Conference info

How to get that book inside inside you OUT of you

Many longform pieces lend themselves to a book, or perhaps others would be better as a book to begin. Alyson Warner hosts journalist-turned-author Chris Stokel-Walker and his published Martin Hickman as they discuss bridging the gap between the world of journalism and novels.

The book begins with a pitch, something all journalists will be used to. However, Stokel-Walker admits pitching a book takes more anticipated. He had to pitch his idea as something with sustenance, something that would work over 75-80 thousand words.

In terms of what the publishing house is expecting, Hickman says they need to understand how it would work. “Whoever receives it in the narrative house gets the idea of how it would flow,” he says. But what does this mean?

Hickman advises thinking from an editors perspective, your pitch should say, “In a bookshop what shelf it would be on, what genre would it be? What makes you the best person to tell it?” However, the main question they want answering is “will it sell?”

Hickman says the transition from journalism to novelist isn’t easy, “It’s as profound as going from a sprinter to a marathon runner.” From commission, the process of researching, writing, editing, rewriting, reediting then publication and promoting is a slow one. “You should be thinking in terms of years,” he says.

Once you have your book idea, there are three ways of getting published.

Hickman explains, “the first is the traditional route and the best if you can get one is to get an agent.” The agent can shape the proposal for publishers with your interest at heart. They act as the bridge between you and the publishing world. Most charge around a 15% cut, but it is the quickest and easiest way to get published.

The second is to approach publishers directly. However, Hickman explains most are looking to deal with agents and could overlook ignore your pitches.

Finally, Hickman strongly recommends self-publishing, he says, “I do recommend you look seriously at this, particularly if your work is a labour of love and not commercial.” He lists platforms such as eBook, for a quick and easy publication, or Amazon print book. 

“It’s such a difficult transition to make from 10,000 words at most to 100,000,” says Hickman, “You need to have themes in the book, you need to have characters, the chapters need to speak to each other”

Because of this, Stokel-Walker identified the hardest part of transitioning as relying on his narrative voice more and his quotes less. He says, “I had an awful lot of paragraphs and quote that were taken out because there was too much of ‘that character’”

As a final piece of advice, Hickman recommends writers “write a dummy blurb, write the 250 words that are going to go on the back cover and it will give you an idea of whether it’s going to hook in the reader.” If it does, run with it, if it doesn’t, refine it.

Words by Corrie David

Conference info

CIJ director James Harkin on using media as a weapon

CIJ Director James Harkin began his brilliant talk on his investigative work in Syria by playing a clip of an “incredibly courageous” revolutionary singer who performed at a demonstration and called out President of Syria Bashar al-Assad with the repeated lyrics “Get out Bashar”.

In a journey that took him from rural Syria to continental Europe for GQ, James Harkin tracked down the fake and then the real story of a daring revolutionary singer in Syria who either did or didn’t end up with his throat slit by government loyalists. The article narrates the singer’s story, and Harkin noted the courage for the singer to speak out publicly against the president and call him an ass.

Tragically, three days after the demonstration, the singer, Ibrahim Kadoush was thought to have had his throat slit and vocal cords cut out by government loyalists. However, Harkin notes “the legend took a life of its own”. The story of the singer chanting a demonstration was picked up by the BBC, Associated Press and CNN in “very detailed terms” on social media and from media reports from Beirut.

Harkin’s harrowing detective work fills us in painlessly on the tangled and deadly political allegiances protecting the regime.

Read his piece here.

Words by Molly Dowrick 

Conference info

Jill Nicholson on the stories that people actually read

Over the weekend, the word ‘Chartbeat’ keeps popping up throughout various talks. And it’s no secret: Chartbeat has helped change how journalists produce their work.

Jill Nicholson from Chartbeat talks about how to make longform journalism work with the data.

She begins by pointing out how 52.2% of longform articles that are read are discovered through the website itself. People are then most likely to discover longform articles through social media. 28.6% of longform articles are found through social.

However, people who discover articles from social media are more likely to complete the article. “There’s just more intent,” she says if it’s discovered through social.

Chartbeat’s goal is not clicks. It’s about loyal readership,” Jill stresses. “Our goal is to help you use technology to help your job, not get in the way of it.”

Story is key

There were some surprises she said in the trends Chartbeat found towards the most popular long reads of 2019.

“Non-celebrity stories that were just interesting stories did well last year,” Nicholson explains. This is a good sign for journalism, showing that interesting stories are always key to success. However, people aren’t going to be searching for these stories on the web, so they need to have strong social media promotion. Which means tweeting about them more than once to ensure they gain traction.

“Writing headlines is an art”

Despite how journalism has increasingly been listening to reader-behavioural data, she says that the fundamental skills of journalism haven’t gone out of fashion in the age of SEO and clicks, but it’s just that these skills need refining.

In fact in the age of digital, Nicholson says, headlines are more important than ever. “For your digital reader, all you have is the headline,” she says.

She shows statistics about what makes headlines successful. Chartbeat found that negative words, interrogative ‘whens’ and ‘whats’ and demonstrative pronouns like ‘these’ and ‘this’ produced the most clicked on headlines.

“Unfortunately it seems that the human beings that you’re trying to reach just like the sadder stories,” she jokes. “Do with that what you will. It doesn’t mean you have to be doom and gloom all the time, it’s just something to be aware of.”

She also said that it’s important to keep headlines human and use approachable language that you would use in conversations. Especially in an age of fake news, “people like to feel that these stories have come from human beings and not ‘The Media.'”

She also warned against questions in headlines: “question headlines have been associated with clickbait”. She reassures audiences that if they’re feeling overwhelmed with all this data on headlines alone, that “headline writing is an art.”

“It’s hard,” she says. “It’s just a skill, but these are just things to remain aware of.”

Fundamentally, all these statistics and data is simply about gaining greater reader relationships, which leads to more money for news organisations.

“The more engagement, the more loyal, the more revenue,” she says.

Words by Juliette Rowsell

Audio Conference info

Maeve McClenaghan on how to create compelling stories in podcasts

Investigative journalist Maeve McClenaghan began The Tip Off two years ago. It began as a side project aimed at listeners behind the scene access to the process of researching and reporting a story. Each episode has a new journalist who takes the listener through their process from idea to publishing.

She joins the Well Told conference on Saturday giving a talk on how to create a compelling story in a podcast. She breaks it down into a few categories: format, tone, structure, recording, publishing and safety.

Most podcasts, she says, are done in people’s free time so she advises creators to “make sure the subject is something you’re passionate enough about.” Then you need to check your hypothesis works and check there’s a market for it. If the market has already been filled, how can you tell that story in a new way?

For format, Maeve highlights the length of the episode. Podcasts do give creators freedom of length, but Maeve advises, “people might not listen for an hour. I find 20-35 minutes works quite nicely for me.” Only include what is necessary.

The tone of the podcast might not have to be the obvious choice. Maeve highlights the Mystery Show for its whimsical tone. She says, “It’s a great example of how even with subjects that aren’t completely serious, you can use narrative storytelling to build up the drama of it.”

Maeve highlights that again, you can get creative with the structure. She explains how linear isn’t always best. “Once I’ve got the story and someone’s told me what they did I think I could start them at the beginning, or I could drop them at this later point and show them how they got there.”

The location of where you record the podcast must also be considered. Maeve highlights the pros and cons of using a studio space compared to other locations. While a recording studio can produce clearer audio, it can be more stressful for a guest. If you are using a room elsewhere, consider how soundproof it is. Maeve suggests looking at rooms with thick curtains or bulky furniture to absorb sounds from outside.

To publish your podcast Maeve recommends the platforms: Libsyn, Soundcloud and Acast. She also recommends creating a cover image that is 1400 x 1400 pixels minimum for high quality.

When it comes to releasing your podcast Maeve says, “Everyone says weekly is better, but I do it fortnightly because weekly is hard.” Weekly works best as listeners get into a routine of expecting it on a certain day, however, don’t force it if it doesn’t work for you.

Maeve has three tips to get your podcast heard. She recommends launching with two or three episodes to give a sustainable impression. She then recommends emailing critics with a press release and hope it stands out in their inbox.

To generate and build an audience she suggests looking at Facebook groups for your speciality and promoting there, she explains “I think once you can get it in front of the right people and a buzz starts happening, that’s how you get your audience”.

She ends her talk on discussing the safety of your podcast. When discussing issues such as domestic violence, it’s important to protect your source by changing their names and sourcing actors for their voices. “You might need to take an additional responsibility of protection for them.” To cover yourself, she says to remember to stay within the law and should you publish any accusations, ensure the accused have had their right to reply.


Helpful podcasts:

For tone: Whimsical – Mystery Show, Rich storytelling – S Town, Human Voices – Dirty John

Structure: Twists – Criminal, Set Segments – Reply All/Heavyweight


Other helpful source for tech: Podcasters’ support group

Words by Corrie David

Conference info

Young audiences: stereotypes and strategies on how longform can flourish on youth-focused platforms


Louise Ridley, the former longform editor from Buzzfeed heads a panel discussion on young people and longreads with Pink News’ Ellen Stewart and Imran Rahman-Jones from BBC Newsbeat.

It’s good news for longform journalism. The panelists all agree that the myth that young people don’t care about longform, that they don’t have attention spans, just isn’t true.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes which can be restrictive about young people,” she says. “That young people are not interested in news or they have short attention spans – but the evidence for this is ‘waffley’ and not conclusive,” begins Ridley.

“I don’t think young people have shorter attention spans,” says Rahman-Jones. “Young people do stick with articles to the end. You’ve got to look more widely around the web.

Look at Netflix, they’re producing true crime stories – that’s long form storytelling. It’s just a different format.”

All three panellists agreed that longform doesn’t just have to mean more words. It means more storytelling.

Stewart pointed out that even though she doesn’t write traditional longform stories as Pink News‘ head of Snapchat, the platform has an unusual high dwell time on their interactive Snapchat stories. A whopping dwell time of two minutes, whereas their website only has an article dwell time of about 40 seconds.

For young people, the importance of visual elements cannot be understated. “Young people will switch off if you don’t grab them. If there’s an interesting visual and graphic, that’s the best way to grab. Don’t ever use black and white. There should be a ban on that,” says Stewart. 

But it’s also important to just get creative with the ways of storytelling. Rahman-Jones describes how a piece he wrote last year involved transcriptions of voice messages, text messages, and video footage. For young people, Ridley concludes, “it’s how you can sell it.”

While news outlets might need to get more savvy with how they tailor their long reads to reach young people, she says it’s still just about good journalism.

“You need to ask, is there really a story to tell here? Not just a long story. Why are young people going to give up their time to read your story?” she asks. “Who are the characters in this? It has to be that there’s a person and that leads to the topic. Always start with the people.”

According to them, longform articles are still succeeding with young audiences, and they’re not going anywhere soon.

Words by Juliette Rowsell 

Conference info

The basics of narrative with Mark Kramer


Mark Kramer, co-founder of Well Told and a leading expert on the teaching of narrative journalism, joines today to discuss key storytelling techniques for narrative journalism, particularly focusing on the impact of voice and the importance of creating suspense and tension.

Kramer began his talk by discussing narrative journalism as a form is often unexpected. “Most people who read narrative journalism have no idea they’re reading it,” he says, but acknowledging that “people still have trouble writing it because they’ve learnt a bunch of rules.”

For Kramer, however, it’s not about writing by rules. He focuses on voice and characterisation in his writing, and is not afraid of having to write “37 drafts”. Kramer explains the impact of voice by suggesting narrative journalism should capture ‘a different voice’.

He says that in narrative journalism “you speak in a voice that allows knowledge and it signals to others that they should be open to it. It’s a different voice to the voice you use when you text your best friend”.

Voice is important for three reasons, he says. Firstly, a tasteful and respectful private voice signals that the writer has ‘authority’ for the subject at hand. Secondly,  voice allows the “human sensibility of other people”. Lastly, a strong voice in narrative journalism promotes “acknowledgement of your [own] sensibility.”

Kramer also sees significance in creating suspense and tension in narrative journalism. He notes the significance of punctuation, particularly brackets, in helping to control readers’ pace when reading and also enjoys nice words like ‘swooping’ that invites the reader into the narrative.

When writing, Kramer eliminates the verb ‘to be’. “You should always try to activate your verbs, it makes things more intimate.”

Kramer also comments that he tries to always “take account of the five senses”. He does this by writing detailed notes to help him fully develop his narrative.

Words by Molly Dowrick 

Conference info

Making longform journalism pay: Jeff Maysh in conversation with Alex Perry

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it has pacing issues.”

Only writing three in-depth stories a year might not be enough alone to keep a writer financially liquid. Reporter-turned-author Alex Perry and Jeff Maysh have adapted to today’s media to make the most of their work. Both Jeff Maysh and Alex Perry discussed how they made their writing irresistible to film and TV producers in Hollywood and elsewhere.

The main point the writers covered was that journalists need to adapt themselves to the demands of today. “Your writing first and foremost must work as a longform piece,” says Maysh. Both advise against writing for Hollywood. “I can’t take a story unless I know it’s a longform piece,” Alex admits. “Otherwise my children don’t eat.”

However, Jeff also explores how longform lends itself to other outlets such as audio, TV and film. “I feel like narrative journalists and Hollywood are looking for the same thing. We want transformative characters, a strong narrative and a twist. But what’s that saying? Truth is stranger than fiction but it has pacing issues – so definitely keep that in mind.” 

Being aware of how your work can translate across platforms is important Maysh explains. “For anyone writing something who believes there may be TV interest, fight to retain your rights.” Through retaining his rights for his McDonalds story, the $1m deal was signed to him.

Alex and Jeff recommend getting an agent, should this opportunity arise. Maysh credits his agent as “a key thing” for making his work for a producer. Perry says, “For me, I’ve got two agents, a literary one and a guy that specialises in taking something from print to film, without them it would be impossible.”

However, when it comes to the scriptwriting, don’t expect to be involved. Neither of the journalists has been approached to write a screenplay. Perry says, “I have to bite my lip because you sell an option to a production company and they say ‘we’ve just got to wait for this really great writer’ and I’m like hello, I’m in the room! But I’ve tried to write screenplays and they are really hard. You can’t just turn up and try to do something others have been doing for years. It’s a different muscle.” 

Words by Corrie David 

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Jeff Maysh on ‘the hero’s journey: mythical structure in true crime’

Crime writer Jeff Maysh, originally from Bromley, London but now living in LA, joins Well Told as the final speaker of the night. His presentation focuses on stories that set social media alive and catch the eyes of both readers and film producers. His primary focus is structure and how using screenwriting methods his true crime stories are being reimagined in Hollywood.

Maysh started his career at Loaded magazine but “the less said about that the better,” he jokes.

In 2010 he left to become a freelance correspondent in America, originally covering major breaking news in the Rockies. Today, however, he freelances for publications such as The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and Playboy.

“In 2016 I was tipped off to an amazing story about McDonald’s. The story was about an ex-cop named Jerry, who had managed to rig the Monopoly game for 12 years. Every major game prize was stolen.”

“I pitched the story everywhere, everyone said no,” Maysh says. Due to the time delay between the crime and his pitching, no one wanted to commission the story, stating it was too old. Bloomberg was all for it until they heard the date. The crimes occurred in 2011, yet Maysh was pitching in 2018.

The reason for the story falling under the radar is that the final court case occurred on 10th September 2001 and all the media attention focused on the 9/11 attacks. The story had remained untouched ever since.

Eventually, The Daily Beast commissioned the 8,600-word article and it was published in June 2018.

The story consequently became the number one top trend worldwide on Twitter. “By the Sunday things were getting a bit bizarre,” he comments. That day the story was covered on Fox News and by the evening there was a bidding war for the film rights. The story was wanted by Stephen Spielberg but eventually bought for $1m by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Fox.

“I’m not telling this story to tell you I was right and the editors that turned it down were wrong,” explains Maysh. He even comments on how some editors now brag that they turned ‘The McDonald’s Story’ down. His aim, he explains, is to encourage writers to not give up if they believe they have a good story that no one will commission.


Structuring the Story

“I’m obsessed with structure,” Jeff says. He describes how he turns his living room into a Sherlock Holmes-style crime scene investigation board to help him write a true-crime piece.

He uses a three-act structure to construct his stories, influenced by the ancient Greek dramas. The three-act structure is broken up into five stages. The first, he says is the set-up – where you introduce your main character, a protagonist who has a desire. “They must want something,” he explains.

Stage two introduces the protagonist into a new situation, an unknown territory in order to pursue their desire. Stage three shows the progress of the protagonist on their way to achieve their desire. This should take the reader to the halfway point of their journey and it needs a twist. The whole story changes at the midpoint, “Something completely different happens,” Maysh says.

Stage four shows the protagonist facing complications and higher stakes, often facing a major setback. The fifth and final stage is what Maysh calls the ‘final push, the end game’. He compares the four stages to sex; “stage five is a bit like the cigarette that comes after”. It should return the reader to the beginning of the story with a positive end. “The end card is the mirror image but everyone is happy,” Maysh says.

The Hero’s Journey

Jeff Maysh talks about Hollywood and about narrative structure, noting the similarities of the structure of screenplays and longform. In one of his articles, the concluding part even has a kiss scene.

It is no surprise when he begins speaking about literary theorists such as Aristotle and Joseph Campbell, the latter of whom penned theory of the ‘The Hero’s Journey’, which despite it being a literary device, Maysh finds useful in shaping his narrative.

As he walks the audience through a few of his stories and how each follows ‘The Hero’s Journey’, he mentions:


How a Stroke Turned a 63-Year-Old Into a Rap Legend

The Rise and the Fall of the Bombshell Bandit

The Scarface of Sex

The Murder House


The one thing separating The Murder House from other stories he had done was that it was self-published because he could not get it commissioned. It later became the most read article on Medium in 2015.

He wraps up the talk on a positive note.

“You all have stories in you that you can’t get commissioned, but I want to say, don’t give up on the stories you know in your heart are amazing. If you’ve got something on the go that you believe is a killer story, then just go ahead and write it. Publish it yourself if you have to.”


All slides from Jeff’s talk can be found on his website:

Words by Corrie David

Conference info

‘I’m against the idea of pinning down the story before you go to the field’ – Christina Lamb

Chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, Christina Lamb, joined the Well Told festival on Skype from Congo and emphasised the importance of immersing yourself in the field and not just relying on research.

Her journey as a reporter began with an unexpected wedding invitation which led her to move to Peshawar aged just 22 to cover mujahideen.

Lamb spoke to attendees at the festival from her hotel room in Goma, Congo, where she is currently in the field reporting, and also talked about how her reporting has introduced her to amazing people, many of whom have got through awful circumstances.

Lamb believes reading about events and circumstances in foreign countries from a distance isn’t enough. She is against the idea of pinning down the story before you go into the field, she explained.

She talked about how as a foreign correspondent covering conflict around the world she was seeing more violence against women than ever before in her career. In addition, journalists, in general, have become targets.

“We’ve become targets in a way we never were which has made this job a lot more challenging.”

She also goes on to explain that all she wants to do is tell stories about people whom she’s met. “Women in the Congo have thanked me for reporting. They can’t believe the things that are going on here and no one is doing anything about it.”


Words by Molly Dowrick



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Jonathan Shainin on what makes a good long read

Longform journalism is a big operation within the Guardian, with the Long Reads department producing around 150 articles each year.

Editor Jonathan Shainin – speaking at Well Told on Friday 1 March – estimates that more than 500 long reads have been produced since its inception in 2014.

Each story “involves an investment”, he explains, comparing the process as similar to that of documentary-making, along with writer contracts and expensive commissions to consider and justify.

But Long Read stories bring something new to the table. Much like the BBC produces both the News at Six and Newsnight, the Guardian’s Long Reads team and general news desk both have a vital role to play, he argued.

“We’re a little bit like a film production studio that sits within the paper… It’s a different form, but holds an equally valid place in journalism”.

Tips for longform journalism pitches

Having read and published hundreds of longform stories in recent years, Jonathan has plenty of tips to impart when pitching a deep-dive article.

One to avoid in particular, is anniversary pitches. When Guardian Long Reads was first set up in 2014, he received countless pitches for stories to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And five years later, he received the same pitches again.

But an anniversary is not cause for a story, he argued: “If it was a good story it wouldn’t matter that it’s the 25th anniversary,” he said. “The story should be its own justification.”

Every longform article also needs to have a greater social and cultural meaning he added. Jonathan referred to an article by Sam Knight (who spoke earlier at Well Told) about what will happen when the Queen dies – also the most read Guardian Long Read ever – as an example of a story that goes deeper than may first appear, diving into the “fucked up psychological relationship we have the monarchy”.

In addition – as is a generally-accepted rule in good journalism – he reiterated the need to find stories that will capture the public imagination and take root, and get that across in the first few lines of the article.

“Writing longform articles in a newspaper is about discipline,” he said. “The headline has to be clear on what this is, about, it’s got to have a flicker of the story in the first paragraph.

“It’s like a movie trailer, you’ve got to get it into the beginning to give people an idea of how to read it.”

Looking ahead

From a statistics point of view, the future of longform journalism looks bright. The Guardian has an in-house analytics tool called Ophan, which is used to track engagement with its articles.

Jonathan said that longform stories tend to defy the theory of short attention spans online.

The execution of these pieces means that they continue to do well despite behavioural trends, he added. “You take more time on the story, you put more effort into it, you spend more money. There’s an idea that there’s a value in the detail.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell