Three Feathers and the ladder of abstraction

If you like good storytelling, watch for my colleague Dan D’Ambrosio‘s byline in the Burlington Free Press. Dan writes stories that are solid and worthwhile, and I’ve learned a lot working next to him.

Dan D’Ambrosio’s most recent Sunday cover story was called “Three Feathers and the company that saved him,” about a man who spent more than 28 years in prison, found work at a local soap factory, and now faces the end of his life.

I noticed that the article’s a good example of the ladder of abstraction, a concept I first encountered in Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools.

It’s a story about big words like redemption, hope, tragedy, social good. The story has a soul.

But the writer tells it through plenty of concrete details that keep the story from becoming saccharine. The story has a body.

Consider the opening:

Peter Asch, co-owner of soap manufacturer Twincraft Skincare in Winooski, hires people no one else will.

Perhaps the best example is a Blackfoot man named Three Feathers, the former Arthur Beshaw of South Burlington. He was released from prison nine years ago after more than 28 years in state and federal penitentiaries from Virginia to Indiana. Beshaw took his Native American name — the only name he acknowledges — while in prison.

Back in Vermont after his release, Three Feathers applied to 43 companies for any kind of work. Only Twincraft responded.

“I’m going to be real honest with you, dude,” Three Feathers said. “Had I been an employer, I wouldn’t have hired me. Too much of a risk.”

That’s a lede that starts out pretty high on the ladder, but by the time you get to the first quote, you’re encountering a real story in a specific voice (“dude”).

Then back to ideals and public policy:

Why did Twincraft take that risk? Asch cites the societal benefits, for one.

“Incarceration costs $60,000 to $70,000 annually for maximum security,” he said. “Not only is Twincraft paying somebody who’s paying taxes into the system, but another human being is being given meaning in their life. It’s kind of hard to have meaning when you’re in prison.”

The writer continues this dynamic pattern through the story, raising you up and lowering you to the ground again. We don’t get stuck in the middle.

“We all have our own story, and whatever our story might be, I believe we want to give people a second chance,” Asch said. “And the truth is, when you don’t open your door, when you don’t give people a second chance, you are writing them off for life. It’s profound.”

When Twincraft opened its doors to Three Feathers, the company embraced a man who had made big mistakes. He had committed multiple felonies, including robbery and aggravated assault, and escaped from various prisons, on his way to spending nearly three decades behind bars.

Midway through the article you have a glimpse of Three Feathers surrounded by machines to ease his COPD, and you hear how he came to Twincraft, the soap company.

The article allows Three Feathers to tell much of his story in his own words, without editorial moralizing.

It all comes together in this ending, which, in my opinion, perfectly marries The Big Idea with the human story:

When Three Feathers was still running the soap lines at Twincraft, Peter Asch would stop frequently to visit with him. One day, Asch said, Three Feathers, an inveterate joker, got quite serious and said: “You saved my life.”

Asch asked what he meant. Three Feathers told him that without a job, which only Twincraft offered, he would have returned to prison, where he would have killed himself.

“That was a fairly profound thing to say and profound thing to hear, and it deeply legitimized the culture of the business,” Asch said. “Frankly, from my perspective as an owner of the company, it gives me great meaning. We’re doing something healthy, we’re doing something positive, and this is where it’s not all about the bottom line.”

He paused for a minute, and then added:

“Although hiring Three Feathers probably helped the bottom line, so it’s complicated.”

Here’s where the ladder of abstraction hit me: An abstract idea— saving a life— tied to literal circumstances. The final quote sends you down the ladder of abstraction, from “the culture of the business” and “great meaning” … to “the bottom line” and the man Three Feathers.

It’s a fantastic piece of writing, and you should read the whole thing.


Mapping a school district consolidation vote

Vermont is talking education system reforms, and perhaps the most controversial piece of the current House bill would prod school districts into consolidation.

We saw an interesting vote Wednesday as some lawmakers wanted to keep merger studies voluntary — essentially allowing districts to move at their own pace — rather than the stricter requirements in the bill. The effort failed, 80-62, after some healthy discussion.

I was curious to see if the lawmakers who supported this amendment came from areas with small student populations, so I used the roll call vote results as an excuse for some much-needed MapBox, TileMill and QGIS practice.

Here’s a map showing how representatives voted. The darkest House districts had all of their representatives (one or two representatives per district) wanting to keep consolidation voluntary.

Click the images for the interactive MapBox versions:


(I’m not sure why the Lake Champlain islands dropped off the map… An omission in the shapefiles.)

Here’s another map showing the student population (note: not the same as school district size) in each town. This isn’t the ideal comparison — I want to make another map showing school districts more specifically — but it was an easy project and it does give you a sense for where the students are. Darker towns have fewer students.


Eleven tools for working smarter

I’m not really an app person, but I’m loyal to a few things that work well. Here are 11 tools that help me as a journalist.

For better reading:

1. Pocket for iPhone. I use this to save links. It’s fast, free and straightforward.

2. IFTTT. (“If this, then that.”) This is a little tool for setting up cause-and-effect relationships on the Internet. I used to check some websites every day — things like government meeting agendas and court rulings. Now IFTT sends me an email whenever those pages are updated. I followed this blog post by Colin Schimmelfing to set up my IFTTT recipe.

3. Circa for iPhone. Come for the beautiful design, stay for the solid news judgment.

4. OneTab for Google Chrome. For when your browser has been overtaken by a thousand and one feral Internet tabs. You will, of course, get around to reading them all someday.

5. Feedly. The way to follow RSS feeds after the demise of Google Reader (rest in peace).

For better reporting:

6. AudioNote. If I could, I would hire my own personal intern just to transcribe interviews for me. Short of that, my current favorite app for recording interviews and meetings is AudioNote. You can take notes while recording (for example, to make note of an important quote). Then, during playback, tap any word in the notes to return to that part of the audio file. This saves transcription time.

7. Gmail’s Canned Responses.
For when you find yourself sending the same type of email over and over. Save your fingers some typing.

8. Evernote and/or Google Drive.

9. Open States (website or iPhone app).
Keep tabs on what’s happening in state government, track bills and find legislators. Built by Sunlight Foundation.

For better writing:

10. Any online timer. Sure, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s a lifesaver on deadline. If I’m really desperate, I’ll go to Write or Die and set it on Kamikaze Mode. That usually does the trick.

11. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5. Not all writing tools are electronic.

There, now you know my secrets. Use them responsibly.

Update 2.5.15: I’m a bit giddy to see that recently asked 30 journalism experts about this same topic. Check out their responses.

9 things I learned at my newspaper internship

As some of you know, I spent the past spring at The Washington Examiner as a local news reporting intern. I came home tired every day but thankful to be doing what I loved. Life isn’t bad at the bottom of the journalistic food chain when you have great coworkers and a fascinating city to cover.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience, and I came up with this list of 9 things I’d tell someone starting a reporting internship. I’ll forgo the general tips about dressing professionally and not being annoying. This list is all about the journalism side of things. Here’s what I learned:

1. Follow your curiosity. You won’t always get to choose your story topics, but never stop looking for those opportunities. Read as much as you can about the topics that interest you. Read local blogs and location-specific Twitter lists. Read national news, and look for ways to make those stories local. Dig into the history of the places and issues you care about. Start conversations with strangers. There are more stories around you than you’d imagine — and if you’re interested in them, readers will be, too.

My curiosity led me to some unusual stories at the Examiner, including a few features I wrote in my spare time. I’m interested in the criminal justice system and reentry programs for ex-convicts, for example, and I stumbled upon a great feature story about a local nonprofit that works with juvenile offenders.

2. Everybody will talk about what they love. I regularly sought out everyday people for a short daily feature called the “3-Minute Interview.” I interviewed a poet, an expert Scrabble player, a first-time novelist, an award-winning teacher, an 8-year-old entrepreneur and a man who makes his own telescopes. When you get people talking about what they love — in this case, their hobbies and opinions — they will open up and give you really great quotes. Just ask a few good questions, and they’ll take it from there.

3. Call people in the morning, even if you won’t need to talk to them until the afternoon. Like you, your sources are busy, and they get busier as the day goes on. You don’t want to be tracking down a government employee at 3:30 or 4:00 when your deadline is 4:45. I learned this the hard way.

4. Own up to your ignorance. When you’re an intern — especially working on multiple beats, as I was — you don’t usually have enough experience or background knowledge to ask masterful questions. Do as much reading as possible before interviewing sources, but then swallow your pride and be willing to admit that you’re an intern and a beginner. It’s better to ask for clarification during an interview than to send your editors a vague, patchy story about something you still don’t really understand.

5. A good spokesperson or public information officer can work wonders. Be kind to these people. Say “thank you,” early and often.

6. Lead with the interesting stuff. In many cases, you can start your article with the most unusual detail you’ve found in your reporting. In one of my first stories, I wrote about the closure of an upscale D.C. grocery store due to health code violations. My editor took one look at my story and moved the phrase “rats and roaches” — the most colorful of the health code violations — to the very top of the article.

7. Math matters. Once, when I was reporting a story, I paused to add up the numbers in a press release. It turns out that the press release had failed to account for about $3 million of the funding that had been set aside for regional projects. I called a public information officer, pointed out the error and found correct numbers for my story. Don’t ever assume.

8. Write as much as you can as soon as you can. I struggled with one article early in my internship because I thought I should finish all of my research before I started writing. I was soon weighed down with statistics, facts and half-transcribed quotes, gasping for a lede.

But I learned. I wrote nutgrafs and background paragraphs on the bus before covering an event. I scribbled first drafts on my notepad during long government meetings. I even tried transcribing interview quotes on the Metro, with mixed success. This all made deadlines less daunting.

9. Digital distraction is the enemy of good writing. Twitter is a blessing and a curse, and I was sometimes tempted to keep it open all day as I worked, bouncing between blogs and looking for the latest updates to stories. My generation has gotten used to multitasking, and we’re convinced that we’re good at it. But on my better days, I used Twitter as a tool to listen in on what people were talking about, but then I shut it down and got to work on one thing at a time.

Journalists, former interns and current interns: Would you add anything to this list?

New article: “Building Peace in the Heart of Darkness”

One thing I love about journalism is that stories are everywhere — you just have to know how to draw them out. That was the case this spring when I heard about a party in Washington, D.C. that was hosted by the development organization World Relief. I went on a whim, curious to learn more about their work.

At the party, between appetizers and cake, the World Relief staff began to tell me about a new grassroots program making small steps toward peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They spoke excitedly, full of hope and proud of their work. After a lot of research and many interviews, including a long international Skype call, I turned those initial conversations into an article for Christianity Today. Here’s the beginning:

Violence erupted again this week in the fractured Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when at least 20 people were killed in clashes between the government and the M23 rebel militia, breaking a truce that had held since last November.

The fighting paused Thursday (May 23) for the arrival of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the city of Goma in eastern Congo, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ new 3,000-person intervention brigade has also begun to arrive in Goma. The force will be allowed to offensively target and “neutralize” violent groups in the region, an unprecedented step for the UN.

Amid the clamor and negotiations, it would be easy to overlook one new movement, working to heal eastern Congo: Small groups of Congolese church leaders, including influential local women, are volunteering to solve and prevent conflicts one at a time, without fanfare.

It’s a simple idea. But in a nation where political solutions are often given more attention than community solutions, World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, believes these committees, which require the inclusion of female leaders, could be a key to peace. …

Read more in my latest article at Christianity Today, published May 24.

A writing coach without a red pen

“Writing is learned by imitation; we all need models,” William Zinsser once wrote. He has been one of mine.

Like many writers, I claim Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well as the first book about writing that captured my heart and imagination. I picked it up at the recommendation of a high school English teacher, and Zinsser taught me how to rinse my writing of clutter and make it shine.

This weekend, The New York Times profiled Zinsser, now a 90-year-old man with glaucoma who is still helping writers with their craft. He cannot read the words on the page, so he listens to them read aloud:

“Much that I no longer see,” he says, “I don’t have to see.”

I love what the Times writer shows us about Zinsser, gracious and wise. I hope that when I am 90, I still care about words the way he does:

People come to him in stages of typed-out paralysis, stalled, uncertain whether they have written too much or too little. He tries to help them organize their thoughts by condensing, reducing — learning what not to include.

“By talking to them, by finding out who they are, I bring out their own personality,” he says. “And ease their mind, for God’s sake.”

The whole article is worth reading. When you’ve finished, pick up On Writing Well for the first or hundredth time.

Better know the District, part 4

This is my final week in Washington, D.C. — for now! — so it’s time for the fourth and last installment of my “Better know the District” posts. I haven’t had as much time to wander around the city lately, but I didn’t have to look far to find photos worth taking:

Stanton Park, Northeast D.C.

Georgetown after a rainstorm, where petals from the trees stuck everywhere like snow.

I just liked the colors and textures here. From uneven brick sidewalks to outdated police callboxes, D.C. streets are full of beautiful, worn-down things.


The Hill Center, near Eastern Market, Southeast D.C.

Tree branches, heavy with blossoms, hang over Capitol Hill sidewalks.

The Jefferson Memorial.

Houseboats and boats at the Southwest Waterfront — I had come early for the Cherry Blossom Festival fireworks after dark.

I’m going to miss this place.