I’m always curious about how writers write. After a few months of writing regularly for the Wire, I’ve nailed down my own personal process for newsy, feature stories that I have about a week to write. Here it is, from assignment to turning in:
- Pitch: I pitch my editor, or she pitches me, and after a few excited “That sounds great!” emails, I have a story. This is my favorite part because it is still a small miracle to me that someone wants me to write for them and they are excited about my ideas.
- Contacting people: I used to put this off as long as possible, but now I try to do it as soon as I start researching a story. I hate bothering people, but at least for my stories, which my friends have dubbed “happy journalism” because they mostly deal with community projects, upcoming events, local groups, and so on, people are happy to talk to me. I send an email and suggest a time to interview, and tell the person if it will take 15 or 30 minutes. If they don’t respond, I either try someone else or follow up with a phone call. I do everything in my power to put off cold-calling someone. I am only slightly less terrified of calling strangers after 16 weeks of calling strangers every week.
- Interviews: I write questions ahead of time for the people I’m talking to and go through them on the phone. Sometimes I get lucky and my interview-ees go through the questions for me. I love chatters. Give me your chatters, your ear-talker-offers. I would love to interview them. The adorable thing is they always apologize. They don’t realize they are doing my job for me.
- Observations: If there is a place I can go to see something, like a meeting or a presentation, usually my editor sets it up for me or I have been in touch with someone who runs it. I don’t like to show up unannounced. In addition to copying down any quotable dialogue, I take notes on small details about the place, like the weird fish hanging in the coffee shop or the weather. I try to have some questions prepared for people I can snag afterward–like calling strangers, this is the scariest part, but I’ve only been turned down by two people, and one of them even apologized. If someone asks me for an interview now, I speak verbosely about whatever is going on, such as when me and Andrew were photographed for a story about Dover clean-up day. I was all, “We’re volunteers, we just love Dover, it’s so beautiful out, we like doing lawn work for other people because the town gives us pizza! You can’t beat it!” All eminently quotable stuff, you’re welcome, Foster’s Daily Democrat.
- Research: This part is a treat for me, which is why I usually save it until the end. I love reading about things. Who doesn’t? It doesn’t even feel like work. Lately, I’ve tried to move this up to do it more towards the beginning, to give me some ideas for issues I can ask about in interviews. But I think doing research at the end (again) is also useful, because many times folks I’ve interviewed will point me to people to look up or numbers to find. If it’s a trend, like my women at work article, I try to read (skim) a book about it, to give me a broader perspective. If it’s a particularly relevant book, like Randall Balmer’s “Blessed Assurance” for my article about evangelical churches in Dover, I call the author to get some bite-sized quotes. Book authors are the one exception to my terror of calling strangers. Hearing them be real humans makes me think that I could write a book, because after all, I am a real human, too!
- Let it sit: If at all possible, I do not write on the same day that I call a bunch of people and read a whole book about something. I wait until the next day.
- Write: I start in the morning, after drinking coffee, eating breakfast, and replying to all the email I can. Starting is the hardest part, but once I get going, I take about three hours to bang out a draft and I enjoy every minute of it. I mix in a lot of online research here, nailing down names, dates, places, and numbers. I send it off to my editor, usually saying, “Help! I don’t know if this sucks or not!”
- Edit: My editor suggests some changes, either structural (“make a new hook”) or content-related (“call X, Y, and Z”). If I need to call someone, I take a day to do this; otherwise, I edit and turn it around ASAP. At this point, I’m feeling very “How soon can I stop thinking about this?” about the article.
- Stop editing: Shazam, the article runs, and I pick up my copy of the paper.
What I’ve been most surprised about since writing for the Wire is how little of it is actually writing: three hours out of the many I spend on the phone, observing and reading. I also appreciate good journalism a lot more now; I know that for every quote that appears in an article, there’s pages upon pages of quotes that didn’t make it in and will be tossed in the recycle bin. Finally, I thoroughly appreciate editors. Without mine, I would a) never call strangers and b) not have improved my writing as much as I have. Editors are amazing. They are the bridge between writing for yourself and writing for others; they want your writing to be excellent as much as you do, and it is their job to tell you how to do it in the quickest, most direct way possible.