First Person

5 lessons on the craft
of journalism from Longform podcast

August 18, 2016
Photo: AP

At first I was reluctant to dive into the Longform podcast, a series of interviews with nonfiction writers and journalists that recently produced its 200th episode. The reasons for my wariness were petty. What sane freelancer wants to listen to highly successful writers and editors droning on about their awards and awesome careers? Not this guy! But about a year ago, I succumbed, and quickly became a thankful convert. The more I listened, the more I realized that the show, started in 2012 on the website and produced in collaboration with The Atavist, was a veritable goldmine of information. It’s almost as if the top baseball players in the country sat down every week and casually explained how to hit home runs.

Whether they meant to or not, the podcast’s creators and interviewers–Aaron Lammer, Max Linsky, and Evan Ratliff–have produced a free master class on narrative reporting, with practitioners sharing tips and advice about the craft and, crucially, the business. As a journalist, I’ve learned a lot listening to the podcast, but a few consistent themes emerge that I have distilled into five takeaways from specific interviews.


1. Just write the story and send it in

Peter Hessler, The New Yorker’s correspondent in Egypt, doesn’t like to pitch. “I just find it hard to do proposals,” he told the podcast, discussing his career both at the magazine and early on. “I just found that just really demoralizing. You just send these things off and nobody is ever interested.” But he has a solution. “I try to do it as a fait accompli, you know, so that I just give them the story and that’s it,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out…I just try not to worry about that.”

Too many journalists agonize over pitches and proposals before even reporting the story, or at most will do some pre-reporting to beef up a pitch. In my experience, it’s a better idea to follow Hessler. Just write the story and send it in. Editors are harried individuals who are always “swamped” with duties that the reporter doesn’t have to deal with. Meetings, personnel issues, office politics, making coffee, whatever. It’s much easier for them to decide on a draft than to decide on an idea, especially if you are a first timer.

Sign up for CJR's daily email


2. ‘Don’t be a dick’

One of the interviews I enjoyed the most was Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s. But that’s not because I want to know how to write a best-selling memoir. It’s because she reminded me of something journalists don’t often prioritize. “I call it the Platinum Rule,” she told the show. “Don’t be a dick.” This may seem like simple advice. Most people generally walk around trying not to be a dick to others. But when reporting, sometimes it’s too easy or tempting to slip into ridicule or mockery. I once overheard an editor telling someone to have fun, not make fun. Gilbert, recalling her early career as a magazine writer, said she was on the “making-fun-of beat,” writing stories that, in the end, only served to mock normal people who happened to have a weird interest, like attending Renaissance festivals. Looking back on it, “I was embarrassed because I felt like a bully,” she said. “I felt like I would never, ever want to see those people again that I wrote about.” There’s an element of trust involved between reporter and subject, at least when it comes to pieces that are not investigative in nature, which may require a more bulldog approach.

“It’s safe for you to talk to me, because all I’m trying to do is show people what a fascinating person you are,” she said. “That doesn’t mean a perfect person. You know. And there’s ways to do that, there’s ways to bring forth somebody’s imperfection or even their shadows without letting go of the miraculousness of that person…somebody’s exposing themselves to you and you can do great harm to them.” Doctors are told to Do No Harm. Journalists should be told: Don’t Be a Dick.


3. Lawrence Wright and his donkeys

New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright has a weird way of describing the people he interviews for his stories. “I call them donkeys,” he told the podcast. “It sounds like a derogatory term. But a donkey is a very useful beast of burden and it can carry a lot of information on its back, and also it will take the reader into a world that he may not understand or may not have thought he cared about until you have this donkey.”

If you haven’t read any of Wright’s books (The Looming Tower and Going Clear, to name a couple), they are constructed of mini-biographies that propel the narrative forward. “I don’t know if he is a hero or a villain, but he’s a donkey,” Wright said of an ex-FBI agent who was involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden; the terrorist mastermind was also “going to be a donkey for me.” This device is also used in Thirteen Days in September, his book about peace negotiations at Camp David in 1978, which tells the story through the lives and experiences of the key figures involved: Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat.


4. Write what you are interested in, not what you think will sell

That old adage, “write what you know,” should be repackaged to “write what you are interested in.” In his interview, the magazine writer James Verini, who lives in Kenya and writes, in general, about conflict, says that before he moved to Africa he lived in Los Angeles, where he covered arts and culture. But there was a problem. The beat “didn’t move me and it didn’t concern me,” he said. “The things that concerned me and moved me were grimmer, frankly.” What’s important, he stresses, is “being honest with yourself about what really interests you, not what you think will sell, not what you think will get a commission, but what really concerns you and interests you in the world.” I could push back a little here and say that Verini, who has published pieces about Somalia and Afghanistan, just happens to be interested in topics that editors at major magazines are also interested in. But he makes a good point. If you are just covering an issue because you think it will get you published somewhere, you might have a hard time staying glued to the topic and giving it the patience and research it requires. This is much easier when you are generally fascinated by what you are writing about, whether it be conflict or the arts.


5. Don’t be afraid to ask more seasoned professionals for advice

Matthew Shaer was in trouble. About five years ago, the writer was trying to publish his first big magazine piece in Harper’s about Hasidic infighting in Crown Heights. He sent in a draft and got an email back from the editor that began with “Good start.” Stupidly, he was overjoyed. “I thought it was like, Wow, ‘good start,’ that’s fantastic!” he told the podcast, unaware at the time of the dreaded sub-meaning. “Later I would come to realize when I would open up an email and it said ‘good start,’ that’s what they are saying so they can just, like, kick you right in the balls.” In other words, there was a problem with the story, a problem that existed in the next draft and, alarmingly, the draft after that. The editor gave him one final shot. Shaer didn’t know what to do, so he did something, well, unorthodox. According to his account, he cold-called the writer Jack Hitt and asked him for help. Not only did Hitt agree, he told him how to write a Harper’s story. Shaer recounted the advice: “You have the opening that’s a little bit of history, and, like, you back your way in, and then you have the Harper’s paragraph that’s, like, um…I decided to go investigate! Or, like, you set up this big history and then you’re like, And then I journeyed to this place!

“And then you just write five scenes after that and you just close the article,” Shaer said, summarizing Hitt’s final directions. He sent in the new draft and the editor accepted it, while being amazed at the improvements. While the simple structure may not help you get a story published in Harper’s, the lesson hidden in this tale of success is that many journalists and writers are nice people who will give you advice if you ask. It’s also a good story to remember for those starting out in the event that, one day, you are on the other end of the line and a fellow reporter wants your opinion or help. Don’t leave them hanging.


Joe Freeman is a journalist who lives in Yangon and has reported from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Follow him on Twitter @joefree215.