Journalism is a profession that lives from stories. But stories rarely just pop out, they need to be uncovered first. Let’s see how some of the most esteemed journalists generate ideas for their stories. Ideas that move millions of people worldwide.
This article is based on the book “The New New Journalism” by Robert S. Boynton, who interviewed nineteen practitioners of the literature of fact. Occasionally, I have used the wisdom found in William Zinsser’s classic “On Writing Well” and John McPhee’s “Draft №4”.
Americans always had a great need to explore and express the force and magnitude of their national experience — The American Experience. The curiosity about the cultural diversity, a fictional current that sweeps beneath its vast territories, has surfaced stories of larger-than-life characters as well as the simple, ordinary life.
First, some history – the literature of fact in the USA
Between 1870 and 1900, the nation of seventy-five million absorbed twelve million immigrants — most of them entering the USA through the Golden Door in New York. Traditional journalism was no longer sufficient to portray the changes in American life. This cultural mosaic required journalists to apply prodigious research and diligent reporting and to use a narrative form that helped to convey the overwhelming facts in a comprehensible manner.
In the 1960s and 1970s, non-fiction writers adapted techniques from fiction writing and the New Journalism was born. This new literary movement pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism and non-fiction writing. It favored complete dialogue over just snippets of it, a scene-by-scene composition, and the use of a third-person point of view (as if the reader was inside the character’s mind). And then, in contrast to traditional journalism, he or she used the descriptive eye to infuse the character with observations about his appearance, behavior, or even the scent. By doing so, the story became saturated and more dimensional.
Tom Wolfe, who is credited with the beginning of New Journalism, described the people writing such fact-based reportage —by imbuing and saturating it— as journalists who “wanted to dress up like novelists.” Wolfe is famous for his onomatopoetic outbursts (varoom! varoom!), and extensive use of punctuation. “I found that things like exclamation points, italics, and abrupt shifts (dashes) and syncopations (dots) helped give illusion not only of a person talking but of a person thinking,” he wrote.
But for some, Wolfe and his New Journalism were too close to fiction. Hunter S. Thompson — often linked to this gonzo journalism— was one of them. In a letter to Wolfe, he wrote: “I’ll have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connection with that horrible ‘new journalism’ shuck you’re promoting.” He would be upset by reading this Wikipedia entry.
People knew that journalists have generally the tendency to shape their material to make it more readable, but New Journalists did it rather flagrantly. Truman Capote, a master of this style, after publishing In Cold Blood, a story about a multiple murder case, was accused of fabricating the facts. People involved in the case said that he used a fact here, and a fact there, and filled in the gaps with literary license. (Capote made no notes during the interviews, claiming he has a “near-perfect” memory.)
The New New Journalism
In his book, The New New Journalism, Robert S. Boynton interviews a new generation of journalists that avoids these verbal acrobatics and run-on sentences with punctuation rage as seen in Wolfe’s pieces. They adopt a more neutral posture. It is the journalism of authority, with the emphasis on the journalistic methods rather than experimentation with form and language.
This new breed of neutral and authoritarian journalists is to a large extent influenced by John McPhee, through both his work and his famous “Literature of Fact” class at Princeton. “The informal, declaratory, almost deliberately inelegant tone one hears among many of the New New journalists comes straight from McPhee,” Boynton writes, casting the great anti-stylists as the anti-Wolfe. The reader can trust that they had been fair with their sources, with their quotes, and the rigorous journalistic methods, which often included recording and transcribing of the interviews.
It all starts with a deep interest
How to identify a story that has the potential to interest your readers? The simple answer is to go with your interests. “If you identify something of interest to you,” says Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a former Harvard psychology professor, “then you have put yourself in alignment with the deeper levels of your psyche, your spirit.” Therefore, the deepest parts of you must want to seek the answers to questions you have posted. Don’t waste your life on ideas that do not grip you.
If you identify something of interest to you, then you have put yourself in alignment with the deeper levels of your psyche, your spirit.Jordan B. Peterson
The “pillow of air” experience
Lawrence Weschler, a former staff writer at The New Yorker, has a proven method for identifying a good story. He calls it the “pillow of air” experience. He often encounters it while listening to the radio show of Ira Glass, This American Life. “I use the term to describe that experience of turning on the show and sitting down to balance your checkbook while you listen, and forty-five minutes later you realize that you haven’t moved your pen. And what you also notice is that your mouth has been open and the air in it has become completely still … You simply forget to breathe!”
Identify the conflict
Look for people involved in a conflict or a quest. “At its most basic, a good story is about people engaged in an endeavor, where there is some degree of tension, mystery, or suspense,” says Jonathan Harr, known for his Civil Action work. “Something must be at stake for the people involved.”
“My requirements for a story are purely emotional, intuitive, and visceral,” says Susan Orlean, a The New Yorker contributor. A story must spark curiosity. “I find myself talking about it to everyone I know. If I’m not talking about it, and am not able to convey my excitement, something isn’t working”. For Orlean, it is important that the subject of a story keeps expanding, not contracting.
There is no waiting for a sudden flash of inspiration, an epiphany. Generating ideas is a process. It takes time to develop a routine that works for you. Reading the local newspaper or a magazine is a good method for most of the writers. Susan Orlean, for example, reads very broadly, she skims through pieces from different disciplines such as dog or hunting magazines. For her, this is the real world, the place where the subcultures actually live.
Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationship, sex, and work — Stephen King
The Internet is not the best source
But be cautious about finding ideas on the internet. “So much of it seems to be incomplete, half-baked, or just repackaged information,” says Richard Preston. A huge chunk of all the articles available on the Internet is partly, mostly or wholly derived from each other. When you search for a topic on the internet, the article you read is more an amalgamation of several similar write-ups, repackaged and sold as something new.