Northwestern University’s Summer Writers’ Conference
How to find, pitch, report and write great ideas
1:45pm – 3:15pm
Long-form is a new, inelegantly descriptive phrase to describe a very old type of journalism that might also be called literary nonfiction, New Journalism or simply great magazine writing.
So what makes an in-depth magazine story great?
It gets published
It generates web traffic
It generates comments, letters and stories in other media
You can’t stop reading it
You can’t stop talking about it (for years!)
It works as literature
Case studies: what made these great?
The Uninhabitable Earth
Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.
David Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine, July 10, 2017
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.
Can You Say… Hero?
Fred Rogers has been doing the same small thing for a very long time
Tom Junod, Esquire magazine, November 1998
Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how. He prayed for Old Rabbit’s safe return, and when, hours later, his mother and father came home with the filthy, precious strip of rabbity roadkill, he learned not only that prayers are sometimes answered but also the kind of severe effort they entail, the kind of endless frantic summoning. And so when he threw Old Rabbit out the car window the next time, it was gone for good.
- Where do great ideas come from?
You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!
John Jeremiah Sullivan, NY Times Magazine, June 12, 2011
Something you learn rearing kids in this young millennium is that the word “Disney” works as a verb. As in, “Do you Disney?” Or, “Are we Disneying this year?” Technically a person could use the terms in speaking about the original Disneyland, in California, but this would be an anomalous usage. One goes to Disneyland and has a great time there, probably — I’ve never been — but one Disneys at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. There’s an implication of surrender to something enormous.
Ian Frazier, The Atlantic Monthly, November 1997
The Manhattan Yellow Pages has so many listings under “Typewriters” that you might think getting someone to fix a manual would not be hard. The repair places I called were agreeable enough at first; but as I described the problem (Fixing an e, for Pete’s sake! How tough can that be?), they began to hedge and temporize. They mentioned a scarcity of spare parts, and the difficulty of welding forged steel, and other problems, all apparently my own fault for not having foreseen. I took my typewriter various places to have it looked at, and brought it home again unrepaired. This went on for a while. Finally, approaching the end of the Yellow Pages listing, I found an entry for “TYTELL TYPWRTR CO.” It advertised restorations of antiques, an on-premises machine shop, a huge inventory of manuals, and sixty-five years of experience and accumulated parts. The address was in lower Manhattan. I called the number, and a voice answered, “Martin Tytell.” I told Mr. Tytell my problem, and he told me he certainly could fix it. I said I would bring the typewriter in next week. “You should bring it in as soon as possible,” he advised. “I’m an old man.”
Liz Phair, Steve Albini & Me
The True Story of 1993, the Greatest Goddamn Year in Chicago Rock History
Bill Wyman, Newcity, March 31, 2016
“Every few years, it comes back.”
Walking around with your eyes open.
A Reporter At Large: Canal Street
Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, April 30, 1990
The traffic on Canal Street never stops. It is a high-energy current jumping constantly between the poles of Brooklyn and New Jersey. It hates to have its flow pinched in the density of Manhattan, hates to stop at intersections. Along Canal Street, it moans and screams. Worn brake shoes of semitrucks go “Ooohhhh nooohhhh” at stoplights, and the sound echoes in the canyons of warehouses and Chinatown tenements. People lean on their horns from one end of Canal Street to the other. They’ll honk nonstop for ten minutes at a time, until the horns get tired and out of breath. They’ll try different combinations: shave-and-a-haircut, long-long-long, short-short-short-long. Some people have musical car horns; a person purchasing a musical car horn seems to be limited to a choice of four tunes—“La Cucaracha,” “Theme from The Godfather,” “Dixie,” and “Hava Nagila.”
What a window washer sees
Adam Higginbotham, The New Yorker, February 4, 2013
Shortly after dawn one December morning, Bob Menzer rode the freight elevator to the forty-fifth floor of the Hearst Tower, on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, and opened the door to the roof. The weather was clear and cold; five hundred feet above the street, the rooftop was silent except for the hum of giant air-conditioning fans. Menzer, a soft-spoken, bearded fifty-four-year-old with a nervous laugh, narrow blue eyes, and a thick shock of brown hair, was the rigging foreman of the tower’s window-cleaning crew. He had risen at 3 a.m. to travel to Hearst from his home in Queens, and clocked in at five. He wore dark-blue overalls, a yellow fall-protection harness, and heavy gloves. Carrying a checklist on a clipboard, he was joined by Ron Brown, fifty-eight, and Janusz Kasparek, fifty-five. Together they prepared to go “over the side” in the basket of the most complex window-washing rig in New York. Menzer chuckled as he showed me the machine for the first time. “It’s a little monster,” he said.
High profile topics seen through a singular perspective (celebrities, front-page news).
Climate change. Mr. Rogers. Frank Sinatra. Movie stars.
Frank Sinatra Has A Cold
Gay Talese, Esquire, April, 1966
Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.
Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie
Stephen Rodrick, The New York Times Magazine, January 13, 2013
Lindsay Lohan moves through the Chateau Marmont as if she owns the place, but in a debtor-prison kind of way. She’ll soon owe the hotel $46,000. Heads turn subtly as she slinks toward a table to meet a young producer and an old director. The actress’s mother, Dina Lohan, sits at the next table. Mom sweeps blond hair behind her ear and tries to eavesdrop. A few tables away, a distinguished-looking middle-aged man patiently waits for the actress. He has a stack of presents for her.
The Singular Intensity of Michael Shannon
Brian Hieggelke, Newcity, July 4, 2013
When he gets the email from A Red Orchid Theatre’s publicist that Michael Shannon is available to do a cover story, the reporter has to move fast. Shannon’s back in Chicago for the theater company’s twentieth-anniversary production of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico,” and it starts July 4. The reporter has limited familiarity with his work, having somehow managed to never see him live in spite of his long career on local stages, knowing him only from his Academy Award-nominated role as the troubled John Givings, Jr. in “Revolutionary Road” and his recurring role in “Boardwalk Empire” as the creepy G-Man Nelson Van Alden. It’s gonna require a crash course.
Reading other great stories.
Nieman Storyboard is a site worth following, since it’s committed to nonfiction narrative at its highest practice. They’ve have a feature, “Why’s this so good?” which
looks at some of the all-time great stories and what made them so. Read both the Nieman posts and, of course, the underlying story.
2. You have your idea. Has it already been done?
Has the publication I want to write it for already done a version of the story recently? Search online, carefully.
Has someone else done the story? Depending on who did it, how recently and their angle, it might not kill it, but know the details. And if someone just did it last week, forget about it.*
- Except, of course, for stories like “The Uninhabitable Earth,” where everyone was covering climate change, just not this way.
3. Do your research
Do some research on your story. Is your idea viable? Don’t wait until you land the assignment to find out it’s not. Do some of the reporting, but make sure you don’t mislead sources about the nature of your inquiry. Just say I’m a journalist doing some preliminary research on a story, don’t claim to represent someone who has not assigned you yet.
4. Write a lead and nut graf.
If you can do this, you are ready to pitch.
1. Common pitching mistakes
Don’t confuse a subject with a story. (Hint: put narrative into your pitch)
Don’t simultaneously submit
Don’t pitch publications you don’t read without doing some reading*
Don’t pitch before completing the development steps above
*The best writers usually cultivate ongoing relationships with editors and publications.
2. The Pitch should be a short version of a long story
You’ve done your homework. Now it’s time to show it, along with your verve as a writer. Just like a story, your pitch should have a beginning, with a sense of a middle and an end. Do you have an amazing quote to include, or an astonishing fun fact you’ve dug up? Don’t be shy; include them. Do you have a creative hook, structure or conceit in mind? Share it. Let the editor know what the story will be like and that you’ve got an approach to it to should be successful. Share a list of interviews you plan to do, places you plan to visit, etc. And do it all in a few paragraphs. A pitch too long is likely to be filed for future review, when the editor has downtime. The editor never has downtime.
Conclude with a sense for scope and timeline. Propose a word-count range and when you can turn it in.
3. Or just do the story and submit it.
New writers often work on spec anyway so, as long as the target publication accepts full manuscripts for review, you might as well get it done. (Speaking from experience, nothing is more exciting for an editor to get a great story in “over the transom.”
Reporting and Writing
Now the easy part. Everyone finds their own writing style and voice.
But great stories are all built on the foundation of reporting, almost always mostly in-person reporting.
Interviews, yes. Talk to everyone. Some you will quote verbatim. Others will get swept up in the narrative, paraphrased or even cut out.
Go to events, visit places, put your eyes on as many things relevant to your story as time and budget affords.
Don’t be afraid of dead ends. Some alleys lead to treasures.
Search for and record detail everywhere you can find it.
It’s far too late to get in on the ground floor of Michael Shannon movie-star fandom. That ship sailed with the Oscar nomination. But he fronts a folky rock band, Corporal, and you can be a downright charter member of its fan club. I’m Spotify follower number nine, for crying out loud. Consider other famous actors making music: She & Him (Zooey Deschanel), 115,367 Spotify followers; 30 Seconds to Mars (Jared Leto), 237,828 followers; Dead Man’s Bones (Ryan Gosling), 16,612 followers, and many more. I have a secret fantasy for Shannon’s band, and that is that because of this story, Corporal will rocket past Adrian Grenier’s The Honey Brothers’ 150 followers and, dare I dream big, Leonard Nimoy’s 379.
You need scenes.
Your reporting gives them to you. Observe everything. Write it down. Recording an interview is not enough. If tapes and notepads won’t work, slip off to the bathroom and scribble furiously. The harder it is to record, the better the scene.
Think about structure. Constantly.
Forget the reverse pyramid newspaper structure of writing you might have learned in journalism school. It’s OK to bury the lead. (Somewhat.)
Beginning, middle and end. It is a story. It is narrative.
Is there a creative approach to structure? Only try it if especially well suited for this story. If it is, it comes together easily, naturally. If it doesn’t, try another tack.
A few notes on structure from our syllabus.
The Uninhabitable Earth: A series of short stories within the larger story, all built around the question, what is the worst-case scenario for climate change? For example, “Heat Death,” “The End of Food,” “Climate Plagues,” “Unbreathable Air”
Can You Say…Hero? A celebrity profile written in scenes, scenes from the author’s childhood and his reporting on Mr. Rogers, that works in a remarkably moving way to convey the essence of grace. He structures it around the “once upon a time” motif, linking a series of scenes that add up to an overwhelmingly joyful story. Consider this remarkable scene. (And notice no quotes, though the author either witnessed it or extracted it from an interview.)
Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn’t have an umbrella, and he couldn’t find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.
You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey! A personal, chronological journey as the author finds himself going to Disney with his family, and getting high. Along the way, we learn a fair bit about the theme park, both myth and reality, as well as some of the properties of getting baked.
I do do brownies,” he said. “I have brownies. But, you know. . . .”
I did. Edibles are good, and wise heads move toward them over time, to save their lungs, but there’s something about the combination of oxygen-deprivation and intense THC-flush that comes with smoking and in particular from smoking joints. There’s no real substitute, for the abuser. A brownie can alter your mood over hours, but a joint swings a psychic broom around you — it clears an instant space.
“I actually saw this thing on the Internet,” Trevor said, “where people were talking about getting high in the park.”
Liz Phair, Steve Albini & Me: Back in 1993, the author was music editor of the Reader and wrote a short record review that engendered a much longer vitriolic screed from legendary music producer Steve Albini. Over the years, the letter grew in legend, and was covered in several retrospective pieces, but the author of our story never responded, till now. In the guise of responding to the letter, Bill Wyman crafted a comprehensive and personal history of a moment in Chicago’s music history when it was proclaimed by Billboard magazine to be the “music capital of America.”
Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie: Here, the writer made a major pivot from what he likely started out thinking he was going to write. The pitch to the writer, likely, was that a legendary director was going to make a micro-budget movie. But when Lindsay Lohan was cast in a principal role, the story got organized around her and the havoc of her life (especially at that time) and on set.
Typewriter Man: What starts out as a memoir of the writer’s (and his father’s) relationship to the typewriter leads him to one of the last repair shops in the business, run by an 83-year-old man. The story then weaves in and out of the repairman’s story and the history of the typewriter itself. Somehow, the tax evasion trial of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon factors into this.
A Reporter At Large: Canal Street: The same writer starts from a similar place, the personal narrative and ends up with one of the best pieces about New York City you’ll ever read, by containing it to the street he lives on.