Ask TON: Planning Reporting

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

I feel like I waste a lot of time when I’m reporting for feature articles—feeling hazy about what I’m aiming to learn, asking the wrong questions, having to go back and ask a lot of follow-up questions—not just a couple, but a lot of questions that in retrospect seem like they should have been the first and most obvious question. It’s not that I don’t plan my reporting. . . . I actually spend a lot of time writing lists of interview questions. But somehow, often my planning doesn’t seem to quite hit the mark and I later realize that I hadn’t really defined the story before I started reporting. What strategies do you use to plan out your reporting for features? Are there certain questions you ask yourself that seem to be reliably helpful?

Freelance journalist and author David Dobbs:

Doubtless many writers suffer this malady. I certainly did until I learned to love danger and go short, taking just a half-dozen or so written questions, never more than ten. At first you’ll fear that you’ll miss the good stuff. But if you do it right, you’ll still get all the good stuff—and maybe some better stuff you might not get otherwise.

I used to bring 20 or 30 written questions to every interview, pared down from 40 or 50. My head would be a-swim, my attention divided with trying to remember them all. But after many interviews in which I broke flow and concentration and rapport by worrying over my little checklist, I realized that I was usually getting to most or all of its questions not by working the list but by exploring the answers to the half-dozen or so questions that I’d double-underlined beforehand as most important. When I focused on those few key questions and treated the others as afterthoughts, the interviews started to flow better, leading to keener insights, snappier quotes, and more information. Now I just take those half-dozen questions, which fit nicely onto a single page of a standard 6×9 notebook.

The key is organizing your interview around two central questions. The first is whatever your story (and interview) is out to answer; for example, “Do animals have consciousness?” The second is your interviewee’s relationship to the first question; if it’s a researcher, question might be, “What led you to study how octopuses use coconut shells?” (I’m not sure what you’d ask the octopus.) Do your homework, phrase these questions well, add three or four more, and you’re probably set.

This isn’t to say you will not or should not write down 50 questions beforehand. Certainly you should do enough reading to generate that many in your mind or even on paper. (How exactly does an octopus carry a shell? Did people think you were crazy asking octopuses if they had consciousness?) But after you generate your 50, cull them to a half dozen you actually take to the interview. And have faith that even of those six, the most important two—the story’s central question and “How did you get tangled up in this?”—will usually lead you to the other 4 on your list and the 44 you left at home. Meanwhile you’ll create a quality of conversation that you’d never generate by worrying over a checklist.

Worried you’ll leave something out or think of something later? Of course you will. That’s what email and phone calls are for. And after a fun, engaged conversation, your source will be happy to answer them.

Science News contributing editor Alexandra Witze:

If you have long lists of prewritten questions and you’re not getting the information you need, consider broadening the scope of your interview. It’s very easy to get distracted by specific details and miss the larger perspective, especially when reporting on technical subjects. Be sure you ask questions not just about “what” and “how” but also “why.” Why is your source doing the particular thing you are reporting about? Ask about motivation, background and context. I once wrote a feature on the quest to measure the electron’s electric dipole moment—you can’t get much geekier than that—and the best detail emerged when a source started talking about how he’d spent his whole life trying to make this measurement, and why he was likely to fail at that quest. It’s impossible to define a feature precisely before you start reporting, so make sure to include general questions that allow the source to go off in different directions than you might have anticipated at the beginning. My first question is almost always along the lines of “why are you doing this?”

Freelance journalist Laura Beil:

Sounds to me like you’re spending more time thinking about the reporting than the story itself. If you’re hazy going in, then you’re apt to cast too big a net when you gather your material, getting details for details’ sake. Details are important—but if you overreport you’re getting a lot of clutter.

Before I interview any source, I first ask myself one broad question: How is the information from this person likely to fit in the overall story? That helps me focus the interview going in. To answer that question, you need to have a good sense of the structure of your story beforehand.

So I’d say, look at your pre-interview material. See if there’s a natural way to tell your story. Is there an obvious division of information? Is there a main character who can tell a narrative? Are you building up to some central point? Perhaps you’re going to lay out events chronologically. Once I have a sense of how I’m going to tell the story, then I figure out which piece (or pieces) of that puzzle I want this source in particular to address.

Obviously, the structure is fluid until the story is written. It can change once you start reporting. Embarrassing to admit, but I’ve had stories that completely fell apart and had to be reworked because my original grand vision was wrong. But never do I dive into reporting without at least an overall idea how I think the facts are going to congeal.

There’s one other question I use (for disclosure, I stole this from another journalist, but it always helps me focus an interview). I call it the “Hey, Martha!” question—as in, some guy is reading your story, and he looks up at his wife and says, “Hey Martha! Listen to this!” From all the facts you could possibly obtain from your source, ask yourself what would that guy want to know.

Freelance journalist and author Ann Finkbeiner:

I have no strategies worth mentioning and the only questions I ask myself turn out to be irrelevant.  I’m over-stating but only a little. The problem is that reporting feature articles is a vast Catch-22:  you don’t know the story until you’ve reported it, you can’t plan for reporting it (who to ask, what to ask them) until you know the story.  So haziness, the wrong questions, the follow-ups, the wandering around in the swampy dark are just a normal part of the process.

That said, I think with the years I’ve been able to speed the process up a bit.  I keep the assignment letter/query letter firmly in mind, and I figure out where the story is going to end—which is oddly much easier than it sounds.  That gives me a general shape to a story and rules out a bunch of stuff that’s related to the subject but irrelevant to the story. Then I make up the first round of questions and the answers to those make the second round of questions, maybe to some of the same people, probably also to different people.

I think this problem is infinitely worse with feature articles than with, say news stories or blog posts, where you know what you’re going to write and just write it.  I think of the process of reporting features as circling, rounding up, focusing, refining—some gradual process by which you successively figure out what the story is about.  I often don’t truly know until I’ve finished the first draft.

I would add that the general plot structure of any story is Conflict > Climax > Resolution, with Climax coming 2/3 of the way through the plot.  But that’s never helped me one bit, I can’t ever figure out the Conflict or I can figure it out but it’s boring, and so I don’t recommend thinking about it.  The other piece of concrete advice you already know:  lists of interview questions.

So writing feature stories is hard and takes too long and creates way too much anxiety and insecurity and with any luck, the story will be thoughtful and one no one’s written before.

Good luck.

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