Friday, March 29, 2013

What can you say in 300 words?

Sometimes, you can say an awful lot.

Case-in-point: Brady Dennis, former night cops reporter for the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times (which is now known as the Tampa Times).

Dennis, who is now with the Washington Post, decided he wanted to highlight some people who never found their way into the newspaper. So he and photographer Chris Zuppa began a monthly series called “300 Words,” in which they set out to tell the stories of toll booth operators, dads in jail, rodeo clowns and others. The series won national acclaim.
In a 2006 interview, Dennis said he wanted to take on the project because “I believe that each person not only has a story to tell, but that each person has a story that matters. I’ve always felt humbled in the presence of everyday, ‘ordinary’ people who are willing to share their lives with us.”

Later in the same interview, he discussed how the series – specifically the rigid word limit – made him a better journalist (read on after the jump):

“300 Words” made me a better reporter by forcing me to rely almost primarily on observation. Notice that most pieces contain almost no quotes. I didn’t interview people as much as I simply shut my mouth and watched and listened. We don’t do that enough.
 It also made me a more economical writer. With only 300 words to spare, each one had to matter. I've tried to apply that rule to the other stories I do, even the long ones. The idea is to cut away the fat and leave only the muscle. As my editor, Neville Green, repeated again and again: "Less is more." It's true for most stories we write.
Dennis’ series is proof positive that you don’t need pages and pages of copy to tell a beautiful story. He wasn’t writing to win awards or attract fans (although he did both). He simply wanted to paint pictures of fleeting moments, and all the sights, sounds and emotions that went with them. These moments surround us every day. They are stories that most of us can relate to at some level. Good storytellers like Dennis recognize the universal nature of those moments, and put them in perspective for us.

All of the stories in the series are very good. Two of my favorites are “One hour at a time” and “After the sky fell.” Those two articles are not “feel good” stories, as are some other stories in the series. So check out a few of the articles (they are all very quick reads). Which ones spoke to you the loudest? Why? What techniques did the writers use to put readers into these scenes? What can we as writers learn from them?

For some reason, the Times has taken down the “splash page” that used to have links to all the installments in this series. However, I was able to recover several of them through Google – enough to give you a sense of what the series was like. These are the headlines – the hyperlinks should take you to the stories.

One hour at a time

After the sky fell

One minute and 123 dollars

Beautiful noise

The accordion man

Looking for a laugh

The man in the mirror

The end is the beginning

For the first time

City dreams

A cross for Carlos


  1. I read all of the stories and liked "One Hour at a Time", "After the Sky Fell", "For the First Time" and "A Cross for Carlos" the best. "One Hour at a Time" was amazing simply because it showed a different, sentimental and good side of this man who has committed so many crimes. Although you understand and know he needs to pay for what he has done, the article still makes you feel for the father and see the good that does still reside within him. "After the Sky Fell" was probably my second favorite and mostly because it was a sort of love story. It was catchy how Dennis continued to say "because.." explaining all of the reasons Blair was now at this booth, as well as all of the things he did for his wife. Not only was it well-written and catchy, but the ending was absolutely perfect, almost making me cry. I also enjoyed "For the First Time" simply because it relates to almost every reader who can look back and remember that time that they experienced their first love, and how nothing else really seemed to matter. Lastly, "A Cross for Carlos" was a sentimental, sad story built up around the cross. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed these stories. They were catchy and just the right length, allowing the reader to finish them quickly and WANT to finish them. Although I found the others a little less interesting, I think that these are written so that there will always be someone who can relate and is interested in these "ordinary" yet fascinating individuals.

  2. The simplicity of these stories is what makes them so touching. I agree that there is a story in here for everyone. Whether it's about a struggling upcoming comedian, a small town farm boy who aspires to go to the big city, or a group of children from different backgrounds playing a simple game of football. There's no way you can't get hooked in. Brady Dennis' word usage is absolutely amazing! He brings you not only mentally, but emotionally. Being the sappy person that I am my favorite article was the story of the older man who remembers the love of his life who died of cancer. There are hundreds of people in the world with stories similar to these individuals. Writing stories like this makes readers feel like there are other people out there going through the same things that they are. Great journalism!

  3. The shortness of these stories and the highly visual details really place a reader within the story. Each story has a constant flow in it and one doesn't have to dedicate much time to read them. I think beautiful noise hit me the hardest. It took me back to my elementary and middle school days. When I played a game I would concentrate on only that and all else would blur from my mind. It wasn't until high school that my perpective of games and sports changed. My passion for games vanished when games became contaminated by a strong sense of competitiveness and repercussions from losing. These stories really hit people on an emotional level and at times can be stronger than factual jargon. 300 Words is the poetry of journalism.

  4. After reading all of the stories, I think my top three favorites are "One hour at a time," "After the sky fell," and "Looking for a laugh." I think that, as Clay mentioned above, 300 words can really say a lot, and as a writer, I feel like I underestimate what can come across in such a short piece (and I'm sure some of you feel the same way). I definitely agree with Markita that the simplicity of them makes them stand out. For as short as they are, there is so much depth. For example, "After the sky fell" illustrates a couple's life together all leading up to one moment in time. But even though there is only so much you can say in 300 words, everything is summed up very well. I also loved the detail and writing styles of "One hour at a time" and "Looking for a laugh," and I enjoyed the stories because they really help you see someone's side and sympathize with them (I'm usually not one to sympathize with a prisoner, but "One hour at a time" made me want him out of prison now!). I think that more features on individuals like these would draw people in because they are very relatable and compelling, and I think it would be a great exercise for us as journalists.

  5. After reading the majority of the stories (some of them won't open for some reason) I have concluded that all of them are my "favorite" except the first two. I noticed that most people liked the first two, but I didn't find those as compelling as the other ones. "Looking for a laugh" and "The man in the mirror" spoke most to me. I would say I connected with those stories the most because I can relate to them. Since this particular series focuses on people who are "unnoticed" they would relate most to the normal readers. Stories one and two are harder to relate to since I personally cannot connect with them. I have experienced prom, like the man/boy in in "The man in the mirror" and I personally try to make people laugh in "Looking for a laugh". The rare rawness of the stories is what makes them most compelling.

  6. I really love Dennis's concept of taking ordinary people and digging into their lives for extraordinary stories. It really emphasizes, like he states, "less is more." I believe that phrase does apply to the writing, as well as the subject of what, or who, is being written about. After reading most of these stories I found a strong liking to "City Dreams". It is clear that in this story, like the stories, Dennis has a talent for creating imagery in the short 300 words he has to write with. I can easily picture the man's solitary life working on fields for years on end. The blunt, sad explanation of his family and living conditions doesn't evoke sadness, but reality. I think 300 words is a perfect way to depict that. Stories like these are short and sweet, easy to read and straight to the point. A lack of words leaves the reader to absorb the brief content, which is why stories like these are so engaging.

  7. After reading all of the stories, I decided that I liked "After the Sky Fell" and "The Man in the Mirror" better than the rest of them. "After the Sky Fell" tells a sad tale about a couple and I really feel bad for the lonely man. "The Man in the Mirror" really hits home to me because Josh is dealing with the pressure of becoming a man, but he is still a boy inside. Prom is sort of the last high school Hoorah and after graduation as we all know, the real world starts to creep in a bit. It showed both sides of how he was feeling. Dennis has exceptional writing skills and I really enjoyed the stories. 300 words is a perfect length to tell a story if it's done the right way as he demonstrated. Great series.

  8. Out of all the stories read, I liked "After the Sky Fell" the most. The nature of its writing got straight to the point and didn't leave anything out. This made the story a lot more palpable and sad. The descriptiveness in such few words was really neat and is emphasized in all of the stories, making it something I want to get down and use.

  9. Before I started I was just going to read a few of these stories, but after just reading the first three, I liked them so much that finished all of them. My favorites were "After the Sky Fell, "The End is the Beginning", and "City Dreams". I just found that these hit me the most. "After the Sky Fell" is very emotional, and speaks about the strength of love, which I really like. "The End is the Beginning" is like something that I hope to accomplish someday. I hope to be able to retire someday and have to rest of my life to do anything. "City of Dreams" is something I can relate to a bit, because I come from a small town where in which some people have big aspirations but they continue to live in the town and work the same job year after year. I think what the author does best is that he makes the stories so relate-able to the reader. While I just mentioned three stories I felt like I could relate to all of the stories. They are truly about ordinary people, and the author really makes that clear in his writing. The descriptive words that he uses just puts me in that situation, and allows me to relate. I think everyone, at some point in there life, can at least relate to some aspect of each of the stories. Even, "One Hour at a Time". Most if not all of us will never spend time in jail, but majority of us will still be a parent and we could imagine how life would feel if we were not able to be around for our children. I think what we can all learn from these stories is the skill of being able to relate a story to your readers. If you can do that, then I think you've written successfully written a good story.

  10. My top three stories were "One Hour at a Time," "Beautiful Noise," and "A Cross for Carlos." I really enjoyed all of them for different reasons. "One Hour at a Time" showed us that every person has both bad and good inside of them and broke your average stereotypical view of someone who had committed many crimes. "Beautiful Noise" showed us something that all of us did as younger children and showed it from the point of view of the people who let us use their yard. Finally, "A Cross for Carlos" was extremely emotional and sent shivers up my spine. It captured the emotion of the event perfectly.

  11. I think the best stories are the ones people can relate to and this is what engages the reader in these 300 word snippets. I personally enjoyed the end is the beginning. I think this piece really emphasizes the reflections and views we have on life and moving on to a new chapter.

  12. I really love the 300 word stories. My favorite was One Hour at a Time, it was emotional and it was intriguing. I personally like these stories more than the articles we have had to write. The build up is moving and the overall piece gets hold of the reader a lot easier than the articles we have previously read.

  13. the 300 words series is a great way to catch glimpses into different lives that we wouldn't normal pay attention to. Little moments, like a man's first day of retirement or a couple watching the neighborhood children play across the street. The "short and sweet" structure of the stories keeps the readers' attention until the end of the story, which the reader might not even realize has ended. My favorite piece was "the end is the beginning" because it was a simple, poignant piece about a man on the first day of official retirement. Those moments/ days can be taken for granted after a long life, but in only 300 words the author summed up the man's accomplishments in a hopeful resignation.

  14. I really liked "the man in the mirror". It just showed how boys can be both a boy and a man at the same time, showing a contrast. It is very well written. As for the series as a whole, I think that it is a great idea, and it is done masterfully.

  15. KYLE WIGGERS: "Looking for a laugh" might be my favorite, perhaps because it’s... unpredictable. (The subject of the story, I mean.) We’re introduced to someone who’s endured much hardship I their young life - someone, you could say, who has never been ‘given a break’ - and read they fall victim to yet another misfortune.

    The piece succeeds because it’s true: life is not full of fairytale endings. Success is not a forgone conclusion, as Nigel Davis can attest. These kinds of failings resonate with us emotionally, because we’ve all failed at some point. It’s powerful.

  16. I loved the "One Hour at a Time" story. The writer did a great job at keeping the story compelling yet relevant at the same time. The metaphors, like comparing the daughter to a pot of gold, were very interesting. I also liked how the writer started out with listing everything specific that the father has missed his daughter doing. This made me feel for him right away. The story gave great emotion, but also included why he was in jail in the first place. This piece was a very well written 300 word story.

  17. I really enjoy theses pieces. It is interesting how some of them are simple snapshots into these peoples lives while others give more insight into their life in whole. I definitely think the shortness and simplicity adds to the piece. I is interesting how he said it made him a better writer because it is clear that short stories like that are not simple and the important parts all all the will fit.

    Without the extensive detail they have this would not succeed. I also find it cool how he tells sad stories such as the "One Hour at a Time" and happy ones like "One minute and 123 Dollars."

  18. I think this idea of a series is incredibly brilliant. I am interested in learning how the police officer went about finding these stories and asking people about their life. One of my favorite's was about the man in the toll booth. THe fact that they moved to Florida for only nine days but that didn't matter to him was inspirational in it's own little way. I also liked "The Man in the Mirror" because it symbolized a moment in this kid's life that most people over look.

  19. I really enjoy reading these. The fact that you only have 300 words to express a story really makes it a different kind of news story. I like them because they get straight to the emotion and the heart of the story. It shows the good that is in this life and it can also show the struggles.