Story structure: Here’s a long-form example from Sports Illustrated

This poignant piece about how elite distance runner Gabriele Grunewald is coping with repeated instances of cancer offers a nice chance to study a piece of narrative writing that includes a non-chronologic structure.

It’s also just a real good story to read to appreciate Grunewald’s efforts — and what her resolve and her personal growth teaches us.

We mentioned in class that modern films often jump from one time period to another, not always in chronologic sequence.  In other words, they can switch time periods, from the present to the past and back to present — or more.

A good piece of writing can do this too, especially lengthier feature stories that follow the lives of people over time.  So here we see a nice story by longtime reporter Tim Layden that begins with a scene from the past, then moves forward to develop the main character’s story, then jumps back into the deeper past — and then finally ends with the runner’s outlook now.

As you read this, try following the structural turns.  This is primarily a narrative.  It begins with a key scene: The discovery.  When does the writer switch scenes?  When is he move into explanation to help us make sense of Grunewald’s story?  When does he slip us back into the past — and how does he bring us back?  Study.  This is how we learn.  First we study; then we try.

Notice, too, the amount of information Layden provides.  How many times did he interview Grunewald and others?  Where did he find the running stats? How does a media writer become well-enough informed about a rare type of cancer to report authoritatively?  How many years, do you suppose, did he observe Grunewald, knowing something of her battle, before he set out to write about her?

You may not want to become a feature writer for a magazine, but the fundamentals still apply.  (1) Find your idea, then (2) your angle. (3) Carry out lots of research. (4) Organize (map) your structure.  (5) Write a draft.  (6) Revise until it’s wonderful.

The more you practice, the better you’ll get.  And when you write stories like these about people like Gabriele Grunwald, well, it keeps you in touch with why we’re alive.  And perhaps it helps others to stay in touch.  I imagine Tim Layden wrote a few stories like this before he gained this high degree of command and artfulness.

It comes with informed, focused practice.


Game company addresses their content creator relationships

Insomniac Games,  an independent game developer, published a blogpost for its current and future content creators and how its relationship will be changing. I chose this blogpost because it was written by the company’s Chief Brand Officer Ryan Schneider. I appreciate the casual tone and honesty in the article. A company having transparency with their audience is important and helps maintain a level of trust.

Schneider begins with a little background from the company and the need to address this sort of issue. He writes, “The truth is, we weren’t exactly sure how best to interact with content creators — even though we’ve been content creators ourselves for many years producing our own trailers, podcasts, dev diaries, screenshots, music videos and even community day events.” He refers to the company as “we” and “our” which portrays a much closer internal structure within the company. He takes the time to think about the audience and what they will be asking when reading the article, “If you’re a content creator, how does all this affect you?”

They have “decided to focus on content creators with a minimum reach of around 10,000 on their combined social media and content channels. Videos should regularly generate more than 1,500 views per episode.”

Schneider structures the article into succinct paragraphs, and uses a subheading and bolded words to divide the article and draw attention to the important parts a reader might be skimming for. He knows the audience and is choosing to use a casual writing style. The first sentence used after this subheading is “Here’s the tl;dr part…” While this use of slang doesn’t strictly adhere to AP style, the tone is more personal, which proves to help explain exactly why these changes are taking place. As an independent game developer, writing a blogpost rather than a press release, is a more personal approach to communicating with its audience.

Writing the summary lead for folks in a hurry

A big challenge in writing for the media is learning to craft fast summaries. As we said in class, most readers are in a hurry when they glance at our pages and sites, or when they click on a broadcast to listen.

Our job: Boil down the information. Give our audience what they want and need.

Some digital sites specialize in this.  One of those is called Ozy, and its mission is to help occasional readers get up to speed quickly. This is how its editors describe their goal.

Here is an example in its coverage of White House adviser Jared Kushner’s testimony on his exchanges with Russian officials.  How does a writer summarize an 11-page document and a few hours of testimony?  The Ozy treatment avoids ‘mumbling’ by beginning with this:

He’s got “nothing to hide.” So says senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, insisting he never worked with Russia to aid his father-in-law’s election.

Podcasting: A new form to study and learn

Artwork by Zak Bickel / Katie Martin / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

We often imagine that writing occurs where we read words, such as in ink on paper or pixels on screens.  Let’s consider now a relatively new form, the podcast, in which we don’t read the words — we hear them.

But many of those words are written long before we hear them.

Media analysts claim that podcasts are likely to become a standard form in a digital world.  In a society rich with headsets and earbuds, we like to listen as well as tune out the noise we don’t need.  Podcasts fill the needs.  They give us chances to seek out special information and interesting voices.  They also give advertisers another means of aiming their messages at precisely the groups they seek.

Can you write for a podcast?  You can weigh your prospects by answering a few questions: What does it take? How are podcasts structured?  What sorts of research and interviewing go into their creation?  And ask this: How does the requirement to write for the ear influence the way we compose sets of words and sentences?

You can check out this compilation of The Best Podcasts of 2016 as offered by writers for The Atlantic, a monthly magazine and an everyday website that appeals to young and educated folks.  Pick a favorite and test yourself:  What will it take to be part of a team creating compelling podcasts.