How to win a National Magazine Award

Nut graph or no? We crunch the numbers on three decades of ASME-winning feature writing. It’s not science. Not exactly.

The Rewrite
Jan 25, 2016 · 12 min read

By Burt Helm and Max Chafkin

We’ve always been fans of the annual feature writing awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors. The database of winning stories is a trove of great nonfiction. And for the past two years, we’ve interviewed many of the nominees for the award to hear about how they reported and created their stories, and even done a pick ’em show, where we choose winners like most people try to guess the Oscars.

This year, we decided to up our nerd game further and, in the mode of Nate Silver’s politics website, FiveThirtyEight, looked at the winning stories as if they were data — to unlock the scientific secrets to masterful writing. Or at least generate some amusing factoids that we can toss out to sound knowledgeable when there’s a lull in conversations with our editors. The nominees for the 2016 awards in feature writing were announced last week. They are “Spun,” by Steve Friedman, “Here We Are,” by Scott Blackwood, “The Education of Alex Rodriguez,” by J.R. Moehringer, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller, “The Hustlers at Scores,” by Jessica Pressler, “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield,” by Daniel Engber, and “The Really Big One,” by Kathryn Schulz.

But which will prevail when the winner is announced next week? To try to predict, we took a look at 25 previous winners in the feature writing category—every winner since 1988 except three (Harper’s! Put your stories online!). We looked at how the award winners handled aspects of everyday writing, like tense and voice, and we took note of which ones followed magazine conventions (or cliches, depending on how you feel about them). We tabulated the number of anecdotal ledes, kicker quotes, and nut graphs—those hefty explanatory sections that writers (generally) hate and that editors (mostly) love, explaining Why You Are Reading This Story. We also tracked at swear words — employing the well-known Carlin Standard — which seemed like an interesting measure of writerly extravagance (or perhaps, self-indulgence). Also: We lack maturity.

So here you go: The six definitive steps to writing a feature story that wins the National Magazine Award — along with The Rewrite’s pick of this year’s winner, based, not on our emotional responses (untrustworthy!) or on the artfulness of the storytelling (what is art, anyway?), but on hard science. Also we assume this piece means we can now change our twitter bios to include the title “data journalist.”

Step 1: Write at no fewer than 6,500 words.

The median length of the winners was 10,209 words. Here’s a look at the distribution:

As you can see, half of the features fell in the range of 8,000 to 12,500 words. The longest, Pamela Colloff’s 27,752-word “The Innocent Man” took the record by a good 4,000 words. It’s not impossible to win an award without writing long, but it is exceedingly rare. The shortest story to take home an Ellie was the 2006 winner Genome Tome by Priscilla Long, at just 3,931 words. The next shortest was 6,706 words (Home by Chris Jones, which won in 2005).

This is interesting because few publications — besides a handful of titles like The New Yorker, Esquire, and GQ —assign features much longer than 5,000 words, and because 2015 may prove to be an exception. Of the 2015 crop of nominees, Scott Blackwood’s “Here We Are” is the shortest, at 4,208 words, and three of the others, “Spun,” “The Really Big One,” and “Hustlers at Scores,” all came in under 7,500 (they were 6,114, 6,104 and 7,220 words respectively). The other three were all over 10,000 words. J.R. Moerhinger’s Rodriguez story was the longest, with 12,191 words.

Step 2: Skip the stylized present tense

As writers who have worked for publications that often employ the literary present tense, we were really surprised by this trend. Overall, 17 of the 25 stories were set in the present tense (68%). But the present tense appears to be going out of style:

In the first decade of feature writing winners, from 1988 until 1997, all stories we looked at were written in the present tense except one, The Vietnam Story by Joseph Galloway. From 1998 until 2007, all stories were also in the present tense except one, The Marriage Cure by Katherine Boo. But from 2008 until now, it flipped: only two winners have been in the present tense. The other six winners were all set in past tense.

This year, two stories (“Here we Are,” the “Education of Alex Rodriguez”) are set in the present tense, three are in the past, and the last two “Spun” and “The Really Big One,” actually employ past, present, and even future fairly equally. Check out this lovely future-tense paragraph from Steve Friedman in “Spun”:

A wintry Wednesday afternoon. Dom and Judi holding hands on the bench, murmuring things to each other, and every so often Dom glances at the kid on the plasma screen catching air the Forgotten Samurai never caught, never will catch, and Dom looks okay with that. Judi will telephone her mom tomorrow morning, as she does most mornings. Dom will work on bikes, a few for free. Judi will turn 45 on July 30, and six days later, Dom will turn 42. They’ll celebrate with their families. Next week, Dom will hang out at Delhi Park where he’ll tell kids to always wear helmets, to not do stupid things like he did. He’ll call each one of the boys “little man.” It’s quiet at Spun this day, which is rare. If you’re the type of person who inclines toward anxiety, who tends toward rumination and angst, who in the past has done terrible, awful things to yourself just to find a little peace, but can’t do those things anymore, then this would be a good time to ruminate. To engage in silent battle with phantom demons. But there are dogs to feed, numbers to crunch. There is inventory to order. There are bikes and broken lives to mend. Demons will have to wait.

and this terrifying one from Schulz:

Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off — or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.

Step 3: Write in the second person, if you dare.

The most common voice, unsurprisingly, was the third person—12 of the 25 employed it. But five of the 25 used the second person throughout their stories and only six of them used the first person. This surprised us. Maybe it surprises you.

Also, I know what you’re saying, 5+6+12=23, not 25. That’s because Gary Smith (who won for SI in ’92) and Chris Jones (who won for Esquire in ’05) used this weird hybrid voice thing where they switched back and forth between the second and third voices. So we counted them in their own group. To break that out:

That means, more authors ended up using the 2nd person in award-winning magazine stories than first. Weird, isn’t it?

This year, only Scott Blackwood took the dare and employed the second-person. Pressler used the first-person a handful of times, and everyone else played it safe and used the good old third person.

Step 4: Go easy on the magazine cliches

We skimmed all of the stories to check out the prevalence of some magazine conventions. Of the 25 winners we looked at, 14 (56%) employed some form of anecdotal lede, which we took to mean a scene in progress in which there were characters, speaking and acting somehow. Only nine of the winners (36%) used a nut graf — a paragraph or two that explained how the story fits into the context of some larger news, or otherwise interrupts the flow of the story to explain its importance. Nut graphs are widely mocked by writers, but they’re not always a slog. For instance, read this elegant one from Ben Ehrenreich’s 2012 piece, “The End”:

Even here in Los Angeles, in the glow of so much newness, [Death] takes 60,000 of us each year. That’s 164 each day. Imagine them all lying side by side, napping forever without a snore. The sun goes down and rises again, and 164 more are sleeping beside them, resting cheeks on shoulders, ears on arms. One day you will join their still parade.

Kicker quotes—ending the story with a quotation, in other words—were even less common than nut graphs. Just six of the stories employed those.

Still, 76% of the stories used at least one of these conventions, and two of the winners used all three: Paul Hoffman with 1988’s The Man Who Loves Only Numbers, and Tom Junod with 1995’s The Abortionist.

When writers didn’t start with anecdotes, how did they begin? Several focused on some image or object very closely. For instance, Tom Junod begins his 1996 winner this way:

The first thing that strikes you about Mitch Gaff is his voice. The voice is not merely soft, not merely sincere, not merely considerate, not merely kind — it is the essence of softness, sincerity, consideration and kindness. It is the kind of voice that seems incapable of telling a lie, mustering aggression or even allowing itself the freedom of an insult. It is the kind of voice that begs you to trust it, that pleads with you to trust it, and if you heard it on the street, or in a bar, you would trust it, immediately. It is the voice of the nicest guy you’ve ever met. It is a voice Mitch Gaff has put together — has devised and constructed — with great care, great courage, great effort, and at the cost of great pain, and that is why he is horrified and heartbroken when he opens his thoughtful mouth, starts speaking in his thoughtful syllables and scares the living hell out of people.

This year, every writer used an anecdotal lede except for Blackwood with “Here We Are.” (He began by asking several questions about the runaway slave who founded Pembroke, Illinois, where his story is set). Three of the writers ended their stories with a quotation; four did not; and only Moerhinger and Schulz used a nut graph. Everybody used at least one magazine convention.

Step 5: Swear sparingly!

I know, you were scrolling down to find out with writer swore the most. We would too. It’s David Foster Wallace.

In his 2001 story following the John McCain campaign, David Foster Wallace wrote “fuck” three times, “piss” another three, and the words shit or bullshit over 40 times.

To tabulate this, we searched for George Carlin’s seven dirty words, creating separate categories for swear words that were the writers’ own, as well as swears that happened to be included in quotations—such as in The Prince of Wildwood, an ASME-nominated profile with a wonderfully/horrifically crass main character. For those curious about the vulgar details of all the winners, we made a a full table explicating each writer’s foul mouth.

It should be noted that 13 of the ASME winners didn’t feel the need to swear at all, and with the exception of the top five above, everyone else had three or fewer curse words in their stories. It may also be heartening to know that the word “cocksucker” has never appeared in any story that has either won or been nominated for a feature writing prize. All the others have appeared once or more in nominated stories, though.

This year, three of the seven nominated stories were completely clean. The two most vulgar stories were Friedman’s story, Spun, with 10 Carlin curse words, and Pressler’s Scores piece, with 16 (five shits, one piss, nine fucks, and one motherfucker). Friedman cursed 5 times himself and quoted his sources cursing 5 times. Of Pressler’s 16, just five were hers, but Pressler’s story is just the third time since 1988 a writer has employed the word “motherfucker” outside of a quotation in an ASME-nominated feature story (the other two are here and here). If she is victorious on Feb. 1, the story will be the first to use the word and win.

Another interesting note: J.R. Moehringer’s piece was relatively clean compared to Friedman and Pressler’s work—he swore only six times (shit three times, piss once, and fuck twice)—but his story actually came with an explicit language warning at the top. Chalk that up to the publication being owned by Disney, perhaps.

Step 6: Don’t Publish in January, March, or September

Ok, this observation is more tenuous, verging on stupid (not that the others weren’t). But we were interested if there was an “ASME season” — a month or season when most feature winners got published, similar to how most Oscar-nominated films are released late in the year. There isn’t, really.

There were no winners in three months, though: January, March, and September. This year, two of the nominated stories were published in December, one in June, one in July, one in October, and one in November. Only J.R. Moerhinger’s “The Education of Alex Rodriguez” was published in the unlucky month of March. Good luck, J.R.

So, Who’s Gonna Win?

By this point, if you haven’t already, you’ve noticed this analysis may not be exactly up to the FiveThirtyEight standard. But we’ve made it this far, so we better go the full Nate Silver and pick a winner based on our observations.

Based on our myopically quantitative analysis, we’re going with “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield.” It’s close to the median ASME length, at 10,546 words. Per New York Times Magazine convention, it’s set in the past tense and the third person, and it steers totally clear of naughty words. And hey, it was even published in October, the most popular month for winners. As our second choice we’ll go with “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller. It checks nearly all the boxes, too: It clocks in at 11,836 words, it’s set in the past tense and third person, it’s clean, and it was published in the ASME-friendly month of December. It does end with a quotation, which is uncommon among winners, but not unheard of. We’re really looking forward to actually reading it.

Another observation: The winners are predominantly men — especially in the last few years

Eighteen of the winners — 67% — were men. At first we thought that maybe this was a vestige of the old days. It’s not.

Only one woman, Pamela Colloff, has won the category since 2009. The last drought like this was in the late 1990’s, when Clara Claiborne was the only woman to win in a span of six years. We didn’t want to write “Be a man” as one of the steps to winning an ASME, but we didn’t want to leave out this observation either. So we leave it here, as a gentle WTF for the award’s future selection committees.

In the coming weeks we’ll be interviewing every 2016 nominee on our podcast, The Rewrite (go on, subscribe!) and discussing these stories in much more substantive ways—assuming none of these writers cancel on us after reading this.

Burt Helm and Max Chafkin are writers based in New York City. You can follow them on Twitter at @burthelm, @chafkin, and @rewritepodcast.

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