In what might be the only performance of Texas stand-up comedy about narrative writing, Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough recently offered practical tips for long-form storytelling to a Mayborn Conference audience. Prior to his magazine career, Burrough spent several years reporting for The Wall Street Journal; he has also written five books, including “Public Enemies” and “Barbarians at the Gate.” In these excerpts from his talk, Burrough addresses the best transition word ever, presents his strategy for avoiding writer’s block, and reminds you that “your words are not nearly as great as you think they are.”
I want to talk about craft. I want to talk a little bit about how I do what I do, and maybe give you some pointers, stuff I wish people had told me when I was just starting out.
There are essentially three venues we can work in: newspapers, magazines and books. I’ve done all three. I’ve done all three very well, and I’ve done all three very poorly. I can supply examples of each. I’ve written five books, one of which was number one on the New York Times bestseller list and two of which were read by about 17 people, most of whom were my relatives. I have been interviewed on Larry King, I have been interviewed on The Today Show, and I have sat in bookstores in Denver and had the guy say, “You need to quit signing now. I don’t think we can sell any more of those.” So, I have had the best and the worst.
Narrative journalism is the best way to get noticed in journalism; it’s the best way to get ahead. They’re the most memorable stories, bar none. I’m talking about a story, as we used to say at the Journal, that’s beginning-middle-end. It’s not an analysis of the Federal Reserve or anything else. It typically starts with a real-time lede, an anecdotal lede. It breaks out into a part that at the Journal we used to call the “nut graf”; at Time magazine I think they always called it the “billboard,” which is essentially a quick one or two paragraphs saying “this is what the story is,” a section where you say “this is why the story matters.” And then you get out of the way and get into the story and tell it as fast as possible.
I’ve been writing the same story for 25 years. They pay me to write the same story. Well, I don’t do the same story; I do the same structure. That’s the structure I’ve always gone with, and it works beautifully for me. I am stunned that more people in our profession don’t write narrative stuff. If you’re a daily reporter at your local newspaper, this is the way you get noticed. If you want to get something in a magazine, this is the way to get noticed: telling stories, whatever story matters to you.
One of the real problems, of course, with writing narrative is that it takes a long time. I’m contracted to write for Vanity Fair, three pieces a year. That typically takes a total of six or seven months; each story will take six to eight weeks… the rest of the time is stuff that I will spend three weeks on then say, “This is not up to par.”
I think – in fact, I know – that I’m a lot pickier than some of my peers. I find a problem that too many people who attempt narrative journalism do is to think that applying the narrative form to material that’s subpar, that somehow elevates it. Well, it doesn’t. You’ve got to have the goods. I’m renowned, in fact, notorious probably, at Vanity Fair for throwing stories out after a month: “Sorry, not going to do that one.” “Why? Why? Why? It was a perfectly good story.” “No, it wasn’t good enough.”
Because here’s what a lot of us know but never talk about. The only advertisement for your services, the only thing anybody really knows about you, is what you publish. If it’s not as good as you can possibly do, don’t publish it, because you can do more damage to your career with a shitty story than you’ll do good with a good one.
I just went nine months without an article. It used to really bug me. It bugs me less now, when I know that after nine months, I hit the fence, I hit a solid triple. I don’t think twice about the stories I pass up. It frustrates my editor, but I guess my lesson there is be pickier, if you can afford to be.
Cold notes = old fish
When I start, I do my articles a little bit differently than George [Getschow, my former boss] did. In fact, one of the lessons that I took early on was something I thought he was doing wrong, and I came up with a way I wanted to do it. You’re doing a narrative story. Let’s say you spend six weeks gathering your material. It’s good enough; you’re going to publish it, right? George would always sit down at the end of the reporting and start to write. And I saw him; he’d freeze for at least the first few days. He would sit back in a writing room and freeze. I started doing that, and I would freeze. Why? Because you’re dealing with cold notes, and you’re dealing with, “Oh, shit. I gotta write this.”
I came up with a way that gets around this. It doesn’t seem to work for everybody, but it works really well for me. I find that the best writing is if you write when the material is fresh. It’s like fish; it’s like food: fresh ingredients. I try to write my stuff as fast after gathering it as possible. I get off the phone; I’ve just interviewed George for 30 minutes. I’m writing that up when I get off – no later than the next morning, because I want the sense and nuance and inflection. If I wait six months – I don’t know about y’all’s notes; mine tend to suck. I remember really well for two hours, maybe even two days. Two months later, I’m looking at my notes – and I know people who type up their notes, but I still don’t remember it as well.
So at the beginning of the first day, when I get the assignment, I start two files on my desktop. Let’s say the story is slugged Mayborn. I start Mayborn.reporting and Mayborn.writing. Everything I gather, obviously, goes in Mayborn.reporting, but unlike a lot of people I don’t wait to the end to start filling up Mayborn.writing. I start immediately. I write up every single thing I get in Mayborn.writing because I’ve found that I block, badly, badly, badly. And so, what I do is, let’s say I get a nice interview with George. I’ve got eight grafs, I write it up. It makes me feel good to be able to look and see that I’ve already got stuff written. Everybody knows that the worst part of any narrative project is the early stuff, when you don’t really have the confidence that you’re going to get enough to do it, and you panic, “I’ll never be able to do it.” We all have this. And I feel so [much] better about myself, when I can say, “Look. I have eight paragraphs.”
Every morning, the first thing I do when I go up to my office – I am so not a morning person – I go out, I light up the day’s first cigar, and I go up into my dot-writing file, whatever it is, and I just play with words, play with words with the goal of chopping as much as I can every morning, just cut, cut, cut-cut-cut, until I get down to the best stuff. Obviously, what makes some of us really good and some of us okay is knowing what to put or to keep in that writing file. Too many of us don’t know maybe what the best quote is, what your best anecdote is. There’s no tinkering for that; that’s something you learn from experience.
Cut and steal
Here’s my advice—steal, steal, steal. I’m telling you, George and I worked in a four-person bureau, and after nearly firing me about three times, he brought in a guy named Tom Petzinger. Tom was really, really good as a wordsmith. Tom was the master of The Wall Street Journal paragraph: topic sentence, example, example, quote. Not necessarily always applicable for a narrative story, but it worked very well for the Journal. And I just copied Tom. I copied everything he did. There’s nothing illegal or wrong with it; that’s what you should do. I copied Tom until I was relatively sure that George wouldn’t fire me – I’m not joking – and then I stole as much as I could from Hemingway, because I didn’t know any of these great writer guys. But Hemingway had these beautiful short sentences, so I copied Hemingway. That’s how I kept my job at the Journal.
Back to how I do it: the beauty of doing it with two files as you go along, for me, is that the moment I finish the reporting, I’m done with the story. Because I write every morning, just writing and playing with the stuff I’ve put in there, cutting as much as I can. And I’m absolutely ruthless. You can’t fall in love with anything you write, because shorter is always better. I know this is Journalism School 101, but some of us forget it. Your words are not nearly as great as you think they are. Fewer is always better. Every time I give Vanity Fair a story, and I write an average of eight to ten thousand words, and they say, “You’re going to have to lose a thousand words,” I say, “Fine. Go for it. It will be better.” And it always is.
This is just the way that I came up with to unblock myself. I never write a story from top to bottom. I find the easiest way to block is to say, “Gosh. What’s the first word of this story? What’s the second word? What’s the third word?”
The way I do it is I assemble the story like they’re blocks. Typically, I’ll have a little narrative section; somebody told me a story, maybe that’s six grafs. And eventually I figure out that goes with those four grafs. At some point, I’ll think, “Oh, that’s the best thing I’ve got; let’s make that the lede. That’s a really good quote.” I put it together like DNA, like papier-mâché. It just grows and grows and grows, and at some point, it fills the file, it gets up to about where I think it ought to be. Then I read it aloud, and then I let my wife read it, and if she thinks it’s as good as the last thing I did, then I know I’m done.
Every-other-paragraph but people
We’re writing long-form, right? I’m talking about anything over 2,000 from Bloomberg, anything over 5,000 words from a magazine, or any book. The biggest challenge – and I think sometimes we fall so in love with our words and we forget this – is that people are busy, and they are dying to put down your article. They are dying to put it down. If you’re introducing a new character, they don’t really want a new character; they want to find out what happened to the other character. They don’t want to turn the page; they’re dying to go do something else. So I put enormous energy into devising ways to trick them into staying with me.
There’s two ways I swear by, and I’ve done them in every single thing I’ve ever written. One way is a little cosmic, the other is very real.
I’m nuts for transitions. The transition is, essentially, that you’re going to lose them at the end of a graf, right? You don’t know where the end of a page is, so there’s not much you can do there. But the end of a paragraph is where you’re going to lose people. So I’m nuts for good active words at the beginning of a paragraph.
What’s the greatest single transition word? And is weak, because it’s just like, “I’ve got something else to say.” Nobody cares. But! But is the best one. Do you know why but is the best word? But says, “You don’t know everything yet. I’m going to correct something you think. You can’t walk away.”
The problem with but is, obviously, that it’s overused. So you don’t want to be one of those every-other-paragraph but people, because you’re crippled. I read those people. I’m like, “He’s overdoing the but.” And I read and, and I just think, “Weak, weak, weak. You can come up with something better than that.” And with? With is for real losers; don’t even go near with. If you’re really not into but, and you need something at the beginning, however is acceptable. I like however.[The] absolute best transition word ever, and you can only use it about once every two or three stories, because people will ping you on it. I stole this from the other person in our bureau in 1983. He started an article with the single best transition word I’ve ever seen – a word you cannot walk away from: suddenly. Who’s ever going to walk away from a graf that starts “suddenly”? Suddenly something happened – I’ve got to know that.
I’m very big on transitions, but if your story blows, it doesn’t matter how many but‘s and however‘s you’ve got. It still gonna blow.
My stories average 8,000 words. I’m a failure if I don’t get them to read the last sentence; that’s how I feel. I’ve failed. There’s only one way I know to get people to the end of the story – and this is a little cosmic, but I’ll try to make it concrete for you. You have to have some mystery. There has to be a holdback, something you’ve hinted at within at least the first 10 grafs, if not the first five. If you’re writing about a murder, it’s a murder mystery, well, that’s fine, it’s easy.
You can’t get all pretentious about this. I read stuff in all the great magazines, and I’ll see a writer try to do this, and they overdo it. It as to be hinted at, alluded to — you can’t just be saying, “There’s a great mystery; if you read to the end, you’ll find out.” The biggest thing is there has to be a story with an ending people want to get to. It’s that simple. If you don’t have that, you’re going to lose them somehow.
[For more, check out the rest of our Mayborn coverage, including posts on talks by Mary Karr, Gary Smith and Mark Bowden.]