Skip to content

Writing Journalistic Essay

Flowery, Roundabout Puffery

Your high school teachers probably rewarded you for writing grammatically correct sentences in almost any context.

You might have been faced with the dilemma of how to respond appropriately to the significant praise your well-meaning teachers gave you for completing assignments that demonstrated a flair for words, and that being the case, possibly decided to respond by immediately developing the questionable habit of adding numerous unnecessary modifiers wherever humanly possible, never even once missing the alluring chance to boldly puff up your simple writing with all manner of clever, expressive adjectives and elegantly willing adverbs, endlessly repeating your ideas over and over, each subsequent time using ever more and more elaborate language, doubling up and even tripling up with lists and paraphrases and elaborations, to inflate and draw out your sentences, your paragraphs and your essays, determinedly and painfully stretching your one idea to reach the required word count, and in the process of filling as much valuable space on the open, willing page as you possibly can, tried showing off.

The above passage uses vocabulary words accurately and avoids making grammatical mistakes; however, it is not a good example of good news writing. What’s the first thing a journalist would do to this paragraph? Let’s see.

You might have,tried showing off.

The bulk of the paragraph said absolutely nothing. Using a fraction of those words, news-style writing writing can pack in a lot of information without needlessly overwhelming the reader.


Clear prose empowers readers; ambiguity suffocates.

Since Fred Smith was elected mayor six months ago, the city saw the local unemployment rate drop to 4%. (Ambiguous; possibly a cause-effect relationship.)

Does “since” mean “because” (in which case Mayor Smith is praiseworthy) or “after” (in which case he’s just lucky)?

Unemployment dropped to 4%, six months after Fred Smith was elected on a platform promising economic reforms. (Clear; the reporter makes no causal claims.)

The revision begins begins with the subject and an active verb, a sure-fire way of emphasizing the main idea. The news is that “Unemployment dropped,” and the revision makes no claims that Smith was either praiseworthy or lucky. All we know so far is that unemployment dropped, and that the mayor is in a position to benefit.

Let’s consider another example:

The reason the tax reform project failed to secure necessary support is the mayor’s underestimating the negative impact of unexpected turnpike construction delays on public attitudes.

This dreary passage avoids grammatical mistakes, but the abstract subject “reason” and the colorless verb “is” smother the action.

The tax reformst failed  because the mayor underestimated the negative impact of unexpected turnpike construction delays on public attitudes.

Now the sentence opens clearly with the clear, concrete subject “tax reforms” and the active verb “failed.” We’ve already trimmed some deadwood; now let’s work on parallel structure, moving things around to emphasize the two things the mayor underestimated:

The tax reforms failed because the mayor underestimated the negative impact of unexpected turnpike construction delays on public attitudes and the unexpected turnpike construction delays.

Now, we’ll further tweak the sentence, highlighting the relationship between the two reasons.

The tax reforms failed because the mayor underestimated the duration of the turnpike repairs and the anger of inconvenienced commuters.

We still have a little problem. Let’s consider the word “failure.” Is that a word the mayor or his supporters use when they talk about their own tax reform plans? Probably not.

To be fair you have to write as if you are above the fray. Carefully attribute any opinions, predictions, or emotional statements to a named source.

Challenger Jane Jones pinned the tax reform failure on Mayor Fred Smith, saying he underestimated both the duration of the turnpike repairs and the frustration of Steelsburg commuters.

Even if you agree with Jones, in your role as an ethical journalist, you aren’t through with your reporting job until you have given Smith the chance to defend himself.

But don’t stop at challenger vs. defender. Interviewing neutral experts and citizens caught in the crossfire will help you develop the full picture of a controversy, thereby helping you to inform the public.

Literary journalistic essays are a popular form of creative nonfiction. Their purpose is to inform and enlighten. Publications such as The New Yorker , The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s publish this type of writing. It is writing about facts that are external to the writer’s own life. The writer uses literary devices, such as dialogue, setting, characterization, and plot structure to tell a true story about a person, place, event, experience, or to write about a big idea, like counterterrorism.  The writer can choose any topic, so long as it can be researched. Most universities offer courses on how to write a literary journalistic essay, and many creative nonfiction textbooks include the topic of writing literary journalistic essays. Most published writers of creative nonfiction are experts on writing this type of  genre. Therefore, if you are going to write creative nonfiction, you ought to know what is a literary journalistic essay and how to write it.

This article defines the term “literary journalistic essay” and briefly explains how to write one. It also provides some tips on writing a literary journalistic essay,  and it identifies several good books to help you learn more.

Definition of a Literary Journalistic Essay

What is a literary journalistic essay? It is the “literature of fact.” The writer can compose an essay on any topic, such as drug addiction, rape, unemployment, spirituality, or crime. Whatever the topic, the writer needs factual and true information to write about a person, place, event, or idea. These facts must be verifiable. In fact, every important fact must be verifiable.

Most often, the literary journalistic essay requires that the writer complete some research, often extensive research, in order to uncover the facts. Unlike the personal essay or memoir, which is based on the writer’s own life, a literary journalistic essay is based on another person’s life, or events, or experiences external to the writer’s own life.

Unlike the personal essay or memoir, which is written from the first-person “I” point of view, the literary journalistic essay is written from the third person “he/she” point of view.

The writer’s goal is to dramatize the story or events by using dramatic scenes. A scene includes a location/setting, passage of time, details and descriptions, action of by the people in the story.

The writer also uses other literary devices to craft an interesting story. Popular literary techniques include simile, metaphor, and imagery.

The intention of the writer is to inform the readers and to also enlighten them with new information.

But the writer must do more than enlighten; the writer must also entertain by recreating the scene. The writing accomplishes this by using the elements of fiction, such as the use of characterization, dialogue, narrative structure, and so on.

The New Yorker magazine and the Best American Essays, a book that is published each year, includes many good literary journalistic essays.

How to Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

Unlike the formal essay taught in univesity history courses or english courses, there is no single way to write a liteary journalisitic essay. However, the writer does need to follow certain guidelines. For instance, the subject must be well-researched. The essay must include a lead that grabs the readers attention and tells the reader what the essay is about. The content of the essay must include interesting and informative facts, information that enlightens the reader about the topic. The content of the essay must also support the writer’s point of vew. And in writing the essay, the writer must use the literary devices. To close, the writer makes a final point. He/she  leaves the reader with one final point about the subject.

Breifly, to write the literary journalistic essay, do the following:

  1. Select a topic.
  2. Conduct Research.
  3. Write a dramatic story.
  4. Include a lead, facts/content, and ending.

Choosing a Topic

You can write about anything. Popular topics include:

  • Adventure
  • Biography
  • Business
  • Crime story
  • Family saga
  • History
  • Popular culture
  • Science and technology
  • Sports
  • Travel

Choose a topic that allows you to write intimately and to dramatize the story.

Before writing, ask yourself the following:

  • What type of lead do I wish to use?
  • What is the story about?
  • What are the themes?
  • What major points do I wish to make?
  • What facts do I have? What facts do I still need?
  • Are my facts verifiable?
  • Who have I interviewed? Who must Istill  interview?
  • How do I want to organize the essay? By topic? Chronological order? Logical order?
  • What are my own views on the topic? How do I wish to incorporate my views into the essay?

Research Your Topic

A literary journalist is based on fact. Therefore you will need to collect the facts for your story. The best approach is to use personal reportage. Here is how:

  1. Observe the person, event, or experience. Afterwards, make notes.
  2. Interview subject matter experts. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
  3. Immerse yourself in the story. In other words, live the experience. For instance, writer George Plimpton lived as a football player for a while to write Paper Lion.
  4. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings, and take notes as you read.
  5. Conduct a search of your topic using Google. Start by conducting a search on the Web to see what has been written on the subject.
  6. Complete primary research. A primary source is a record created as part of, or during an event, crisis, or time period. For instance a letter, diary, personal journal, and government records and governmental report.

Observe Your Subject

A good way to learn about the person or topic is often by observation. Find out the following:

  1. What is your subject wearing?
  2. What is your subject saying?
  3. How is your subject behaving?

You can also immerse yourself in the story by becoming a participant.

Conducting an Interview

An interesting quotation from a subject matter expert or witness to the events can turn a dull story into one that captures the interest of the reader. If you are going to write good creative nonfiction, you must know how to interview. Here are a few tips:

  1. Make a list of questions to ask.
  2. Take a pen and paper, or tape record.
  3. Interview the subject matter experts.
  4. Ask the person you are interviewing to stop talking while you are attempting to take notes.
  5. After the interview, type out your notes.
  6. Save the toughest questions for last.
  7. Don’t quote a subject matter expert out of context.
  8. Don’t fabricate quotations.

Use Dramatic Scenes

To write the essay, incorporate the technique of “scene building” into the essay. To do this, show the reader, don’t tell them, what happened. Scene building isn’t a narrative summary, which includes generalizes time, collapses events, provides a brief descriptions and mentions people. Scene building isn’t an exposition, which explains and analyzes. Scene building isn’t a voice over, which interprets the experience. What, then, is scene building?

The writer recreates the event or experience in the mind of the reader. Scene building creates a dream in the mind of the reader. It is like a scene from a film. A scene takes place in a specific place at a particular time. It includes action and dialogue. It includes concrete and specific details, not abstract language and generalizations. It also includes details that appeal to the senses, such as the sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. It creates a sense of movement.

To summarize,  a scene includes the following elements:

  • Time. A scene takes place at a particular time.
  • Place. A scene takes place in a particular place. It provides context and creates a mood.
  • Details. A scene always includes important details. These details are concrete and specific, not general or abstract. A scene also includes scensory details, which appeal to the readers sensese, the sense of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch.
  • Action. A scene includes action, such as a confrontation, crisis, or the action and reaction of people.
  • Dialogue.  Not always, but often a scene include important comments and conversations.
  • Details and Descriptions. Use sensory images. The details reveal the underlying story or the universal truth.

This doesn’t mean that the writer excludes expositions or a summary from a literary journalistic essay. These elements have a function. It is just that the writer keeps each of these elements separate.

Include a Lead, Content, and Ending

Whether you write about a person, place, event, idea, your story needs a lead that tells the readers the purpose of your essay and why they should read the essay. The lead also needs to persuade the reader to read the essay. So, you must write a hook. It can be a quotation, interesting fact, important point, question, anecdote.

In the body of your essay, you can write about the important facts. In addition, you can include personal opinion, thoughts, and feelings. You can also use literary devices, such as imagery, metaphor, and simile. The key point is to remember to inform and enlighten your readers.

In a short essay, you can organize your points in chronological or logical order. In a longer essay, you can organize your ideas by topic. In this case, you can use headings and subheadings.

In closing, you need to leave the reader with an important point. Otherwise, the reader will think: “So what? What was the point of writing the essay”

Your goal is not to preach or sermonize. Your goals are to entertain, inform and enlighten your reader.

For more information on how to write a lead and ending, read my earlier post. You can also learn how by reading William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well.

Tips on How to Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

There is no single method of writing a literary journalistic essay. That being said, a literary journalistic essay requires a lead, content that is based on factual information, and an ending. Here are a few tips on how to write the literary journalistic essay:

  1. Learn about your subject through personal reportage. Interview others, conduct research in the library and on the Web. Immerse yourself in the story.
  2. Outline your story before writing it. What is your lead? What important points do you wish to make? What facts do you have? How do you intend to end your essay?
  3. Include a lead and ending. The lead tells the reader what your essay  is about; The ending leaves your reader with a final message. What final point do you want to make?
  4. Use your distinctive voice. You reveal your voice by your choice of diction, choice of sentence patterns, choice literary devices, such as alliteration, imagery, metaphor, simile, and so forth.
  5. Write a true story about a person, place, event,or  idea. Make sure that the story is interesting and informative. If it isn’t, write about something else.
  6. Write dramatic scenes—action, dialogue, details, setting.
  7. Consider narrowing your topic to a brief period of time.
  8. Use literary devices. Popular devices include metaphor, simile, alliteration, and imagery.
  9. Tell your story using the third-person point of view. (he/she)
  10. Make use your writing reveals a universal truth or message. Otherwise your reader’s will say: “So what? What was the point?”
  11. Be sure your writing informs and enlightens. Before writing, use Google to check what has been written on the topic.
  12. Conduct extensive research on your topic. Often you will use only a partial amount of the information that you collect. Your goal is to become a subject matter expert, so that you can write as an expert.

Resources to Help You Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

There are some excellent books available to help you in the art and craft of writing a literary journalistic essay. Here are a few of the good books you should read:

  • Writing Creative Nonfiction by Philip Gerald. It provides good advice.
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind. This is a must read.
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore. This book provides good how-to advice and an anthology.
  • The Fourth Genre: The Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction by Robert Root and Michael J. Steinberg.
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This book tells you how to develop your style and how to compose any writing. Buy it and internalize the advice on writing.
  • Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paula
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser. If you want to write creative nonfiction, you should buy and master the advice in this classic text.
  • The Best American Essays Series. It is published each year.

If you have any questions, please post them to this blog or send me an email at .

Next, I will explain how to gather facts, so that you can write a literary journalistic essay.

Like this:



Tags:content, Creative Nonfiction, ending, Lead, Literary Journalistic Essay, New Journalism, Resources, Resources on Writing Literary Journalistic Essays, Scene buiding, tips

By Dave Hoodin Creative nonfiction Writing, Creative Writing, Literary Journalistic Essay on .