Tips on writing long-form journalism from AAN

by H.G. Watson

It’s not often you get to sit in a room with three people who have, respectively, lived with and written about crack gangs in Los Angeles, exposed the financial crimes of some of the most high profile people in America and played a round of golf with former President Bill Clinton.

But at the 2013 Association of Alternative Newsmedia conference in Miami, FL July 11-13, the three writers who did – Mike Sager, Writer-at-Large for Esquire Magazine; Matt Taibbi, regular Rolling Stone contributor; and Don Van Natta Jr, an investigative reporter for ESPN and Pulitzer Prize winner – came together to present a panel on how to write long-form journalism.

It’s for good reason that so many writers dream of penning 7,000 words or more. “Long-form is the most gratifying work you can read and do,” said Van Natta Jr. “It’s a chance to flex those writing muscles.” The entire crowd, which included editors and writers from some of the biggest alt-weeklies across North America, nodded their heads in agreement. But it can also be the hardest style of writing to learn because of the complexity and length of the story.

Though the three writers certainly have different writing styles, they offered some common advice for aspiring literary journalists.


  • Van Natta Jr. shared that when a story stumps him, he heads to the bar – not to drink away his frustration, but to tell the story to a friend as simply as he can. “Tell it colloquially,” he said. Van Natta Jr. will even record the conversation so he can revisit the tape when he gets back to work.
  • “Simple writing is your best writing,” Sager said, reiterating Van Natta’s Jr. point about breaking things down. The hardest part is actually starting writing. “[It] never ever happens till you start typing,” he added.
  • While long-form stories can take months, even years, to come together, Taibbi noted that was no excuse for putting off daily writing. “Writing is a relationship,” he said. “You have to maintain it with the audience, maintain regular contact.” Blogging is a great platform to do this, though the panel was divided on whether Twitter was as useful.
  • Taibbi, who grew up wanting to be a fiction writer, also thinks there’s similarities between creative fiction and non-fiction narratives. For both, the story is made by the details you can pull out.
  • The story is not about you. While some stories will call for first person narratives, most of the time the story is about the people you are profiling. Focus on them – or as Sager simply puts it, “get over yourself.”


The key for any writer is finding your voice. Sager suggested that the process is not that different from how a musician finds his or her own sound. “Listen to a lot, moosh it all together and create your voice,” he said. For writers, that means you get to read a whole lot – another side perk of deciding to make a career of literary journalism.


HG Watson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Cord Community Edition in Waterloo, On.


Posted on July 24, 2013 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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