Learn why narrative stories need “heat, meat and an angle.” Here’s all you need to know about long-form journalism from some talented, seasoned writers and editors.
On July 12, 2014, the final day of the AAN Convention 2014, a panel of three seasoned journalists discussed the art of storytelling—how to write in-depth narrative stories that capture the attention of the audience. Moderator Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week in Portland, OR, and co-owner of City of Roses Newspaper Company, kicked off the discussion. “Long-form (narrative) journalism seeks to dig deeper and connect the dots,” he said. He then offered the following suggestions to improve your writing:
Long-Form Storytelling Tips
- All narrative journalism needs:
o Heat (conflict/tension)
o Meat (substance)
- What’s the news peg?
- Why should this story be told today?
- What is the larger story (the “big picture”)?
o Angle (a point)
- Have the courage to say something critical.
- Don’t get to the point of the story too early or too late. Hit it at the rise of the story curve.
- Don’t do “topic” stories. Instead, bring the editor a storyline of characters, conflict and a resolution.
- Capture the readers’ imaginations.
- Make the story about people.
- Describe the characters vividly in about seven words to two sentences.
o Observe and take note of the unique and strange little nuances that make people who they are.
- i.e., “She was plowing into her 50s, and her hair was the consistency of a dried-out Christmas tree.”
- i.e., “He made a habit out of asking the waiter for a side of mayo with his breakfast twice, each time finishing his request with a stern: “This is very important.”
- Read similar genres/stories to become a better writer.
o i.e., Read the article “Swept Under the Bridge” by Isaiah Thompson, Miami New Times, Florida
- Whenever possible, require your writers to fulfill a quota.
o Write five blogs per week
o Write one cover story per month
o Write three 1,000 stories per month
Following Zusman’s introduction, Andy Van De Voorde, executive associate editor of Voice Media Group, elaborated on the workload that he usually assigns to his staff writers, and how that works within their need to write long-form narrative pieces as well.
His reasoning?: “Writers are happiest when they’re writing,” Voorde said.
Suggested Workload for Journalists
- A “writer’s manual” of tips is provided to every new journalist who joins the staff, outlining the publication’s style and quality requirements.
- Each journalist must provide regular lists of story ideas to their editor.
o Ideas must be written down and well described.
- Long-form journalism outlines are mandatory.
o “Never give an editor a 10,000-word story, and always use original ideas.”
- Each journalist has a writing quota, which includes:
o 10 long-form stories each year
- 3,000-5,000 word articles
- 3–4 week turnaround per story
o 1 daily blog article
o Weekly or bi-monthly 1,000-word articles
- Writers tend to gravitate toward their own expertise; beats are not assigned.
Rewards and Risks
The audience of the long-form journalism panel responded to Voorde’s candid presentation with some concern regarding the massive time commitment and resources it takes to produce compelling narrative stories (also called “magazine-type features” by some), which are often anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 words in length. In response, panelist Jim Ridley, editor of the Nashville Scene, who since passed away in 2016, offered his own list of writing tips, concurring with the consensus of the audience. “There are enormous rewards—and risks—in doing long-form journalism,” Ridley said.
To ensure that his writers go home with more rewards, Ridley presented the following advice:
How to Ensure a Successful Story
- Not every story deserves long-form, in-depth treatment.
- Leave enough time for research, interviews with sources, writing and editing.
o i.e., Nashville Scene cover stories are between 2,000 to 2,200 words in length, with a one to two month turnaround. Investigative pieces have a six to eight month lead-time. Editors need at least three weeks to edit the story after it’s submitted.
- It’s important to spend time with subjects in person to get a sense of their surroundings and how they interact, rather than relying on phone interviews.
- Concentrate on a story and pursue lots of different leads.
- Tell the readers in the first part of the story what they’re in for in this piece.
o i.e., Why should they continue reading?
- Write using vivid, well-chosen details and quotes to make the story unforgettable.
- Curiosity and asking follow-up questions lead to the best stories.
o i.e., Read Jim Ridley’s favorite long-form journalism story: “A Good Thing Gone Bad” (2-part series about the Janet March murder, by Willy Stern, Nashville Scene, 1997)
- The editor must trust the reporter and know they have solid instincts and the ability to execute a long-form story. They must also always have a plan b, c and d in case it falls through.
o The Nashville Scene, for example, has six different writers working on cover stories one or two months in advance—“just in case.”
Makeup of a Good (Written) Story Pitch
- Show that you thought through the reporting and the material.
o Write a paragraph summarizing the story.
- If possible, present it as a headline and deck or lead.
- The story must have institutional viability.
- The story must have a community impact.
- The story must have a colorful cast of characters.
- The story needs to spark the curiosity of the readers, inspiring them to ask questions.
How to Handle Sketchy Sources
After the three media experts presented their general storytelling insights on the AAN panel, they addressed other challenges regarding sources and sensitive investigative pieces.
For a source hesitant to speak to a reporter, Voorde suggests going around them. By talking to their friends, families, neighbors, employer and others, the source may be influenced to talk to you. However, out of courtesy, he said, it is always a best practice to reach out and contact the source before delving into an investigation just to let them know that you have been assigned to this story, that it regards some allegations against them, but that you will contact them again as soon as you finish your research and reporting to offer them the opportunity to speak their side of the story.
Another way of shaking loose some sources is by posting 100 to 500 word teaser/preview blog entries online regarding the subject before the main long-form investigative piece is published.
From three different perspectives on the structure of a newsroom and its journalists, the AAN Convention attendees were given a full spectrum of ideas on how to improve their own writing abilities. What’s your next step? Use (or lose) this impactful information.
Editor’s Note: I offer my sincere condolences to Jim Ridley’s family, friends, and coworkers. I had the pleasure of meeting the beloved Nashville Scene Editor before he passed away, and he had an impact on me as a writer and a journalist like he has had on many others before me. May he rest in peace. Read his obituary and tribute in the Nashville Scene here.