The power of chronological structure

Amidst a gripping account of his gig as a $90,000-a-year staff writer at The New Yorker, freelance writer Dan Baum discusses the magazine’s views on narrative nonfiction structure, as codified by a longtime articles editor there, John Bennett. In talking with Baum early in his relationship with the magazine about finding and writing a story from the Iraq war, Bennett advised him to make it a “process” story:

“ ‘It’s a New Yorker standard,’ he went on. ‘You simply deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the New Yorkermaster. It makes for a simple structure.’ ”

And Baum says Bennett advised him to use a specific structure for such an account:

“ ‘This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,’ he said. ‘Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.’ Telling a story in strict chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New Yorker stories are so easy to read.

“Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer,” Baum continues, “following Samuel Johnson’s immortal advice: ‘Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ ”

Baum said he took Bennett’s advice and followed a young soldier from his home in rural Wisconsin to his return from the Army without his right leg. See “The Casualty” among Baum’s archived articles on his web site. His inside look at what it’s like to work on staff for The New Yorker—and to get fired for being too familiar with its editor—is here.

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4 Comments

Filed under editing, journalism, narrative, NOTED, structure

4 responses to “The power of chronological structure

  1. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Chronological Narrative and Great Page Presentation « Exile on Ninth Street

  2. Brian

    I am a strong believer in chronology. But Baum’s comments explain why most “New Yorker” stories are more of a slog than a pleasure, in my opinion. Seldom do I get the feeling that the writers have taken any joy in writing. (Perhaps they did, only to see the joy excised by an editor.) I also think the magazine’s mission changed after 9/11, and it became more of a world affairs magazine like “The Economist” or “The Atlantic.” It’s a shame, because it’s hard to imagine “The New Yorker” of today publishing some of the stories, like those of Joseph Mitchell, that made the magazine’s reputation.

  3. It seems to be an editor’s magazine rather than a writer’s. I love reading The New Yorker partly for fascination with its editing, but agree the stories have a sameness in syntax, tone, and structure. I suppose that’s a mark of good editing, from an editor’s perspective. What I notice most is how much the magazine over-commas, at least compared with contemporary practice. Its commas are technically correct, as far as I can tell, but even many writers who know the rules depart from them for rhythm, readability, and impact. The New Yorker’s comma usage gives its stories an elegance, a quaintness, a confidence, and a dignity; it is a corrective to the mass of under-punctuated prose a reading writer consumes. But it imparts a stylistic flatness that some will find boring and can seem incredibly pretentious—and it begs for parody.

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