There’s no hard news anymore. At least not the way I was taught in journalism school and how I wrote up the news as a business reporter back in the day.
Even the newsiest of newspapers like The New York Times now report in a style that’s known as “narrative nonfiction.”
Reporting the what, when, where, why and how that I learned in journalism school still lurks within the lines of a breaking news story. But if you’re a writer, you’ll need to adapt to the growing popularity of narrative nonfiction that appeals to the emotions of your readers as well as their intellects.
The Pulitzer-prize winning New York columnist and author Jimmy Breslin, who died a few weeks ago, practically invented this new style of writing. He was legendary for telling stories that tugged at the reader’s heart.
Talk to the Grave Digger
Here’s how The New York Times obituary remembered Breslin’s writing:
“Love or loathe him, none could deny Mr. Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. He often explained that he merely applied a sportswriter’s visual sensibility to the news columns. Avoid the scrum of journalists gathered around the winner, he would advise, and go directly to the loser’s locker.”
The obit continues, “With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers. Here, for example, is how he described Clifton Pollard, the man who dug President John F. Kennedy’s grave, in a celebrated column from 1963 that sent legions of journalists to find their “gravedigger”:
“Pollard is forty-two. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”
In an extended interview with The New York Times in 2006, Breslin said, “Well, you’re looking for the dressing room, that’s all. And I did. I went there automatic.”
According to journalist and author Pete Hamill, “It seemed so new and original. It was a very, very important moment in New York journalism, and in national journalism.”
The Facts Don’t Change
The danger in writing narrative nonfiction – whether for a blog, a newspaper, or magazine – is the temptation to fudge the facts in order to pump up the excitement. We often see that in personal memoirs.
But as Lee Gutkind, founder of the website Creative Nonfiction, cautions, “Creative doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonﬁction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”
Here is a recent story about Uber trying to dupe Apple that could have been reported as straight news. Instead, this is how the New York Times writer Mike Isaac began:
“Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, visited Apple’s headquarters in early 2015 to meet with Timothy D. Cook, who runs the iPhone maker. It was a session that Mr. Kalanick was dreading.
“For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had been secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased — a fraud detection maneuver that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines.
“But Apple was onto the deception, and when Mr. Kalanick arrived at the midafternoon meeting sporting his favorite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.”
By the second sentence you’re hooked. You want to know why Mr. Kalanick was full of dread.
I personally like writing narrative nonfiction. It’s more fun for me, frankly, and I hope my readers enjoy the stories I tell. Oh, how I wish, though, that I could write like Jimmy Breslin. He was a larger than life character. Sort of the cliché of a typical New Yorker: brash, fast-talking, and in your face. But he wrote like a poet.
What about you? Do you write to simply inform or do you consciously try to touch the emotions of your readers by writing narrative nonfiction?