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How to Write: Literary Journalism

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Literary journalism. The term itself sounds a bit paradoxical, doesn’t it? Journalism is concerned with factual details. Literariness deals with the beauty of prose. But, literary journalism combines the two: the writer investigates some person or place and reports on it, using the power of words to make the tale even more compelling.

If you’d like to write your own literary journalism piece, you’ll need to have a portable notebook and a pen (you’ll see why).

Pick a location that will be your focus. This place can be somewhere of spiritual value—a temple, for example—or of personal value (perhaps your favourite park?). Or, this place could even be “boring”: a bus stop outside your flat. A grocery store down the block. The post office. Anywhere, really.

Once you’ve picked your location, go there—a lot. Preferably, go to your location frequently over the course of two weeks, and be sure to bring your notebook when you go!

Take notes: what kind of people frequent your location? What do they do there? How does each person use the space differently? How do you feel when you’re there—is it a good or bad feeling, and does this feeling evolve? You might consider interviewing the people you see there. Write it all down: the more you write, the more material you’ll have later.

After you’ve written at least ten pages of notes, you’re ready to start writing. (Why ten pages? Well, literary journalism is a type of immersion journalism. You need to be fully part of the environment that you’re writing about.)

Write about the location that you chose, constantly referring to your notes in order to stay faithful to your research. Literary journalism is fact- and research-driven; it’s the form of creative nonfiction that comes closest to newspaper and magazine writing.

What did you observe while you spent time at your location? Were there particularly interesting stories that were told by the people there? Did you discover anything? Weave together a cohesive story from the observations you made on location.

In truth, literary journalism is merely journalism that incorporates limited (yet skilful) narration while maintaining stylistic consciousness. In essence, think of literary journalism as your quest to write—beautifully—about a given topic, with your prose being primarily research-driven.