February 2013 was a daunting month. I had just returned from an 8-week reporting trip to Antarctica, where I had accumulated 1,095 pages of handwritten notes, 2,400 photos, and 70 hours of digital voice recordings. I hardly slept during the last 10 days of the trip—I barely managed to stay awake all hours to collect material—let alone taking time, during the trip (as I usually do) to review my notes and start sketching a story. When I returned home, exhausted, a difficult surprise was waiting for me: the magazine needed me to hand in my feature a month earlier than I had planned.
Oh, and did I mention that I was returning to a new baby, Owen, who had been born while I was away? Or that our 2-year-old, Gus, was positively starved for Daddy Time? (Or that I was starved for Gus, wife, baby, and family time?) With all of these competing demands I couldn’t imagine how I could produce a well-written manuscript by the deadline that I now faced.
What saved me was a significant change in my writing strategy. The lessons I learned along the way are ones that can help in any big project with a tight deadline and piles of source material.
Find distance—and perspective
When I return from long trips with piles of great material, the biggest challenge is that of regaining perspective. It can be difficult to figure out the story, identify the details needed to tell it, and have the confidence to leave the rest on the cutting room floor.
Following my first trip to Antarctica in 2007, I came back and hurriedly wrote on deadline, filing a 5,800 word manuscript with Men’s Journal. That story was killed several weeks later due to issues with photography, but Discover took it not long after that. Even though they had asked for virtually the same story, I made myself sit down and re-write it from scratch. The Discover feature clocked in nearly 2,000 words shorter than the original, but it was far better. In fact, it turned out to be the most lightly edited feature that I’ve ever filed.
What allowed me to hand in such a polished story was simply being further from the material with the passage of time; decisions on what to cut, identifying the real narrative arc, and how to hone that arc came naturally months later. These were things that I couldn’t quite see when I first started writing, packed bags still cluttering the apartment.
Instead, I tried a shortcut for finding perspective. It’s stolen from the teacher who advised me on how to write book reports if fifth grade: once you’ve read the book, she said, put it on a shelf and don’t look at it while you’re writing the report. This will help you avoid the pitfall of regurgitating a summary of the book rather distilling its true meaning onto the page.
So, that’s what I did. I took that stack of notebooks and set it aside. I got out of my normal work space and spent several days in the quiet stacks of a public library. I sat down with an artist sketch pad and started listing the scenes and moments during the trip that had made a strong impression on me and somehow felt important.
Choose to forget
This process effectively swept aside piles of great material, buried in notebooks and recorded conversations, that I didn’t immediately recall after my sleep-deprived adventure on the ice. But I also figured that if I didn’t remember something, then it probably wasn’t all that important in the big picture of the story, anyway.
At the same time, I was reading Jack Hart’s Storycraft, and for the first time ever I tried to sketch the climax of the story and the sequence of complications leading up to it. (Emily Sohn (bio) wrote a great post on this recently, talking about her narrative on raw milk.)
Only after I had some perspective on the overall arc of the story and the scenes that I would use did I go back and start digging into my material. But now it was more targeted digging; fishing expeditions into my notes were driven by the scene that I was trying to write on any given day.
I listened to fewer than eight of the 70 or so hours of conversations that I recorded in the field. I did systematic reviews of my photos only for certain days.
Busy-work that works
When it came to the notebooks themselves, I did something that on the surface may seem like wasteful busy-work, but probably helped in the long-run. I went through a handful of notebooks–about 400 pages–and typed an index, including the dates, the characters, and the action or topic of conversation in each entry.
As I worked on writing each scene in the story, I used the index to home in on the notebook pages where I could look for juicy details, including the conversations that went on during the action; I didn’t waste nearly as much time flipping back and forth through my stack of notebooks looking for the one page with an elusive goody. And when I realized that I needed to introduce a certain character or foreshadow an event earlier in the story, then I could quickly skim through my index and see what material I had available for that purpose.
I ended up filing the story two days early—and I was pretty happy with it. I have no doubt that a more exhaustive dig through my notes would have turned up more forgotten gems that could have enhanced my story—but it simply wasn’t an option this time around. I still have my notes, and if I ever end up doing a follow-up story or book, then I’ll build on this initial excavation that I’ve done, and dig further into them. But in the short run, being targeted in my use of reporting notes prevented me from drowning in material. It helped me produce a manuscript that I’m proud of—and importantly, produce it on a timeframe that met the needs of the magazine, too.
This is the second part of a two-part series on embedded reporting.
Photos by Douglas Fox.