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Narrative writing in a Twitter world: Part I

Joel Achenbach recently wrote a piece for The Post's Style section about the survival of long-form narrative writing in our time-starved era of short attention spans and bursts of media innovation such as Twitter. Joel called his essay The Vestigial Tale.

Story Lab team member Brigid Schulte wanted to know more. Excerpts from their conversation will appear over the next three days here on the Lab:

Brigid: Hey Joel,

Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your story on narrative journalism. To be honest, this is the kind of writing that got me into journalism in the first place. I remember taking a class in college called The Literary Journalists and reading these wonderful pieces - collected in an anthology by Norman Sims - that rang so true - true in the journalistic sense because the stories were real, but also true in the sense that writing with some of the same techniques used in fiction - narrative, spinning a story out, dialogue, foreshadowing, drawing full character portraits - can take you deeper and farther into the heart of things.41X56V11B4L._SS500_.jpg

Then you get your first newspaper job and your editor tells you you write with "too much damn color" and wants you to hack away at what you were certain was a brilliant little gem about the western pine beetle and the meaning of life and it goes downhill from there ... Anyway, I'm not sure I pull off this kind of writing very often, or ever, but I love to read it. And hope springs eternal.

Why did you decide to write this piece and why now? (P.S. Lane Gregory's piece you mentioned on the feral child, The Girl in the Window, absolutely blew me away when it first came out. I was riveted.)

Joel: Dear Brigid,
I’m so excited about your new Story Lab blog – and thanks for letting me chime in even though I’m not really much a narrative guy these days (the pedagogical impulse overwhelms me and I am constantly cramming my work with expert quotes and geeky-nerdy chewy bits that are lethal to narrative…It’s like somewhere I decided that the rule should be Tell, Don’t Show).

But I do believe, fervently, feverishly -- pick an overwrought adverb -- in the power of stories. I got the idea for the narrative article when two things crossed my eyeballs in short succession earlier this year. First, I read a blog item or some sort of news snippet – tweet – sniffle – harrumph – about a dispute at Columbia Journalism School over how to teach the craft of journalism. Apparently one side (and I’m pulling this from memory – so flag it as probably all wrong) believes in teaching a traditional curriculum that includes an emphasis on long-form narrative. The other side wants to emphasize new media, and all the new tricks and techniques therein. Meanwhile – data point two – I came across a copy of the Orlando Sentinel, which seemed to have abandoned stories altogether in favor of a dizzying array of graphics, charts, headlines, subheds, keys, refers, blinkers, squawkers, needlers and other whiz-bang stuff that I don’t even know the technical name of. It just didn’t look like a newspaper that believed in itself anymore. It didn’t look to me as if the editors believed that people can still read.

So that got me going. I had just one idea, one line, really, to form the core of the story, which is that narrative is the ultimate killer app.

But let me ask you: Is there a way for professional journalists to create narrative in a world in which content creation in general doesn’t seem to pay? I mean I’m not sure if it matters how we write, or what we write about, if we continue to have the apparently audacious notion that we should be paid for what we do. What do you think?

More tomorrow

By Brigid Schulte  | December 8, 2009; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Next: Pick of the day: Good writing everywhere

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