping.

To advance order a copy you can:
1. Call Katie at 803-359-7633.
2. Email me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

Anecdotal lede: Watch for mushroom clouds

I confess to being an advocate of storytelling.
I also favor the anecdotal lede – with caution.
I once taught this to my Seton Hall students, tongue in cheek.
The story is about a Russian nuclear attack:

Mary Jones went to retrieve the morning paper and guess what?
A giant mushroom cloud hung over her neighborhood.
She wondered if it was going to rain.

You may have to overlook my warped sense of humor.

Our friend Denny Hatch is an ace copywriter.
He cautions us to use this technique with grace and style. 
He certainly doesn’t want us to beat it into chopped liver.

“Your 1st 10 words are more important than the next 10,000,” he writes.
“All writers are in the business of selling. 
“Your single objective is to sell the reader in going on to the next sentence, next paragraph, all the way to the end.” 
This is true of every literary form – letter, article or advertisement. 

“The place to start selling is the lede
“What’s a lede
“The introduction to a news article, the first sentence. 
“The ‘lede’ is a deliberate misspelling of ‘lead.’ 
When printing was done with lead type, it prevented confusion.
The lede not only tells what the story is about.
It invites the reader to read further.

Denny believes many of us start by:
• Clearing our throats.
• Rolling up our sleeves.
• Rubbing our hands together.
By then our poor readers have already gone on to Page 2. 
Create a lousy lede and chances are the reader will go no further.

In “Capitol Weekly,” Will Shuck wrote:
“I am sick to death of the anecdotal lede, that annoying habit of news writers to start a straightforward story by painting a quaint little picture.
“If the story is about a bill requiring pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs (just to pick an imaginary example), the anecdotal lead first tells us how much Janey Johnson loves Missy, her cocker spaniel.
“No doubt Janey and Missy are a lovely pair, but a lot of us have jobs and kids and commutes and precious little time to muse about Missy’s reproductive potential.”

My humble advice is to use the anecdotal lede when it makes sense.
Have an exceptionally good one to open your story.
Take a hint from that fabled novelist Snoopy.
He always opened with “It was a dark and stormy night …”
Mine might open with an early morning mushroom cloud.
Pick your own poison.

Advance orders for my $19.99 “Little Red Book of Compelling Writing” are going at a $10 discount – only $9.99.
Get your order in for the eBook today. It will be out in July.
Call Katie at 803-359-7633 or email me at JerryBellune@yahoo.com

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.