Her Newsroom Coaching
Here are samples of Mary Ann’s lessons, recorded and forwarded by Megan O’Matz of the Florida Sun-Sentinel:
She held a session at one of our Writers Workshops titled, “How a few minutes of right thought and a shot of caffeine can turn a regular old story into a gem.”
It is key — thinking before writing, not while writing or after writing! It’s hard – especially on deadline, when we now have to do SO much else.
But Mary Ann didn’t accept excuses.
She told us — One of her favorite newspaper stories she told for years, a colleague was sitting next to her in the newsroom writing about the city’s sewage system and at one point put her head down on her desk and kind of whimpered, “It’s so hard to make sewage sing!”
But it can be done – daily, routinely.
HOGAN Session: 10-minute Enterprise, How a few minutes of right thought and a shot of caffeine can turn a regular old story into a gem.
Writing coach Mary Ann Hogan urges writers, especially newspaper reporters, to think first before typing. Surprisingly, many fail to do just that.
Those who take the time, though, to answer the questions she puts forth come away with clearer, more compelling, better organized stories.
— What is it that attracts you to this material? What do you love about it?
— What do you want the reader to say when they finish the piece?
— Name three things that will make the reader finish the piece. How can you best use those three things in your delivery?
— Do you have a thesis statement/ theme sentence/ one-sentence summary of the piece?
— Who wins, who loses, who cares? (literally)
— Do you have a quote that encapsulates/ illustrates any of the above?
— Do you have a central image for the piece – something visual you can play with or evoke?
— What is the most astounding/ interesting fact or set of facts that you can exploit or use as an architectural element?
— Is there a word or phrase or idea or device that can be repeated or evoked several times throughout the story, for thematic unity?
— If you had to write the story in three inches, which pieces of information would you put in those inches? Why? How can you best use/highlight that information in your delivery?
— Based on the answers above, does any structural (or conceptual) device suggest itself?
The simple exercise can turn “regular” stories into little gems.
What’s wrong with City Hall?
Rats, to begin with.
Hogan doesn’t accept excuses. All of the “yeah but” I can’t do that because I don’t have time, the story is not new, we don’t have the resources, my editors are stupid, our lawyers will scream, we’ve never done it that way before …… doesn’t fly with Hogan.
The difference between a “regular” story and a enterprise piece is all in the thinking, she says. Those stories take extra energy and effort.
They require better communication with editors and page designers.. better planning to pull it off.
Another of Hogan’s secrets: bins. Try writing long complex stories in “bins.” Compartmentalize. Write sections by topic (the history of an event or place for example) then move, edit, shift the bins, find your beginning and ending.
Hogan also has some
— Have discipline to master basics. Have the wisdom to sidestep the noise (newsroom politics/culture, self-doubt, toxic people, places and thoughts). Have the humility to learn.
— Feed your brain. Read not only the masters of good journalism, but good writing about history, mathematics, the spirit, the psyche, philosophy, politics, travel, science, music– in general, the world of ideas.
— Sit down with someone you trust. Have them question you along these lines: What story are you dying to write? What attracts you to it? What’s standing your way (internal, external)? What can you do today to move yourself toward it?
— Keep a lookout for new teachers. They are everywhere, often in unexpected places and packages.