Literary journalism, explained

Excerpt from Writing for the Mass Media (9th edition), Allyn and Bacon, 2014.

Literary journalism is reporting and writing that pulls journalism several steps beyond the long-form structures.

Literary uses the techniques of the fiction writer to tell a true story. Those techniques include metaphors and similes to describe what the writer sees and knows and plotting and pacing carry the story forward. Scenes are drawn and colored with detail. Characters are developed and act with consistency to the characterization in the story. Quotations become dialogue. The writer may even enter the story if that contributes.

But, if it is to be literary journalism, the writer must be a journalist, not a fiction writer. That is, the writer cannot make anything up. The facts, descriptions, and quotations must be true. They must be things that happened. Sometimes, for the sake of the story, writes create “composite” scenes or characters. If they do so, the writer is obligated to tell the reader that this has happened. Ultimately, however, such fictionalizing is unsatisfactory to the true journalist who is dedicated to the factual presentation of information.

Dr. Paul Ashdown, University of Tennessee, talks about Literary Journalism (produced by Jim Stovall on Vimeo).

Literary journalism requires enormous time, effort and skill from the journalist, both with the reporting and the writing. The journalist must often persuade sources to allow access into their lives at a level reserved only for close relatives or friends. The journalist must practice depth reporting or immersive reporting, which means devoting large amounts of time to observing actions and interviewing characters.  Then there is the writing, which can be confusing and frustrating particularly if the journalist does not have a clear idea about how to develop a story.

Stephan Crane

Stephan Crane

Students who want to practice literary journalism – and many do – face a daunting task. They are well-advised to do as much of the standard reporting as possible to develop their reporting and writing skills. They should also read works in this genre. Literary journalism has a long history and has appeared under various names, such as the New Journalism of the 1960s.

Well-known writers such as Mark Twain, Stephan Crane, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, James Agee, Truman Capote, and Gay Talese have practiced literary journalism in various forms. Students should be familiar with the work of these and other writers if they seek to continue this tradition. Then, students have to find a story that is worth the time and effort it will take to report and develop it properly.

 

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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