EDITOR’S NOTE: This is how Cristian Lupsa captured the key reporting/writing lessons from a workshop I led in the mountains of Romania the week of October 15, 2023. Lupsa (Nieman Fellow 2014) founded and ran a groundbreaking magazine in Romania for 10 years, was the visionary behind the Power of Storytelling conference, teaches classes in narrative journalism and hosts a range of events for storytellers. He urged me to republish this edited version of his essay from his weekly newsletter, Draft Four, as a way to expand the workshop’s reach. My own thanks to the many writers, editors, teachers, students, books and stories that taught me these lessons and more. ~ Jacqui Banaszynski
By Cristian LupsaThis was a rare week of learning, writing, and conversing about narrative nonfiction and storytelling. Much of it was spent in the beautiful oasis of Albastru și Origini, a cozy retreat in Vâlcea, where a couple from Bucharest brought four century-old houses, plus converted a stable into “the village hub.” I was there alongside 10 other journalists and storytellers, all under the guidance of my longtime friend and mentor, Jacqui Banaszynski.
It’s 20 years that I’ve known Jacqui, and we met while I was a student at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she taught reporting and writing. Most of what I know about nonfiction narrative I’ve learned from her – in terms of the craft, in how she generously offers her time and knowledge to others, and how she uses frameworks and blueprints to teach others. (Many of these I’ve shamelessly borrowed). She has been coming to Romania since 2009 almost yearly (mostly for the storytelling conference we used to organize), and this 2023 trip is the start of her teaching a third generation of local journalists, which is such a blessing.
This letter is crafted from some of the lessons she imparted during our five-day writing retreat, where we covered the elements of good nonfiction storytelling, talked about reporting and interviewing, and the place of narrative journalism in media.
Free write. Put pen to paper and go. Don’t stop, don’t think too much, keep writing. Five minutes, three minutes, whatever. Just keep going. Free writing is supposed to be freeing. If you use the editing brain, that won’t happen. Don’t judge yourself. Give yourself permission to suck, so you can then be good.
Writing is a physical act. If you don’t sit down to do it, you’re not writing.
All great writing is great reporting. Gather the details; you’ll decide later which are important. When you use your notebook, use it as a camera: is the scene close enough, can you see? Can you also zoom out to show the larger picture? Whatever you describe, make it precise, so the reader sees the dog you want them to see, not the one in their head (unless you want them to bring their own reference). The flipside: don’t over describe – if you show me too much, I won’t know what to pay attention to.
Good stories are journeys. Openings are contracts for these journeys. What are you promising? What are you signaling? How do you imbue meaning / refer to the center?
Use the “ladder of abstraction,” with the specific at the bottom, and the abstract at the top. Good stories are told at the bottom but illustrate a universal theme at the top. There is a physics to this kind of storytelling: the more specific and unique, the more universal and revelatory. (More on the ladder.)
Don’t tinker too much with chronology. You can bend time in a story, but you have to know time.
Write to someone. To avoid being paralyzed by an imagined large audience, pick a sample of five-seven different types of people your public is made of. Then think of people in your life that fit those characteristics. Write for them.
Keep it simple, stupid. The more complex a story, the simpler your writing and structure should be.
Go deep. Most journalism is wide and shallow. Good storytelling is narrow and deep.
All reporting is foreign reporting. Everyone’s world is different. Don’t assume you know about others, how they see the world, and what they think about it. Report it out. Be interested and interesting when you interview others. Make people be into their lives and stories. Remember that listening to people is a gift that is given less and less. Be a person who gives it.
There are four kinds of people when it comes to being curios about the world and asking questions. The first one walks down the street and notices nothing. The second, walks down the street, sees construction happening, exclaims “Oh, construction!” and then keeps going. The third person notices things, such as the construction site, and has opinions and judgments about it. The fourth walks down the street, notices things – construction included – and is curious: what are they building, what’ll cost, what’ll happen to this and that after. This last person will make for a good journalist.
Careful with “why” questions – they might make people feel defensive. Try “how” and “what” questions – they convey curiosity better. Just beware of “how did it feel?” – it’s sometimes the most useless question you can ask.
Develop reader-think. Plug in to when a reader needs to know something in a story, and don’t make them wait too long for the answer.
Writing nonfiction is a process. Think of it like construction – it follows a series of steps.
- Conceive. This is the idea phase.
- Collect. This is the reporting needed to tell the story.
- Focus. Finding the meaning of the story.
- Organize. Outline or sketch the order of your story.
- Draft. Get a first version out.
- Revise. Good writing is rewriting.
Usually, if you feel stuck at one of these steps it’s because you’ve not done enough work in one of the previous steps. This often happens with focusing: to focus a story you need the necessary information to be able to answer the question: what is this story about?
* * *
Cristian Lupșa, a 2014 Nieman Fellow, was the founder and editor of Decât o Revista, an enterprise magazine in Romania, and of the former Power of Storytelling conferences.