Stephanie McCrummen on bare-bones writing, “working backwards” and editors’ good ideas
Yesterday, our Editors’ Roundtable dissected “Ala. tornado twists two families together” by Stephanie McCrummen, which follows the development of an unlikely connection in the aftermath of a tornado. Late last month, McCrummen talked with us by email about the piece. An enterprise reporter for The Washington Post, McCrummen joined the paper in 2004. Before that, she was a reporter for Newsday. Here she discusses the story’s evolution, the restraint she used while writing, and the suggestions her Post editors made that improved the piece.
Tell me a little about the timeline for the reporting and the writing of this story.
I had been in Rainsville doing a couple daily stories and ran into this one in the course of reporting those. I met Corey Plunkett at a FEMA outpost and he mentioned the paystub situation. From that point it was three days of reporting, two days of writing.
You open with sentences that begin “on the first day” and “on the second day.” It feels like you’re reworking the Biblical story of creation – repeating order growing out of chaos. What were you trying to do with that lede?
I was trying to accomplish a few things at once. One was practical. This was in some ways two stories – the Rainsville side and the Hixson side – that were more or less parallel time-wise, and I thought the ‘on the first day’ phrase, and repeating it, would help orient the reader better than saying Wednesday or Thursday. The other thing has to do with thinking about the story as a whole, I mean what it felt like being in Rainsville, what people said about their experience, and of course the story of Corey and Charlie. Besides just being sad, there was a surreal quality to the aftermath – everything being rearranged and unfamiliar, and all these people trying in their own ways to reorient themselves, or as you say, create some order. That’s what people were trying to do, fundamentally.
Then there was this story of Corey and Charlie, which had an almost fable quality to it. So the phrase in the lede surfaced out of dwelling on all that. It seemed to convey an appropriate feeling to the story, which was almost archetypal, which is maybe why you’re saying Biblical. But I didn’t start off with that idea; I started out thinking about what people said, what it felt like, what happened, and the lede grew out of that.
One other point. With most ledes, I tend to focus not on the first or second sentence per se, but on where the opening needs to end up story-wise. In this case, the opening needed to end with Corey getting the first email. From that I worked backwards, orienting the first few sentences towards that moment, like steps in a process.
The story feels very spare – even the quotes are short. Did you start long and cut a lot out to get there, or did you just write it that stripped from the beginning?
I wrote it stripped. It seemed right, plus I fear overwriting. The degree to which a story is emotional is proportional to how much I tend to pull back, almost like I don’t want to invade the subject’s space or the reader’s. The danger of course is pulling back too far and draining a story of feeling by obscuring things or not giving enough information. So, while nothing was cut, the first editor, David Finkel, suggested adding a couple of key sentences to make certain important points sharper. Like in the second graph, he suggested adding one more ‘someone else’s’ as well as the last sentence in that graph to make the point clear. He knew exactly which parts needed a bit more elaboration or attention, and I think these additions made the story much sharper.
Barbara Vobejda, who was the second editor and moved the story, made a couple surgical changes – like changing particularity to peculiarity in reference to the tornados’ destruction, which was perfect. But overall, things were added rather than cut.
Structure seems key to this piece. At what point did you figure out the structure?
I figured out the opening, as mentioned, and then I knew the midway point the story should drive to this vulnerable feeling Corey described when he realized his things were out there everywhere for anyone to see, and then wondering about Charlie. To me, that was the hinge of the story. Once I had those two things decided – the opening and the mid point – the structure fell into place.
You knew hundreds of reporters had written or were writing about the same story. Did that influence your approach?
Not really. At the outset, we decided to avoid Tuscaloosa, because everyone was there. I also did not have the responsibility of wrapping in daily developments, so it was possible to just focus on trying to tell this particular story, the story I had, in the place where I was, as well as I could. It was great that the newspaper allowed that.
Is there anything else you want to say about this piece? Anything we wouldn’t know from reading it?
I went back and forth on putting the thing in about Charlie’s medication. But he was very open about his struggles, which was in fact what made him appealing, I thought.
Also, about the ending. A lot of times I just let a story stop, rather than really writing an ending or thinking about it the way you think of a beginning. It’s probably the fear of overwriting again, or not wanting to be definitive, in terms of meaning. In any case, I knew the story ended with Corey surrounded by other peoples’ belongings. That was the odd fact of what happened – this exchange that had taken place. It was touching, of course, but also somehow strange. So in the first version of the end, I had described the scene and just let it stop there. But David thought we should elaborate a bit, and asked me again what exactly happened. I told him about the “Oh, Corey” which was so purely beautiful in the actual moment. I had left it out, though, because I thought there was a danger it might not read right on paper, a notion that he found mystifying. So we put that in. Most importantly, he thought it was not enough to just have the description sitting there, and suggested the very last line, which was truly ingenious. It was satisfying because it spoke to the whole story, but without being too defining or confining.