In selecting David Finkel for one of its “genius” grants in 2012, the MacArthur Foundation described him as “a journalist whose finely honed methods of immersion reporting and empathy for often-overlooked lives yield stories that transform readers’ understanding of the difficult subjects he depicts.” Finkel, the Washington Post’s national enterprise editor, followed an infantry battalion deployed to Iraq in his 2009 book, “The Good Soldiers,” which was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times. A second book in 2013, “Thank You for Your Service,” traced the struggles of those soldiers as they returned to their lives at home. He also won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for a series of stories in the Post about American efforts to bring democracy to Yemen. Finkel spoke recently with the current class of Nieman fellows and sat down with Storyboard afterward to continue the conversation. Following are edited excerpts of those discussions:
Talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of writing. What do you do, in a very practical way, what do you start to do to shape a story so that you have something that comes out at the other end of it?
It’s a pretty deliberate process, and a lot of it involves working from an endpoint. But the first thing is I have to have a question I’m interested in answering. Then, after that, I go do reporting. I am a pretty ferocious reporter.
That doesn’t mean questioning all the time. All the tools we know. Learning to use silence as a reporting tool. All the things we do. Getting people to talk to each other. Trying to recede so something might occur as if it would have occurred if you weren’t there, if that’s possible. But, eventually, realizing what the story is I want to tell and then finishing the reporting to tell that story.
You finish the reporting for that story and then again it’s very deliberate. I go over my notes. I index all my notebooks. I transcribe everything. I’ve been doing that all along. I reread everything. I’m looking for…Because I’m not just a camera you turn on and I record everything. I’m trying to think my way through things. I’m trying to find patterns or I’m trying to find things that might relate in an authentic way.
You read your notes and read your notes and read your notes and eventually, I come up with a very specific outline. The outline is guided a lot by — and it’s not just knowing when I write this book, it’s going to be this many chapters — but it’s knowing where the book is going to end.
I may not know the words, but I pretty much know most of the words and what the tone will be. Then it’s just a matter of outlining my notes to get to that tone and those words as efficiently as possible. It helps if you go through your notes and organize.
It’s not for me a clean process. I don’t know. When you write, maybe if you’re having a bad day, you can forget the beginning and go to the middle and start writing the middle. Man, I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve got to write that first line until I get it right and at least the second line, and then the third. I write and rewrite all the way to the ending, but when I write the last line, I’m done.
If I’m having problems writing a story, it’s probably because I’ve screwed up in the previous step. If I’m having problems writing, it’s probably I haven’t organized well enough. If I’m having problems organizing, it’s probably because I haven’t reported thoroughly enough. You take a step back to the previous thing and it’ll solve the thing you’re in.
You mentioned using silence as a reporting tool. Could you tell us more about what you mean?
I want to reach the point in the story where people aren’t talking to me, where I’m just going along. The people I’m with, they no longer feel the obligation to be a host to me. You know how when your mom comes to visit, and your mom says, “Every second has to be filled with conversation because this is a special moment.” You want to get past the special moment and let things go.
Again, serendipity, this kind of reporting. You’re there. You’re there. You’re there. You just want to be there. If people are going to be quiet, let them be quiet, and listen to them be quiet. If they’re talking to each other, hear what they’re saying to each other. That’s much more valuable — don’t you think? — than them answering a question.
For the second book, especially, so much of that was built on just being present and being silent. A lot of the second book, these families recovering took place while they’re in the front seat of the car fighting with each other, and I’m in the back seat just trying to stay behind the headrest so that maybe they’ll forget I’m there.
How do you get to that place where people feel like you’re part of the situation, the normal situation, so they behave like that and you can observe things like that? Because you have to win their trust, you have to explain what a journalist does, but psychologically and personally, how do you do that?
If I go through a process, it’s when I’m interested in the possibility of a story and the possibility of someone being part of the story. I’m upfront with them. I’m quite transparent about the way I work ‐‐ that this is going to involve spending a good bit of time with them, and I hope I’ll spend enough time that it’s right up to the moment, maybe an inch short of where I would become entirely irritating to them. But that to do anything less, then I’m going to write a story that’s going to embarrass me, embarrass them and embarrass this subject, so they have to realize there’s an investment of time.
I try to explain this kind of journalism, because people don’t necessarily know it. I don’t give a lesson, but I try to explain it as much as I can and say the best way you can figure out what I do is … I mean, look at my previous work. If you want me to send you some stuff, I will. If you want to find it on your own, then do it that way.
I also explain some of the ethics and obligations involved. I explain that the story is being written about them. It’s not being written to them, and there’s a difference. The way to underscore that is I emphasize that they, despite their investment and time, despite everything they’ve agreed to, including having me around, they don’t get to see the story until it’s published. Because if you see it before, then that’s just, it’s an ethical violation. It taints the story. They become their own editor. In effect, they become their own censor, and that can’t happen. They have to realize that they’re not going to see the thing until it comes out. I lay it out and then I say, “So think about it. Think about whether you want to take a leap here. If you do, we’ll go at it, and if you don’t, I totally understand.”
Then we go from there.
What makes that difference in making the transition from reporter to great editor? What is it that’s needed?
When it’s done, I’ll let you know.[laughter]
No, I’m telling you. I’m feeling my way through this. I was an editor once before and I think I was pretty ham‐handed about it. I was trying to get everybody to write a story as I write a story, and that’s not very fair. I was trying to solve a problem, and the way I would solve a problem of a story that wasn’t working was try to rewrite it into the way I would write it. That’s not being a good editor.
This time, I think I’m a little better at it, but I’m still learning my way. Editing is, it’s just, I don’t find it an easy thing to take a story and work through it and get it into better shape. I’m not giving an eloquent answer. It’s just hard.
I don’t know what being a great editor is except I’ve had great editors. I try to think, what made them great for me? We all get better by having templates, by having examples. Just like I became a better writer by becoming a critical reader, maybe I’m becoming a better editor by being a critical thinker about what my editors did for me, what made them good. The stuff that worked for me, do that, and the stuff that ticked me off, don’t do that.
But it’s a work in progress. If you ask five reporters, I think they would agree. Some days I’m quite helpful and some days I’m sure they wish they had a different person perched on their shoulder.
What is the role of long‐form? Where do you see the genre going?
I don’t know where it’s going. I just know it’s not going to be in the one thing I do. It’s not like long‐form is disappearing. I keep reading all kinds of places, “There is a resurgence.” I hope that’s true.
Like any proponent of long‐form, I believe in serious attempts. I believe in the power of a story. But what I don’t [know] is what storytelling is going to become. I’ve been doing this for a while. I have my moves, I have my likes. In a great story, it involves a primary emphasis on reading a written story, word by word, line by line, without adornment, without interruptions of hyperlinks, without interruptions of, “You’ve read what they say, now hear them say it in this video.”
It doesn’t make sense to me, but I know I’m in a minority — and an increasing minority. Things are shifting. They’re probably shifting in very, very exciting ways. I would count on it. It’s just, it’s not my move to master that shift. But I’m sure other people are.