Gene Weingarten suggests that winning a Pulitzer Prize is “pure luck.”
“The Pulitzer is a crapshoot,” The Washington Postfeature writer/humor columnist says. “Your piece has to hit a few people the right way at the right moment.”
Easy for Weingarten to be modest: He’s the only two-time winner of the Pulitzer for feature article writing. In the first, 2008’s “The Fiddler in the Subway” (“Pearls Before Breakfast” when it first appeared in The Washington Post), Weingarten arranged for violin virtuoso Joshua Bell to play outside a D.C. Metro station during morning rush hour to see if anyone would notice. His 2010 winner, “Fatal Distraction,” recounts stories of parents who accidentally killed their children by forgetting them in cars.
Those stories and 18 others are collected in The Fiddler in the Subway, which includes an introduction that doubles as a superbly instructive primer on writing.
Here, the feature-writing guru offers the inside story on how he crafts his Pulitzer-grade prose.
What’s the one thing an aspiring writer must understand about writing?
I can tell you what it’s definitely not. It’s definitely not “I before e except after c,” because what about ‘either’”?
But seriously … is there one thing an aspiring writer must understand?
That it’s hard. If you think it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right.
One of the things I admire about your work is that you consistently prove that great writing begins with great reporting. Talk about the importance of reporting.
Well, let’s start with the maxim that the best writing is understated, meaning it’s not full of flourishes and semaphores and tap dancing and vocabulary dumps that get in the way of the story you are telling. Once you accept that, what are you left with? You are left with the story you are telling.
The story you are telling is only as good as the information in it: things you elicit, or things you observe, that make a narrative come alive; things that support your point not just through assertion, but through example; quotes that don’t just convey information, but also personality. That’s all reporting.
What distinguishes a well-told story from a poorly told one?
All of the above. Good reporting, though, requires a lot of thinking; I always counsel writers working on features to keep in mind that they are going to have to deliver a cinematic feel to their anecdotes. When you are interviewing someone, don’t just write down what he says. Ask yourself: Does this guy remind you of someone? What does the room feel like? Notice smells, voice inflection, neighborhoods you pass through. Be a cinematographer.
Do you have any particular writing rituals or techniques that would help other writers?
Until I got to the end of your sentence, I had an answer. Alas, I don’t think this would be helpful to many writers: After I report a story, I look at my notes carefully, then lock them away and don’t look at them again until I have a first draft. I find it liberating to write without being chained to your notes; it helps you craft an ideal story. Then I go back to the notes and realize what I wrote that I can’t really support, what quotes aren’t quite as good as I thought, etc. It can be hugely frustrating, but it also sometimes leads me to go back and improve reporting, to make the story as good as I thought it could be. Not sure this will be helpful to most people. It’s kind of insane.
You say all stories are ultimately about the meaning of life. How do you find that heart of the story?
By persuading yourself, going in to a story, that it must be about something larger than itself—some universal truth—and always searching for whatever that is. Sometimes, midway through, you realize it’s not what you thought, it’s something else. But, to quote Roseanne Rosannadanna,
“ … It’s always something.”
Let’s say you only get 20 minutes with your subject. How do you find the meaning of life in 20 minutes?
Nasty question. But you gotta be fair here: I never said all stories have to explain the meaning of life. All stories have to at least try to explain some small portion of the meaning of life. You can do that in 20 minutes, and 15 inches. I still remember a piece that the great Barry Bearak did in TheMiami Herald some 30 years ago. It was a nothing story, really: Some high school kid was leading a campaign to ban books he found offensive from the school library. Bearak didn’t even have an interview with the kid, who was ducking him. The story was short, mostly about the issue.
But Bearak had a fact that he withheld until the kicker. The fact put the whole story, subtly, in complete perspective. The kicker noted the true, wonderful fact that the kid was not in school that day because “his ulcer was acting up.” Meaning of life, 15 inches.
Also check out these items from the Writer’s Digest’s collection:
Comedy Writing Secrets
The Little Red Book of Very Dirty Words
The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion
Grammar Sucks: What to Do to Make Your Writing Much More Better
Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript
Writer’s Digest How to Land a Literary Agent (On-Demand Webinar)