Archive for August, 2012

William Shawn, New Yorker editor in The Writer’s Almanac

August 31, 2012

I urge you to subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac by email. This column originates with Garrison Keillor of Minnesota Public Radio, and always opens with a poem. Keillor reads excerpts of the column on NPR stations, including KUHF-FM. But easiest is to get the email subscription. Here’s a little taste. I love the quotation. I share his beliefs.

It’s the birthday of William Shawn (books by this author), born William Chon in Chicago (1907), who worked at The New Yorker for 54 years and was the editor for 35 of them. Using a sharp No. 2 pencil, he personally edited Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and he published them as long articles in the magazine before they came out as books.

He was small, with big ears, and he spoke in a high, mild voice, always considerate. When he sat at his desk his feet barely touched the ground. He was extremely shy and he never discussed his personal life. He didn’t give interviews or pose in photographs, and even his co-workers knew almost nothing about him outside of the office. They always called him “Mr. Shawn.” But his writers loved him, and he published many of the preeminent writers of the day, including E.B. White, John McPhee, Elizabeth Bishop, John Updike, Jamaica Kincaid, and J.D. Salinger.

He said: “Amid chaos of images, we value coherence. We believe in the printed word. And we believe in clarity. And we believe in immaculate syntax. And in the beauty of the English language.”


Course Syllabus, JOUR 571: Literature of Journalism

August 30, 2012


JOUR 571-01                                                                                     Thursdays

Fall 2012                                                                                            5:30-7:45

Prof. Michael Berryhill                                                                      Room  204

Work 713-313-7528



Course Description

When I took a course like this in graduate school, it was called “Literary Aspects of Journalism.” I only recently discovered in Norman Sims’s anthology of criticsm, Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, that the title stemmed from an essay written in 1904 by a critic for Atlantic magazine, who was interested in the new trends in journalism. H.W. Boynton observed that there was newspaper work in which a writer ceases “to be a machine or a mouthpiece, and becomes a “creative writer,” with the result being a higher journalism or a literary journalism.” That’s what we’re looking at here.

The groundwork for literary journalism as it is practiced today was laid in 19th-century periodicals by such writers as Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis. But there were other earlier precedents in such English writers as Daniel Defoe, who in fictional works such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, strove for a kind of realism and factuality that we tend to identify with nonfiction rather than fiction.

Journalists have often moved back and forth from fiction to nonfiction. Some of America’s great writers, such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway wrote for newspapers and then moved into fiction. Their skill in handling the elements of journalism — background, description, observation, dialogue, narrative and scene – served them well when they moved into fiction.

We say that the difference between fiction and factual writing is that fiction writers get to make things up. But much of what writers do in novels is based on reporting:  on seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, experiencing. Novelists may make up as much as they want, but audiences typically expect some sense of verisimilitude, what we might call realism. Realism comes from writers who notice things, who talk and listen to people, who travel, who are alert, who dig into archives and documents, who take notes and record impressions. Many –indeed most — novelists, are reporters. They are astute observers of human behavior. The very word novel suggests a news element to the fiction.

The object of the course will be to take your reporting and writing to new levels. The two go hand and hand.



Course reading


We’re going to read one book this semester, John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It’s in the bookstore or you can order through Amazon or Alibris or at the library. Order it right away.


The rest of the course reading I’ll make available in pdf files that I will e-mail to you. There will be examples of great literary journalism. I will also post pieces about the techniques of writing that I have found to be helpful. We’ll have something to talk about every week.


Course requirements


Writing Requirements

You can choose between writing a long piece of literary journalism yourself, or doing  four reports of a thousand words each on a work of literary journalism, or a literary journalist.

There is also a choice to collaborate on an article with me about the late George “Bud” Johnson,  who wrote an amazing series of crime columns for the  Informer, mostly in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. This is going to require some work with microfilm. I would expect you to keep up with the reading and that you do some research on the various literary journalists we’ll be reading.

We’re going to thrash this out on the first meeting.

The long piece: five sixths of grade.

You’ll be working on a long piece of literary journalism, about 3000 words long, under my editorial supervision, and you’ll write it a step at a time, not all at once. There will be deadlines, consultations and revisions and consultations about the piece. I’ll grade each section as we go along, and then assign a final grade to the finished piece that will be two-thirds of your grade. So you can see how important it is to keep up with your writing.

We’re going to work on the subject matter of your pieces right away, so start thinking. The subject should be something you’re intimate with and something that requires you to do reporting. We’ll talk about how to find your subject in some depth. You need to think about what you want to write about immediately, because the foundation of literary journalism is reporting, reporting, reporting. There’s not such creature as a great literary journalist who can’t report.

Class participation: one sixth.

What’s Expected


1) Come to class every meeting.. And yes, not attending will hurt your grade.


2) Be punctual. You’ve got to build this into your professional life anyway, as well as into your personal sense of integrity. Allow yourself a margin of error to get through traffic and rain.

3) Turn your assignments in on time. Again, this has to do with building your sense of professionalism and personal integrity. It’s important to stay on schedule. Learning this discipline will make you feel good. And not turning assignments in on time will affect your grade.

4) Do the assigned reading. One of the great things about this class is now compelling the reading is.

You ought to be reading more than what I assign. You should be reading newspapers and magazines and on-line, looking for writing that demonstrates the techniques we are talking about in class. You ought to be looking for the current writers who are doing this. Some great literary journalism is to be found in the New Yorker. It costs $35 a year for a subscription. If you have any aspirations to being a better writer, you should consider subscribing. Writers are readers. It’s a simple as that. Read read read.


I’ll be approaching this class as an editor working with writers. My aim is to bring you along with constant feedback on how you’re doing with regard to written assignments, class attendance and class participation. You should know how you’re doing because I’ll be letting you know. I’ll be giving you two grades on your pieces, one for content and one for style and mechanics. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. If you start out poorly and improve, I won’t average your grades but weigh your improvement heavily into your final grades.

If you do all the things I ask and write well, you’ll make an A. If you don’t live up to all the requirements and write well, you may make a B. If you skip class and miss assignments or do a poor job you’ll make a C or worse.


If you plagiarize, you’ll fail the course.

I’ll have a handout on plagiarism in the next class. The best way to avoid charges of plagiarism is to attribute the sources of your information.

Other expectations

Since I expect to act as an editor working with professional writers, it’s up to you to work professionally. Keep a notebook for this class and take notes. Make this a habit. It’s a skill you will need. When we have a guest take notes and act interested.

If you must miss class, have a good excuse and let me know in advance. Schedule appointments around this class. If you do miss class, find out what happened from another student. Get the handouts from him or her.

My most important expectation is this: communicate with me. Talk to me. E-mail me. Don’t just sit in class. Participate. Be involved.

Learning outcomes

1) Students will understand and practice fundamental techniques of literary writing, including background, description, observation, dialogue, narrative, scene and point of view.

2) Students will produce a 3000-word piece and revise it.

3) Students will develop a widened awareness of the major literary journalists of the 20th century.


Class requirements: Class attendance is mandatory, as this is a graduate seminar that meets only once a week. Bring a notebook and take notes. Class discussion is an essential part of the graduate seminar experience. Students should come prepared to engage the week’s readings.


Aug 30 First meeting: Introductions, discussion of story telling.

Depending on what we agree to do, I will lay out a reading and writing schedule.