AJR  Columns :     ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   February/March 2005

Dear JOUR371   

A valentine, and some advice, for 18 terrific journalism students

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

To my News Feature Writing class:

By the time you read this, a few of you will have graduated, others of you are counting the days to your spring commencement, and the rest of you are just rallying the strength to start out another semester.

Yes, it was an 8 a.m. class, not only for the convenience of a dean with an overfull schedule but also because I figured only kids who were really serious would sign up. I was right. Every one of you is a talented and committed young journalist.

You showed up (not always quite awake, but you were there), you worked hard, and you put in the time--about 40 hours of class, to be specific, and at least three to four times that much out of the building doing your reading and, more to the point, reporting and writing your assignments.

And what a fine job you did. Each of you was required to write three substantive news features, and there wasn't a loser in the bunch. I'm thinking back at random, but there was Megan's difficult-to-report piece on what it's like to be gay on campus; Kevin's story about the nondescript College Park musical-instrument warehouse that lures the biggest names in entertainment; Karlena's profile of a hip-hop philosopher; Catherine's portrait of the campus acupuncturist (it had me on pins and needles); Amanda's piece on the Annapolis midshipman who wants to be a soldier; and Grace's profile of Danny's restaurant, where students have to elbow aside the health inspectors. You get the idea. I've been on campus nearly eight years, yet I learned so much from your stories about this place that you made me feel I'd scarcely been paying attention. That's what good feature writers do.

With winter settling in, many of the ideas we explored throughout the fall may already be fading. But here are a handful of core points that I hope will manage to stick:

It all starts with the reporting. Good writers can let raw talent carry them a long way, like certain kinds of smart kids in high school who manage A's without really breaking a sweat. But eventually the lack of preparation catches up with you. You've got to have the goods if you want a rich story.

Toward that end, keep asking questions. You'll be amazed how often people will offer up answers, even in those cases when common sense says they shouldn't.

Use your brain like a muscle. Because, like a muscle, it gets stronger with that use. Remember when I had you do one lap around the campus mall and write down things you observed that you had never noticed before? You came back with literally dozens of great story ideas. Like people generally, reporters tend to watch but not see, hear but not listen, touch but not feel. If you aggressively apply your senses to your craft, you will separate yourself from the pack. Young reporters often feel that story generation is their biggest challenge. But coming up with a good idea for a news feature doesn't take magic. It takes paying attention.

Get comfortable with your own voice. It's important that you read as much good writing as you can, whether it's Walt Whitman's poetry or James Baldwin's passionate essays or Anna Quindlen's columns or William Goldman's screenplays. Be sure to include a lot of well-written journalism too. If you're like most young journalists, you will try on some of these styles, but in time your own voice will assert itself. Recognize that, get comfortable with it, don't fight it. It's who you are as a writer.

Every piece of a story has to be doing some work. Remember how we deconstructed John McPhee's story about the long-distance trucker? There was no wasted motion there; McPhee had a reason for putting every element right where it was. You should too.

Don't forget the special power of quotation. Quotes are the only part of a story where you are not standing between your subject and your reader. This direct connection feels like first-person testimony, which gives it more power than other parts of your piece. So make sure that quote is saying something, not just turning an eight-inch story into the 10 inches your editor asked for.

Remember that real stories.. have recognizable characters, dramatic conflict, clear narrative lines and beginnings, middles and endings. They are hard to find, harder to report, harder yet to write. And you'll never be more satisfied than when you've really pulled one off.

Show, don't tell. I won't tell you again.

It was a privilege to be your teacher. Every time I hear people whine about the future of journalism, I have 18 more reasons to set them straight.