One of the finest classical news stories ever written was crafted 50 years ago on the killing of President Kennedy. Every writer of any genre can learn from it.
Tom Wicker was a White House reporter for the New York Times. Nobody, apart from Oswald, knew this would happen. But Wicker was able to craft a clear and complex long news story from what he understood and saw of the events. Under great pressure.
Get to the point
Take the intro, the opening. “Dallas, Nov 22 – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.” Who, what why and where are all answered. It is sparse, no emotion. And there is no emotion in the story apart from his observation of others’ emotion.
Use what you see
He was in a press car behind the President’s car, taken swiftly to the hospital and briefed. He then left the briefings and walked to the back of the hospital, he told me when I interviewed him about writing the story. There he saw the casket taken out. And he wrote:
“Mrs Kennedy was in the hospital near her husband when he died, but not in the operating room. When the body was taken from the hospital in a bronze coffin at about 2pm, Mrs Kennedy walked beside it.
Her face was sorrowful. She looked steadily at the floor. She still wore the raspberry coloured suit in which she had greeted welcoming crowds in Fort Worth and Dallas.
But she had taken off the matching pill box hat she wore earlier in the day, and her dark hair was windblown and tangled. Her hand rested lightly on her husband’s coffin as it was taken to a waiting hearse.
Mrs Kennedy climbed beside the coffin. Then the ambulance drove to Love Field, and Mr Kennedy’s body was placed aboard the Presidential jet. Mrs Kennedy then attended the swearing-in ceremony for Mr Johnson.”
Using the seen emotion of others
Just look at the observation. “Her face was sorrowful.” He did not know how she felt. He described how she looked. Great observation. And expressed in simple sentences.
Wicker started writing the article in the bus on the way to the airport on his portable typewriter. The news desk at the paper inserted the news about Oswald killing a police officer, which, you will see, comes out of place.
He was great at crafting transitions. We move along with the story as it unfolded and then he uses a person or event to take us to another part of the story. He, as all writers are, was the master of time. He could rearrange the way events happen in time to tell us the more important parts in his own sequence.
These are the key lessons from Wicker’s story:
- Get to the point as soon as you can.
- Write short direct sentences.
- Use transitions to carry the reader on.
- Use what you observe to give colour: image the immaculate Jackie’s hear windblown and tangled.
- You are a Time Lord: do not get bogged down in narrative as it happened. Present it from the most important to the least important.
He told me he had made a mistake in the story. The Judge who administered the oath to Johnson on the plane did not use the regular version but an old version of the oath. The only mistake he made in a sensational piece of writing.