America’s Best Newspaper Writing: Chapter 1 review

By Stuart Jones

Working under deadlines is what drives journalists and gives them the excitement of the work they do every day. Deadline line writing can provide some powerful and meaningful writing but the writer must be prepared for the story. That means journalists are writing while they are in the field and while they are still gathering information they are laying out the story and generating a lead so when it comes close to the deadline when they return, a lot of the work is done.

Top Ten List of Working Under a Deadline

  1. Journalists must learn to write quickly in an efficient process.
  2. Fast writing can be powerful and exquisite, full of history, context, motive and meaning – but only if the writer is well prepared.
  3. Don’t just write about nameless and faceless governments, but write about people and find those people lurking behind institutions and those affected by government policies.
  4. Good journalists working under deadline are well prepared.
  5. A good narrative has characters instead of sources, scenes instead of summaries and dialogue instead of disembodied quotes.
  6. A good story has variation in sentence and paragraph length and presents contrasting viewpoints.
  7. Use the narrative’s timeline and plot to move the story.
  8. Utilize dueling images to help illustrate the tension of the story.
  9. A reporter is not looking for just quotes and details, but meaning.
  10. Don’t let a crowd run a story. Get lots of quotes but be selective on usage.

Stories can sometimes be left as a body of quotes tied together with a common event, but the story provides nothing to

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University (left), presents the 2010 Feature Writing prize to Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post. Photo courtesy of

move the reader. Looking through this chapter, the importance of relaying meaning and emotion with real people is apparent. The book illustrates good examples of how a journalist can tell a story and allow the reader to become personally connected with the characters. A good example of this is in Gene Weingarten’s article entitled “Fatal Attraction” ( that appeared in The Washington Post on March 8, 2009 and later won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for feature writing. In the first few words of his story about parents who forget their children in the car and leave them to die, the reader is already dominated by detailed emotions that place you right next to the defendant in the court room. Weingarten describes him as “an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still.” This part of the opening sentence immediately causes a heavy burden to descend upon the reader and place them in the grief that the defendant is feeling. Weingarten continues to use detailed and specific imagery that causes the characters to seem like people the reader knows and sympathize with. This is an incredible talent and valuable asset as a journalist to be able to communicate a story so emotionally to the reader.

Richard Oppel, Pulitzer Board co-chair (left), presents the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting to Bob McCartney (center) and Mike Semel of The Washington Post. Photo courtesy of

Some of the stories used as examples in this chapter follow a timeline and plot that moves the story along. David Von Drehle’s story “Men of Steel Are Melting With Age” follows the story of Nixon’s funeral and the interactions that happened between attendants. More than anything it can be understood that the story follows the flow of the days events. Also exhibiting this style is an article by Ian Shapira and Tom Jackman who are writers for The Washington Post entitled “Gunman Kills 32 at Virginia Tech In Deadliest Shooting in U.S. History” ( The writers structure the story in a way that follows the events of that tragic day from when the gunman showed up and began firing in the first classroom all the way through to when he took his own life. The reader is guided along with the plot and is able to more accurately follow the story. This article also received the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for breaking news reporting.

The value of being selective and deliberate when choosing which quotes to place in a story is extraordinary. It is

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University, presents the 2009 Feature Writing prize to Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times. Photo courtesy of

important to gather many quotes from a diversity of sources, but at the same time too many quotes in a story can cause the reader to lose the actual story the writer is trying to tell. So there must be a balance between allowing the sources to tell the story, but making sure that the story the writer wants to tell is at the forefront. Lane Degregory of the St. Petersburg Times wrote her feature story “The girl in the window: part one” in 2008 and received a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2009 ( This story of a feral child locked away inside her mother’s home begins with only descriptions and a set up of the scene where this child lives. Degregory does not use quotes until the 13th paragraph which truly allows the reader to become immersed in the scene of the story and build the mystery of the child in the window. Degregory uses quotes later on to reinforce the horrid conditions of the household but never to the point that it draws the reader off course. She continues to use this pattern of building scenes and then using quotes to establish them and bring them more to life. It is difficult to know how many quotes to put in a story, but with practice it should become a more clear process.


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