The Little Things

There’s this thing Steve Holmes said at the 2001 (or so) Nieman Conference On Narrative Journalism that I’ve never forgotten.

(Disambiguation: I mean Steven A. Holmes the New York Times reporter who worked on the Pulitzer Prize winning series “How Race is Lived in America” — not Steve Holmes the German porn star who won a “Male Foreign Performer of the Year” award in 2005.)

Holmes read us part of an article called “What Man’s Army,” sub-headline “The Military Says It’s Colorblind. Tell That to These Drill Sergeants.” One of the sergeants was Earnest Williams, a guy eager to out-alpha his recruits. Here’s the paragraph:

“One evening they challenged him to do 50 push-ups in a minute. He accepted but, not wanting to embarrass himself, first retreated to his office to see if he could pull off such a feat. There he dropped to the floor and did 50. Naturally the effort tired him. But he would not let himself show weakness, so he swaggered out into the sleeping bay, slapped a stopwatch into a private’s hand and knocked out another quick 50. The men were wide-eyed.”

Then Holmes said something like, “Here’s the secret: I didn’t see any of that.” Rather he reconstructed the scene via exhaustive interview questions like “How did Sergeant Williams walk into the room? Did he kind of stroll in? How did he give you the stopwatch? Did he hand it to you?”

I don’t use this technique enough. But I do think of it all the time.

Back in July, I was interviewing (for the 13-thousanth time) a guy who had tried to set up a kind of homesteady outpost with his girlfriend and two of their pals in the desert in far west Texas. I had become really fond of them after documenting the lead up to departure. Next thing I knew, Gene and his girlfriend were in Chicago. They were too low on money. And I asked him if there was any sort of “Oh Jesus” moment when he realized this plan wasn’t going to work, at least not right now.

“There was a very significant ‘Oh Jesus’ moment,” he said.

And as he described it to me I found myself prompting him with questions I’d never ask otherwise. “Where did you guys have the conversation? Was it on the land or elsewhere? Was it day or night? Were you sitting or standing?”

This is something I should do all the time. I daresay it’s something we should ALL do all the time. It feels awkward. It’s not the way you’d converse with someone at a dinner party. Plus, most of it may not end up in your story at all. But some of it will. The word “slapped” can’t happen without “How did he give you the stop watch?” “Slapped” and “swaggered” are preferable to “gave” and “entered.”

To generalize, I think print reporters are a lot more detailed in their questioning. I’ve known radio reporters who compare. But as a body, I think we could stand to fixate on the little things a lot more. The little things are where the pigment is – the one blue folding chair at the funeral. The more specific synonym for “walked” is where the better writing is, the storytelling. Novelists can pluck any adjective out of the air. Us? We have to ask the question that makes the answerer’s face go all quizzical. Let’s do that more.

Sean Cole

Sean Cole

Sean Cole was hired as a newsroom intern at WBUR in Boston in 1997. For some reason, they later began paying him. He worked at the station for nine years as a producer and reporter, spending two of those years with WBUR’s award-winning documentary series Inside Out. Along the way, he has also contributed to This American Life, All Things Considered, Only a Game, Studio 360, Weekend America and other shows. At this writing, he is a regular contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace. Sean also writes poems and, sometimes, bios like this one.


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  • Kim



    Great article, Sean. I love the phrase “…the question that makes the answerer’s face go all quizzical.” Will apply this technique immediately.

  • Heather



    Lovely. PS: What are you doing in Toronto, Sean??

  • Jackson



    So, what if the “other” Steve Holmes had entered the Marine soundscape at this point?

    More seriously, I have been migrating back to print recently, but I realize that part of the OCD approach we typically bring to sound we don’t necessarily bring to verbal content.

    Maybe I’m wrong. We feel comfortable cutting out urs and ums and phrases that don’t necessarily advance the narrative thrust. We look for audio that makes the story breathe; I think you’re right: The right follow-up question will make the whole narrative breathe.

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