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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

How to Do It    

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Focus. "You can only make one real point in an 8- to 10-inch story. You can't use two quotes from the same person," says Adell Crowe, standards and development editor at USA Today, where they know something about short stories.

Plan early. "Know what you are looking for," advises Jack Hart of Portland's Oregonian. "When you are visiting the place, be on the lookout for the three details you know you need."

Keep the story moving. "You need some good action. Is there something to watch? Can something unfold in front of you?" says Maria Carrillo of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot. The Oregonian's Joseph Rose likes "to keep the roller-coaster pace going."

Turn routine assignments into "little diamonds." So says writing coach Roy Peter Clark, the Poynter Institute's vice president, in "How to Write a Good Story in 800 Words or Less" (posted at poynter.org). Make a slice of life out of the first day of spring, a spelling bee, the new phone book.

Choose one scene from a larger story. The Des Moines Register's Ken Fuson once wrote a multipart series on teenagers doing a school musical. But, he says, there's a terrific one-day story to be done on the posting of the cast list and what it means to those trying out.

Limit the number of characters. Most often to one, says Connie Schultz of Cleveland's Plain Dealer.

Write from the character's point of view. The Oregonian's Stuart Tomlinson told about the rescue of a 3-year-old girl from a burning house from the vantage point of one of the rescuers, a firefighter with a 3-year-old daughter of his own.

Pick an unexpected character. Stephanie Warsmith of the Akron Beacon Journal covered the chaotic first day of school through the eyes of a beleaguered school secretary.

Condense for impact. "I come back with notebooks packed with information," says the Virginian-Pilot's Diane Tennant. "To winnow it down, like a cook would boil down a broth to make it richer, takes a lot of work. You have to go for the emotion."