Five More Questions with Maria Carrillo

Interviews

Maria Carrillo is a consultant and coach after spending 36 years in seven newsrooms. She was an enterprise editor at the Tampa Bay Times and Houston Chronicle and, before that, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot. She has edited dozens of award-winning projects, frequently lectures on narrative journalism, co-hosts a podcast (WriteLane) about craft and has been a Pulitzer Prize juror six times. She is a board member of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Press Photographers Association. Carrillo was born in Washington, D.C., two years after her parents left Cuba in exile. She now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with her husband, and they have two grown children. Don’t miss Maria’s original 4 Questions interview.

Before your recent retirement, you edited narrative journalism for decades at several newspapers. What are the characteristics of an excellent narrative writer? What makes one stand out?

The best narrative writers I’ve worked with are amazing reporters. Some people think that it’s all about the quality of the writing, this incredible prose that narrative folks can deliver. But everything is driven by the reporting, by the heartbreaking and stark and emotional details that they come back with. 

So they must be great interviewers, empathetic and patient. They must be observant and also willing to make the extra effort to figure out what kind of tree that is, what the weather was like that day, what bus route the homeless kid took. They must be genuinely curious and not settle for someone’s first response but peel back layers. They must be driven by a desire to understand – and explain – the world around us. 

And yes, ultimately, the best ones know how to tell great stories. They know how to focus, to produce stories that go a mile deep and an inch wide. They know to be spare in the most dramatic moments. They know to deliver payoffs that make the journey worthwhile. 

But here’s the thing, too – the best narrative writers I’ve known are people who learned to do the work by spending time on craft. Many didn’t get these lessons in j-school or early in their careers. 

What advice would you give a journalist interested in writing narratives, but whose daily assignments keep them tied to breaking news? Can you do both?

You can, but you have to learn to look for narrative possibilities, and you have to have the courage and determination to pursue them. Those stories take more effort. 

I teach people to report as they normally would during breaking news, taking in everything and interviewing everyone they can. But then they should consider whether they can tell a narrative off the news. Is there someone available at that moment, a stakeholder whose story you may be able to tell quickly. If you find that person, go deeper. Report for narrative. 

For instance, at the scene of an accident, it might be a witness who is willing to share what they saw, and you weave the “news” into their account. Others involved may take months or years to tell their story. The same applies during event coverage. A festival story might be a bore, but maybe there’s someone there who has a compelling backstory and the moment means a great deal to them. 

In every case, you can’t force it. There has to be something compelling that drives the story. That witness, are they sharing information that provides deeper meaning to what just unfolded? Is it a story that many people can relate to or could be moved by? If not, let it go, turn in a standard story and try again the next time.

And don’t forget – let your editor know what you’re doing. Don’t spring a daily narrative on her if she’s expecting something traditional.

What do you love about narratives? Why are they so important?

As a young journalist, I found myself quickly uninspired. I learned to put together basic stories, using the inverted pyramid, and occasionally veering off into something deeper. But I didn’t feel challenged or motivated.

I became a journalist to be a storyteller, but often, we didn’t tell stories. We conveyed information, nicely written, perhaps, and in clear form, but they didn’t often move people. I wanted to make people care – about another person or an issue that deserved attention. Once I discovered narratives, I came alive. 

I remember a story where I spent time with an elderly couple, and the husband had Alzheimer’s. This was in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and it was a topic that was then generating lots of scary, generic headlines. But getting to know these folks personally, seeing what the wife was going through, sharing that pain, having readers react. Wow. 

People often read narratives to the end. They come away inspired or sad or angry, but they come away with emotion. They learn, maybe something they didn’t even realize they needed to learn. They connect with the human experience, and that’s so important, especially in times like these, when we’re always taking sides.

As journalists, we have a responsibility to answer questions, and daily, we tackle the who, what, when and where. But narratives are often the best way to answer the why and how, which are more complex and revelatory.

What are the most glaring mistakes writers make when crafting narratives and how can they avoid them?

The story must dictate the form, and that’s where I see the biggest problems.

Reporters sometimes try to force narratives – write a chronology without meaning. There has to be a reason we’re going on this journey, and if that’s not clear, then don’t try to write a narrative.

A narrative has to have a singular purpose, a defining theme that can be summed up, ideally, in one word. If you can’t do that, again, you probably don’t have the right ingredients for this story.

It’s important to have accessible characters, people willing to open up. They can be imperfect but need to be cooperative. There should be opportunities for scene-setting, either something observed or retold. There must be tension, something that’s being overcome or tackled in the story. Imagine The Sound of Music without Nazis?

Other common mistakes: Trying to compress the reporting instead of being selective. Make the hard choices. Don’t include too many characters. Don’t share a scene that has nothing to do with your theme. Don’t fall in love with the first words you wrote (again, they may not be serving the greater purpose). 

You remain an active coach and teacher. What’s the most important lesson you’re trying to impart about narratives to writers and editors?

Our industry believed for too long that readers would be drawn to our work just because it was important. But as we’ve learned, we need to earn those readers, to make them see value in what we do. 

Narratives can help save us.

They inspire readers, to fix problems, to connect with neighbors, to care.

They drive loyalty to certain newsrooms and favorite writers.

They are worth the time and effort.

Maria Carrillo is a consultant and coach after spending 36 years in seven newsrooms. She was an enterprise editor at the Tampa Bay Times and Houston Chronicle and, before that, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot. She has edited dozens of award-winning projects, frequently lectures on narrative journalism, co-hosts a podcast (WriteLane) about craft and has been a Pulitzer Prize juror six times. She is a board member of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Press Photographers Association. Carrillo was born in Washington, D.C., two years after her parents left Cuba in exile. She now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with her husband, and they have two grown children.

Before your recent retirement, you edited narrative journalism for decades at several newspapers. What are the characteristics of an excellent narrative writer? What makes one stand out?

The best narrative writers I’ve worked with are amazing reporters. Some people think that it’s all about the quality of the writing, this incredible prose that narrative folks can deliver. But everything is driven by the reporting, by the heartbreaking and stark and emotional details that they come back with. 

So they must be great interviewers, empathetic and patient. They must be observant and also willing to make the extra effort to figure out what kind of tree that is, what the weather was like that day, what bus route the homeless kid took. They must be genuinely curious and not settle for someone’s first response but peel back layers. They must be driven by a desire to understand – and explain – the world around us. 

And yes, ultimately, the best ones know how to tell great stories. They know how to focus, to produce stories that go a mile deep and an inch wide. They know to be spare in the most dramatic moments. They know to deliver payoffs that make the journey worthwhile. 

But here’s the thing, too – the best narrative writers I’ve known are people who learned to do the work by spending time on craft. Many didn’t get these lessons in j-school or early in their careers. 

2. What advice would you give a journalist interested in writing narratives, but whose daily assignments keep them tied to breaking news? Can you do both?

You can, but you have to learn to look for narrative possibilities, and you have to have the courage and determination to pursue them. Those stories take more effort. 

I teach people to report as they normally would during breaking news, taking in everything and interviewing everyone they can. But then they should consider whether they can tell a narrative off the news. Is there someone available at that moment, a stakeholder whose story you may be able to tell quickly. If you find that person, go deeper. Report for narrative. 

For instance, at the scene of an accident, it might be a witness who is willing to share what they saw, and you weave the “news” into their account. Others involved may take months or years to tell their story. The same applies during event coverage. A festival story might be a bore, but maybe there’s someone there who has a compelling backstory and the moment means a great deal to them. 

In every case, you can’t force it. There has to be something compelling that drives the story. That witness, are they sharing information that provides deeper meaning to what just unfolded? Is it a story that many people can relate to or could be moved by? If not, let it go, turn in a standard story and try again the next time.

And don’t forget – let your editor know what you’re doing. Don’t spring a daily narrative on her if she’s expecting something traditional.

3. What do you love about narratives? Why are they so important?

As a young journalist, I found myself quickly uninspired. I learned to put together basic stories, using the inverted pyramid, and occasionally veering off into something deeper. But I didn’t feel challenged or motivated.

I became a journalist to be a storyteller, but often, we didn’t tell stories. We conveyed information, nicely written, perhaps, and in clear form, but they didn’t often move people. I wanted to make people care – about another person or an issue that deserved attention. Once I discovered narratives, I came alive. 

I remember a story where I spent time with an elderly couple, and the husband had Alzheimer’s. This was in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and it was a topic that was then generating lots of scary, generic headlines. But getting to know these folks personally, seeing what the wife was going through, sharing that pain, having readers react. Wow. 

People often read narratives to the end. They come away inspired or sad or angry, but they come away with emotion. They learn, maybe something they didn’t even realize they needed to learn. They connect with the human experience, and that’s so important, especially in times like these, when we’re always taking sides.

As journalists, we have a responsibility to answer questions, and daily, we tackle the who, what, when and where. But narratives are often the best way to answer the why and how, which are more complex and revelatory.

4. What are the most glaring mistakes writers make when crafting narratives and how can they avoid them?

The story must dictate the form, and that’s where I see the biggest problems.

Reporters sometimes try to force narratives – write a chronology without meaning. There has to be a reason we’re going on this journey, and if that’s not clear, then don’t try to write a narrative.

A narrative has to have a singular purpose, a defining theme that can be summed up, ideally, in one word. If you can’t do that, again, you probably don’t have the right ingredients for this story.

It’s important to have accessible characters, people willing to open up. They can be imperfect but need to be cooperative. There should be opportunities for scene-setting, either something observed or retold. There must be tension, something that’s being overcome or tackled in the story. Imagine The Sound of Music without Nazis?

Other common mistakes: Trying to compress the reporting instead of being selective. Make the hard choices. Don’t include too many characters. Don’t share a scene that has nothing to do with your theme. Don’t fall in love with the first words you wrote (again, they may not be serving the greater purpose). 

5. You remain an active coach and teacher. What’s the most important lesson you’re trying to impart about narratives to writers and editors?

Our industry believed for too long that readers would be drawn to our work just because it was important. But as we’ve learned, we need to earn those readers, to make them see value in what we do. 

Narratives can help save us.

They inspire readers, to fix problems, to connect with neighbors, to care.

They drive loyalty to certain newsrooms and favorite writers.

They are worth the time and effort.

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