That time I studied The New Yorker like an idiot
This week I want to share with you the result of an experiment. In one of my attempts to approach and understand the monocle guy,
I came across The Top Twenty-five New Yorker Stories of 2020.
“Why not read them all and share what you have learnt? Try to find out what makes these stories top of the line,” I thought.
It seemed a great idea, and I started reading, soon realising it was a lot of reading. Hence I decided to discard all the stories on Trump (considering them a separate genre) and all the stories regarding covid (I couldn't bear to read any more of that).
Eventually, I read 7 of the top twenty-five stories of 2020 for a total of ~29.000 words.
I’m such a slow reader, but it was worth it.
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The Magic Of An Idiotic Approach
‘Read what you like’ is excellent advice, but it will make you avoid many valuable stories if you think about it. Well, approaching a list with the intent of going through it no matter what solved this issue and pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Reading about Fran Lebowitz and her complaints, farewell portraits, the fall of Democracy, forty of the best movies on Netflix, the frightening shadow commander Qassem Suleimani, sexual harassment issues within Fox, and how to FaceTune your face one after the other in a short period of time causes a wild mixture of ideas.
Of all the things learned, of particular interest was recognising some elements that stellar writers and journalists all seem to share in their work in different proportions.
I’m going to tell you about three of them.
Lesson #1: The Journey
Read the three sentences highlighted in the picture.
They are, respectively:
a catching and simple headline;
a broader subtitle explaining the headline;
a statement that sets the mood of the story.
This structure takes the reader from 0-to-100 real quick.
Wise and deliberate use of the basic rules of copywriting is what you see in place here, and what I believe is the first common element among these writers: they all guide the reader's attention through a clear journey.
You’ll notice that the headline’s only scope seems to be to make you read the subtitle. The subtitle is a bit more informative, but again, its scope is to make you read the first line. The first line acts as a joke's punchline: you don’t expect it; it’s brilliant and makes you smile.
The writer takes us on a journey line by line. It reminds me of the powerful Bukowski’s statement,
“The secret is in the line.”
Whatever you want to call it, make sure you steal this technique.
Lesson #2: Backup
Sustaining stories with solid evidence makes all the difference, and these guys are just at another level (than me for sure) — they’re crazy!
Let’s talk numbers.
In ‘The Last Time Democracy Almost Died’, Jill Lepore elegantly quotes ~85 times from a wide range of people, all with hyper-relevant observations that add value to the story. In a 4700-word story, that's a lot of evidence: one quote for every 55 words on average.
Another example is the incredible and scary reportage ‘The Shadow Commander’ by Dexter Filkins. Its 10.000+ words condense ~160 quotes — more or less the same ratio as the story we just talked about. And they all come from interviews. It’s a ton of work. Imagine all the times that no one answered Dexter's calls - how much time and artifice it took to get all this information.
Quotes, sources, evidence, explanations, citations, whatever — you got the idea. Now that we have covered quantity let us consider quality.
Here’s how Jane Mayer handles one of the paragraphs of her ‘The Secret History of Kimberly Guilfoyle’s Departure from Fox’:
All the words highlighted in orange are cleverly inserted into her narrative like dialogue in a novel. They are other people's words, yet see how smooth, dense and brilliant it all is?
[I was pondering that it only takes 30 paragraphs like this one to have a The New Yorker-level article to pitch: it's this simple…]
Lesson #3: Opinions
The most exquisite ingredient of all the stories I read is opinion. These writers all have a certain standing and credibility, and I think it’s interesting to see how they leverage it (or not).
As I wrote in ‘How To Have An Opinion’, well-grounded opinions are among the rarest elements on Earth. They are certainly a key element to be appreciated in this magazine.
Here are three examples in no particular order.
“Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition.”
I can't stop re-reading this one.
“This adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, directed by Kimberly Peirce, is better than the one directed by Brian De Palma; so sue me.”
Ultimately, what makes the difference in Jia Tolentino's piece about filters on Instagram and aesthetic surgery is her capacity to boil down the topic with a single sentence:
“The general idea seems to be that humans are so busy pursuing complicated forms of self-actualization that we’d like much of our life to be assembled for us, as if from a kit.”
— from ‘The Age of Instagram Face’
A writer's opinions are golden gears that help these machines, stories, to speed up when necessary.
See you next Wednesday,