Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Larry Atkins
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"I first started as a rock journalist since I was too chicken to make it as a musician," says Participatory Journalist Corey Levitan. "I hated it and had to reconsider my career. Ideally, I liked journalism sort of like my basic 101 courses in college as a freshman and sophomore where you learn about everything but it never becomes boring. In real life as a rock journalist I had to describe to my friends' kids why JC Chavez was cool. I wanted to shoot myself. I turned to Participatory Journalism to recreate that cool 101 experience. I'm like George Costanza playing George Plimpton."
As to why he is attracted to Participatory Journalism, Tom Clynes states, "For me, it's still mostly about freedom and satisfying curiosity. No matter how much I read, I can't hope to be truly 'well informed' if I'm seeing the world mainly through other people's filters (which are often colored by their organizations' agendas). I believe that it's intrinsically worthwhile to go and find out, for myself, what's happening out there."
And as a freelance writer, you can do it too.
Many magazines and newspapers publish Participatory Journalism articles. Writing these articles can be a fun and enlightening experience.
Here are some strategies to keep in mind:
Participate in an interesting activity
For most types of Participatory Journalism, do something unique that most of the publication's readers probably have not done. This can be a travel-related activity at a certain destination.
Many Participatory Journalism articles involve adventure travel. Tom Clynes is a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure and writes regularly for Popular Science, Men's Journal, Backpacker, and the Washington Post. A Vermont resident who travels extensively, Clynes has retraced Edmund Hillary's climbs in New Zealand and learned to fly in the Australian Outback.
You could write about snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, dogsledding in Alaska, bull riding at a Western ranch, or bungee jumping in New Zealand. Generally, the more exotic and unique the activity or destination, the better your chances are of selling your article.
Other types of travel-related Participatory Journalism focus on regional attractions. For instance, Karen Lee Ensley wrote an article for Pennsylvania Magazine in which she described her experience in getting to drive a Nascar racecar on a professional racetrack in Northeastern Pennsylvania at the Pocono Raceway, where members of the public can drive real stock cars as participants in the Stock Car Racing Experience. In her article, she described her experience, in which she reached 160 mph. She later wrote another article for the same magazine, in which she described her experience spelunking in a cave. Regional magazines like these types of articles, because it features a local attraction and entices readers to come and try the same experience.
In 2007, Nick Norlen of Philadelphia City Paper wrote about his experience in paying $200 to be able to participate in the qualifying rounds for the United States Table Tennis Olympic Team. Doron Taussig, also of Philadelphia City Paper, wrote a participatory article where he played a game of HORSE against Louis Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers, participated in a men's basketball scrimmage with the St. Joseph's University team, and practiced with the boys and girls' basketball teams of Simon Gratz High School.
Other types of Participatory Journalism involve the writer getting to do a certain job to give readers a sense of what it's like. It can be a unique profession, but it can also be something typical.
Corey Levitan writes his Fear and Loafing Column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, in which he tries a different occupation, hobby, or lifestyle every week and then writes about it. The jobs he has taken on include optometrist, temple cantor, bailiff, birthday clown, sushi chef, prison guard, roller derby girl, and Little League umpire.
"I do activities that the audience is familiar with, but I bring in new elements of education and comedy that they hadn't thought of," says Levitan. "Some of the activities are unique, like being a madam at a Las Vegas Chicken Ranch, but it's not that important that it be a unique job. The key is to find unique situations and angles in any job or lifestyle, even if it's a mundane or trivial task."
Regarding the importance of being unique, Tom Clynes states, "I don't think the place or activity needs to be unique or exotic, but the writer's approach to it does. The best example I can think of is David Foster Wallace's account of a luxury Caribbean cruise ('A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again'), which has to rank as one of the great contemporary American essays."
As a Journalism Professor at Temple University and Arcadia University, I always assign a Participatory Journalism article to my students. Generally, this tends to be the most popular assignment of the entire semester, since it's a break from the detached and objective Inverted Pyramid formula of having the who, what, when, and where at the beginning of the article. In the last five years, students have come up with many interesting activities to write about, including milking a cow, visiting a shaman in the woods, practicing with a professional dodgeball team, participating in Brazilian Jiu-Jitzu, going to a shooting range, running through an obstacle course at a mountain resort, and participating in Bikram Yoga.
Writing the Participatory Article
It is important to write down notes and your thoughts right after participating in the activity while it is fresh in your mind. Doing this will make your recollections about the activity more vivid and accurate. This is especially important if you engage in an activity that takes several days to accomplish, such as climbing a mountain.
Tom Clynes states, "I travel with 'Rite-in-the-Rain' notebooks, which are an amazing invention, and write down only what I think will be relevant, so I don't get overwhelmed when I sit down to write."
Write the article in a narrative, first person essay style. Use "I" and insert yourself into the article. Unlike most forms of Journalism, participatory articles are primarily about you.
"It's essential," says Tom Clynes. "The best stories are the ones that present facts via the techniques of fiction: you construct a central narrative, set scenes, present interesting characters, and tell the story in a compelling voice. But nonfiction has to live with the fact that real people and real events usually don't fit easily to these conventions. Reality is a sloppy mess, and you're going to sometimes tear your hair out trying to develop a structure that can accommodate unsatisfying turns to the story."
"I loved the New Journalism of the late '60s and early '70s," says Corey Levitan. "I always thought that objectivity was laughable. In this type of journalism you need to impose yourself on the story. The story exists in the writer's mind, put it's also painted by the reader. You need to make yourself a character in the story to get to the truth. There's no objectivity."
Levitan believes that it is best to go into the activity 'cold' without knowing much about it. "Everything is a new adventure. It's best to go into it knowing nothing. The advantage of the lack of knowledge is to put it to use as the reader would so they can emphasize with me, whether I'm being a Chippendale dancer or a welder. People have asked me if I wanted to rehearse or study, but I said 'no'. I wanted to go into it cold."
Describe your experience in detail. Describe the environment and the people around you. Include dialogue that you have with other people while you participate in the activity. Doing so makes the story come alive.
Use humor and self-deprecation. Express your fear and apprehension about participating in this new activity that you've never done before. These are good techniques to get the readers to relate to you. If you had a lump in your throat right before you were about to get on a rodeo bull, your readers should have that lump as well as they read your description.
Say what you learned from participating in the experience. Give insight as to what it takes to do this activity. Would you want to do it again? Is it something you would encourage the reader to do? Mention what the readers should be aware of or look out for if they're going to participate in this activity, i.e., wear a helmet if you go snowboarding.
Participatory Journalism isn't easy, but it can be very rewarding. Tom Clynes says, "I can't personally think of a more rewarding endeavor: Every story is like starting a new career from scratch, and there's tremendous freedom. But this is a long-term undertaking, and the initial frustrations are fairly extravagant. Those who are tenacious and willing to learn from mistakes -- and willing to make friends with uncertainty -- will eventually be successful, if they keep at it."
As for Levitan's final advice to budding participatory journalists, he jokes, "Wait until I die from doing something dangerous. I don't want competition."
There are many markets that publish Participatory/Adventure Journalism types of articles. Specific examples include: Men's Journal, Esquire, Outside, National Geographic, Climbing, and The New York Times. Other general markets include travel magazines, regional magazines, and alternative weeklies. As with any type of writing, make sure that the style, form, and voice of your article fits the particular publication.
This article originally appeared in The Writer
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Larry Atkins teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University.