Tonight in DS: October 17 — Who’s on First?

Hi everyone!

So since we are a week behind (sorry!), we’ll be playing catch-up tonight. We will complete our viewing of any short videos we didn’t get to last time. Then we’ll move on to a lecture/discussion of interviewing techniques. We’ll begin with the basics: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How.

Speaking of Who, here’s a classic —


I realize there might be some confusion about what’s due tonight. If you went ahead and completed your interview project, that’s great! We’ll take a look. If you didn’t, no worries. You  needed to complete only the checklist and post your interview source to your blog. (See the assignment from Oct. 3 to review the checklist.)

As we review interviewing techniques, we’ll take a look at a variety of interviews. For instance, we’ll look at author/graphic memoirist/ MacArthur Genius Alison Bechdel interviewed three ways:


O.k., let’s make that four ways:  Fun Home Creator Alison Bechdel on Turning a Tragic Childhood into a Hit Musical 

We’ll talk about techniques in each interview that work, or that could work better. We’ll talk about why. Also, we’ll listen in as Studs Terkel, master interviewer and oral historian, works his interview magic for the radio.


As I mentioned earlier in our course, Story Corps was founded on the ideals of Studs Terkel. We’ll go over Story Corps Great Questions List in class and talk about the who, what, where, how, and, most important maybe, why.

As Terkel knew, and as Story Corps goes on knowing, the best interviews are conversations. Here’s a lovely one between Joshua Littman and his mom:

If you haven’t downloaded the Story Corps app, here’s a link with information about it. The app might help you with this assignment and many more.


Keep working on your interviews, applying some of the concepts we covered in tonight’s class.



Tonight in Digital Storytelling: Oct. 3

Hi everyone — Tonight we’ll have a screening of your video shorts. I’m excited to see what you’ve been doing. We’ll talk about any technical or content issues you had and discuss the storytelling techniques you’ve used in your piece.

But First

We’ll start tonight by viewing a TedX Talk on the power of digital stories. This talk features Jim Jorstad, an award-winning journalist and digital storyteller. Jorstad shares his thoughts on how stories can connect us in our common humanity in a way that cell phones and social media do not.

Stories, Jorstad believes, can change the world. They always have.

Let’s give him a listen:

After we talk a little about the Tedx Talk, we’ll move on to your video shorts and workshop.

Things to talk about when we talk about storytelling

  1. Does the story have a clear narrative arc? (A beginning, a middle, an end)
  2. Does that arc feel complete (remember the snake with its tail in its mouth — come on, don’t make me draw it twice 🙂 ) ?
  3. Is the story focused?
  4. Is the purpose of the story clear and does the story have impact? (Emotional, educational, informative)
  5. What is the story meant to do for its audience?
  6. Do the visual and audio elements fit the story? Why or why not?
  7. Does the pacing feel just right (not rushed, not dragged out)?
  8. Does the story have staying power? Is it memorable?

Remember to take into consideration any points brought up in workshop. You can continue to revise all of your projects until the end of the semester. Right now, it’s important that you come to class and meet project deadlines. The quality of your work will continue to get better and better as we go. You will be able to revise accordingly for your final grade.

Your next assignment 

Next we’ll be doing some short-form reportage/interviews.

You’ll need to find a source you’d like to interview. Your source should be someone whose expertise is connected to your story-project/blog. Your source should probably be someone who’s readily accessible. So maybe not this guy:


Here’s what you should have completed for next week:

  1. Choose your source. 
  2. Gather background information on your source/your subject. Research. (More about this in class.)
  3. Contact your source and arrange for a time to meet. Let your source know both why and how you’ll be conducting the interview. Why do you want to talk with this person? How much time will you need? Will you use audio or video recordings or both? Will you be taking a series of still photos to use as part of your story?
  4. Consider all of the above things, too, when you decide where to meet your source. Meet in a place that will add sensory interest to your story. If you’re interviewing a chef, for instance, you probably want to be in that chef’s kitchen and not in the campus library. Plan location, equipment, and so on in advance. 
  5. If you will need help on location (video recording, audio recording, photography), contact a helper who will be available for your meeting with your source.
  6. Draft a series of questions for your interview. Approach your interview like a conversation. Be ready to go off script, but decide in advance what you’d like to cover in the story and why.
  7. Post a teaser photo of your source and a Coming Soon preview (just a few lines), along with a brief bio for your source, on your blog before class next week. 

Your interview piece will be due October 17. When complete, it should be approximately two minutes long (video/audio), or 750 words of text with interactive digital elements or still photos.

We’ll spend next class on interviewing techniques and reportage skills, so don’t worry if you haven’t done this before. I’ve got you.




Tonight in Digital Storytelling: Sept. 19

I hope you all had a great week!

Tonight, we’ll be workshopping your short and longer digital essays. We’ll work in small groups first, then each group will nominate one story to share with the whole class. I’ll be moving from group to group to help and offer editorial suggestions.

Sometimes, when I move from group to group, it can feel creepy. Kind of like this:


Thanks, David Clode, for the awesome shark pic!

Anyway, please remember I’m here to help make your storytelling the best it can be and there are no silly questions, so ask away.

Some things to consider:

  • Is the story engaging and written for the site’s specific audience?
  • Is the writing clear and precise? Error-free?
  • Do the visual or other digital elements serve the story?
  • Is there anything — either text or other elements — that should be cut?
  • Is there anything — either text or other elements — that might be added?
  • Does the story seem to fit the overall theme and goal of the site?
  • Is the storyteller’s voice vivid? Is it compelling for its audience?

Please make sure I have your website address on our main class site. If not, please be sure to tell me tonight when I’m doing my shark-circles so I can add it. I want to be sure you’re getting credit for doing your work well and on time.


About next week:

I will need to be away from campus next week and so we will not have our regularly-scheduled class. However, you will be working on a project that should take you about two weeks to complete. That project will be due in class once we return on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

Here’s the assignment:

Your first short video story. Here’s a great example from the Center for Digital Storytelling:  SOFAS.

Using an app like iMovie/Garageband or something else (here’s WeVideo, for instance), you’ll create your first short video story. Your story should be short, maybe just a minute or two. Here are the steps you’ll take to create it.

  1. The idea. — What story would you like to tell? Remember to keep it simple and specific. The more specific you are — a video about how to make the best chocolate-chip cookies; a video about how to play the cowbell; etc. — the better. Match your story to the overall concept of your site. Otherwise, the subject/approach is wide open.
  2. Write your story. — Try to stick to around 500 words. Make sure your story has a good narrative arc (a beginning, a middle, and an end).
  3. Storyboard — Think of this as a rough cartoon sketch. You should have approximately six to nine panels, depending on the length of your story and how many elements you’ll add to tell your story. You don’t have to be an artist to sketch out your storyboard. What do you want to show first? Sketch that into a frame — stick figures will do. And so on. Here’s a nice, simple video that walks you through all of these steps.
  4. Gather your elements. — Compile video clips, photos, sound bites, background music and more. Use your storyboard to help you dream up the best elements to tell your particular story.
  5. Pull it all together. — Using iMovie or your preferred app, bring your story to life. This will take some experimenting and some time, so don’t stress if it doesn’t come together quickly. Creating digital stories is a process, and the more you play with the tech tools available to you, the better you’ll get at building the elements of your narrative into a great digital story.

We’ll view your complete stories on Oct. 3.

Assignment for September 19

Following up on what we covered in class, please write a slightly longer (up to 900 words) essay about the subject of your choice. Illustrate the essay with digital elements (photos, sound clips, video clips, etc.).

Pay attention to the advice for, and examples of, good writing we covered in class.

Also, here are some tips from George Orwell’s great essay, “Politics and the English Language.”


  1. Never use a long word when a short one will do.
  2. Never use a long sentence when a short one will do.
  3. Always choose the active over the passive voice. (Bill threw the ball = good; The ball was thrown by Bill = not so good)
  4. Never use a foreign phrase or expression, or jargon, when there is an everyday English equivalent.
  5. Never use a phrase or expressions you’re accustomed to hearing or seeing in print (the anti-cliche rule)
  6. Break any of these rules before you do something barbarous.

And here are a few more tips from Kurt Vonnegut, who knew some things about good writing:


Find a Subject You Care About

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Do Not Ramble, Though

I won’t ramble on about that.

Keep It Simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

Have the Guts to Cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like Yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.


I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Say What You Mean to Say

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Pity the Readers

Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

For Really Detailed Advice

For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.

Tonight in Digital Storytelling: September 12

Tonight we’ll be workshopping your noun-based stories. We’ll work in small groups first, then select several stories to workshop together.

I’ll also be lecturing a bit on the importance of good writing/storytelling and highlighting some great sites and apps for you to use.


Among the concepts we’ll be covering:

  • What is the personal essay? Assay — to try, to attempt. Personal — of you, from your unique point of view.
  • An artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant.
  • Writing what you know and writing what you don’t know.
  • What readers don’t know.
  • Writing and storytelling as magic.
  • The importance of emotional reactions — for the writer, for the reader. “The job of the writer isn’t to weep on the page. The job of the writer is to make the tears go off in the reader.” — Poet Michael Afaa Weaver
  • Resonance.
  • The difference between personal essays/stories and diaries. Why privacy isn’t a part of the personal.
  • What does it mean to be reader-friendly?
  • Why finding a healthy distance matters.
  • The KISS rule of good writing
  • Is it interesting? Is it true? Is it good?
  • What we know about audience:
    • Our audience does not know us
    • This audience is not by default eager to read/engage with our stories
    • This audience has no intrinsic stake in whatever problems, joys, interests we have in our lives
    • This audience is looking for something of value, something that will enrich their existence. Make them glad to have come across your story.



This week, you’ll complete two posts.

The first post will be a micro-personal essay about the subject you’ve chosen to focus on this term. You can write about how you first came to love/appreciate your subject. You can write a funny/moving anecdote. You can write your essay as a brief letter or series of post-it notes, as a kind of hybrid/list poem or prose poem, etc. If you’d like some inspiration, check out the micro essays here and here. You can also find slightly longer inspirations (750 words max) at Brevity Magazine. Your essay should be very short — let’s say between 250 words and 500.  Make every word count (lose those adjective and adverbs; lean on nouns and verbs; stick to a moment, an observation, etc.). When you’re finished, give your micro-essay a nice title and post it without illustration or comment.

Now, for your second post, illustrate your micro-essay. You can do this in any way you choose — audio recordings (you or someone else reading your essay; background sounds that add layers to your essay; music that works with your word/images and so on), still images, short video clips, a series of memes, etc.

Check out samples at Cowbird and StoryCorps.

Visit Storycenter for great examples of short essays and stories.

Here’s a simple essay example:  America Needs Nerds

Here are some samples of poets reading their work: best poetry slams with a message

Here are samples of video poems.

And here are step-by-step guidelines from Owlcation.

Be sure to complete both posts and post them to your blogs by 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11.


Tonight in Digital Storytelling: September 5

Tonight we’ll workshop your blog intros and take a peek at your blogs in class. Be sure your blog is live and ready.

Here are some things we’ll be looking at in your intros:

  • Precision:  We’re checking to be sure there are no typos or grammatical errors. You want to have simple, clear, precise sentences.

creative writing meme

  • Audience                                                                                                                                            Your intro should reflect your understanding of your audience (and that audience stretches far beyond our class, of course). Your intro should speak directly to that audience and give enough information so your audience feels like they know you well enough to keep coming back.


  • Creativity/Writing: We’ll look at your content, your voice, and the overall quality of your writing. We’ll also talk about how clearly you’ve conveyed the overall concept of your blog in your intro.
  • Creativity/Digital Elements: We’ll look at your use of photos, links, etc. as a way to share a fuller story of who you are.


Mistakes? No worries! You’ll be able to revise and enhance your intros after workshop. That’s why they call it workshop.


In class writing:  No idea but in things.

After workshop (or before — depends how we’re feeling), we’ll spend some time writing a draft of what will become your next blog entry.

Here’s the gist:

  1. Make a list of five things/concrete nouns that are important to you and that are connected to the subject of your blog. By concrete nouns, I mean things you can touch and experience through your other senses. Things like desk. Pencil. Couch. Ceramic poodle magnet.
  2. Now, come closer. Describe each noun. Are there initials carved into the desk? Whose? When were they carved? Is there gum stuffed underneath it? Is the pencil chewed down to a nub? Are there coffee stains on the couch? What does the couch fabric feel like on your legs? What’s stuffed under the poodle magnet on the fridge? What does the couch smell like? What does the pencil taste like? Use all your senses to describe each noun in detail. You’re trying to make the object real for your reader. Use everything you have to get there.
  3. Now, choose one of those items that is most important to you. Choose the item that has a story to it, one that has emotional impact for you. Write it out. What is the history of this item? Why did you put it on this list? What do you think it might be a metaphor for in your life? Why is it important to you? How do you feel about it? What does this item say about you, your world, what it all means? Keep the focus on the item, not on ideas. Show more, tell less.

You’ll take this draft and work it into a blog post for next week. As you revise and polish your writing, you’ll also gather photos of your object and use them to illustrate your story. You may also use sound elements (if your object is, say, your childhood drum kit… there you go) or a short video to illustrate your story.

Here are some samples to help you think about your own post:

“Graphology,” by Brooke Hessler from the Center for Digital Storytelling

“Sofas,” by Wayne Richard from the Center for Digital Storytelling

“Snapshot,” by Leah Potts from the Center for Digital Storytelling

Jim Jarmusch’s  “Paterson” is a great film and a beautiful example of how poems can be conveyed in new ways. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Also, just for fun reading, here’s a great article about the film and about the poet Ron Padgett, whose work is featured in the film: “No Ideas But In Non-Digital Things.”

Also, look at samples on Cowbird. Cowbird uses mostly still photos/images coupled with text to tell stories (not a lot of tech-intimidation there). A Cowbird-modeled story would be perfect for your post, too.

Some great ways to create your story:

GarageBand ($4.99)

iMovie ($14.99)

There are many other free apps available for both iPhone and Android. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Focus on revising and polishing your writing first, then on choosing digital elements or an element that enhances and expands your story.

Post your polished piece with digital elements by 5 p.m. next Tuesday.