• What makes “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” so good?

    Aaron’s right. Go read An Unbelievable Story of Rape, by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. Read it for the content, but also read it for the style.

    As one who wants to improve writing (my own and that of those I advise), I’ll highlight four of the piece’s stylistic strengths.

    1. It’s inherently a good story. Yeah, this is not quite style. It’s arguably content. But I’m putting it partially in the style bucket because there’s an art to finding a good story. Or, more precisely, there’s an art to noticing that there’s a good story within the relative cacophony of a subject area or general topic.

    An author can’t just say, “I’m going to write about rape. Go!” There’s a ton of work before the writing happens making that far more specific. In any space, there are myriad directions to shine one’s flashlight. It takes a sense of style to find the right one.

    How does one find the right one? I don’t know, exactly. I have no idea how others do it. One way I know when I have something worth writing about (or, rule out things not worth writing about) is to see if I can write one to three sentences that are compelling enough to me and others (e.g., editors) that they demand more. Here’s three sentences from the lede of their piece that I imagine Miller and Armstrong might have (or could have) pitched:

    She had reported being raped in her apartment by a man who had bound and gagged her. Then, confronted by police with inconsistencies in her story, she had conceded it might have been a dream. Then she admitted making the story up.

    2. It’s told in parallel threads, until the end. Until close to the end, the piece bounces back-and-forth between the case of the recanted rape and another set of rapes across the country and several years later. Both stories are compelling. All but the most naive readers know they must have something to do with each other — otherwise, what’s the point? But how? That suspense is useful. It makes one want to keep reading.

    The art isn’t employing this device, which is fairly common. Anyone can do that once they know it’s possible. The art is doing it well. I imagine the authors spent some time figuring out just when and how to switch back and forth, how many hints to leave, as well as how to end the suspense and come clean with the connection.

    I noticed one, repeated stylistic element in the switching. Just before many of the switches, the authors wrapped things up with a paragraph consisting of a single, short, often declarative sentence. It’s nice. It prepares the reader for a switch. Here they are:

    • “She took the deal.”
    • “‘We have one just like that,’ he said.”
    • “‘It was awesome.'”
    • “‘Am I in trouble?’ Marie asked the detective.”
    • “She emailed a crime analyst at another police department, ‘I so want to see this guy’s leg! BAD.'”
    • “Lynnwood, Washington.”
    • “He left the room, and walked to the front door, and he was gone.”

    3. The language is simple. The sentences are short. This is a very clean piece. It’s not larded up with lots of fancy words. It’s an easy read. This is good style! The authors are not jumping up and down shouting, “Hey, look at how many big words we know. We’re so smart!” Readers who notice should be impressed with how much work they did in getting out of the way and letting the story shine through. Readers who don’t notice are doing what they should be, just enjoying the work, not fighting through long sentences and fancy language.

    A sample:

    After a pause, O’Leary opened the door. He looked confused and shocked as he stepped out into the bright winter sun. Two dogs, a small pit bull and a Shar-Pei, tumbled out ahead of him. He wore a gray hoodie, baggy gray sweatpants and gray slip-on houseshoes. He was alone.

    How many of us would write this so simply? “He was alone.” That’s a great sentence to end this paragraph. I confess, I might have thought to work in that he was alone earlier. Good, simple-sounding style is not so simple!

    4. Quotes do a lot of work. The piece is threaded with quotes. They work so well because the authors weaved them in so nicely. It’s so well done that one hardly notices. That’s excellent, but hard!

    After rushing to the apartment that morning, Peggy found Marie on the floor, crying. “But it was so strange because I sat down next to her, and she was telling me what happened, and I got this — I’m a big Law & Order fan, and I just got this really weird feeling,” Peggy says. “It was like, I felt like she was telling me the script of a Law & Order story.” Part of it was what Marie was saying. Why would a rapist use shoelaces to tie her up? And part of it was how Marie was saying it: “She seemed so detached and removed emotionally.”

    Peggy’s words are used to move the story forward. Great!

    Probably all these stylistic elements are obvious to good journalists and writers. They’re not to me. I have to look for them. When I read a piece of good writing I try to identify why I found it so good. When applicable, I try to emulate. I suspect that’s how to improve.

    @afrakt

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