“In 1854 an English bricklayer named Joseph Aspdin rediscovered one of the great secrets of the ancient world.”
I defy you – I really do – not to go away right now and find out what on earth it was that Joseph Aspdin did. It’s a fantastic intro, the sort of compelling opening that makes a great feature. (Aside from one point, which we’ll come to.)
What is it I’m looking for in the articles people submit? I’ve talked about what sort of ideas I think work; but once it comes to the writing task, there are a few more wrinkles.
(A quick note. Experienced writers and contributors don’t need to read this, and if they do will probably feel insulted by some of the suggestions – as in, “I never do that!” No, you don’t. But just look at what the other folk do. Tch. Hey, must remember that tip about the Guardian’s style on ‘website’.)
Style matters. A lot. Technology matters inasmuch as it affects people, so in general there should be people in your story. I think that it often makes a big difference to have them right there in the very first paragraph of your story, in the very first line, the very first sentence. It doesn’t always have to be that way, but I think that for the average reader of the section (who is a Guardian reader, or who we want to be a Guardian reader more often), that’s going to work. So, to grab an example at random, Jane Dudman’s piece on VoIP blocking from April 6 begins with someone who experienced precisely that: their voice-over-internet connection was blocked. Ker-ching!
You say: corny. I say: not when the person is relevant to the story. Finding people like that, who are affected by your story, is part of good journalism. (If the story doesn’t affect people, why are you writing it? We don’t write pieces headlined “Hedgehogs fear renewed onslaught from foxes”.) And anyway, not all pieces start like that. Pete Warren’s piece on falling phone costs begins with the phone in the hallway; no people involved, but it invokes a sort of folk memory. I work hard on the openings paragraphs of a feature, because that’s where readers are won or lost. When I skim-read long pieces in other papers, I read two things: the opening and the closing paragraphs. It’s worth giving really hard consideration to that. Sure, you want a good opening. But a good finish is just as important.
Which moves us on. The story should be driven by two things.
1) facts. The basic structure is the presentation of lots of facts, unless it’s a must-read interview, in which case different rules apply; though even there you should have collected enough facts to put hard questions to even the slipperiest character. Facts are the bedrock. Check them. Obviously we’ll try to, but our resources don’t extend to serried ranks of fact-checkers a la New Yorker, so we often have to do our own catches. Such as in that opening paragraph above. Aspdin patented portland cement in 1824, not 1854.
Facts are also helpful to us in drawing up graphs and other useful illustrations. Well-chosen (as in: the right data, a trustable source) graphs are one of the best illustrative mechanisms around.
One other thing: if you find yourself writing a sentence like “This is probably the first time..” or “This will presumably lead to..”, stop. Why are you writing words that imply (a) guessing or (b) your inference? Find out if it’s the first time (if you try, you can at least then write “Records say this is the first time..”), ask someone if it will lead to .. whatever you were going to write. Don’t presume, assume, or assign probabilities from thin air. Please. All that those words do is stand in the way of my relaxed reading of the piece. You might think that nobody would do that, but a surprising amount of raw copy does.
2) quotes, rather than the opinion of you, the journalist. Get people who can give the quotes that make the argument for and against the argument that you’re testing in the story. Sure, one side of the argument is almost certain to be weaker than the other. That’s not surprising: not all hypotheses are true, so in the argument of (say) “VOIP blocking is necessary to defend telephony revenues” and “VOIP should not be blocked”, one side will have the better of it. Let the people who you speak to and quote point that out through what they say.
I’m an admirer of the BusinessWeek style in this respect: their less-long news features start with a bang, and take you rapidly through both sides of an argument, before wrapping up with the conclusion. They are usually chock-full of facts, and often have a graph attached too. It’s slick, looks good, and gets lots of info across. (Pity they’re spoiling it with their “Personal Life” fluff, but it seems to be the price of publishing these days. How long before they’re doing “Celebrity investments”? Those will be the ones to flip for sure.)
OK, so you’ve got people in your story, you’ve got facts, you’ve got quotes. What else remains? A few minor things.
- names. Check you’ve spelt them right; I was taught by a chief sub to put peoples’ surnames again in brackets after the first mention to confirm that I’d got it right – so, I’d be Charles Arthur [CORR ARTHUR]. This doesn’t stop you spelling the name wrong but does mean you can’t say you just typed it too fast; that is, the responsibility lies on you.
Just again on the structure point. I’m certainly not a fan of the style which opens with “A new breed of 1,600MHz motherboards is set to shake up the world of community computing, say experts.” (This is made up.)
Why? Let us pick it apart.
New – we probably wouldn’t be writing about it otherwise.
1,600MHz – is that fast in this context, and if so, how much faster? (Side note: percentage increases greater than 100% should not be used; give the beginning and ending numbers.)
Motherboards – not everyone will know what these are.
Community computing – what’s that?
Experts – who?
I think it involves the reader better if you have a feature which starts, for instance,
“Fred Dread shakes his head and turns away from his PC. ‘This is so much faster than I had even last week, and I thought then I was cutting edge. These new motherboards make finding other spruders a doddle.'”
Then you can go on to explain that spruders are people who surf social computing systems trying to pick up the maximum number of links before moving on to the next. (There’s probably a proper word, but feel free to use mine.) Then you explain how much faster the motherboard is, why speed matters to spruders, and so on.
Obviously that approach wouldn’t work if you were writing news. But you aren’t. (And even then, that first intro would get spiked in a heartbeat on all but the nerdiest websites.) You’re writing a big hey-ma-look-at-me feature for the Guardian’s Technology section. Which I’m awaiting with interest.
It can also be helpful to think of a graph or set of figures that will illustrate your tale of woe/joy: our graphics people are good at putting these into stunning form. But we need something in the first place. A good graph makes a piece more likely to be used.
Oh, and one last thing. How do I like to receive stuff? Word attachments are fine, in Word or RTF format. I do prefer stuff to come in Verdana, 12pt, Normal [not Page or Layout] view, 100% zoom; but I recognise too that Word is such a contrary package that even if you wanted to do that it probably won’t let you.
Another last thing: please, please, please don’t try to write the headline or standfirst. We do that. We pay subs good money to do that. If you include a standfirst, it can be hard to tell if it’s your intro or part of your overall word count or what the hell it is. Don’t trouble yourself. We will do it. It’s pretty much a badge of honour for a sub to throw out a writer’s standfirst anyway, no matter what the circumstances, so you’re only causing yourself extra pain. As for headlines, we’re better at that than you. Yes, we are. No, really.