By Kevin R. Convey
Janet Cardiff’s “The 40 Part Motet,” a sound installation now up at The Cloisters in northern Manhattan, is a heavenly marriage of 12th century architecture, 16th century piety and 21st century audio technology – all of which combine to evoke timeless feelings of transcendence and, in some listeners, tears.
Cardiff, a Canadian-born sound artist, takes as raw material English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’ Anglican praise-song “Spem in Alium.” Written for 40 voices – eight choirs of five singers – the piece is nine minutes of austere beauty, as carefully woven as The Cloisters’ renowned unicorn tapestries.
But it’s not just the mix of voices – ranging from delicate solo passages to resounding full-choir peaks – that gives Tallis’ piece its emotional punch. He wrote the motet in the mid-to-late 16th century after witnessing the sectarian bloodshed that drenched England following Henry VIII’s split with Rome. “Spem in Alium” (the title comes from the motet’s first line, which translates from Latin as “I have never put my hope in any other than You, Oh Lord …”) celebrates the power of enduring faith in troubled times. Speaking to our age as eloquently as it did to Tallis’, this feeling pervades the music even if listeners don’t know the history – it isn’t recounted within the installation – or understand a word of Latin beyond the title.
Cardiff hasn’t changed a note of Tallis’ masterwork, but still she manages to magnify its emotional wallop. She has recorded the voices individually, reproduced each one through a single B&W DM 303 loudspeaker placed at ear level upon a brushed-aluminum stand, and then arrayed 40 of them like a set of dominos ringing the nave and apse of The Cloisters’ 12th century Fuentiduena Chapel. The arrangement allows listeners either to stand in the center of the chapel and take the piece in whole – as Tallis’ audience probably heard it – or to wander among the speakers and hear how each singer and sub-choir contributes to the larger work.
As a setting intensifies the sparkle of a diamond, so the Fuentiduena Chapel amplifies the impact of Cardiff’s recording. Its ancient limestones and wooden roof create a reverberant space that projects the voices – and listeners — heavenward, while its crucifixes, fonts and frescoes conjure an atmosphere like that in which Tallis first was heard. That this chapel was built by Spanish Christians engaged in a long holy war with Muslims adds contemporary resonance to the experience, reminding us that conflict is every bit as timeless as beauty.
The impact of Cardiff’s decision to place the installation in the chapel defeats arguments she is merely piggybacking on a masterpiece. True, she would be nowhere without Tallis – in the same way Jasper Johns would be nowhere without the American flag, Roy Lichtenstein nowhere without comics. Cardiff says her aim was to reveal the “sculptural” quality of the piece – and, indeed, hearing soloists and sub-choirs toss the melody line around the chapel like a divine volleyball is a fresh and striking experience.
But Cardiff’s most thrilling achievement is to enable the listener to stand close to one speaker and hear how a single voice – plaintive, fragile, lost-sounding on its own – gains strength and majesty when it joins in common purpose with 39 others. This unmistakable metaphor is what gives “The 40 Part Motet” its quiet power.
A three-day story in my hometown newspaper over the weekend reminded me of how rapidly the new media ecosystem has evolved – and how popular and vibrant some sectors of it are despite all the doom and gloom surrounding Big Media in general and newspapers in particular.
The story concerned retired electrician and Twitter aficionado, Frank Kelly, 54, whose @Brockton24_7 feed went silent because he spilled water on his keyboard and couldn’t afford a repair or replacement.
So, who misses one Twitter user in a universe buzzing with them and their chatter? Well, Kelly’s 2,600-plus followers on Twitter for a start. They missed him so much that they immediately began a crowd-funding drive to repair or replace his gear and get his feed going again.
And what exactly is it that Kelly does that his followers consider so essential? Kelly monitors three different police scanners covering the Greater Brockton area and tweets what he hears. He is an old-fashioned scanner buff. But instead of indulging his passion privately or maybe calling a newspaper now and then with a tip, he uses Twitter to distribute what he hears. He is one of a new breed of volunteer citizen journalists that leap into the breech when Big Media recedes.
To say that his followers appreciate his efforts would be an understatement. According to story in the (Brockton, Mass.) Enterprise, one was fulsome in her praise: “We love the work you do by keeping us informed. You are a true crusader,” said Karen Conneley.
Nice story, even if it didn’t go any further. But it did. Turns out that the crowd-funding campaign was designed by another local citizen journalist, Rob Murano, operator of InBrockton.com, a website devoted to local news and comment and an outlet which, in an earlier time, might have considered what Kelly does competition and let him go dark without a word.
To the contrary, Murano said. “I think he’s providing a vital public service by tweeting breaking news,” he told the Enterprise. “I look at it like online crime fighting.”
The final twist is that all of this would have remained unknown to a wider public had it not been for the Enterprise’s decision to write three stories on the matter. This may not seem remarkable – and especially not over a slow Columbus Day weekend when, even in these print-challenged days, news is scant and space abundant.
In an earlier era, the Enterprise might have looked at both Kelly and Murano as competition for its customers and quashed any story about Kelly’s travails. Instead, the paper picked up the thread and wrote not one, but three stories about it. It even praised Kelly, saying of him “such scanner watchers are an important resource for media organizations. From the sound of that it seemed clear that @enterprisenews was among Kelly’s followers
Consider how Brockton’s news ecosystem has changed in less than a decade. In 2003, neither Murano’s nor Kelly’s citizen journalism operation even would have existed. And had they, you can best believe that the Enterprise wouldn’t have written a word about either of them unless they somehow found their way into the police blotter.
But now, as in a genuine ecosystem, each has a role to play. Murano looks at Kelly, sees the value in what he does and knows he can’t do that himself. The Enterprise looks at them both, sees the value in what they do, and knows it can’t possibly do what either of them do. And thus, there’s peaceful coexistence – and maybe even mutual dependence, in the valley of news in Brockton. The lion lays down with the lamb.
And what’s the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey — speaking of old media types — might once have asked? Kelly’s @Brockton24_7 is back up and running on temporary gear. And he’s well on his way to a new computer, thanks to the Enterprise, Murano, a host of grateful followers and the new media ecosystem.
The pros and cons of iOS7 have been pretty well picked over since the new operating system debuted on Sept. 18. But after a few weeks of living with it – and loving most of it, I’ll admit – it occurred to me there are few things the news business could learn from the design:
1. Banish skeuomorphism.
Designers employing skeuomorphism make new items look like older analogues – the stitched-leather look of the old iCal, for example, or the wooden bookshelves that constituted the newsstand. Apple’s designers have eliminated these design attributes in favor of a clean, colorful, modern design that doesn’t reference the past.
What’s the application to the news business? Again and again news executives have made the mistake of employing new technology as a mere vessel for their old products – think of the “shovelware” mentality that led them to just dump the contents of newspapers onto their websites instead of designing for the new medium.
Shovelware lives, of course. Just check out some middle-market newspaper websites and you’ll see designs that reference the dead-tree edition at every turn, from hoary 20th-century-style page-one layouts to a complete lack of links, video and other web-native features. In a sense, shovelware is but an older, cruder form of skeuomorphism, and one that, needless to say, newspapers should have long since abandoned if they hope to survive in the web/mobile era.
The same is true of newspaper apps. Many rely on the skeuomorphic device of page-turning for navigation, as if the pixelated screen of a smartphone or tablet were a mere analogue of folded newsprint and ink. The New York Times app, despite its many drawbacks, takes a giant step toward leaving this behind and embracing the web/mobile ethos with navigation that’s based on one long vertical scroll – infinitely easier to use in one-handed mobile situations than a symphony of swipes.
Skeuomorphism is employed by modern designers as a crutch for users making the transition from old tech to new tech. It’s time for newspaper website and app designers to kick out the crutch and get on with the future. Transition time is over.
2. Love that white space
The overall look and feel of iOS7 is lighter and brighter than its predecessor. Thinner fonts and whiter backgrounds predominate. Some app designers, like those who created the Times and AP entries, have employed acres of white space to air out their designs. (OK, in the case of AP it’s actually black space. And never mind for now the glitches in the Times automation that place huge empty gaps on some pages.)
This makes the designs much easier on the eye than before, which is a particular relief in small-screen mobile situations. Tell me, since we are always yacking about how space is infinite in cyberspace, why do so many news designer cramp their web pages and apps with heads, columns and photos as if they were trying to squeeze their content onto a grain of rice? Get with it, folks, and loosen it up.
3. Design for delight
There’s really no functional reason for the zooming, swooshing and parallax effects that characterize iOS7. They’re only there to delight users – and delightful they are (assuming you are not among that unhappy bunch that gets carsick from looking at them). So why is it that so many news designers produce plodding, eat-your-peas web pages and apps that only produce delight when the user shuts them down? As a friend of mine likes to say, “Life is not a penance.” And reading the news shouldn’t be either.
In a scene from the 2002 science-fiction thriller “Minority Report,” a subway passenger reads constantly updated news on a small, thin, flexible sheet he could shove in his pocket. When cop John Anderton, played by Tom Cruise, strolls in another scene, human holograms serve him ads based on his preferences and location.
It turns out that the moviemakers foresaw trends in journalism years before they emerged. While iPad isn’t quite flexible, it grows closer with every iteration. The proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots combined with digital-first news publishing make frequent mobile updates a way of life. And the geolocation abilities of smartphones and tablets will make it easy to serve proximity-based advertising within a year or two, experts say.
And the filmmakers couldn’t have known that current hardware trends would help make their vision reality: The number of adults in the U.S. who own a smartphone has doubled from 30 to 60 percent in the last three years; more than one-third of adults in the U.S. own a tablet; laptop and desktop sales are cratering.
The trend is clear: Mobile rules the journalism of the future.
On the production end, savvy reporters are already using the same tools to gather news as their readers employ to consume it, using smartphones to tape broadcast interviews and create podcasts, create and edit videos, shoot and edit photo packages, write stories and posts and file them all on the fly. In the next 10 years this trend will accelerate at legacy news organizations as managers continue to squeeze their staffs in response to advertising declines.
Meanwhile, adoption of a mobile-first ethos will be key to the success of all news organizations, and to the very survival of legacy organizations, some of which are still struggling to be digital first – the journalistic equivalent of fighting the last war.
Being mobile first means reorganizing reporters and desks to focus on mobile customers and the mobile experience. It means streamlining workflows so updates, posts and stories go up instantly; it means adoption of responsive design and possibly discrete mobile design; and it means focusing ad departments on where the money rather than on where it’s been.
And news organizations soon will have a new technology to cope with: wearable computers such a Google Glass, smartphone watches such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the rumored iWatch and more sophisticated versions of the Nike Fuelband and its analogs.
The nearly always-on nature of these devices (as opposed to those that are frequently pocketed) and their tiny size pose new challenges to news organizations. Lightning fast updates are even more important for a nearly always-on device. Because of their size and/or design, reading text on them will be even more tedious than on smartphones, so successful organizations will need to focus even more on visual journalism, tight editing and thoughtful design.
Finally, Google Glass in particular brings a final conceit of “Minority Report” within reach. The device’s nearly always-on nature makes the idea of proximity-based advertising almost as powerful as it is onscreen when John Anderton is being shown ads as he walks. And the speaking holograms that serve the ads? Well, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to create one on an LCD screen than it is in three-dimensional space.
In other words, it can’t be far off.
By Kevin R. Convey
The Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to slaughter its entire photo staff last week wasn’t just a dramatic reaction to the paper’s declining fortunes. It was also — knowingly or unknowingly — a return to the way business used to be done at small and mid-size papers across the country not so long ago – in the days before the industry became a prisoner of its own success.
My first reaction to this photocaust was, I must admit, a snarky one. As managing editor and editor in chief of the Boston Herald between 2004 and 2010, I looked at the country’s other five tabloids for ideas and inspiration from time to time and was always struck by how poor the Sun-Times’ use of photos was – especially for a tab. The editors didn’t seem to know a good photo when they saw one, or how to play it when they had one — that is to say, big.
So when I heard the entire photo staff was gone, I thought, well, the editors really didn’t need a staff anyway considering the way they consistently underplayed its work. Recovering from that uncharitable assessment, it struck me that the way the paper would now be forced to proceed was not unlike the way business was done in the photo departments of small- and medium-size papers when I first broke in as a young reporter in the late ‘70s.
Jeff Jarvis, by the way, has written an excellent post in which he critiques the Sun-Times move and suggests that the photo staff’s mission should have been redefined in a more curatorial way to save cash and both foster and take advantage of the smartphone-primed explosion in amateur photography. I agree with him. But my purpose here isn’t to recapitulate his analysis.
When I was hired onto the staff of the Times Record in Brunswick, Maine, shortly before my college graduation in 1977, I was told its reporters were required to shoot their own photographs, and asked if I owned a 35mm camera. I was young but not foolish. I lied, said yes and begged my parents to make my graduation gift a Nikkormat FT3 and to give it to me early so I could teach myself how to shoot.
For the next few weeks I shot everything that moved and a lot of stuff that didn’t but looked like it did in my photos because of my superb technique. By the time I turned up for work, however, I was capable if not exactly proficient with the camera. The Times Record’s photo staff was exactly 1.5 shooters; reporters provided the bulk of the paper’s photography with staff photographers reserved for page-one work, features or photo stories.
Now, the Times Record was admittedly a small paper (about 15,000 circ. five days a week in those days) in a small town (about 20,000, if memory serves), and, indeed, by the time I landed at my next paper — the then-60,000-circ Standard-Times of New Bedford — I was told my photo services were neither required nor, frankly, welcome. Devotees of the art will be happy to know that I never touched another shutter-release button in the line of duty. That’s why God invented the photo staff.
Now, some will argue the difference between the policy of the Times Record and the Standard-Times was simply one of size-related professionalism: the larger the paper, the greater the commitment to consistency and excellence in all phases of the game, including photography. And that’s undoubtedly true. Union restrictions also played a role at larger papers.
But it’s clear that larger papers created independent photo staffs in part because they had the money. Smaller papers such as the Times Record relied on reporters to shoot because they didn’t. And they made it work. In spite of my meager efforts, there was no uprising of readers demanding more consistently excellent photography in Brunswick. Now, with papers slowly choking on so-called “legacy costs” – expensive ways of doing business instituted when the industry threw off returns greater than 20 percent – its clear that a full-service, fully staffed photo operation is among them and needs rethinking. The small-paper method is, it seems to me, a better option than the Chicago-style meat ax.
And this trend certainly won’t be limited to photo staffs. The ultimate implications of Jay Rosen’s visionary thinking on the “networked beat” will seem unhappily clear to any reporter who takes the time to contemplate it. Here, too, smaller papers long ago discovered a means to keep reporting-staff headcount low: the town correspondent who covered quotidian affairs while full-time reporters were carefully husbanded for deployment on larger stories. This was, in fact, an early form of citizen journalism, and its implications in the present era are also clear.
Don’t get me wrong: I have enormous respect for the photo staffs I’ve worked with and no desire to see former colleagues out of work. While we’re at it, I would be happier if newspapers could afford to keep their own presses running, maintain their grand old buildings, preserve their Sunday magazines and TV books and re-stock decimated reporting staffs. None of this is going to happen, and wishing it would isn’t a business model. But examining the industry’s pre-legacy past for solutions to its current dilemma may well be.
An item on paidContent a few weeks ago pulled some disparate threads together and got me thinking – no small task after completing a semester-long entrepreneurial project and a 2000-word business story — to say nothing of the attendant celebrations, of which nothing, indeed, will be said. What if, the piece posited, the era of mass communications was in fact an historical anomaly – a mere interlude in which new communications technology temporarily supplanted the one-to-one and small-network communication modes which had been civilization’s default state, and to which it has at least in part returned via the Web and social media?
This is hardly a new idea, of course. The work of Cornell media researcher Lee Humphrey on diary-keeping and that of Tom Standage on historical precursors to social media have both explored it in great depth and fascinating ways. Their point in part is that the disruption of mass media by digital is merely returning us to an earlier and more time-tested mode of communication. But what really got me thinking about it was a piece in the Wall Street Journal that a friend sent a while back about writer-scholar-war hero-classicist-Graecophile and, it so happens, proud Irishman Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote a book called Mani about his life and travels in Greece.
At the start of the book, Fermor lists at several pages’ length the elements of the Greek diaspora throughout Europe and the United States in an obvious and humorous homage to Homer’s famous “catalogue of ships” in Book II of The Iliad, in which the blind poet lists the Greek forces and commanders laying siege to Troy. Though the stories that comprise The Iliad later were collected and printed by the millions of copies, the poem itself was a product of a pre-mass-media -– pre-literate, in fact – culture, in which the stories were passed along by bards who memorized them for performance.
And that’s when it struck me: How could some illiterate bard recite from memory something as lengthy as the catalogue of ships—29 battle contingents under 46 commanders along with a word or two about each one — when I can’t even remember my seven-digit phone number half the time?
But seriously, folks, My point – and I do have one – is that different modes of communication inevitably draw upon – and perhaps even draw out — different skills and talents. No one, presumably, is born knowing how to recite hundreds of lines of Homeric verse from memory. And this forms the basis of my answer to those who worry aloud about the weakening of newsgathering and reporting standards in an era when media gatekeepers have been deposed by citizens wielding smartphones and social media instead of pitchforks.
The argument that we need mass media institutions to preserve standards is no less spurious than the assertion that we need the mass media for its expertise in rooting out, assessing and interpreting facts – see Jay Rosen’s penetrating meditation on the networked beat for more on this – or for its ability to moderate the national conversation. Last time I checked, the national conversation was more vibrant and contentious than ever even as journalists continued to lengthen unemployment lines here in New York and elsewhere.
Assertions such as these are the last gasp of a formerly privileged institution desperate to find some purpose in a world that is learning to live without it. Ironically, some elements of big media put the lie to those assertions themselves during the marathon bombing investigation, dispensing with their vaunted standards and making major errors in in their haste to compete with social media.
But I digress. How is the ability to recite hundreds of lines of Homer from memory like news judgment? Simple: No one is born with either one. Just as the bards learned their Homer, so, too, can citizen journalists learn news judgment.. Yes, I know good news judgment is a mix of both knowledge and experience — but that isn’t an argument for not providing the knowledge.
And this is where education comes in. For decades there has been a campaign – sadly more honored in the breech than in the observance, to butcher Shakespeare – to teach media literacy in the schools. You have to wonder why, in our news-and opinion-saturated times, that is perceived as less important than, say, driver’s ed or gym, and whether it is an idea whose time, at long last, has come.
By Kevin R. Convey
Up until last week, I was a dove in the sponsored-content controversy. Or rather, I had evolved into one. Though I had been dubious about the category to begin with – and fearful about where it might lead – I had settled into a kind of fatalistic complacency.
Content operations, after all, need to find ways to replace dwindling ad revenue. And as long as content supported by sponsors was clearly marked as such, I didn’t see much difference between it and old-fashioned and long-accepted advertorial.
That was until I saw the post on PBS Mediashift last week touting, among other things, CUNY’s Tow-Knight program in general and Skillcrush and Narratively – both products of the program — in particular.
This is great, I thought. I immediately posted a link to the Tow-Knight Google+ community site to allow fellow TK-ers to take pride in the great ink – sorry, pixels. A few minutes after I did so, I saw a comment from classmate Ranjan Roy pointing out that it was sponsored content. Returning to the post itself, I found that I had read right over this at the top and bottom of the story:
“Educational content is sponsored by City University London’s International Journalism MA, a one-year professional master’s degree for the globally-minded (sic) journalist. Journalism is changing – we’ll give you the know-how to succeed. Apply today for entry in September 2013.”
In my rush to get to the good news, I – a reporter and editor for more than 35 years– had read right over that attribution/disclaimer. Suddenly, I felt deflated. A sponsor had essentially paid the site to hire a writer to say nice things about journalism education in general and CUNY in particular.
The piece crossed none of my earlier lines. It was clearly marked as sponsored content. It didn’t even mention the sponsor itself. But I no longer felt proud about the piece — somehow it now felt hollow, like a compliment you suspect may be false.
And this is one reason sponsored content sucks – one I hadn’t considered before. A story can be completely legit — and the Mediashift post, despite the fact that it was essentially a one-source piece with nary a discouraging word, was a professional piece of work – but the fact that some outside entity paid for it cannot help but dim its luster among those involved, those who know something about the field and those, unlike me, I guess, who are paying attention to the provenance of the story.
Who can know the motivation for running the piece? What orders were given to the writer? What involvement did the sponsor have in it? How many people, like me, will read right over the attribution and not even ask these questions?
This is what Jeff Jarvis was getting at Monday when he pressed us to make finer and finer ethical distinctions about the legitimacy of sponsored content. But I had to see it in action on a topic dear to me to really get it.
By Kevin R. Convey
I’ve negotiated for things all my life – many jobs, half a dozen cars, two homes, a stainless steel bracelet from a sullen African vendor in Marseilles and an antique brass mortar and pestle from a grumpy Greek in an Athens bazaar He hammered the thing so hard after we settled on a price that my ears were ringing for the rest of the day.
But I didn’t truly understand some aspects of negotiation from the inside out until our exercise in Jeremy Caplan’s class on Monday. And that despite preparing to negotiate the terms of my most recent newspaper job by studying the classic book on negotiation, “Getting to Yes” (Fisher and Ury, Penguin).
The thing about “Getting to Yes” is that it trains you to consider your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and that of your negotiating partner – the book eschews terms such as “opponent” as counterproductive urging you to try to see to your, well, opponent, as a partner in a joint venture to reach an agreement.
And “Getting to Yes” also counsels you in several other ways. It suggests that you separate people from the problem, focus on interests rather than positions, invent negotiating options for mutual gain and insist in using objective criteria.
The problem, of course, is that while it’s easy to arrive at your own BATNA – since I was happy in my job at the time, mine was simply to stay put – it’s hard to know what your partner’s is, especially if he will not share it with you. In my case, my partner had said there were no other candidates – suggesting that his BATNA was less palatable than mine — but it was such an astonishing admission from a veteran negotiator that I suspected it was ploy. Knowing my BATNA – and being at peace with it — allowed me to react to what I considered a first, low-ball offer by revealing it. If a better offer were not forthcoming — and I suggested what that might be, higher than I would actually settle for, to create some room for negotiation — I would happily stay put.
“Getting to Yes” also places great stock on identifying your own interests – what’s most important to you in the negotiation — and in trying to determine you partner’s. Again, though, the problem is, you can guess at your partner’s interests and you can ask. But if he will not reveal what is most important to him in the negotiation, you are stuck. In my negotiation, every effort I made to learn this so I could bargain a better outcome for both sides was met with a stone wall. What the other side really wanted, it seemed, was to buy me as cheaply as possible.
Fisher and Ury confront this problem as well in their chapter called “What if They Won’t Play?” But every attempt I made to use their suggested negotiation jiujitsu techniques wound up flat on its back on the mat. No dice. In the end, we managed to settle on the only thing that seemed to matter to them – my salary. They spent more than they wanted on me, and I accepted less than I’d hoped for. I suppose mutual disappointment is as good a definition of a successful negotiation as anything else.
But what was interesting about our in-class role-playing was the mutually assured destruction aspect of it. You could clearly see in each game – in a way it’s hard to see during an actual negotiation – that greedy behavior ultimately punishes both sides. The best results consistently came about from a share-the-pie, live and let live approach to the negotiations. It was eye-opening.
But here’s what I wonder about: What we did in class was an exercise, with very little at stake besides learning something and trying to do it well. Had I gone into my job negotiation with that approach – moderating my own expectations in the hope the other side would reciprocate for mutual gain, I wonder what would have happened. Somehow, I doubt I would have made out as well in the real world as I did in the classroom.
I’m glad I’m taking feature writing this semester at the same time as I’m completing my concentration in entrepreneurial journalism. Because they draw on such completely different skills that one is always a refreshing break from the other. Rarely do they intersect.
Writing feature stories feels like a right-brained enterprise, intuitive, holistic and creative, while entrepreneurial work, once you’re past the ideation stage, anyway, feels more left-brained: logical, analytical, sequential.
So, imagine my delight this past Monday when Jeremy Caplan introduced our entrepreneurial class to Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, an engaging fun-to-read book that ditches the usual biz-babble to examine the characteristics that make ideas “sticky.”
On the surface, the list seems simple. It forms the acronym SUCCES: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. But the concept is given depth and richness both by the examples the Heaths deploy and by the conversational, storytelling style they use.
As an example, the simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness and narrative quality of any of the best urban folktales – the microwaved poodle, the choking Doberman, the kidney harvest – all explain why these tales, each patently untrue, are so persistent in our culture.
But as I read and listened, my right brain and left brain converged and presented me with an apercu – not to be confused with a stroke. I realized that these attributes could also function as a set of rules for the kind of great writing we’d been studying in feature writing and trying to imitate.:
Simplicity: Whether it’s the plot of Maupassant’s short stories or the leanness of Hemingway’s prose, simple is sticky when it comes to writing.
Unexpectedness: Has anyone who has ever read “The Little Match Girl” or “Gift of the Magi” ever forgotten the final plot twists? They are stickiness defined.
Concreteness: The first lesson every reporter/writer learns or should learn. Details are the soul of good writing. From the Hemingway’s opening scene-setter in A Farewell to Arms to the environmental description that strikes the tone for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, it’s detail that sticks.
Credibility: Whether your narrator is reliable or not, if your story isn’t believable at the gut level, it will not stick.
Emotions: What is it we remember most about a piece of writing? Usually it’s the either the emotions expressed or those we are made to feel. Returning to A Farewell to Arms, who can ever forget the terse yet miserably lonely, rain-soaked concluding paragraph?
Stories: “Stories within stories” is what Charles Leerhsen, our features instructor, is always telling us makes for a good, long-form story. But even on a more basic level, the first question anyone asks about a novel or a movie is, “What’s it about?” There’s a good reason for this: Stories stick.
So, please excuse me. I have to go try to pry the left and right sides of my brain apart.