ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: J is for Journalism

Posted by on Jul 15, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

HeadshotWhen it comes to consolidating the world of journalism with the world of creative nonfiction, many people, including writers, tend to struggle. The legacy of the journalism field and the ethical pillars it stands for tend to make those who are not intricately familiar with its inner workings consider it to be dry, dull, straightforward, and dark. Stories comprise the who, what, when, where, how, and why and get the point across as quickly and efficiently as possible. Stick to the facts, or else. However, the place in which journalism truly shines is through the stories crafted from the same elements of creative nonfiction. They weave together stories that are engaging, thought-provoking, touching, inspiring, informative—and most importantly, entirely true.

Crafting this type of story is no easy feat. Doing it well requires an underlying passion, whether big or small, for the subject being covered and a deep-rooted belief that the story deserves to be told. This drive pushes writers to take things to the next level—to ask the questions that need to be asked, make sense of the varying fragments of information coming from multiple outlets, and to put themselves into the shoes of those involved and gain a vital third-party perspective. Journalists need to be willing to immerse themselves into someone else’s story until they feel as if it is somehow their own, while, of course, remaining entirely unbiased. Easy, right? Not so fast.

First, the right story must present itself. This can take many forms. Writers can choose to craft a longer-form article around an investigative piece that took weeks or even months of research. They may write a creative profile about someone who has an incredible story to tell. Or, they might just take a deeper dive into a story that has had its facts repeated multiple times in the press but has never taken that next step. Nothing spurs interest quite like a breaking-news feature or a previously unreported, unique angle.

Writing creative journalistic pieces can often be likened to weaving a multicolored piece of cloth. The individual threads are composed of each detail uncovered throughout extensive research—the interviews, fact-checking, observations, and descriptions, to name a few—but it’s up to the writer to decide which pattern he or she is meant to weave. Shorter-form journalism typically follows a standard inverted-pyramid structure in which the most important information is presented up front and supplementary details are introduced further down into the article, so necessary information won’t be accidentally lost if the article has to be shortened.

Creative nonfiction journalism, on the other hand, affords the writer much more freedom to play around with structure to decide how to best engage readers and elicit emotion. Fiction writing allows for absolute control over the story, from the characters, settings, plot, description, and dialogue to the way it is set up. However, since journalists are ethically obligated to report the truth as it happened, the fate of only a few of these elements now rests in the writer’s pencil-wielding hand.

One structural decision one must make is when to reveal the “so-what” of the story. Should it be presented up front, so readers know exactly what they are going to see when they start the article? Or, should a description-filled scene be included that slowly builds to a moment so powerful it punches readers in the chest? Is chronology the best way to present a story, or is it better to get the action right up front, then introduce the atmosphere through flashbacks? This, of course, comes down to personal preference and the story itself, but delayed ledes are just one structural decision that can have a tremendous impact on the story’s flow and power.

Since these stories rely so heavily on drawing the most engaging story from the truth, interviews are key. After determining a source’s reliability and role in the story, journalists must make sure they play their own part in asking the right questions that will elicit the best answers. Even though it feels pressuring, push on. Ask the questions that must be asked. The hard ones. The uncomfortable ones. The ones that tingle on the edge of your tongue, just begging to be asked. Good questions breed good answers and a notebook filled of money quotes. Flow requires a decent mixture of reporting and quotes, zooming in and zooming out, hooking the readers with lines that stop them dead in their tracks and murmur, “Wow.” Think of interview subjects as one piece of glass in an otherwise shut-off room. The more you can introduce, and the more information that comes straight from them, the more you can see beyond your surroundings and the more perspective you can gain through peering into their side of the story.

These stories draw readers in specifically because they combine the entertaining aspects readers crave with the important truths they must be aware of. Because there is no exact formula for how these stories should be crafted, journalists are given more freedom to explore their craft and play around with their writing. Who knows? Fiddling here and there could mean the difference between an unread  story stuck in the back pages of the paper to a story that makes a profound impact on the world. All it takes are the right words.

Brianna Hand is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a BA in English/Journalism. Her work has been featured in Theatre Nerds, The Content Standard and The New Hampshire. She currently works as an Editorial Manager at content marketing startup Skyword. In her free time, she enjoys ruining perfectly good eyeliner pencils by making grammatical changes to signs in public bathrooms. She is currently in the process of writing (and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting) multiple novels.

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