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The Story Behind the Story

Writers paddle like hell

Be a swan. Glide serenely over the water. Paddle like hell underneath. Other swans will know the truth.
    I first read those words in a poem by Ann Hale many years ago, and the image still makes me smile. As it did this morning when a pair of swans came in Cordorde-like to land a little less gracefully, big feet forward, to paddle away on little Fairhaven Lake.
    It’s an image as apt as it is pretty, and I’ve had more than one occasion to follow its guidance over the years.
    For example, I want Bay Weekly stories to look like the gliding swan.
    Editors like to promulgate principles. I’ve just sent out to writers a list of 25 borrowed from former editor of The (Manchester) Guardian Tim Radford. Among mine, and his, is the commandment that a story should be simple and pleasing to read, as if writing it had been as easy as falling off a log.
    Radford 16: Clichés are, in the newspaper classic instruction, to be avoided like the plague. Except when they are the right cliché. You’d be surprised how useful a cliché can be, used judiciously. This is because the thing about journalism is that you don’t have to be ever so clever but you do have to be ever so quick.
    Nobody wants to hear a writer grunt and struggle and complain like a weight lifter on a bad day.
    Radford 17: Metaphors are great. Just don’t choose loopy metaphors, and never, never mix them.
    Reading a good story, you and I ought to glide over a smooth surface ticked by the occasional ripple. Waves and obstructions, however, mean the story’s gone wrong: The writer has skipped a connection, dropped a fact, forgotten to tell you what you need to know.
    Beneath the surface of a good story, however, your writer has often paddled like hell.
    I’ve worked with a new writer this week, and he’s dizzy from how much paddling he’s had to do. Paul Lagasse, a new citizen of downtown Annapolis, earns his living as a freelance writer. He’s an archivist by training at the University of Maryland, so he knows a bit about researching, too.
    I hope you’ll glide effortlessly over his “Wanted: Runaway Slave, a Stout Healthy Lad.”
    To get it to you, Paul and I paddled like hell.
    The first version was easy. We’d thought up the story, connecting his expertise and Black History month. He’d researched and written it, I’d liked it, and after an hour or two of editing it was ready to go.    
    That night he and I read nearly the same story in The Capital.
    Instead of spiking the story (that’s newspaper talk for killing it out of your sight), Paul and I churned up some water to reclaim it.
    I challenged him to bring it home to our doorsteps with stories and facts on slavery in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. Archivists directed him to local stories, but getting facts took his skills as a researcher.
    Newspaper stories aren’t footnoted like term papers and scholarly articles. So you have no way of knowing all that Paul did to tell us a simple, smooth story, from digging in case studies, analyzing 19th century census data and reading Barbara Jeanne Fields’ book Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century for slave-owning statistics for our counties.
    All that paddling will, we hope, add up to a swanlike story that pleases you.
    If we succeed, we’ve kept true to Radford 1:
    When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.