Tips from Nieman Narrative: What Works for Readers, Editors & Sources

Look — even on deadline – before you leap into a story.

Quick outlines and fast rough drafts save time and editing trauma.

To identify weak spots, read your story out loud.

Sacrifice artistry for accuracy, and make sure readers know how you learned every detail.

Reveal your motives to your sources.

And remember that the best reporters are the most open to tough editing and fact-checking.

Prize-winning writers reiterated these points to 1,000 reporters and editors from around the world at the seventh annual Narrative Journalism conference Dec. 3-5 in Cambridge Mass. Directed by Mark Kramer, writer-in-residence at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, the sold-out sessions were co-sponsored by The Boston Globe, The Oregonian and The Poynter Institute. 

Presenters offered tips aimed at winning readers and influencing editors by injecting drama into every story – whatever the length, subject, or deadline.

Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize winning feature writer at The St. Petersburg Times (which is owned by Poynter), stressed the need to “zoom in” with cinematic detail on a key moment in every story. He was one of many urging reporters to use dialogue – not just quotes. “When people talk to each other, you put the reader there inside the scene, (and) that’s our goal.”

French and others underscored the need to soak up sensory detail, even on deadline. “Take five minutes without asking a question and write down what you observe…Look for points of contact: someone sneezing, wiping sleep dust from his eyes. That makes them real people.”

As did many conference speakers, French advocated outlining even on deadline to define the lead, ending, and key points in between.

Reporters and editors can train one another, according to Jacqui Banaszynski, associate managing editor/Sunday of The Seattle Times. “Think of your own writing process: what you need, what you don’t need,” said the Pulitzer winning feature writer. “Think how an editor can help you.” She made a point repeated by many other speakers: “Don’t be too proud to read (your stories) out loud.” (The minute you do that, offered audience member Richard Read, a Pulitzer-winning Oregonian reporter, you catch flaws you didn’t notice at the keyboard.)

Jack Hart, an Oregonian managing editor who has edited two Pulitzer stories, was among several speakers convinced that early drafts, however rough, let writers explore creativity without pressure. He recommends William E. Blundell’s “Art and Craft of Feature Writing” and Jon Franklin’s “Writing for Story” as excellent guides to such devices as plot points, narrative arc and exposition.

In these days of fabulists such as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, journalists must earn public trust by keeping the “non” in “non-fiction.”
 
“If you hype a quote, fake a source, pipe a scene, you rip a small tear in the (fabric) of public trust,” said Walt Harrington. He called journalists “shabby literalists and we’re proud of it. When accuracy and art conflict, accuracy wins. No contest.”
 
Harrington, the author and former Washington Post Magazine writer who now heads the journalism department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said editors should follow the investigative reporting adage: assume the best, but look for the worst. And – making a point other speakers stressed in different ways – he declared that anyone who resents that kind of interrogation has something to hide.

He said that literary devices are not ends in themselves. “Literary journalism is not just a bag of tricks — it’s a way of seeing. Fine literary journalists are all masters of (basic reporting) craft. You need a deep commitment to documentary truth.”
 
Many speakers emphasized the need to let readers know that every word you’ve written is true.

Bruce de Silva, who directs the Associated Press’s investigative and narrative efforts, lamented the notion that Blair and his dishonest ilk somehow reflect on narrative journalism.

“The fakers were doing straight news,” he pointed out. “Narrative journalism has a much higher standard of truth because of the depth of reporting (and) we should make the process as transparent as we can.”
 
“The pendulum is swinging towards greater transparency,” agreed Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute vice-president and senior scholar. He said writers should use a red pen to check “how do I know every fact?” and be prepared to defend their stories against “prosecutorial editing.”

Clark and others said you can reconstruct a scene as long as you explain how you did it. Don’t write “he was thinking,” said French. “You don’t know what he was thinking.” Instead, write, “It’s easy to picture the trip.” Telling the reader what we can know and what we can’t increases credibility, he said.

Anne Hull and Seymour Hersh have widely diverging styles and subjects but agree strongly on one point: never deceive your source however important the story.

Hull, a Washington Post reporter, four-time Pulitzer finalist and two time ASNE winner, inhabits the vastly different worlds of black teens, Cambodian immigrants, and the travails of “coming out”  in the Bible Belt.

To gain in-depth access, she rehearses a speech stressing “what’s in it for them” to let her into their lives. “Take a minute to think, ‘What am I going to say?’ Write a little script.”
 
She reminds people why she’s there, both out of ethical considerations and to avoid the problem of story subjects refusing to participate after she’s invested several days following their story. “Let everyone know you’re a reporter but (then) fade into the woodwork.”

Hersh, an investigative scourge who has followed his 1970 Pulitzer for exposing Vietnam’s My Lai massacre with probes into high level government malfeasance, said he never misrepresents himself or his motives. The New Yorker writer says he tells confidential sources, “I need a favor.” Sometimes, he lets them pre-view copy, and he welcomes fact-checkers’ questioning his anonymous informants. “People will let you write negative stuff (about them) as long as it’s accurate,” he says.

America’s most famous leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, said he’s never met a reporter – including Hersh – “who has any idea how often they’re lied to” by government officials. Ellsberg, who gave copies of a top-secret study of the Vietnam war to The New York Times and other papers, said officials offer “an approved line that’s never the whole truth and (never) what you and the public needs to know.”

Ellsberg’s solution: Think hard about “what does the official not want me to know?… If you knew how much skepticism is needed, you’d do a lot better job.”

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