Simplifying the Reporting/Writing Process

I recently presented to a group of Austin (TX) middle and high school journalism teachers my dog and pony show regarding narrative and voice, and they all seemed receptive and appreciative, but I felt that my message was dampened by their frustration with the larger details of their professional lives, like obtaining licenses from Adobe so they can actually put stories on pages while working with kids who don’t know the difference between a noun and a vermicelli. 

I assured them I felt their pain, then added, “Every kid isn’t going to get this. If you can find two students who are willing to report and write, then that’s what they should be doing: reporting and writing. Some other kid can bang the erasers together and remove staples from the exchange papers.”

And I got looks that said, “Oh, what I would do for two students who want to report and write.”

So, I thought, “How can we simplify the reporting and writing process? Is there a way to reduce the anxiety students feel about interviewing, writing and re-writing? Can we exchange archaic formulas (inverted pyramid and the QTQ in particular) with something easier, more intuitive, more enjoyable that produces more dynamic results?

Frankly, I’m not sure, but these tips should help: 

Part I

1. Make a list of every of club, activity, organization, secret society, whatever.

2. Create a page in a 3-ring binder for each group. 

3. Write on that page each group’s mission statement.

4. Write on that page the group’s three main events, projects, activities or whatever.

5. Instruct (or, better yet, threaten) your reporters, “Never, ever put any of the information on this page in your story. This information is not news. It’s just information.”

6. Ask, “What is news?” News is information readers want and need but don’t already possess.

7. Figure out, “What is new and fresh about this story? What might interest readers?”

Part II

1. Find the person in charge of each organization. Let’s call her Ms. Jones. Get contact information — email and, if possible, a phone number — from Ms. Jones.

2. At the beginning of each publication cycle, talk to Ms. Jones. Ask, “Of all the students in your program/organization/association/team/gang/criminal enterprise/whatever, who has the most interesting journey story?”

“Journey story” means, “Who has overcome the greatest obstacle to now be in a position to achieve something special?” 

3. Get a name and contact information about this person. Let’s call her “Linda.”

4. Contact Linda. Tell her you would like to interview her. Do not ask her if she’d like to be interviewed. Tell her you want to interview her. 

5. Tell her why you want to interview her, what kind of story you’re searching for.

6. Arrange a time and place. It must be a time that’s convenient for Linda. It must be a place where she feels safe and comfortable.

7. Do your homework. Find out as much about Linda as possible. Who do talk to? How about Ms. Jones? You just need to know why you’re doing a story on Linda. Also, I’m not above asking a source, “What do you think this story should be about?”

Part III

1. Interview Linda, face-to-face. No phone or text interviews of people you pass in the halls six times a day.

2. Do not ask questions that will produce predictable answers. While judging a national sports writing competition, I learned the following about athletic events:

·       Blood pumps

·       Hearts race

·       Adrenaline flows

·       Sweat drips

·       Tears roll down cheeks

·       Crowds cheer

·       Excitement ensues

·       Rivalries exist

·       Winning is better than losing

3. I can’t imagine what kind of questions were asked to produce such dead-on-arrival copy. Instead, ask these questions: Most. Least. Highest. Lowest. Worst. Best. 

4. Ask, “What were you thinking before, during or after the “most this” or “worst that?”

5. If the answer is “awesome” or “exciting” or “unbelievable,” ask, “What was the most awesome or exciting or unbelievable thing about it?”

6. Ask for examples. “Give me two examples of how it was awesome.”

7. Ask for an anecdote. If someone says, “He is a great coach,” ask, “Tell me a story about what makes him so great.”

8. Ask for a specific person. If someone says, “The program is a life-changer,” ask, “Tell me the story of one student whose life has been changed by this program.”

9. Focus on the person during the highest and/or lowest moment. Don’t gum up the story with pitter-patter details.

10. Don’t allow the interview to ramble or meander. Keep it lean and mean.

Part IV

1. Transcribe your notes as soon after the interview as possible. Remember to double record every interview..

2. Repair incoherent or broken quotes. You will almost certainly need a second interview to correct them. Do not use an ellipsis or a bracket. Just fix the quote. If the quote is unclear, read it back to the source and ask, “What exactly did you mean here?”

3. Make sure you understand what your story is about. Write it out in a single sentence. “This is a story about Linda. This is her journey over/around/under/through this obstacle.” If you can’t write it out in one sentence, then you probably don’t yet have a story.

4. Think it through. What is it about Linda that makes her special? How did she get that way? What is her defining moment so far? Where is she going?

5. Interview again, then put all of your information into a logical chronology.

6. Locate your lead. When in doubt, take your best quote. Paraphrase it. That’s your lead.

7. Find your ending. When in doubt, find the quote that takes the reader forward in time. If you don’t have one, get one. Ask, “Where do you go from here?” Or, “What happens next?” Or, “What is your big takeaway?”

8. Now, build your story internally, moving from the lead through to the final quote.

9. Maintain tight control of the chronology. Do not ramble. Do not repeat information. If it goes without saying, don’t say it. Don’t babble or preach. 

Part V

1. Punch out a first draft quickly.

2. Read it aloud to yourself. Fix and repair.

3. Read it aloud to a friend. Fix and repair.

4. Double-check facts with Linda and Ms. Jones and other sources.

5. Do not assume facts not in evidence. Do not project onto Linda your thoughts, emotions, reactions. 

6. Do not ask readers to imagine.

7. Never open with a statement of the obvious.

8. Never end with an editorial statement.

9. Write naturally. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.

Assignment: Homecoming

1. Do not ask, “Were you excited to win.” Ask, “When you were standing out there in front of your friends and family and total strangers, what were you thinking?”

If you’re lucky, you might end up with this direct quote. It’s from a girl who didn’t win, but that’s OK. It’s interesting and revealing. You could run it as a stand-alone quote, or you could work it into a story.

Stand-alone quote

“It was really cold, and we were standing out there in our little dresses, and I kept saying to myself, ‘Just smile. Look happy. Everybody is watching you.’ We didn’t know who had won until they actually announced it, so there was a good bit of anticipation. I can’t say I was disappointed that I didn’t win because the girl who did win is one of my best friends. I was happy for her.” 

— senior Hailey Brooks

Feature Story

1. Ask, “What kind of dress were you wearing? What color was it?”

2. Ask, “What was the weather like?

3. Let the quote drive the story. Do not try to become a writer. Just tell the story in natural voice and a logical order.

Senior Hailey Brooks stood at the 47-yard line in her tiny blue cocktail dress and she whispered to herself, “Just smile. Look happy. Everybody is watching you.”

Like the six other homecoming queen candidates, Brooks braced against the bitter northern wind that rolled in earlier that day.

“We didn’t know who had won until they actually announced it, so there was a good bit of anticipation,” she said. “I can’t say I was disappointed that I didn’t win because the girl who did win is one of my best friends. I was happy for her.”

4. Run the story with a powerful photo of the moment at its emotional apex. Include a caption that tells readers something they don’t know or can figure out in two seconds or less.

5. Celebrate and move on.