Discovering a Love for Long-Form with Sparkle and TwAANg

Part of an ongoing series of posts by this year’s AAN Convention Scholarship recipients.

Sitting surrounded by leaders in the alternative media industry, editors, and fellow writers can be equal parts intimidating and exhilarating. Especially if Andy Van De Voorde, from Voice Media Group, and Jim Ridley, editor of Nashville Scene, are seated in the front of the room gearing up to speak about long-form journalism.

Long, narrative storytelling has been around for ages; yet lately, there has been a rise in the craft with sites dedicated to curating long stories and tagging them as “long reads” and all over social media the trending hashtag #longreads that attracts a following. Society has somehow taken long-form journalism and turned it into a sort of fetish, says Van De Voorde curling the ends of his mouth like the Cheshire cat.

In all this time, the fundamentals of storytelling haven’t changed, he adds while Ridley nods in agreement. The key, the two panelists say, to good storytelling is people. Characters, to be exact. A good writer is great at characterization.

Using a page from one of his own papers, Van De Voorde reads an excerpt from one of New Times Broward/Palm Beach reporter Kyle Swenson’s features: “The Holy Crusade for Cheap Beer.” Reading the words as if they are a precious piece of a larger poem (which one can argue they are), he says: “‘Nononononono,’ the lady corrects, waving her Budweiser bottle and cigarette in the air. She’s plowing into the middle of her 50s, with hair the color, consistency, and shape of a dried-out Christmas tree”

(Full disclosure: I work for VMG, more specifically, Miami New Times and New Times Broward/Palm Beach)

Van De Voorde lets those words linger in the air: “The color, consistency, and shape of a dried-out Christmas tree.”

Now that is some damn-good storytelling. It’s words and descriptions like the one above that not only entice readers to keep reading, but also transport them.

Of course, when writing a feature story for a weekly newspaper, it’s not all stories and characters, writers need to do some digging – also known as reporting. When Van De Voorde hires a new writer or editor for VMG, he not only hands him or her a detailed manual of what he expects, but he will also emphasize the importance of blending characterization with reporting.

Best takeaway from the panel: stories are best when they’re about people, and it’s the telling details that make both the stories and the people stand out. Look for the color of a person’s nail polish, or how he bites his lips if he’s nervous, or the way the corners of her eyes crinkle when she smiles. Details are what make a story a good story, and after all, journalists are storytellers, so why not always aspire to be a good storyteller?

Carolina del Busto is an editorial assistant and writer for Miami New Times and New Times Broward/Palm Beach. She was a 2014 AAN Convention Scholarship recipient.

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