Show, don’t tell: how to strengthen editorial with detail

How do some journalists manage to strengthen their editorial with detail that takes their reader, viewer or listener to the scene of the story?
Speaking at the 2010 Narrative Journalism Conference during last year’s Wits University Power Reporting conference, authors Melinda Ferguson and Leonie Joubert both shared a trade secret: They were avid journal keepers.

In this age of technology, the journal seems like an anachronism: Outlook is our diary; our thoughts are scattered across Twitter, Facebook and rushed emails.
While completing her Masters on Marion Island, Joubert recalled that she “journalled compulsively” and this made her narrative stronger.
“I was quite moved by the whole process, so my journal was emotional as well. I was fascinated by this place and I think that the fascination came through in my journal notes … and that proved to be very powerful when the writing process came about,” recalled Joubert
Her journal helped provide the multiple entry points into climate change stories which later led to the first of a series of award-winning books.
Ferguson, in turn, kept notes on anything and everything even while she was in a drug haze and this helped ensure that when she wrote her best selling book “Smacked” it was filled with the detail that helped bring her story alive.
In doing so, both were able to follow that old adage: “Show, don’t tell.”
Any tool that helps strengthen our writing is worth adopting. A leading narrative writer once told me he took photographs to help him set the scene in his story. Since then, I have carried a small digital camera to take photographs wherever I go. And, whenever I transfer these into my computer, I am surprised at how much detail I missed at the scene: the faces of people lost in the crowd; the details of the landscape swept over in the rush of the moment…
While useful for daily breaking news, the journal and writer’s camera become invaluable for long-term features and investigations – allowing the writer to refresh their memory and bring in precise detail into the content.
Recording even the mundane allows the writer to observe the change and context – what might not be interesting today could have a new significance down the road once the reporting process is completed.
The journal also helps us hone our powers of observation. As stories get shorter and less detailed, the journal reinforces the art of long-form writing.
frayintermedia will be focusing on these and other tools of the trade during various courses over the next year. Click here for upcoming courses.

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