No-Brand Nudo

More Than a Big Book Club and an Intro to Literary Journalism

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Learning Journalism Where Writers Rise: Four Enlightening Years in Graduate School at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a book I released in March of 2022.

I’d reached a point in my master’s program where I finally had a bit of a break, in the sense that I could now take a three-credit elective course. Elective classes, at least to me, have an off-the-beaten-path sort of feel. Their descriptions sounded less intense, even fun, though perhaps that’s overstating things. In the end, I chose to enroll in Great Books of Journalism, the night class Professor Walt Harrington had encouraged students to sign up for via email. The course sounded appealing to an avid reader like me, and Harrington’s passion toward the class was also a deciding factor. The class sounded like what people do in a book club, with required writing tasks interspersed throughout.

But Great Books of Journalism was more than just a large book club, as I came to find out. As we read the assigned books, we were often asked by Harrington to contemplate how the writers were coming up with their material, and in a way in which we as readers trusted what they were producing. Here are some gems from my handwritten class notes:

  • Journalists make choices at the start on how to report. Can create limitations.
  • Authors bring personality to story. This kind of work honors that people bring a special story. This is the heart of literary journalism.
  • Being there is an opportunity that’s foolish to squander.
  • Go where the material takes you in nonfiction writing.
  • Learn how to write so that it feels like you’re there, even if you’re not there (Boo, Finkel).
  • Tone of story should follow tone of subjects.
  • All facts in journalism should be defensible.
  • Recognize your biases; be thoughtful about them. Possible to get better at working around biases.
  • As a journalist, pick point of view that has the most validity. Must be humble when reporting and reaching a conclusion. Journalists have a responsibility to decide and then connect their point of view.
  • Complexity of human choice makes for great stories, an unfamiliar ride for readers.
  • Conceptual ideas can be woven in (artful aspect). Don’t have to hit people over the head.
  • “Pulling a thread” gives work unity, makes it organic.
  • Collection of facts is great, but what is the larger picture?
  • Good journalists interweave commentary into description in expert fashion.
  • Power of details and role they play in creating authenticity.
  • Look at technical side of things. Intricacies of things can be very interesting. Ride on passion, knowledge of subject.
  • Journalists can do more than just “let the camera role.” (Background, descriptions, inside experiences, etc.)
  • History is constantly being rethought. Historians present new info. Takes on things change over the decades. Journalists use tools that historians don’t. Interview everyone.
  • Good interviewers can make conversations seem natural, fluent.
  • To evoke experience or a place, do something no one else is.
  • Not doing deep enough reporting if you don’t wrestle with decisions.

Beyond the books, Professor Harrington had numerous learning objectives in his class that ranged from the importance of thinking critically and independently to relating to students “the principles and laws of freedom of speech and press,” as written in the course syllabus. He wanted us to know that journalism could go well beyond ho-hum articles with no heart. “The writers of these books are not simply conduits for passing along accurate information,” Harrington wrote in the syllabus. “They are thinkers, observers and storytellers. They take responsibility for making sense of information, sometimes in ways that are deeply personal and idiosyncratic. And they do so by aiming to tell their stories in ways that make them fascinating to readers.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: