Conference info

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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