Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Sense of Humor is Needed -- writing tip

Question: Thanks for the answer on leads. I decided to do a profile on my own and try to sell it to the paper, or maybe a local magazine. A city councilman I know has been under fire recently and I thought I'd give him a chance to discuss his side of the story with someone who would listen. I said it was free-lance, but might appear in the paper where my other stories show up regularly. But he refused to talk to me, saying I wasn't a "real reporter." He was laughing, but I didn't think it was funny.

Answer: No. If the paper didn't assign the interview, then you were certainly doing it "free-lance" and could publish the information anywhere. Clearly, your guy was too distrustful to take advantage of telling "his side" to you. Can't think why your regular paper wouldn't snap it up, if he had talked to you, though. Enterprising a story always makes a stringer look good.

Still, your guy is under fire and figures he can't trust anyone not to twist his words. It won't be the last time someone says, "No." Or the last time someone laughs at you, either.

Fools, and writers, rush in where angels fear to tread. Seriously, you are a warm, articulate, interesting, and intelligent woman. Why wouldn’t anyone reasonable person want to talk with you? When I was a reporter, my "radar" would have warned me he had plenty to hide. Even so, it is not necessary to believe what someone tells you to write down that they have said it.

Sometimes people do laugh, but that’s not fatal. I admit I was a little nervous the first time I had to cover a political figure. This was when I was at the newspaper and Mike Castle, then the governor of Delaware, called a lunchtime press conference at a yacht club in Seaford. Subject: Ecology. In my town the Yacht Club is a truly classy place, so I acted based on that.

I was just a tad nervous since I hadn’t ever covered Castle before, so I dressed carefully, in neat low heels, a business suit with a straight skirt, and a neat white blouse, picturing a restaurant with white linen napkins, windows overlooking a sparkling, two mile stretch of blue river, and a nice wine list.

I knew I was in trouble when the Governor of Delaware showed up in Reeboks and a “Greenpeace” t-shirt. We stood outside in a parking lot next to a murky, green, stream overhung with shade trees, to sign in. There was a door prize and the lucky journalist who won, got an exclusive interview with the gov, one on one. Naturally I signed up. Lucky me, I won!

Now the gov wanted to demonstrate personally how the state had cleaned up the environment along the Nanticoke River, at that point about 30 feet wide. He proceeded to do that by conducting our interview in a canoe, which he paddled handily down the dusky stream.

I am a large lady. Picture me, in my tight skirt and heels stepping down into a canoe with the gov. Lucky him, it remained upright, though his end of the craft rose considerably higher than my own. Picture me sitting, chin on my knees, pad and pencil in hand, trying to ask questions while he paddled us down a river the color of old tea, that smelled faintly of wet moss and teflon from the DuPont plastics plant.

I won’t even comment on my exit from the canoe, except to say that I did not arrive back at the newsroom as dry, or as pristine, as I left it. Though the notes were a bit soggy. I had my story and the AP picked it up, so it was my first wire feature and looked good on my resume. As long as you get the information, nothing else is really important.

Now you have an idea for a good story. Talk to your editor about the idea. He might want to call the city councilman and set up the interview. The guy might change his mind if he got a call from the editor, even if he still says no, his opinion of you would change.

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