How to improve your writing today: Sibley winner shares his secret

In 2014, the Johns Hopkins’ team took home the gold medal for periodical staff writing, thanks to in-depth stories on travel writer Matt Gross, composer Oscar Bettison, Giants trainer Ed Mackall, swimming coach George Kennedy, and cancer research.

In 2015, the school upped the ante and took home an even bigger prize: Johns Hopkins Magazine landed the Sibley, a national award and the highest honor for alumni magazines.

So what does it take to succeed at the very highest levels? To find out more, I talked with editor Dale Keiger about the work he’s done to make sure the magazine’s writing stays consistently high. He shared the lengths he goes to to get the story, the way he maintains as much editorial independence as possible, and the thing that every editor and writer at a magazine can do today to make their work significantly better.

It looks like you’ve got two staff writers. That’s pretty small for a campus of Johns Hopkins’ size. How do you make sure you’re finding and telling the best stories?

We really have only one staff writer, Bret McCabe. We just put another member of Communications, Greg Rienzi, on the masthead as a contributing writer, but I don’t have first claim on his time. I have no doubt that we’re missing good stories. We monitor releases from the various divisional news offices, Twitter, Facebook, stuff on bulletin boards in academic buildings, etc. I try to get out of the office to meet with faculty to ask them what’s going on in their departments. It’s a hit-or-miss process, with more misses than I like to contemplate.

From your perspective, what makes the stories you included here so strong?

Our strongest stories start with deep reporting. The writer has to put in the time: hours and hours with the central figure, multiple interviews with as many other sources as time will permit, lots of reading, lots of just hanging around taking notes. We encourage writers to tell the story that matters to them. I used to tell my writing students, back when I was the Hopkins faculty, “Write like you mean it.”

I believe the best stories come when a writer immerses himself in the subject, then finds the story within the subject he most wants to tell. We encourage writers to use narrative, to write with clarity and precision, and to not be afraid of some literary flair. I’m not much interested in articles — I want stories.

How do you find the time for that? For example, if you know you want a big story to run in the summer issue, when do you start reporting on it? What is the fundamental difference in your thinking about that story, as compared to someone who wants to do, say, an hour-long interview with the primary subject plus a few other shorter interviews? What is a detail in that swimming story that came as a result of that fourth interview or fifth hour of observing practice? Something you wouldn’t have noticed or understood as important in that first pass?

How do I find the time? I make the time. I mean, it’s a big part of my job. Typically I’ll spend six weeks reporting a feature, but I’ve spent as much as eight months reporting a story for Johns Hopkins Magazine. Depends on the story. As for my thinking about an hour-interview-plus-a-bit-more story, that’s not likely to be a story I’ll want for my magazine. That’s just not the level of reporting we require. That’s newspaper feature writing, not good magazine journalism.

As for the swimming story, I can’t pinpoint precise details that came from various stages of reporting, but the sort of things that come out of repeated conversations are like the story about the coach’s ineptitude as a bowling alley manager, and the time the swim team stumbled upon a special at a McDonald’s in Florida and ate an obscene amount of ground beef, or the coach putting up his first itinerary as the new coach at Hopkins and finding, the next day, that his smartass swimmers had vigorously edited it. In a one-hour interview all you’ll get are the obvious answers to the obvious questions. You get all those other stories and details from the seventh hour of conversation, not the first.

I once profiled a horse trainer for The Penn Stater, and could have done it with an interview and a few hours of hanging out at the track. But I spent two full days, starting at 5 a.m., at the track and the trainer’s barn and in conversation with the trainer, and so was there when one of his horses broke a leg on the track and had to be euthanized right there. You’ve got to be present for that kind of stuff.

The story about George Kennedy is a 4,000-word piece — a length that many editors would never consider for a single profile. What made you realize you could tell an exceptional story at that length, and why did you feel it deserved it? Tell me a little about the actual reporting.

Regarding the swim coach piece, it’s at a typical length for a Johns Hopkins Magazine feature; most of those come in between 3,000 and 4,000 words. There was no realization, per se. I try to let a story settle in at its own length, let the story dictate, so to speak. How did I think I could tell an exceptional story at that length? The arrogant answer is because I was writing it and I’m confident about my work. But also, and more to the point, I know good material when I see it and knew I had a wealth of good stuff here.

As for the reporting, I spent about six weeks on it, interviewing George Kennedy about four times, interviewing his assistant coach, talking to numerous swimmers on the team and alumni who swam for George. I attended many practices, just hanging out, and also taking pictures because simultaneously I was working on a year-long project to photograph Hopkins athletes at practice. I researched articles in swimming journals — there are such things. I researched the history of the Hopkins program. Craziest thing I did was haul my sorry self in for 6 a.m. practices — I am not a morning person.

Why does your administration trust you and your team to do ambitious, unexpected storytelling? Is there any advice you would give to editors and writers who say “my boss would never let me do that.”?

Hard to say how we’ve been able to maintain our relative editorial independence. Winning 10 Sibleys helps. The magazine was founded 62 years ago on the premise of being allowed to operate as a “real” magazine, and though that’s not written into any bylaws, it has been mostly respected by every administration since. There is sort of an unwritten agreement here: administration keeps interference to a minimum, and in exchange I don’t surprise them.

If we plan a story that might be controversial or provocative in some way, I alert them to what’s coming. By no means do I have autonomy, and I always have to carefully navigate the political waters, but I try to be thoroughly professional at all times and produce an excellent magazine, and hope that buys me the space I need to keep doing it.

Can you give an example of a provocative or controversial story that fit this description? How did you let your bosses or the administration know what you were doing? Did you have a specific way of talking through your goals for the story that gave you the leeway you needed while also convincing others that you were all on the same team and that they could trust you?

Years ago, Johns Hopkins put something in the lungs of a healthy research volunteer for an asthma study, and it killed her. Subsequent reviews, both internal and external, found deadly flaws in the IRB protocol and the informed consent. It was excruciating for the institution. The editor at the time approached senior administration and told them the magazine had to write about this and had to do it right. That was a rare instance of senior administration reviewing a piece before publication—ordinarily we grant no one that privilege—because of our legal exposure at the time.

I wrote 8,000 words which we put on the cover, and it was the CASE article of the year and resulted in a lot of credit going to the administration for being so open and candid. When we alert our VP to a possibly controversial piece, we don’t pitch it in terms of our goals, etc., because our only goal, always, is to be a great magazine. The alert is more along the lines of “just so you know, we’re planning a story on ___.” We only make a pitch if we get pushback. The administration trusts our judgement and professional record.

Not every editor or on-staff writer has the confidence or administrative flexibility that you do to pull off a really big story. But let’s say they want to aim in that direction. What assignment would you give writers or editors who want to take that next step to kick a story to a new level, even if it’s just 400 words, or 1,000? What is a concrete thing they can do today or this week to make their story, say, 10 percent better than it was?

Easy. Double the reporting. With a lot of writers and magazines, that means merely doing a second interview.

Most stories that fail do so because of inadequate reporting. If you think two phone calls will suffice to produce a story, make 10 calls. Then make an 11th, because time and again I’ve found that the 11th call, the one I really didn’t feel like making, provides some clincher detail that makes a story. It’s perverse, but true. Hang out, hang out, hang out. Interview and observe your subject in a variety of settings, not just her office, but over coffee, over lunch, at her house, in her lab; watch her teach classes; watch her meet with grad students. Find out her dog’s name, look at what she has on the refrigerator door or the walls of her office, see how she interacts with her kids, have follow-up conversations by phone or email. Observe and take notes on everything. Read her writing. Talk to her colleagues. Talk to her rivals. Talk to her former doctoral students. Then, when you’re sick of the whole subject, call her again. It’s the only way.