Caitlin Kelly

Writer and Editor

 
 
         
   

tips

   
         
    Paying Attention    
 
Take Good Care of Yourself
It Takes a Village
Someone's Life
Trust Your Gut!
Jargon
Getting Fired
Pain
Fear
Pleasures
Pitfalls
What It Takes
When the Going
Gets Tough
Intellectual Archeology
NoNoNoNoNoNo
NoNoNoNoNoYes
Interviewing
The Best Writing
is Rewriting
Use a Dictionary
Carefully Chosen Language
Inspiration...
Running a Home-Based Business
Quality Control
Coming Up with Ideas
Selling the Story
Reading
Paying Attention
Play Dates
Getting It
  Many times people have said, "Ooooh, you're a journalist! That must be so interesting." Even the stories that lack inherent drama - as many do - have to be made interesting for readers who weren't there and don't know and, quite possibly, don't care, per se, about whatever it is I'm being paid to tell them about.

Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, it's my job, and yours, to make them care.

Any sort of memorable writing starts with paying attention. Which is actually really exhausting and why shrinks only do it for 50 minutes at a time.

Can you describe the smell of your mother's kitchen? Your father's aftershave? What color are the leaves outside your office window? If there are none, where does the light play and when, during the day and the seasons, does it change?

What is your favorite smell and why? (I love the spicy scent of Roger & Gallet's carnation soap. Soft leather. Wet wool. A clean dog.) My favorite sound is the crunch of car wheels on gravel, a sound that usually means you're arriving somewhere far from a city, or, within one, somewhere calm and luxurious. Well, OK, it might be a construction site!

As a writer, you're often trying, later - sometimes years later -- to convey your physical and emotional and intellectual perceptions of a person, a place, an organization, an experience. When you're on the scene or in the middle of reporting the story, note the smallest details. No, you might not use all, or any, of them, but when it comes time to describe the man's shirt or the woman's hands or the weather or make and year and color of the car, (and what was in the back seat or its bumper stickers), it's easier to flip through reams of crumpled, stained, faded notes than to write vaguely, guess wildly or - not an option - simply make it up.

While journalists debate the relative merits of using a tape recorder versus a notebook versus taking notes directly into one's computer while interviewing, I'm a big fan of sometimes none of the above. Just noticing. Sit still on the sidelines and eavesdrop. Think wallpaper. When you're working only by phone and can't soak up the important subtleties of someone's body language and gesture and facial expression, try just listening to their tone of voice, to when and where and why and for how long they pause or hesitate, or respond eagerly. Silences are revealing.

I once was sent to interview a woman much older than I whose husband, albeit briefly, was then the Prime Minister of Canada. I was 26 and had been a daily newspaper reporter for maybe six months; she had not been the subject of a profile for 13 years. She was staggeringly wealthy and her maid brought us Coca-Cola on a silver tray as we sat the bottom of her exquisite, enormous Toronto garden. It took me three hours with her to gather what I needed - and I had already spent three weeks in preparation by speaking to several dozen of her family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances before we met.

"I hear you're tough," she began. "I am," I said, smiling. (Today, although it's still true, I might not openly agree, for it certainly made my time with her more challenging. Trust is difficult enough to establish with anyone.)

I came away with barely four pages of notes, and didn't use a tape recorder. I mostly watched and listened. Her husband, knowing the exponential danger of allowing a journalist such unimpeded, uninterrupted access, finally strode towards us: "Can I call you a taxi?"

You can call me anything you want, but let me pay attention.