Introduction: Write a Creative Non-fiction Article in Ten Difficult Steps

I figured it was time to take something that was both art form and civic institution and reduce it to a set of insultingly simple instructions. This is especially fun as I am a not especially notable journalist of only a few years experience. So here we go:

By the way: never write on spec, and I mean, never write on spec. But once you've got the assignment, here's the steps I've been able to work out to the normal literary non-fiction/new journalism article. (With apologies to Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace, John McPhee and many, many others.) (Also with apologies to the scads of other people I'm about to offend.)

Materials needed:

  • Time
  • English skills
  • Probably some existing journalism experience
  • Self loathing

Step 1: Get the Material

Record everything, absolutely everything you can. Every detail is fair game, including your own emotions. Given it's poncy new journalism, especially your own emotions.

The clothing habits of the janitor, the temperature of the meadow, and the smell of the backpack. It's like an old text adventure- you pick up everything because you don't know where you will need it later in the story, or for what odd purpose. Writing is actually more about seeing than make pretty words.

Step 2: Figure Out the Emotional Core

This defines your article in a few words. Hunter Thompson was writing about "the American Dream," Tom Wolfe was writing about hope and innocence, (I think) and who knows what the fuck Norman Mailer was writing about. Absolutely everything you write from here on in is actually about this- this and the story arc are the fractal bits of your article.

Step 3: Define the Story Arc

This is shorter than you think. Sometimes it's one scene or one day, or a week in the life of. It probably goes over a few normal hours in some specialist's life, something they will not find remarkable. Sometimes it's a special moment for them, sometimes it's not. The point it, this is the story you are going to fit the rest of the story in, and it's not that big or special, but you have to have it.

Step 4: Do Nauseating Amounts of Research

Wikipedia is not going to cut it, but you can start there. You're going to need to cover the items around you, the history of the field, the people around you, the people they learned from, their friends, their mentors, their families, their family friends, the history of the place you're in, the building, the history of the building, the financial situation, and possibly the local geology.

Burn through your library card, stay up all night reading. Listen to university course podcasts, interview specialists, read webpages, read more books, fly places to see historical documents, interview more people that know things, bug friends that can tell you stuff. It really helps if you like stuff your head with obscene quantities of useless knowledge.

And best of all, you won't use the vast majority of this. But hey, you can talk about it at parties and dinner later. Sometimes that's scintillating. Sometimes you drive people crazy. Generally you don't know until later.

Step 5: You Get to Start Your Story! Yeah!

Open the scene of the story arc. Great. Now stop and introduce a couple people and a couple pieces of technical detail. This could be equipment around them, history of the field tied to some visual from the opening scene, etc. The initial details should lead off from some visual details in the first scene. Use those details to introduce more bit os history or telling financial or contextual detail, now two beats removed. Here's the trick: All of it has to relate to/develop the arc and emotional theme a bit. The technical details should all be metaphors for the endeavor, and/or examples of the extraordinaryness of its people or its tasks. the highlighted aspects of the people should only be those that relate to the topic, and should further describe it.

Step 6: Describe a Plot Point in the Story Arc.

Introduce the next action in the story arc. By the way, there has to be change in the story, and it has to reflect the story of the change of the topic's history.

Step 7: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Repeat step five and six, growing more emotional intimate and slightly more uncomfortable each time until you are about 1/4-1/3 past your word count.

Step 8: Close This Motherfucker!

Final scene of the story should be, if possible, some suspenseful, dramatic and cathartic moment you had with the subject, rather than your last moment with them. You can kind of inject the cathartic part. You should end on some summing up of the emotional theme via quote or wise conclusion of your experience with these people that makes you think you now really understand them, whatever the reader thinks.

Step 9: Try to Make It Readable

At this point you are far, far over word count. If you are a sweet journo that does not wish to torture the editor and subs you will go back through and read the piece aloud and take out a lot of the viciously bad bits, cut down the run ons, sort out the nonsensical clauses and so on. You might even find that you are re-writing it a bit, re-researching bit, and even filling in a couple of details from subjects. It might even be time to admit that it reads a bit like a pile of poo, go back to step five, and write it again. Don't worry, it will be easier this time.

Step 10: Avoid Screaming Subjects and Death Threats on Blogs

Also, hope someone reads it and try to get paid.

Ah well, so it goes.