Long Form, Always

The NY Times contributing writer & National Magazine Award finalist on new directions in narrative journalism, advice for emerging writers, the importance of meticulous research, and what led her to her career as a journalist.

Maggie Jones is a contributing writer at The New York Times and a National Magazine Award finalist. She writes on a wide range of social issues, including immigration, race, poverty, crime, and gender, and has reported from Japan, Burma, Thailand, Guatemala, and South Korea. A recipient of fellowships from the Japan Society, the International Reporting Project, Harvard University, and most recently the Columbia Journalism School, Maggie has written articles and essays for The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Glamour, Elle, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Maggie will participate in the panel discussion, “Fact & Story: A Balancing Act.”  Creative Nonfiction’s Shannon Swearingen spoke with Maggie about new directions in narrative journalism, advice for emerging writers, the importance of meticulous research, and what led her to her career as a journalist. Read her work here.

CNF: You have written about many social issues, including immigration, race, and poverty. Do you consider yourself a writer or a social rights proponent who uses writing as her medium? Or is it even necessary to establish a difference?

JONES: I’m first and foremost a journalist—but one who deeply cares about social justice issues and wants the public to learn about people who often don’t have a voice in the mainstream media. But part of being a journalist is that I’m willing to have my ideas turned upside down based on what I see and learn during reporting.

CNF: What first drew you to journalism and led you to your career with The New York Times?

JONES: I was interested in long form, always, but I came to magazine journalism slowly. At first, I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker and started out as a researcher for a public TV documentary producer. Then I wrote for newspapers with the goal of learning to report so that I could move into magazines. First it was women’s magazines—when there used to be a far more robust women’s magazine market—and bit by bit I worked my way into small and then larger pieces for The New York Times Magazine.

CNF: How do you determine whether a piece you’re working on will be in the first or third person?

JONES: Unless it’s an essay, my pieces are rarely in the first person. I may dip in and out at times when it seems useful or relevant to do so: for example, in a few pieces I’ve done on adoption where I brought in my own experiences as an adoptive parent.

CNF: What do you find appealing about writing in the first person?

JONES: I’m a careful and reluctant first-person writer. I’m not inclined to open up my personal life for publication.  So when I do, I want it to be with purpose. But the reason I do like to do it at times is more about format—I like the variety of writing more essayistic prose. 

CNF: Do you gravitate toward first-person narratives as a reader?

JONES: Not necessarily. Foremost, I gravitate toward beautiful writing in any form.

CNF: What do you consider to be beautiful writing?

JONES: By beautiful writing in nonfiction, I mean writing that transports me somewhere—where characters, scenes, places are rendered with the detail and the best devices of fiction, while adhering to the rules of journalism.

CNF: What advice do you have for writers on how to get readers to care about their stories? How does one make the personal universal?

JONES: You get readers to care about stories with meticulous and intensive reporting and narrative writing that pulls readers in.

CNF: How important is it that your articles be universal?

JONES: If you mean “universal” in terms of readers “getting it” or understanding a character:  Obviously I want to make my stories accessible to everyone. I want to show characters that, if you delve deeply enough, you feel that they share qualities with the rest of us. But also characters and stories are individual, so not every person or story is “universal.”

CNF: How do you think the art of journalism has evolved throughout your career?

JONES: Journalism in general? Or narrative journalism? Lyrical, well-reported narrative journalism has been around far longer than I’ve been alive.

CNF: In what new directions do you see writers pushing the form?

JONES: I’m not convinced that writers are pushing the form so much as the form itself is expanding. It’s far more about how multi-media is used: for instance, Serial and its week-by-week method of telling a story that leaves you hanging and in which you get a window into the reporter’s process. Also, the way that the Atavist uses its platform to tell stories that don’t fit neatly into conventional magazine formats.

CNF: Are your articles informative, creative, or both? How do you craft them? (i.e., do you seek to tell the facts, present a story, or both?)

JONES: Wow, that’s a big question on craft. No two articles are alike. Some are more heavily narrative than others; some start with an anecdotal lead, some don’t. Some are chronologically told, while in other cases, it makes more sense to weave back and forth in time. As for the informative part, I almost always need to explain some public policy or legal issues, somewhere in the story. But my goal is that the “informative” parts not feel like medicine.

CNF: You appear to immerse yourself in the stories on which you are reporting: for example, you spent time in the girls’ dormitory of a charter boarding school for The New York Times article “The Inner-City Prep School Experience.” Do you consider this a crucial part of your research process? What other types of research do you do?

JONES: It’s absolutely crucial. I write long-form narrative stories with the luxury of long deadlines. I can’t—and luckily don’t have to—hop in and out of a place and gather a few facts and sit down to write. I need to get to know people, understand how they live, what they think about, what their hopes are. There is no replacement for time spent with sources.

CNF: Do you generally have a set process that you follow for each article you write, or does it just depend on the piece?

JONES: My process varies by subject and by timing. Typically I try to immerse myself deeply in a subject—reading books about the topic, talking to experts in advance—before immersing myself in the on-the-scene reporting. That’s just not always possible: For a recent [article], I had to travel quickly because of timing and had to make do with what I could absorb quickly and do much of the background reading and reporting later.

CNF: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about publishing your work?

JONES: Not sure I understand this question. If it’s about how to get my work published, it’s about not giving up. This is a really hard field to be in, and it requires a thick skin. You have to get in the door with editors by giving them really well-thought-out ideas and pitches and by working hard—reporting thoroughly, meeting deadlines, taking criticism well—so they will want to work with you again and again.

CNF: What was the biggest mistake you made as an emerging writer? What about as an established writer?

JONES: Probably the biggest mistake in the beginning was lack of confidence. For example, if I didn’t hear from an editor about a story pitch, I didn’t always pursue it further. As an established writer, I’m still making plenty of mistakes—including hearing an editor’s voice in my head when I’m reporting and panicking that the story isn’t going well when I’m in the field, when instead I just need to sit and listen and see what emerges. 

CNF: If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

JONES: I would focus on getting all the tools as early as possible: learn how to report (which I did by writing for newspapers), and focus on narrative writing. Along with writing as a daily reporter for newspapers, being a fact checker for a magazine is a great way to start. I can’t overstate how much appreciation I have for fact checkers—and copy editors—and the incredible ways they have helped me over the years.

CNF: How do you handle rejection?

JONES: Better than I used to. I’m not terribly thick-skinned, but getting a story idea rejected or having my editor suggest I need to reorganize 80% of my story comes with this work. 

CNF: Do you have any advice for new writers or journalists on how to move past rejection and gain confidence in their abilities?

JONES: If it’s any comfort—and it should be—every writer gets rejected. You just have to move on and not be paralyzed by it. When I started out, I tried to have several proposals out to editors at one time, so I wasn’t invested in only one story. Also, I’d tell new writers not to expect to land on the cover of The New York Times Magazine or get a story in The New Yorker the first time around. A few souls do that, I suppose. But most of us have to slug it out far more modestly for a long, long time.

CNF: What role does social media play in your career as a writer?

JONES: As long as it’s not a time suck, it’s a good tool. I have found story ideas through Facebook, sources through Facebook and Twitter, etc. But what an incredible way to waste time if you aren’t careful.

CNF: How have technology and the age of internet impacted your career?

JONES: It’s provided more outlets and more ways to publicize my work. But at the core, my work and the way I do it haven’t changed very much at all. I’m still an old-fashioned reporter, relying on tons of phones calls, spending time with people in person, and slogging away at writing as I’ve always done.

About the Author

Shannon Swearingen

Shannon Swearingen is a former editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction. While studying creative writing at the University of Evansville, she spent a semester abroad at Harlaxton College near London, England; after graduating, she spent five weeks traveling the United States in a Jeep Liberty.

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