Student guest post: Editing narrative journalism (an essay in question form)

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Jordan Wilkie is a first-year master’s student on the reporting track at UNC-Chapel Hill. He focuses on the criminal justice system, with an expertise in juvenile and LGBTQ incarceration.

New Journalism is defined by Robert S. Boynton, the author of “New New Journalism,” as “reportorially based, narrative-driven long form nonfiction.” In other words, journalists tell long stories that are true (we’ll get back to that last word in a minute).

In the obligatory name-drop paragraphs, I’ll mention that the most famous contemporary, i.e. “new new journalists,” include Adrian LeBlanc, John Krakauer and Ted Conover. They inherit their craft from off-beat journalists of the 1960s and 1970s looking to make journalism tell stories rather than just inform. They experimented with language and style, incorporating literary techniques long relegated to fiction. These rebels, who certainly had their detractors, were such giants as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese and, the man credited with codifying the genre as “New Journalism,” Tom Wolfe.

“New” journalism is, of course, a misnomer. Nothing is new under the sun, and the tradition of narrative reporting harkens back through Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell to a handful of 19th century writers (really, read the summary, it’s helpful).

Now that you’ve reserved 10 more books on your public library’s website, let’s get to the heart of the matter: How do we, as editors, manage creative writing in journalism? How do we negotiate truth — facts, observed reality — and Truth, the honesty and faithful-to-experience essence of a story?

[Spoiler: I don’t know the answer. Ask The New Yorker.]

Let’s look at an article by an up-and-coming journalist, a soon-to-graduate senior, who published an excellent article on Media Hub, a project of the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Tess Allen’s piece on the abuse of women in French refugee camps opens with a narrative scene: A woman goes to the restroom in the middle of the night; she is raped.

Allen is not present to see the unnamed woman wake, to see her tip-toe around others sleeping on the ground, to listen outside the bathroom stall with the broken latch, yet Allen writes with near omnipotence.

She steps out onto the uneven, jagged gravel and the night air hits her cheeks. She shuffles between graffiti-laden shelters and down the dirt road, about 50 yards to the nearest bathroom.

The smell of feces and urine hits her nostrils before she even steps through the raised doorway. She shuffles blindly forward on the floor that’s wet with stale water, feeling for a stall door. Her hand catches the edge of the door, and she goes inside.

The writing is based off good journalism, off interviews and being on-scene. Even if Allen’s subject did not describe the earth under her feet when she stepped outside, Allen would have been able to see this detail for herself when she visited the shelter and later add it to the story. Allen measured, or at least eyeballed, the distance to the nearest bathroom.

But how did Allen know her subject shuffled to the bathroom? Does she always shuffle?
And how did Allen know her subject smelled feces and urine even before she entered the bathroom? Was that described in the interview? Or did Allen go there herself and think, “How could you not smell this s**t a block away?

[Disclaimer: I have never met Tess Allen and know nothing about the editorial process for publication on Media Hub. I chose her work to rep UNC and because it is a solid piece of journalism – for anyone, not just for a student.]

Journalism is the reporting of facts, which makes new journalism — such as narrative journalism and creative non-fiction — especially hard to write. Where does a publication draw the line around reality, and how does an editor enforce it?

If I were editing Allen’s work, I’d be a hard-liner. Show me your notes, show me the interview. Where did she tell you about the smell? Tell you about the water? For a new reporter, I’d say no inventiveness, no assumptions, get it on tape, from multiple sources, or no dice.

The logic is to teach the young reporter to ask extremely detailed questions, to elicit sensory descriptions. It is also to protect the reporter from accusations of falsification.

The secondary role of an editor would be to improve the writing, to improve the flow, to edit for the creative presentation of the facts. In that role, I have nothing to offer Allen’s superb writing.

When you make it big, the rules can be bent. Take Gay Talese, famous for his in-depth reporting, which he often takes years to develop. His method is old school. He packs boxes with manila folders stuffed with clippings and notes, then covers them in collage relating to his stories. Talese earned his stripes decades ago – his career took off in 1965 with his story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which he researched in the lightning’s flash of 31 days. Right at the beginning, Talese does the impossible:

The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.

Talese gets into their heads!

He didn’t interview the women, does not know their names, nothing. The line was an educated projection, a third-party judgment from afar, just shy pure fancy.

But I’ll be dammed if it didn’t sound good.

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