Wick Communications

10 steps to better stories

In Books on 23 Aug 2012 at 3:22 pm

R.B. Brenner is a Stanford University journalism instructor, a former metro editor of the Washington Post, and a good friend of the Half Moon Bay Review. He keeps a blog that provides insight into the pressing journalistic issues of the day and also some educational stuff suitable for anyone looking to be a better writer. What follows is one such post. Here, R.B. draws on the work of Samuel G. Freedman and suggests the 10 steps that a reporter should attempt in order to get the most out of a meaty story. R.B.’s post is republished here with his permission. Clay

When you are starting in journalism, it’s easy to think in terms of a three-step process. You report. You write what you have. Someone else edits it.

Drawing upon a book I admire, Samuel G. Freedman’s ”Letters to a Young Journalist,” I encourage 10 steps:

  1. Exploring — This is journalism’s equivalent of the topographical survey. It involves reporting with your senses (sight, sound, smell, even taste) and doing your best to pass what my friend Phil Bennett calls “the presence test.” Preliminary research by phone and online is fine but will only get you so far. Reporting is better when based on primary sources, ideally observable reality. Go there and see it for yourself.
  2. Deeper reporting — You’ve surveyed the landscape, considered possible themes and, even at this early stage, tried to find “the heart of the matter” — what makes this story special, why will your readers care? Now you are ready for deeper reporting that combines observation, examination of relevant documents and many interviews. …
  3. Conceptualizing — Put into writing a one- or two-sentence “heart of the matter” statement. Can you describe, in a very concise and specific way, the story you intend to tell? Remind yourself that flexibility is key because you are not finished reporting.
  4. Outlining — This is the writer’s road map, the best bet against getting your readers lost. The outline doesn’t need to be fancy, and you don’t want it to be cumbersome. But you do need some way to rough out the flow of your story and give it a logical structure.
  5. Re-reporting — Most likely, the previous two steps have revealed holes in your reporting that you need to fill.
  6. Thinking, as a bridge to writing — In the words of my friend David Maraniss, whose new biography of President Obama is a must-read, “The one ingredient that’s often left out of the whole process is not the writing or the reporting, but the thinking. Take a few minutes to think about the theme and images before you start writing.”
  7. Crafting — Also known as the first draft.
  8. Rewriting — Your first draft is just that, a warm-up. The elevation and refinements come at this stage.
  9. Editing your own work.
  10. Finally, turning it over to an editor.

Footnote: The mastery of time management hovers above all of this. Today’s deadline-every-minute news culture, which has turned too many of us into hamsters on constantly spinning wheels, makes it hard to take all 10 steps. If you manage your time effectively, though, the goal becomes realistic much of the time.

— R.B. Brenner


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