"The Premise Imperative: Venturing Beyond Objectivity"


By David Abrahamson

Northwestern University


Presented at the

South East Colloquium

University of South Florida, Tampa, FL

March 5, 2004


The title of my presentation is "The Premise Imperative: Venturing Beyond Objectivity." It refers, in large part, to a specific conceptual -- and therefore pedagogical -- challenge involved in helping journalism students master the essentials of feature writing/magazine writing/narrative writing/long form writing.

I consciously term it a conceptual challenge. I have long suspected that there is a large initial struggle which we have to help our students overcome in the beginning of the process. By that I mean that we rarely ever think feature writing or magazine writing or narrative writing or long-form writing without some reference to newspaper writing. The reason for this is simple: Craft is the foundation of art, and quite indisputably newspaper writing represents the foundations of the journalistic craft. Quite correctly, students have to first master the fundamentals before moving on.

But this in turn raises all kinds of issues and problems for them. The conceptual phase of the doing of a piece of newspaper writing is very unique. One way to describe it is that the premise of newspaper writing is that there is no premise. "I will be given a beat. I will learn a little background about that beat. I will know the contacts. Then I will go out and gather up the facts. I will then look at the facts, arranging them in the order of importance, putting the most important first and the least important last. Once the facts are rank-ordered in terms of their value, the result is a perfectly acceptable piece of newspaper writing." That's what we teach them and that's what indeed they need to know.

Going beyond this to long-form writing requires a different structure, a whole new cast of mind, largely driven by the fact that magazine writing -- whether the students wants it or not -- ultimately will be judged on whether or not it has a point of view. What is the point of the piece? The moral to the story? Is there an engine that drives the story somehow, beyond just simply the facts?

Taking students from newspaper writing to long-form writing has always proven to be difficult for most people charged with the instruction. The question is: why is it so hard to teach? I suspect that there are a couple of reasons. The first is that almost all J-schools have very strong newspaper cultures. That's the foundation of most curricula. We shouldn't be surprised. But there are other reasons as well. One is student resistance. We are taking them into terrain they've not traversed before. I often joke in the beginning of my long-form classes that "my job for the first two or three weeks will be deprogramming you," along with reassurances that it won't be that unpleasant of an experience. Some students suspect when first introduced to this that it's wrong, that it's somehow biased, that you're preordaining the conclusion, that you're blind to the conclusions that your reporting will lead you to. More reassurance is necessary at this point.

A large part of the problem arises from the fact that they're terribly uncomfortable with the notion of authorial authority. You can have a point of view. You don't need to find some disembodied man-on-the-street to put into words what you think needs to be said. Piping quotes, I believe that it is called. But in long-form writing you don't need to play those games. In fact, the rule I recommend with quotes is this: Unless it's said by someone very important or it's said very, very well -- and by that I mean it's a very interesting or self-contradictory or poetic or ironic or emblematic, etc. -- don't put it in quotation marks. You, the narrator, can make assertions on the basis of your own authorial authority.

One advantage of this, by the way, is that the resulting writing is far more economical in its use of characters. Underlying this is the notion that every time you introduce a character's name in a piece of long-form writing, the reader assumes that it is important to remember that name -- because (and this is the test) the implication is that the character will reappear in the narrative at least one more time. If you're never going to bring them back again, please don't include it in the first place.

Given how different long-form writing is from that which most of our students are used to, questions regarding pedagogy take on great importance. I rely heavily on what might be called a Proposal Methodology. I have students write formal story proposals, as if they're pitching stories to me as an editor. The heart of the matter, and where I insist the most effort be expended, falls in the second paragraph of the proposal. It is here that the document addresses what, in effect, the story is really about.

Very often, the same pitfall appears. It relates to the difference between a subject or a topic and a fully-realized story idea. Early in the process many students use phrases such as "I want to explore A," "I want to take a look at B," "I want to examine the pros and cons of C." Clearly, they are most comfortable staying at what might be called the "topic" or "subject" level, rather than having, in advance, a theme or a point of view or a premise or an argument. I admit that it is occasionally a bit of a battle to get them beyond that. One approach that I've found that helps somewhat is the following. I insist, again in the second paragraph of the proposal, that they quite literally complete the following statement: "In this piece, I will assert that [fill in the blank]." Obviously, in the course of doing the reporting the assertion or premise can change.

Another major point I try to make involves content, by which I really mean preparation. To pitch a newspaper story, all you'll need is a topic or a subject. But to propose a magazine story, my estimate is that in most cases you probably have to do at least ten percent of the research in advance -- before you can even write the proposal. What a radical idea for a journalist, no? You must really know something.

And always, always, the emphasis of the instruction is reinforcement for the idea of the imperative of having a theme. What is the moral of the story? Some call it the central argument. Others call it the thesis. Too often the biggest challenge is not taking them from the large idea to the small idea, but rather taking them from the details and specifics of a piece to the notion that they might somehow attempt to explore the universality of the topic. What's the larger point you might be able to make with this piece?

The two techniques that sometimes have proven useful in attempting to explain all this to hard-core newspaper trainees. "Imagine you're writing a newspaper editorial," I suggest. Because in editorials you're allowed to have a point of view, it is a frame which the students understand. Conceptually, it is grasp-able. The second one is I use a critique. We are fortunate that Northwestern has a technology-rich culture, making listservs available to every instructor who wants them. With all class work posted, every student sees every other student's work in every class -- and students have formal assignments to critique each others' work. (An aside: I've found that students often are much better at applying critical judgment to the work of someone else than they are at applying it to their own writing.) I suppose that this approach is rooted in my belief that one of two ways that one gets better as a writer involves the development of critical abilities, critical skills, a critical imagination, if you will. (The other way, of course, is that one needs to practice writing.) Using this method, students not only can find conceptual insights that can be of benefit to the writer, but they also develop their critical faculties at the same time.

Which leads us to: What is the purpose of this? What are the benefits of moving into the longer forms of nonfiction prose? The rewards of this moving beyond objectivity? First of all, I would argue that it produces better pieces, deeper pieces, pieces that communicate not just facts, but also meaning. If that is true, then it is also true that for most of the students, it becomes a much more satisfying experience. And thirdly, they get to write about topics that are closer to their own concerns and cares, which is supported by the notion that I try to communicate as often as possible: it's okay to care about what you're writing -- which is probably the best entrée into my conclusion.

All of this, I would argue, can be seen as helpful in the quite necessary undermining of two quite dysfunctional myths about writing. The first myth is the myth of Unique Creativity. I am reminded of a time not long ago when Alex Kotlowitz, the wonderful gifted author of There are no Children Here, was asked by a group of high school students: How can one become a writer? And he said, "Oh, that's simple. From a very early age, I was a reader, not a writer. I didn't write. I read. I read everything. Labels on cereal boxes. Every book I could lay my hands on." The point is that it is not only certain uniquely gifted people who actually end up being writers. In my experience, students who show very little promise in the beginning often can develop very quickly into extraordinary writers.

The second myth -- and perhaps this will sound like heresy to some -- speaks to the title of my presentation. The myth is Objectivity itself. To truly connect with the reader, all great writing, I would argue, must have a point of view, must leave the reader changed, must make an assertion that somehow adds to the sum of wisdom in the world. And that comes, I believe, from going beyond what is typically found in most journalism. And the result is great writing -- whether it appears in a newspaper or a magazine or a web site or even on a clay tablet.

Thank you very much.


Copyright 2004 David Abrahamson. All rights reserved.