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It Takes a Lot of Wax to Get That Article Polished

My ride in the mid-80s, a ’62 Caddy. Lots and LOTS of wax.

There’s a spate of great long-form journalism these days. When the time is good, I hunker down and read thoughtful, or provocative or hilarious or touching pieces from Medium, The Atlantic, GQ, Esquire—there’s a long list. And often, these pieces read so smoothly that I forget—even though I’m in the trade—just how many winding roads articles can travel before they reache home.

Case in point: I had an article about a legendary train published in Popular Mechanics the other day. I hope that readers took that in with the same sense I allude to above: fun piece, and it reads easily. But in order to even begin communicating with the right Union Pacific PR folks, I had to leave three voice messages and send seven emails. The UP employee I needed to interview (and it seems, many UP employees on the project, including the PR people) was exhausted from the train’s complex restoration. So I had to grab a garbled transcript of a YouTube video to get many of his quotes for the piece.

Then there was a fair amount of back and forth with UP PR folks, obtaining photographs, talking with some other people involved with the train, and plenty of back and forth with the PopMech editor on how the piece was shaping up, and whether I could make my deadline, which at one point looked unlikely. But it did all come together.

Same thing with this piece I wrote on pot politics in Santa Cruz County. I had to interview five separate people for the article. But ALL of the initial emails to various growers and dispensaries and cannabis advocacy groups went unanswered. I had to dig around for a while to get the goods. And locating an illegal grower (who spoke on the record, but anonymously) took some legwork too. I had my doubts about this one as well, but it did come together in the end.

Articles Are Built in Stages (and Some Collapse)

My point (and there is one, really) is not to whine about how little Tommy’s spirit is crushed because people don’t answer his emails. The point is that articles are built in stages, and that sometimes there are gaps in the walls that have to be filled in later. I often request some time padding when an editor gives me a deadline, because getting primary-source information is often trickier than it might seem.

And I’m not an investigative reporter. Those people (or writers that are given assignments that require long days/weeks/months of research) have a special stamina. Here’s a piece I read yesterday on a crazy con man that lets you in a little on how much time it took to piece it all together—but know that it was actually a good deal more. The writer assembled this from bits and chunks, and it took time, but the engaging read is worth it. Here’s another about the “new sobriety” that’s gaining currency (not in my house), a piece with a lot of moving parts.

These writers built these articles a brick at a time, and from my own work, I know that some days they ran out of bricks. Sometimes they improvised, sometimes they left and gardened instead. But it’s funny how when you see the end product, even if you wrote it, you are both amazed that it came together, and forgetful of the wrinkled forehead of endless details. Probably just as it should be.

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