I got an email from a science writer friend the other day. She hadn’t written a single sentence of her 2000-word feature due the next day. But she had a plan: she’d write 400 words an hour for 5 hours. She’d have time for an exercise session, a self-edit, and a home-cooked healthy meal. She had no doubt she could pull it off, and she did.
That is not me.
Stories like this made me self-conscious until I realized the secret. She’s not from this world. She’s from the part of the galaxy where the Crab Nebula is now.
About 7,500 years ago, her star went supernova, spilling its guts all over the Milky Way. A few refugees made it here. They aren’t too hard to recognize: they think better and write faster. Editors answer their emails and sources return their calls. But guess what? Their home-world was blown to interstellar dust, so you can’t be that jealous of them, really.
The only way to get anything done is not to worry about the Crab Nebulans and to do what is humanly possible. (Just take it bird by bird.) In terms of feature writing, that means brief moments of clarity mixed with long bouts of confusion and disappointment. If you’re like this Earthling, it goes something like this.
The static map
Read and reread articles related to your story, making lists of sources and questions. But beware: it’s easy to get bogged down. The information you really need is in the jungle of the experts’ heads.
The jumbly jungle
On an ideal trek, your first interview is closest to terra cognito: often the author of the clearest review or someone you developed a rapport with while reporting another story. Ask what would be different if your source was writing a review today. Also ask each source about other potential experts and what they’re known for. Don’t rush this part. Anecdotes about crazy experiments and simmering disputes will emerge. Plus, Dr. Super-Busy Essential Source will likely grant an interview when you mention that four previous interviewees recommended her.
After the first half-dozen or so interviews, take a break. Reread your notes and start transcribing. It’s not just to get the quotes right – it’s because you won’t really understand things the first time you hear them. Once the jargon starts making sense, it’s easy but dangerous to go native. Don’t. Experts live in the weeds; a story needs vistas.
Go back to your map, identify the gaps and figure out which are best ignored. Then return to the jungle. Interview more sources to fill in the gaps; test out metaphors and make sure to capture a quote or two that will tell readers why a topic is so interesting. Once you’ve done a couple interviews without learning anything new, it’s time for a loll in the swamp.
The sticky static swamp
Take notes on your notes. You might take a stab at a lede or a dash out a paragraph or two, but the goal is to make lists and outlines, not to write. Categorize favorite quotes and key facts, then tag them according to sections you plan to have in the story. Linger in bed, in the shower, or on the elliptical working through the story in your head. Talk topics through with your long-suffering spouse to gauge what’s cool and what’s confusing.
Sometimes in the swamp you see a lovely mirage. No one before you has found the pieces of this story or could assemble them as you will. Your piece will inspire collaborations and experiments that reveal a new gene or protein. It will be named after you. The illusion lasts until you open a blank Word document.
The writing pit
Now is the time to put paragraphs on the page, preferably well-formed ones, preferably in order. The only thing to think about in the pit is cranking out words. Do not contact sources: Extra reporting blurs with procrastination in the pit.
Do not think about how you never ask the right questions or how Crab Nebulans identify multiple brilliant narrative arcs, while you struggle to find one—and it’s worse than mediocre and absolutely unworkable. Do not think about your inadequate talent, subpar intelligence, or that you could literally be making more money digging ditches. Remember the process has highs and lows.
Play tricks on yourself to stay focused. Set a kitchen timer and don’t let yourself get up for anything until you’ve been typing for 90 minutes. Take a brief break and set the timer again. Or write down your word count every hour on the hour. Progress won’t be steady, and your count will shrink sometimes when you cut paragraphs you never should have written. But at some point, you’ll blow over the word count with four topics left to cover. Get through those, and then it’s time for shedding and shredding.
The shredding shed
After rereading the drivel that you produced in the pit, you should remind yourself that the Crab Nebulans now finishing up gym sessions can never really go home again—their planet is now dust, remember! Do not to tell yourself that the piece is THE ABSOLUTE WORST THING YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN and that you’ll never write anything adequate again. You must not dwell on how all your siblings make more money than you do and how you really should have found a career with numbers instead of words. Instead, focus on salvaging what you’ve produced, improving it, re-doing interviews to get what you need, and fact-checking the details.
Repeat this until you are exhausted or until you have something that you are no longer embarrassed to have your editor read. Then get a good night’s sleep, change the font, and reread once more, preferably aloud. Email the story to your editor, turn off your computer, and go take a walk under our beautiful, unexploded sun.
Image credit: NASA