How do you accumulate material? You pound the pavement and always carry a pen. You describe what they saw, not what you inferred from the situation. Example: If you have seen the front of a house, do not say, “The house is blue.” Say, “The front of the house is blue.” Only after substantial reporting can we sit at a desk and put into practice the advice of novelist/historian Shelby Foote, who once said, “When you have enough specific detail, grit it out.”
To go from grand to gritty, a reporter needs to observe specific detail and then give readers a sense of those observations. David Halberstam, a celebrated journalist who visited my college four decades ago and convinced me to go into journalism, won awards for his street-level reporting in Vietnam and at home. (In 2007 he died in an auto accident at age 73 while visiting a college to talk with students about journalism.) In a terrific book published in 2007, Telling True Stories, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call quote Halberstam saying, “The more reporting””the more anecdotes, perceptions, and windows on a subject””the better. The more views of any subject that you get, the better.”
Telling True Stories and one other book, Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism (2005), contain great advice on how to report and interview. Other veteran journalists told Kramer and Call that they did not take words too seriously, since deeds speak louder. Katherine Boo recommends that if an interviewee says, “Now I’ve got to go and pick up my kids from day care and go to the grocery store,” the reporter should seize the opportunity to go along and see not just how a subject talks but how she lives.
Read it all.