Emily Ding is a twenty-something barrister turned freelance journalist-writer (that takes care of the identity crisis) based in London who aspires to longform narrative journalism. Follow her at www.mock-heroic.net and @mock_heroic.
I’ve always wanted to write. As a teenager I wrote short stories, but as I grew older I inched towards journalism. I was drawn to its “nonfiction” element, but felt limited by what I thought to be its creative boundaries… until I read Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Had A Cold (1966).
It was my first introduction to the genre – “narrative journalism”, “literary journalism”, “creative nonfiction” – and I knew that it was the kind of writing I wanted to do. But how does a wannabe hack go about it in the UK where the genre isn’t as popular as it is in the US?
To find out, I spoke to Julie Wheelwright (@jwheelwright), Director of City’s Creative Writing (Non-Fiction) MA, and Susan Greenberg (@sgediting / @Roewrites), senior lecturer at Roehampton’s Department of English and Creative Writing.
I prefer “narrative journalism” because it reflects the genre’s defining feature: a narrative arc in the shape of a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a true story with real names and real lives, but adapts literary devices – structure, voice, character development, scene-setting, dialogue – for dramatic tension.
Julie cautions, however, that everything must be “grounded in reality”, especially when playing with elements such as time, or when writing scenes not directly witnessed but reconstructed from interviews and observations.
Moreover, “There has to be some transformation because it’s about the development of character,” Julie said. You take the world as you find it, not as you imagine it, and yet the facts of the story have to be able to fulfil a narrative, which is what makes it so challenging. As such, not all stories are fit for narrative journalism as a form, nor can it be practiced in every setting.
Writing for a Living
Narrative journalism is time-consuming and expensive, requiring immersion reporting, accuracy, careful structuring and a lot of hard work, more than your average news article or magazine feature. Unless you are very famous, you probably couldn’t make a living on narrative journalism alone.
“You have to be flexible and willing to do different types of writing,” Julie said.
However, she encourages cultivating a subject specialism: “There is a huge advantage in researching a particular subject and being an expert on it. I worked as a feature writer for a long time and I was always surprised when reading about something I knew a lot about, how badly those issues were being covered.”
Get Your Feet Wet
I wonder if it is possible for a young writer like me to aspire directly to narrative journalism, or whether I first need to have years of formal journalistic experience writing news and features.
Julie’s advice is encouraging. “If that were the case, you would never have anyone young doing this kind of writing, and we need young people doing it.”
Julie and Susan both agree that it is useful to have the training and discipline of a journalist – pitching ideas, researching, having a nose for stories, keeping to deadlines – but that you have to be a more skilled writer for narrative journalism.
“You need to find that distinctive voice, you need to have something to say, be very observant. I think you need to have a lot of imagination,” Julie said.
Susan added, “The situation has become very fluid and entry to journalism through non-standard methods such as e-publishing and social media have become more common, so one cannot follow any hard and fast rules. And as with any form of writing, it is important to get as much experience as possible in your chosen form. So if you are interested in narrative nonfiction, there is no reason not to experiment with it right away. Even if it doesn’t lead anywhere immediately, it will provide a learning experience that can be applied elsewhere, and it will provide evidence of ambition and imagination, which is always attractive.”
Popularity in the UK vs. US
“It’s not that we don’t have those kind of outlets here. There’s The Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books where you can write long essays, though they tend to be more literary,” Julie told me.
“But maybe they’re not pushing the boundaries of genre in quite the same way as in the US and that might be because we don’t have the outlets for it.”
According to Susan, it is partly about economics. “The US market is large enough to sustain cultural niches,” though history and culture are important too. “If pressed I would say that the default setting in the UK seems to be literature=fiction and creativity=invention,” she said, which might explain why narrative journalism courses in the UK tend to come under the departments of Creative Writing rather than Journalism. (For more, read Susan’s article Slow Journalism, Prospect, 2007.)
Susan adds, “One does find decent narrative nonfiction in newspapers and magazines here, but there has been a tendency to favour work by writers who are otherwise primarily identified as novelists or dramatists.”
Where should young writers pitch?
Susan’s advice: “There has been a real blossoming of online literary magazines, both here and in the US, which should not be sniffed at. The live storytelling events are fun and provide good practice and feedback. It is also worth including American titles in one’s aim; they can be surprisingly keen to include writers from outside the US. And never give up on newspapers and magazines – sift through them carefully to identify likely “slots” (first person accounts, travel etc) and find out who makes the commissioning decisions for those specific slots.”
Susan’s Roehampton course offers narrative journalism as a BA in Creative Writing, where students begin specializing in Year 1 with Writing Journalism and Nonfiction, which “lays the basis for understanding basic journalistic forms such as news and features, and how they point to other innovative forms of nonfiction.” Year 2 is Feature Writing and in Year 3, a module on longform narrative nonfiction, Telling True Stories.
The result is a portfolio of work. Many students also take Combined Honours degrees, Creative Writing and Journalism. An MA option is also available.
Julie’s City MA course, on the other hand, is designed to help students write a book-length work of non-fiction, whether memoir or investigation. The course also helps students with writing book proposals and liaising with agents and editors. Julie says she gets about 12-15 students in a year, of which 2-3 of them would go on to be published.
She added, “There’s a kind of focus you have to have for books which is different. You have to think long and hard about how to sustain someone’s interest for that amount of time.”
“We normally suggest that those who are not yet ready take the short course we also offer at City.”
Some of my favourite narrative journalism:
The Falling Man by Tom Junod (Esquire, 2003)
The American Man at Age Ten by Susan Orlean (Esquire, 1992)
Going So Fast… Gone Too Soon by Mitch Albom (Detroit Free Press, 2004)
Narrative journalism resources:
Narrative journalism magazines:
The New Yorker is well-known for narrative journalism, as well as Esquire, GQ, The Atlantic, Harpers and Salon. More specialist titles include:
Creative Nonfiction (US)
Narrative Magazine (US)
The Caravan (India)
Online publishing platforms:
The Byliner (online)
The Atavist (online)
Spark London (UK)
Bright Club (UK)
The Moth (US)
- Nick Lawrence: Crossing between print, radio and broadcast is about narrative Nick Lawrence is an experienced broadcast journalist who has produced...
- Emily Davies: Choosing J-school Emily is about to start a Postgraduate course in Newspaper...
- Donnacha DeLong: Want to be a journalist? Join the NUJ. Donnacha DeLong is an online journalist with over ten years’ professional...
- How to start up as a WordPress journalist part 2: themes So – where were we? That’s right. We’d set you...
- Nigel Barlow: Where stories come from Nigel Barlow is a freelance journalist specialising in media,politics,business and economics....
After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look