Monday, August 21, 2017

Writing a Feature Story using the Wall Street Journal Formula



*The Wall Street Journal Formula(WSJ) is the most commonly used method of writing feature stories. This method consist of four basic sections.

1.) The story opens with an anecdotal, descriptive, or narrative lead (specific examples)
2.) The nut graf follows the lead and generally explains the lead
3.) The body of the story is supporting information (quotes, facts, developments)
4.) The ending includes another anecdotal or description of the people/person featured in the story

An example of this is in an Washington Post article titled, "6,473 Texts a Month, But at What Cost?".The story can be identified as the WSJ formula because of the following sections.
 
1. ( LEAD) "Julie Zingeser texts at home, at school, in the car while her mother is driving. She texts during homework, after pompon practice and as she walks the family dog. She takes her cellphone with her to bed." -anecdotal lead that gave specific examples about Julie's texting

2.(NUT GRAF) Paragraphs 2-4 -explained the lead and let the story shift to the larger purpose.

3. (BODY) The Body of the story looks more in-depth at how text messaging is affecting teenager's social development. -uses many statistics from psychology studies, quotes from doctors, psychiatrists, technology experts and other teenagers

4. (ENDING) "Still, she doubts she will change her text life anytime soon. "When I don't have my phone with me," she said, "I feel out of the loop." -ends with the person featured in the story. Julie, and gives the reader more details on the future of Julie's texting.

The Value of Feature-style Writing



One of the most thought-provoking discoveries from the Impact study is the importance of writing style. Feature-style writing is found to increase satisfaction in a variety of topic areas: politics, sports, science, health, home and food among them. A higher proportion of feature-style stories also improves overall brand perception, chief among them how "easy to read" the newspaper is.

When we talk about "feature-style" writing, we don't mean "feature stories." We're not describing a story type but a writing style, also called narrative writing. When Readership Institute analysts evaluated newspaper writing, they classified it one of three ways: inverted pyramid (or news style), commentary and feature-style.

Inverted pyramid stories are the traditional news stories. They begin with the most important element of the story, then present related facts in order of decreasing importance. Stylistically, inverted pyramid stories follow a fact 1, fact 2, fact 3 format from start to finish. Commentary is characterized by its authorial voice, usually presented in a signed column, review, criticism, advice column, op-ed piece or editorial.

Feature-style writing encompasses a broad range of writing techniques, all of which share a few common elements. The writing is more narrative and stories are told with a beginning, middle and end. Stories are often told through the characters or using anecdotes to help illustrate the events. They also tend to use more colorful language, are sometimes more playful, and usually engage the reader more than a traditional news story does.

A concern editors commonly express is that feature-style writing means "softening" or "dumbing down" the news. "Feature-style" is not a euphemism or proxy for "soft news" in the research results. It is a description of a writing style. Writers can use feature-style writing to cover hard news stories without compromising the stories' informational value or focus. Here is an example of two approaches to covering a breaking news story; the first is a traditional inverted pyramid approach, the second uses a feature-style approach.


Inverted Pyramid Approach
Some boos at graduation after judge bars prayer
Associated Press
May 21, 2001

WASHINGTON, Ill. -- A top student who gave a traditional farewell speech at a high school graduation was booed and another student was applauded for holding a moment of silence after a judge barred prayer at the ceremony.

A federal judge issued a restraining order days before Sunday's ceremony at Washington Community High School blocking any student-led prayer. It was the first time in the 80-year history of the school that no graduation prayers were said.

Natasha Appenheimer, the class valedictorian, traditionally a top student chosen to give the class graduation speech, was booed when she received her diploma. Her family, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, had filed the lawsuit that led to the restraining order. Meanwhile, some stood and applauded class speaker Ryan Brown when he bowed his head for a moment of silence before his speech. (Click
here for complete story.)

Feature-style Approach
School Ceremony Downstate Under U.S. Court Order
By John Chase
Chicago Tribune
May 21, 2001

WASHINGTON, Ill. -- It was not the words graduating senior Ryan Brown spoke at Washington Community High School commencement services on Sunday that resonated in this small town just outside of Peoria.

It was what he did before he spoke.

Walking to the podium inside the gymnasium as a scheduled speaker, Brown paused, stepped to the side of the stage, folded his hands and bowed his head in a silent prayer. The gymnasium crowd of more than 1,000 students and adults erupted in cheers, with some standing to applaud while others blew air horns in celebration.

For the first time in this school's 80-year history, no prayer was heard publicly during graduation services, following a federal judge's ruling last week prohibiting it after the class valedictorian, Natasha Appenheimer, and her family obtained a temporary restraining order against the public school district. (Click 
here for complete story.)

Newspapers in the United States use inverted pyramid style for 69 percent of all stories, feature-style writing for 18 percent, and commentary for 12 percent. While inverted pyramid style is appropriate for most stories, nonetheless there is strong evidence that an increase in the amount of feature-style stories has wide-ranging benefits.

For example, newspapers that write more feature-style politics stories have readers who express higher satisfaction with their politics coverage. Considering that only 5 percent of all politics stories are written in feature-style, even one additional feature-style politics story per week would make a difference.

Beyond increasing satisfaction with particular content areas, feature-style writing also improves positive brand perception. Newspapers that run more feature-style stories are seen as more honest, fun, neighborly, intelligent, "in the know" and more in touch with the values of readers.

Women, in particular, respond to feature-style writing. This preference is more than just a desire for "feature" topics such as health, fashion and travel (which also tend to be written in a feature-style). It's the papers that incorporate feature-style writing in a broad range of topics that see the most benefit in brand perception, in addition to doing more of the traditional "feature" topics.

Feature-style writing encompasses many writing styles and the Readership Institute continues to explore what the implications are for reporters and editors. What is clear is that many stories can be written in a feature style without increasing length or compromising informational value. 


Nut Grafs and Magazine Stories


Academic essays have a focus statement. News stories have a nut graf, often only a sentence long. (News stories usually have very short paragraphs.) Magazine/Feature stories may have a focus statement or a nut graf. Or they may not. What they *always* have is a point of view (POV), a ruling attitude, an inclination, a world view, a shape that influences readers. Some writers don’t think ahead. They simply proceed by association, one thing suggesting another until the writer runs out of things to say or space in which to say it. But somewhere in such stories a reader will find a central thrust, even if it is that the world is a very confusing place, at least to the writer.
I don’t find the story-by-accident very appealing. Therefore, in this course I am asking you to tell me what, in your opinion, the point of your story is. You may if you wish put that point high in the story in the form of a thesis sentence:
Cyril de Mawbry met many people during those mad early days in San Francisco, some that delighted him and some that repelled him. But three in particular fixed in his mind an idea of America’s perils and promises that guides him still.
Or you may wish to proceed indirectly, attempting to “show” your reader information that, you are confident, will lead the reader to a POV toward your material without her/his being instructed what that POV should be. That’s fine with me. But I want you to tell me what you want the reader to conclude as a result of your clever writing. That is, even if you don’t have a focus statement inside your story, I want you to write it down for me *outside* the story.
Does this mean you should outline your story in the explicity manner Jon Franklin suggests, as you will discover when we read him? Not necessarily. You may enjoy writing in a loose associational manner and only *after the fact* discovering what your point is. If that’s the way you work, you are probably going to need to prune the story afterwards to improve focus, and that approach may be more labor intensive. Still, whatever works for you.
Bottom line: Either inside or outside the story will be a statement of what your story is intended to mean, or even – and here the waters are deep – what you have discovered it to mean. If that statement is outside the story, you may want to say something about the structure of the story and the clever way in which you guided your reader.



The Rule of Three: Two Approaches

Remember the Tricolon

By Maeve Maddox

A tricolon is a rhetorical device that employs a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. The word derives from Greek tri (“three”) + colon (“section of a sentence”). The plural of tricolon is tricola.
Julius Caesar’s famous “Veni, vidi, vici” is a tricolon consisting of three verbs. The tricolon is phrased in ascending order, culminating with the most important action: “I came, I saw, [and] I conquered.”

Churchill’s famous line in praise of the Royal Air Force repeats a “so” phrase: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Phrased in descending order or with an unexpected combination of words, a tricolon can be used for humorous effect, as in this quotation ascribed to Dorothy Parker: “I require three things in a man. He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.”
Tricola are at work in the answers to these two questions:
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
—Practice, practice, practice.
What are the three things that matter in property?
—Location, location, location.
Quotations that remain in the memory long after one’s school days often contain tricola:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
of the people, by the people, for the people
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Many of our idioms, clichés, and fossilized legal phrases take the form of tricola:
Every Tom, Dick and Harry
Lock, stock, and barrel
Wine, women, and song
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Advertisers and PR agents understand the power of the tricola:
Power, beauty, and soul (Aston Martin)
Keeps going and going and going. (Energizer)
Grace…space…pace. (Jaguar)
Snap! Crackle! Pop! (Rice Krispies)
Buy it. Sell it. Love it. (Ebay)
Thinner, lighter, and faster. (iPad2)
Stop, Look, and Listen (Traffic safety slogan)
Drop, Cover, and Hold On (Earthquake/tornado safety slogan)
One of the most useful aspects of this rhetorical device is its effectiveness in embedding a thought in the memory.

The Rule of Three
A humor technique from the world of comedy.

There is a useful joke structure in humor writing called the rule-of-three. Here's an example of the rule-of-three which I've used as the greeting on my telephone answering machine: "Sorry I can't personally answer the phone. I'm either motivating thousands of people, appearing on the Oprah show...or taking a nap. Please leave a message and I'll return your call when I wake up."

Here's what makes the rule of three work:

A funny line is sometimes said to be like a train wreck. You know where the train (your train of thought) has been, you think you know where it's going, but then you're surprised when it goes off track. The same sort of thing happens when you see the unexpected slip on the banana peel. The surprise or twist helps build the tension to create and magnify the humor.

The rule-of-three structure sets a pattern like the train coming down the tracks. You'll see a similar principle in action in a two-person comedy act. The straight person sets up the pattern which the funny person's punchline will break. The rule-of-three structure uses this same structure. The first two items in the triplet set the pattern (the "straight" line) and the third item breaks the pattern (the curve/the twist/the derailment). Breaking the pattern heightens the tension and creates the surprise, usually resulting in laughter. There are countless patterns you could use:
Same Category/Same Category/Different Category (T-shirt which lists world-class cities: Paris/Tokyo/Fargo).

Expected Trait/Expected Trait/Unexpected Trait (She was pretty, she was shapely, she was a man).

Something Everyone Loves/Something Everyone Loves/Something Everyone Hates (A Las Vegas wedding package contains everything you will need; music, flowers, a divorce document).

Ordinary/Ordinary/Ridiculous (I go to Las Vegas to see the shows, eat at the buffets and visit my money).

Extreme/Extreme/Ordinary (Speaking to thousands, appearing on Oprah, taking a nap)

Rhyme/Rhyme/Rhyme (rhyming sets a pattern and can disguise or add a special twist to the third-item punchline). Here's an example I created for a 50th birthday party using the "answer first then the question" vehicle which Johnny Carson made famous. "The answer is…Three things that describe Suzie Smith. And the question is…what are Nifty, Thrifty and Fifty." This example also uses the category Something Good/Something Good/Something Not So Good (people don't want to get older). I could have used the word Shifty as one of the first two words, but that would have been less effective setting the proper pattern.
Why three? It's just one of those tried and true rules of comedy. It's a rhythm that works. It's part of the music of the humor structure. Experiment and you'll find it's true...a series of three almost always works better than a series of two or four.

Use the rule-of-three technique and it will become a natural part of your humor tool kit. You'll find yourself to be funnier, you'll connect better with your audiences, and in only fifteen years you'll become an overnight success.


Copyright 2006 by John Kinde

You may republish this article with the following credit line:
"Copyright by John Kinde, who is a humor specialist in the training and speaking business for over 30 years specializing in teambuilding, customer service and stress management. Free Special Reports: Show Me The Funny -- Tips for Adding Humor to Your Presentations and When They Don't Laugh -- What To Do When the Laughter Doesn't Come. Humor Power Tips newsletter, articles and blog are available at www.humorpower.com."



Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists



Mark Kramer
Special to the Digest
January 1, 1995
When writers, readers, English teachers, librarians, bookstore people, editors, and reviewers discuss extended digressive narrative nonfiction these days, theyre fairly likely to call it literary journalism. The previous term in circulation was Tom Wolfes contentious New Journalism.Coined in the rebellious mid-60s, it was often uttered with a quizzical tone and has fallen out of use because the genre wasnt really alternative to some old journalism, and it wasnt really new.
Literary journalism is a duller term. Its virtue may be its innocuousness. As a practitioner, I find the literarypart self-congratulating and the journalismpart masking the forms inventiveness. But literary journalismis roughly accurate. The paired words cancel each others vices and describe the sort of nonfiction in which arts of style and narrative construction long associated with fiction help pierce to the quick of whats happening the essence of journalism.
This journalism in fact has proper pedigree. Daniel Defoe, writing just after 1700, is the earliest cited by Norman Sims, one of the few historians of the form. The roster also includes Mark Twain in the 19th century and Stephen Crane at the start of the 20th. Before and just after the Second World War, James Agee, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Leibling, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, and John Steinbeck tried out narrative essay forms. Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion followed, and somewhere in there, the genre came into its own that is, its writers began to identify themselves as part of a movement, and the movement began to take on conventions and to attract writers. Public consciousness of a distinct genre has risen, slowly.
In the 1970s John McPhee, Edward Hoagland, and Richard Rhodes among others now in their 50s and 60s broadened the form, joined in the 1980s by several dozen then-youthful counterparts, including Tracy Kidder and Mark Singer. Richard Preston and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, the youth of this collection, began publishing in their 20s, and both had studied literary journalism in seminars a sure sign a new genre has arrived. Another sign is a change in its treatment by book review editors. They used to assign area experts routinely geologists to review McPhees Basin and Range(1981), computer programmers to review Kidders The Soul of a New Machine” – with neither brand of scientist generically qualified to assay the subtle narrative techniques and deft wordsmithing. Now editors are likelier to assign such reviewing to other writers and to critics.
New forms of the written word that catch on are infrequent literary occurrences. Still, writers will forever seek ways beyond the constraints by overlapping cousin- genres travel travel writing, memoir, ethnographic and historical essays, some fiction and even ambiguous semifiction stemming from real events all tempt fields just beyond rickety fences.
Literary journalism has been growing up, and readers by the million seek it out. But it has been a you-know-it-when-you-see-it form. The following annotated list of defining traits derives from the work in this anthology and works by other authors Ive cited. It reflects authorscommon practices, as the rulesof harmony taught in composition classes mirror composershabits. But however accurately represented, rules for making art will surely be stretched and reinvented again and again.
1. Literary journalists immerse themselves in subjectsworlds and in background research.
Speaking at a relaxed meeting of the Nieman Fellows at Harvard University, shortly after hed won the Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine,Tracy Kidder enraged several young journalists with an offhand comment that literary journalists are, overall, more accurate than daily journalists. He recalls telling them, It has to be true; our reporting takes months, and youre sent to get a story and write it up in three hours, and do two more before leaving work. A privileged journalist might get a few weeks for a feature.
Literary journalists hang out with their sources for months and even years. Its a reward and risk of the trade, as Ive discovered on many projects. I spent one glorious June with a baseball team; I wandered intermittently in backwoods Russia through six years of perestroika and the ensuing confused transition. I spent a year in hospital operating rooms, and years in the fields and corporate offices of Americas farms. Every writer in this anthology has had similar experiences. The reporting part of the work is engrossing and tedious. It is not social time. One stays alert for meaningful twists of narrative and character, all the while thinking about how to portray them and about how to sustain ones welcome.
The point of literary journalistslong immersions is to comprehend subjects at a level Henry James termed felt life” – the frank, unidealized level that includes individual difference, frailty, tenderness, nastiness, vanity, generosity, pomposity, humility, all in proper proportion. It shoulders right on past official or bureaucratic explanations for things. It leaves quirks and self-deceptions, hypocrisies and graces intact and exposed; in fact, it uses them to deepen understanding.
This is the level at which we think about our own everyday lives, when were not fooling ourselves. Its surely a hard level to achieve with other people. It takes trust, tact, firmness, and endurance on the parts of both writer and subject. It most often also takes weeks or months, including time spent reading up on related economics, psychology, politics, history, and science. Literary journalists take elaborate notes retaining wording of quotes, sequence of events, details that show personality, atmosphere, and sensory and emotional content. We have more time than daily journalists are granted, time to second-guess and rethink first reactions. Even so, making sense of whats happening writing with humanity, poise, and relevance
is a beguiling, approachable, unreachable goal.
2. Literary journalists work out implicit covenants about accuracy and candor with readers and with sources.
No Un-Literary-Journalistic-Activities Committee subpoenas the crafts corner- cutters. Literary journalists, unlike newspaper reporters, are solo operatives. You can see the writers here, in their first few paragraphs, establishing their veracity with readers by displays of forthrightness and street savvy. These are important moments. They imply the rules the author elects to follow. Readers are the ultimate judges of which authors dont play fairly. They have had the last word in several publicized cases. Two areas of ethical concern often jumble together in discussions of the scrupulousness of literary journalism: (a) the writers relationship to readers and (b) the writers relationship to sources.
(a) The writers relationship to readers
A few distinguished essayists we retrospectively link to literary journalism did indeed commit acts that, if done by writers today, would be considered downright sinful: They combined or improved upon scenes, aggregated characters, refurbished quotations, and otherwise altered what they knew to be the nature of their material.
What distinguished them from fiction writer may have been merely intention presumably to convey to readers the senseof an actuality. In fact, one of the
genres grand old men, Joseph Mitchell, whose work is in this collection, has written about and spoken to interviewers about using composite characters and scenes in his 1948 classic Old Mr. Flood.John Hersey, author of Hiroshima,did the same thing with the main character of his 1944 article Joe Is Home Now(however, he later complained about the practice among New Journalists). Mitchell never complained, and neither writer did it again.
I have no trouble comprehending the liberty of either of these artists trying things out. Other pioneers, including George Orwell (in Shooting an Elephant) and Truman Capote (in In Cold Blood(1966)), apparently also recast some events, and my private verdict is to find them similarly exculpated by virtue of the earliness (and elegance) of their experimentation, and by the presumed lack of intention to deceive. None violated readersexpectations for the genre, because there werent yet strong expectations or much of a genre, for that matter to violate.
Still, if you reread those essays having learned they portray constructed events, you may find yourself second-guessing what was real. One wouldnt bother doing this with a novel. The ambiguity is distracting. Today, literary journalism is a genre readers recognize and read expecting civil treatment. The power of the prose depends on the readersaccepting the ground rules the works implicitly proclaim.
There is a category of expectations, and Id argue it describes material that falls outside the modern understanding of what literary journalism is. By the time he published The Executioners Song,in 1979, about a triple murderer named Gary Gilmore, Norman Mailer elected to specify his liberation from restrictive factuality. The dust jacket bore the odd description A True Life Novel.Although such truth- in-labeling doesnt explicitly demarcate what parts are actual, its a good-faith proclamation to readers that theyve entered a zone in which a nonfiction writers covenant with readers may be a tease, a device, but doesnt quite apply. It would
take a naive audience to misconstrue clearly self-proclaiming docudramassuch as Errol Morriss The Thin Blue Line(which Mark Singer writes about in this collection) or Mailers sort of docufiction.Most reader swill instead savor, whether as art or entertainment, the deliberate byplay of reality against fancy, in this often wholesome, but always special category of film and prose that straddles the line.
However, chats with writer friends and panel discussions at writing conferences have me convinced that literary journalists have come to share a stodgier tacit understanding with readers, one so strong that it amounts to a contract: that the writers do what they appear to do, which is to get reality as straight as they can manage, and not make it up. Some, of course, admit in private to moments of temptation, moments when theyve realized that tweaking reality could sharpen the meaning or flow of a scene. If any writers have gone ahead and actually tweaked, however, theyre no longer chatting about it to friends, nor talking about it on panels. In recent years, a few literary journalists have drawn heavy fire for breaking trust with readers. It is not a subject about which readers are neutral.
Conventions literary journalists nowadays talk about following to keep things square with readers include: no composite scenes, no misstated chronology, no falsification of the discernible drift or proportion of events, no invention of quotes, no attribution of thoughts to sources unless the sources have said theyd had those very thoughts, and no unacknowledged deals with subjects involving payment or editorial control. Writers do occasionally pledge away use of actual names and identifying details in return for ongoing frank access, and notify readers theyve done so. These conventions all add up to keeping faith. The genre makes less sense otherwise. Sticking to these conventions turns out to be straightforward.
Writers discover how to adhere to them and still structure essays creatively. Theres no reason a writer cant place a Tuesday scene prior to a Monday scene, if the writer thinks readers should know how a situation turned out before knowing how it developed. It is easy to keep readers unconfused and undeceived, just by letting them know that youre doing. While narrating a scene, a literary journalist may wish to quote comments made elsewhere, or embed secondary scenes or personal memories; it is possible to do all these things faithfully, without blurring or misrepresenting what happened where and when, simply by explaining as you go along. Like other literary journalists, Ive found that, in fact, annoying, inconsistent details that threaten to wreck a scene Im writing are often signals that my working theories about events need more work, and dont quite explain what happened yet.
Not tweaking deepens understanding. And getting a slice of life down authentically takes flexibility and hard labor. Readers appreciate writing that does the job. It is not accidental that the rise of literary journalism has been accompanied by authorsnearly universal adherence to these conventions, which produce trustworthy, in- the-know texts and reliable company for readers.
(b) The writers relationships to sources
The writers reliable companionship with sources can cause difficulty. An inescapable ethical problem arises from a writers necessarily intense ongoing
relationships with subjects. Gaining satisfactory continuing access is always a tough problem; most potential subjects are doing quite well at life with no writers anywhere in the neighborhood, and their lives are tangles of organizational and personal affiliations. Yet, in order to write authentically at the level of felt life,literary journalists will seek from subjects the sustained candor usually accorded only spouses, business partners, and dearest friends. Strong social and legal strictures bind husbands, wives, partners, and pals to only the most tactful public disclosure of private knowledge. Literary journalistsown honorable purposes, on the other hand, require as much public discourse as possible.
During the months a writer stays around subjects, even a forthright relationship (that has commenced with full discussion of intentions, signing of releases, and display of part articles and books) is likely to develop into something that feels to both parties a lot like a partnership or friendship, if not quite like marriage. The ticklish questions the writer comes up against are these: Does the subject see himself revealing information to a friend, at the same moment the writer sees himself hearing information from a source? And how responsible is the writer for the consequences of such perceptions?
Writers, in good faith, try all sorts of ways to get and keep good access without falsifying their intentions. The most obvious has been to write about people who either dont mind or else actually like the prospect of being written about. Anthropologists say access downwardis easier than access upward.Literary journalists (including me) have had cordial continuing access to people far from the world of books, who just like the company of the writer and the sound of the project including hoboes riding the rails, migrant workers sneaking across the border, merchant seamen, teen prostitutes, high school football players, plain dirt farmers.
Another category, exemplary subjects a dynamic schoolteacher, a deft surgeon, a crew of tip-top carpenters, a dexterous canoemaker, a hard-bargaining corporate farm executive also welcome attention, sometimes because they have causes they hope to represent, such as bigger school budgets, lessened malpractice liability, or fairer crop subsidies.
My own rule has been to show part articles, to make clear the public exposure involved, to explain my publishers and my commitments of time and money, to stipulate that subjects wont get to edit manuscript or check quotes. Then I go ahead if Im still welcome after all that, and sometimes Im not. In a few cases, I have doubted that subjects understood my intentions or their consequences well enough to consent, or Ive felt consent hadnt been freely given but was influenced by bosss orders (for example, the nurses in an operating room where my subject worked). Then, Ive made it my business to do no harm. By luck, Ive been able to write what I wished, without having these occasional moments alter essential content. Every genre, whether daily or literary journalism, poetry, or fiction, ultimately depends on the integrity of the writer.
3. Literary journalists write mostly about routine events.
The ecology of convenient access impels literary journalists toward routine events, not extraordinary ones. The need to gain long-term, frank access has forced writers to seek material in places that can be visited, and to avoid, in spite of longings to the contrary, places that cant. The level of access required is so high that it has largely determined the direction of literary journalistsefforts.
The goal during reportingor fieldworkis not to become socialized as an insider, as an intern at a firm might en route to a job. It is to know what insiders think about, to comprehend subjectsexperiences and perspectives and understand what is routine to them. Insiders who eventually read a literary journalistaccount should find it accurate and relevant, but not from an inside perspective. At first, when I spent time with surgeons, blood alarmed me an unsurgeonlike attitude. By the end of a year witnessing controlled mayhem, my attention had shifted. I knew when the surgeon found bleeding routine, and recognized the rare moments when it alarmed him. My rookie reaction wasnt relevant to the surgeons world; my later reaction served me better in comprehending his perspective.
Routine doesnt mean humdrum. Most anyones life, discovered in depth and from a compassionate perspective, is interesting. Some very routine subjects, however, havent been breached, and seem unbreachable except by insiders. Oddly, one major constraint is legal. Commission from a national magazine in hand, I once approached an attorney well known for effectively defending many suspected murderers. He was tempted by the prospect of an article about his daily work. I sketched out the access Id need including entre to his office discussions with and about a current client. The attorney backed away. Id be out beyond the umbrella of attorney-client privilege, he said, and could be challenged, and perhaps subpoenaed, for questioning on what Id heard. His client could then sue him for malpractice.
Uncontaminated access to top levels of big business during a major deal has also proved nearly beyond reach, mostly because corporate sources perceive that allowing a journalist to roam might exceed prudent fiduciary responsibility, and might subject them to suit. Also, businesspeople work repeatedly within a circle of associates, and whoever let in a writer unbound by the circles prospect of mutual advantage could be seen as breaking trust. Writers occasionally do make it through these barriers. A few kiss-and-tell versions of business deals have also been written by former players. And writerly post-factum reconstructions sometimes re-create dramas of complex deals.
A cousin, true-crime reporting, also reconstructs events post-factum. Murderers usually try not to do their work in front of writers. But criminal cases subsequently open access to the most secret places, starting the moment the deed is revealed. Cooperative culprits looking for redemption, variety, or forgiveness; vengeful family members; and elaborate court records have taken writers far into hidden inner worlds after the fact.
Nonfiction writers are fated to arrive late. Something that a literary journalist can only do in the first person, with hindsight, after chance has subjected him to bad or good fortune, is to write about a person about to be mugged, slip on a banana peel,
or find a pot of gold. Once in a while, something untoward happens to a writer, and readers may profit from the authors misfortune Francis Steegmullers The Incident at Naples(which ran in The New Yorker in 1986) comes to mind. Steegmuller describes being robbed and injured while on holiday. Perhaps it is to push this limit that writers go adventuring sailing into nasty seas and living to tell, hunting in the green hills of Africa and bagging the limit in close calls. Before disaster destroyed the lives of Christa MacAuliff and the Challenger astronauts, NASA had signed up writers wishing to go space traveling. Among the applicants was Tracy Kidder, who has gone on instead to write about aging.
4. Literary journalists write in intimate voice,informal, frank, human and ironic.
In literary journalism, the narrator is neither the impersonal, dutiful explainer and qualifier of academic writing, who presents research material carefully but without special consideration of readers, nor the seemingly objective and factual, judgment- suspending, orthodox informant of newswriting. The narrator of literary journalism has a personality, is a whole person, intimate, frank, ironic, wry, puzzled, judgmental, even self-mocking qualities academics and daily news reporters dutifully avoid as unprofessional and unobjective. Theyre taught to discount their personal reactions about other people and to advance no private opinions. From the perspective of the institutions or intellectual traditions sponsoring such prose, there are sound civic, commercial, scientific, and discipline-abetting reasons for curtailing the appearance of private judgment. The effect of both academic and news styles is to present readers with what appear to be the facts, delivered in unemotional, nonindividuated, conventionalized, and therefore presumably fair and neutral voice. Obviously, they leave lots out.
The defining mark of literary journalism is the personality of the writer, the individual and intimate voice of a whole, candid person not representing, defending, or speaking on behalf of any institution, not a newspaper, corporation, government, ideology, field of study, chamber of commerce, or travel destination. It is the voice of someone naked, without bureaucratic shelter, speaking simply in his or her own right, someone who has illuminated experience with private reflection, but who has not transcended crankiness, wryness, doubtfulness, and who doesnt blank out emotional realities of sadness, glee, excitement, fury, love. The genres power is the strength of this voice. It is an unaffiliated social forcealthough its practice has been mostly benign. It is a one of the few places in media where mass audiences may consume unmoderated individual assertion, spoken on behalf of no one but the adventurous author.
The voice is rarely no-holds-barred, accusatory, or confessional, however, even though some writers Tom Wolfe comes to mind are adept at making it look that way. In most literary journalism, an informal, competent, reflective voice emerges, a voice speaking with knowledgeable assurance about topics, issues, personal subjects, a voice that reflects often only indirectly, as subtext the writers self- knowledge, self-respect, and conscience. I suggest to my Boston University writing workshop that members find their voices by imagining theyre telling fairly close friends whose wit they respect about an incident theyd observed and taken
seriously, linked to fields theyd studied. What emerges is a sociable, humorously self-aware, but authoritative voice I hear it at dinner parties when people tell anecdotes. Reading it feels companionable.
This voice is a handy invention for essay writers, not a quirky preference, nor merely a way of getting into the act. It is an effective tool for a difficult modern job. It enables an author to step around acculturated views of relationships and issues that are usually guarded by walls of formal language and invisible institutional alliances. The powers of the candid, intimate voice are many, and they bother people who insist on idealized versions of reality. Formality of language protects pieties, faiths, taboos, appearances, official truths. The intimate voice sidesteps such prohibitions, says things in the mode that professionals in the know use when they leave work feeling pensive and confide to friends or lovers. It is the voice in which we disclose how people and institutions really are. It is a key characteristic of literary journalism, and is indeed something new to journalism.
A former newspaper reporter told me shed interviewed a city traffic department official and found him stentorian and self-promoting, not sharp on issues, but a charming good-old-boy at local politics. She liked him, but she had his number. Nevertheless, her newspaper article, she recalled, had started something like, The long-awaited design plans for a new highway exit were released today by the Office of Traffic Management.Her observations about the man, the jokes her knowing colleagues made about him in the bar near the newsroom afterwards are sorts of material a literary journalist might bring into a narrative about, say, the complex actuality of planning and building a highway exit along with, perhaps, material on traffic management, bureaucratic structures, urban finance, executive psychology, the politics of urban renewal, and on the meanings of driving and self-promotion and good-old-boyhood in the writers own life.
The audience is invited, when reading literary journalism, to adopt complex and relaxed expectations about meaning, and to share something excluded from academic and news articles the authors ironic vision. Irony the device of leading readers to consider a scene in more knowing terms than some of its actors do is virtually taboo in other forms of nonfiction. Two exceptions come to mind, and in both places, literary journalism turns up. The Wall Street Journal is the one major American paper that regularly runs ironic features on its front page. This may be because management there defines its audience as well-heeled, powerful, and in- the-know in short, as not everyone,but an elite sector of the whole community, those on top, sharing some views of the world below. And Sunday newspaper magazines often feature a wholesome type of ironic voice, in articles whose narrators relate personal experiences with some sensitive aspect of communal morality prejudice, costly sickness, the burdens of aging and of mental illness. Walt Harringtons piece, essentially on the growth of interracial tolerance, both his own and our nations, is in that spirit. As the piece illustrates, the power of irony need not emerge from sarcasm or meanness. It can bind a community, simply by expanding contexts of events beyond what the actors usually consider.
5. Style counts, and tends to be plain and spare.
A mark of literary journalism that shows right from the start of a piece is efficient, individual, informal language. The writers here have worked their language until it is spare, stylish, and controlled. Ear may be the last teachable skill of writing. Elegant, simple expression is the goal, and what many poets and novelists reach toward, too. People discern character in part by divining whod make those word choices. Impersonal or obdurate speakers get found out. Clean, lucid, personal language draws readers toward experiencing the immediacy of scenes, and the force of ideas.
If you want to see the invisible world, look at the visible one,Howard Nemerov said in his enchanted essay On Metaphor.The best language of literary journalists is also evocative, playful, sharpened by active verbs, sparing of abstract verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and the many indolent forms of to be,taut in its grammatical linkages. Such uncluttered style is gracious clear and pleasant in its own right, and suited for leading readers not merely to picture, but to feel events. Readers resist clumsy writing, often without thinking much about whats wrong, but engage with good prose, often as heedlessly. Feeling transports readers as mere logic cannot.
6. Literary journalists write from a disengaged and mobile stance, from which they tell stories and also turn and address readers directly.
David Quammen, like the other authors here, occupies a strategic stance in relation to his material in Strawberries Under Ice.He is the host. He entertains by telling you a good winter camping tale, immersing you in it so you feel the immediacy of it, its past, its impending future, and the ongoing nowof it. He also guides you, his presumptive social intimate, through his evaluation of it, exiting from story to informative digressions about glaciers and his psychology, then reentering action.
Readers experience this well-spoken, worldly, witty, cagey storytelling buddy warmly, in good measure because Quammen the writer isnt trapped within the events he portrays. He describes events (that happened to Quammen the subject) from a retrospective platform,recollecting action and considering its shape, meanings, and metaphoric echoes.
This mobile stance of the writer is another key element in literary journalism. Each author in this anthology, while telling tales, repeatedly looks directly at the reader, comments, digresses, brings in associative material, background, previous events
not necessarily personal ones then reengages the story. When the author drops you back at the spot where the tales been left off, the place feels familiar. Oh, good,says the well-hosted reader, realizing the story is back on screen, now I find out what happens next.The reader rejoins with enhanced perspective on the events, gained from the digressive material. The forward-moving leading edge of the narrative, from which such digressions and returns happen, may be called the moving now” – its a term useful for discerning essay structure. Good storytellers often digress at moments when especially interesting action is pending, and not at the completion of action. Lucid storytelling, skillful selection of moments for pertinent digression, returning to the moving now,are among the essential elements out of which literary journalists constructs essays.
The literary journalists mobile stance is not quite borrowed property of novelists
in fiction, the reader can never be sure the author has stepped away from the story,
and cant quite shake the presumption that even an authors most out-of-story asides might turn out to be another layer of story. When the literary journalist digresses and then returns to narrative, the authors real-world knowledge juxtaposes with story. This mobile stance is an amazing device, full of power.
The authors in this anthology have varied approaches to this mobile stance. Jane Kramer mostly tells about scenes, conversing with readers, but a several refined moments fully sets scenes, drawing readers into experiencing them. Her erudition and grasp of the larger meanings of her subject infuse these moments. We see her scenes with a pleasant knowingness; we are newly sophisticated by her erudition. Tracy Kidder, on the other hand, does almost nothing but tell tales, suspending action for digressive comments to readers only occasionally. Both authorsstances aid their control of the readers developing experience.
7. Structure counts, mixing primary narrative with tales and digressions to amplify and reframe events.
Most literary journalism is primarily narrative, telling stories, building scenes. Each piece here carries readers along one, and often a second and third, story line. Walt Harringtons A Family Portrait in Black & Whiteachronologically braids several discrete narratives that explore his relationship to racism, starting nearly currently and flashing back. He relates the events of his own interracial courtship and marriage, and also plaits in the stories of several of his wifes relatives, and the story of the relaxing of American racial attitudes.
The sequences of scenes and digressions some brushed past, some dwelled upon along with the narrators mobile stance relative to these tales and asides, comprise narrative structure. Literary journalists have developed a genre that permits them to sculpt stories and digression as complexly as novelists do. At any moment the reader will probably be located somewhere along the time line of at least one unfolding tale and a few developing ideas. Quammens Strawberries Under Ice,at first glance an example of unusually charming science writing on glaciers, is in fact a coyly constructed narrative of the purgation of his soul, and once thats well along, of his courtship and marriage, of the miracle of love and its metaphorical expression in the warming effect of ice, of paradoxical and intimate metaphors, finally of rebirth from the warmth of a snow cave. Because of Quammens crafty structuring of these elements, the piece creeps up on you. When authors make decisions about structure order of scenes, points of digression, how intensively to develop which elements of stories and digressions they consider the effects of the order and intensities chosen on readersexperience.
8. Literary journalists develop meaning by building upon the readerssequential reactions.
Readers are likely to care about how a situation came about and what happens next when they are experiencing it with the characters. Successful literary journalists never forget to be entertaining. The graver the writers intentions, and the more
earnest and crucial the message or analysis behind the story, the more readers ought to be kept engaged. Style and structure knit story and idea alluringly.
If the author does all this storytelling and digressing and industrious structure- building adroitly, readers come to feel they are heading somewhere with purpose, that the job of reading has a worthy destination. The sorts of somewheres that literary journalists reach tend to marry eternal meanings and everyday scenes. Richard Prestons The Mountains of Pi,for instance, links the awkward daily lives of two shy Russian emigre mathematicians to their obscure intergalactic search for hints of underlying order in a chaotic universe.
Readers take journeys designed by authors to tease out the ineluctable within the everyday; the trip will go nowhere without their imaginative participation. Ultimately, what an author creates arent sequential well-groomed paragraphs on paper, but sequential emotional, intellectual, and even moral experiences that readers undertake. These are engaging, patterned experiences, akin to the sensations of filmgoing, not textbook reading. What these pieces mean isnt on paper at all.
The writer paints sensory scenes, confides on a level of intimacy that stirs readersown experiences and sensations, and sets up alchemical interplay between constructed text and readerspsyches. The readersrealizations are what the author and readers have made together.
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Why has this union of detailed fact, narratives, and intimate voice risen so remarkably in this century?
Many traditions that defined behaviors and beliefs at the start of the century have fragmented or vaporized. In 1900 a few hundred categories described the routines of labor, and a handful of patterns defined propriety. These days, there are 10,000 sorts of jobs and of propriety. In the same period, science, which had promised answers, order, and ease, has yielded convolution, danger, and vast domains of knowledge that seem crucial to everyone but comprehensible only by specialists. And in a culture that once called upon experts, and leaders with creeds, for piloting, august authority has run aground. Presidents, priests, generals on horseback, professors in ivory towers none can command collective faith these days.
Yet somehow this has not resulted in universal despair. A formidable crowd of citizens wants, Im sure with more urgency than ever, to read books and essays that comprehend whats happening in its complexity. They demand not just information, but visions of how things fit together now that the center cannot hold. A public that rarely encountered the personal imaginations of others at the turn of the century, now devours topical bestsellers, films and TV shows that cast issues narratively, and literary journalism.
Literary journalism helps sort out the new complexity. If it is not an antidote to bewilderment, at least it unites daily experiences including emotional ones with
the wild plentitude of information that can be applied to experience. Literary journalism couples cold fact and personal event, in the authors humane company. And that broadens readersscans, allows them to behold otherslives, often set within far clearer contexts than we can bring to our own. The process moves readers, and writers, toward realization, compassion, and in the best of cases, wisdom.
Ill even claim that there is something intrinsically political and strongly democratic about literary journalism, something pluralistic, pro-individual, anti- cant, and anti-elite. That seems inherent in the common practices of the form. Informal style cuts through the obfuscating generalities of creeds, countries, companies, bureaucracies, and experts. And narratives of the felt lives of everyday people test idealizations against actualities. Truth is in the details of real lives.