Editor’s note: This is one of five posts from the 2022 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University. For other takeaways, see Ellen Barry on first-person narratives and Lizzie Johnson on deadline narratives.In a career that has earned multiple awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, and took her from investigative work at the Miami Herald to the Washington Post to books to the Director of Investigative Journalism at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Debbie Cenziper holds to a primary lesson: “Good [nonfiction] writing always starts with good reporting.”
That underscored her session at the 2022 Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University, where she touched on techniques to construct authentic, compelling stories through “color,” “detail” and “silly” questions. Key takeaways:
Develop character and detail
Cenziper faced a learning curve when writing her first book, “LOVE WINS: The Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality.” The book, published in 2017, dives into the history of the the battle to legalize gay marriage; Jim Obergefell, the Ohio man who is the plaintiff in the suit that eventually wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, is named as a co-author.
Cenziper had to expand not just her writing for the book, but her reporting. “My goal wasn’t to tell a story in 80 inches of newspaper copy,” she said. “My goal was to tell a story in 80,000 words.”
After more than 20 years as an investigative reporter, longform nonfiction give her the space and challenge to paint detailed scenes and to “turn sources into characters.” She didn’t stop at what happened, but asked sources how they felt when those things happened. “I remember asking for little details,” she added. “Color, description, silly details about the weather – not just if it was hot or cold, but what they were wearing. Those details allow your characters to come alive for your readers.”
But beyond colorful detail and compelling characters, you have to “give the story a face.”
Find the right character
It helps to focus on a sympathetic underdog, someone for readers to root for. It was that focus that earned Cenziper the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in local reporting, when she was at the Miami Herald, for “House of Lies,” an investigative series exposing the abuses of housing developers who stole government funds meant for the poor, and the agency that enabled them.
A primary character of the project was Ozie Porter, a cafeteria cook who saved $5,000 for a down payment that then was pocketed by the developers who were supposed to supposed to get her into affordable housing.
“This house meant everything to her,” Cenziper said, “Freedom, financial stability, a stronger family and a guaranteed roof over her head.”
Like the best investigative projects, her stories produced results: People were fired or sent to prison, and the government took over the corrupt housing agency. Most important to her, the city finally started building homes.
“Ozie was first on the list,” Cenziper said. She still remembers watching Ozie Porter M“swing the (house) keys over her head.”
“It was a moment I will never forget as a journalist,” she said.” And what’s more: I wanted my readers to understand and know that moment. I wanted them to feel that moment because Ozie Porter was the face of the Dade County housing crisis.”
Capturing moments like that is essential to effective storytelling. “At the end of the day, your goal is to transport readers out of their world, for just a moment and into someone else’s,” Cenziper said. “You want them to feel the pain, struggle, anguish, challenges, happiness, of someone else.”
At the same time, she warned against relying too much on any one source. She has worked with sources who had important stories to tell, but didn’t make it into her work. They just couldn’t provide enough detail, or give enough information to set the scene.
“Follow the reporting,” she said, “and be flexible.”
Honor both reporting and writing
Don’t shortchange the writing. “You should spend double the time writing as you do reporting,” Cenziper said. “It doesn’t matter if you have the best findings in the world – or the best story in the world – if the writing doesn’t hold up.”
To do that: “Write out loud.” Cenziper starts proofreading at the beginning of the piece – whether it’s a full article or a chapter of a book – to get a sense of its rhythm.
Another key: Use strong verbs. “It’s not enough to say the sky was gray. Verbs are action, and action powers your story.”
”But,” she said, “good writing can’t make up for bad reporting.”
A journalist must confirm all details with primary sources and, if possible, corroborate them with others to ensure accuracy.
That said, accuracy is not the same as fairness. When there’s “a bad actor” in a work of investigative journalism or a book, a reporter should ask themselves if they’ve fairly and accurately represented that subject’s point of view and given them a proper chance to respond.
“Readers trust you more when you give all sides a robust defense.” That trust, she said, “is all we have as journalists.”
André Salkin is an undergraduate student at Boston University studying journalism and marine science. With a background in visual arts, he aims to focus on both human and environmental stories through writing and visual media.