Short, shopworn adjectives that make your descriptions of places more concise, but which do little to convey anything: words like vast, tidy, dim. Editors love them, but they are so common they have become clichés in most use-cases. I always try to do an adjective review of a story before it publishes. I ask: Does this word help the reader see or hear the scene better? Or is it fluff? But I nevertheless usually end up regretting one or two when I read the published version. Watch your adjectives!
I read everything aloud. Every major draft. One, you need to hear how your writing sounds. The roots of storytelling are oral. Two, the longer you spend with a piece of writing, the more familiar it becomes, and the more likely you are to miss errors and infelicities. Reading aloud is a way of defamiliarizing the test, of estranging yourself from it.
Ein Text von dir, den du heute anders schreiben würdest?
There are changes I would make to everything I’ve published. That’s the beauty of publishing something. You get to stop thinking about it. And when I do look back on a published story and find things I would change, it tells me I've improved as a writer.
Auf welchen deiner Texte bist du heute stolz?
I’m forgetful, so usually my most recent project. In this case, an interactive feature for The New Yorker on reeducation and detention in Xinjiang, China, which I began reporting 14 months ago in Kazakhstan.
Gutes Redigieren heißt für dich…?
Good editors anticipate the responses of your best and worst readers. They stop you from embarrassing yourself. They know just how far to indulge you and are usually the ones who can say when a piece arrives at “good enough.”
Eine Schreib-/Erzähl-Konvention, die wir alle mal überdenken sollten?
Withholding information from the reader for dramatic effect—it can work in fiction but almost never in reported non-fiction, a genre defined by the accumulation and structuring of information. In general, I am allergic to the use of novelistic plot conventions in nonfiction, but especially those that mislead the reader or artificially delay their understanding.
Welchen Text einer anderen Person hättest du gern selbst geschrieben?
Lots and lots. Let’s go with my friend Jen Percy’s “The Lost Ones”, a perfect magazine story.
In a slightly more unconventional vein, Rivka Galchen’s profile of César Aira is a character study I return to over and over.
Schönster erster Satz…?
First sentences are much easier than last sentences, but for some reason editors are pickier about beginnings than endings. So it's rare to come across a really surprising one. With any long-form story, you are often coerced to begin in scene, so I’m attracted to stories that manage not to. Here’s a recent opener I liked by Jordan Kisner, from an article for the New York Times Magazine on an "autopsy crisis" due to the lack of medical examiners in the US:
“Say you are found on your bathroom floor, on the grassy knoll of someone else’s front yard, in the berth of your tractor-trailer, in your own bed, at the foot of a bridge, under a car wheel, in the car, caught in the bend of a river, collapsed in the bar, alone in the remains of a scorched kitchen.”
I like the rush and crash of these different possible scenes, the slightly irregular rhythm of the clauses, certain odd repetitions, all of it under the banner of the informal, unpretentious opening words: "Say you are...". There's death and drama even in this little characterless inventory.
Geheimtipp, der jeden Text besser macht?
[Repeated from above] Read everything aloud. Every major draft. You need to both hear how your writing sounds and slow down your mind’s processing of words that are familiar to you.
Was liest du gerade?
Nonfiction: I’ve really fallen in love with Tim Robinson, an English writer of place who like Portis died in 2020 and mostly wrote about Ireland—the Aran Islands and Connemara. He’s a descriptive magician, can do seemingly anything.
Welche Unterschiede fallen Dir zwischen deutschen und amerikanischen Reportagen auf?
An obvious one: “Long-form” writing is longer, often much longer, in the US than in German media. I don't know why, as I think of German readers as having on average more patience, and reading more widely in terms of physical newspapers and magazines. I also think journalists in Germany have a tougher job. In the US, we Americans tend to chat freely and at length about themselves. We like the idea of being in print. People are less concerned about privacy and about the motivations of a nosy journalist. So, for a journalist working in Germany to get access to someone's inner life, as you have to try to do for a narrative piece of writing, is, on average, more difficult.
Ben Mauk, der uns gerade mit einer Geschichte über inhaftierte Uiguren in China auffiel, lebt in Berlin und schreibt für den New Yorker, das New York Times Magazine und Harper’s. Er war in der Endauswahl des National Magazine Awards 2018 und 2002, 2019 gewann er den ersten „Jamal Khashogi Award für Courageous Journalism“. Er ist der Direktor des Berlin Writer’s Workshop, der Kurse für Fiction- und Non-Fiction-Schreiben anbietet.