16 Body Building
Making your story come to life
“The secret to being a writer is that you have to write. It’s not enough to think about writing or to study literature or plan a future life as an author. You really have to lock yourself away, alone, and get to work.”
If you have gathered enough information and have a strong enough nut graph, the body of the article is the easiest part to write, as the whole goal of your body is to prove the nut graph of the article to be true.
I wrote a story about Columbus, Ohio, school board member who had seven unsuccessful attempts to join the city school board, and was finally elected through the ineptitude of other candidates (they failed to get enough signatures). He was a high school dropout who wore Hawaiian shirts, was missing most of his teeth and had a braided plait midway down his back (all of which I showed in the lede). The nut graph of the article was this:
Now two years later it would seem easy to dismiss Wiles as an accidental school board member who is only around until a more qualified candidate comes around during the next election. But a funny thing happened during his stint at the board table: The ultimate outsider is starting to earn some respect, aligning himself with Stephanie Groce, the board’s strongest critic of the district administration. And with Groce not seeking reelection this November, Wiles most likely will take over as the public voice of dissent on the board.
The responsibility of the body became to show the reader Wiles’ personal path to get where he is today. It must truly address three main questions:
- What is happening now?
- How did we get where we are?
- What will happen next?
For this story, some key areas tracked by the body include:
- How Wiles ended up a dropout and yet got immersed in public education.
- Showing what exactly makes him such an outsider.
- Showing the efforts he has taken to get on the board.
- Showing what has he done now that he is on the board.
- Describing where he expects to go next.
To support the nut graph, the body must begin where the story begins, and the direction and content depend on the goals of the story.
For a profile, we start where the subject story begins, and where his or her experiences begin to support the nut graph.
For a general interest piece or coverage of an event, we make sure the reader knows where the story begins by providing some historical perspective and then let the sources take us through the experience with their anecdotes.
“There can be an inclination to when you don’t have a lot of experience with it to throw everything into the story,” Misti Crane of Ohio State research said. “When I became a more careful feature writer, I realized I needed to identify the kind of details that were important and that brought meaning to the story and to leave the rest in my notebook. If you are trying to paint a picture of the ocean, you don’t also put the forest in just because you know what the forest looks like.”
When crafting the body, remember that the broad borders of the feature writing hourglass give you the latitude to explore all facets of the story and incorporate tons of sources, examples and anecdotes.
But everything they say has to somehow be reflected in the single nut graph paragraph.
Show Don’t Tell
The three words for a feature writer to live by are “Show, Don’t Tell.”
You can tell the reader the weather is “hot,” but they will fill in what that means from their own experience unless you show them exactly what you mean.
Adjectives, or “telling,” are a sign of lazy writing.
Instead, describe sensations, emotions and scenes so we can see it for ourselves.
“I think about the way documentaries describe things, the way books describe things,” Mitch Hooper of (614) Magazine said. “That’s kind of what we want to be doing it, too.
“If you are in a room and the walls are white, we can say that, but what kind of white? What does it feel like? What impact do the white walls have?”
Imagine you are describing a dog to someone who does not have sight. If I said he has was a tan Lab mix with four legs and a fluffy tail, with brown eyes, floppy ears and chubby cheeks, do you think they would know exactly what he looks like?
Is he fat or thin? What is fat or thin exactly?
Is he tan like khaki? All one color?
Does his tail curl or go straight out?
Are his eyes brown like chocolate milk or semisweet chips, or like a mahogany desk?
Show, don’t tell.
Is this the dog you saw? I hope so; it’s my puppy, Tanner!
If the nut graph is the “so what” part of your article, telling readers what the piece is about, transitions tell them how to navigate from one idea to the next in a logical and flowing way.
Without them, your article is choppy and disjointed, and feels like there are just a bunch of facts or anecdotes plopped on top of each other.
Good article organization has to show the relationships constructed between the parts.
Some often-used transition words include “first,” “however,” “furthermore” while repeating words and phrases is also an effective way to link and transition:
Let’s check out this article written for Columbus CEO:
“Natalie always keeps the business and the business goals in mind, and makes sure it’s something practical people can walk away from and use. … She makes it work in terms of results.”
Crede, a Chicago native, learned practicality while studying human relations at St. Petersburg College in Florida, where she took a job as a personnel clerk for a small company selling products over the radio. That business, the Home Shopping Network, quickly exploded, and Crede spent the next decade keeping up with its expanding needs.
See how using the root word, “practical” from the quote ties it to the next paragraph?
Esquire excerpted Mark Herzlich’s book, What It Takes: Fighting For My Life and My Love of the Game, in its June 9 issue, and included these paragraphs:
Four doctors in white lab coats came into the small exam room. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew four doctors couldn’t be good. One of them took two MRI results and jammed them in the top of the lightbox, then turned it on. Images of the two longest bones in my body — my left femur, or thighbone, and my right femur — were lit up. But the two bones looked completely different. It was as if they came from different bodies or even different species. I knew that couldn’t be good, either.
The doctor got right to it. He explained that I almost certainly had an extremely rare disease that affects fewer than two out of every million people in the world. Only two hundred and fifty or so cases of the disease are reported each year. Depending on further tests, my chances of surviving the disease could be as low as ten percent.
You can see how the use of similar words tie us to the ideas that come first and next.