Sharpening Ideas: From Topic to Story

Close-up of a man's hand sharpening a knife.
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George Johnson wanted to write about new developments in cancer research for The New York Times. But he needed to find a story that would let him do it. So last year Johnson, a regular contributor to The Times’ science section who’s writing a book about cancer, cut a deal with his editor. He’d go to the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Orlando, Florida, to see what he could learn from the world’s top cancer researchers. And if he found a good story for The Times, they’d split his expenses.

As science writers, we learn about fascinating topics daily, and explaining that complexity is one of the joys of our work. But to sell the story to our editors, we need a good angle and often a compelling narrative approach. This can challenge even experienced writers, as I know from once-promising reporting that sits untapped (and uncompensated) in my computer.

Often, the key to finding novel, surprising, or controversial angles that nab assignments is to look at the story from different points of view, says Emily Laber-Warren, who has edited features for Popular Science, Women’s Health, Scientific American Mind, and other magazines, and who directs the Health and Science Reporting program at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “The first thing is, don’t give up,” Laber-Warren says. “You have to be like a two-year-old holding a peg trying to make it fit into a hole. You have to turn it around.”


Anatomy of a Story’s Development

Johnson was still turning his ideas around when he arrived at the cancer conference, but he had a plan. He knew that two top cancer biologists had published an influential paper a decade earlier that laid out six hallmarks of cancer cells. He also knew that the two had just published an update of their classic paper, complicating the picture without disrupting its central principles. Johnson, who has also covered cosmology, saw that the two fields had developed similarly: Cosmologists still hew to the big bang theory, even as they’ve been forced to grapple with complications like dark energy and dark matter that paint a richer and more nuanced picture of the early universe. “I had the idea that the science of cancer was undergoing a big bang shift,” Johnson says.

He envisioned a trend story for The Times that explored that theme. But he needed a news peg that offered a good excuse to explore the topic. An annual cancer research conference was not a strong enough news peg by itself, at least not for The Times, Johnson says. The recent update of the classic 2000 paper was a noteworthy development, but also not quite enough. “You want something unique that jumps out at that particular meeting,” Johnson says.

A couple of days into the conference, Johnson attended a lecture by Harvard University cancer researcher Pier Paolo Pandolfi, who described the emerging role in malignancy of noncoding DNA, including pseudogenes and regions that encode microRNAs. Johnson realized that cancer biologists’ new attention to noncoding DNA, sometimes referred to as “the dark side of the genome,” was an apt example of a “big bang shift” occurring in cancer research. Johnson’s trend story was shaping up, and he soon got a green light from his editor.

Next, Johnson had another problem to solve. “This was a really hard piece to structure,” he recalls. He couldn’t simply build his story around a narrative of the conference, as that wouldn’t hold enough interest for readers (or for his editors). And focusing on a single character would have defeated his purpose of surveying the larger terrain of cancer research. Ultimately, Johnson pulled back his camera and described the decade-old view of cancer, then used the conference as a framework to introduce new complications, focusing on noncoding DNA’s role in cancer development.

At the conference, he had attended talks that illustrated ideas he wanted to cover, and he later watched video recordings of important sessions that he’d missed. That legwork let him pull from Pandolfi’s talk and several others, describing how healthy cells are conscripted to support tumors and how microbes in and on the body alter susceptibility to certain cancers. He included a few quick scenes from the conference to ground the story, and he finished with Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute, speaking there on cancer’s unsolved mysteries. “That gave it a satisfying structure,” Johnson says. And The Times split the cost of his expenses. (Read Johnson’s story, “Cancer’s Secrets Come into Sharper Focus.”)


Chasing Your Tale

One way to sharpen a story idea—to nudge it from a topic to a true story—is to think through the ultimate structure the piece might take. Fortunately, settling on a good narrative approach helps make the pieces fall into place. There are lots of questions to answer, Laber-Warren says: Where will you go? Are you going to make it a travel journal (such as George Black’s “The Gathering Storm,” published in OnEarth in 2008; or David Samuels’s 2008 New Yorker piece “Atomic John,” a story that intertwines two narratives, one of them a travel journal)? Or will you do a narrative and find a person whose life you can tell it through (as in Darcy Frey’s 1995 New York Times Magazine piece “Does Anyone Here Think This Baby Can Live?”)? Or will it be a first-person experiential story (like Jenny Everett’s 2004 Popular Science piece “My Little Brother on Drugs,” or James Vlahos’s 2005 piece, “Car Crashes … Criminals … Cancer … Black Swans? AAAAAIIIEEEH!“, published in the same magazine)?

Or maybe your target magazine breaks broad topics into feature packages with separate, short pieces that have a common theme. For an issue story, if you can’t find a central character whose tale is compelling enough to build the piece around, you can still find characters that individually represent an aspect of an issue, treating each aspect in a separate section, Laber-Warren says. For example, one section might focus on pros, and another on cons, or one section apiece might cover ethics, science, and human impact. Such stories, which Laber-Warren calls “narrative-issue hybrids,” are “much easier to find [than full-blown narratives] and … they’re very effective.” (Laber-Warren points to two classic examples—Rebecca Skloot’s 2003 Popular Science piece “Sally Has 2 Mommies + 1 Daddy” and Bijal Trivedi’s 2005 Wired piece “The Rembrandt Code.”)

Sometimes characters can be found that represent sides of a controversy, and their respective narratives can be braided. Investigative medical journalists Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer used that approach in 2011 for a piece they wrote for The New York Times Magazine on a raging debate over whether the PSA blood test for early prostate cancer helped or harmed patients. Through their reporting, the two had learned that the PSA test, lauded by many doctors for saving lives, actually spots many prostate cancers that are too slow-growing to cause harm. A positive PSA test then spurs doctors to treat patients aggressively, including surgery to remove the prostate gland. This in turn caused lasting impotence and incontinence in thousands of men whose slow-growing cancers would never have harmed them. Their piece “Can Cancer Ever Be Ignored?” was driven by one central question, Brownlee says: “How the hell did this happen?”

To tell the tale, Brownlee and Lenzer wove together two narratives: one of a doctor who developed and popularized PSA screening, and another of a different doctor who says the test leads to overly aggressive treatment of benign, slow-growing cancers. Separate sections explore these two aspects of the story, and a third tells the story of a PSA-positive patient who agonized over whether to treat his cancer aggressively.


Narrative Casting Call

Finding a compelling narrative for an issue story can take a lot of careful reporting. A few years ago, Barry Yeoman, a Durham, North Carolina–based magazine journalist, learned that a 1993 Supreme Court decision had shifted the power to judge the quality of courtroom science from juries to judges, most of whom had little or no scientific training. This in turn gave corporate defendants in product-liability lawsuits powerful ammunition to attack the qualifications of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses and disqualify them from even testifying. After reporting widely and deeply, Yeoman concluded that the Supreme Court ruling “was devastating to consumers with legitimate cases,” and realized that his story would have to drive home that conclusion.

Then came the question of how to find the right narrative. Yeoman wanted to highlight a lawsuit that illustrated the problem he’d uncovered, so he interviewed legal experts and collected cases. He applied a number of filters to find just the right lawsuit. Because the story was about a dry topic, Yeoman says, “You had to care about the victim.” Whatever case he chose had to involve a scientist whose work was unassailable, a science that was approaching consensus, and a corporation using its legal firepower to disqualify the scientist from testifying.

Yeoman ended up building his story around a case of a 13-year-old boy who had taken a widely used antidepressant, started behaving erratically, then hanged himself. When the boy’s parents sued the drug company that sells the antidepressant, the plaintiffs’ lawyers called an eminent scientist who had studied the relationship between SSRI antidepressants and suicide in children. The scientist’s credentials were strong. “He was not a wild-eyed radical. He prescribed SSRIs himself,” Yeoman says. But after the drug company attacked the scientist’s work as “junk science,” the judge barred him from the trial and the case was dismissed.

Yeoman knew he had the outline of a powerful narrative that drove home his conclusions. Court documents from the parents’ lawsuit, including pivotal court transcripts and depositions from the boy’s relatives and a teacher, provided a wealth of narrative detail. Yeoman was convinced the case presented a deeply compelling story. About two weeks into his reporting, he floated his narrative approach to his editor, who signed off on it. Yeoman’s story, “Putting Science in the Dock,” was ultimately published in The Nation (not the magazine that originally assigned it). It braided the tale of the dead boy and his family with the tale of the expert witness and his science, bringing to life how the Supreme Court decision had led to misuse of science in the courtroom, tilting the playing field in favor of corporate defendants.


Place as Character

For some issue stories, it’s worth asking if the story of a particular place, rather than the story of a central character or two, best illustrates the issue. The place essentially becomes a character in the story, Yeoman says. For example, in a piece he wrote for Audubon in 2009, investigating whether green jobs were a reality, Yeoman visited Newton, Iowa, where Maytag factories that once employed 4,000 people to build washing machines had shut down, but two new wind-turbine-manufacturing plants had sprung up.

Focusing on such a place can help you choose who to feature in the story, Yeoman says. In the green-jobs piece, “Work Plan,” he featured a former Maytag assembly-line worker who now worked for a windmill-blade manufacturer that had set up shop in Newton. Yeoman also included the voices of several other Newton residents, including an economic-development official who had helped recruit the new employer; the plant’s manager; and the town’s mayor.


Thinking Like an Editor

Since finding a good narrative for a story can take a fair amount of reporting, and time is money for freelancers, the initial reporting that’s needed to pitch a story can be a financial gamble. To what extent does a freelancer need to detail the story’s narrative to nail down a feature assignment?

It depends. “I’m happy to get the topic assignment and turn it into a narrative,” Yeoman says, adding that his editors trust him enough to assign the story before he has found the narrative. But he concedes that this is a luxury of experience, and less experienced feature writers may have to do more work up front to nail down an assignment. “As trust and experience go up, the need for a specific narrative in the proposal process goes down,” he says.

Laber-Warren recommends that writers suggest a narrative approach in their pitch. “It’s important to have an idea you can throw out there,” and be sure that it’s the sort of piece your target magazine actually publishes. But she also recommends that writers signal a certain flexibility. “You could say, ‘I could do this as a profile of this central person, or I could do this as a narrative in this or that way,’ ” she explains. “That’s a great way to go. It shows you’re flexible and shows you’re thinking like an editor.”


Dan Ferber

Dan Ferber has written about science, technology, and sustainability for Popular ScienceAudubon, Reader’s DigestScience, and many other publications. He’s the coauthor, with the late Paul Epstein, MD, of Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It. Follow Dan on Twitter @DanFerber.

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