Jacqui Banaszynski spent a month reporting from Sudan on the Ethiopian famine for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch in 1985. After she filed her story, her editor, Deborah Howell, stood waiting for a dot-matrix printer to spit out the 24,000-word piece. Howell then dragged the draft across the newsroom, each page connected to the next in a long train. As she walked she yelled, “Banaszynski, meet me in the conference room! And bring scissors!”
In the conference room, Howell cut the story into sections and pinned them on the wall. She paced the room looking at the piece—through reading glasses that, as Banaszynski recalls, covered a third of her face. She moved sections around and dropped others on the floor, stomping on them for good measure. “I found it!” she said finally and pinned a section of text to the end of the story. “Now go back and fix it. And do it right this time,” she told Banaszynski.
But despite having watched Howell work, Banaszynski had no idea what to fix. “She was looking at the puzzle of how the pieces of my story fit together. She looked at the whole piece, tore it apart and then pasted it back together in bits and pieces,” says Banaszynski, “It was my job to take that, read it through, and make it work as a whole. But I couldn’t see how to do that at the time. All I saw was her stomping on my work with spiky high heels.”
So, she peppered Howell with questions about what exactly she needed to fix. She worked through the symptoms Howell described—“You overwrite” and “It’s too long” and most memorably, “You put too much f***ing tinsel on your f***ing tree”—until she was able to translate those symptoms into specific aspects of her writing and understand clearly what she needed to improve to make her writing sing.
Through this process, Banaszynski learned that in her Ethiopian-famine story, she used too many adjectives, she described some things three times rather than once, and she used quotes that were too long. In short: There was too much f***ing tinsel on her f***ing tree.
“What she was doing was making me choose what I actually needed to tell a story, and what was just decoration,” says Banaszynski. This clear and specific feedback allowed Banaszynski to revise and improve her story. It went on to become a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.
It was this experience that led Banaszynski to create a self-editing technique that she calls literary forensics. As a diagnostic tool, Banaszynski says, literary forensics helps writers identify their habits, strengths, and weaknesses, and then correct them in revisions. “This technique hasn’t changed the way I write,” she says. “I still let myself write the way I always have in the first draft. But it has changed the way I revise.”
The reason the literary forensics technique is so powerful, Banaszynski says, is that it enables writers to look at their stories like readers. If a reader stumbles or gets lost at any point in a story, she says, “you’ve introduced a speed bump.” Looking closely at the elements that make up one’s writing can smooth out those speed bumps so the reader can keep going forward. “You don’t want the reader to work hard to follow you,” she says.
In addition to using literary forensics to improve her own writing, Banaszynski has also taught it to writers of all stripes: to students at the University of Missouri, where she is now a professor emerita; to attendees at the Poynter Institute, where she is a faculty fellow; and to writers who have taken the workshops she teaches. And she has generously agreed to share the technique with TON readers.
Banaszynski thinks of literary forensics as a way to keep developing the muscles needed to become a stronger writer. “You become your own personal trainer with this technique,” says Banaszynski. “You can keep elevating your game by using what you already have and making it better.”
What’s more, Banaszynski argues, by tightening, focusing, and elevating copy before turning it in—as opposed to turning it over to someone else to rewrite—literary forensics also allows writers to retain control of their voice. And it minimizes the power dynamic in the editing process, allowing the writer and editor to instead have a conversation about the most effective way to tell a particular story. Ultimately, this creates a better relationship between editors and writers.
When to Break Out the Literary Forensics Kit
When should you do literary forensics and how much should you do? Banaszynski recommends experimenting with the technique in two ways:
1) Right before you send in your first draft to an editor.
2) As an ongoing practice to improve your writing.
As an ongoing practice, Banaszynski suggests focusing on one element of writing per month, for a year. At the end of the year, she says, you’ll have a good sense of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and will know what to look for before submitting a draft to an editor.
Until you’ve done that work, she suggests picking two to three elements of writing in a draft before you hand it in and seeing what you can clean up. How do you know which elements to pick when you’re on a pressing deadline?
The number of elements writers can examine in their work is too large for a writer to tackle on any given story, and it can be hard to know what to start with. If you already know that you have a tendency to use too many adjectives, or that you’re a sucker for parenthetical asides, or that you want to make more use of metaphor, then those elements may be good places to start.
If you’re not sure what elements of your writing to pay attention to, it might make sense to start by looking at elements that editors identify as common stumbling blocks for many writers. I asked a few science editors what problematic patterns they commonly see in science writers’ first drafts. Banaszynski adds commentary on each writing element, as well. Three elements rose to the top: use of quotes, jargon, and nut grafs.
Sarah Gilman, contributing editor at High Country News: There’s definitely at least one common thread with science writers (including me), and that’s letting scientists steer too much with jargony quotes, instead of relying on our own voices to translate the most important parts for readers’ benefit. Take a look at your quotes: How many of them are there? Are they long? Unless they’re really, really good, long quotes signal to my editor brain a lack of confidence in the material. Do the quotes just contain basic information? Or are they helping create a framework of meaning or conveying central things about your characters? Quotes are there to give the story voice and texture and to put metaphorical exclamation points and a shine on things—not to explain basic details and processes, unless they’re super voicy.
Banaszynski: When I work with journalists, I often start [the literary forensics] technique with quotes. Look at your material and ask: Do you always end the story with a quote? Do you always have a quote in the fourth paragraph? Maybe you learned that placement for a quote is where the story needs authority. But, does it help that particular story, or are you just doing it out of some convention or habit?
Jane Lee, news editor at Nature: Just because researchers make up our core audience [at Nature] doesn’t mean we can stuff our stories with technical terms. I find that asking the other folks in the office if they know what a word means is a good way of telling if something is jargon or not. If you don’t have that option, then try writing it a couple of different ways and see which one sounds the most interesting. Which would you rather read: a story about diel vertical migrators, or a piece about thousands of tiny animals that swim hundreds of feet up and down in the ocean every day?
Banaszynski: Go through all your copy and highlight any kind of specialty language. Ask if this is language that you can expect 80 percent of readers to know. If so, leave it in. If not, ask yourself: Is it in context so those who don’t know it will still get it? Is it jargon that I need in my story, but I am going to define it in lay terms so both audiences have access to it? Or, is this jargon that I just need to ditch and use plain English?
Heather Smith, news editor at Sierra Magazine: Taking too long to get to the point (a.k.a, “Where’s my nut graf?”) is a common issue I see in first drafts. Highlight your nut graf—that section, somewhere in the first three paragraphs or so, where you explain what is happening and why it’s important. Usually, in your first draft, it’s located a lot farther down than it will be in later drafts. If you don’t find a nut graf, write “This is a story about …” on a piece of paper and start writing until a nut graf emerges.
Banaszynski: Make a list of elements of nut material you need to include: context, setting, tether or hook to news, significance, or scope. Then [in the story] highlight those essential components of nut materials. (They don’t have to be in a single paragraph if you are writing more of a narrative piece.) Are they at least all there? How far into the story are [those elements] before I get to them? Look at placement. Ensure you are including all the elements needed to let the reader know this is the frame or overview of the story. Usually the nut graf material appears in the first 1–5 paragraphs. But, it doesn’t have to, as long as it is in the top 10 percent.
Using Literary Forensics in Editing
The literary forensics technique can help editors as well as writers, notes Banaszynski. The technique can help editors develop a more concrete understanding of what isn’t working in a draft and offer language for communicating more clearly with writers. That both makes editors’ job easier and prevents situations where the writer fixes the wrong things.
Banaszynski suggests editors take a piece from a new writer and read it several times. After you edit it for structure, look for patterns in elements of writing. Go through the story again and highlight two to three elements that jump out at you—elements that are creating speed bumps in the story for the reader. Then work on those two to three things with the writer. Depending on how much time and energy you have for a story, you may do this again in the next draft. Diving in with several rounds of literary forensics may make more sense for a long feature than a short news piece.
With this information in hand, editors can talk with a reporter about how specific elements of their writing are affecting a story. For example, Banaszynski says, “If I’m seeing a lot of dependent clauses that are robbing the writer of the power and authority of their sentences, I’ll look at those. Then, rather than feeling attacked, they think, ‘That’s interesting.’” Then the writer knows what they are addressing and tackling in a revision.
Using literary forensics can be equally valuable for editors who have the responsibility of revising drafts themselves, because doing so helps them look for telltale patterns first rather than just jumping in on the keyboard.
Christina Selby is a freelance science writer and photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She writes about scientific expeditions, conservation and the environment with a focus on South America and the American Southwest although she’ll happily travel to any biodiversity hotspot in the world for a story or a photograph. Her work has appeared in such outlets as bioGraphic, Mongabay, National Geographic Online, Scientific American, High Country News, and Ensia. You can find her sometimes on Twitter @christinaselby.