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In consideration of a reporter's tool kit

Before I hit the road for Uculet this afternoon, I facilitated a writing seminar for twenty  fellows from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to open-source my curriculum. If you're wondering how you can improve your writing, consider the following exercises. 

First writing exercise: Take the next fifteen minutes to craft a compelling essay addressing the following questions:

1. Think of a piece of writing that moved you to action.

2. Why did it have this impact on you?


I asked each person to read their piece out loud and listened with no discussion. Reading out loud is one of the best ways to tell how good a piece is. Reading out loud to others provides subtle, easy-to-absorb feedback.

We covered these topics: 

  1. How to pull the "story" out of your research.
  2. How to incorporate real-life stories from your research into the policy paper.
  3. How to effectively use the "bag of tricks" good writers rely on.
  4. We'll look at some recent CCPA papers that were particularly well done.
  5. Case studies. We'll spend a couple hours discussing papers and projects that CCPA fellows have underway. (And I'll ask for a brave soul to allow me to use their piece as a case study with the full group).


10:30: How to pull a story out of research

The simple answer is that the story is in the interviews a reporter or researcher does with real people.

Statistics and facts support the story.

So, what's a story?

Isaac Beshivis Singer says if we didn't have stories we'd be no better off than beasts.  Wikipedia defines story like this: "A story is a narrative and a narrative is a story."

Hmmm. What do you mean, Wikipedia?

A narrative is a story that is created in a constructive format (written, spoken, poetry, prose, images, song, theater or dance) that describes a sequence of fictional or non-fictional events. It derives from the Latin verb narrare, which means "to recount" and is related to the adjective gnarus, meaning "knowing" or "skilled".[1] (Ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European root gnM-, "to know".[2]) The word "story" may be used as a synonym of "narrative", but can also be used to refer to the sequence of events described in a narrative. A narrative can also be told by a character within a larger narrative. An important part of narration is the narrative mode...

(Note from me: When you go deep into the specificity of one person’s story, that story paradoxically becomes universal. We all know this, but a workshop like this serves to drag to the surface stuff that may have sunk to the bottom of our unconscious. Stopping to reconsider knowledge about what a story is and what makes language sing makes for better writing.)

I talked about drafts. Most of us know a first draft is only a first draft. In our fast-paced publishing world, however, some of us treat first drafts as finished stories. Wrong!

A first draft is an opportunity to take chances and explore using writing techniques that you may not feel comfortable with. Knowing it’s a first draft can take the pressure off. You can always edit it off, if it falls flat. And you must edit it anyway. Why not experiment?

In your first draft, you can and should draw on details and the narratives of your subjects. A story can be woven into a sentence simply by referring to one person’s struggle or the struggle of a group against a specific difficulty. Pieces full of drama that underline the impact of an issue on real people's lives and show the conflicts between their interests and the interests (in this case) of the system or policy will hit home.

Then we got into detail.

Small details can tell big stories and enliven dry writing.

Detail can be expanded into a paragraph by elaborating on the story and adding specific details about it.


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