Bill Duryea is deputy editor for features at Politico magazine where he has worked since 2015. Over a 24-year career at the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times he worked as a police reporter, general assignment reporter for the Floridian newsfeatures section, national editor and editor of the enterprise team. Reporters he has worked with have won awards from the American Society of News Editors, National Headliner, Florida Society of News Editors, National Press Foundation and Society of Professional Journalists.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an editor?
If I’m writing, I’ve failed. That doesn’t mean I’ve never rewritten a sentence or even paragraphs. Deadlines and the limits of a writer’s raw abilities at a given moment sometimes demand I step in. But the most satisfying edits for me (and I hope for the writer, too) are the product of conversations during which our mutual goals for the piece become so aligned that my nagging questions, my suggested rephrasings and even my cuts make enough sense to the writer that they can execute the changes with complete faith that the piece is still theirs. When I find myself typing too much in a story, I always think: The time I’m spending now “fixing” something would have been much better spent days ago when a conversation would have addressed the issue before it became a problem.
What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?
That editing stories about politics would reveal how much I still have to learn about journalism and what readers really crave. I never expected to end up at a website like Politico whose plugged-in readers reputedly had no time for long narratives. That wasn’t exactly true. Turns out they have plenty of time for a detail-rich profile (as any number of Michael Kruse pieces have proved). Of course, they want scoops and ammunition for their political battles but even the most harried Capitol Hill staffer cannot resist the time-slowing satisfactions of a well-constructed historical narrative. If you can make them relevant to the current moment, stories like that provide readers with a necessary respite from the barrage of brevity that assaults their inboxes every day. I wasn’t sure this was true when I arrived eight years ago, but I am now.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?
How about pool player? Most any shot on a pool table is makable if you can deliver the cue ball to the object ball at just the right angle and with just the right amount of force. When I talk to writers, especially ones who are new to me, or put notes in their copy, I want to impart a clear, respectful message that lands in such a way that they leave the interaction moving confidently in the right direction. Sometimes that note is delicate and the angle oblique (“Have you thought trying it like this …?” or “When I read this it made me think of X. Did you mean it that way?’’). Sometimes it’s more direct and forceful (“We need to change this because …”) But just as in pool, it’s the next shot and the shot after that that matters most, so I’m careful not to say something that hinders the writer’s ability to move forward.
What’s the best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?
The best piece of editing advice I ever got was actually a piece of writing advice. It came. not surprisingly, from a great writer who also happens to be the best editor I ever had. Mike Wilson helped me find my voice as a writer at the St. Pete (now Tampa Bay) Times by pushing me to find the larger meaning of my reporting. And then say it. Mike would take my workmanlike drafts and gently point out the places where I could “have a little fun.” “Maybe like this?” he’d say, as I sat just off his shoulder, watching him effortlessly riff a sentence or just a clause that enlivened my piece with humor or pathos. Mike was showing me the difference between relaying facts and telling a story. As an editor, I look for opportunities to do that Wilsonian thing for writers — to help them transcend their reporting and “have a little fun.”
Mark Kramer is a writer, professor, and leader in the international movement to bring narrative journalism into books, magazines, documentaries, broadcasts, podcasts, and news media. He teaches an independent master class for mid-career writers with longform projects. It explores the process from topic selection through to publication, and includes fieldwork, note-coding, structuring, drafting and revising, and covers sentence-craft, voice, pace, scene-and-character portrayal, and ethics.
Kramer started America’s leading narrative nonfiction writing conference at Boston University and continued it while writer-in-residence and founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Jounalism at Harvard University, and then when it returned to Boston University. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe and other papers, and in National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside, Best American Essays, The Nation, etc.
His books include Three Farms: Making Milk, Meat and Money from the American Soil; Invasive Procedures: A Year in the World of Two Surgeons; and Travels with a Hungry Bear: A Journey to the Russian Heartland. He’s co-edited two widely-adopted textbooks–Literary Journalism; and Telling True Stories: A Writers’ Guide to Narrative Nonfiction from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.
Kramer was writer-in-residence and professor of journalism at BU for a decade, and writer-in-residence at Smith College for a decade before that. He’s also founded ongoing conferences in Amsterdam and Bergen, Norway, and shorter-lived conferences in Johannesburg, Lisbon, Rio and Paris. He’s finishing up a handbook for narrative journalists.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer:
That we should be called ‘revisers’ rather than ‘writers.’ I spend perhaps one percent of my ‘writing time’ writing, in new territory, filling blank pages. The rest is revising. And almost all the enduring ‘creative’ stuff–the sentences and passages and juxtaposed scenes and ideas that still gleam when I reread them a few years later, happened while I was far into reworking text.
That said, writing that first draft, and even the scarily-messy earliest revisions, are so awful compared to how good you want a piece to turn out, that we seem destined to cling to the illusion that we already know where we’re heading and the end is nigh. What’s more true is that a piece’s true destination, where you want readers to journey toward, looms up like a mirage at sea, as we persist in revising. And then when it does, we can really start pruning and shaping more exactly, and the destination and journey toward it will refine further.
Smoothing the phrasing is just one aspect of revising. When I strengthen and tune up sentences, I’m clearing the underbrush of half-formed, twice-said and superfluous words and ideas. That’s when the curve of the reader’s consecutive experience of the piece’s scenes and argument and sequence of realizations emerges, a hospitable trail you’re clearing through the woods. “Narrative arc” is a misleading term. It’s way too heavenly an aspiration for that practical period when you’re at your workbench knowing you ought to be constructing one. “Narrative arc” sounds expert but is bewilderingly hard to anticipate. How do you build a rainbow? You need one for a good piece, but you get there by considering what practical craft steps build a good scene, animate a life-like character, tighten the next floppy sentence toward austerity. I find it helps me to ask myself repeatedly, “What should the reader experience next?” and then to work on that. If you think about how next to continue perfecting readers’ sense of ‘delightful and appropriate consecutiveness’ in their reading experience, you’ll revise effectively. This is hard.
Solid structure is what the reader needs next, and in narrative work, it doesn’t spring from an outline. Revising develops it, if you favor improving the reader’s sequential flow of immersive scenes with good characters, pointing progressively toward aspects of the topic at hand (and, occasionally, feathering in interjected ideas). And of course, the reader’s experience also improves when you make the sentences you’ve drafted ever more simple, personable and elegant, until the reader is with you, a quiet, nearly invisible, host.’ ‘Curating the reader’s sequential experience’ is an effective summary mission statement for the many chores of revising. And revising. And revising.
What should happen when the hospitably accompanied reader, after enjoying those efficiently purposeful scenes with their lifelike characters, arrives at that destination? Insight, as the elements of the narrative converge and finally drop the reader off there, is the reader’s reward. In high school and college English classes, I puzzled over the term ‘theme’ that my teachers insisted writers had in mind, like the armature around which a sculptor forms clay. The puzzling term ‘theme’ has misled many a talented writer to simplify a symphony into a monotone. Destinations of good work are nuanced. They preserve the humanness of situations intact, and don’t turn them into object lessons. And they succeed as the reader realizes things, not as the writer turns preachy and sums everything up.
First draft is merely shoveling up clay from a seam in the bed of a creek and slapping it down on the work table. Sculpting it after a first rough shaping, the work emerges, as they say, from removing what isn’t the sculpture until what’s left is, AND that’s mostly what writers do.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The electrification stage of revision. Clearly, it takes patience bordering on endurance to report and research and sculpt your way through that first draft. Then comes the long revision period, revising the revision of your revision. You’ve immersed in your scenes, gone beyond what a deadline reporter might gain just from interviewing. You slowly, while drafting, comprehend the treasures hidden even from yourself in your field notes. Once you’ve nailed down and sharpened your selection and sequence of scenes, you’re getting there.
Then, something happens that rewards what may feel is fussy tinkering with every joint between every whole lot of words! That something is what I’ve come to think of as ‘the electrification stage’ — it’s an analogy to when you frame and sheath and roof and sheetrock a house and the unfinished rooms are recognizable, in place. In your work, the scenes are mostly in place, the characters too, and that trail leading the reader from experience to experience still has a few extra loop-de-loops, but you finally know how it works. It’s sequence from realization to realization maps in your mind. You suddenly know how to put it into place. It realizes in your mind. You suddenly can connect up the wiring you’ve installed in that house you’re building, and the lights go on. You’re not done yet. In fact, the illumination contains its own punishment–you can now see fussy little flaws and have to work far into the night, in the light you’ve created. And you can finally finish eliminating what you’d once thought essential but now you can see it’s superfluous, perhaps essential for your next piece, but not for this one. Voila: electrification draft.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer?
Please see above. I’ve got a sailor in the fog and a path-clearer on a hiking trail, a hospitable host, and a carpenter building a house and briefly, a pilot doing those loop-de-loops. I guess I write to find out what I am, metaphorically.
What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Actually, it’s a pair of . . .advices. ‘!‘ and ‘fix‘.
those were the two marks that most often showed up in the drafts returned to me by my editor, friend and mentor, Dick Todd, late and much-missed editor at the Atlantic Monthly. he’d write a minuscule check in the margin when he really, really liked something a whole lot–an idea or little interstitial joke, or even a metaphor. he was given to eloquent understatement, but so brilliantly exacting that those scant checkmarks made me feel safe and enough on the right track so that when he occasionally also inscribed the word ‘fix’ in the margins (also in tiny characters) I would realize some dumb misstep I’d made that would have remained invisible to me without his marks. the “!” showed me–in my late 20s, when i was just figuring things out–that the grace of an editor’s approving “!” was powerful in helping a writer feel safe enough to write on–or revise on. and I !!!’d a lot while working with other writers’ copy. and the “fix” showed me how fine-grained and precise was the sort of revision that a text needed before it felt like it made excellent contact with readers.
When I interview writers for Chip’s Writing Lessons, they often bring up the subject of voice.
“A story, reported deeply and written with an authentic writer’s voice, has the power to move readers.”
-DeNeen L. Brown
“Even if I am the narrator, or the lead storyteller, every character has a story, every person in the room has a voice.”
“I think you can apply this to any artistic endeavor, not just writing. It’s a quote from the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk : ‘“A genius is the one most like himself.” Not saying I’m a genius or anything, but this struck me as important when I read it, and to me it says something important about voice and integrity, and how that translates onto the page.”
“If I began a short story or worked on a novel in the evening at home I drifted into trance states and couldn’t push through, couldn’t continue and finish. I had writer’s block before I became a writer. Nor was the quality of what I was writing even close to what I wanted it to be. I wrote Joycean or Faulknerian pastiches; when I tried to write in my own voice I overworked my sentences to the point of affectation. I was three hands clapping. I was too tight.’”
Voice deeply interests my friend Anne Janzer, a prolific author of several excellent books on writing (“Writing to Be Understood;” “The Writer’s Process,” “Get the Word Out” and “33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Business Emails.”)
Anne writes about the science and mystery of writing. Right now, she’s conducting research into that elusive idea of writing voice—including how easily we can shift it and how we feel about it.
Help her explore the topic by answering this short, six-question survey.
Your responses will be private, and she’ll share the responses when the survey is done.
Taking this survey got me thinking about my own writing voice. It should be fascinating to see how a larger community of writers responds.
Lizzie Johnson is a reporter on The Washington Post’s local enterprise team and the author of “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survivean American Wildfire.” Previously, she was a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also worked at the Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the Omaha World-Herald and El Sol de San Telmo in Buenos Aires. She has BAs in journalism and political science from the University of Missouri at Columbia. Johnson is a three-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. The California News Publishers Association has recognized her for Best Writing, Best Profile, Best Enterprise and Best Feature. In 2021, she won first place for long-form feature writing in the Best of the West contest. She has appeared on “Longform Podcast,” “This American Life,” “Longreads Podcast” and “Climate One from the Commonwealth Club.” Her work has been featured by the Columbia Journalism Review, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Harvard University’s Nieman Storyboard. Johnson, who was raised in the Midwest, and her dog, Indie, currently call D.C. home.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
So much of writing happens when you aren’t actually writing. I come up with my best ledes and kickers when I let myself take a break and do something else, like go for a run or weed my garden. Switching gears when I’m stuck jumpstarts my creativity. I’ll rush right back to my keyboard with a renewed sense of purpose. (Which is probably why I’ve gotten dirt jammed in the keys so many times.)
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The writing cannot stand without the reporting. It might seem like shaping the story is the longest part of the process, but I’ve found that it’s easiest if you invest in the information gathering — no matter how long it takes. Digging through archives, putting in public records requests, gathering documentation, like copies of text messages, emails, phone logs, staying with a story subject an hour longer than you anticipated. Writing scenes is much easier when you have plenty of information to choose from — and it’s impossible when you don’t have the reporting to hold the storytelling up.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
A mechanic. If the engine’s not running, it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles the story has. As a writer, I’m constantly tinkering, trying to figure out what works, structure and tension-wise, knowing that, otherwise, people won’t read until the end.
What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Park downhill. I can’t remember who passed along this piece of advice — one of my former editors at The San Francisco Chronicle, who inherited it from someone else, I’d bet — but the sentiment has stayed with me. The idea is to stop while you’re ahead, to close up your laptop and end the work day when you have an idea of where you’re headed next. It makes picking things up the next morning that much easier. You’re excited and know what you want to write next — versus feeling stuck and staring blankly at your cursor for an hour, then deciding that you really should just go walk the dog, or wipe down the counters, or write that letter to your great-aunt or…. you get my gist.
Born, Columbus, Mississippi. My Daddy ran Main Street Service Station, “Don’t Cuss. Call Russ.” Three restrooms: Ladies, Gentleman, Colored. As a white boy, I learned to listen for stories when 4-County Power linemen pulled up for gas, with dead snakes hanging from back of their trucks. My mother’s family ran Sanitary Laundry & Dry Cleaners. (Clothes Dirty? Dial 630!). Left Mississippi after Ole Miss undergrad. Went straight to Columbia University journalism school. Worked 25 years as staff and freelance journalist, first at The Bulletin, Bend, Oregon; then, Providence Journal, and later, the Los Angeles Times. Late-bloomed media history & folklore PhD @UNC Chapel Hill. Long-time professor at Missouri School of Journalism where I edited Visual Communication Quarterly and chaired the Race Relations Committee in time of turmoil. Received National Endowment for Humanities grants to support four decades of research into photographs made in the Jim Crow-era of my hometown, also known as Possum Town. In 2022, UNC Press with Duke University’s Documentary Studies published my O.N. Pruitt’s Possum Town: Photographing Trouble and Resilience in the American South.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer? To focus and set boundaries: whether it’s writing a scene with dialogue. Or describing the physicality of a person, place, animal or object. Or interleaving a tight summary of the news. Or knowing when to stop reporting, writing, and revising. As a journalist, I enjoyed a free-range chicken approach. I’m an omnivore. I go where I’m compelled to go. Or where an editor sends me. Even today, I can have focus problems. An addictive love of winding narratives, my own and others, is a blessing and curse. See James Agee’s letter to his mentor Father Flye: “Without guidance, balance, coordination, my ideas and impressions and desires, which are much larger than I can begin to get to paper, are loose in my brains like wild beasts of assorted sizes and ferocities, not devouring each other but in the process of tearing the zoo to parts.” To avoid such chaos, I’ve posed three questions since the 1980s: What’s the story? What’s the point? What’s the news? I ask myself that today, as when I worked with a writer named Chip Scanlan and our job was turning out, on deadline, cinematic and newsy narratives at the Providence Journal. In every situation, I stay alert to William Faulkner’s admonition about “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? Jane Yolen’s book “Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft” inspires me to say this: More than a half-century after my Mississippi days as a teen-aged editor of my high school newspaper, of laying out inky hot-type of words and pictures in metal trays, I remain delighted by the joy of writing. Yes, there are frustrations, troublesome situations and challenges. But I love that reporting, research, and writing allows me to discover the world around me, at once miraculous, scary, and sublime. As a journalist, with biologists, I uncover bears in snow dens in Maine or track endangered frogs in California’s San Gabriel Mountains. I hike Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mt. Katahdin in Maine. I investigate New England mobsters, write about the Ku Klux Klan, or listen deeply to stories of Hmong refugees who’ve lost relatives to “midnight death syndrome” in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. As a documentarian/archivist, I interview with my storyteller wife Milbre Burch, tellers in Hawaii or on the Navajo Reservation or in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As scholar, I write book chapters on magazine history and photography; encyclopedia entries about Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo and New Journalism, civil rights icon Medgar Evers and composer William Grant Still, and essays and book reviews. I continue to write because I must, must explore subjects that intrigue me, must tell others the stories I discover. Through writing, I can have the transcendent experience that Gabriel Garcia Marquez invokes: “Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.”
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be? Marathoner. In my case, Marathon Man. Since the 8th grade, I’ve considered myself a runner, albeit now a slower jogger than earlier. I’ve run marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks. About 5 years ago I adopted Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway’s approach: warm up, run, take short walk break, run some more, take another short walk break, and so on. That’s how I finished my marathon in Los Angeles, March 2022. That dovetails with lessons from Don Murray: “revision is a process,” and from poet William Stafford: “lower your standards until there is no felt threshold.” Revision follows drafting. In running, I trip on a root at night on a woodland trail when I’ve forgotten to wear my headlamp. On a hot day, I don’t carry enough water to drink and hit a sidewalk crack and fall, bloodying my forehead. Or I slip on a moss-covered rock near a stream. Elbows and knee get scraped and bruised. Another day, I go too many miles and fracture a foot bone. As with writing, I rest, recover, resume. It’s a process: reporting, researching, thinking, writing, revising, drafting, revising more, and resting.
What’s the single best writing piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Count words. As a teenager and college student, I counted words in my ledes. But Don Murray taught me more word count recipes. Yes, count words in first sentence, first paragraph, last paragraph, all paragraphs. Use your finger or pencil to touch each word. Slow down. Count words in scenes, dialogue, story chunks, to reveal proportionality of beginnings, middles and ends of sentences, sections. See the writing anew. Word counts can measure daily activity, without particularly judging what you wrote on any given day: 750 words. 1,500 words. 20 words. Word counts reveal writing as a process, not product. How many words did you write today? Nulla dies sine linea. Never a day without a line. Doesn’t matter if you wrote on a computer, typewriter, or used a pen, pencil, crayon to write on a restaurant napkin or legal pad. How many will you write tomorrow? Connected with word counts, print out drafts. Write the counts on drafts in red, green, any bold color. Place pages on floor as a way to look at from above. Tape them onto walls, windows, or whiteboards. Use old-school TIME magazine approach with index cards or with a storyboard approach: paragraph by paragraph. (On the wall of Rowan Oak, his home, Faulkner painted in red the outline of his novel, A Fable.) Cut drafts into sections. Reorder paragraphs. Make discoveries about structure, voice, focus, scene, beginning, middle and end. What’s missing? What needs to be trimmed? Expanded?
Steve Padilla is editor of Column One, the showcase for storytelling at the Los Angeles Times. Padilla joined the Times in 1987 as a night-shift police reporter but soon moved on to editing. He has edited a wide variety of subjects—including politics, international news and religion—and helped guide the Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverage of a botched bank robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. He serves as a writing coach and devotes his Twitter feed (@StevePadilla2) to writing technique. Before the Times, he was a reporter for the San Diego Union and editor of Hispanic Link Weekly Report, a national newsletter on Latino affairs. He earned his B.A. in print journalism and history from the University of Southern California.
Usually, Steve creates New Year’s resolutions for writers. For 2023, he devoted them to his fellow editors. He’s generously allowed me to reprint them here.
10 New Year’s Resolutions for Editors by Steve Padilla
No. 1: To read every word of a draft before making changes. (Yes, this is hard. But if time permits, a good practice.)
No. 2: To give your writers something good to read–to inspire them with fine style, structure or storytelling—and then to talk with them about it.
No. 3: To allow or encourage your writers to use a sentence fragment to emphasize a key point or to vary the rhythm. Just because. Really.
No. 4: To focus on structure before diving into the words.
No. 5: To give specific direction. If an anecdote dawdles, don’t say, “Speed it up.” Pinpoint the wordiness or say, “Start in the middle of the scene.” In a court story, must we say the judge walked in, sat down and banged the gavel? Start with the gavel.
No. 6: To remember that not all your edits work. That doesn’t mean, however, that the writer’s original wording worked, either. You’re probably right that something’s amiss even if you can’t fix it. Solution: Find a third way, preferably together.
No. 7: To set up a Slack channel in your newsroom devoted to writing. We have one at the @latimes.
No. 8: To remember that positive direction is often more productive than negative. Rather than say, “You buried the lede,” I like to say, “This is so good we gotta move it up.”
No. 9: To suggest your writers take the Padilla 30-Word Challenge. When they think their story is “done,” trim 30 words. Not 50, not 150. Just 30. It’s surprising how this habit gives a piece some extra snap, crackle and pop.
No. 10: To take care of yourself. And since editors don’t get thanked enough, let me thank you now. Speaking of thanks, hat tip to @mkballinger and @jaclyncosgrove for No. 1 and No. 4 of this thread. Happy New Year, folks, and may the words flow in 2023.
Ava Kofman is a reporter on ProPublica’s national desk. She joined the newsroom in January 2019, after working as a contributing writer at The Intercept, where she covered algorithms, artificial intelligence and surveillance technology. In 2020, she reported with colleagues on toxic air pollution across the United States. Their award-winning work on America’s “Sacrifice Zones” was credited with helping spur reforms. Kofman previously edited The New Inquiry. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, and The Atlantic, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles. @AvaKofman
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Revise. Revise again. Then one more time. Apologize profusely to your editor for all of the tiny changes you are making. Continue to make them. Some of the most lively moments in a story come from second-guessing and last-minute additions, cuts and tweaks. The story will need to be published eventually, but until it is, consider it unfinished.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
It only gets harder! I suppose this is an open secret, but I’ve been continually surprised that the more I learn (or try to learn) about writing, the harder it gets. Thomas Mann puts it this way: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I once heard that there are two ways to approach a first draft: as a diamond polisher or as a garbage compressor. I tend to do both. I start with the latter technique, ingesting and processing vast amounts of material and refuse. The writing in this phase feels like a lot of trash that would be unreadable to another person (and that I sometimes can barely understand myself). Eventually though, the pressure and heat starts to produce some ideas, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. I would hesitate to call these gems, but they are durable enough to begin polishing.
What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Start writing! And start earlier than you think. The longer you wait, the harder it gets. You can always do more reporting later. Even if you’re just writing a memo, or “fake writing,” or pretending to write, start putting something down on the page. (Plus, the more material you produce, the more you’ll be open to revising it.) I wish I could attribute this to a single wise source, but this advice has been given to me a thousand times by a thousand wise people. (Thank you to all of them). I regret how often I fail to follow it.
Description should always carry some significance. Why do you want the reader to pay attentionto this detail? Every section should serve a thematic purpose. A bio section isn’t just a bio section, it should drive the reader to a point you’re trying to make. Even when doing immersion reporting, remember, there are big parts of the story you will have to reconstruct. Scenes are no more significant because you observed them. Make sure you’re clear about what you want a reader to take from a story. A narrative may not have a traditional nut graf or bullets, but it always should contain what Mike Wilson used to call a “big idea” graf. He gave a brown bag about this 10 years ago; Ben Montgomery took notes and posted them on Gangrey. The “big idea” graf is about “closing the distance between fact and meaning.” “Too many of our stories are just big bags of facts,” Mike said. The big idea is the result of us asking ourselves what a story means — what, universally, it’s about. “That’s not in your notebooks, guys. That’s in your head.” When writing months later about a notorious event, the challenge is to make the scene everyone thinks they’ve already read feel different. This means playing with time and perspective. Try to narrow it down, slow it down, place emphasis on new details. When writing about a traumatic incident, consult the Dart Center’s best practices. http://dartcenter.org/content/best-practices-in-trauma-reporting-23 “Portray victims and survivors of trauma with sensitivity and insight. Inform readers about the ways individuals react to and cope with emotional trauma. Avoid sensationalism, melodrama and portrayal of victims as tragic or pathetic. Emphasize victims’ and survivors’ experience rather than the traumatic event itself.” Don’t rely on your subject to volunteer everything about his story, especially if he is not expressive. Put yourself in his shoes and think about how experiences might feel. If you notice that the rapid clicks of camera shutters evoke machine gun fire, ask if he thought that, too. Don’t settle for the first answer to a question. Keep asking it over a period of time. We didn’t learn about the young woman who died in the stall until months into the reporting process. And we had to keep asking about her to get into depth about her impact on him. Use hindsight to your advantage. Highlight the gulf between what a character said in a moment and how you know they truly felt. Even if your story is an intimate tale of one person’s experience, seek as many sources as possible. Others in your life might portray a less rosy picture than you would about your own life. Public records are your friend. Authenticity is key.
Photo Perspective Finding and connecting with a subject: When you’re ready to give up on finding a subject, keep pushing. In the case of this story, I pushed and pushed unsuccessfully during the week I spent n Orlando following the shooting to make inroads with a subject. I knew I wanted to start telling more intimate stories than press conferences and vigils, but gaining access felt impossible because of how bombarded by media those affected by the shooting were. Additionally, it was easy to find names of the deceased, but really hard to find names of the hospitalized. I saw a New York Times piece titled “How can Communities Prepare for Mass Shootings? Orlando Offers Lessons” that wasn’t about Angel, but featured two pictures of him. He’d let an NYT photog into his hospital room, but she was already back in New York and clearly not pursuing a story on him. So I reached out through an Instagram message, pitched the story to Boyzell and Graham, and that’s where this started. Photog/Reporter working as a team to maintain access: Angel was an extremely difficult subject to keep involved. We thought he was going to bow out of working with us at multiple points. Working as a team with Kat proved instrumental in pushing for access to intimate moments while not losing him altogether. For example: I would ask Angel about the day he was going to be released from the hospital and if we could be present for that. He would politely decline, asking that we wait until he was settled in at home. I would counter that while I really respected his desire for privacy, it was that sort of hard, transitional experience that we really needed to witness to tell his story. Then he just wouldn’t respond. So we’d give him a few days, and then Kat would get in touch, pull him back in, and we’d get back in. After Kat would finish a very personal, intense interview with Angel and feel like he needed a little breather from her, I would then be the one to text him about us going to his support group meeting. This tag-teaming approach felt exponentially more effective than working alone, or out of sync with one another, when it came to getting as much access to Angel’s life as possible without losing him.
DeNeen L. Brown joined the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism faculty in 2019 after more than three decades at The Washington Post.
Since coming to UMD, she has continued to write for The Post, including a series of stories on the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which led to the city’s mayor reopening an investigation into suspected mass graves.
Among other jobs at The Post, Brown has covered police, courts and education, and was a foreign correspondent. She was a staff writer in The Post’s Metro and Style sections and a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine. Brown has earned national recognition for writing narratives about the middle class, the homeless, culture, race, Black history, urban gentrification, poverty and the environment.
As The Post’s Canada bureau chief from 2000 to 2004, she traveled throughout the Canadian Arctic and Arctic Archipelago to write about climate change, melting permafrost, receding glaciers, indigenous populations and cultural erosion. She also has written dispatches from an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage, and covered stories from Greenland and Haiti.
She’s won national feature-writing prizes from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, as well as regional awards from the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association. In 2006, Brown’s story titled “Mr. Wonderful” won first place and the best-in-show award for daily writing from the Virginia Press Association.
Brown is a former Knight Fellow and Washington Post Media Fellow at Duke University. She has taught writing seminars at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism and has been a guest lecturer on narrative writing at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida.
She’s taught writing at National Writers Workshops around the country and at the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference. She was also an adjunct journalism instructor at Georgetown University.
Her essays about writing are published in “Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide.” Her award-winning narratives are published in “Best Newspaper Writing 1999: The Nation’s Best Journalism.”
Brown holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer? Phillip Dixon, a great city editor at The Washington Post, once told me, “Evoke the soul of the story.” I was a young reporter then. I remember walking away from the city desk thinking he was a curiosity. I had no idea what he was talking about. I went to my desk and re-wrote the story. But, again and again, he would send it back with the mysterious instruction: “Evoke the soul of the story.” Over time, I came to understand what he meant. “Evoke the soul of the story” meant to report so deeply inside a story that you understand the story and the characters perhaps better than they understand themselves.
Evoking the soul of the story means, “Don’t just tell me what so and so said and what so and so did. But tell me what so and so said and meant to say and why he said it and what brought him to this point in life that would make him say what he said or do what he did. What motivates this character deep inside?”
Evoking the soul of the story means that writers should reveal a character’s deepest fear and desire. Who are they when no one is looking? Long-form narratives are made richer by immersive reporting. The best stories are not about the writing, but about what is revealed in the reporting.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? My biggest surprise in my writing life came when I found out just how a great story has the power to change someone’s life. A story, reported deeply and written with an authentic writer’s voice, has the power to move readers. I’ve seen readers respond in droves to help a homeless woman who rode a bus as her bed. I’ve seen powerful stories move institutions. Words have that kind of power. I’m still a bit in awe of the power of words.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer what would it be and why? When I sit down to write, I feel like a composer. Though I am not a musician, I go through the steps that a musical composer might take in creating music. Composers and writers are both creating something out of nothing. We look at a blank page and fill it with something that lives. In the writing process, I often imagine flipping my coattails before sitting on an imaginary piano bench, the way a composer might. I imagine the computer keyboard is my piano. The words come like songs out of nowhere. They have rhythm. I hear the stories as I write. The cadence and the spacing are important to me. The way words are arranged on the page are like notes. I think good stories, like any good song, have a rhythm. Like a good Aretha Franklin song, they have soul. Like a Miriam Makeba song, the words ebb and they flow. Like James Brown, they repeat themselves. They grunt and grind. They rise and they fall. And sometimes they just shout.
What is the best writing advice anyone ever gave you? Margaret Atwood once told me that writing is like diving into a black hole. The writer dives into an abyss and emerges hours or days later with a story. I will never forget that afternoon with Atwood. I had gone to a café in Toronto to interview her. I read most of her books in preparation. But instead of talking about her latest book, we talked about life and writing. I asked her where she got her confidence as a writer. She told me she had none, that each blank page scares her. The trash can, she told me, is her friend. She explained how certain books drive her and how some of her characters live in her writing desk drawer until they are ready for her to write their stories. So many years later, when I face a blank screen, I think of Atwood telling me to write past the fear, dive into the void and fill up the blank page with story.