A Q&A with Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff on being a chiseler, advocacy vs. accuracy, and women’s magazines
by Meagan Flynn
At the close of 2012, Pamela Colloff, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, punched in one of the most—if not the most—important pieces of journalism of the year at a staggering 28,000 words. The two-part story, “The Innocent Man,” placed Colloff among the elites of magazine writers as she took home the Ellie for Feature Writing at the National Magazine Awards this spring. Crime writing has been Colloff’s specialty in her 16 years at Texas Monthly, but in this Q&A, we extend the conversation to Colloff’s writing and reporting styles in general (OK, minus Question 1)—along with discussion about advocacy journalism and the debate over women’s magazines.
In addition to this Q&A, Colloff graciously spent close to two hours with the other Texas Monthly interns and I talking about how she crafted “The Innocent Man,” and she offered plenty of useful advice for aspiring writers. The full, minimally-edited conversation is available here in PDF format.
Meagan Flynn: I know that we talked about what got you into narrative longform writing [see PDF link], but I was wondering, what specifically got you into crime writing? What do you like so much about it?
Pamela Colloff: What interests me about crime stories is they usually take your average people and put them in a very extreme situation. They’re never boring stories. Any great narrative has conflict, and you can’t have more conflict than a crime story—or especially a murder story. That just fascinates me—that sort of conflict and what people do in situations that they might not normally be in, or what pushes them to that extreme. Exploring that is fascinating. And then exploring wrongful convictions in particular is fascinating to me for obvious reasons. It’s just because I can’t imagine ever being in that position myself. It’s such a subversion of how our system’s supposed to work. So that’s fascinating. It’s fascinating on a policy level, and it’s fascinating on a personal level.
MF: We kind of talked about, specifically, how you put together “The Innocent Man” and whatnot, but I was wondering about your writing process in general: What’s the most challenging part of it for you?
PC: I love reporting, and I hate writing. So for me, the hard part is stopping the reporting part of it. I mean, I could report every story for a year. There’s so many details and so many layers to things, and each person leads to finding other people. When you do sit down to write, because you’re not writing a book, there are gaps in what you know, and there are these holes—and that’s what drives me crazy. I usually know when it’s time to transition to writing, but I have a hard time doing it, and I wish I could just report all the time. That would be the perfect job.
MF: I think it’s funny because, I wouldn’t say I have a difficulty stopping reporting, but after I do report, I sometimes have the urge to want to use all of it. And I think that’s what originally, as a younger person, got me into wanting to write long because I just wanted to use every bit of information I had. How do you sort it all out?
PC: I think it’s the most important thing you can learn as a magazine writer. You can do this tremendous amount of research—an absurd amount of research. But if you’re gonna make the story really interesting—a magazine story, not a book—and easy for people to digest, you have to whittle down what you have a lot. Not a little. But if you’re including most of your reporting in your story, something’s wrong. You may spend three hours talking to someone and use one quote, or you might use one detail that’s not in their voice that came from that. Obviously, that’s not a great use of your time. That’s not perfect if that happens. But to me, I’d always rather have the pacing of the story be really tight than to be showing off how many people I talked to. I try to actually hide the ball on that and just have a more omniscient voice of sort of, “Here’s what happened. Here’s what this is like,” instead of busying it with too many quotes and too many voices and too many “I went to see this person on this day” sort of phrases.
Cutting, cutting, cutting, is just so important. For me, a lot of being able to sit down to write is having confidence to know that I know enough about a subject to say something about it. So sometimes I’ll talk to a huge number of people, but I won’t, literally, in the end, use a lot of those interviews.
MF: Yeah, not talking to quote them but just to learn.
PC: Right. But when I hear the same thing from a certain number of people, then I feel like I know that that’s correct, and then I’m on the right path and I’m thinking the right things. But I don’t necessarily have to quote all of them or even say that I talked to them. So it’s kind of counterintuitive. Magazine writing is so much better when there aren’t a lot of quotes and when you say, in your voice, the information.
MF: Do you have a rule of thumb on deciding what from your interviews to use as direct quotes?
PC: I don’t think I have a rule. I’ve been trying to use quotes less and less and less. But sometimes I really want to use quotes if it’s the main character because I’m trying to establish that person’s character and flush out who they are for the reader. But aside from a main character, I try to not quote somebody unless it’s a really sort of revelatory statement. This is especially true if I’m doing a story outside of a big city, that the way that they speak, the language that they speak or the colloquialisms, really reflects the flavor of the place that I’m writing about. I always hope that quotes are like exclamation points. You want them to have a lot of impact when you do use them.
Conversely, sometimes, in the Morton story and the story about the lottery winners, I used extended quotes from my main characters. In both of those stories, there is an entire section that is narrated in an extremely long, multi-paragraph quote from the main person I’m writing about. And so they can be used in the opposite effect. But I try to quote less and less, to keep it more streamlined.
MF: I know you said you like to have that omniscient voice, but do you ever enjoy first-person writing, and do you have any tactics when you do?
PC: I really struggle with that. A lot of stories I’ve ended up having to end in the first person because I go and I meet somebody for the first time or— There’s a crime story I wrote years ago, where there was somebody who had never been arrested for a crime which he seemed to be guilty of, and I had to go knock on his door.
MF: Is that the priest one? [Unholy Act]
PC: Mhm. So there are times where I suddenly have to be in the narrative, but I try to keep myself out. I just feel like there’s some people who are really good at that, and I’ve always had an incredibly self-conscious first-person voice. It doesn’t come natural to me. Same reason I’m not good at personal essays. It’s just really awkward for some reason. But other people are great at it, and it works really well.
MF: Some of their best is in first person.
PC: Exactly. It just depends on what your voice is and what your strengths are. Some people should only write in the first person. And some people should never write in the first person—and probably some fall in between.
MF: So after you finish your reporting, what is your first step? Technically speaking, how do you organize? Do you have like a master organizer, or what do you do?
PC: I dump everything into one Word document. I have notes to myself, moments in interviews that really stuck out, maybe clippings from newspapers, and important moments in the larger subject that I’m writing about. That helps me when I do fact-checking later.
But the main thing I’m doing is trying to figure out the first paragraph, and I just spend so much time on that. I don’t recommend that at all. It’s a stupid way of working.
MF: No, that’s what I do. I can’t move on unless I have a lead.
PC: To me, it’s like the foundation of a house: Until the foundation’s done, I can’t build. But I’m not saying that that’s the right way. I wish I were someone who could write a really sloppy first draft and then go back and write a slightly less sloppy second draft. But I’m more of chiseler. So I spend an inordinate amount of time on the first paragraph and an inordinate amount of time on the first section—and then a slightly less inordinate amount of time on the second section. By the time I get to the third section, my deadline is really soon, and then I write the rest of the story in sort of a panic. But by the time I get to the third section, I know exactly what I need to do. I don’t know what every paragraph is, but I know generally what needs to happen. But it’s the beginning I get stuck on.
MF: I’m the same way. Have you ever read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts”?
PC: No I haven’t.
MF: I read it thinking, “No, it’s never going to happen.”
PC: When I try to do it, it doesn’t work.
MF: No. I compulsively edit every paragraph as I go.
I know we talked about that one technique that you use to contextualize things in their normal circumstances [see “The Innocent Man.”] Do you have any other go-to techniques that you use besides that one?
PC: I like not giving you all the information all at once. I like to give you enough information to keep you reading and then sort of slowly dole out those details through the rest of the story. But I have such a short attention span that I need to create enough suspense and momentum in the story to keep me going as a reader. So I try to do that as a writer. More and more, I’ve been trying to do first sections that aren’t like, “This is a story about—” and then a sort of summary paragraph or nut graf or whatever you want to call it. Instead, I like to settle into a pace where people want to keep reading, but they don’t know everything at first. And sometimes hiding the ball on certain things and revealing it later, that’s my favorite thing to think about—the way you drop those little bread crumbs and where.
MF: A lot of people have referred to “The Innocent Man” or “Innocence Lost” as kind of like “advocacy journalism.” What do you think about that?
PC: I was recently on a panel with a writer who said that my writing was sort of advocacy journalism in disguise—like that it didn’t announce that it was advocacy journalism, but that every sentence and paragraph had a very distinct point of view, and it was trying to get you to have a very distinct point of view about something. I sort of thought about that and—
MF: Was it—I know we sort of talked about this before—was that Tom Junod?
PC: Yeah. I thought that was really interesting. I hadn’t thought about that that way before. I guess I don’t think about it being advocacy journalism. I’m not going to get this quote right, but the quote I recently read by Michael Hastings was talking about how there was a difference between advocacy journalism and journalism that was intellectually honest. I think what he meant by that, or what I interpreted it to mean, was that, you know, obviously you present both sides of the story. But to give equal credence to both sides of the story sometimes isn’t honest, that sometimes there are—you want to present all the facts and let people come to their own conclusions—but there are times in the story when the facts being presented to you by people on one side of the case are not accurate. It’s your duty to point that out. And so I’m not sure that I really think of that being “advocate” as much as accurate, if that makes sense.
MF: No, definitely. Sometimes the balance of both sides is uneven, and you can’t make it even if it’s not.
PC: Like with “Innocence Lost,” that’s a great example, where I extensively interview the prosecutor. I quote him at length. I present his theory of the case and facts of the case as he saw it. But there were many things that he told me that literally were not supported by the police reports, by the testimony in the case, and so it’s my responsibility to point that out. Because I don’t think that doing that is being an advocate. I think doing that is being a journalist, just being responsible. I really don’t like the term advocacy journalism. I have to think more about why I don’t, because my stories definitely have a very distinct perspective.
MF: I didn’t really like the term either, so I was wondering what you thought of it.
PC: I guess I think of advocacy journalism as being—it can be so devoted to its cause that it’s not always paying attention to all of the facts. I feel like I try to do the opposite of that. I may exhaust you with all the details, but I want to put everything in there so you can make your own decision.
MF: One last question: What’s your opinion on all this stuff going around about women and “serious journalism” and the comparing between men and women’s magazines?
PC: I think that women’s magazines obviously do some really important work, and some great pieces, over the years, have come out of women’s magazines. But by and large, I don’t think anyone can deny that the men’s magazines and general interest magazines are where the most consistently ambitious, deeply reported stories are coming from. And I wish that the women’s magazines devoted more time and resources in the way that the men’s magazines do to some of these stories. In that discussion that happened a few weeks back, many of the examples of the stories in women’s magazines that were their best stories were 4,000 or 4,500 words long—and I’m not saying that a great story can’t be written at that length. But you’re just simply not going to get, generally speaking, the level of depth that you could at a longer length that GQ devotes to stories, that Esquire devotes to stories and general interest magazines—The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine—that other places do.
So I wish that the women’s magazines put more resources into longform consistently every month. I think it would help to cultivate women magazine writers. They are very heavy on the personal essay and the service pieces, and those are important and they have their place. But I think, while it was well-intentioned to do a lot of “Rah-rah here are great women writers, and here are great women editors,” that wasn’t the conversation that needed to be happening. The conversation that needed to be happening was, “Well why aren’t there more 8,000-word stories in these particular magazines about these particular subjects?” But I think a lot of people will disagree with me for saying that, from what I saw people writing on the Twittersphere and blogosphere.
MF: Yeah, it’s a rough subject right now. People are heated.
PC: I saw a lot of comments that said, “Men need to recognize women for what they’re doing,” and I was really disappointed in that. I just thought that there’s still a lot of room to be created for women writers and by women’s magazines and by female editors. That’s what I wish we were talking about. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
MF: You know, I had a discussion like this with a professor back when she was judging the National Magazine Awards, and there was all this drama about “We need more women writers to be nominated”—and it ended up being, I think, 50-50. But we kind of got into this discussion about why do people think that women have to write for women’s magazines and men write for men’s magazines. I think that’s were the misconception is, that like, OK, if women’s magazines are gonna have a role, then it’s not just women that have to fulfill it and not just men that have to do men’s. A woman can still write the 8,000-word story for GQ if she wants. I think that’s where my opinion lies.
PC: And I think if the story’s good enough, it will be in there. It would be nice if there were women’s magazines that cultivated talent in younger women writers and encouraged them to do those ambitious pieces so that there was more of a proving ground.
MF: Yeah, that’s what I wish all the time.
PC: I went to the CRMAs in May, and I went out to dinner the night before with a lot of the writers who were nominated at the City and Regional Magazine Awards, and it was 20 guys and me sitting at a table for dinner. It was like a scene out of Mad Men. I was like, “This is 2013. This is my reality.”
But it’s not true at Texas Monthly. I think it’s exactly 50-50 with the staff writers, and the female writers are doing every bit as much ambitious work as the men are. I think we have a really natural, good balance here, and you see that at New York magazine. You see that at The New York Times Magazine. I just wish there was more of that.
MF: Well it seems like a breaking point kind of time right now.
PC: Yeah. I just got really turned off by all the “You need to recognize what we’re doing! Men are not recognizing our achievements.”
MF: Yeah, it kind of just seems dumb that we’re even having to have the discussion in the first place, where it’s like, why don’t women just—instead of being upset about it—just write it if you want to. There’s nothing that says, “Women can’t do that.”
PC: No, and maybe this is naïve of me, but I think if you have a killer story idea and you’re a great writer, you’re gonna get to write it where you want to write it. I don’t think a male editor is gonna be like, “I can’t assign that to you because you’re a woman.”
MF: Yeah, I would really hope not.
See the latest Beyond The New Yorker review on Pamela Colloff’s 2002 story “A Bend in the River” here.