J298 Introduction to Reported Narrative Writing


The purpose of this workshop is to study and practice the craft of reported narrative writing (also known as long form, narrative nonfiction, and, under certain conditions, literary journalism, all of which are variations on New Journalism). Five years ago I developed the class for writing concentration 1st years who want/need an intermediary step between J200 and the more advanced courses they’ll take during their second year. Non-writing concentration 1st years have also found the course useful, since it gives them a chance to improve their writing before getting swamped during the second year. Because experience and skill levels can vary widely among students, intro to narrative is voluntary. But it nonetheless serves as a step in the primary writing program sequence: J200—intro to narrative—advanced writing and writing-heavy topical and specialty classes—masters project.

Four assumptions guide my approach: (1) facts don’t speak for themselves; (2) facts speak most eloquently and forcefully when they are shaped into narratives; (3) writing is rewriting; and (4) writing is thinking.

If you wish to immerse yourself in the fundamentals of narrative writing, this is the class for you. As in all of my storytelling workshops, we’ll emphasize structure, and on all levels. We’ll work on overall story architecture, studying and practicing the fundamental structural features of narrative (the “deep structure” that underlies all narratives, in all forms, be it conventional magazine feature, reported essay, essay, profile, review, or investigative piece.). We will also scrutinize the sequencing, shaping, and pacing of paragraphs; sentence construction, rhythm, and clarity; word choice; even punctuation. We’ll pay particular attention to such basic storytelling elements as the tease and promise; characters, scenes, and scene-by-scene development; signposts, dramatic tension, turning points, transitions, and overall narrative line; voice, tone, and point of view; telling detail and rich description; images, figures, motifs, and themes. We will strive to combine the best fiction has to offer—the power of narrative to engage and move readers—with the best nonfiction has to offer, which is conveying information and ideas. We will marry storytelling and analysis to create pieces that have broad appeal and lasting significance. The central aim of the class is to help you write tight, forceful, compelling narratives of any length.


The centerpiece of the course is a series of three writing assignments (roughly 1,000 to 3,000 words each, any topic, related or not). As long as basic narrative principles apply, all forms will be allowed: topical reportage, profiles, reviews, social trend and human interest pieces, serious and humorous commentary, essays and memoirs. But most of your work must be based on reporting. (We can sort out what exactly this means on a case-by-case basis.) Other possible projects—but only with my approval—include excerpts (carving a short version out of a long story), adaptations (developing a print version of a story originating in another medium); and the crucial first section of long narratives. The latter could be especially helpful for anyone planning to report and write a text story for a masters project. If you can demonstrate you’re ready to tackle a long narrative, I will permit you to work on one piece for the entire semester. I will help each of you develop a reporting and writing plan for the semester.

This is an intense reading and writing workshop. I urge you to rewrite as much as possible, taking advantage of the opportunity to work with an editor, one who is still a highly active magazine writer, because that’s when the most fruitful work is done—when the story takes shape, comes to life, and, if you’re lucky, stands up and sings, delivering the goods in a memorable way. We will workshop all first drafts and as many second drafts as time permits. As needed, I will also offer in-depth individual tutorials. In addition to reading a textbook, we will critique a large number of exemplary magazine pieces. I also sometimes require that students read one to three books from the New Journalism canon.

Textbook: Either Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, or Story Craft, by Jack Hart.

Please come to the first class with one or two ideas in mind. Be aware, however, that I may insist that you abandon your first choice, and even your second, should you propose a story that doesn’t include the basic ingredients needed for a feature-length narrative or requires traveling prohibitively long distances, depends on hard-to-access or excessively time-consuming sources, or otherwise entails a major impediment to reporting. Think globally, write locally.

After the roster is settled, I’ll divide the class into two or three sections. Deadlines will be staggered. Besides the three primary writing assignments, you will be responsible for composing pitches, time lines, outlines, and so on, as needed, as well as certain rewrites. I encourage you to use the class for workshopping second drafts, when time permits. I also encourage you to use me for one-on-one editing of second and third drafts and general editorial and publishing guidance, including regarding pitching your stories to specific outlets. I believe strongly in mentoring. But I also believe in individual initiative, because in the long run initiative and perseverance are the qualities that will serve you best. I can’t make you want to master the craft of reported narrative. I won’t waste my time trying.

Be ambitious in your aims, modest in your expectations, and place your trust in dogged persistence. With few exceptions, mastery comes only with practice, lots of practice.






Time:  Tu 10:00 - 1:00

Location:  209 North Gate (Greenhouse)

Class Number:  16899

Section:  2

Units:  3

Length:  15 weeks

Course Material Fee:  None

Enroll Limit:  12

Restrictions & Prerequisites

We give preference to 1st year writing concentration students, then 1st year students in other concentrations, then 2nd year writing concentration students, then other 2nd year students.