When I first came across Katherine Boo’s work in journalism school, I was immediately taken with her ability to expose injustice while weaving gorgeous narratives. I carved up her stories in The Washington Post and The New Yorker with a black pen, hoping I could figure out their magic.
“I’ve come to believe quite strongly that the American reading public is more hungry and sophisticated than we give it credit for. What is this convention in journalism that every reader has to get every line? They don’t.”
Next I devoured Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” which extended her probing and compassionate portrayal of poverty to India. Before becoming a journalist, I had spent nearly two years working with grass-roots groups in Mumbai slums just like Annawadi, the one she spent three years chronicling for the book. I’d been so upset by journalistic portrayals of these neighborhoods that I wrote an entire master’s thesis about the subject. Now, finally, here was an account that took slum residents seriously as protagonists in their own lives, without dismissing the inequality and corruption that stymied them.
When I learned that Boo was speaking at the Mayborn Conference in Grapevine, Texas, this year, I secretly hoped she’d give a crash course in her craft. But I’ve heard enough journalism keynotes to know that speakers are more likely to rehash their career paths or pontificate on subjects they’ve written about. So I was pleasantly surprised on Friday when Boo announced that she planned to give us our money’s worth by sharing 15 rules that guide her during the reporting and writing process.
“At our worst, we can be cynical processing machines,” turning human suffering into entertainment, Boo said of narrative journalists. The antidote, she explained, is to not to fall in love with the craft too much, but rather to “view it with a gimlet eye.”
Here are her 15 rules for writing responsibly, with some slight paraphrasing:
1) It’s not enough to tell the stories of victims. I also need to investigate perps.
Boo doesn’t stop at spinning yarns about the triumphs and travails of the poor. It’s equally important for her to hold powerful people accountable for wrongdoing. “I need to name their names,” she said.
2) I let what I hate give me wing.
Boo has been dealing with a degenerative illness since childhood. “Getting mad gets me off my butt,” she said. A lot of her work has been motivated by her irritation at reading about “passive, monosyllabic poor people that kept getting rescued by selfless white heroes.” It doesn’t matter what pisses you off, she says, as long as you pay attention to that feeling. “Writing against” is a good compass “until you know what you’re writing for,” she said.
3) I’m not the sum of my best or most difficult circumstances, and neither are the people I report on.
“Just as important as conditions are the ideas in people’s heads. There’s a pernicious tendency to suppress this truth when it comes to documenting low-income people,” Boo said. She tries to show her subjects “as they think, decide and act,” rather than only depicting their body language or how they are acted upon. That helps the reader engage from a place of respect, not pity.
4) When I’m first settling into a place, I tell myself that strong presumptions will make me miss what’s happening.
“It’s OK to go into a place a little uncertain, a little clueless,” Boo said, as long as you’re less clueless when you come out.
“My presence isn’t doing them a favor,” she said of her subjects. “They’re doing me a favor. They’re enriching my life, and if I stop seeing that, it’s going to show in my work.”
5) Memory sucks.
Boo says she reports out everything she can, from the events of a crime to the contents of a suitcase. She’s found that people sometimes deny their own experiences during the fact-checking process, until she plays back video showing them their own words. After a day of reporting, she also immediately writes an email to her husband capturing the emotion of that time, even if it means staying up until 5 a.m. She knows that something will be lost if she sleeps on it.
6) I ask myself: “What would really get lost if this story never ran?”
Boo engages in an inner dialogue that keeps her going until she finds a bigger meaning for the story: “At least I’ll show the dysfunction of Oklahoma’s public transit system” or “At least I can finger the guy who stole money.”
7) Don’t be a whiner.
“Wean yourself off of the tit of your own ego,” Boo urged. She says nonfiction writers shouldn’t get wrapped up in how much sacrifice the work entails. “My presence isn’t doing them a favor,” she said of her subjects. “They’re doing me a favor. They’re enriching my life, and if I stop seeing that, it’s going to show in my work.”
8) I don’t try to find simple characters.
“If you’re searching for a super-virtuous character, you’re denying … the infinite variety of the human condition,” Boo said. “When I select people to write about, I’m looking for individuals who don’t necessarily fit existing blueprints and whose choices and actions reveal the most about the societies they inhabit.” Boo also doesn’t believe in making herself a character in the story so that readers will have someone to identify with, as many of her editors have encouraged. “If you have this image of me constantly present, that distracts you from what’s going on,” she said.
9) I try never to forget that my “subjects” are really my co-investigators.
“They are experiencing more viscerally than we ever will the barriers in their lives,” Boo said. When she was reporting in Annawadi, she let children there use her camera to record whatever they wanted. Many of them decided to film a lake of sewage that bordered the slum, which helped Boo realize that the lake itself could be a character that revealed the area’s public health dangers.
10) Though I seek out the public record maniacally, I don’t assume that it’s accurate.
Government documents and other public records often reflect the interests and perspectives of those in power, Boo noted. So she makes sure to supplement these sources with “hang-out journalism.”
“You know better than anyone where the essential courage of the enterprise resides—with the people who risk retaliation, share their stories and help journalists build piece by piece a crucial alternative public record of our time.”
11) To calibrate my compass as a writer, I share my work widely and not only with journalists.
Instead of just talking to other reporters, Boo recommends getting feedback from a variety of readers. Her 12-year-old nephew told her he couldn’t smell the slums when he read a draft of her book. Others reported when they started to get bored. Boo said that, when she was younger, her instinct when hearing criticism was to “self-justify.” But she realized, “I often can’t see the problems until I get off my high horse.”
12) I often tell myself that editors and publishers don’t know what’s going to sell.
Boo writes mainly about poverty and has frequently been told that readers aren’t interested. “I’ve come to believe quite strongly that the American reading public is more hungry and sophisticated than we give it credit for. What is this convention in journalism that every reader has to get every line? They don’t.” Instead of dumbing stories down, she says we should trust the momentum of the narrative to carry readers even through parts they don’t understand. (Besides winning the National Book Award, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” became a New York Times bestseller.) When you wonder whether anybody cares about the story you’re pursuing, Boo says to tell yourself. “‘They’ll listen if I find it,’ and make yourself go.”
13) Even if I’m telling urgent stories, I can still experiment with form and make it a creative process.
“If your subject, like mine, is one people don’t necessarily want to read about, you have to do that,” Boo said. She encourages journalists to “read above your station.” Her own work has been inspired by the novelists Roberto Bolaño and George Eliot, among others.
14) When after a lot of effort I can’t pin something down, I force myself to put that uncertainty on the page.
Boo says she fact-checks “like a madwoman,” because those who have less power already have to work harder than anyone else to be believed. If she gets a small detail wrong, she knows that will be used to discredit the story as a whole and harm her subjects. Boo has taken to videotaping many of her interviews to provide evidence in case the story comes under fire. When she can’t find confirmation for something, she makes that explicit. “Getting it right matters way more than whether you can make people care,” she said.
15) If my work is successful, I don’t go and get high on my own supply.
“You know better than anyone where the essential courage of the enterprise resides—with the people who risk retaliation, share their stories and help journalists build piece by piece a crucial alternative public record of our time,” Boo said.
Bonus rule: Mind the gap.
It wasn’t one of her official guidelines, but during Q&A, Boo gave advice on finding story ideas. She suggested journalists follow the London Tube’s injunction and “mind the gap”: What is the thing that everyone has the theory on, but no one has done the reporting? Additionally, rather than “follow the money” or “follow the lies,” she says “follow the policy.” Policies are changing rapidly, and the impacts on poor communities are often obscured. Instead of just gravitating to the aberrant, which is our journalistic instinct, Boo suggests also thinking about ways we are interconnected.