Ask TON: From Idea to Story


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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

What questions do you ask yourself about a story that you’re considering pursuing? How do you decide whether it’s a good idea?

Freelance science writer Douglas Fox:

Like everyone else, I run into a lot more story ideas than I could ever possibly have time to write, so I do think that it’s important to choose carefully the ones that I do propose. Here are some of the questions that I consider in deciding which ones to pursue …

  • Is the primary source(s) cooperative to the degree that I’ll be able to dig up what I need to make the most of the story? This may entail taking 2 solid days of their time while visiting their lab, or having them take me into the desert for a week, or allowing me to talk to a bunch of their students or even blood relatives to reconstruct some important past event.
  • Does this story have a real narrative arc to it that unfolds over months, years, or decades? I’m not looking for stories that just explain science, no matter how cool or surprising. I’m looking for stories that are driven by some longstanding mystery or question in a field, or an individual’s curiosity or obsession. Does the story inadvertently reveal something about how ideas evolve, or how people are driven to make important discoveries sometimes by their own personal quirks? The best stories have protagonists whom the reader (and reporter!) can empathize with, who have pressed through multiple failures, or who had their career changed by the pure serendipity of noticing something accidentally. These are the stories that you can undress for the reader, slowly, tantalizingly, one slinky anecdote at a time, over the course of 4,000 (or hopefully more!) words.
  • Is it important? To someone, at least? Even if the topic or discovery isn’t so important, sometimes the process of telling the story reveals other important observations, say about how science works.
  • How much have other journalists stomped around in this area? Is there anything left to be said? Can I bring some insight to this topic that’s unique and new? That’s a high bar to get over, but it should at least be the goal every time. It doesn’t have to be an area that you specialize in, either—but it’s important to be able to report deeply enough that you get to a point of insight without having spent 300 hours on it and effectively bankrupted yourself for the next 6 months!
  • Is this story actually attainable? By me? Right now? I hate to admit it, but I see some stories that could probably be great, but I don’t know how to tackle them, or know whether I have the skills, or know how to get the necessary access quite yet … These are the ones that get pushed to the back burner year after year …
  • Most importantly of all, am I just plain excited about this story? There are stories that I think I should cover because they’re in an area that I specialize in, like glaciers or neuroscience—but inexplicably am just not excited about. Every story will put you through the meat grinder at some point—whether the process of convincing an editor, or figuring out the structure, so it’s best if you know up front that it’s true love.


I probably research (and do interviews for) 3 stories for every 1 that I end up proposing somewhere. Some of those stories that I never pitch end up resurfacing 2 or 3 years later, and when they do it’s suddenly clear that the time to embrace them has arrived.

Journalist and author Ellen Shell:

When considering an idea, the most important question I ask myself is: Does this story matter? Does it have implications beyond the immediate news, the immediate scientific discovery or issue? Does it have historical or cultural relevance, economic significance, political ramifications? Are there many intricate pieces, all of which will come together in a gorgeous whole by the end? Does it have psychological complexity and subtext? Is it counter-intuitive, that is, do few people really understand its importance and significance? If the answer to several of these questions is yes, this answers the question of whether I want to do the piece. To answer the question of whether I can do it—I become more practical.  Is there a great character and/or a clear story arch? Do I have access to all the major players, and if not, can I get it? Can I think of a suitable publication with the interest—and resources—to back such a piece?  Do I have the time to do it justice?

Reasons I might pass on what might otherwise be a good idea:

  • Fluency in a foreign language required, or deep knowledge of a particular field with which I have little comfort (astrophysics comes to mind)
  • Inside baseball—the story is important to those in the know, but not to the general informed reader.
  • The cost of researching the proposal—international travel, months of in depth interviews—exceeds what I could possibly recoup
  • The heart of the piece lies in a place I do not want to be (either physically, or psychologically)
  • Important, but too wonky—too much yacking, not enough action/color/human interest/resonance for the average reader

Science writer Brendan Borrell:

I am always on the lookout for feature ideas that are surprising, cinematic, and—if I’m really lucky—timely and unexplored. When I am considering an idea’s potential, I focus on its narrative possibilities because that’s what really gets me psyched to start my research and what will ultimately determine where and how I will pitch a story. Many science stories just have a protagonist on a quest of some sort, so you know your story is a winner if you’ve also got a real strong antagonist. Then there are other questions I ask myself: Do I anticipate multiple turning points and obstacles for the characters? Or is there just enough material for a descriptive opener and a closer? Has most of the action been completed or is the story still developing? Is there something remarkable about the place where the story occurs, its history, and the social environment? Finally, any editor is going to ask you about the wider significance of the narrative, and you better have a convincing answer for that. I find it useful to think about what is at stake for the subjects (life, love, money) and for the world (renewable energy).

Journalist and author Deborah Blum:

Well, I usually start by asking myself if it’s an idea or story I’d actually repeat to someone I like. If I can’t see myself asking “Did you know …?” or saying “Let me tell you about ….” to my husband, kids, friends then I usually let it go. Obviously we can’t be so fussy about every story – some are just news driven, but for longer features, this is usually my first filter.  If I think there’s something there, then I’ll do a little more research and see if it holds up.  And by that I mean both the strength of the story and the strength of the sources—is there a good case for my central idea, are the scientists who support that case doing solid and well-reviewed work on the subject. I always remember Charlie Petit (now at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker but when I first knew him at the San Francisco Chronicle) talking about “stories too good to check.” I’ll let a story go if my preliminary checking makes me think that the foundation of the story doesn’t really hold up. But there’s one other essential question for me and that’s: is this a story that I could tell well? Does it suit my particular story-telling abilities?  I lean toward the narrative end of story telling so I’ll also look for a strong main character, a good plot line, an emotionally compelling issue, or a story with some humor or charm to it that I can play with. I like telling science stories that are people-centered and when I find one of those, it usually fizzes up to the top of my list.

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