By J.F. McKenna
Francis Flaherty has done as much for today’s bedeviled writers as the celebrated pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock once did for anxious and uncertain parents up late at night with sick and inconsolable tots.
Similarly to what the good physician accomplished when he first published Baby and Child Care in the 1940s, story doctor Flaherty has shared years of newsroom savvy in The Elements of Story. Flaherty’s 2009 book clarifies non-fiction writing in terms of “the level of story, by which I mean the architecture, the bones, the tendrils, of an article. This book is about how to make a story move.”
Make no mistake: This kind of prescriptive advice has been far too sparse in the past—and is certainly needed more than ever today, as much of the instantaneously delivered writing makes readers wince if not wander and causes demanding old-school editors to add a dash of Pepto to their Jim Beam. For readers, writers and editors alike—this one included—The Elements of Story may be the greatest advancement in real journalism since the inverted pyramid, or at least the page-two Editors’Correction.
And the progress doesn’t stop at the newsstand, be it brick or click. “I find that the tenets of story doctoring apply not just to journalism but to writing writ large,” insists Flaherty, whose professional pedigree boasts a long tenure as a New York Times editor and clips from such tony pubs as Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. “Story doctoring is all about prose that is riveting and persuasive, and as such it has currency for every writer, from the freelancer in his garret to the English grad student, from the beat reporter to the aspiring blogger.”
Admittedly, I may be a bit biased about Flaherty as a craftsman in the trade. He’s earned his rightful spot in the writers’ bunk house, yet he’s still eager to share his wealth of hard-earned knowledge with darn near anyone. Just wander down the digital trail to the Gotham Writers site — http://www.writingclasses.com/FacultyBios/facultyProfileByInstructor.php/TeacherID/234956. There you’ll find the portrait of the artist with a real-world deadline:
When Frank first began working at the Times, he was assigned to write an investment column for the Business section. “It’s quite difficult to write a compelling column about bond funds,” he says. “You have to learn a way into it.” But the good news? “If you can write compellingly about stuff like that, then it’s all the easier to write well about something you do care about.”
Particularly impressive to this Kent State J-school grad is Flaherty’s advice on the masterful treatment of leads, transitions and kickers—the basic newswriting components that, handled with deftness, can make a reader sit up and smile, get angry and red-faced, cry aloud in sympathy, or a combination thereof.
Good story leads, for example, “must fill two contradictory roles,” Flaherty counsels his by-the-book disciples. “They must paint with a ‘broad brush’—that is, state the essential point of the story—and they must be vivid and specific.
“How can they do both these things?” he continues. “The secret is this. While good leads are specific, the specifics they cite must sound the central chord of the tale.”
The Elements of Story is chockablock with similar time-tested advice for serious writers—those guys and gals who instinctively gravitate toward a genuine wordsmith such as Flaherty, who himself modestly describes the book as “a ‘field guide,’ really, into the newsroom.”
Back in my own J-school days, one of our standard texts featured Matthew Arnold’s description of early-day journalism as “literature in a hurry.” Through the years my colleagues have joked that Arnold lost his poetic license over that comment. A lot of today’s contemporary news and commentary, in print or online, is unstructured, barely readable proof that haste makes waste.
Maybe, just maybe, Francis Flaherty and his well-constructed guide will prove that old English scribbler right, after all.
J.F. McKenna, a former resident of Cleveland’s West Park, has worked as a reporter, business editor and communication specialist. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. The Cleveland native and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at email@example.com .