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) .
Advanced Narrative Writing is primarily for 2nd year students. 1st year students I would urge to take Introduction to Reported Narrative Writing unless you’ve had some experience writing larger narrative stories. People outside the J-School I will usually not have room for, but if you’re interested, contact me in advance to be put on a waiting list.
This course is based on the belief that the best way to hold a reader’s attention for more than a few paragraphs is through the art of storytelling. If you want your reader to stay with you for a newspaper feature story, a magazine article, or a “long reads” piece on a website, you have to learn what good storytellers have been doing for thousands of years to make people sit up and pay attention. As a reader, you know the difference between writing that makes you eagerly turn the page and writing that makes your eyes glaze over. We’re going to work on writing the first and not the second. This course will be of particular interest to students who want to write for magazines, although well-crafted narrative stories are increasingly valued by good newspapers and websites as well. And an ability to write strong narrative is the foundation of effective work in every other journalistic medium, from radio to TV to film. Think of it this way: your ultimate ambition may be to play the violin or the clarinet, but you’ll have an enormous head start if you’ve already mastered the piano.
For this course, think of potential stories in the broadest sense—embracing all of the ways that humankind interacts with the natural world, including but not limited to ecosystem preservation, alteration, degradation, and restoration; urbanization and industrialization; climate change; genetic engineering; agriculture, resource extraction, the use of public lands, air and water pollution; overpopulation, extinction, the subjugation of other species; waste generation, disposal, and conversion; energy production and distribution; along with the effects any of these might have on human health, community vitality, and social justice.
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.
WRITING & READING ASSIGNMENTS
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.
In this class, we’ll learn about story architecture – how to craft your material to give it tone, meaning and style, and how to choose a structure that best matches your materials, reporting constraints and artistic intentions. In our 15 weeks together, we'll examine 13 commonly-used structures to understand how they are constructed and what effects they can achieve. Once we’ve got those down, we'll use our final two classes to look at some experimenters who are blowing up the rules. We’ll be studying work in all media – documentaries, podcasts, magazines and newspaper articles, multimedia presentations, even a bit of VR. Students from any year and any media track are welcome! This is a discussion seminar and workshop — each student will workshop two of their own reported pieces with the class. (These can be pieces you are reporting for other spring classes, for your masters thesis, or for freelance assignments. You are highly encouraged to “double dip” your assignments for Story Structures with work in another course!)
Freedom of Information
This class will survey the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, state public records laws, access to state and federal court records (with emphasis on understanding and opposing the sealing for court records) and emphasize the making of requests and obtaining access. We’ll also study major court decisions granting and limiting access, learn access tricks to records for which instant access is the norm, as well as explore the basic Constitutional access to court records.
Students will learn how to hunt down government information and how vet whether archived, third party information, is accurate and trustworthy. They will develop a document state of mind.
Classes will be split between lectures and work on a group project. No outside work will be assigned other than readings and occasional access maters that must be done during business hours. No papers will be required.
Students wishing to take a five week mini version of the class will receive full class lectures for the first five weeks of the semester with no group project.
Proposed class project: Use all available information to crack and dissect secret Delaware controlled by Donald J. Trump. This will include examining, say, local and state records involving a Trump building project. Those records will include land use records, construction permits, liquor licenses, tax abatements, tax records, court records, OSHA records, and many, many more.
December 3rd at 8:59 pm PST
Application available September.