Narrative Journalism

Complete Syllabus

This class will explore how successful narrative journalists immerse themselves in their subjects’ worlds and/or conduct insightful interviews to reconstruct stories from the past. Over the course of 10 weeks, participants will learn how to conduct interviews, in-depth, immersive observations, construct scenes, define characters, and employ dialog artfully. The class will analyze how longer pieces are constructed, from notes to finished narrative, and discuss pieces by expert modern practitioners of narrative journalism, such as Sebastian Junger, Rebecca Skloot, Barbara Ehrenreich, John Berendt and others. Examples include profiles, science writing, personal journeys of discovery in which the writer takes center stage, and reported pieces in which the writer disappears into his or her subjects.

How it works: Participants may choose to write three shorter pieces or one longer piece. Additional course work includes discussion forums, a weekly how-to presentation and optional writing exercises. Participants will be able to post notes and early drafts along the way, receiving feedback from both the instructor and other class members, as well as a final full critique from the instructor.

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Week 1: From idea to doable article, including the basics of narrative nonfiction
In this introductory week, we’ll discuss ways to turn ideas – a subject or topic – into a worthy narrative journalism piece that can be accomplished. We’ll also look at the basic types of narrative journalism and how to begin planning for the right people to approach for interviews and immersions.

Week 2: Preparing for and conducting interviews
Narrative journalism depends on getting the right people to open up to you and show you their lives in action. The first major way to secure this vital information is through the interview. We’ll discuss whom to interview and how best to extract raw material with the highest potential, plus how to refine that material for use. We’ll examine interview notes and practice writing a scene from them.

Week 3: Preparing for and accomplishing immersions/observations
This week’s main topic is accomplishing great immersions – watching your subjects in their natural habitats (at home, at work, at play, on an adventure) and recording the right details, then constructing a cogent scene. We’ll discuss the best ways to arrange and accomplish immersions, from pure fly-on-the-wall observations to participatory experiences, then look at notes from an immersion and practice writing a short scene.

Week 4: Writing characters
No matter the article topic, people are always the focus in narrative journalism. We’ll review the best ways for turning your interview and immersion subjects – and even yourself, where appropriate – into a character the reader will find both fascinating and useful to the narrative.

Week 5: Choosing dialog
Beginning writers tend to string together what their subjects say and think they’ve written a finished piece. We’ll learn how to choose dialog judiciously, what purpose it really serves in narrative journalism and how it should be used within scenes. We’ll practice choosing the best dialog from real interview notes.

Week 6: Constructing scenes
You’ve heard “show, don’t tell,” and here’s how. The best scenes in narrative journalism have a shape designed to accomplish a clear purpose. They don’t just hold up a mirror to a real moment, but are written to communicate the meaning each scene should tell the reader. We’ll look at scenes in draft and published scenes to see what works and what doesn’t, and we’ll begin to use your own material, collected for your class assignment, to learn how to construct a scene.

Week 7: Structure, transitions and themes
This week is all about beginning to put together your scenes into a coherent structure so that your piece takes readers on a journey, shows them the meaning you saw yourself during your interviews and immersions, and is compelling from beginning to end. We’ll continue to look at your own material and that of professional writers.

Week 8: Ethics and special circumstances
Narrative journalism serves our readers first, but it also serves our subjects, aiming to render a true picture of their worlds. How is that accomplished in the most ethical fashion? What are the rules, and when should we break them? What special circumstances might we face during interviews and immersions, and how are they handled? We’ll also continue to discuss your stories in specific, as they progress toward the final assignment completion.

Week 9: Microediting and critiquing
This week we’ll look in detail at the beginning of one printed piece and use what we’ve learned so far to devise a number of improvements. We’ll also practice microediting on early version of your pieces, for those who are ready to submit unfinished drafts, or even parts of drafts. We’ll talk at length about how to critique your own work from start to finish.

Week 10: Revising and the CNF marketplace
Some of us are third draft writers: We figure out each piece’s final organization and final revisions usually about the third time we revise. In our final week, as you prepare to turn in your end-of-class assignment, we’ll discuss how best to revise your work and where to try for publication when it’s done.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page or contact our Director of Education, Sharla Yates at yates[at]creativenonfiction.org.