You are here

NYFWA Members Learn Some of the Ins and Outs of Writing Good Anecdotes

Former writer Barry Newman, author of “News to Me,” addressed members of the NYFWA on June 2, where he discussed some of the lessons he has learned during his years as a writer and gave members are few tips on gleaning the material needed in order to write compelling anecdotes.

“There is nothing better than hanging out with people when they’re doing something else,” said Newman, commenting on one of the numerous approaches he took over the years to get good insights on the subjects he wrote about –from things people said, to the mannerisms and observations needed for a well rounded anecdote. “If you spend three hours with a person you will get more, in terms of your own perceptions and observations, than you will by talking to 10 different people about that person,” he said.

Newman, a self professed generalist who never specialized in anything, began his journalism career at age 19 at the Albany Times Union. Shortly after, at the age of only 20, he landed a job as a copy editor for the New York Times. There he moved through the ranks of various departments, including religion, ultimately writing more than 200 stories without ever getting a single byline. But he said those early experiences were important and are what initially taught him the importance of figuring out exactly who he was speaking to as a writer. “You have to think about who your readers are,” said Newman, adding that it is important for journalists to be able to take a complex subjects and explain them to smart generalists. “When you know how to explain your extremely complex topic to a general audience you don’t want to offend the cognoscenti,” he joked.

Having spent the past 20 plus years writing for The Wall Street Journal, primarily front page stories, Newman has also learned the importance of taking into account the length a story will be when structuring it. In fact, he said the best anecdotes are those that can essentially be told by the subject of a story themselves –something that isn’t really possible in short news pieces. Still, he said even the shortest of stories still need to be structured as a whole, with a have a clear beginning, middle and end. “An anecdote can’t be a top you just put on at the end,” said Newman.

Even though Newman never specialized in any particular beat, he emphasized the importance of any good journalist taking the time to learn the subjects they are writing about well enough that they can effectively convey these topics to their readers. But he said it is particularly important for writers covering specific beats to remember that not everyone who reads their stories will be as knowledgeable about the subjects they are writing about as they are. “It is a danger zone to get too involved in your beat… you are not there to perform a service for the specialists,” said Newman. “Even if you are that ingrained in a subject, you still need to be able to see the nonsense in that subject.”

More recently, Newman tried his hand at book writing and recently authored "News to Me," a collection of several stories he's written over the years along with essays describing how he went about reporting them.  In writing his book, Newman said he essentially began by interviewing himself, something he accomplished by writing down different idea on small sheets of paper at the start. As a result of this approach, he joked that one chapter of his book talks about how PR reminds him of East Germany. Among the other things his book examines is the changing nature of the publications journalists write for and the impact this has on what and how they write. After more than two decades writing for The Wall Street Journal, Newman noted that he believes the publication has been dumbing down its content in recent years. “Their overheads are too high and their brow is too low,” he joked.