Journalist Maggie Jones took the time to talk to HMB about her writing process, what led her to Pittsburgh, and storytelling in journalism. She is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a visiting assistant professor in Pitt’s M.F.A program. She has written about social issues, immigration, families, adoption, and education, among other topics. She’s also judging our spring contest—check back in January for more details!
HMB: What is your writing process as a nonfiction writer – how do you research, develop, and write the articles that you publish?
MJ: It usually starts when I’m winding up one story and I’m panicked about the thought of not having the next story. It can be based on some clip I saw or something that I have in my head that seems interesting and I look for some way to be able to tell a story. It comes from all different sources. It comes from conversations with people.
I usually write a pitch, which I never love doing, but I actually think it helps solidify your thoughts about what you’re going to do. Often the article has little to do with the pitch that you wrote. And then I start reporting and, ideally, I like to do a lot of reading and searching before I go someplace, and then I just report like crazy. I just try and get as much information, and information from different viewpoints. In-between I may make some attempts at writing but basically I try to do at least 90% of my reporting before I begin writing. I write a first draft, which is utterly painful. I organize all my notes, I go through my notes, [and] I listen to all my transcripts as a way of getting the notes into my head. And then when I start to write, I have some basic structure—I’m not a person who has to have their first sentence before they can write the rest.
It varies by the story, but it’s very rare that an editor ever sees a first draft of mine. Usually I’m writing a few drafts on my own, and I’ll send it to her when I think it’s in really good shape, or I’m really stuck and need advice. And she’ll turn it back around to me, she’ll tell me what works, what doesn’t work. Inevitably there are very few exceptions where there hasn’t been a structural issue that needs fixing. And sometimes it’ll be, “We need more reporting here,” but it’s less that than where the weight of a story should go or how it should be structured differently or what kind of voice it needs. I think once it went back and forth between us once, and then other times it can be four or five times.
HMB: Going back to first sentences – when you do eventually settle on a first sentence, how important is it to you that it’s a “hook”? Do you depend more on the title than the first sentence?
MJ: I don’t title my pieces [myself]. I usually see them before they go to print, but the editors write them. Do you mean an immediate hook? No, I do write some sentences that are an immediate hook, but I also believe that sometimes it’s best to unfold a story and that it doesn’t have to be some wow, sexy first sentence that just stands on its own as the most amazing or evocative sentence. Sometimes stories unfold much better at a different kind of pace.
HMB: The story can hook itself, basically?
HMB: I’m curious about storytelling elements in nonfiction, especially how you utilize characters of real people? How do you present those people in the most accurate light that you can?
MJ: I’m a stickler for accuracy, which does not mean that I don’t believe that there’s bias but I do always strive to be fair, and I do strive to be accurate. And I love fact-checkers.
I’m not the first person to say it, but I do think the best elements of nonfiction narrative borrow heavily from fiction. It is hard to do some of the things fiction can with a character because you don’t always get that deep into the character. People are guarded, and I’m very rarely writing profiles, so it’s not necessarily all about one character. But, you know, I try and layer characters, I try and show them doing something – I try not to sit in an office unless it’s hugely work-centered. I try and follow them doing either normal things – I did a profile of an Olympic runner and medalist, Marion Jones, and she was pretty private and guarded, so I was on the playground with her and her kids, I was on long drives with her going to basketball practice and tryouts, and it’s about seeing characters in multiple elements. It’s not so much you’re trying to play any game of “gotcha” as much as seeing them for the full characters that they are instead of simply heroes or simply villains or simply good or bad.
HMB: How did you get your start in journalism?
MJ: It was very unconventional and very slow. I came out of college, I worked for a documentarian film maker. I wasn’t a great writer, at all, in college. But I liked writing and I knew that I wanted to be in media in some way. I wasn’t sure if it was documentary film, which I discovered entailed a lot of fundraising, which I wasn’t interested in, or television in some other way, but I worked for a PBS documentary film company doing research for a while and then I went to HBO. After that, I researched and wrote for two science newsletters, and my first real journalism job was a small local paper outside of NYC. It was great training because I covered the board of education, a little bit of covering the courts. You had to be able to do anything. I took my own photographs for the stories, I wrote tons of features and profiles, and when you’re on a small, scrappy newspaper, you become jack of all trades, and it’s just great training.
From there I went to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I covered a lot of things – education and politics in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The New York Times I started with some special issue and wrote a 700-word piece, and then another 1500 word piece, before I started full-length pieces.
HMB: So you worked your way up. Would you say for aspiring nonfiction writers that becoming a jack-of-all-trades would be your best advice?
MJ: I don’t mean to say that it’s about becoming jack-of-all-trades all over the media, but if you can edit, if you aren’t a primadonna, it really helps. If you’re the most talented writer out there, you can probably skip some of those steps, but I wasn’t, and I really needed to learn how to report. I think one of the things that’s really missing for some young nonfiction writers, they get training in writing, but they don’t get training in reporting all the time. And the training, whether it’s about ethics or how to do interviews, some of it’s instinctual, but some of it [isn’t] and it comes from years of doing it.
If you hang in long enough, you’re going to get somewhere because there are a lot of people who start out and a lot of people that give up, and for good reason – the money’s not great, the hours are terrible, some editors are nice and some editors are complete jerks. If you’re lucky you’ll get rejection emails, otherwise you’ll get no emails, but it is part of it. And I do say to people, you have to really want it. Because your ego takes a battering, because you’re not going to make a lot of money. But when it works, it’s really fulfilling.
Part of the reason that I love doing what I’m doing is because I want to report about people who aren’t like me. I want to be learning along the way. So I don’t ever feel like I’ve arrived. I’m always wondering, “How can I improve my reporting habits? How can I get access to people who I think aren’t going to be accessible? And how can I write more narratively?” That’s part of the joy of it. If I feel I’m somehow always hitting [stories] out of the park – oh, it doesn’t matter. I’m just not constitutionally able to feel like I’m hitting something out of the park!
HMB: How have you enjoyed your time at Pitt so far?
MJ: I love it. I’ve loved teaching the grad students; I love teaching undergrad students. You know, as a writer I was really hesitant because I thought, “How am I going to get my writing done?” I have a deadline long overdue for The New York Times Magazine but I love getting to know the students and their writing, and trying to help a student make their own work better. One of the best things about workshop, if it works well, is that students learn to edit, and part of being a teacher is I learn to edit too.
If you can be an editor of your own writing, that’s a huge part of the battle. Of not always falling in love with your writing, but really being able to see its flaws, and diagnose what the problem is. In that way, even though I’m not getting enough of my own writing done, I do tell myself it’s good for my writing.
HMB: What are you working on right now?
MJ: My long, long overdue story for The New York Times is about forensic anthropologists in Guatemala who uncovered bones from the civil war thirty years ago in Guatemala and brings those bones – those bodies – back to the indigenous people who really have very little voice. It’s about bringing their loved ones home after all this time and also about using the evidence from bones to push force prosecutions of former military members.
And then I’m working on a story that I can’t really talk about yet, I’m just in the reporting phase, and it’s in the will this work or won’t this work? phase. So far, that’s it. It’s interesting because [even though I’m not] full force in the writing world right now, I still find I have all these ideas that I’m bookmarking and thinking I’m going to get to, but not right now.