A complex story should not be challenging to the reader, however challenging it is for the writer. Careful work in organization of your reporting and writing will help readers make sense of stories that deal with cumbersome economic or technical issues, or with soap-opera tales that present multiple characters and confusing turns. These techniques will help keep the complex story clear.
Organizing your material
Write a plan. As you embark on a story that promises to be complicated, write out a plan. Start writing, whether it’s a memo to an editor, a plan for your own use or the start of an actual story. Writing is how you communicate best, and writing will help you clarify your idea and spell out your avenues of inquiry. What do you want the final story to tell? Where are you going to look for the information? Why should the reader care?
Discuss your plan. Talk your plan over with your editor. Some reporters are reluctant to discuss plans with editors until they have something to show. But an editor can help you shape the plan. An editor may know whether your plan dovetails, conflicts or overlaps with another reporter’s plans. An editor can give you time and guidance to pursue your plan. Discuss the plan with colleagues, too. Discuss it with a more experienced reporter who has handled similar stories in the past and seek her advice. Discuss it with a colleague whose beat may overlap with your topic and seek his advice or ask him if he wants to collaborate. Discuss the plan with sources. Of course, each may have a particular agenda, but they also might have valuable advice.
Ask what the story is about. As you gather information and as you write, ask yourself frequently why a reader would want to read it. Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press suggests asking these questions as you try to find the story's focus: Why do you care about this? Why did you want to write this story in the first place? What touches you emotionally? Who is benefiting/being harmed, making money/losing money? How are readers being affected by what you have found? What is new here?
Focus your reporting. Jack Hart of The Oregonian suggests that you develop a theme statement of no more than six words. This will help you identify the focus. It will help you maintain your focus as you report and as you start writing. Writing a headline or a budget line, even in the early reporting stages, also might help you focus the story. Bill Luening of the Kansas City Star recommends identifying your focus by boiling your story down to a three-word sentence: a noun, an active verb, and an object: "These generally emerge as themes, rather than a story focus, but they can lead to a theme statement. Maybe, if the story is a narrative, you can get them to outline the complication, development and resolution this way. The story of the Pied Piper then would be, Rats Overrun City. City Hires Ratman. Ratman Kills Rats. City Stiffs Ratman. Ratman Steals Children. Moral: Keep Your Word. Or ... Flutists Kick Butt." Whatever focus you choose, it might shift as you report and learn more of the story. In that case, rewrite your theme statement, headline or three-word sentence. This will underscore that your focus has evolved, rather than that you have lost the focus.
Count your steps. A complex story can be daunting. It can be daunting early, as you look at the huge task before you. It can be daunting late, as you’re overwhelmed by the information you have gathered. Break the story down into steps. Each source you would interview is a step. Each place you would look for records is a step. Gathering and analyzing data are separate steps, perhaps multiple steps. Pulling together information for a graphic is a step. Outlining is a step. If you write everything at once after you’ve gathered your information, that’s a step. If you write each time you gather information, that’s several steps. Rewriting is at least one step. Each step will seem less daunting than the whole story. Breaking the story into steps will help you focus on the task at hand and the next one, continuing progress toward the final goal. You will need to adjust your list of steps as you go along, because more steps will present themselves as you learn more about the story. A spreadsheet might help you keep track of the steps and your progress and the adjustments. This might be particularly helpful if multiple reporters are working in the story. Identifying the steps can help in the division of labor and in keeping everyone abreast of progress.
Write as you report. Many writers see their work as a linear task: First you gather the facts, then you write. It's always a good idea to start writing as you gather information, but it's essential when you're writing a complex story that may take weeks or months. Sure, you may not get your lead until late in the process. But you can write passages, telling important parts of the story while they are fresh and clear in your mind. As you gather information on a complex story, you can get confused yourself, and writing as you go improves your clarity and focus. At some point, the final story will start taking shape in your mind. Make sure it takes shape on the screen, or you will forget some of the ideas that will give it clarity and perspective. As you go along, the writing will help focus your reporting work by showing you what you still need and where you have enough.
Use spreadsheets. As you report, use spreadsheets to keep track of sources, chronologies, etc. With your information scattered in different notebooks and piles of documents on your desk, a spreadsheet gives you one place to organize all the facts as you go along. The spreadsheet might help you spot connections, contradictions and trends that otherwise might escape your notice. If you don’t have Excel or another spreadsheet program, you can organize the material in a Word document or in a notebook.
Sharpen your focus. After your initial reporting stages, you may become snow-blind with all the information you've gathered. It's time to step back and break your work into manageable pieces. In a multi-story project, decide what your stories will be and focus on completing one story at a time. Of course, as you do that, you will gather more information for other stories from the same sources. Put those notes or documents in files for those stories and return your attention to the story at hand. Each story and the project as a whole will be stronger if each story receives your full attention for a period. When you're finished with the stories, it's important to step back again and evaluate the big picture: Have you omitted some important facts that might belong in one of the stories you've finished or their own sidebar? Do some stories overlap too much? Do the themes complement each other well? Have you varied the voice enough that the series doesn't become monotonous? This same technique works on a smaller scale if you're writing a single story with several sections.
"Outline" your notes. Some writers use outlines religiously; others can't be bothered with them. Whether you write a formal outline or not, it's helpful in a complex story to organize your notes in a loose outline. Go through your notes, documents and other materials and highlight information and quotes and facts that are important, labeling them by source or topic. Let's say you are writing a story about the difficulty of prosecuting rape. You might label information from police with a "C" for cops, from prosecutors with a "P," from defense attorneys with a "D," victims with a "V" and so on. Or you might label by topic: material relating to evidence gets an "E," juries get a "J" and so on. Some material may relate to a couple topics, so you would note the relationship with "E-J." By outlining your notes, you might spot previously unnoticed connections between facts collected in interviews that were weeks apart. Whether or not you follow the outline closely in your story, the mental exercise of evaluating your notes will help organize the story.
Organizing your story(ies)
Write without your notes. Now that you've organized your notes, set them aside. If you've done your research well, and if you've been thinking about the story, you have most of the story in your head. You know what the most important points are. You remember the embarrassing contradictions, the clever quotes, the damning evidence. So tell the story, without the distractions of that mess of notebooks and faxes and photocopies. You won't remember a quote exactly, but quote it as you remember (with a note to get the exact quote later from your notebook). You may not remember the precise number, so put in $XXX,XXX, and fill it in later. Especially if you've outlined your notes effectively, you will remember what's most important and most interesting. And you'll write better without the interruptions and detours of flipping through notebooks and digging through documents. Of course, when you're done, you need to return to your notebooks and other resources. You may have left out something important. But if you forgot about it, ask yourself whether it really is important. You will want to check and double check every fact and quote and name you wrote from memory. This technique improves the quality and organization of your writing. But if you sacrifice accuracy, you haven't made an acceptable trade.
Use an outline. Especially if you are bogged down or confused, an outline can help organize and clarify. The harder you feel inclined to resist, the more likely you should consider an outline. Don’t use an outline if you’re organizing effectively without one, but if you’re having trouble organizing, force yourself to outline a few stories and see if it helps.
Write in sections. Writing a story in sections organizes the story logically for the reader. For instance, if you’re writing a story about the long deployments of National Guard and reserve troops, sections might tell about the reasons, the frustrations of family, the feelings of troops, employers trying to cope with the long absences and political reaction. This also helps in writing a long story. Say you have 50 inches for the deployment story. You can decide that each of these sections is worth 9 inches, with five inches for the introduction and ending. You might find it easier cutting a section from 11 inches to 9 than cutting a story from 60 to 50.
Don’t agonize over the lead. You don’t have to do the lead first, especially in a complex story. It might be one of the last things you write. Writing the story may help you discover the perfect lead. You don’t have to write the story in the same order as the reader will read it. If you feel like you need to have a lead to get started, write a simple declarative sentence to get rolling. You can come back and polish, revise or rewrite it entirely later.
Consider a narrative. A complicated story might be easier to follow as a narrative. Even something you regard as an issue story might work as a narrative. You can tell how we got into this mess as a narrative, complete with setting, characters, plot and conflict.
Consider separate stories. Can you simplify the story for the reader (and for yourself) by addressing some issues separately, either as sidebars in a single package or as multiple parts in a series?
Don't forget the basics. Organizing a story can send you back to the very basics of journalism. Ask yourself which of the 5 W's and How is most important or most interesting in this story. That probably should be the lead. In fact, the first few words of your lead should probably point the reader toward the answer to that question. Complex stories often revolve around other important questions beyond the basics, such as how much? so what? and who's profiting from this? It's also helpful to think in terms of story elements (setting, plot, character, conflict). Which of these is the most important or most interesting? You might organize your notes or your outline along the lines of these questions or story elements.
Consider photos, graphics. Can colleagues tell parts of the story more effectively visually than you can tell them in words? Graphics can convey timelines, processes and data, among other things, more clearly, saving your story from potentially cumbersome passages. Photos can show readers how a character or setting looks, freeing you to highlight one or two important features.
Organize in rewriting
The complex story expects more from the reader than the average story. So you must demand more of the complex story. Hold the story, and particularly the organization, to high standards as you rewrite.
Write an alternative lead. Once you've finished a draft, ponder a different approach. Write a lead, or maybe a whole new top, for this new approach. If it's better than your original, you can make your story better. If the original was better, this exercise will increase your confidence in the story as written. Do this even for leads that you really like.
Tighten your lead. Does your lead reflect the complexity of the story rather than the potential interest? Too often complex stories have “suitcase” leads where the writer tries to stuff too many elements into the lead. Instead, try a “g-string” lead, a brief lead that entices the reader into the story. If the story simply does not work with a g-string lead, at least lighten the load, cutting the suitcase lead down to a single point and/or finding a phrase or two you can cut to make it more inviting.
Accept only the best. With each quote or fact, ask if it's unique. Ask if it advances the story. Ask if it repeats something you've already said. Can it be said better in a paraphrase? Be demanding of your quotes. Use them as dialogue or to convey powerful images, opinions or emotions. If they don't, see if you can give the same information more directly in your own words.
Reduce attribution. Attribution is necessary, but it complicates. If the story itself is complex, consider ways to reduce or consolidate attribution. If you're telling a narrative that's based on several sources, with general agreement, consider writing in an authoritative voice with little or no attribution in the text. You might want to use an accompanying box that cites all the sources interviewed, but you don't bog the narrative down with lots of she-saids. That won't work in some stories, particularly if sources disagree. Consider blanket attribution for each side, such as "Doctors say HMO's tie their hands several ways:" followed by a listing of the points, with no further attribution. Then you give the HMO bureaucrats their say with similar blanket attribution.
Don't get lost in process. In writing a complex story, you may have to learn and understand some complex processes. Sometimes the reporter loses perspective and thinks the process is as important to readers as it is to sources. Readers care most about results. When you've finished your story that involves processes, examine how strongly you've focused on the process and consider whether that's appropriate. If a story or lead focuses on process, consider whether it would be stronger focusing on results. Perhaps a graphic or sidebar can explain an important process without bogging down the main story.
Think of the reader. When you write and rewrite, ask yourself "reader" questions. Why should I care about this? How is this going to affect me? Make sure you're answering the reader's questions. If not, you need to answer them, or consider removing the sections that raise the questions, or explaining why they can't be answered. It might help to give a draft of the story to someone who's not a journalist, and listen to his questions.
Identify and avoid detours. Invariably, a complex story will involve detours. You will spend an inordinate amount of time checking out a tip or trying to answer a question. As the reporter, you may need to follow these detours. But as the writer, you don't want to take the reader on any detours. Make your story the straightest, smoothest possible road between the beginning and the end. Don't include any turns that aren't part of the route itself. Ask yourself whether you just emptied your notebook. Just because you collected a fact doesn't mean you have to share it with your readers. Use the facts that help tell the story, and only those facts. Perhaps you knocked yourself out to find a fact that turned out to be unimportant. Too bad. Leave it out. Maybe the fact is important, but your effort deceived you into thinking the reader needs to know how you found the fact. Probably not. Just the facts, please. Sometimes you come across a funny or intriguing anecdote that doesn't really relate to the main story, but you fall in love with it. Maybe it's worth a sidebar. Or maybe you just have to be satisfied with telling it to an editor or colleague. If it's a detour, keep it out of your story.
Read your story aloud. Again, this is a practice that is wise on any story but essential on a complex one. Complicated issues seduce writers into long, cumbersome sentences that you will spot quickly as you read aloud. If you start to feel like you're droning on, you probably are. Take a hard look at that section and see whether you can tighten it, make it more lively or alter the pace. You can't change the fact that your story is complex. Your mission is not to obscure or ignore the economical or technical facts that sometimes can baffle. And if you're telling a convoluted tale of conflict and intrigue, you can't leave out twists and turns that are the heart of the story. You need to be sure your writing is clarifying the complex tale rather than further complicating it. Listen to the tone and pace as you read it aloud. If it's inviting, the reader will follow the tale with interest and relate it later to family and co-workers.
Raise your standards. After you’ve labored long on your story, your editors might decide to give it less space than you’ve written. If you lose the battle over space, accept that you can still give the reader a strong story in the space you have. Approach the trim not as gutting your story, but as raising your standards. If you have written 50 inches and the editors will only give you 40, approach the rewrite as letting only the best 80 percent of your version into the paper. Even if your editors don’t impose trims, consider this approach. When you think you like a draft, try cutting by 10 or 20 percent by raising your standards. If the resulting story is better, turn that one in. If not, you’ll be more prepared for the cuts that might come or more prepared to argue that such cuts would hurt the story.
Preview the story with a trusted reader. Once you understand the complex story well enough to tell it, you understand it too well to judge how well you've told it. You need help. Take the story to a friend with whom you haven't discussed it. Try to choose someone who reflects the level of interest of your potential readers. Choose someone who will give you an honest reaction. Don't just ask the reader whether she liked it. Ask specific questions that will show how well she understood it. Ask, "How do the farm chemicals reach the ground water?" or "What happens when the hazardous waste is burned along with raw materials to make cement?" If the reader doesn't understand important points, you need to make them clear.
Take a break. If your deadline allows, set the story aside for a while after you think you're done. Come back with a fresh view and you may be embarrassed at the cumbersome passages that seemed clear when your mind was cluttered. And you'll be glad you fixed or eliminated them before your story was published.
Enjoy. Complex stories can wear reporters down, so that you’re just glad to get it over with. That’s a natural feeling. But look at what you’ve accomplished. Look at what’s in the story, not what you had to leave out. These stories can be fun as well as demanding.