Editor’s note: At Storyboard, we’re always looking for moments of inspiration, epiphany and, yes, struggle that we can all relate to or learn from. We hope to make such discoveries a more regular feature under Short Takes. Send your found gems our way. For now, here’s one I stumbled across:
Brendan Meyer was a student at the Missouri School of Journalism when I taught there. He was a sports reporter at the Columbia Missourian, the community news site staffed by J-students under the management of professional editors. But more than embracing sports journalism as an end in itself, Meyer seemed to see it as a doorway to profiles and features. He was enamored with longform stories and, like many young writers, had aspirations that outstripped his experience or patience. So I was surprised (and happy) when he posted a link to a 450-word love story he wrote for The Dallas Morning News. (If you can’t get through the paywall, you can read it here: The Sometimes Stranger)
In his Facebook post, Meyer mentioned how much he had come to appreciate writing short – tightly framed narratives that tell a large story in a small space. I sent Meyer a note of congratulations, and this request:
When you have a minute, can you send me a riff on what, if anything, you find different about a short piece vs a long piece? In the conception (idea), reporting, writing and editing?
Your passion has been for the longform pieces, so I find this a fascinating move (expansion? stretch?) for you.
I got this in response:
Why I like to write short: It tightens my focus on the basic elements of reporting and storytelling: THEME, THEME, THEME, scene, dialogue, TELLING details. Pick the best of the best that fits your structure. It’s all ladder of abstraction. Shortform makes me a better reporter, and a better longform writer. Because the focus has to be clear. And every word counts (it should always be that way). Here’s a baseball analogy: Writing shortform is focusing on line-drive doubles. I want sharp, meaningful contact with the ball before I swing for the fences with a longform home run. Try it the other way, and you’ll swing too hard, and more than likely whiff. I’ve whiffed many times because my structure and theme were off. I also feel like there’s more power with shortform. In 90-seconds, I can tell you a great story. That’s a magic trick. Especially since that seems to be the attention span of my generation through their endless scroll. When done right, the characters in shortform are just so relatable. Maybe it’s because they aren’t exhaustively developed as they would be in a longform story. It leaves many openings for the reader to fill in the blanks.
I followed up with another question, asking Meyer about the origins of his infatuation with longform, and how it squared with his reality and ambitions five years out of J-school. His response:
Longform is when the light bulb went off. It was my first introduction to narrative nonfiction writing. My college professors introduced me to 4,000-6,000 word stories by Eli Saslow, Lane DeGregory and Wright Thompson. The arc, the nuanced characters, the depth of reporting – I was in awe. It’s what I wanted to do, and it’s still what I want to do. Then I was introduced to the 300-word story series by The St. Petersburg Times. Those Brady Dennis stories blew my mind. It felt like the purest form of narrative storytelling, distilled to its crucial elements. Both forms accomplish the same goal of telling a great story. I love balancing the two, and figuring out which story works best in what mold.
(PS: Brendan Meyer is a feature writer at The Dallas Morning News, where his most recent story involved massaging smoked brisket at Snow’s, a famous BBQ joint in Texas. He did not explain to me why any place in Texas is named Snow, which means he still has much to learn about telling a proper story. Previously, he reported for at the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Independent (UK). He graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in 2013. He is on Twitter @Brendan_Meyer13. And if he brags on himself about this, he knows what will follow.)