"There has to be tension. There has to be an adversary."
June 12, 2017 10:27 AM   Subscribe

There are plenty of writing guides by the old guard, so how about a master class in writing narrative nonfiction with Susan Orlean, Isabel Wilkerson, Jacqui Banaszynski, Katherine Boo, Lillian Ross, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Sonia Nazario and many more women journalists.

Susan Orlean
"I also think if you’ve got writer’s block, you don’t have writer’s block. You have reporter’s block. You only are having trouble writing because you don’t actually yet know what you’re trying to say, and that usually means you don’t have enough information. That’s the signal to walk away from the keyboard, think about what it is that you don’t really know yet, and go do that reporting."
Nikole Hannah-Jones
"There has to be tension. There has to be an adversary. Maybe "villain" wasn’t the right word. It doesn’t have to be a person—it could be yourself, like in a story about a person battling a drug addiction. Or the villain could be a town. I just think, a story where there isn’t tension—something that someone is fighting against—isn’t a very good story."
Katherine Boo
"How do you find those telling details, the earned fact, and then convey them? It involves two opposite sets of skills. While reporting, you must lose control so you can accumulate the facts. While writing, you must exert maniacal control over those facts. You begin by being laid-back and hanging out. Take the great inhale so that when you exhale, you will have among your notebooks that detail that conveys so much, so economically. Weave that detail into the warp and weft of your hard facts."
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
"I keep story files. I clip and file whatever strikes me: new slang words, fashions, particular towns and neighborhoods, someone’s turn of phrase. My idea files are full of things that interest me, in ways that often aren’t clear to me. Some story ideas hit me immediately when I meet a person who engages my interest. Other ideas take years to develop in my mind, and even longer to sell to an editor. My story files provide the ammunition to convince an editor, to explain why a story is worthwhile. They allow me to draw from a whole pack of information, not just one or two anecdotes."
Anne Hull
"For starters, be conscious of the distancing language that inhabits most newspaper stories. Set a goal for intimacy. As a reporter, be physically present to witness and absorb, if even for three hours. Have all your sensory pistons firing: seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. In trying to convey the nuances of a culture or neighborhood, the drama is in the small observed or spoken exchanges, and one needs to be there to see it unfold."
  • Poynter: The Invisible Reporter: Q&A with Anne Hull
  • Nieman Reports: Creating an Investigative Narrative
  • Media School: Pulitzer winner Anne Hull urges students to pay attention, be curious
  • Poynter: A Remarkable Narrative

Jacqui Banaszynski
"There are five things that need to be in any piece of narrative, and I believe narrative can be a line, a paragraph, or a whole long piece. You need to have character, there has to be something or someone for the reader to hold on to or for you to build the story around. The trick is character does not have to be a person. It can be a place. It can be a thing. It can be a moment, but you have to have a central character."
Wendy Ruderman
"Readers like stories that pull back the curtain on a crime, whether that's uncovering police corruption or tracking a serial killer. I also think that readers (people in general) are riveted by the darker side of people."
  • Working Mother: BUSTED: How Two Journalists Balance Motherhood and Investigation
  • Investigative Reporters and Editors: The Ethics of Sourcing tipsheet and audio (paywall)
  • NPR: Covering 'Tainted Justice' And Winning A Pulitzer [audio]

Diana Marcum
"There’s a saying. I don’t remember who said it, but my dad used to say it a lot: "Angels can fly if they take themselves lightly." I think that’s true for a story, too. When you’re talking about something that’s very wrenching and has a lot of pathos, if it’s just all the grit and despair, it’s not servicing telling the reality because the kind of people that I’m writing about are very resilient, and they have humor. And there’s something to be admired there. And it usually comes through in the lighter moments. And you don’t care as much about the dark unless there’s at least a little pinpoint of light."
Isabel Wilkerson
"In fact, the kind of narrative writer I am moves from the ground up. I get the stories from the people I meet; I get my energy from the people that I’m interviewing. I don’t like to have any preconceived notions when I’m going in. I like to hear the story as it unfolds in front of me. Particularly with narrative, it’s got to be about the story that’s being told, it’s got to be about the character, the protagonist whose story you’re hearing. If you go in with a preconceived idea or too much information, you might miss something, because it doesn’t sound as fresh or as new to you, because you kind of know it already."
Alma Guillermoprieto
"This is where ideal readers do the work of writing their own book as they read the one you wrote. But I don’t think that in this arid century writers can wax all poetic and intentionally make architecture or trees or waves stand in for hope or lust or beauty without the reader falling about in helpless laughter."
  • BOMB: Alma Guillermoprietov (with translator Esther Allen)
  • Nieman Reports: Talking About Narrative Journalism
  • Nieman Storyboard: "Why’s this so good?" No. 6: Alma Guillermoprieto’s view on Bogota
  • Harvard University: Alma Guillermoprieto on Making Art Out of Fright [video]

Lane DeGregory
"Every journalist is going to say that they try to be objective, but I don’t really think there is such a thing in people stories. You can’t help whether you like somebody or you don’t like somebody. It happens even if you try not to. You know, I just try to find the other side of that. Sometimes that person helps; even the most egregious people that I write about, if I can find something human or something that makes that connection with the readers, I think that’s important."
DeNeen Brown
"When you write about your own experiences, prepare yourself for strong reactions from those you write about, from your colleagues, and from your readers. I often tell people, "You may have read the story, but you know only as much as I revealed." People bring their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs to the stories you write. That’s okay. People’s judgments can be difficult to deal with, but they are inevitable."
Melissa Fay Greene
"I learned in Praying for Sheetrock, when I interviewed hostile witnesses, basically, I told them, I can't promise you'll like the finished product, but I promise to be faithful to your words and not twist your words out of context. I will relay your words as you're telling me, and I'll relay your story as you present it." And I do something that I know a lot of writers don't: I send the quotes to the people I've interviewed. "Is this it? Is this correct?"
Lillian Ross
"Be interested in your subject, not in yourself. Listen carefully, with your own ears; don't turn over the job to a tape recorder to listen for you. Be accurate, honest, responsible. Do homework and be prepared. Your point of view should be implicit in your choice of facts and quotes in your report. Don't exploit your position as a reporter to divest yourself of pettiness, bitterness, jealousy, prejudice, resentment. Don't be catty. Don't gossip about people who try to help you in your reporting. Don't gossip about your colleagues. Don't try to go where you're not welcome. Don't write about anybody you don't like. Try to be original by following your own instincts, your own ideas, your own thinking. Find the humor in everything you see or hear or feel. If you have anything to say, about the world, about life, look for a way to say it without making a speech. Have a baby before you reach forty."
  • The New Yorker: The Fun Of It: Lillian Ross discusses The Talk of of the Town
  • The New Yorker: Hemingway Told Me Things [paywall]
  • Nieman Storyboard: Annotation Tuesday! Lillian Ross and Ernest Hemingway
  • Denver Post: Lillian Ross on Her Seven-Decade Journalism Career in "Reporting Back"
  • CSPAN: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town [video]

Sonia Nazario
"As a reporter, you have to accept that you’re going to see a lot of misery and, with children in particular, that’s really hard. You’re going to see them go through really, really difficult things, especially with this kind of fly-on-the-wall reporting. But I think that brings an immediacy and a power to the story of being there, witnessing it, showing it in a present tense that you don’t otherwise get." Beth Schwartzapfel
"I think of [tiny narratives] as raisins in oatmeal, or the signs people hold on the sidelines of a marathon. They’re little surprises or jolts of pleasure to remind people of what they’re reading and why it matters."
Kathryn Schulz
"But then I thought, "Oh my God, Kathryn, this is a mega natural disaster that we’re talking about—give the people what they want!" I realized that it was not the moment to be lyrical and sleepy and slowly build the subject. It was the moment to really put people inside this experience, and let them see it unfold, see what it’s like. And place can be powerful, but sometimes people are more powerful. "
Amy Ellis Nutt
"My editor was so good at helping me with the process of weaving in the science and the history without being too obtrusive and interrupting the narrative. It’s like weaving a fabric. You have different colors, but you don’t want them to contrast too much. You want to be subtle. Instead of plopping something big in, break it up. You need to figure out how to make it all a smooth ride but with just enough disruption to keep people interested in turning the pages."
  • Columbia: Pulitzer Prize Panel: Hiding in Plain Sight [video]

Michelle Nijhuis
"The most memorable science writing—and, I would argue, the most powerful— also puts humans back in the equation, introducing the reader to both the people behind the science and the people affected by it, for better and worse. It transcends the genre, becoming not just good science writing but just good writing, and as such it unlocks entire fields of research for the rest of us."
Joan Didion
"In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space."
posted by not_the_water (16 comments total) 135 users marked this as a favorite
"Favorite" button MASHED
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 10:53 AM on June 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Many, many thanks for this.
posted by AccidentalHedonist at 11:04 AM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you, not-the-water. I sent this to my kid, who is a budding writer. I've only touched the surface, and can see what a great collection this is, and how valuable it will be later, since I've learned that one usually can't learn everything all at once.
posted by dubwisened at 11:42 AM on June 12, 2017

Best post contest is next month!
posted by Kabanos at 11:53 AM on June 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sending this to all of my writer friends RIGHT NOW thank you
posted by yueliang at 12:01 PM on June 12, 2017

Incredible, thank you.
posted by msalt at 12:23 PM on June 12, 2017

What a resource! Thanks so much for putting this together.
posted by oulipian at 12:37 PM on June 12, 2017

Best post contest is next month!

You just won in my books.
posted by Fizz at 12:42 PM on June 12, 2017

Jesus O'Donohue, I'll be working through this for WEEKS. Thank you.
posted by mrettig at 12:54 PM on June 12, 2017

As someone new to the being-paid-to-write game, this is incredible.

Thank you.
posted by matrixclown at 12:59 PM on June 12, 2017

This is tremendous. Thank you so, so much!
posted by Annabelle74 at 1:23 PM on June 12, 2017


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This is amazing.

This is kliuless-level great.

I'll be back in a couple of years when I've finished reading half these links.

posted by kristi at 5:40 PM on June 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

A researcher par excellence! Thanks muchly.
posted by smudgedlens at 10:33 AM on June 13, 2017

I've read over 20 links so far and I'm not even halfway done. This is amazing.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:04 AM on June 14, 2017

This is one of those posts about a thing that doesn't really apply to me but I wish it did because I can tell it's like the best post ever on the thing, and I'm really happy for everyone in this thread that is super excited about it.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:23 AM on June 14, 2017

tremendous. Thank you so much.
posted by aesop at 11:37 AM on June 15, 2017

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