You’ve done all the hard work and now it’s time to think about how you are going to present it. Organizing and writing the story can be the key to an exceptional investigative report.
How you do that will depend on the type of investigation you are conducting, but one common way is organize information chronologically, particularly when the trail is complex. Throughout your research stage, make lists of what you don’t know yet, but wish you knew. Check your list before you start writing to make sure you are not missing anything.
- It takes a lot of time and effort to get the information for an investigative story – don’t make the mistake now of rushing into writing it. One of the luxuries of investigative reporting is that it is not usually as deadline-driven as other news.
- Keep it simple and to the point. Avoid jargon and technical terms. Get used to the fact that you will never be able to use all the information you collected in your investigation. You want to give readers enough to see the truth of your story, but you don’t want to make them numb with too much information.
- Don’t fret too much about the elements you have to leave out. Thanks to the Internet, information that does not make it into the story does not have to go to waste. Nowadays, you can use your own or your organization’s website to post details about how you did your investigation, copies of documents you used, links to other sources and complete interview transcripts, among other materials.
- If it’s possible, include photos, graphics, timelines or other visuals. Not only will they attract more people to your story, but they can often do a better job of telling a complex story than text alone can. Here, a picture really can be worth a thousand words.
- After completing your final draft, systematically check your notes, documents and interviews to double-check the accuracy of the information you included in the story. Have your story examined by your publisher or your company’s attorney to check for libel or other legal problems. Often a simple word change – without changing the thrust of the story – can keep you out of court.
- Write so that ordinary people can understand your report. Remember that you are much closer to your material and much more familiar with it than the average person is, than you were when you started the project. You have to write for the average person, not the experts and other people you have been talking to for the length of your research. Find someone you trust who has no background in the subject matter – a co-worker, a friend, a family member – and have them read the story then explain it back to you. If they can’t explain it, or give a different angle than you intended, you have to go back and simplify.
This post was originally part of an online course by ICFJ Anywhere, which supports journalists worldwide with free training on a range of topics. Courses are offered in a variety of languages including English, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and French. For the latest ICFJ Anywhere course offerings, click here.