Note: The following is an edited transcript of a talk by Jim Collins at the 2001 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. It was published in the Spring 2002 issue of Nieman Reports.
These are things I have learned from my best writers, and now I pass them on to you in 10 lessons.
Voice is important, seductive, subversive and can be crucial. It entertains, infuses life, makes us comfortable, makes us uncomfortable, gives pleasure, and takes us along for rides we didn’t even know we wanted to take. Voice is so important in just the way you get into material and want to stay with it or not. Voice is one of the very first things that subconsciously readers respond to. And if it’s someone you want to be with, you’ll spend time with him, even if you’re not sure where the point of the piece is or where the piece is going or what the subject is even about.
The seductive unfolding of an article could be a very quiet way that voice works on you. But it can also show up in a bare phrase or a single word or even a sentence. And one of the most efficient ways that I have come across the way the voice is used is in one of Mark Kramer’s books, “Invasive Procedures,” when he spent a year with a couple of surgeons in central Massachusetts. He was in the operating room when they had somebody on the table opened up, and he just had this phrase where he said, “This smell, to my regret, reminded me of steak.” That “to my regret,” is just so, so wonderful and so powerful and kind of disturbing at the same time. There are just three words there and that gives so much voice, that little phrase right there.
Voice can be invisible. It can show some slyness or wryness even if the author’s voice isn’t present in the words. You can see that in the way quotes are sometimes used or facts are juxtaposed.
Writing in the first person can infuse personality and voice, add credibility, depth and perspective, but only when it has something to say. Yankee Magazine hired a journalist from the north country to write about the deaths on Mount Washington and talk about geography and weather and the logistics of search and rescue. We went after a guy who had actually worked search and rescue as a teenager up on the mountain. He writes in the very light first person, but he brings up his background right away in the piece just to establish that what you’re about to read in a reporter’s notebook or reporter’s sense of the world comes from a deeper history.
Here he looks back on when he was 19.
Most of us had never seen death so close, and many had never seen death at all; we hadn’t learned that when lifeless flesh is pressed, it does not rebound, it does not press back. This man seemed extraordinarily large, too heavy to lift, and we learned the meaning of “dead weight,” a weight that doesn’t help you at all. We could barely keep our feet as we headed down over the headwall; we half-dropped our burden several times and we did drop it several times. Some laughed, saying we should just let him slide down the slope, he wouldn’t mind, and we’d catch up later. That, apparently, is what you do when you’re at the height of your powers and carrying a dead man you can hardly lift.
Being tall, I was at the downhill end of the load. One of his booted feet was flopping right beside my shoulder, just flopping there with an absolute limpness I’d never seen. The nurse who had stayed behind said she’d found a prescription for heart medicine in the man’s pocket, and I kept wondering what he was thinking when he passed the sign telling how the weather changes above timberline are sudden and severe. I kept looking at the boot laces on the foot flopping on my shoulder. They were tied with a double bow knot, and I kept thinking the same thing over and over, that when he tied that bow this morning, he was looking forward to the day.
My friend Chan Murdoch was level with the man’s arm, and he told me later that all the way down he could only think of how the man’s limp elbow kept nudging him as he struggled with the carry, just that persistent mindless nudge. When Chan said that, I realized that we’d both seen our first death in very small parts.
That image has haunted me ever since I read it, the idea of that foot just flopping. I’ve never been able to forget that.
Humor almost always surprises and delights. It cuts the sweet. It lightens what otherwise might be overwrought and also lightens what might be too dark.
Even ugly characters can be drawn with empathy. I think that’s especially important if you’re a reporter and you are entering a situation where you really dislike the people you’re writing about, or there’s something truly either inhumane or cruel or mean. It’s so easy to just go right there in your writing and tell people that the character is cruel or mean. And it takes real discipline to stand back and just show a setting evolve or have an exchange happen in which you let the reader make their own judgment. As a writer, you know that judgment will be made if you’re being true to the facts of the scene or the facts of this person’s character. But in writing it you have to step back and be sympathetic at the same time.
Writers can bring eloquence to plainspoken people and articulate meaning in ordinary lives. One of the things I like most about the potential of narrative journalism is not to write about the big event, the big spectacular news event that everyone is hearing about and talking about. Not to write about celebrity. Not to write about the rich and famous. Those people seem to articulate their own lives, or they’re in the public spotlight enough, or those events are in the public spotlight enough that people get them either subconsciously or through the writing or TV that surrounds those, no matter what.
I love the potential of narrative journalism to go into the corners and the subcultures and the neighborhoods and actually make some kind of meaning or articulate something about those lives that probably very few of those people could ever put into words themselves. And I’ve learned that over and over again through some of the good writing I’ve seen.
Writing about place can be especially hard. Writers succeed through the vividness of their descriptions and their crafty layering of meaning. Talking about physical place, landscape, light, temperature, the feel of the air, the way things smell. There’s a phrase that I’ve never forgotten from a piece written by a poet, Susan Mitchell, who did a piece for another magazine I was working on. She wrote about the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Preserve down near the Everglades in Florida, and she had some wonderful descriptions about the sultry, kind of moist air. But the phrase I’ll never forget is “The air was so soft and moist. It felt like your breath coming back at you.” That’s a wonderful image. It’s very vivid, and it works.
The confidence in a piece is directly related to the depth of the reporting behind it. Susan Orlean last year at the conference said that she doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as writer’s block. When you’re having writer’s block it’s because you haven’t done enough work or reporting to have the thinking that you need to do the writing. So she goes back to the reporting as the cornerstone. And I think that the pieces that just feel confident are full of what Mark Kramer calls “muscular movement,” as if the writer is in total command of the material. That comes in having reported the piece so well that you know the material, and you know how to work with it. And that comes through in even a single sentence. The reporting is so solid in a piece when you start not mistrusting the author. You start forgetting that it’s even being written, and you’re just lost in the story. I think that has a lot to do with the reporting and the confidence.
The best writers can break the rules of grammar and sentence structure, but somehow they convey that they know what the rules are to begin with.
Writing for a knowing audience allows a piece to carry meaning that doesn’t literally appear in the text. The audience can fill in the backstory, can make connections that aren’t explicit, and can understand the inside jokes.
Topic selection for a writer is crucial and not crucial at all. The not-crucial part is that in the end it is in the hands of the writer to make something come to life and make something feel relevant or moving or memorable. Some of the most interesting and surprising pieces have come from off-to-the-side topics or topics that on the surface don’t sound like they may be very good. So it really has to do a lot with the writer’s passion and what they bring to it and their knowledge, and just their sense of playfulness they see in something.
And this is the one single piece of advice I give young writers and beginning writers: If you’re trying to break into a place that is a reach for you, or you’re trying to go to the next level, think of a story that nobody else can write with your perspective. And that way, if the editors like the subject or they like the idea, they’ve got to take you with it. And it can be frustrating as an editor sometimes, but it’s almost like the subject is too good and we have to take the writer, even though we’re a little bit concerned that the writer might not be able to pull it off. So if you have any story ideas that you have been thinking in the back of your head that you’re uniquely suited to write, sell it as a package with the subject. I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind.
In terms of narrative writing, very few writers understand that a story has an arc, not just a beginning, a middle, and an end, but a sequence of events that will keep a reader moving along. I read a lot of pieces that seem flat. So one thing happens, and then another happens, and another happens, and there’s no sense of movement in a piece. The movement can be in any direction, it can circle back on itself, it can stop and start again, and it can then flash back. But I think a lot of writers have trouble with structure. And voice is the hardest thing to teach as an editor or to get from a writer, but structure is one of the mechanical things that I see as a problem in a lot of the writers.
One of the important things to do is to read your writing out loud and hear if it sounds conversational to you. People have a speaking voice without even thinking about it. Every one of us here has a distinctive speaking voice that we don’t even give a second thought to. With writing it takes a lot more discipline to arrive at that kind of comfort and individuality in our voice and writing, but we all have that if we can hear it.
So one of the ways of getting at it is to read out loud what you’ve written, and if it sounds a little bit forced or you’re putting on airs, you’re being someone you’re not, then that voice may not be very strong in that piece. I do believe that people have distinctive voices in writing that are as inborn as their storytelling voices or conversational voices. I could listen to Ira Glass tell stories about anything. I just love the guy’s excitement and humor and his take on the world, and that comes through in his voice. Rick Bragg, same way. They are people who just seem to be born storytellers to me. And then you hear Ira Glass say that he was not a good storyteller growing up. It was something he had to learn and come to.
So maybe there is something in paying very close attention to how good storytellers approach their craft and learn about pacing and holding back from the punch line and waiting until people aren’t expecting and coming in. But I get the sense that a lot of storytelling is inborn, certainly in speaking. And it follows to me that it would appear in writing that way, too, but it just takes more discipline to recognize or to make it work.