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Webb on the Web: Tips for journalists writing longform

Webb on the Web: Tips for journalists writing longform

Amy Webb, IJNet Digital Media Consultant | July 26, 2012

I'm back!

It's been a while since my last Webb on the Web column, and I wanted to explain my absence. I have a fantastic excuse, though (I promise!) – and a new strategy for working on longform journalism projects.

At the beginning of January, I was offered a book contract to write about how I met my husband. A few years ago, I used math, logic and an understanding of how certain algorithms work in order to optimize online dating sites. I wanted my profile to show up as one of the most popular, and I wanted to ensure that I had access to the widest possible selection of men.

What I describe in my book certainly falls squarely into the "disruptive" category of innovation, and it's not far from what I do every day at work. In addition to evaluating and learning about tools for journalists (which is what I write about here), I'm constantly looking at tech trends and finding new and unique uses for various technologies. We also go deep into various sectors, from public libraries to governments to car corporations, to "disrupt" their approach towards technology.

I approached my book as I would any story requiring deep reporting, vetting and analysis. While I'd certainly written longer stories for Newsweek, where I worked many years ago, I quickly realized that organizing my notes for a 3,000-word magazine story is quite different from keeping track of documents, notes and reporting for an 80,000-word book. In the process, I learned a lot. And I developed a new process that I think will help you, too.

Editing Schedule
I was given four months to write my book, and I decided to keep working at Webbmedia Group at the same time. Between the book and my job at Webbmedia Group, I needed to manage a 100-hour per week work schedule. I therefore had to keep to a very strict writing calendar. I mapped out the entire project using a spreadsheet in Google Docs. I noted the date and task, and check-in points for my editor. I made this document shareable to both my editor and to my close friends and family, to get their input and to also help manage expectations.

Reporting
I'm a prolific note-taker and digital pack rat. I've been keeping journals with copious details since I was a kid, and when I was older I started scanning and keeping detailed records on my computer. That allowed me to go back in time and pull information out of my various hard drives and notebooks. But since my book also contains a chapter about the history of online dating in the United States, I needed to do research online to retrieve articles published from the 1950s and 1960s. I used two fantastic, free tools to keep all of my reporting organized. I used Zotero to track my research on the web, and I used Evernote to store, tag and organize all of my other research. Zotero works like a digital library for everything you've viewed on the web, and you can even keep notes about each page you're viewing. Evernote is available for free, but I upgraded to a paid version so that I could share my notes with my editor.

Backing Up My Work
One of the most terrifying aspects of writing 80,000 words was the possibility that my work might get destroyed or deleted. I might be able to recreate a few paragraphs from memory...but 381 pages? No way. So I used an external hard drive to back up my computer, and I also saved everything to Dropbox, which is a cloud-based storage and sharing service. One of the things I really valued in Dropbox was my ability to share and collaborate on chapters with my editor, and I could also create separate versions for my friends and family to read as I worked. I simply uploaded a PDF, and I could distribute the link to anyone for viewing or downloading.

From what I understand, my reporting and writing process was "disruptive" as well. Using these tools helped me meet my deadline, but more importantly, if my editor wanted a source for some thing I'd written on p. 241, I could quickly and easily find it for her. It would've had a very difficult time trying to search through paper notebooks for the same thing. What a difference technology makes!

Image: Morguefile.

Amy Webb is the CEO of Webbmedia Group, an international digital strategy agency that studies disruptive technologies and advises a worldwide client base of Fortune 100 and Global 1000 companies, government agencies, media organizations and foundations. She's the co-founder of SparkCamp and an active startup investor and advisor. Her new book, "Data: A Love Story" will be published by Penguin and available everywhere January 31. Any opinions expressed about products or services are formed after testing, research and interviews. Neither Amy Webb nor Webbmedia Group or its employees receives any financial or other benefits from vendors.

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