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Sam Knight on the Queen, the importance of jargon, and why longform is reporting, not writing

Sam Knight, author of celebrated longform article London Bridge is down: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death, and reporter for The New Yorker with a fortnightly ‘Letter from the UK’, was the first speaker of this year’s Well Told festival with an engaging and amusing talk on how he researched and wrote his memorable article and how “reporting is storytelling.”

Knight began his talk by explaining how the initial idea for the article came about. His planning for the longform piece began with a simple thought, “Oh, the queen’s going to die”, and this lead to the decision: “I should maybe just sort of…write about that,” he said jokingly.

Further influence for the piece came from Evan Osnos, a fellow writer for The New Yorker, known for his article “President Trump’s First Term’. Evan’s piece taught Knight “There’s a way of doing this [reporting on the Queen’s death] responsibly and well.”

Totalling 8000 words, Knight’s article was the longest piece the Guardian had ever published on the monarchy. In fact, Knight told us how the Guardian acknowledged that the long form article could have formed a series of news articles instead, but by choosing to write it as a longform; Knight made a statement about the form, as well as the content of the piece. The article didn’t need to be a short one, Knight explained, “We wrote 8,000 words about the queen dying and everyone read it.”

In his talk, Knight also discussed his interest in speculative reporting and explained that exploring this kind of writing gave him an informed outline of what his own article could become.

Knight explained that it is “hard to assemble” smaller news stories together into a longer piece. He said: “This is a way I like to receive information: I would rather read a long complicated story about a long complicated thing.”

When writing his article on the plans for when the Queen dies, Knight was particularly interested in centric writing but had concerns on reporting this kind of event. He said: “I wanted to report it properly and something like this is sensitive”.

“I liked this idea of centric writing where you start far away and get closer and closer to the people you know,” he added.

For Knight, research was intrinsic to his article. He read The context, performance and meaning of ritual: The British monarchy and the ‘invention of tradition’, c. 1820–1977. He said it was vital for two reasons: firstly, because the Queen has been Queen for a very long time, and secondly, because royal funerals are theatre.

Ultimately, Knight said: “Reporting is storytelling”. He explained: “A really useful thing I think about when I’m writing these kind of articles is ‘what kind of genre is this?’ Is this a love story? Is this about an invention? Is it about two rivals?” For Knight’s longform about the Queen, it’s about theatre.

When writing, Knight saw his article as commentary, choosing to “luxuriate in the details” that he knew would interest and amuse readers, such as the exact time a certain procedure would take. He also realised he needed to use royal jargon in order for interviewees to trust that he’d done his research.

Referring back to his original pitches keeps Knight on track. Usually researching and writing four longform pieces per year, Knight tries to always remind himself of his pitch when it gets tough.

For Knight, interesting worlds do not always give interesting stories. By this, Knight means that in order for a world or idea to make a story, it needs something interesting or unusual within it. It’s a good sign for him if the story has a twist, or, like the plans for when the Queen dies, provide a “piece of theatre”.

Words by Molly Dowrick

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SATHNAM SANGHERA is coming to CIJ Well Told

We’re delighted that acclaimed author, reporter and columnist Sathnam Sanghera is joining the line-up of speakers at the UK’s only festival of longform journalism which is taking place at the start of March.

Sathnam is a multi-talented writer who displays his talents in both his journalism in The Times and also in his books. The Boy With the Topknot, a memoir of his upbringing in the West Midlands with his Punjabi parents, won many awards and was adapted for BBC Two. After that came his novel, Marriage Material, which by common consensus one of the novels of 2013.

Jonathan Coe named Sathnam as one of “the men of the next 25 years” in GQ, saying that “whether he’s writing autobiography or fiction, Sathnam is busy carving out his own literary niche – in the multicultural British Midlands – which he explores with incredible grace, generosity and humour”.

For CIJ Well Told, Sathnam will draw on his experience juggling his journalism with his writing, and also the difficult task of balancing the writing of factual memoir with fiction.

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Jeff Maysh joins the CIJ Well Told line-up

Acclaimed true-crime writer Jeff Maysh is the latest longform talent to join the line-up for the CIJ Well Told festival of longform and narrative journalism.

The tale of a Greek robber who, in protest at greedy banks, would throw handfuls of stolen cash into the air for passers-by to collect is pure Jeff Maysh. It’s as gripping as fiction, but is all true. That article was the first time I encountered his work, but it was the first time of many.

In fact, those occasional bursts of Twitter recommendations which flare for a day or two seem to happen around Maysh stories disproportionately often.

Just last month it happened with an Atlantic story of his – How a stroke turned a 63-year-old into a rap legend. A few days later, another story broke – that Netflix had won a bidding war for rights to the story.

The article itself is, again, pure Maysh – a clear tale which goes deep within a world you would otherwise never know, extracted with as much precision as if he had used one of those foot-long cheese triers to bring out a long plug from the heart of the wheel.

Last summer it was his McScam story in the Daily BeastHow an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions. Before that there were Kindle Singles, The Spy With No Name and Handsome Devil, and my personal favourite, 2015’s The Bombshell Bandit.

Maysh’s journalistic career began on Loaded. He found his way into longform narrative through sports- and crime-writing. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he is on hand for film-makers wanting to talk about adapting his stories.

We’re absolutely delighted that Jeff will be joining us at CIJ Well Told 2019, especially since he is coming back to the UK specifically to be part of the festival. He will be talking about how he finds and tells his stories, and how he discovered his approach to making a life of telling longform stories sustainable.

He is without doubt one of the most talented UK longform writers, and anyone who loves the genre – as well as those who do it themselves or have ambitions to – should not miss the chance to hear what Jeff has to say.

The last of the earlybird tickets are available here – priced £55 for people in staff jobs and £45 for freelances. Student discounts are available on request by email to 

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Why Christina Lamb is an inspiration

Christina Lamb

We’re delighted Christina Lamb will be taking part in CIJ Well Told 2019. Below, Catarina Fernandes Martins, the Christian Science Monitor Southern Europe correspondent, who will be speaking to Lamb at the festival, writes of what makes her such a compelling reporter.

Catarina Fernandes Martins

“When I think of Christina Lamb, the first image that comes to mind is that of a schoolgirl, kept in detention for refusing to give way on a point of principle. “Kept after school writing lines, I would gaze out of the window conjuring up far-off worlds,” Lamb writes in Small Wars Permitting, reminiscing of a time when she dreamt of being a poet or a novelist.

That restless teenage girl became one of Britain’s leading foreign correspondents and is well-known all over the globe for her bravery as a war reporter in all those far-off worlds she dreamed about growing up. Lamb has been arrested, kidnapped and deported. Four days before her son’s seventh birthday, she was almost killed by Taliban in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

“I have had far more than my nine lives,” she says in a short video piece the Sunday Times did about their Chief Foreign Correspondent.

Her bravery is remarkable and admirable, and yet, what really fascinates me about Christina Lamb is that she brings the same schoolgirl curiosity and imaginative powers to her writing.

That curiosity and imagination seem intact after an almost 30-year career, in which she has delivered intrepid, high-quality reporting in the most sophisticated literary form. Lamb has traveled all over, boarded Benazir Bhutto’s bus when it was bombed, competed in a Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, had tea with Pinochet days after she gave birth, written about war, poverty and crime, interviewed warlords and royals. Still, every description of a new scene she enters is drenched with so much detail, her readers can’t help but care about the world she brings to them. They can’t help but feel they’re right there with her, tasting the “fruits and almonds dipped in silver and gold” at Bhutto’s wedding, marvelling at the kites flying from the rooftops in Kabul after the Taliban had been driven out. Some of those details stuck with me because they made me open my eyes with wonder, made me dream of far-off worlds, made me care more.

“If I see something that’s really shocking that’s happening I want people outside to know about it… because I hope that will change,” Lamb says in the Sunday Times film.

Maybe that’s every reporter’s hope, but only a few of them can look past the bang-bang, pass the tiresome headlines and tell stories that latch onto the imagination the way poetry or novels do. Christina Lamb is one of the very best doing precisely that.”

* Christina Lamb will take part in CIJ Well Told 2019 on 1&2 March 2019. You can get tickets here.

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A new partner

We are delighted to announce that Well Told has a new partner – the wonderful Centre for Investigative Journalism. Based at Goldsmiths College, the CIJ is a standard-bearer for the interests and practices of investigative journalism. We see investigative and longform journalism as being cousins, and so are delighted to be teaming up with James Harkin and team.

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Announcing Well Told 2

It’s great to be able to confirm that the second Well Told will take place on 1&2 March, 2019. The line-up is being devised at the moment, but our approach will be the same as that which was such a success in the summer of 2016: bring together the best talents in narrative and longform, put them in a room with other people who are wanting to improve their skills, and enjoy what happens as a result. Well Told 2 will be bigger than the first event, but we are sticking with spreading it over a day and a half – and this time we will avoid a bank holiday weekend!