Ask TON: Saving String

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

I’m a freelancer, and I want to move from doing straight news stories to features, but I don’t really know how to start looking for ideas. People talk about “saving string” for features, but where do they look for the string? Should I read a lot of scientific journals, or go visit random scientists in their labs, or what?

Science and technology writer Kate Greene:

One way to get started with features is to look for a person to profile. Try to find someone who’s solving an interesting problem in an interesting way. It’s important that this person is a character with quirks, conflicts, or some other compelling attributes.

In reporting news stories, you might actually have some potential profiles right under your nose. When you interview sources, ask them about future projects or big questions they want to answer. Ask them about the unsolved problems in their field. Ask them about colleagues they think are doing interesting work. These conversations could help you see trends that might have been invisible before. A trend plus a personality equals feature gold.

Science reporter Robert Frederick:

If you don’t already ask, “What else are you working on?” of your straight-news-story interviewees, then start. To extend the “saving string” metaphor, the interviewee’s answer to that question is the loose end of the string. It is up to you how much you want to tug at it. Indeed, your interviewee may not want to say much, but if you get a sense there’s an interesting feature story there (and not just a topic, but a story), ask who else is involved in the work and find out who the interviewee’s competition is, if any. Then, talk with all those people, too. But really, try to avoid a feature-length story unless the story really interests you. In particular, you’ll just be doing that kind of feature for money, and it is hard to sustain such interest (without getting cranky) for as long as a feature takes. Indeed, if you’re not interested in a feature-length story revealed by your string tugging, the best thing to do is to pass the information along to another freelance journalist who may have that interest—eventually other freelancers will start “saving string” for you, too.

Brendan Maher, features editor at Nature:

The short answer is, yes. Get out of your office and visit people, extend your interviews on other topics to see what people are thinking about and reading about right now. Consult the literature and the lay press and look closely for those unanswered questions that nag at you. Any of these could be the source for a feature length story. The longer, more difficult answer is that you simply never know where an idea will come from. It will rarely be one single piece of evidence, but rather one or two things heard in passing (i.e. reading a paper, or talking with a trusted regular source at a meeting, or having a random conversation on a plane, or seeing a single line in a news story that makes you go, “Huh. I wonder if there’s something more to that!”).

Saving string is a good metaphor for it, but it’s a more active process if you want to get to the level of a pitch. I often think of it as trying to start a fire. First you need tinder. So you look in your pockets for lint, the residue of other stories and reporting projects. Lint is great because it flares quickly, but it also dies quickly. You’ll have more duds than structure fires. So, you have to go search for tinder, kindling, and larger pieces of information. This often means targeted phone calls to key sources. Does that little lint ball of an idea that you’ve been keeping in your pocket have any worth?  Does it catch their attention?  Do they want to know more about it?  Most importantly, does that little ball of lint start a fire burning in you to want to tell this story? If it does, you might be ready to pitch.

Metaphors are cheap, however; what you probably want are examples. A few years ago, I saw a number of short news pieces mentioning the first time fMRI evidence was being used in court to help show that a convicted criminal was a psychopath. Several pieces noted the basics of the story, but I wanted more. If this was unprecedented, why [was that the case]? And what were the chances that it would work? What factors about the research would have to be proved in order to get the evidence considered, and what does it say about science’s—particularly neuroscience’s—role in the criminal justice system? The germ was there, and looked promising enough that I asked a freelancer with whom I’d been talking about similar ideas to pursue it. She took on the task of gathering the kindling and bigger pieces of wood and developing the pitch. The story became part of a package about science in the courtroom.

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