Narrative Journalism: A How-To Guide

I enjoy my fair share of newspaper articles, if I’m allowed to call them that—there’s no real paper involved anymore, at least not for a broke college student who has to browse The New York Times in incognito mode to dodge the read-three-then-pay requirement. Keeping up with current events is a great “wait, I’m actually being productive!” distractions, and getting all righteous and outraged about the social and political climate is one of my favorite pastimes. But once in a while, when I’m browsing The Atlantic or The Washington Post, I’ll come across a piece that has nothing to do with politics or economics, one that’s real and raw and honest, one that tells a story I never knew I cared about. Those are the pieces that really stick with me. That’s the magic of narrative journalism: relaying the facts, sure, but also uncovering fundamental truths about what it means to be human along the way. Telling a story and telling the truth.

My nana has always told me, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Hopefully she’ll forgive me just this once.

Here’s some conventions I’ve recognized through my study of this genre (shockingly, there’s a bit of an overlap with journalism):

  1. Titles are short and sweet, but leave a little to be discovered. (“The Jabberwocky in a Cancer Lab”? What does that mean? I don’t know but I want to find out!)
  2. Header illustrations add foreshadowing, and set the tone for the piece. Muted colors? Might be a bit of a bummer. Shaky lines and unique textures? A down-to-earth read you’ll want to relate to.
  3. Paragraphs are kept short. It’s easy on the eyes and reads more like a conversation and less like a lecture.
  4. Interviews are a big part of these pieces (this is still journalism, after all). Quotes are often highlighted in big, bold letters to break up the piece, or else strategically placed at the beginning or end of a paragraph. No quote-burying here!
  5. Links! No need to distract readers with crazy long citations—just turn that clinical study blue and invite them to click at their own discretion.
  6. The author is involved in the story somehow, either as passive audience or engaged actor. First person narration is often used liberally.
  7. These pieces are here to inform, but also to entertain, to intrigue and delight and tug at the heartstrings. Topics often walk the line between personal and universal.
  8. Sometimes the story guides us to the next point, other times the research takes the lead. As long as the narrative thread stays constant throughout, it’s okay to take readers along the scenic route.

For my research, I focused exclusively on narrative journalism pieces centered around cancer. I wanted to see how other authors managed to humanize the disease while still focusing on the hard science. Here’s what I discovered:

“What Mormon Family Trees Tell Us About Cancer,” an Atlantic article by Sarah Zhang, doesn’t really sound like a thrill ride. But the direct and informative title tells readers exactly what they need to know about the factual content of the piece. Diving in, they are likely to be surprised by the amount of interesting historical context involved, and the amount of human connection: the article centers around interviews with Gregg, a Salt Lake City native whose family has been afflicted with a unique type of colon cancer for generations. Aiming to write an article that weaves together historical fact, scientific research, and true-to-life stories, this carries all three elements in abundance and was an excellent place for me to begin my understanding of the genre.

“Tracking Cancer and Ancestry, With Mysteries in Each,”New York Times piece by Susan Gubar, also starts with a straightforward title, one that leaves a bit of a question in its wake (“What ‘mysteries’? Tell me more!”). The article chronicles the experiences of Jan, a friend of the author whose quest for truths about her ancestry coincides with her recent cancer diagnosis in an unexpected way. The way Gubar handles the subject of her writing was particularly instructive for me, as my own piece centered around my grandmother, and how was I going to be all objective and impartial about her? Here, the author treats her friend like any other interviewee, while using their close friendship to inform factual aspects of her writing. She can more accurately extrapolate what Jan thinks about her situation and how she feels, because they really know each other. This was very informative: write the article like you would a story with a fully developed protagonist.

“The Jabberwocky in a Cancer Lab” was, oddly enough, also written by Susan Gubar for The New York Times (a coincidence, I swear!). In this one, Gubar explores the disconnect between researchers and cancer patients, and the way technical language plays a role in this divide. She does this by equating the aforementioned technical language with the nonsense language of Lewis Carroll’s famous poem, “Jabberwocky.” Finally, something about cancer even I can comprehend! This article uses a bunch of scientific lingo, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. It leans heavily into a narrative style that feels cozy and familiar to short story readers, while mentioning tumor-suppressing genes and microenvironment. This is the line I wanted to walk with my piece: approachable but informative.

Reporting the facts, but also wearing your heart on your sleeve? Telling the truth while also caring about things? Oof…exhausting. But I think I might be up to the challenge. To all my fellow journalists and storytellers, happy writing!

2 thoughts to “Narrative Journalism: A How-To Guide”

  1. Hey Brooks!
    I think the way you start this piece does a great job in explaining why you personally felt drawn towards Narrative Journalism. I completely agree that its the random pieces that I often enjoy most.
    Once you delve into the list of key components, I think this really effectively and concisely summarizes what is important in this genre. I also am a big fan of the linked phrases. I’m glad it’s one of your key components, I always appreciate when an article gives me the decision to learn more about something rather then making me wonder, or forcing it on me. I also am glad you focused so much on titles because they really are the “facial feature” of an article. While you should never judge someone on appearance, I think the title is similar in how it leaves a first impression.
    Overall great post! You make me want to consider doing some narrative journalism.
    ~Maddie

  2. Yikes! You weren’t wrong about the free-read articles limitation when I opened up Jabberwocky: https://i.imgur.com/BDPKkKy.png

    I never really perceived narrative journals as a perpetual juggling between storytelling and informational facts–interesting!! After reading your sketch draft, I am glad you seem to have found that centre of gravity to mingle narratives with scientific vernacular. I appreciate your focus on the colour scheme and patterns associated with the header of the article. Despite being a heavily linguistic-saturated form of text, just like Maddie said there those first impressions heavily contribute to the reader’s mindset coming in. I think all of your advice for creating this genre make sense–I love your focus on tailouring the text to the reader, to ensure that he/she is constantly entertained.

    Thanks for sharing!

    AP

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