Saturday, February 11, 2012

For Feb. 16 discussion: What can you say in 300 words?

Sometimes, you can say an awful lot.

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

Beautiful noise

The accordion man

Looking for a laugh

The man in the mirror

The end is the beginning

For the first time

City dreams

A cross for Carlos


  1. My favorite stories were "One hour at a time", "After the sky fell", and "looking for a laugh". These stories were so great because each one is relatable to the reader in some way. For instance, none of us are serving in prison or even parents. But in "One hour at a time", I was able to connect with Thomas. He is not the kind of person I would really ever sympathize for on a normal day, but reading this story made me realize he is just like me in the sense that he has a family who he will be unable to see, and that was heartbreaking for me.

    I think the best written story would definitely be "After the sky fell". I love how Dennis builds into it with every single sentence, adding on to this man's story and life of pain. It was definitely the most touching.

    I think the reason these stories are so compelling is definitely because Dennis does a great job of listening to his subject and finding the emotional aspects of his or her story that will make it relatable to all readers. I also like that the story is only 300 words. Although they are short, they are powerful.

  2. These stories are so great. Brady Dennis does a wonderful job of making the most of his words. He paints a great picture in my mind without taking a few paragraphs to do it.

    "With only 300 words to spare, each one had to matter." As journalist we are taking the time of the readers, and to waste it with useless words and information should be a journalism crime.

    These stories remind me of all the things I see on a daily basis that have stories that go untold. Reading stories every day about the government and politics is useful and important but sometimes its just refreshing to be able to read something that is easy on the eye and tells a beautiful story.

  3. My two favorite stories were "One Hour at a Time" and "The Accordion Man" because they both were very different, yet very compelling. The first one was very heartwarming, even though on all accounts the reader should be viewing the man as a criminal, Dennis does a very good job of portraying him as a dedicated father, with a guilt that he will have to live with for the rest of his life.

    "The Accordion Man" was also good because it gave you insight into someones life who you would ordinarily just walk past and not even think twice about. I would have never guessed that an accordion player had such a busy schedule, or that they could sing in all sorts of languages, and say ridiculous things without people knowing.

    This series was very powerful and well done, because although some of the stories are mundane and routine, even those people have a powerful story to tell that can impact the readers. Dennis also makes a very good point about keeping writing concise, which is helpful in all types of news writing.

  4. If I ever find myself writing for a magazine or a newspaper, I would love to do this someday.

    It's intriguing how well he painted a picture in only 300 words. For the first time and Beautiful noise were my two favorites. Beautiful noise was written perfectly. I loved how he didn't get to the "Beautiful noise" part to the very end. He painted the picture of the kids playing, all having similarities and difference, but they all come together everyday to just be kids and have fun and laugh with each other.

    For the first time was really cute. It's something that happens all over, but he put a cute little spin on it and just described what it's like for the two teenagers.

  5. For only 300 words, Brady Dennis's articles are so powerful and moving. My two favorite had to be "After the Sky Fell" and "The End is the Beginning." The articles are great because they are to the point but he also uses specific writing styles to make each sentence significant. In the "After the Sky Fell" piece, he begins majority of the sentences with "Because" and it forces the sentences to just linger in your mind.

    The other article, "The End is the Beginning" was great because it showed a man who worked hard his whole life in many different fields of work and succeeded. Now, he is able to relax, wake up in the morning and go for a hike. It's the old American dream. Working until you're sixty and then finally having the time to do something like take your wife to Spain. It was relieving to see that people who work hard in life are still coming out okay.

    Length is a big challenge for me personally. I am someone who is very wordy. This type of writing would be beneficial to me. I really struggle getting the point across with so little amount of space. These articles showed me that you don't have to go into so much detail to allow the reader to understand the true meaning of the article.

  6. I read the first two and both of them were very well written. He does a fantastic job of painting pictures and getting that human emotion involved with his stories.
    Even though I felt that the overall structure of the two were the same, the differed in many creative ways. The way he guides through each of their stories is a little bit different so we come out of reading them feeling a little bit different about the subjects. I see why he won awards for this series because it is really good!

  7. I would have never thought that 300 words would be able to tell such a beautiful story. "After the sky fell" was definitely my favorite story. As I was reading it I began to tear up, not something that usually happens to me.

    Stories like these really make you think twice before you judge someone. Everyone has a story and a past and I really like this idea of giving a profile of an average person. The writer really let's the person tell their story and uses emotion to get his point across.

    The writer gave a brief overview of the man's life and I could picture it all so clearly. I absolutely love these stories.

  8. I loved these stories. It was amazing to me how short all these were but how much emotion was behind all of them. It really goes to show you how powerful words can be.

    My favorite stories were "After the sky fell", "one hour at a time", and "beautiful noise". The first two just had a sad tone to them but were very powerful. "Beautiful noise" took me back to playing in my neighborhood when I was younger.

    These just show, as Katie said, that everyone has a hidden story. You can never judge someone by what you see on the surface. I love these profile stories and wish that they were written more.

  9. The author states at the end of the articles, "300 words presents glimpses of everyday life that often go unnoticed." I couldn't agree with that quote more.

    I liked the article, "Looking for a Laugh." I liked the opening line, "Nigel Davis has had plenty of unfunny days." It was ironic, because the title of the story referred to comedy, but the anecdote said otherwise. I felt bad for Nigel, because he lost he suffered through tragedies.

    I also liked "One Hour at a Time." That one surely made me sad, especially when I saw the picture of Thomas Herold kissing his daughter, Cheyenne, through the glass window. The opening sentence was powerful and struck a chord with me as well. I would like to read more of these stories.

  10. This is my favorite kind of journalism! Seriously, if I could get a job writing something similar to these stories I’d be content to dance on pennies for the rest of my life. They reminded me a lot of an episode of This American Life I listened to once on a reporter called The Georgia Rambler (

    Stories like these are powerful because though they are about the person and whatever moment the reporter was there to observe, the reason people like these stories is because of the human dimension and emotional connection. It’s very relatable. Life is such a messy thing to encapsulate and such a delicate thing to play with. I think the best writer chooses words in a way that allows the audience to read between the lines. When it comes to 300 word stories what you say matters, but what you don’t say packs the punch.

    I really enjoyed “After the Sky Fell” “Looking for a Laugh” but most of the link towards the end of the list wouldn’t open for some reason.

  11. I love these types of stories. The people that go unnoticed always seem to have the biggest stories. These are the stories I want to hear.

    I loved that Brady Dennis kept using the word "because" in "After the Sky Fell." That story was definitely my favorite. I also really liked "One Hour at a Time."

    Hearing that his/her article needs to be "300 words or less" can sometimes be stressful to reporters. But now, I'm going to start looking at it in a different light. I'm going to take it as a challenge, and most importantly, an opportunity.

  12. I think this shows how journalists need to be able to add in and recognize little movements and other things. These add to the story and paints a picture for the reader. I think this connects the reader to the story because it puts them in situations that they could relate to. Journalism is evolving out of more than just quotes and facts. This shows observations are important too.

  13. These stories impacted my emotions more than regular news articles did, and honestly that really surprises. Each 300 word depiction of someone else's life made me feel for their situation especially in 'One Hour at a time' and 'After the sky fell'. These spoke to me the loudest just because each main character had a tough situation and I felt for their loss, especially for Lloyd Blair's situation.

    I think as readers we can all take advantage of this type of news writing because it just goes to show you that any piece of information can be valuable if it impacts the reader. Rather than dragging a story on, the author did a fantastic job at getting to the key points of emotion in the article and I thought it was very creative and well constructed.

    The 'Looking for a laugh' was a good 300 word segment too because I feel like there could be a follow up to the story to see if the amateur comedian ever feels like he successfully completed a show.

  14. "Looking for a laugh" and "The end is the beginning" were my favorites. Both told extremely poignant and personal stories, but they also connected to a wider topic.
    Profiles on up and coming talent are usually painted in the best light, and I liked that "Looking for a laugh" just showed life the way it really is;some days are good, but others aren't.
    "The end is the beginning" was really great because the spirit of the man's next step in life was captured perfectly in the simplicity.