Practical advice for longform writers

While daily news journalism continues to suffer from job losses and budget cuts, demand for longform journalism is growing.

That’s according to Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra and Editia Prize judge Matthew Ricketson, who spoke at the Walkley Media Conference in Canberra yesterday.

In a workshop titled From Daily Journalism to Longform Journalism, Ricketson said that longform journalism is of particular importance in a world where news is updated by the second.

“There are some things that you can’t achieve in daily news. The context is often missing, and details can’t be explored in depth,” he said.

Demand for longform reads has increased as readers seek comprehensive reporting at a digestible length. Ricketson said that there has never been more longform journalism around, “and it has never been more available”.

Despite this demand, longform journalism is often viewed as a side project.

“For writers, there are jobs that bring in the bread and butter, and there are jobs that feed your soul. Longform journalism is in the latter category,” Ricketson said.

During the workshop he gave practical tips for daily news journalists considering writing longer works, such as abandoning the inverted news pyramid style for writing that is narrative and scene driven.

“You have to give someone a reason to stay for thousands of words,” he said.

When writing longform journalism, Ricketson said that the standard journalist’s questions of who, what, when, where, why and how can be replaced with character, action, setting, chronology, motive and narrative.

He used excerpts from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (one of the first non-fiction “novels” ever written) to show how this is done. He explained that dialogue is more effective than quotations in longer works, because “using dialogue makes the reader feel as though they are watching a play unfold in front of them. They hear moods; they understand contexts”. He also encouraged using vivid descriptions that draw on all senses.

“Sense of smell is underrated … but it isn’t part of the daily journalist’s lexicon,” he said.

Ricketson also examined In Cold Blood’s flaws, such as the use of omniscient narration (where the narrator knows everything).

“The omniscient narrator voice is not possible in nonfiction because there are always gaps and contradictions in what journalists can know about an event,” he said.

Journalists are presented with similar difficulties when recreating scenes and including sourcing and attribution.

“Reconstructing scenes is tricky. It can be done, but to what extent? And how do you reconcile that with the reader?

“You have to persuade the reader that you’re not making things up.”

Amy Birchall is a journalist at MSA Media, editor and publicist at Halstead Press, member of the ACT Writers Centre board and a blogger who regularly contributes to Editia’s social media streams.






Editia’s moment in the spotlight

We managed to squeeze in a couple of minutes talking about Editia’s plans and founder + publisher Charlotte Harper’s 1978 Mr Men book before getting onto the serious business of debating latest issues in crowdfunding at the launch event at Gleebooks last week. See Charlotte’s welcome presentation on our YouTube channel here or click on the video screen below.