Last week, I had a discussion with one of my Digital Journalism 2 students about using a rhetorical question as a lead or nut graph in opinion or feature writing. Generally, I hate the rhetorical question lead.

Why?

Because the answer to the question is the lead, or the nut. But I guess it works sometimes…

Then, I was struck right in my tender opinion that very evening by Pete Wells’ viral, scathing review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, written almost entirely as a series of questions:

What exactly about a small salad with four or five miniature croutons makes Guy’s Famous Big Bite Caesar (a) big (b) famous or (c) Guy’s, in any meaningful sense?

Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? If you hadn’t come up with the recipe yourself, would you ever guess that the shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate contains either pretzels or smoked almonds? Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?

It goes on.

I shared the piece with my student, along with a critical take on media coverage of the Broadwell – Petreaus affair from Hanna Rosin in Slate, in an attempt to expose the role of tone in writing opinion. Needless to say, she got it.

At the same time, I delivered a “challenge,” something I give the kids from time to time in order to guide the learning environment.   It looked like this:

Challenge 2: Some of you are writing, some are doing photography, others video, some graphic design, others marketing; most of you are doing a number of task types. Choose one facet of what you have been or will be doing and find a GURU. Be prepared to share what you find.

  • Dude, What’s a Guru?
  • A Guru in this case is someone who does the task that you are doing or want to be doing – and someone who does it brilliantly! Bring an awesome example to share and discuss.

Some students are looking at PSA videos, others are reading Mike Royko, others looking at Pulitzer Prize winning photo essays. This student decided to mimic the style of Wells’ piece to express her frustration with the SAT. The piece poured out of her, from

“WOW!”

first draft to published in 48 hours. I provided a touch of feedback on organization, leading to a small expansion of two paragraphs. Otherwise, all her. Writing from models is powerful.

I was so impressed with the piece that I tweeted it as an example of writing from models. Within a few hours, someone even favorited the tweet.

It was Pete Wells. The student’s response? “WOW!”

Cool.

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