Event Recap: What Makes an Article Exceptional?

Columbia Journal hosted a virtual panel of industry experts to discuss the intricacies of writing, editing and publishing. The two-hour conversation sought to provide answers to the big question of the day: how do editors choose what to publish?

The speakers included Marisa Siegal (Editor-in-Chief, The Rumpus), James Marcus (Former Editor-in-Chief, Harper’s), Geeta Kothari (Nonfiction Editor, Kenyon Review), Sari Botton (Essays Editor, Longreads), and James Yeh (Features Editor, The Believer). 

To an audience of over 140 graduates and current students across all of Columbia’s schools, the editors shared their writing journey, before delving into various aspects of exceptional writing to an audience of nearly 150 current and incoming students of Columbia’s MFA program. 

On Exceptional Articles

Sari Botton: “I love beautiful writing and a great story. I look for pieces where the author has taken control of the narrative and made meaning of the story. I am a sucker for something that is formally interesting.” Sari went on to note that she also looks for a story that isn’t necessarily about a remarkable event, but has the power to make us look at an ordinary event in a remarkable way.

James Yeh: “A human story that shows what the struggle is, but also the joys and surprises, because that’s life.” 

James Marcus: “Most types of writing will benefit from a strong narrative pulse. There has to be a sense of something unfolding and there needs to be something surprising or counterintuitive to a piece of writing. It should not leave you exactly where you started, it should modify your thinking.” 

Marisa Siegal: “What makes an article exceptional has to do with form, its structure, [and]articles that use structure in interesting ways to tell its story.”

On Exceptional Braided Essays

Kothari Geeta: “It has to be a combination of things. Language is really important.” Geeta says she wants to feel that an essay is taking her somewhere. “Even when the essay takes a different direction, it should still  grab your attention.”

James Yeh: “I trust you as the writer to take me on a journey [to] somewhere new.”

Sari Botton: “Attention spans are hard won. In the first three paragraphs, the reader has to have a sense of where the story is going.”

Marisa Siegal: “Research and personal experience builds a hybrid essay. Those pieces are really interesting to me, and what makes them successful is…that the research makes sense alongside the personal story.” 

James Marcus: “There has to be a real high-wire balancing of elements, and they need to be in service to each other in some way. If you feel like the research part could be detached and thrown away, it’s probably extraneous.”

Best Craft Advice

Sari Botton: “Don’t be in a rush. Keep asking yourself: what question does your essay see to ask or answer? You don’t want to be publishing half-baked [stories].”

James Marcus:

“Listen to your own instincts, what matters to you, what excites passion and urgency in you. It has to matter to you urgently, otherwise it will not matter to the reader. Don’t just write for the marketplace.”

James Yeh: “Remember what is important to you, but also remember to be like water; your form might change.” He also spoke to the idea of the in-betweens of a story, how varied perspectives, small dosages of humor, significant details, could alter the way an article is looked at. While going over the slush pile, he looks for a sense of trust and often asks: “Does the writer value the reader’s time?”

Marisa Siegal: “I need to make sure I’m ready to write about something…it shouldn’t be painful to write the draft you’re sending out. It might be painful to write some of what got you there, but write something that you feel ready to write.”

The event was organised with cosponsorship from Our Word and moderated by Raad Rahman, Columbia Journal’s Editor-in-Chief, 2020-21.

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