Case-in-point: Brady Dennis, former night cops reporter for the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times.
Dennis, who is now with the Washington Post, decided he wanted to highlight some people who never found their way into the newspaper. So he and photographer Chris Zuppa began a monthly series called “300 Words,” in which they set out to tell the stories of toll booth operators, dads in jail, rodeo clowns and others. The series won national acclaim.In a 2006 interview, Dennis said he wanted to take on the project because “I believe that each person not only has a story to tell, but that each person has a story that matters. I’ve always felt humbled in the presence of everyday, ‘ordinary’ people who are willing to share their lives with us.”
Later in the same interview, he discussed how the series – specifically the rigid word limit – made him a better journalist (read on after the jump):
“300 Words” made me a better reporter by forcing me to rely almost primarily on observation. Notice that most pieces contain almost no quotes. I didn’t interview people as much as I simply shut my mouth and watched and listened. We don’t do that enough.
It also made me a more economical writer. With only 300 words to spare, each one had to matter. I've tried to apply that rule to the other stories I do, even the long ones. The idea is to cut away the fat and leave only the muscle. As my editor, Neville Green, repeated again and again: "Less is more." It's true for most stories we write.Dennis’ series is proof positive that you don’t need pages and pages of copy to tell a beautiful story. He wasn’t writing to win awards or attract fans (although he did both). He simply wanted to paint pictures of fleeting moments, and all the sights, sounds and emotions that went with them. These moments surround us every day. They are stories that most of us can relate to at some level. Good storytellers like Dennis recognize the universal nature of those moments, and put them in perspective for us.
All of the stories in the series are very good. Two of my favorites are “One hour at a time” and “After the sky fell.” Those two articles are not “feel good” stories, as are some other stories in the series. So check out a few of the articles (they are all very quick reads). Which ones spoke to you the loudest? Why? What techniques did the writers use to put readers into these scenes? What can we as writers learn from them?
For some reason, the St. Pete Times has taken down the “splash page” that used to have links to all the installments in this series. However, I was able to recover several of them through Google – enough to give you a sense of what the series was like. These are the headlines – the hyperlinks should take you to the stories.
One hour at a time
After the sky fell
One minute and 123 dollars
The accordion man
Looking for a laugh
The man in the mirror
The end is the beginning
For the first time
A cross for Carlos