Writing Tips

The Basics

Michael Arkus

  • Backgrounder

Case Studies

OK, you’ve digested the IPD pieces on banking reform, dollarization and privatization, you’ve spoken to the principals involved or people lower down the rung because the principals won’t talk, you’ve crunched the numbers, the facts, the possibilities with analysts -- you’ve got an enormous amount of notes and you’re trying to work out a framework for your proposed story. How do you make it sing? How do you bring readers speeding along with you?

The first basic premise is: economic stories do not have to be dull. They are subject to the same principles that govern good writing in any sphere, be it general, sports, culture etc. And one of the best ways to hook your readers is by bringing them right into the story, making them witness it themselves. You conjure up an image for them, you are a camera capturing and projecting an arresting picture. Just as a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, so your written picture will be worth much more than 1,000 words of jargon and dull statements in making a lasting impression on your readers.

So how do you do this? How do you make them witness a story, especially on something as technical as an IMF/World bank bail-out, switching Ecuador’s sucre for the dollar, the privatization of banks, transport or cement making, trade agreements, a financial crisis? You conjure up the scene, the human scene where possible! This column will look at three possible ways of doing this:

  •  The actual scene itself, when something is already happening;
  •   The scenario, in which you project the likely effect of a decision or development;
  •   The analogy, where you liken a decision, development or effect of some complex operation to a more familiar    action where readers feel at home.

Where you put these devices is your choice, but often they can make a very striking lead to your story. In any case they should be very high because they present the familiar context with which readers can identify. This is very important for the less initiated. For the specialist, the device is also pleasing because you are not dumbing down the story but conjuring it up. And for you, the writer, it is great fun!

SCENE

We’ll spend the least time on this because it is the most obvious case. A government has devalued the currency, clamped down on deposit withdrawals etc. There’s rage in the streets. Quite clearly you want to lead off with the violence, or have it very high, melding it in with the causes of the protest, showing live as it were the effect of the government’s decisions and why. For example, let’s say Argentines are rioting, banging pots and pans because they can’t draw their money out following government restrictions to prevent a run on the currency.

It would seem obvious that you include the action in the lead. But you’d be surprised how often this does not happen. Here is an example:

[Country A] on Monday vowed to slash its budget spending by nearly a fifth this year to ensure it can service its debt, but social protest at government austerity and banking curbs continued to flare…

The budget slashing is unlikely to have been particularly new and though you’ve TOLD readers there is a protest, you haven’t SHOWN them. This difference between SHOWING and TELLING is very important for vivid copy.

Based on copy further down in the story, this could have been rewritten to add both vivid scene and the economic background: ‘Protesters burned tires and demanded food handouts in scenes reminiscent of the economic turmoil of a decade ago as the government presented a severely pared down budget in an effort to unlock crucial loans that the IMF has frozen.’

SCENARIO

This is where you yourself have to be inventive. The scene that could result from the development has not yet happened, but you conjure it up anyway based on past experiences, what the development or decision entails and, importantly, from the questions you ask the principals and analysts etc.

The IPD’s journalism training section on banking crises, evaluating different options, shows one way with the questions you ask. Are local businesses highly dependent on bank finance? Would a credit crunch be a disaster for them? Are there alternate forms of finance for local firms? What is the public mood like? Would bank closures create a panic? Based on the answers to these and the other questions you could conjure up a vivid scenario lead for your analysis on the given situation.

The piece on dollarization also shows the way to a vivid scenario, either in the lead or in high placed paragraphs. You set out in bullet phrases the advantages and disadvantages of the process, i.e. ‘Inflation drops from XXX percent to X percent, economic stability returns, interest rates fall, foreign investors rush in, but an economic shock in the United States hits the dollar, the local economy shudders – and above all Felipe Gonzalez, a 25-year-old agricultural laborer whose monthly salary of $XX represents the average earnings of 95 percent of the country’s X million people finds himself unable to buy food for his family. In the towns workers riot at the loss of national honor etc…’ This is just a rough skeleton but here you put a vivid scenario on the technical aspects of the move. You could even give an example for the more general ‘economic stability returns’ i.e. ‘a loaf of bread continues to cost just 10 cents for more than three hours.’ Above all you put a human face on the measures with the example of Felipe Gonzalez. After all, what interests people are other people and this is the most dynamic way you can bring a story home. These are handles that readers can identify with far more easily than blander generalizations and they will want to stay with you and read on.

If you look at the IPD’s piece on privatization, you can see the same path. You lay out bullet examples of the pros and cons, putting as human a face as possible on them, i.e. ‘Economic growth surges to XXX, the government’s deficit drops to XX as it not longer subsidizes a business that loses XXX a year, but Jose Blow, already struggling below the poverty level like 80 percent of this country’s XXX inhabitants, finds himself without the $XX a month that allowed him, his wife and seven children to survive at subsistence level.’ This is just a stark example to show the pattern. In some cases the last part of the sentence could be the reverse – an improvement in life. But whatever, don’t forget the ‘Joe Blow effect,’ the ordinary person, the example with which readers can identify. Again you chew over the possibilities with the principals and analysts.

POSSIBLE EXAMPLES

a) A story on Country B’s credit lifeline from the IMF begins: ‘[Country B] and other Latin American governments have followed Washington down the free-market path, only to find they are now losing control over their economies…’

There’s nothing basically wrong with beginning like this. But perhaps you could make it more interesting for readers, and more fun for yourself to write, if you used a scenario lead. You know, for instance, that a left-winger could win Country B’s presidential elections in three months’ time, that the IMF agreement requires a budget surplus of X percent through the next three years, that one of the left-wing frontrunner’s staff says this limits the social investments they have promised, that non-compliance could bring a cut-off of credit lines, and that the IMF’s standard advice of austerity means enormous suffering for millions (and consequent social unrest, riots etc.). Here you have the elements for a full-dress scenario lead. The way you handle it is your choice. You can use the bullet format (‘A left wing frontrunner wins Country B’s October elections, tries to put into practice the social promises that propelled him into the presidential palace, but finds his hands tied by IMF-imposed spending cuts. He ignores his pledge of more jobs and better medical care and the people riot etc. He earmarks funding for them and his credit line is cut etc.’). You can make it less direct (‘If either X or Y wins October’s elections etc.’). You can make the generalization (example of how Latin American countries have lost control over their economies through free-market reforms) the next paragraph. The scenario does not have to be the lead paragraph, although in many cases it adds vigor. Here you could lead with a well-phrased generalization and then set out the scenario in strong sentences in the top paragraphs, rather than string it out over many paragraphs. Use the later paragraphs to add substance and background to the scenario.

b) The full text of one of the later paragraphs of the story from which the above example is taken was: ‘The standard advice of the fund to clients facing crises has been to insist on increased austerity, arguing that fiscal discipline is a prerequisite to prosperity. But that translates into enormous suffering for millions of people, strengthening the appeal of left-wing critics of free-market economies and weakening governments that have made the changes Washington is urging.’

Increased austerity, fiscal discipline, suffering, weakening governments are generic words, all crying out for scenario treatment. When the IMF declares its conditions, spell these out in scenario form. That can even be in the lead i.e. (hypothetical example): ‘Some XXX million Country B-ians will pay four times as much for a loaf of bread, equivalent to XX percent of the salary of the country’s poorest, under austerity measures demanded by the IMF etc.’ Alternatively you can have a more general lead on what the IMF’s overall demands are, but make sure you explain what that means in a very high scenario. Be sure, too, that you have a high balancing scenario on what the IMF says such fiscal discipline will achieve. There’s nothing like contrasting scenario paragraphs to locate readers fully in the story.

c) ‘Finance ministers on Thursday outlined four market-oriented proposals, including better oversight of global capital flows, to deal with the crisis rocking financial markets around the world.’

Wouldn’t readers be better served if the story clearly laid out in bullet form the most trenchant planks in the plan and then said ‘... were among proposals outlined by finance ministers to counter the crisis etc.’?

d) ‘Country C announced Wednesday a $XX billion austerity plan for the next three years in a bid to pull the economy back from the brink of a devastating currency crisis.’

For maximum impact, this lead can be immediately followed by a general sort of scenario: ‘Even then, the best the country can hope for next year is a recession, most economists say. The worst case scenario is a steep devaluation that could drag Latin America into recession and hurt the world economy.’

Thus the scenario doesn’t always have to be a detailed human story, but it does have to lay out starkly what could happen.

ANALOGY

When you have a complex matter that you want to explain to general readers, an analogy can be the ideal tool. It does not have to be an exact analogy – few often are – but you make that clear when you give it. What it does is to take readers from unfamiliar ground to something they are familiar with. That will give them that ‘Ah, now I see’ flash of recognition, and will no doubt also intrigue the more specialized reader. Here you have to work on your sources and analysts to help provide such analogies, if only to ensure that you don’t go overboard on them. Examples in financial matters can involve reducing the complexities to the more familiar problems of, say, housekeeping or the family budget, a mortgage or a car loan.

POSSIBLE EXAMPLES

a) ‘With the global economy and its reputation at stake, the International Monetary Fund has spent weeks honing a multibillion-dollar rescue package for Country D.’

A fresh approach could have looked at it either from the point of view of Country D – the householder who has credit card, loans or mortgage problems – or from the IMF point of view, as a bank or debt consolidator dealing with problem household loans, a microcosm readers might be more familiar with.

b) When the Long Term Capital Management (LCTM) hedge fund was bailed out in 1998, a whole lot of terms and procedures cropped up that were not familiar to general readers – even perhaps the term hedge fund itself. It was explained that LCTM had suffered huge losses on bad debts on a variety of global markets that were hit after Russia defaulted. The same was true with the onset of the so-called “sub-prime” mortgage crisis in 2007-08, which involved a range of complex terms, such as credit derivatives or collateralized debt obligations and credit swaps. These are examples where you ask analysts whether there’s a simpler analogy to help explain part of the story. Is it similar to a casino betting syndicate using credit and some ‘infallible’ great game plan? Is there some other more familiar analogy? They should be able to help you. In the case of credit swaps, for instance, the analogy could be to an insurance policy.

c) A story dealing not with international economics but with the problems of policing the Internet, shows how effective an analogy could be in hooking readers. It began: ‘As police around the world search for ways to monitor criminal activity on the Internet without trampling privacy rights, the powerful tool adopted in the United States faces persistent scrutiny and opposition.’

In the story from which this example is taken, the general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center likens the U.S. policy to throwing a big net into the ocean to capture a single targeted fish from a school. That right away gives you the first part of an analogy lead: ‘Critics liken it to casting a dragnet into the ocean to catch a single targeted fish.’ Now what's the other side of the argument? ‘Supporters see it as a laser zeroing in on crime in the age of the Internet.’ So there's your second half of the lead. And readers will want to read on. By asking relevant questions in international economic stories you will also find such analogies when appropriate. You could easily use such a strategy with regard to the pros and cons of IMF policies, for instance.

As with many things, the packaging of a product can be very important. Nowhere is this truer than in journalism. Hopefully the above examples will allow readers to better enjoy reading your articles, and you to better enjoy writing them.

Publication Information

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