Writing obituaries
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Writing obituaries. And how to do rewrites. Obituaries. Unlike that 1934 film classic, death won’t be taking a holiday today in this class. In that film, remade in 1998 as Meet Joe Black , Death pauses in his appointed rounds to sample why people enjoy

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Writing obituaries

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Writing obituaries

Writing obituaries

And how to do rewrites


Obituaries

Obituaries

Unlike that 1934 film classic, death won’t

be taking a holiday today in this class.

In that film, remade in 1998 as Meet Joe

Black, Death pauses in his appointed

rounds to sample why people enjoy

living so much. He even falls in love.

Many folks have a fascination with

death. Some will even bet on him … or

at least Dr. Death the racehorse, that is.

(Where is Death?)


Obits and rewrites

OBITS AND REWRITES

  • In addition to police stories and recaps of government meetings, one of the basic story forms you will routinely do is an obituary.

  • You have to keep in mind that, for most people, the only story about them that ever makes it into a newspaper is their obituary.


Obits and rewrites1

OBITS AND REWRITES

  • Too often, obits read like they were dropped off a conveyor belt or were computer-generated.

  • They don’t tell you what the deceased was really like.

  • Keep this in mind at all times when doing an obit: You are summing up a person’s LIFE in a few words.

  • Yes, the cause of death can be an important element, but this is a story about life -- not death.


Obits and rewrites2

OBITS AND REWRITES

  • Although bounded by taste and a sense of propriety, the obit writer doesn’t have to follow all of the inverted pyramid rules.

  • A dash or two of writing flair is OK.

  • Surveys show that obits are read by more than 50 percent of readers.


Obits and rewrites3

OBITS AND REWRITES

Note that obits are different from the paid mortuary

notices you often see. The morts are prepared by the

family with help from the funeral home. They are

often taken from a form or are simply written by a

relative/survivor. Obituaries are written by a representative

of an objective medium outside the family circle.

Some examples …


Obits and rewrites4

OBITS AND REWRITES

A sampling of some of the colorful obits included in Cool Dead People, a book of obits compiled by Jane O’Boyle:

  • Insurance agent and Montana conservationist Art Aylesworth, best known as the "Bluebird Man" for his work with the mountain and western bluebirds, who built and gave away more than 35,000 bluebird nest boxes. His efforts saved these two birds from extinction.


Obits and rewrites5

OBITS AND REWRITES

A sampling of some of the colorful obits included in Cool Dead People, a book of obits compiled by Jane O’Boyle:

  • Mel Fisher, who spent years diving for sunken treasure, only to hit paydirt at the age of 62: Off Key West he uncovered a $400 million cache of silver bars, gold, emerald, diamonds, and pearls which had been lost on a Spanish ship in 1622.


Obits and rewrites6

OBITS AND REWRITES

A sampling of some of the colorful obits included in Cool Dead People, a book of obits compiled by Jane O’Boyle:

  • The literary agent, Connie Clausen, who began her career as an elephant rider in the circus.


Obits and rewrites7

OBITS AND REWRITES

A sampling of some of the colorful obits included in Cool Dead People, a book of obits compiled by Jane O’Boyle:

  • Then there’s the guy who cleaned typewriters for Hollywood’s elite (elite, get it?) and the cleaning lady who left $150,000 to a local college.


Danger areas

DANGER AREAS

  • Since they generate such high reader volume, obits can damage you and your newspaper’s credibility.

  • Obits should be given the same attention to detail, perhaps even more, as other news stories.

  • Get the facts right.

  • Get the names right.


Varying from the inverted pyramid

Varying from the inverted pyramid

  • Obit leads often include the subject’s name.

  • It’s often awkward and insensitive to use the “blind lede” approach on obits.

  • Feel free to use the name but make sure to supplement it with an appropriate identifier.


Some safety tips for obit writers

Some safety tips for obit writers

1. Confirm the spellings of all names, particularly the deceased.

2. Check the addresses of funeral homes, churches, cemeteries etc. Be careful about publishing the deceased’s address – don’t assist any burglars.

3. Check the birth date against the age. Movie stars lie.

4. Verify with the mortuary or family any obit phoned or faxed in.

5. Check the archives or Google for previous stories about the deceased. Are past personal problems relevant?


Some safety tips for obit writers1

Some safety tips for obit writers

6. Don’t replace “died” with the silly euphemisms you see in the paid mortuary notices.

7. Don’t use “sudden death” unless you are talking about football. “Died unexpectedly” is probably what you want. Also, you don’t die of “an apparent heart attack,” rather “you apparently died of a heart attack.”

8. On giving places of birth, avoid the use of the phrase “a former native.”

9. Check AP for religious references and titles of clergy, places of worship. Mass is capped.

10. Don’t misspell “cemetery”


Some safety tips for obit writers2

Some safety tips for obit writers

11. Watch out for gossip and potentially libelous phrases: “He was the black sheep of the family” or “She had been living in sin with …”

12. Reporting or not reporting the cause of death can be controversial, especially in the time of AIDS.

13. Be careful with stories about suicides.

14. Include the MAJOR survivors, service participants.

15. Include pertinent information about funeral services, wakes, etc. Masses are celebrated, not said.

16. Include info on contributions, donations for funeral expenses.


Kicking it up a notch

Kicking it up a notch

  • The inverted pyramid style is a wonderful device for providing information while maintaining a proper tone and taste.

  • Ledes that begin “John W. Doe, 57, died of a heart attack Sunday …” or “Funeral services will be held Sunday for John W. Doe….” are fine. But try to find some distinguishing characteristics about the deceased person that would make readers wish they had known them.

  • The best way to accomplish that is through sensitivity and good reporting skills.


Looking for details

LOOKING FOR DETAILS

Read Pages 92-93 of text

(Note that this checklist can apply to living subjects as well)


Looking for details1

LOOKING FOR DETAILS

Robin Hinch, Orange County Register

In an obit, feature or many news stories, one writer can sometimes step out of the pack and stand alone by including important, insignificant details, such as:

  • Name (any story behind it?)

  • Nickname (why that nickname?)

  • Height and weight

  • Build (husky, slender, etc.)

  • Hair (color and style)

  • Dress, style of dress, sense of style

  • Occupation (how long, what before)


Looking for details2

LOOKING FOR DETAILS

Robin Hinch, Orange County Register

In an obit, feature or many news stories, one writer can sometimes step out of the pack and stand alone by including important, insignificant details, such as:

  • Education (where)

  • Residence

  • Previous residence

  • Raised where

  • Smokes (what brand)

  • Drinks (what kind)

  • Marital status


Looking for details3

LOOKING FOR DETAILS

Robin Hinch, Orange County Register

In an obit, feature or many news stories, one writer can sometimes step out of the pack and stand alone by including important, insignificant details, such as:

  • Age

  • Family

  • Military background

  • Tone of voice

  • Gestures

  • Temperament

  • Religion


Looking for details4

LOOKING FOR DETAILS

Robin Hinch, Orange County Register

In an obit, feature or many news stories, one writer can sometimes step out of the pack and stand alone by including important, insignificant details, such as:

  • Hobbies / outside interests

  • Clubs / organization

  • Voice cadence / accent

  • Favorite sayings, expressions

  • Values

  • Introvert / extrovert

  • Eye contact


Looking for details5

LOOKING FOR DETAILS

Robin Hinch, Orange County Register

In an obit, feature or many news stories, one writer can sometimes step out of the pack and stand alone by including important, insignificant details, such as:

  • Smile

  • Excess jewelry or lack of jewelry

  • Makeup

  • Hat

  • Speech connectors ("and, uh…" "ya know", "Like, uh," "well, um")

  • Scene indicators (wall décor, messy desk, orange sofa with thread-bare cushions)

  • Books in bookcase


Getting people to open up

Getting people to open up

Death is a time when families close ranks and close their mouths


Getting people to open up1

Getting people to open up

-- Make it clear that doing a story on this person is entirely up to the family. "Is this something your family would like? Are you the one who would like to speak for the family? I know this is a difficult time, but I want our readers to know a little bit about your loved one -- what can you tell me about him (her)?"

-- Don't be afraid to ask personal questions. They can refuse to answer, but more often than not, they'll tell you lots of interesting things. “How did he (she) meet his wife?”


Getting people to open up2

Getting people to open up

-- Need a way to start the conversation? Turn the person being interviewed into a fact checker. “The funeral notice indicates Joe was born in Muleshoe in 1937. Is that correct?”

-- Find a follow-up question for every answer that's given, seeking greater detail. You learn the deceased had a favorite sweater. "Oh really, what color? Was it tattered? How long had he had it?" Or, he loved his car. "Did he use it every weekend? Would he let other people drive it? Did he get many tickets in it?"

-- If people start to cry, ask a practical question. It snaps them out of tears. "What kind of car did he (she) drive?" Or "What was his (her) favorite TV program?”


Getting people to open up3

Getting people to open up

-- Be willing to listen to the longest, most drawn-out anecdotes or recounting of a long illness, even if you know you won't use. Good detail can come from those discussions and a comfort level develops for those talking to you.

-- Insert yourself into the conversation where it's appropriate. This lets the family know you're human and understand what they are going through. "My son is the exact age of your son and was a rebel at 13, too." Or, "I, too, am horribly disorganized about paper work. Tax time is my biggest dread."It helps put people at ease.


Advance obits

ADVANCE OBITS

Being prepared


Advance obits1

ADVANCE OBITS

  • Since the hour of anyone’s death is privileged information, those of us in the news business have to be at the ready.

  • That’s why we keep a computer file filled with obits that can be put into print at a moment’s notice.


Advance obits2

ADVANCE OBITS

Writing advance obituaries of the great and the famous is a

time-honored tradition in the news business.

One of the better-known practitioners of this art, Alden

Whitman of the New York Times, was the subject of a

celebrated profile by Gay Talese that appeared in Esquire

in 1966.

The title of the article was: "Mr. Bad News," a reference to

Whitman’s practice of interviewing his subjects while they

were still among the living.


Advance obits3

ADVANCE OBITS

Perhaps the ultimate in macabre obituaries appeared in the New

York Times in July 2003.

The obit, of comedian Bob Hope, had been written in

advance by the paper’s chief film critic, Vincent Canby, who

himself had died in 2000. The Hope obit, updated by other

Times staffers, ran under Canby’s byline. "Dead men tell no tales

— except at the New York Times," wrote Keith Kelly in the New

York Post.

(Note: An obit on football legend Sammy Baugh, who died in

December 2008, was done by the Chronicle’s Neil Hohlfeld, who

had died in July 2008.)


The basic obit form

The basic obit form

  • The lede: Can use name, cause of death, life achievements, what they were known for, age at time of death, location of death. The news is the person’s death.

  • Supporting grafs: Would have info not in the lede. Reaction from friends and family. More details on significant life achievements. Background (place of birth, parents, education, military service etc.). Marriage and family information. Anecdotes from their life.

  • Near the end: info on memorial services and burial, survivors, pallbearers or distinguished visitors, charitable donation information


Obit tips on the web

OBIT TIPS ON THE WEB


Obit examples

Obit examples

Straight news lede

vs. delayed lede


Obit tips on the web1

OBIT TIPS ON THE WEB

Writing About the Dead and Loving It

Giving the Dead Their Due

The Rewards of the Obit Beat

Want to Live Forever? Write Your Own Obit


How an obit can go wrong

How an obit can go wrong

The New York Times did an

obit on longtime White

House photographer Joe

O’Donnell, who claimed to

have shot this famous photo

of JFK Jr. saluting his father

caisson. But the truth behind

the photo gets a bit hazy …

(see attached story)


Rewrites

REWRITES


Rewrites1

Rewrites

In April 2005, a “Shoe” comic strip – drawn by cartoonist Jeff MacNelly

until his death in 2000 and then taken over by his wife and partners –

depicted a barroom scene between his ethically challenged “Senator”

character and one of the senator’s aides. The senator tells the aide that

the speech that was written for him was “vague and incoherent.” The

aide apologizes and says he will go rewrite it immediately. “No!,“ shouts

the Senator. “Don’t do that! That’s exactly what I’m looking for.”


Rewrites why do it

REWRITES: Why do it?

Wire stories: Stories from wire services such as AP are written for a general audience. Stories from subscriber services, such as the NY Times, LA Times and Wash Post, tend to targeted at audiences in those markets.

  • The local angle or local impact that meets YOUR needs may be buried, or not present at all.

  • A reporter may have to gather information to “localize” the story and then may have to rewrite the story to get the local angle higher.

  • Or, the writer may have to “combine” information from several wire stories.

  • Some papers, like the NY Times, refrain from using wire copy -- they try to put a staff byline on everything.


Rewrites why do it1

REWRITES: Why do it?

News releases: You will almost never run a news release exactly as sent to you. A well-written news release, however, may need only a few cosmetic changes.

  • A story that announces promotions at a local company, for example, may require little more than checking the spelling of the names or adjusting for AP style.

  • But journalists, who are advocates for the public, should realize that PR practitioners are, at heart, advocates for their company or product. So judge the news release through that prism.

  • Watch out for “puffery” or what’s not being told.

  • Those company promotions might have been the result of mass indictments of the previous top brass.


Rewrites why do it2

REWRITES: Why do it?

Staff stories: Reporters can’t stay on the job for 24 hours, and they can’t be everywhere it once. They may have to feed their information to a designated “rewrite” man back at the shop.

  • New information may be made available after the reporter has gone, or there may be wire copy that adds quotes or fills holes.

  • An on-duty reporter or editor may have to rewrite the original story to reflect the new details.

  • Also, sometimes a story may have multiple reporters contributing information and quotes -- often a reporter back at the shop will be assigned to write the lede and organize the material into a story.


Rewrite danger areas

REWRITE DANGER AREAS


Rewrite bewares

REWRITE BEWARES

News judgment:

  • As alluded to above, make sure you aren’t missing the lede.

  • The real news may be buried under all the information you’ve gathered -- or someone could be hiding it from you.

  • Don’t take news releases at face value -- look for what’s missing.


Rewrite bewares1

REWRITE BEWARES

Transition:

  • Make sure the story still flows.

  • In theory, the inverted pyramid style should make it easier to update/rewrite stories.

  • Also, check those first references to names -- they may have been deleted or perhaps the full name is repeated.


Rewrite bewares2

REWRITE BEWARES

Style, spellings:

  • News services and PR agencies use often use their own style.

  • Reuters uses British spellings such as “honour” instead of “honor.”

  • The LA Times uses “Quaddafi” instead of “Khadafy.”

  • Some folks use “Usama” instead of “Osama.”


Exercises

EXERCISES


Exercise for grade

EXERCISE FOR GRADE

  • Write an obituary of eight to 15 paragraphs

  • Use a published source (obit or paid mortuary item) or do an obit on yourself.

    • Don’t call family members (unless you know them personally).

  • Try to put the significant life achievement(s) in the lede along with how and when the person died.


Exercise for extra credit

EXERCISE FOR EXTRA CREDIT

  • Use the news release from Southwest Airlines and the additional information provided to write a five- to eight-paragraph story. Look at the photo and judge for yourself whether this was a simple mishap or a near-tragedy.

  • Extra credit will be applied to an overall story grade.


Rewrite extra credit

Rewrite extra credit

Southwest jetliner ends up in a gas station – check out the prices.


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