Arts & Entertainment, Business, Writing

Polishing the Story

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 7:16 min

From deciding what details to include to evaluating word choice, Bob provides advice on how to fine-tune your news story once your initial draft is complete.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Details Establish Credibility • Be Specific • Use Active Verbs • Avoid Absolutes • Catch Your Mistakes • Print Physical Copies for Editing


I want to gather as much detail as possible, in the case of CIA Director Bill Casey. In one memo, I described how it was winter, and he put on his overcoat, and he got the buttons I think misaligned. And he looked like his mother had dressed him, and he didn't know how to wear an overcoat. And there was just a kind of-- visually it was striking that here was the CIA director, who didn't know how to put on his overcoat. I include it because it sets the scene. And it, again, is this trust issue. I was there, or I have a source, or I have a document, and I want to take you to that moment as best I can as a reporter or author. One of my habits-- and sometimes this gets cut out-- but I like to say it was Wednesday, November 4, 2007-- or whenever something occurred-- to tell people in time what it was. And immediately you know you're not talking about 1952 or last year. You're talking about a specific time frame. And it anchors you and it can anchor a reader. Some reporters in their writing will say one Wednesday in April 1984. Well, immediately I think, well, one Wednesday. Was it the third or was it the 10th? Why not be specific, if you can? When you can't be specific-- particularly in this era of distrust of the media-- the more concrete you can be, the more, hey, I know which Wednesday it was I think really helps broaden the credibility of what you are presenting. Confession-- active verbs are really important, but I'm not naturally drawn to them. Let me get myself in trouble for a moment here. The first sentence of All the President's Men is about how I was awakened by a call from the city editor saying there had been a burglary at the Watergate office building of the Democratic National Committee. And I don't remember exactly how I said it, but it was kind of Woodward awoke. And it was Carl Bernstein's girlfriend at the time, Nora Ephron, who read this and had rewrote it or suggested and said Woodward snapped awake. And that was her verb. And we all looked at it and say, yes, that's exactly what happens when the phone rings. You snap awake. You don't just awaken. And that's an example of an active verb instead of a very flat awakened. If you say never then somebody is going to find one time that it happened. So it's better to say-- it's an unfortunate phrase-- almost never or say it in a way where it gives you some wiggle room if you're not sure. And on lots of things, you're not sure. You will find people you're interviewing or quoting will say never. That's fine, but check it. Again, it's one of those words when somebody says absolutely never, pause and check. And also ask the question, is it necessary to phrase it that way? There are lots of stupid mistakes in the newspaper. And one of the best reporters at the Post used to make simple mistakes by saying a senator from Maryland was a Democrat when he was a Rep...

About the Instructor

Bob Woodward was just 29 when he changed a nation. His Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein helped expose the corruption of the Nixon presidency. Two Pulitzer Prizes and nineteen best-selling books later, the legendary journalist is teaching his first-ever online class for anyone who wants to find the truth. Learn to investigate a story, interview sources, and understand how the news is written. The next history-making story might be yours.

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Bob Woodward

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