New York Times’ Frank Bruni shares his tools for versatile writing

Longtime New York Times reporter Frank Bruni doesn’t have a set beat. Instead, he skillfully wanders as a writer by exploring a variety of topics.

Take a look at Bruni’s most recent stories and you’ll see what I mean. In the past week or so, he’s written a review of a food memoir, a profile on Gayle King and a story about where to get a decent drink in Times Square. Bruni has also written books — including one about his complicated relationship with food and another about George W. Bush.

So, how did he get to be such a versatile writer?

In our edited e-mail exchange below, Bruni talks about how he prepares for stories and offers tips for journalists who want to experiment with different genres.

Mallary Jean Tenore: You’ve written about a wide variety of topics — food, politics, pop culture and more. What challenges have you faced in writing about so many different topics?

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni: I wouldn’t say that writing about different topics is a challenge. More an opportunity — or a sign of a short and fickle attention span. I think journalists who write well and with great depth about one genre or topic face a greater challenge than those like me who wander and mix it up, because they’re expected to convey a higher degree of authority, and they have to keep breathing fresh life into a subject with certain parameters. The fact that my bosses have let me explore different areas is a privilege, not a challenge.

Whenever I read your work, I’m always struck by how much you seem to know about the topic you’re writing about. How do you prepare for stories about topics you may not have written much about in the past?

Bruni: I do what I think most journalists do: I read up. Quickly and extensively. I get clips, I bop around the Internet. I also tend to do a lot of background reporting that may not lead to actual quotes but that informs stories and maybe enables me to write with more certainty and confidence. But I always find myself wishing I had more time, knew more, could be even more definitive. Journalism always has time limits and deadlines: it’s imperfect by definition.

As you switch between subjects, what changes in your reporting and writing process?

Bruni: The only changes in reporting and writing process are dictated by the length of the story and the expectations for it — and the deadline. Those factors determine how much you can read, how much time you can spend with your principal subject, how many people you can talk to, etc.

Otherwise the process is really the same: background research, reading, interviews, etc. Though that makes a given cocktail column sound more consequential than it is. My “Tipsy Diaries” column is meant to be a bit of a lark for readers, entertaining as well as informative, and breezy. The process for it can be pretty casual.

What has been your favorite beat/topic to write about, and why?

Bruni: I really enjoyed my time as Rome bureau chief for the Times, because those jobs/ beats are defined by geography, not by any necessary subject focus. So doing my “beat” meant writing about everything: religion, politics, diplomacy, food, lifestyle, etc. And I happen to love the two countries I was principally responsible for, Italy and Greece. They’re beautiful places with real spirit and some fascinating social dynamics.

I’ve heard some journalists say that they get so used to writing about the lives of others that writing about their own lives doesn’t come as naturally. How did you make the transition from writing for the Times to writing about your own life in “Born Round,” and what did you learn from the experience?

Bruni: In part I approached my own story the way I would someone else’s. To supplement my own memories I debriefed family members and friends. But mostly I took some time to read, in rapid succession, the kinds of memoirs I’d read before but never with a particular focus. I looked closely at how they were done, how they were paced, their tones. And I tried to draw from that some internal sense of how I should proceed with mine and what I wanted it to read and sound like.

You’ve talked a lot about the importance of reading. What memoirs did you read prior to writing “Born Round,” and which magazines and news sites do you typically turn to?

Bruni: I probably read more than a dozen memoirs prior to writing “Born Round,” including ones by Augusten Burroughs, Frank Rich and Jeanette Walls, to name just a few especially prominent writers.

As for regular online and magazine reading: I get The New York Times and Salon on my Kindle, and in my mailbox I get the New Yorker, New York, Time, GQ, Vanity Fair, Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, The Week, The Economist and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Entertainment Weekly: I like and get that.

It’s sad to me that magazines and newspapers have hit hard times. Their information and entertainment value is incredible. Maureen Dowd has always said, of the Times, where else can you get that much value for that little money? And she’s right. Compare it to a movie ticket, or even to a sandwich. It’s a lot less than either, and more nutritious!

Drawing on your own experiences, why do you think it’s valuable to be versatile as a writer?

Bruni: In a practical sense, it’s valuable: it gives you more job flexibility, I suppose. But I don’t think someone who keeps changing up subject matter has any more value in a broader sense than someone who has unmatched expertise in one subject area. Quite the opposite. The world needs experts.

Any additional tips for journalists who want to step outside of their beat and become more versatile writers?

Bruni: Journalistic training and preparedness are what they are, whether one is trying to be versatile or narrow. Read, read, read. Keep your eyes peeled for what’s interesting in the world. Pay close attention to the people you’re interviewing. Try to write up the results in a careful and lively fashion.

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