Wall Street Journal

WSJ mentor’s tip: Dig for the “why”

By Lauren Edwards

I felt insulted as a newbie reporter when Urban C. Lehner — then of the Tokyo bureau of the Wall Street Journal — taught me that the most important question is “why.” Now a tech PR writing coach, I’ve passed his advice to countless PR professionals.

Urban’s words to me at the time: “You’re a better writer than you are a reporter.”

Ouch!

In other words, writers write, but reporters dig. And I was just writing, not digging.

After taking his observation to heart, I delved deeper to find the back story, the precursor events or some other underlying dynamic.

Before this, even though I was a reporter, I didn’t ask enough questions — of myself, not just of the people I interviewed.

In technology PR, I see the same problem. Many people tend to rearrange marketing and product jargon into college-essay sentences with nice transitions.

Instead, they should be selectively ignoring some of the provided information and delving into “why,”  as in why it should matter to the audience. And why now? What’s at stake? So what?

Try asking “so what?” after each of your answers, at least four times in a row. Multiple “so whats” usually get you to the root of the matter.

Once I began taking Urban’s advice on a regular basis, I became a Page One regular at the small-town daily where I worked at the time. Soon thereafter, I won first place for feature writing in California’s newspaper equivalent of the Academy Awards (CNPA Awards).

During the time between writing the award-winning feature and getting the award for it, I got hired by the Associated Press. I worked in the Fresno, San Francisco and Tokyo bureaus — a nice step up.

Urban’s advice on “the why” made all the difference.

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Lauren Edwards is a former reporter for the Associated Press. She has been creating, customizing and delivering workshops for science and technology teams since 2000.

WriteCulture is now booking workshops for 2019. Click here to start an exploratory conversation.

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(Photo: Kevin Dooley/cc/flickr)