Program in Narrative Writing: Overview
Writing is fundamental to all forms of journalism, as both a means of communication and, equally important, an aid to thinking. Indeed, to an extent not always recognized in a world increasingly dominated by images, writing is thinking. This is especially true for reported narrative, which explores complex ideas and controversial issues through stories that are gripping rather than didactic. It’s not easy to craft a narrative that engages readers, let alone one that pulls them into a story so vivid and memorable they can’t stop reading. Helping students master that skill is one goal of the writing program. Another is to foster a range of analytical skills—the ability to identify ideas and people that are truly significant and worthy of interest, to make insightful connections, and to tease out implications. Narrative writing offers the opportunity to not only describe human affairs in a compelling way but to help readers understand what they mean.
But stories are only as good as the reporting on which they are based. And reporting for narrative is a craft unto itself, requiring detailed observation, rich description, in-depth interviewing, and rigorous reflection—all of which our writing courses aim to nurture. Combining workshop critiques and individual mentoring, the school provides an intense, hands-on approach to developing, refining, and publishing student work. Writing is rewriting, especially for young journalists, which means that often the real work doesn’t begin until the revision stage, a labor-intensive process for both student and instructor that almost always requires multiple drafts, as well as additional reporting. Practice is the key to mastery, and it is one of the essential elements of our pedagogy.
These days, it’s increasingly hard for early-career writers to learn their craft from editors and mentors – who are often too pressed for time to provide serious feedback on a reporter’s work. The Graduate School of Journalism, by virtue of its small student body, workshop-size classes, and two-year curriculum, as well as the makeup of its faculty (the writing instructors are practicing journalists at the height of their game), is uniquely equipped to provide such guidance. We believe strongly in sustained individual mentoring, provided by instructors on a course-by-course basis; academic advisers, who are available to students throughout their entire stay at the school; and masters advisers, who shepherd students through their capstone projects.
Unlike the Multimedia or TV/Doc tracks, Narrative Writing does not enforce a particular course progression. After J200, many students opt to take Intro to Narrative, but for students who arrive with more long-form experience, it’s also fine to enroll in one of the many Advanced Narrative courses. These can vary from year, but typically include Environmental Writing (Edwin Dobb), Story Structures (Kara Platoni), Advanced Narrative (Deirdre English) and Profiles (Jennifer Kahn). Some other Spring semester courses have included Science/Health Writing (Rebecca Skloot), Sports Writing (Chris Ballard), The Drug Wars (Elena Conis), Tackling the Book (Adam Hochschild), and Essay Writing (Michael Pollan).
Narrative Master’s Project
After the first semester of study, all students at the graduate school pick a concentration of focus for their Master’s Project. In most cases, this aligns with a medium of journalism, like documentary filmmaking, radio journalism, narrative writing, or multimedia.
For students who concentrate on writing, the master’s project usually means a deeply reported story the length of a long magazine article, though it’s also possible for students to write a series (typically three mid-length reported pieces, related by subject), or to create a master’s project related to editing (for instance, assigning and editing stories for a print or digital magazine).
Careers in Narrative Writing
Although mastering the craft of reporting and writing narratives usually requires years of practice, our students excel at producing high-quality work both during their time here and after leaving Berkeley. Recent graduates have published features or been hired as writers or editors at the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Wired, and the Atlantic; in literary journals like Oxford American, N+1, and the Virginia Quarterly Review; and in an array of other outlets, including Vice, Mother Jones, California Sunday Magazine, Pacific Standard, High Country News, and The Atavist. In recent years, many students also have published books.
Award Winning Student Work
Our students regularly go on to careers in writing and editing at national newspapers and magazines. A small sampling of published features by recent graduates includes:
- The Fever (by David Ferry, Mother Jones). How the government put tens of thousands of people at risk of a deadly disease. This story was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 2016 and winner of the National Academy of Sciences Communication Award.
- Death on Their Watch (by Stephen Hobbs, Sun-Sentinel). This three-part series about the abuse of mentally ill inmates in a Florida jail run by a contractor was a finalist for the 2017 Livingstone Award.
- The Björn Ultimatum(by Mallory Pickett, WIRED). One Swede will kill cash forever—unless his foe saves it from extinction. I went to Sweden and met with the two men who are fighting over the future of currency in Sweden (and the world). With ABBA songs!
- Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness (by Sara Bernard, Atlantic). In the tight-knit communities of the far north, there are no roads, no police officers—and higher rates of sexual assault than anywhere else in the United States.
- The Turnaways (by Joshua Lang, New York Times Magazine). What happens to women who are denied abortions?
Profiles are a remarkably versatile form: an open door for exploring a vast range of subjects, from the secret guilt of a paid climate change denier, to the bizarre afterlife of Carrot Top, to the unique super-taster abilities of a chef with Asperger's. They’re also marketable – editors love them – and unusually fun. So how do you, the ordinary writer without Hollywood connections, figure out which of the 7 billion other people on the planet are worth profiling? What few people realize is that profiles also have a secret taxonomy that can be decoded, along with the structures and drivers that power each type of story. Because profiles don’t always have an obvious plot, they also require a different strategy in order to build interest and sustain momentum. We’ll take a close look at how to do this, starting with the critical choice of who to write about. (As Ira Glass once observed, “It’s true that everybody has a story to tell. But most of those stories aren’t very interesting.”) Connecting to, but remaining independent from, the person you’re writing about can also be tricky, both personally and ethically – an issue we’ll discuss as it relates to your own work. We’ll also talk with writers from the New York Times Magazine, California Sunday, Rolling Stone etc, to hear about their process and strategies (in both writing and career) .
This course is designed to be a tasting platter for the aspiring print editor (digital or paper), or anyone curious about the job. It’s also a great course for writers who want to learn how editors think, and use those skills to make their own work better. Almost anyone can read a piece and tell that it isn’t working. But identifying precisely why it isn’t working, and how to fix it, is magic. One goal of this class will be to connect you with actual working editors at great publications.
In this workshop, we'll work on overall story architecture, studying and practicing the fundamental structural features of narrative. 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; voice, tone, and point of view; images, figures, motifs, and themes; telling detail and rich description; characters, scenes, and scene-by-scene development; signposts, dramatic tension, turning points and transitions, and overall narrative line.
J298 Profiling the Red StatesThe Cuba class has been cancelled and instead, the travel class I will teach this spring will be focused on profiling the red states, getting to know a region that press clearly fails to understand well.Koci will create a website for the class and we hope this will become a multi-year project in which the J-School and its students accomplish a critical mass of reporting.The initial class this Spring will identify five to six places where students will travel to in pairs.In the class, you will learn how to prepare for a travel reporting trip as any journalist prepares. Although we have a longer lead time, we also have more to learn.The first part of the class will be a combination of two elements: 1. Backgrounders on the political and social history of the red states. 2. An in-depth look at how a journalist produces profiles - of a person, of a community and of a place. We will look at both classic pieces and those pieces focused on the region we will cover.Four weeks into the class we will mete out the places we want to focus on and students will begin preparing reporting memos. The trip will take place over spring break, but a lot of advance reporting can be done beforehand.The application to the class requires only the name of your J-200 professor and the media you will work in. I will take a mix of print and video reporters.
There are few literary forms quite as flexible as the personal essay. For the journalist, the essay form offers the rare freedom to combine any number of different narrative tools, including memoir, reportage, history, political argument, anecdote, and reflection. In this advanced writing workshop, we will read essays beginning with Montaigne, who more or less invented the form, to Emerson and Thoreau, who Americanized it, and then onto a selection of their descendants, including George Orwell, E.B. White, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace and Rebecca Solnit. We will draft and revise essays of our own in a variety of lengths and types, and write pastiches of others. A central aim of the course will be to help you develop a voice on the page and learn how to deploy the first person -- not merely for self-exposure but as a tool for telling a story, conducting an inquiry or pressing an argument.
December 3rd at 8:59 pm PST
Application available September.