How to Write Better: A Peek Inside Investigative Journalist Will Carless’ Award-Winning Career


From examining book bans across America to white supremacy and online hate groups, the January 6 insurrection, and many compelling issues in between, investigative journalist Will Carless not only has a penchant for an important story, but also feels a civic obligation to uncover the truth to ensure fairness, accuracy, transparency, and accountability.

As a veteran national and international correspondent, he serves as a public watchdog of sorts by uncovering the intricate details of extremism and current events or emerging issues -- these days, his byline can be found in USA TODAY.

In his two decades in the profession, the award-winning journalist -- who has interviewed presidents, hardcore neo-Nazis, international superstars, and fishermen on the Amazon river -- has worked in newspapers, radio, television, and feature films.

“I got into this career because of the altruism of it. I wanted to make the world a better place,” Carless said. “These days I’m less starry-eyed than I used to be. But I have to spend eight hours of my day doing something; I could spend eight hours doing something that doesn’t change or improve the world. At least I’m doing something that informs people.”

Imparting Expertise

Carless believes that part of that mission should include sharing his expertise with others, including aspiring journalists and those who want to hone their writing and interviewing skills.

One way he does that is by teaching two courses for UC San Diego Extended Studies: The Writer's Art of Interviewing, which he began teaching during summer quarter 2023, and News and Feature Writing, which he will start teaching during winter quarter 2024. Both online courses are elective options within the Professional Certificates in Creative Writing and Science Communication programs. “The Writer’s Art of Interviewing” is also an elective within the Content Marketing Specialized Certificate program.

Following the Path to the Next Story

For both of his courses, Carless pulls from his journalist playbook, one that spans across the globe. Carless -- who was packing for a weekend trip to Mexico City during this interview -- has traveled to more than 80 countries, reporting in most of them. Before joining USA TODAY in 2020, he was a correspondent covering extremism at Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting. Before that, he worked as a foreign correspondent for Public Radio International in South and Central America and was also the Head of Investigations at the Voice of San Diego.

Born in New York, Carless spent most of his youth in Brazil and then England and didn’t have his sights set on journalism - at first. It was after earning a law degree at the University of Exeter that he discovered he wanted to be a journalist and not an attorney. It turned out to be a good choice. Launching his journalism career in 2003 as the Arts & Culture Editor at the La Jolla Light, he has won several international and national awards for his investigative reporting.

The globetrotting journalist shared some of his career highlights so far, some of which he has explained more in-depth in his Art of Interviewing course.

“I was standing only a few feet away from Dilma Rousseff in Brazil when she was impeached. That was a historic moment,” he said. “I was also pretty much held up at gunpoint in Brazil, which was a hairy moment. I covered Obama’s visit to Jakarta, which was cool.”

Mining the “Gold”

While he has had some once-in-a-lifetime moments, Carless said a big part of being a foreign correspondent is “putting yourself at the right place and right time. It’s jumping on a plane and staying in a crappy hotel room and jumping on a motorbike and finding someone who will talk to you.”

Another memorable assignment Carless likes to share with his students is when he was in a refugee camp on the side of a mountain in Indonesia where people had escaped the lava from an erupted volcano.

“People in Indonesia tend to be very shy and people won’t talk unless they are addressed. It’s very important even if people haven't said anything to acknowledge everyone who is there,” he said. “I went around the circle and asked everybody their name and one guy had his daughter on his lap. He hadn’t said a word. I asked his name and age and his daughter’s name and age. His daughter's name was interesting -- Wahyu Lavania. It means born from the lava. She was born in this refugee camp three years ago when they were also escaping the volcano. That was a memorable interview. The lesson I learned is you do the formalities because you never know what’s going to come out of it. Sometimes you get some gold.”

That “gold” became the lead for Carless’ article, which was published in the New York Times. Here’s an excerpt:

Karjono knows the Umbulharjo evacuation camp well. It was here, four years ago, while his family was seeking shelter from Mount Merapi’s last spate of eruptions, that his first daughter was born into the chilly mountain air. Mr. Karjono, a hollow-faced 34-year-old farmer from the tiny village of Pangurejo, two kilometers, or a little over a mile, from Merapi’s fiery crater, named his daughter Wahyu Lavania — “A Revelation from the Lava.”

On Thursday night, Lavania huddled against her father and tried to sleep as the evacuation camp hummed around her. The family was among the victims of twin natural disasters that caused havoc in separate parts of the Indonesian archipelago this week.

Sharing Compelling Tales

Carless likes to use this example during his course to show the ingredients of a compelling story.

“In the class, we break down what makes a good story, before we even think about interviewing. It has to be original, informative and engaging,” he said. “I want people to leave my class with some real practical knowledge.”

Some of his students are aspiring book authors while others are science writers who want to improve their interviewing skills.

“I've been incredibly impressed with the variety of my students and how accomplished and smart they are,” he said. “I have a lot of professionals who want to do more writing. I’ve had a couple of post-graduate students who want to be science journalists. My ideal student is someone who is going to use these skills the next day.”

Building an Equipment Checklist

Carless also gives tips on what kind of equipment needed to prepare for an interview: such as a recorder, laptop, battery charger, backup battery for your phone, snacks, and a water bottle.

“You should have a checklist,” he said. “It has taken me 20 years to make sure I have this stuff in my bag ready to go.”

Inspiring and Informing

To some extent, Carless hopes both of his courses will also encourage a new crop of savvy writers who will carry on the torch. While he says the heydays of journalism were “much more swashbuckling and sexy than it is now,” a well-informed and well-written story can help inspire meaningful discussions and even change.

“There are major American communities now with no local news source. It’s pretty terrifying,” he said. “Journalists are like teachers and educators. We put out information so society can make greater informed decisions. It's a small cog in the wheel, but it’s an important one. I’m still proud to be doing it.”

Creative Writing and Content Marketing Certifications

UC San Diego Extended Studies Professional Certificate in Creative Writing is designed for students and professionals to practice and master the art and craft of good writing, imparting skills to write in a variety of genres. Core creative writing courses are balanced with select electives in areas like Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, Children’s Writing, Poetry, and/or The Business of Writing in order to develop more specific skills.

The Specialized Certificate in Science Communication is designed to provide current and future science professionals with the skills to communicate effectively about science from a journalistic perspective. Students will learn the art of making science relevant and more accessible to different audiences.

The Content Marketing Certificate program is aimed towards strategic storytelling skills for the creation and distribution of content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and targeted audience. Students learn how to drive profitable customer action by building and retaining audiences and increasing ROI (return-on-investment) through the development of valuable and accessible content.

Posted: 11/14/2023 6:41:33 PM with 0 comments

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