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First, Ask Questions (Com-tips)

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

It was 39 years ago, in Journalism 101 class, that I learned the importance of asking questions.

“It’s a tool called ‘the 5 w’s and the h,’” said Mr. Moses, a no-nonsense character and the best "J-School" teacher I ever had.

As a “Mr.” — not “Dr.”— he had come to the classroom from the beat, some smoke-filled newsroom that left its mark on his gravelly voice, cigarette-stained fingers, and ability to sift kernels of news “wheat” from mounds of student “chaff.”

On the first day of class, Mr. Moses said, “If you don’t know how to get started with your writing, just ask these questions.” He held up his hand, palm outward.

“First there’s the who –” he said, folding his thumb against his palm. “Who is your story about? He’s more than a name. Flesh him out.”

Continuing down the list, he dropped one stubby finger at a time. “Then there’s the what, the where, the when, the why.”

With all fingers folded, he popped his fist against his other palm, saying, “And don’t forget the how."

Mr. Moses had just gifted me the keys to unlock truths I would package in a zillion ways during the years to come.

I first tried out my new tool as a reporter for the college newspaper. I'd hoped for an exciting beat, like the school cops. Unfortunately, my music background prompted someone in charge to assign me the Music School. Seriously? How could anyone come up with interesting articles week after week about music theory class or the marching band?

My first interview was with a visiting violinist from Russia. He had trouble speaking English, and I had trouble being interested in the violin. But as I took a seat across from him in the practice room, I remembered the 5 w's and the h. I asked him about his name and where he came from. Those simple questions ushered in a flood of such colorful stories that I soon forgot to take notes.

I can’t recall the details of the interview that day, but I remember one thing quite clearly. He played a piece for me. It was magical. When he finished, he released the violin from beneath his chin. That's when I spotted something on the left side of his neck. It was an angry-looking red mark, roughly 2-inches long. It looked like a wound, one I realized had been inflicted by none other than the instrument he so passionately practiced for hours each day. Today, a quick Internet search (not possible back then) provides a name for this occupational condition. Called “fiddler’s neck,” it’s a kind of tattoo identifying someone as a violinist when there isn’t an instrument in sight. For a young reporter like me, that mark served as evidence of my subject artist’s dedication. But I wouldn’t have even noticed it if he hadn’t played for me. And he wouldn’t have played if I hadn’t indicated an interest -- which happened only after I had asked a few basic questions. Questions had paved the way.

Another bit of advice from Mr. Moses: “I don’t care how dull you think someone is, every person in the world is worth at least one feature story.”

I’ll go into that little gem in another article, but I mention it here in connection with asking questions because, without asking the questions, we may never learn the stories, any of them.

These days, I often describe Mr. Moses and the “w-h tool” to my own students. Over the years, I’ve found the tool comes in handy in a variety of circumstances, professional and otherwise.

“So Zach,” I said to one of last year’s freshman English students. “Imagine you’re at a party on campus, and a gorgeous girl walks up to you and smiles. What do you say to her?”

Zach and Chris, his lacrosse pal in the adjacent seat, sat up wide-eyed and tongue-tied

— probably remembering that girl, the one they saw at the frat party the night before. I encouraged a bit of role play referencing the 5 w's and h, which resulted in plenty of laughs all around.

Zach said, “OK, here’s a question I could ask her: ‘Who did you come here with?”

Other students nodded their heads and mumbled words of support.

“How’s this one?” asked Chris. “What game do you like better – Beer Pong or Flip Cup?”

“Good one,” said Zach. “How about, ‘Hey - what is your Snapchat?’”

“Hmm, that’s alright,” said Chris, “but don’t beg for it. Then you’ll just look pitiful.”

Zach said, “How about, ‘Where do you live?’”

“Oh, that’s just creepy!” said the girl on the back row. “You might as well ask her where her keys are or whats her Social Security Number.”

Someone else said, “Yeah, after that, ask her when she’s going to stop talking to you because I guarantee it won’t be long.”

These students realized basic questions could start conversations and get them thinking about other people, rather than their own insecurities. For writers, asking basic questions before writing anything can distill important information so they can set goals and methodically move forward.

Reporters usually go to the first four w’s -- who, what, when, and where – when they get the call to cover a story. “What is that smoke? Where is the fire located? When did it start? Who can I talk to about it?” They may not even get to the why at first.

Why did the fire start?”

Solving the why mystery can eventually illuminate a number of interesting possibilities – a stove left on, a poor wiring system, a drunk resident, etc. Learning reasons why may require digging to uncover context, motive, or other information that can be addressed in a follow-on article.

I admit that my article on the Russian violinist went through several drafts before it was ready for publication. As he read my first version, Mr. Moses mumbled something like “yada yada yada,” then handed the paper back.

“OK I have a question for you. Here it is:” he said. “SO WHAT?”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Think about the so-what factor,” he said. “You’ve gathered a lot of information here, but now you have to package it so that it matters to the reader.”

Making it matter posts a tougher challenge than asking basic questions. Even today, when writing something 39 years later, I’m asking myself, “So what? Why should this matter?"

But at least I know what questions to ask to get me started.

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