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Finding the rhythm in beat writing

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Writing for a beat involves finding your groove in what you write best. It can help you hone in on your skills for one type of writing. The best writing is the kind that includes “shoe leather” reporting. Shoe leather is getting out there and pursuing your story. You can’t write a good story just by sitting at your desk. You have to talk to people, listen to them, notice elements that could add to your story and record detail. This type of reporting applies to beat and local writing. Beat writing covers everything from weather to politics to medical writing.

Examples of great beat writing shown in the chapter are Rick Bragg, Thomas Boswell, Jonathan Bor, Mitch Albom, Russell Eshleman and Dan Neil. Each reporter has their own specific skills but they all involve making the reader “see” the story by including descriptive details, whether it be through simple descriptions or poetic language. They get to know their subjects well and notice little things about them that paint a picture in the readers mind.

Another important part of beat writing is establishing a rhythm. Boswell uses a rollercoaster rhythm by using poetic descriptions and metaphors but then bringing the reader back to “real life” by using simple language. Bor writes in an hourglass pattern so readers get the news first and then the chronological telling of the story. Albom establishes a rhythm through varying sentence length to establish pace.

Good beat writers need to establish their writing as different from others of the same beat. Eshleman does this through short offbeat stories about government. He often takes serious matters and makes humorous stories about them, offering a refreshing perspective. Neil does this by alluding to art and popular culture in his automobile writing. He sometimes uses colloquial language to make his pieces different. He often compares cars to people and writes from that perspective, which is a different take on most automobile critiques.

Other great examples of beat reporting:

A Parish And Its People by Bob Keeler

Keeler won the Pulitzer for Beat Writing in 1996 for his reporting on a Catholic Parish. Keeler writes in an incredibly descriptive way. When I was reading this article I could picture everything he was describing, from the inside of a quiet church to the regal priests. My favorite part of this piece is the lead: “It is a nondescript winter Tuesday night in the third week of Ordinary Time, the gray expanse of not-Lent, not-Easter, not-Advent, not-Christmas that makes up most of the church calendar. No holy day of obligation, no palm, no ashes, no prospect of pageantry to draw the crowds.” Keeler takes what would normally be an ordinary lead about an ordinary night and turns it into a great hook for the story.

A Case On Race Puts Justice O’Connor in a Familiar Pivotal Role by Linda Greenhouse

Greenhouse manages to make Supreme Court writing interesting, a feat in itself. In this particular piece, she makes Justice Sandra Day O’Connor the focus rather than just reporting on the case. She writes the article from the point of view of O’Connor and how she is often the judge who is “on the spot.” It makes what would normally be dry court writing interesting with a new twist.

After Leukemia, Family Struggles to Define ‘Normal’ by Amy Dockser Marcus

Marcus writes about cancer survivors in her Pulitzer Winning beat reporting. What I liked most about this piece is how she ties in the family’s experience and the child’s experience at school. She delves deep into their lives, even talking to the child’s teachers at the school to get his experience there.  Marcus reminds us that these children have real lives too, outside of their treatment, whereas most articles just focus on the cancer patients’ hospital experiences.

No More ‘Business as Usual’ by David Shribman

Shribman uses extremely descriptive terms and metaphors in his writing about Washington affairs. He compares a speaker to a tornado that “upended customs, spewed rubble and rained destruction.” Shribman uses a similar roller coaster technique to Boswell by using metaphors like this in between facts and quotes.

Extra Credit: At Many Colleges, the Rich Kids Get Affirmative Action by Daniel Golden

The language Golden uses reminds me of Neil’s writing. For example, Neil uses the term “wicked fun” and Golden refers to children of affluent parents as “rich kids.” This is an interesting twist, as most writing is pretty professional. Golden combines investigative reporting with his beat writing to find out the story behind why these “rich kids” get into good schools like Duke.


Written by juliasayers

February 25, 2011 at 9:06 am

2 Responses

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  1. I am excited about the amount you are learning through the processing you are doing in the act of studying and writing about great reporting!

    David Shribman spent a day on campus just a few years ago and actually spoke to the students in my Reporting course in the very same classroom we use. Dan Golden came to Elon a few years ago to report on John Sullivan, a philosophy professor who has since retired.

    Your Top 10 list is difficult for readers to access. They do NOT like bright backgrounds or dark backgrounds. You should select a backdrop that is easy on the eye – an off-white or light shade of gray or other extremely light color. Whoosh! I had to get out my sunglasses!


    February 25, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    • Haha so sorry, I didn’t realize how bright it was on the blog…the colors are really different (and a lot more muted) in my Photoshop. But hopefully this one is better. It still is not what I have in photoshop but I think it’s better than the bright one!

      That’s so awesome about Shribman and Golden. I wish I had been there for that! I was excited when I saw Dan Neil in the reading since we studied/wrote a critique on him in my Art and Entertainment writing class last year!


      February 25, 2011 at 8:20 pm

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