Please welcome to the Editor’s Q&A corner Narratively Deputy Editor, Lilly Dancyger. Lilly shares with us the types of stories they are most interested in, what they mean by ‘ordinary people with extraordinary stories’, pieces potential contributors should read, payment details and more!
Q: Narratively has been around since 2012, and in my experience, once a writer becomes a reader, they dream about writing for you. Tell us about the site and how it is different from other sites that publish nonfiction.
A: I feel like we’re somewhere in between a typical news site and a literary magazine. We’re not as focused on the news cycle as straight news publications (we do love a good timely story, but not everything has to have a timely hook to work for us), but we’re also not as freeform as some literary magazines (even though we don’t stick to the news cycle, we do want every piece to teach the reader something new).
Every Narratively story has to have a compelling central character (or a few of them); a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end; and it has to be something we haven’t seen elsewhere. We want the under-the-radar stories about outsiders and weird niches — what we call “ordinary people with extraordinary stories.”Write about 'ordinary people with extraordinary stories' for Narratively - here's how: Click To Tweet
Q: I know you used to use themes to direct submissions. What should writers be aware of as far as themes or submission topics?
A: We used to stick very strictly to weekly themes, but we’ve moved away from that model. We do still put out calls based on themes, mostly to get writers’ minds moving and to give people a sense of the kinds of stories we get excited about. A few of the past themes that we now call “collections” and are always excited to add to are “Humans Behind the Headlines” (stories that go behind the scenes and below the surface of big, current news stories), “The Naked Truth” (revelations about sex, sexuality or gender that expose a larger truth about all of us), and “Secret Lives” (the people who make things happen behind the scenes, detailed accounts of the jobs you never think about). But we always want to hear a good story, regardless of whether it fits in with any of our themes.
A good way to get a sense of the topics we’re most interested in is to browse the “Channels” that you see in the drop-down menu at the top of our homepage.
Q: Based on the caliber of writing I read on Narratively, I am guessing it is pretty competitive for writers. Do you have any stats on how many pieces get accepted vs. how many submissions come in?
A: It is pretty competitive, and we reject a lot of pieces, but a very large number of those come from people who clearly haven’t read our guidelines (find our “what we’re looking for” and “what we’re not looking for” lists here).
I don’t have exact numbers for you, but I’d estimate that we accept about 15% of what comes in.
Q: Tell us about the format published pieces on Narratively often take.
A: We publish a variety of formats, including photo essay, video, and comics. The most common are reported features and personal essays. Whatever the format, they all share the elements listed above (compelling human character, clear narrative arc, and fresh/surprising angle). The amount of reporting required for the reported pieces varies from spending a few hours with the subject of a profile to conducting several interviews over a period of months — it all depends on the story!
Q: What 2-3 pieces would you suggest potential contributors read to get a feel for what has resonated strongly with your readers?
A: For personal essays I would recommend these three:
I Went to the Hospital to Give Birth… And Tested Positive for Meth (one of our most popular stories of all time)
The most important thing to note about these pieces — which I cannot stress enough — is that they’re truly extraordinary stories that could only be told by these writers. There are too many personal essays out there that could have been written by thousands of other people, and are just a slightly-tweaked rehashing of already well-traveled ground. We do not want those.
For reported features, I would recommend:
These three show the range of styles of reported pieces we publish, from the in-depth, epic feature, to the more classic news feature (but still with a narrative), to a shorter/lighter profile. The thing to note about these is that while they’re all very different in style and scope, they’re all truly untold stories, not just a slightly different take on the same story every one else is running. (Seeing a pattern here?)
Q: Narratively showcases writing from writers all over the world. Where are you headquartered and how have you encouraged submissions from around the globe?
A: We’re based in Brooklyn, and actually started as a New York-centric publication, but there was such demand from both readers and writers that we quickly expanded to cover stories from all over the world. Thankfully, people have noticed that, and see us as a destination for the out-of-the-way stories that might not get as much play in other U.S. publications.
Q: Narratively pays for published work. Can you tell us more about that and also any of the other reasons you personally think people submit to Narrative.ly when there are such a range of sites out there accepting writing?
A: Yes, we pay for every story. We pay $150 for personal essays, and start at $200 for reported pieces (though we go higher for the really in-depth pieces, what we call “epic features”).
I know that a lot of our writers keep pitching us because we give them room to run with their passion projects. We’ll take the oddball stories that don’t quite fit in with more mainstream publications. And while we don’t let stories run long just for the sake of it, we do have more flexibility with word counts than a lot of other outlets out there.
Q: Once someone submits, how quickly are they like to hear a yes or no back?
A: We aim to get back to everyone within a month — it’s usually much faster than that, and occasionally a little slower. We also have a special category on Submittable for time sensitive stories, but we ask that writers don’t use that category unless their piece has a seriously short-term news peg; meaning that it’s tied to something that’s in the news RIGHT NOW, and will no longer be relevant a week from now.
Q: Time magazine named you one of the 50 best websites in 2013, which I remembered from when I interviewed your Editorial Director back in 2014. What exciting things have happened in terms of news and press for Narratively since then?
A: Columbia Journalism Review called us one of the “11 best experiments in journalism” last year, and we were official honorees for Best Writing in the 2014 and 2015 Webby Awards!
Q: You teach memoir writing and are working on your own memoir. What advice would you offer to writers who have the goal of writing a memoir, but are not sure where and how to start?
A: Yes, I teach memoir writing at Gotham Writers Workshop, and my memoir about researching my father’s life, art, addiction, and death is going to be published by Shanti Arts Press either late 2017 or early 2018!
I wish I had a magic bullet that would make memoir writing simple and easy, but the best advice I can give is to just start writing. If you want to write a memoir, it’s probably because you have a story that you’re dying to tell — so just start telling the story! You can worry about how all of the pieces will fit together later. It’s easy to get bogged down or intimidated by the prospect of structuring and finishing a book, so sometimes the best way to tackle it is one piece at a time. Personal essays can also be a good way in to figuring out which parts of your story are the most important and interesting, and they can always be adapted into chapters later.
Q: What’s next for Narratively?
A: We’re currently pushing to do more Humans Behind the Headlines stories; that is, stories that are relevant to the current news cycle, but still go behind and beyond it, to bring something fresh and new to the conversation. The ultimate example I always give of this kind of story is Jimmy Breslin’s story about the man who dug JFK’s grave.
A few that we’ve done recently are:
We’re also looking into expanding our storytelling into print, podcasts, and film. More on that soon!