On Tuesday, Paige Williams, an award-winning magazine writer for The New Yorker and many other publications, will come to class and talk about reporting and writing long-form journalism. She’s been a Nieman fellow at Harvard and a writer-in-residence elsewhere, and we’re fortunate to have her here at the J-School where she’s an associate professor on our magazine faculty.
I’ve been reading her work over the years and just last week finished the piece she did for the New Yorker called “Double Jeopardy,” about how in Alabama a judge can override a jury’s decision to send a person convicted of murder to prison for life and, instead, sentence the person to death.
Can I just say… blew my mind?!?
Yeah, I just did. Please read Double Jeopardy for class on Tuesday (yes, I am hyperlinking it twice because I don’t want you to skip over this). It will take you about an hour, I’m guessing.
And then, because you will need something less life-and-death (although also pretty outrageous), read an earlier piece she did about the fossil trade.
I loved both of these, and I am an admirer of Paige’s attention to detail in writing scenes. She knows what they can reveal about characters. Like this one about the couple at the center of “Bones of Contention”:
A while later, after a walk in a nearby nature preserve, we were back at the champagne-barrel table. Eric asked a surprising question: “One thing I was wondering is if any of these paleontologists you’ve talked to have given their argument of why paleontology is important.” Fossils are “just basically rocks,” he said. “It’s not like antiquities, where it’s somebody’s heritage and culture and all that.”
Amanda changed the subject to a television program she had liked, on the Discovery Channel, about whether mermaids exist. But Eric persisted. “Where do you draw the line?” he said. “I don’t think it can ever be black and white. You can’t legislate every single species or fossil.” He had been twisting a scrap of paper and shoving it through the slats of the table. Amanda took it away from him.
Now, I see them and their relationship even more clearly. Character interaction and dialogue deepen the reader’s understanding of the nuances in stories, the subtle things that we miss way too often.
So curl up in a warm spot on your sofa and read…because if you want to write well, you should constantly be looking for and spending time with great writing.