Make your story stronger by writing during reporting process

bySteve ButtryFeb 20 in Basic Journalism

Few techniques helped me more when I was a reporter than when I learned the value of writing as I reported. It challenged my discipline, but when I succeeded at incorporating writing into my reporting process, I found that it improved both processes.

With today’s digital formats, many journalists have to write as they report: liveblogging events, covering breaking news stories as they unfold, reporting routine beat news or even investigative stories over time as you nail down important developments.

But this was one of my most popular and effective workshops back when I was doing lots of writing and reporting workshops. And I think lots of reporters still cling to the old linear process of reporting first, then writing, when breaking stories don’t force them to write as they report. I think learning the value of writing when you report, even if it’s not a breaking story, will help improve your writing and reporting, as well as helping you succeed in situations where digital formats demand better integration of your different work processes.

So I offer this old workshop handout, not much updated except for this intro, because I think it might still have value. An earlier version of this handout was posted on the No Train, No Gain website. I often paired this, either in the same workshop or in companion workshops, with my teaching about Using Story Elements. The process of writing as I reported and the mentality of thinking in terms of story elements were critical to whatever success I achieved as a reporter.

I addressed both the process and the use of story elements in telling how I wrote the homecoming and twins stories, two of the best narrative efforts of my career. 

Break away from the linear process

Traditionally journalists operate in a linear fashion, involving distinct processes and skills: You come up with a story idea, you gather the information, you organize and focus the information, you write the story, then (maybe) you rewrite. Try to view storytelling as a single process, in which you reshape the story idea, writing and rewriting as you gather information.

Write your ideas

Begin writing as soon as you have your idea for the story. You may start with just a paragraph to yourself or your editor. You may start with a few paragraphs, already starting to resemble a story. You may start with a plan for pursuing the story. Writing at the idea phase helps focus you from the outset on the eventual goal of a story.

In my piece on the story about the homecoming photo, I explain how writing at the idea phase gave new life and direction to a story I didn’t think was going to pan out.

Write after each interview

Don’t just transcribe your notes, though that would be better than not writing at all. Start writing the story. Work on a lead if you can. If you think the interview might produce just a couple paragraphs for the story, write them. Writing while the interview is still fresh ensures accuracy (especially if your handwriting is bad, if audio on a recording is garbled or if you have trouble reading old notes). You will be more likely to remember important details about the setting and the speaker’s mood and mannerisms.

In my workshop on writing as you report, I routinely ask people if they’ve ever come from an interview on an enterprise story stoked about how it went, but two or three weeks later, when they’re trying to write, they have trouble remembering details and reading notes. I always saw nods of agreement and chagrined faces remembering the feeling.

Writing generates questions

Another question I asked in my workshop on this topic was whether the process of writing ever brought up questions in the reporter’s mind on deadline. Again, nodding heads and regretful looks confirmed that this happened a lot. If you can reach the source on deadline, you patch the hole in your story. But too often you get voice mail and a source doesn’t answer, and you write around the big hole in your story.

But if you write as you’re reporting, the questions inspired by your writing shape the next interviews.

On 9/11, the biggest deadline story of my career, I was assigned to write a story for the Omaha World-Herald on how easy or difficult it was to get a weapon onto an airplane. I used a service called Profnet to identify experts in airport security (since I knew none), and, of course, I was not the only reporter trying to reach those experts that day, I spent a lot of time on hold (always choosing that over leaving a number, since I doubted anyone would call me back). Each time I was on hold, I would spend my time writing the story, and as I wrote about the interview before, it would help me ask better questions for the upcoming interview.

Pretend you’re on deadline

As early as possible, start writing the actual story, as though you might have to turn it in right away. Work on a lead, on organization, on transitions and flow. Maybe this won’t end up being your lead, but your story will read better if several paragraphs reflect as much effort and polish as your lead.

Rewrite each time

Each time you return to the story, read through what you’ve already written, and rewrite as needed. This will put more polish on your story. It will help launch you each time, cutting down those long blocks of time staring at the screen waiting for momentum.

Save time on deadline

If you’re working a deadline story by phone, you’re going to have some dead time, maybe a few seconds at a time when you’re on hold or waiting for someone to answer, maybe a few minutes while you’re waiting for people to return calls.

Start putting the information from your last interview into story form. Even if you don’t know yet where it will go in the story, start writing paragraphs that will fit somewhere.

Write a lead based on what you know so far. In addition to starting your writing, this helps sharpen the focus of the reporting that remains.

Writing as you report allows you to continue reporting closer to deadline. Writing in chunks, with frequent interruptions as you return to reporting, can lead to choppy writing. You need to fix this by using some of the time you save to read back through the story to polish and make it flow smoothly.

Going back to the 9/11 story, I learned close to deadline about testimony to Congress the previous year, warning of how vulnerable our airport security system was. If I had been following the linear process, I already would have stopped my reporting and started writing, so I could make deadline. But because I had most of my story finished, I had time not only for the one last call, where I learned of the warning, but I had time to find the warning and quote it in my story.

My lead came because of my storytelling process, which took advantage of those long waits on hold let me continue reporting right up to deadline. I was able to write a story for the Sept. 12, 2001 newspaper that said:

"Federal investigators warned Congress last year that the nation’s air travel system was vulnerable to a terrorist attack."

Write in your notebook

If you are at the scene of a crime or disaster and need to run back to the newsroom to write, you can't physically write as you report. But start writing or outlining the story in your head or in your notebook or laptop, tablet or phone during moments when you find yourself waiting. The story will come faster when you sit down to write the story. Write actual paragraphs describing the setting while you are on the scene.

Think of the story

As you interview and gather information, keep your unfolding story at the front of your mind. Identify pieces that will bolster your lead, illustrate your main points, etc. Start writing the story in your head or aloud as you drive back from an interview (turn on the voice recorder on your smartphone and start dictating or at least thinking through your story aloud). Write down important passages or phrases in your notebook as they occur to you.

Other writing workshop handouts

This is an excerpt of a post that originally appeared on Steve Buttry's blog The Buttry Diary and is published on IJNet with permission.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Berto.