Following a Story as It Unfurls

unfurling fern
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In 2013, when NASA reported that the second of four wheels on the Kepler space telescope stopped turning, Mark Zastrow was on the story. Kepler’s wheels help turn and stabilize the craft as it searches the skies. The telescope, originally designed to search for Earth-like planets, was not able to adequately focus using only half its wheels. Without at least three functioning properly, the craft has trouble maneuvering and takes blurry photos. Zastrow immediately saw the potential for a follow-up feature to the news story about the broken wheel: What, then, was the fate of the telescope?

Zastrow, a science writer in Seoul, Korea, kept his ear to the ground for new details about Kepler. He followed astronomy email lists and attended Kepler talks at astronomy conferences. Would the telescope be fixed? Would it be repurposed for another mission? Would it just be left as space junk?

It took more than a year for Zastrow’s story to fall into place. In October 2014, he wrote a feature for Nature about NASA scientists’ decision to make do with Kepler’s broken parts and shift its mission from searching for Earth-like planets to observing a specific band of sky.

Good stories rarely unfold in a timeline that’s convenient for writers. It can take months for writers to gather story elements and wrangle them into a compelling narrative. On top of that, writers may hit other speed bumps, like waiting for a key research paper to be published, for a main character of a story to agree to an interview, or for a news peg to appear. So what’s a writer to do with an idea that they know could make a good story but is still missing some pieces?


Connect the Dots: Find the Narrative

Most of the time, the nagging feeling that a story just isn’t ready yet is a sign that something needs more work. Rather than explicit strategies for overcoming this lack, seasoned writers often describe having a “feeling” or intuition about when stories became ripe for pitching and writing. But until you can trust your gut, the challenge is identifying what’s missing.

First, take stock of the pieces you already have for your story. If you’ve been reporting and researching a story for a while, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information you’ve amassed. “When you’re collecting string on [developing] stories, it’s hard to know when you’ve ‘got it,’” says Zastrow. Taking a step back allows you to examine the big picture: What do you know, and what do you need to dig into?


Resisting the “wrong” story can be a necessary step in finding the right story.


Maybe you have the right characters for a story, but the angle isn’t quite right. Freelance writer Krista Langlois, based in Durango, Colorado, ran into this issue when reporting a story for High Country News about a boot camp for women in wildland firefighting. When Langlois first pitched the story in late 2014, she imagined a piece about the grit and camaraderie behind a physically grueling weekend. Langlois had previously met the leader of the boot camps and knew she was a “firecracker,” so she assumed that camp attendees would be colorful characters too, especially when pushed to their limits. After attending the camp, she discovered it was mellower than she expected—and that the story no longer felt right. “I don’t know how to articulate it, but I knew it wasn’t the story,” she says. “I wasn’t excited about it, I didn’t want to write it, and it didn’t seem like something that other people would want to read.”

As a result, she sat on her notes from that reporting trip for a year before she settled on the story she did want to tell: an investigative feature on harassment of women in wildland firefighting. Around that time, the Interior Department released a report about years of sexual harassment by National Park Service workers on Grand Canyon river trips, which started a national dialogue about the harassment of women working in public-lands agencies. “It was a much more widespread problem than I had initially thought,” said Langlois, which led her to shift her focus toward an investigative story. Her previous reporting had built important source connections. She conducted follow-up interviews for her harassment story with women she’d met at the boot camp.

Resisting the “wrong” story can be a necessary step in finding the right story. While Zastrow was waiting for NASA to make a decision about Kepler’s fate, he pitched a story to his editors at Nature about a pilot study by two scientists (unaffiliated with NASA) who proposed that Kepler’s photos might still be used if astronomers could develop technology to deblur the images. His editors passed on it, saying the study’s results were too preliminary. But Zastrow thinks that false start was a good thing, because it would have been a weaker story than the one he actually ended up writing. “Now that I look back on it, [my Kepler story] is a more comprehensive story than what I had initially imagined,” Zastrow says. “Because I waited, and because my editors knew enough not to take it at that point, the story was a lot better for it.”

False starts can also help hone your eye for the story you do want to tell, and what types of developments could help flesh it out. Azeen Ghorayshi, a reporter at BuzzFeed News, has broken several recent stories about sexual harassment in science labs. She says she and her editor, Virginia Hughes, knew that they wanted to cover the topic and amassed more tips on harassment in science than they could investigate.

Some of the tips were about situations that were missing key elements, such as a formal complaint, which made the stories difficult to investigate. But they still gave Ghorayshi a window into the patterns and complicated issues involved in these cases, like power dynamics between professors and subordinates, and institutional protection of professors who are tenured, well-respected, and highly funded. These tips honed Ghorayshi’s ideas about what would be the right story. When she was approached by several astronomers with a tip about astronomer Geoff Marcy’s history of harassment, she immediately recognized it as a story that could illuminate all the themes she wanted to write about. “Marcy was absolutely, unquestionably in a position of power over the people who were affected by his behavior, and that is, to us, the subversive force that feeds into the sexism-in-science problem,” says Ghorayshi.

Ghorayshi has used her eye for strong stories to explore these themes in other sexual-harassment investigations, like those of theoretical astrophysicist Christian Ott and microbiology professor Michael Katze. “We want it to be a different story every time, even if there are the same themes every time,” she says. “Each story highlights a different aspect of why [sexual harassment] becomes a problem and how it affects the way science is produced.”


Dig Deeper

Sometimes, you’re simply missing key information. Collecting more “string”—details, research, and interviews—can help sharpen your story’s focus, or even lead to a new direction or angle to write from. For his Kepler story, Zastrow says he gathered facts and news about the mission through casual conversations with astronomers and by attending astronomy conferences.

Zastrow also recommends using interviews for other stories as an opportunity to gather string. He used this technique while waiting for the right news peg on a story about territorial disputes in the Yellow Sea. “Anytime I wrote a story about marine science in Korea, I asked them what they thought about the issue,” he says. It’s an easy, quick way to gather additional background or outside opinions.


Online chats or short text messages can be a low-pressure way to keep in touch with sources as a story develops.


After you’ve interviewed a source for an ongoing story, follow up with them for new developments and stay in touch so they approach you with details. Having a beat is helpful for this, Ghorayshi says, but so is persistence. She says she’s noticed her colleagues at BuzzFeed who report on politics are not shy about digging for leads and additional string. “They just call their sources and they’re like, ‘What do you got for me?’” she says. “We don’t talk that way to scientists, but it is our job to pursue that information.” Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and follow up.

Online chats or short text messages can be a low-pressure way to keep in touch with sources as a story develops. When reporting on a story about the five-game tournament in which an AI first beat a human in the game Go, Zastrow interviewed several Go bloggers. Then, he pinged sources after each of the matches to get their thoughts on what happened. Zastrow used Korean messaging app KauKau Talk; messaging tools like Gchat and Skype can also help you stay in touch with sources to ask short follow-ups that don’t merit a full phone interview or email thread.


Stay Organized

If you’re short on time and resources, let the Internet do some of the work for you. Ghorayshi swears by Google Alerts. Alerts are most helpful for leads that can be distilled down into a distinctive, succinct search phrase—and be sure to take advantage of these tips from Google itself for how to create optimal search terms.

While researching a story on custody battles over frozen embryos harvested during in-vitro fertilization procedures, Ghorayshi set Google Alerts to notify her whenever the topic was written about in other news outlets.

That small move paid off: Local news stories from San Francisco and St. Louis about women who were suing for the right to their frozen embryos turned into pegs for her investigation. “Just knowing what other news outlets are writing about is helpful,” she says, and setting up an alert is an easy, low-commitment way to passively keep tabs on new developments.

Zastrow, too, sets up alerts; he uses a site called If This, Then That (IFTTT), which allows you to track any updates or changes on a page.

Some writers say an organizational strategy is critical to keeping track of story threads. “I live and die by Evernote,” says Langlois. She keeps different notebooks organized by story, and while she’s reporting, she adds notes and recordings from each interview she conducts, as well as links to relevant websites and news stories. “You can continue to collect clips and organize them however you want—it’s infinitely helpful to visualize your piece in that way,” Langlois says. Zastrow uses a similar program called DEVONthink, which also suggests “related” items based on what you’ve saved in your database.


If You Miss Your Window

No matter how diligently you follow a topic or organize your notes, a story might still slip through your fingers. Maybe you waited too long to act on a lead and the moment passed, or you didn’t find that crucial missing piece before another writer put it all together. Langlois had her eye on a story about New Zealand rewilding activists, only to find that Elizabeth Kolbert beat her to the punch with a feature in the New Yorker—one whose conclusions were “the exact opposite of what I’d wanted to write,” Langlois says.


If you get scooped or miss your opportunity, don’t be discouraged.


But one missed opportunity does not mean the death of a story. Langlois, undeterred, is now developing a related story with a different angle.

Zastrow also says a missed opportunity can lead to a new angle. He says he missed an initial shot at a story on the 2015 MERS epidemic in Asia. At the time, he lived in Seoul, South Korea, but he was too busy to pursue leads on breaking news stories. Still, he continued to monitor MERS news, which paid off months later when he turned one of those leads into a feature about a young programmer whose crowdsourcing website tracked the outbreak.

If you get scooped or miss your opportunity, don’t be discouraged. “That story already existed out there in the world,” says Ghorayshi. “It exists in another form—you just have to find it.” A fresh angle or news peg can breathe new life into a story.

Every story is different, and how a story unfolds will also follow a unique path. Following a rewarding story may require a healthy dose of persistence—and patience. Some promising leads may not become stories at all; others may take a surprising turn in the course of reporting. Perhaps it will help to remember that this uncertainty is the double-edged sword of writing. Chasing a developing story can be frustrating, but the prospect of uncovering something new or unexpected is the thrill that keeps us writing.


Jane Hu
Jane C. Hu

Jane C. Hu is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington. Her favorite stories usually involve brains, animal cognition, language, or the intersection of science and society. Her work has appeared in Slate (where she was an AAAS Mass Media Fellow), The AtlanticNautilus, and other publications. You can find her on Twitter @jane_c_hu.

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