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.

The Power of Sharing Stories: 4 Questions with Esmé E. Deprez

Interviews
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Esmé E. Deprez is a California-based senior reporter on the Investigations team at Bloomberg News, specializing in long-form deep-dives into government policy, politics, economics and social issues for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Previously, Esmé was a breaking news and features correspondent for Bloomberg’s National Desk and based in New York. Her reported essay on the life and medically assisted death of her father was a finalist for the 2022 National Magazine Awards, and she was a finalist for the 2013 Livingston Awards for her story about the legislative assault on the business of abortion. She joined Bloomberg in 2009 and has since reported from 35 U.S. states and four foreign countries. She has an MS in Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a BA in English from Boston College and was born and raised in Maine.

1. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
How much you can touch people with just words. In the wake of writing about how I helped my dad hasten his death for Bloomberg Businessweek, I’ve been overwhelmed in the best way by the reaction: I’ve received more emails than I can count from people telling me how much the story moved them; from people spilling their guts to me, a complete stranger, about the awful way their uncle died or the way in which their mother clandestinely hastened death during a time when or in a place where it wasn’t legal; from people recounting how they’ve printed out the story to put in folders outlining their final wishes or how reading it prompted them to do end-of-life planning or have hard and uncomfortable but necessary conversations about death with their families that they wouldn’t have otherwise had an excuse to have. (One of my favorites was really short: it said simply something about the piece being the greatest love story they’d ever read. That one just about broke me.) I’ve written about a lot of controversial topics in my career so I’d tried to anticipate blowback prior to publishing. But to hear the helpful, positive impacts the story’s had on people has totally blown my mind, and I think it speaks to the value and power of sharing our stories and how universal a deeply intimate narrative can be and feel. 

2. What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Nearly every time I go to write, imposter syndrome invades my psyche: I panic and question everything, including my ability to write a single sentence, let alone a whole story. I’ve been surprised and reassured to learn that even the best writers in the business feel this way too! Remembering that, and enduring this process over and over again (and eventually coming out the other side), has drilled into me that there is just no getting around just sitting your butt in your seat and staying put until you grind it out. 

3. If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I often feel, while reporting, like a person on a scavenger hunt trying to decipher clues and gather information. When I go to write and rewrite, I feel like someone trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. I think that’s because I tend to focus a ton on structure — it’s hard for me to even begin writing without knowing where and how the pieces will fit together. 

4. What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

My former editor Steve Merelman used to tell me to write without my notes: “Next time you have to write a big takeout, do the reporting. Then, write the first draft without looking at your notes. You put in placeholders for quotes and facts you know exist. You’ll remember the important stuff. Then, after the first draft, you go back and fill in details and flesh out the skeleton. This is a trick that forces your writing brain out of the thicket of facts and makes it assemble a coherent narrative, the sort you’d tell on a bar stool. It works.” I surely rolled my eyes when he first said this and in the years since it’s saved me every time. 

Beware of Finishing: 4 Questions with Kevin Sullivan

Interviews
Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Kevin Sullivan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior correspondent and associate editor for The Washington Post. He was a Post foreign correspondent for 14 years, then served as chief foreign correspondent, deputy foreign editor, and Sunday and features editor. He has reported from more than 75 countries on six continents. Sullivan and his wife, Mary Jordan, were The Post’s co-bureau chiefs in Tokyo, Mexico City and London. They won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the Mexican criminal justice system. They, with four Post photographers, were finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for stories about difficulties facing women around the world. Sullivan, reporting from Saudi Arabia, was part of a Washington Post team that was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Sullivan and Jordan also won the George Polk Award in 1998 for coverage of the Asian financial crisis, as well as awards from the Overseas Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan and Jordan are co-authors of Trump on Trial in 2020 (updated and published in paperback as “Trump’s Trials” in 2021); “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland,” a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2015; and “The Prison Angel” in 2005. Sullivan and Jordan contributed a chapter to “Nine Irish Lives” in 2018. Sullivan also contributed a chapter to “Trump Revealed,” The Post’s 2016 biography of Donald Trump.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Beware of finishing. I love to finish things, the satisfaction of accomplishment. That’s fine when you’re mowing the lawn, but it’s dangerous when you’re writing. I’m too quick to call something good. Good enough. Done. Mary Jordan, my wife and writing partner, doesn’t ever consider a piece of writing complete. She fixes and fixes, then fixes the fixes, then starts again. She’s taught me to beware of the cheap charm of the finish line.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The lifelong satisfaction of it. I stumbled into journalism because I loved to write and didn’t know what else to do with that fact. Writing has taken me and my family around the planet and into the lives of amazing people.  And they still pay me to do it.

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

A card dealer. I love sitting down to write with a cup of coffee, notes, thoughts, a plan. Then I start flipping cards in my head, looking for the words. Sometimes I bust. Every so often I hit a royal flush. I love the serendipity.

What is the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut. No matter how much you love a phrase or sentence you wrote, or how hard you worked to land some key fact, remember that the piece may be sharper and more powerful without it. Simple and true.

Making Surprises: 4 Questions with Mary Jordan

Interviews
Mary Jordan writes about national political issues for The Washington Post. She spent 14 years abroad as a foreign correspondent and Washington Post co-bureau chief in Tokyo, Mexico City and London. She has written from more than 40 countries. She and her husband and Washington Post colleague, Kevin Sullivan, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their investigation of the Mexican justice system. Jordan has taught journalism at Georgetown University, and she spent a year studying at Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship and a year at Stanford University studying Spanish. She has been on-site covering many of the biggest stories of our time, including women’s rights in Pakistan and the 2016 presidential campaign. After the election, she spent months talking to the voters who elected Donald Trump. She and Sullivan have written two books together: “Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland,” which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2015, and “The Prison Angel” in 2005. Jordan is also the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump,” published in 2020. She also contributed to “Trump Revealed,” a Washington Post staff biography of Donald Trump published in 2016; and “Nine Irish Lives,” publishing in March 2018. She was the founding editor and moderator of Washington Post Live, which organizes current affairs forums and debates. In 2016, The Washington Post honored Jordan with the Eugene Meyer Award for distinguished service, based on the principles of the paper’s legendary former owner: Tell the truth for the public good and always be fair.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Good writing is clear thinking. It’s jotting down what you have learned.  Great writing is clear thoughts set to music – words and phrases and sentences with rhythm.  

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That some people actually enjoy writing. I find it hard, even after all these years.  I do love having written. Writing to me is like exercising. I find doing sit-ups and going to hot yoga hellish but appreciate their importance and enjoy the feeling when class is over.     

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

 A surprise-maker. Because the last thing writing should be is boring.  

What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

If you are writing a book , don’t end the day when you hit a roadblock. Wrap up when you are excited about where you are going and see the path ahead. That way you start the next day with momentum.

Go. Do. See. Be Present: 4 Questions with Russell Working

Interviews
Russell Working

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Go. See. Do. Be present. Participate. Observe. Make your writing more than a desk job. Make it a journey of exploration: Teddy Roosevelt up the Amazon, Ernest Shackleton on the frozen Weddell Sea, Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream, Tanzania. Don’t just imagine, don’t rely on the internet; go find the scenes you are writing about and talk to the people who can give you insight into your characters. Investigate the worlds you want to bring to light, whether it’s a corner barbershop or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

If you are writing a murder mystery, do you know how your villain’s firearm works? Have you loaded a pistol or a revolver and shot it on the range? If you are putting a sermon in the mouth of a preacher, have you listened to one lately, read the Bible or the Quran, played an audiobook version of Father Mapple’s stemwinder in Moby-Dick?

I tried to get at some of these thoughts in “Zola’s Horse,” a lecture I delivered at Vermont College of Fine Arts, later repackaged as an essay for Numero Cinq.

Man-on-the-street interviews are a genre that gets you out in the community. Yet working for a series of small and medium papers, I grew tired of gathering quotes on local issues from semi-informed everyday Joes. So I made a point of looking for people doing something that would be fun to describe. Get quotes about the city council’s new budget from the guy jackhammering the sidewalk or the panhandler tossing peanuts to the pet spider monkey he keeps on a leash.

Dave Barry revealed a mastery of this art in his Pulitzer Prize-winning piece for The Miami Herald, “Can New York save itself?”

“As Chuck and I walk along 42nd Street, we see a person wearing an enormous frankfurter costume, handing out coupons good for discounts at Nathan’s Famous hot dog stands. His name is Victor Leise, age 19, of Queens, and he has held the position of giant frankfurter for four months. He says he didn’t have any connections or anything; he just put in an application and, boom, the job was his. Sheer luck. He says it’s OK work, although people call him “Frank” and sometimes sneak up and whack him on the back. Also there is not a lot of room for advancement. They have no hamburger costume.

“Can New York save itself ?” I ask him.

“If there are more cops on the streets, there could be a possibility,” he says, through his breathing hole.”

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Winning the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1986, when I was twenty-six, the youngest winner of that prize. (The book came out a year later.) I was a reporter for a smalltown newspaper in Oregon, and although I was getting encouraging letters from The Atlantic and The New Yorker, I had never published a short story anywhere. When John Leggett, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, phoned me with the good news, my heart was pounding so hard, I could barely gasp, “Really?”

He seemed to take this as a lack of enthusiasm, and said, “This is a very major award, you know.” I croaked, “I … I know.” He hung up, no doubt appalled at my ingratitude, unaware that I was now leaping about my apartment. Then immediately I told myself it couldn’t possibly be true. It was a prank! But who knew I had applied? Not my old college friends. Not my fellow reporters at the paper where I worked; I kept my fiction writing to myself, fearing they would consider it frivolous. My girlfriend had proofread the manuscript, but she wouldn’t be so cruel as to get somebody to punk me like this. The next morning I phoned the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the receptionist laughed at my doubts and assured me I really had won.

I told our managing editor that I had grabbed the award and would be having a book published. He said, “Type up a brief.” I had to admit I was lucky to get even this, there being far less interest in my little triumph than all those meth lab busts and forest fires and school tax base elections.

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

A knight errant in full armor on a bicycle (see Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Why? My wife sees me as a lonely warrior, battling dragons when I get up at 4 a.m. every day to write fiction. (It helps that I’m an insomniac.) But there’s a ridiculous aspect to the whole enterprise, both in the audacity of imagining the minds of very different people, and in the graphomania that keeps one toiling for years on end for a lower hourly pay than convicts earn stamping license plates.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I had just graduated from college as an English major when I somehow talked myself into a newspaper internship on the Longview (Washington) Daily Courier. After a week of repairing my hopelessly roundabout stories, my city editor, David Connelly, sat me down in the morgue and said he was going to teach me how to write a lede. He got out a copy of the Wall Street Journal and pointed to the feature in the center column on page one.

Do it like that, he said. Grab the reader’s attention with the opening line, then drop in a quote, then add a “nut graf” telling the reader why the story was important. Of course, this would be too formulaic for fiction, but something about it connected with me as a literary writer. Establish a conflict right away. Add dialogue. Tell us the stakes—why this matters, what’s at risk for the central characters, why we should read it. Starting out strong is all the more important in the age of smartphones and streaming video. We are at war for readers’ attention. Strike quickly.

This editor also influenced my thinking in my answer to your first question. When Washington state passed a law requiring mandatory jail sentences for drunken drivers, Connelly came to me and said, “How’d you like to go to jail?” He had concocted a scheme to slip me in undercover; only the warden would be aware who I was. Cowlitz County Jail wasn’t Rikers Island, but I was terrified. Nevertheless, I said, “Sure.” I would spend twenty-four hours in cells that included burglars, wife-beaters, meth addicts, and a murderer. I emerged unscathed, and no doubt in far less danger than I imagined, but it made for a thrilling immersion into a criminal world unknown to me as a young writer.

Just Get the Facts: Four Questions with Jeff Pearlman

Interviews
Jeff Pearlman is the New York Times best-selling author of nine books and the host of the Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast. His weekly journalism substack can be found at pearlman.substack.com


What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Nothing is as important as I used to believe. I used to live and die with every word, every paragraph, every comma and period—and if an editor dared mess with my copy, I’d prepare for battle. Over time, I’ve come to understand three things: A. I’m not nearly as good as I once thought I was. B. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as I thought it did. C. The stuff that infuriates you as a writer—the reader almost never notices. Like, “You’ve ruined this story by [doing X]!” is almost always nonsense. So having those realizations set me free. And, I hope, made me better at this job. I take myself far less seriously.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

My dream from boyhood was to become a Sports Illustrated writer. It was everything I wanted. The goal of all goals. Then I achieved it at a fairly young age (I got to the magazine at 24) and sorta kinda came to the surprising realization that chasing a dream is oftentimes more engrossing than the dream itself. I arrived at SI in 1996. I left in early 2003. I loved it—but after a while, it grew sort of stale and repetitive. The dream was 50 years of SI bliss. The surprising reality: It lasted a mere six years.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m the chef who never likes his own food. I just find it really hard to not see the warts. I’ll read something I wrote and find every single regret. A word I accidentally used twice. A sentence that sounded better in my mind than it does on the page. On and on. I try making a meal to be served at Per Se, but most of the time it feels like a soggy Whopper Junior.

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

My first job was as a features writer at The Tennessean in Nashville. I was 24, straight out of college—and I couldn’t do anything right. Mistake after mistake after mistake. I didn’t listen to people, didn’t seek advice. I was just a cocky fuck. My editor, Catherine Mayhew, sent me to the late-night police beat. “Don’t worry about writing funky ledes, don’t worry about impressing anyone. Just get the facts.” It changed my life.

It’s Not About Fixing the Copy: Four Questions with Alexandra Zayas

Interviews

Alexandra Zayas is a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, running a team of reporters and overseeing senior editors of its global public health and visual storytelling teams. Since joining ProPublica in 2017, stories she edited have won two National Magazine Awards, two George Polk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. She worked at the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years, ultimately as the newspaper’s enterprise editor. As a reporter, her investigation into abuse at unlicensed religious children’s homes won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. She also teaches investigative journalism at Poynter.

Alexandra Zayas/Photo courtesy of The Poynter Institute

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as an editor?

Editing isn’t about fixing the copy in front of you, it’s about squeezing the best possible version of the story out of the universe by helping the writer to see it and capture it. What that help looks like will vary between individuals and fluctuate for the same writer at different points in the process. A big part of the job is removing obstacles, especially those that are self-imposed. One writer may need help seeing the forest for the caveats. Another may need reminders to get inside subjects’ shoes and hearts. Editing is knowing when to stay out of their hair and when to give them a nudge, when to insist they keep pushing for the impossible and when to let them cut bait. It’s making sure they feel comfortable arguing with you and recognizing when they’re right — but also recognizing when, amid a nasty bout of 11th-hour second-guessing, the writer is just tired and hangry; then, you send them a sandwich. You can’t do this job without legitimately loving these people and living for their victories and growth.

What has been the biggest surprise of your editing life?

How different editing is from reporting and writing. An editor is a trusted partner, a blind-spot detector, a high-stakes decision maker, a structural engineer. You do a lot more thinking about what you don’t see, what’s in the negative space: What Achilles’ heel might this premise have? The language is beautiful, but is the logic sound?

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be and why? 

A writer once called me Spanx because of the way I compress flabby prose. I hope I’m also like a camera drone that helps you see above the weeds and a construction site boss who knows when the scaffolding can come down.

What is the single best piece of editing advice anyone ever gave you?

Sometimes, you won’t see the perfect path from day one. You might be paralyzed by fear when you open a draft and the next step isn’t obvious. Learn to slow down, talk through the problems with the writer, roll the ball forward and trust the process. (Hat tip to Adam Playford for this great advice, which he likely won’t remember giving.)

The Pasta Machine: Four Questions with Frank Bruni

Interviews

Frank Bruni has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including more than twenty-five years at The New York Times, the last ten of them as a nationally renowned op-ed columnist who appeared frequently as a television commentator. (His archive of columns, starting with the most recent, can be found here.) He was also a White House correspondent for the Times, its Rome bureau chief and, for five years, its chief restaurant critic. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Beauty of Dusk, which reached #5 on both the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction lists. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write his popular weekly newsletter for the Times (you can sign up here) and to produce occasional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 

That your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: “I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!” And then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume. 

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m a pasta machine. I can pump out nothing edible unless I’ve put in lots of flour, eggs and water, by which I mean reporting, reading, thinking. I make only noodles – no rice – and only so many kinds of those. I can’t do David Remnick’s erudite agnolotti or David Sedaris’s inimitable farfalle. But my orecchiette aren’t bad. 

What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you? 

When you hit a wall, when you’re feeling blocked, step away from the computer. Take a run. Rub the dog’s belly. Read 50 pages of a novel. Watch a stupid situation comedy. Let your brain relax. Let it reboot. No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end. 

The Pasta Machine: Four Questions with Frank Bruni

Interviews

Courtesy of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy

Frank Bruni has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including more than twenty-five years at The New York Times, the last ten of them as a nationally renowned op-ed columnist who appeared frequently as a television commentator. (His archive of columns, starting with the most recent, can be found here.) He was also a White House correspondent for the Times, its Rome bureau chief and, for five years, its chief restaurant critic. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Beauty of Dusk, which reached #5 on both the hardcover nonfiction and the combined print and e-book nonfiction lists. In July 2021, he became a professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write his popular weekly newsletter for the Times (you can sign up here) and to produce occasional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer? 

That your first draft is often precisely that, and it can be terrible without being a signal that you should jump ship. Keep sailing. Or rowing. And bailing water. Just don’t overwork a metaphor the way I just did. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The unpredictability of how much time something will take me and how easy or hard it will be. I’ll zip through two pieces of writing that turn out really well and take minimal effort, and I’ll think: “I’ve cracked the code! I’ve turned the corner!” And then the next piece will be the most sluggishly produced horror show of my career. You just never know. And should never assume. 

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would iit be?

I’m a pasta machine. I can pump out nothing edible unless I’ve put in lots of flour, eggs and water, by which I mean reporting, reading, thinking. I make only noodles – no rice – and only so many kinds of those. I can’t do David Remnick’s erudite agnolotti or David Sedaris’s inimitable farfalle. But my orecchiette aren’t bad. 

What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you? 

When you hit a wall, when you’re feeling blocked, step away from the computer. Take a run. Rub the dog’s belly. Read 50 pages of a novel. Watch a stupid situation comedy. Let your brain relax. Let it reboot. No one ever got anywhere by banging on the backspace key for hours on end.