We’re fine-tuning our Editors’ Roundtable, moving toward more frequent postings and smaller groups of editors looking at each story. As part of those changes, today we highlight our second June Roundtable (if you missed the first, you can see it here).
One classic daily newspaper narrative is the story of the very sick child. A member of the Roundtable suggested this Seattle Times column about a Girl Scout named Kaila Cove as an example of how to handle the topic without resorting to melodrama. After establishing her cookie-selling credentials by outdoing every other Girl Scout in Western Washington, Cove was invited to throw out the first pitch for the Seattle Mariners last month. Here, without knowing any of the details of how he did the story, three editors address various aspects of columnist Jerry Brewer’s work. Check back tomorrow for our interview with Brewer [update: read it here].
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune
It is hard to write a column about a sick child without becoming maudlin or sentimental. These stories are journalists’ stock in trade, and, sadly, have become almost a cliché. It’s so easy to stray into the tear-drenched world of adjectives and heroism. Jerry Brewer is careful to write about a sick child overcoming obstacles without descending into mawkishness. He does this in a number of ways:
He uses humor. Not belly-laugh humor, which would be inappropriate for such a topic, but gentle humor that makes you smile slightly. Such as: “There are many ways to illustrate Cove’s will to live, but let’s hurry up and get to the part about the Girl Scout cookies.” The juxtaposition of “will to live” and “Girl Scout cookies” made me smile. It tells me that the story will be grounded in the realities of a child, not bathed in emotion.
He lists the facts of her situation without opining. No loaded words like “tragic” and “heartbreaking.” Just concrete, straightforward statements: “Getting the flu could kill her … she can’t go to school because of the germs … she’s so small for an 11-year-old that other kids regularly and annoyingly think she’s much younger.”
He finds a story, and he tells it. It’s a small story, about how she got to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game because she had been such a powerhouse at selling cookies. He puts her in motion: watching clips; practicing her windup with her dad and brother. The more concrete he keeps the story, the more Kaila becomes a real person, and the more you care about her. This is the best way to tell an emotional story: Don’t tell the reader how to feel (as Brewer doesn’t). Let the reader get to know the subject as a real person (as he does).
If the column allowed for more length, there are other things I’d like to have seen. I’d like to have seen her throw out that first pitch. I’d like to see her making her impassioned plea for people to buy cookies. I’d like to hear her talk a little more. But given the constraints of time and length that a column operates under, Brewer did a nice job.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
As a writer, I’ve often found it challenging to describe people. I can resort to adjectives and physical details. But how do you get beyond the surface details to reveal character? Jerry Brewer uses several techniques to capture Kaila Cove’s personality in quick strokes.
Quotes. Brewer doesn’t just use quotes to convey information. He selects quotes that allow us to hear a person’s voice. For example, you hear Kaila’s spunkiness – and the fact that she’s very much a young girl who’s concerned about what most young girls are concerned about – as she interjects herself into this passage: “Sometimes, if a lot of kids are sick, she must wear a mask. ‘Which I don’t like,’ says Kaila, who is from Bellingham. ‘It looks dorky.’ ”
Dialogue. Brewer uses a snatch of dialogue to give us a glimpse of Kaila’s relationship with her mother, who by now must be used to Kaila’s ambitions and strong-headed ways. Brewer writes: “Kaila sold about 2,900 boxes of cookies last year. She climbed to 3,503 this year. Her goal for next year is 4,000. ‘Or, actually, 4,200,’ she says. ‘Oh, geez,’ her mother replies.”
Anecdotes. Notice that Brewer doesn’t come out and say that Kaila has a fire in her belly. He shows it through an anecdote: “She knew throwing out the first pitch was a big deal. There are YouTube videos to prove it. She watched clips of everyone from President Obama to Justin Bieber perform the ritual with varying results. She decided she needed to do two things: Throw the ball straight and keep it from bouncing. She practiced so much with her father, Willie Cove, and younger brother, Jaiden, that she made her arm sore.”
I would have loved to read a description of Kaila’s pitch on that Saturday night – to hear more about her movements and mannerisms. How did she interact with her parents before and after the pitch? How did she walk out to the pitcher’s mound and steel herself? How was the pitch? How did she interact with the pitcher after the pitch? How did she react to the ballpark crowd? Brewer could have added just a touch more to describe this powerful moment.
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism
(Full disclosure: I was still a senior editor at The Seattle Times when Jerry Brewer joined the staff. I did not work with him directly except for occasional coaching sessions, and to consult on his series, “A Prayer for Gloria,” which turned into a book, “Gloria’s Miracle.”)
This is an enchanting and disciplined piece. In barely 800 words, Jerry Brewer captures a newsy event, the context of that event, the special character and hard history of a little girl, and even a glimpse into a mother-daughter relationship.
Key to Brewer’s approach:
Focus: Brewer doesn’t try to tell everything about Kaila Cove. He zooms in on one moment, and writes only what is necessary to inform that moment. For example, he draws a straight line from the first-pitch ritual to Kaila’s story: “It’s a significant, century-old sports tradition that celebrates fame, achievement and inspiration.” (Take note that he ends that sentence with “inspiration,” which sets up the return to Kaila more effectively than if he had switched the order. He appropriately puts “fame” the furthest from her.) If you examine this piece for use of details and compressed background, you will find all of it in service of his primary focus.
Compression and selection: This proves the truth of “less is more” in the hands of a confident writer. Brewer is highly selective about the details that “show” the story, and delivers less important background in summary “tell.” For example, we know Kaila is homeschooled, but the detail is saved for her need to wear a mask around other kids. We know she likes to swim and play kickball, but the detail is saved for how hard she studied and practiced pitching. Brewer gives the briefest of litanies of Kaila’s illnesses, surgeries, treatments and limitations, yet drops in “congenital panhypopituitarism.”
He is equally selective with quotes. Many writers will turn a story like this over to quotes in the belief that they add more of the subject’s personality. But sparing use of the right quotes actually amplifies a subject’s voice and character. Kaila about her mask: “It looks dorky.” The mother about Kaila’s plan to sell 4,200 cookies: “Oh, geez.”
Brewer, who is a columnist, lets himself brush up against colloquialisms that could be considered clichés, most notably his use of “Never mind…” as a device in the third paragraph. But it fits with his conversational voice, and doesn’t tip over into maudlin. His reference to “blessing” and “miracle” at the end are drawn directly from the mother’s quote.
For more, read our interview with Brewer, in which he talks about the constraints under which he wrote this story, the best way to ruin a column, and his advice for writing about people with illnesses.