Three things I learned about writing from reading Roger Ebert

Film critic Roger Ebert was famous for great insights. He was legendary for the way he expressed them.

Here are just three of the things I learned about writing from reading his magnetic reviews.

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    1. Give something of value to your readers

If Roger Ebert had been assigned to write about sports, politics, or travel instead of movies, his readers would be more discerning about sports, politics or travel.

I always felt that Ebert had our best interests at heart. He didn’t come off as someone who was just a very clever writer and smart about things. His ego didn’t seem to get in the way. And it never seemed like he was just cranking out another column.

He consistently remembered that people read movie reviews in order to make decisions about how to devote two hours of their lives and a piece of their budget. He wanted us to get a return on our investment.

This is evident in so many of his memorable quotes, such as this one on the movie Do the Right Thing:

Of course it is confused. Of course it wavers between middle-class values and street values. Of course it is not sure whether it believes in liberal pieties or militancy. Of course some of the characters are sympathetic and others are hateful. And of course some of the likable characters do bad things. Isn’t that the way it is in America today? Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool. But anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention. [Chicago Sun-Times]

Roger Ebert made being reader-focused look effortless. In reality it takes hard work and diligence to be so kind.

    1. 2. Stay on earth

    Among the things you could count on from a Roger Ebert movie review was that it would be sensible and not loaded down in intellectualism or grandiose language.

    Consider his 1998 review of a classic movie on the occasion of its 60th anniversary:

    Gone With the Wind presents a sentimental view of the Civil War, in which the “Old South” takes the place of Camelot and the war was fought not so much to defeat the Confederacy and free the slaves as to give Miss Scarlett O’Hara her comeuppance. But we’ve known that for years; the tainted nostalgia comes with the territory. Yet as “GWTW” approaches its 60th anniversary, it is still a towering landmark of film, quite simply because it tells a good story, and tells it wonderfully well.

    Sometimes he had absolutely nothing good to say, but that was often when he was the most fun to read. Such as in this review of Mad Dog Time:

    Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time…Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you’re not sure they have a bus line.

      3. Be conversational

    Several years ago, I was in the market for a rice cooker as a gift for my husband (the true cook in our family). Feeling uncertain about the utilitarian nature of such a gift, I thought adding a rice cooker cookbook would make it more thoughtful. That’s how Roger Ebert’s blog promoting his The Pot and How to Use It cookbook ended up in my bookmark folder called “great writing examples.”

    His opening is smooth, funny and one of the best illustrations of effectively writing in first and second person around:

    First, get the Pot. You need the simplest rice cooker made. It comes with two speeds: Cook, and Warm. Not expensive. Now you’re all set to cook meals for the rest of your life on two square feet of counter space, plus a chopping block. No, I am not putting you on the Rice Diet. Eat what you like. I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room. You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit. You, parents with kids. You, night watchman. You, obsessed computer programmer or weary web-worker. You, lovers who like to cook together but don’t want to put anything in the oven. You, in the witness protection program. You, nutritional wingnut. You, in a wheelchair.

    And you, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. You, person on a small budget who wants healthy food. You, shut-in. You, recovering campaign worker. You, movie critic at Sundance. You, sex worker waiting for the phone to ring. You, factory worker sick of frozen meals. You, people in Werner Herzog’s documentary about life at the South Pole. You, early riser skipping breakfast. You, teenager home alone. You, rabbi, pastor, priest, nun, waitress, community organizer, monk, nurse, starving actor, taxi driver, long-haul driver. Yes, you, reader of the second-best best-written blog on the internet.

    After that, I didn’t much care whether the cookbook was really going to change our lives, I just wanted to keep reading that dialogue.

    Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013, but his writing lives on to entertain, inform and inspire.

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    Put me in the scene…and I’m yours

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    When you write: “snarling and baring its fangs, the dog lunged at her neck,” your readers mentally put a hand to their throats.

    If you’ve built the scene very well, maybe readers physically cover their throats.

    When writing evokes our senses we feel like we are there, experiencing it. To get that kind of reaction, your writing must be full of description, of details and places that make us see the story as it unfolds.

    A news piece on CNN.com by Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent, did exactly that.

    The story included a picture of a young woman holding a happy baby. The headline read: Surrogate offered $10,000 to abort baby. And a deck added: “Surrogacy ends with legal actions, secretive flight to another state.”

    That was enough to make me curious, but the real-time, story-in-action approach got me to read the entire piece.

    (CNN) — Crystal Kelley ran through the calendar once again in her head.

    It was August, and if she got pregnant soon, she could avoid carrying during the hot summer months — she’d done that before and didn’t want to do it again. There was no time to lose.

    But there was one problem: She had no one to get her pregnant.

    Kelley picked up the phone and called a familiar number. What about the nice single man who’d inquired before — would he be interested? No, the woman told her. She hadn’t heard from him in weeks.

    Disappointed, Kelley asked if there was anyone else who would hire her. She’d had two miscarriages herself and wanted to help someone else with fertility problems. In return, she’d get a $22,000 fee.

    Hold on, the woman said, let me see.

    Yes, she said, there was a couple who wanted to meet her. Was she ready to take down their e-mail address?

    Absolutely, Kelley answered.

    I’m right on that phone with Kelley, sweltering in the August heat. What will happen next? You can’t help but wonder.

    And that’s exactly what you want your readers to do.

    The truth about true stories

    People are too complex to have just one truth. Everyone’s truth is malleable depending on who’s telling it and why.

    What does this mean for your integrity as a writer?

    I believe a skilled writer, much like a skilled counselor, can work with sources to share their story in a way that is true to them and about them while at the same time nailing the particular communication purpose at hand.

    This juggling act is an important skill for those of us on the softer news, public relations side of the communications business. There is power in what we say and how we say it, that should never be underestimated. And it should always be a part of strategy conversations.

    If you aren’t sure you can believe that, you should watch this short video. “The Power of Words” is an amazing piece created to promote Andrea Gardner’s book Change your Words, Change your World. It illustrates the importance of framing someone’s truth to match the communication objective.

    It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to see it.

    I write a number of feature stories about successful people. When I do so, I have communication goals, but it is also imperative that the stories I write are truthful.

    Typically, I offer the people I write about the opportunity to review the article before it gets published.

    If that shocks anyone’s journalistic sensibilities, let me remind you that I’m not a reporter for the Washington Post or The Detroit Free Press or even a weekly tabloid. I write for Michigan State University. So my sources for success stories are our faculty, alumni, donors and friends, which means I am free, if not compelled, to involve them.

    Does that mean my stories are any less true than those written by news reporters?

    As a third grade child, I had to learn the difference between an autobiography and a biography. My third grade self was sure that the truest story would be an autobiography. How could someone else know a person better than they know themselves I innocently reasoned?

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    In my idealistic youth years, I sided with the biographers and thought any autobiography was self-indulgent at best, probably a bore and certainly not the whole truth.

    Turns out the truth—especially when set down in writing—is a bit trickier.

    When I was fresh from J-school, the thought of allowing a source to review your story was something I thought of as a harsh reality in public relations. Though, I probably kept quiet most of the time and hoped my sources wouldn’t insist. Then, felt violated if they did but, shamefully, relieved if they spotted an inaccuracy.

    Not surprisingly, most people want things that are written about them to mirror the story that they would tell about themselves. I can’t always do that depending on my objectives, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wanted me to lie.

    In fact, I could never really reflect anyone’s internal self even if I wanted to. No matter how much time I spend with someone, I can’t live in his or her head.

    All this is less about preserving some idea about journalistic integrity and more about portraying someone authentically while at the same time crafting a message that helps your organization. That takes time, trust and finesse.

    Telling my sources upfront that they can see what I write before it goes out into the world instills trust. It’s concrete evidence that they are not being used, that I actually care about them. It helps them talk more freely and makes them more willing to let down any walls. Which in turn, can open the door for telling a fuller version of their truth that is consistent with what and how I need to communicate with our audience.

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    A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Hollywood producer. When I asked him if he wanted to see what I wrote before publication, he said: “No, whatever you write is what you saw in me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

    Maybe that was merely a function of his busy life. Or, maybe I’d really won his trust. I’m pretty confident it was neither of those. I think he just understood that his story could be different for different people and he was okay with that.

    Career advice blogger Penelope Trunk writes,

    “every summary of any part of your life could be a totally different summary as well. And be equally true.”

    She knows out that her resume could tell the story of her as a writer. But if she needed to get a job in operations, she could rewrite it to indicate that operations had been her focus for the last fifteen years…without lying. She’d just frame her truth from a different angle.

    The man in “The Power of Words” had a message that was true enough but it didn’t work for what he needed. The writer reframed his message for him in way that had impact which is exactly my point.

    It’s okay to share the truth that works best for the situation you find yourself in.

    The Art of Interviewing

    If you can chat over lunch, you can master an interview for writing a great personal story.

    In the past few years, I’ve had some interesting interviews. I talked to a lady who, heartrendingly, broke down into tears while describing the very first time she saw the campus where I work. I also got a detailed personal tour of an insanely extensive, yet somehow charming, collection of duck decoys. Another time, I only got ten minutes to talk with a very generous donor while at the same time orchestrating having his picture taken with our basketball coach.

    Whether you get ten minutes on a basketball court, the whole afternoon at the subject’s home, time via Skype or just over the phone, you can use the same process to write a story with impact.

    I believe it boils down to about seven steps.

    1) Before you do anything, define the purpose so you fully understand it. You should be able to state your purpose in one sentence. It will drive your research, interview and, eventually, the writing and editing.

    2) Background research. Learn about your subject including defining potential themes that will allow you to riff on the spot once you are in the interview.

    3) Request the interview.

    • Identify yourself confidently and without apology.
    • Share your purpose and what you will do with their story.
    • Establish a slightly flexible time limit, i.e. “I don’t expect this will take more than X minutes of your time.”
    • While you are talking, try to get a small sense for how the person might be. Will they be chatty? Are they mainly flattered or suspicious? Stoic or comfortable?

    4) Prepare questions. Some writers resist this in order to “let the source lead the interview.” Personally, I don’t believe that having some prepared questions means you have to doggedly stick to a predetermined structure. You are always free to deviate.

    • As a good rule of thumb, aim for about one question for every three minutes you’ll have.
    • Make sure your questions are designed to draw them out and make them human. Don’t ask “what are your strengths?’ say “what would your colleagues (or rivals or family or friends or someone meeting you for the very first time) say are your strengths?”
    • Be ready to follow-up with questions that will get you the personal elements. Take me back to that day, what were you doing before ABC happened? Where were you living? What was your first thought when you realized XYZ?

    5) Build rapport.

    • Smile, smile, smile! They’ll feel it even if it’s a phone interview.
    • Keep positive and patient no matter what; even if all you’ve heard so far is unusable platitudes.
    • The main thing is to keep things non-judgmental and don’t rush in to fill the void the second your source stops talking.
    • If your source rambles, gently steer them back on course. If need be, say, “I have a few more questions I need to ask and I want to respect your time.”
    • Keep at it to get a few hooks. Instead of “can you tell me something funny that happened?” ask “did anyone ever do XWZ?” If you’ve build a little rapport, most likely they will counter with “No, but…”

    6) The bomb. If there is anything potentially embarrassing, awkward or tough put this near the end—after you’ve built rapport. Allow time for recovery to end things on a positive note.

    7) Conclude. This can either be when you’ve gotten enough material or when you sense your source is tiring of you. I have a standard final question that goes something like this: “Is there anything important that we haven’t talked about?” End with a thank you.

    And what is said in the interview is never enough. A great interview also includes description, context, a fresh way of saying something and nonverbal information about the subject.

    That’s my process. I hope you can find something useful here for your next interview.