Writing Lessons

The 15-Second Rule

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By Lee Sandlin

March 17, 2014


 

When I started writing journalism I had absolutely no formal training—not one day in J-school, nor even on my high school newspaper. All I had going for me was the smug self-confidence of the slumming aesthete. The editors of the Chicago Reader took me in, and, article by article, gradually tortured the condescension out of me and forced me to learn the rudiments of my trade. Finish the story, they’d always tell me: just finish it, finish it now, and move on. Journalism is not for the ages; it’s what you know on the day. The next day you’ll know something different, and you’ll write a different story then. But that’s exactly what’s great about journalism, they’d say: there’s always another story. Every day you get a fresh chance.

I’ve never forgotten that. Ever since then, I’ve never gone looking for subjects, and I’ve never lacked for them. I’ve trusted that they would find their way to me, and they always have.

But there was one lesson that’s stuck with me more tenaciously than all the rest. It was a kind of parable about the nature of journalistic morality. I heard it from one of the Reader’s most gifted editors, Kitry Krause. She said she’d once spent months writing a feature story about a colorful local character, the habitue of a neighborhood pool hall. Just as she was finishing it, a mutual friend called to let her know that he’d died unexpectedly the night before. Kitry hung up the phone; another editor came by, saw her expression, and asked what was wrong. She told him, and he immediately slapped his palm on her desk and said, “There! You’ve got the perfect ending!”

Kitry said to me, “I think at least 15 seconds would have gone by before I’d have had the same thought myself. And I pray that’s what happens to you. Because those 15 seconds are the only hope a journalist has of getting into heaven.”

Lee Sandlin ’s book Storm Kings: America’s First Tornado Chasers has just been published in paperback by Vintage Books.

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