Narrative journalism can provide readers with a powerful and rewarding experience. Instead of cut-and-dry facts and figures, this form of writing focuses on developing rich characters and telling a story while explaining or analyzing a complex issue.
But writing a narrative piece — especially your first one — can be intimidating. These articles are extraordinarily time-consuming, require an intellectual and emotional commitment, and may involve costs editors aren’t willing to cover. The experience and finished product, however, can be well worth it.
In July, I hosted a webinar on breaking into narrative journalism with panelists Jane C. Hu, a freelance writer based in Seattle; Brady Huggett, the enterprise editor at Spectrum; and Pamela Weintraub, the senior editor for science and psychology at Aeon and the co-editor in chief of OpenMind magazine.
Hu shared her experience researching, pitching and getting funding for these character-rich, complicated stories. Huggett and Weintraub talked about the hard work that goes into editing them. All three offered valuable advice to freelancers. Here are some key takeaways from the webinar.
What is narrative journalism?
- It tells a story.
- It goes deep on a particular person or place.
- It has a dramatic arc, just like a work of fiction.
“Sometimes I think that an idea can be a protagonist and be done narratively and artistically,” Weintraub said.
Is there a minimum length for effective narrative fiction?
- These articles typically are a minimum of 2,500 words.
“A lot of people associate narrative journalism with long-form [journalism] specifically,” Hu said, “but I think you can use elements of narrative storytelling in any length of piece.”
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How long does it take from acceptance of the pitch to publication?
- It can take a few months to as long as a year, or even longer.
- Writers should expect to submit multiple drafts and go through an intensive editing process.
- Freelancers will need to have other, shorter simutaneous projects to bring in income.
“My work life is structured around having regular gigs, taking on shorter pieces and having regular clients … and then pitching these big swing narrative stories or investigations that I know might take at least a year, maybe several years,” Hu said.
Does it pay well, and are expenses covered?
- Many publications either have small budgets or none at all for travel.
- Publications typically won’t pay more than their standard freelance rate.
- Freelancers will probably need to seek grants or fellowships to supplement the fee and to cover travel costs. (Watch for an upcoming AHCJ webinar about applying for grants and fellowships.)
“These stories are difficult to execute, and they’re a lot of work for the writer. There are a lot of drafts,” Weintraub said. “I think there has to be motivation beyond the money.”
What is the market for narrative journalism?
- Many publications and editors want to run narrative articles.
- Many may publish only a few per year because these stories require heavy editing and, if they are long, may strain the freelance budget.
“When they’re done, we love them,” Huggett said. “We promote them, we get the best art that we can, we are very proud of them, we put them up for awards, but we can’t do more than a few of those a year.”
We promote them, we get the best art that we can, we are very proud of them, we put them up for awards, but we can’t do more than a few of those a year.
Enterprise Editor at Spectrum
How should freelancers pitch a narrative article?
- Freelancers can send an editor a short pre-pitch of one or two paragraphs to gauge interest.
- Pitches for long-form narrative articles must be more detailed than a pitch for a straightforward feature story and could be two or three pages long.
- Freelancers should seriously consider conducting several interviews and substantial research just for the pitch, especially if the writer has no previous relationship with the editor or is new to narrative journalism.
- Ensure the main character has agreed to participate in the story before pitching. Many subjects are willing to be interviewed even before the writer has a firm assignment, especially someone whose story has not been told.
- The writing of the pitch should “sing” and demonstrate to the editor that this freelancer is capable of writing compelling characters, sketching vivid scenes and setting a narrative arc. Consider including a lead in the pitch that sets the story up and a nutgraf.
- Be persistent.
Speaking of her narrative story for Wired about a female team of North Pole explorers, Hu said: “I had actually shopped it around several other places, and it had even fallen through at one other place for just internal, logistical reasons … It was a real rollercoaster, I’ll be honest.
“For listeners who are interested in doing something similar, just know that it’s not always smooth sailing.”