Chip Scanlan/Poynter Institute for Media Studies
STORYTELLING ON DEADLINE
Four checklists of questions, tips and exercises
FINDING A FOCUS
The reporting is done, but what do all these notes mean? How do I find the FOCUS of the story?
— Back off. Put aside your notebooks and interview transcripts and reports, the whole pile. What you need to know, you will remember. What you forget probably wasn’t worth remembering. You’re the expert. Take a blank pad, put a fresh sheet in the typewriter, create a new Word file and start interviewing yourself.
— What’s the news?
— What’s the story?
— What information surprised me the most?
— What will surprise my reader?
— What one thing does my reader need to know?
— What one thing have I learned that I didn’t expect to learn?
— What can’t be left out of what I have to write?
— What one thing do I need to know more about?
— What can I say in one sentence that tells me the meaning of my story?
— Write a headline for your story.
— Write a title. In six words. (Not seven or eight or four.)
— What one thing – person, place, event, detail, fact, quotation – have I found that contains the essential meaning of the subject?
— How will my story help the reader?
— What image sticks in my mind and seems to symbolize the entire subject?
— What person, or face, do I remember from my reporting?
— What is the most important single fact I have learned?
— What is the most significant quotation I heard or read?
A FOCUS CHECKLIST
— What statistic sticks in my head?
— Tell an editor, a colleague, your spouse about the story, to hear for yourself what you say about it.
— How would the reader describe my story to a friend?
— Draft a lead to reveal the direction and voice of your story.
— Using Subject-Verb-Object (Who said or did what/What happened) draft a skeleton summary.
— Identify 5 Ws and an H (Who, What, When, Why, Where and How).
- Who is the character.
- What is plot.
- When is chronology.
- Why is motive.
- Where is place.
— Draft an end to give yourself a sense of destination.
— Write a theme paragraph (also known as “nut graph” or “hoo-hah”) that tells the reader why they are reading the story.
— Free write a discovery draft or discovery paragraphs – as fast as possible without stopping to revise – to reveal the meaning and the voice of the story. Write about any part of the story as long as it reveals tone, mood, voice. Am I sad, joyous, incredulous, detached, outraged? Do I smell earth or engine oil or chalk dust?
— Listen to what your voice is telling you about the meaning of the story. The intensity, rhythm, tone of voice often reveal the meaning.
— Form is meaning. Try on different approaches to the story. Is it a narrative, a profile, hourglass, parallel narrative, problem-solution?
— Look at the story from different points of view. The fireman on the ladder. The horrified parents watching her child trapped in a house.
— Rehearse the story in your head and on paper to hear what the story means.
— Find a frame that limits your subject to one single dominant meaning. Is your story about police stress or one cop’s life and death struggle?
— Role play your reader. Ask tough questions of your story.
— Discover the problem to be solved by the writing of your story. How can I communicate a bond proposal without putting the reader to sleep?
— Find the tension in your story. Who is in conflict? How can they be drawn together or forced apart?
ESTABLISHING AN ORDER
I know what my story’s about now. I just don’t know where I should put everything. How do I ORDER my story?
— Make a list of what you want to say.
— What piece of information should be at the beginning?
— What piece of information should be at the end?
— What belongs in the middle?
— Ask the questions the reader will ask – and put them in the order they will be asked.
— Assign values to quotations.
— Think of “chapters.”
— Identify the material in blocks. Organize them in sequence.
— Give the reader information in the lead that makes the reader ask a question. Answer it with information that sparks a new question. Continue until all the questions are answered.
— Write a headline and subheads for your story.
— Pick a starting point as near the end as you can.
— Look for the moment:
- When things change.
- When things will never be the same.
- When we learn lessons.
- When things hang in the balance.
- When you don’t know how things will turn out.
— Draft many possible leads – a dozen, two dozen, three dozen – as quickly as possible.
— Write with the clock. Begin at a moment in time. End at a moment in time.
— Seek a natural order for the story: narrative, chronology, pyramid, problem/solution, follow-up, a visit with … a walk through, a day in the life.
— Draft a lead, list three to five main points and an ending. Consult an editor.
— Draft many endings as quickly as possible. Once you know where you’re going you may see how to get there.
AN ORDER CHECKLIST
— Diagram the pattern of the story.
— Write an outline.
— Clip the notes on each part of the subject together. Move the piles around until you discover a working order.
— Use time lines.
— Organize your story by the high points. Organize it by scenes.
DISCOVER BY DRAFTING
How do I write – and keep writing – to DEVELOP the story into publishable shape?
— Write fast — without notes. What is remembered probably should be, what is forgotten probably should be.
— Put TK (To Come) or a blank underlined space in the text for details you have forgotten and that can be checked later. Keep writing.
— Write early to discover what you know and what you need to know.
— Select the important points and take the time to develop them adequately. Brevity is achieved by selection, not compression.
— Write with your ear. Listen to what you are saying and how you are saying it. (If stuck, dictate to a tape recorder.)
— When possible, reveal the story to the reader. Show, don’t tell. Use scene and anecdote. Let the reader experience the story and discover its meaning.
— Let action or the natural order of the story carry the exposition and description.
— If there is a serious problem in organization that hasn’t been solved during the order stage of the process, write a paragraph and put six spaces between it and the next paragraph. Make a printout, cut the paragraphs and play solitaire with them until you find their natural sequence.
— Write the easy parts first, the parts you want to write.
— If blocked, follow poet William Stafford’s advice: lower your standards. Or heed William Faulkner: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but that’s the only way you can do anything really good.” Writer’s Block often comes when the writer has set impossible standards.
A WRITING CHECKLIST
— Provide the reader with the evidence an intelligent but uninformed person will need to believe the story.
— Vary the documentation. Pick the material and the form of that material (quotation, anecdote, statistic, action, description) that is appropriate for the point being made.
— Answer the questions the reader will ask. The story is a conversation with an individual reader, with only the answers to the reader’s questions printed.
— Stop in the middle of a sentence.
— Write down the reasons you’re not writing. Define the problems. Devise solutions: more reporting, lower standards, refocus story, new organization.
— Switch writing tools. Turn off the computer; pick up a pad and pen.
— Take a break.
REWRITING FOR READERS
My story’s drafted. How do I CLARIFY the meaning and keep the story tight and interesting?
— Make a printout to “see” your story.
— Read your story aloud.
— Read in three stages:
- Like a reader.
- Like a writer.
- Like an editor.
— Be patient, even on deadline. Take a breath and read it again.
— Interview yourself: What works? What needs work?
— Find a co-reader, someone who makes you want to keep writing. Avoid destructive types.
— Remember that shorter is better. What can be left out should be left out. A good piece of writing may be judged by the amount of good material that isn’t used. Everything left in develops the single, dominant meaning of the story.
— Does your story employ the senses: hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste?
A REVISION CHECKLIST
— Does your story also have a sense of:
— Build rewriting time in. Write early. Printout early.
— Is there another way to write this story? Try it.
— Do I need more reporting?
— Are all the facts checked?
— Is there anything else I can do to make the story: