You pitch a story, get an assignment, sign a contract, and start reporting. When do you start writing?
When I was first starting out, I would find sources, read papers, interview sources, read more papers, transcribe my interviews, look up facts and figures, and then … stare a a blank screen.
Since then, I’ve learned to practice prewriting. Many journalists start writing their piece — their news article, feature, or blog post — well before they’re done reporting, even though they know there’s plenty of reporting left to do.
Why? And how can you start writing if you don’t have a sense of the whole?
One reason is to capture a moment, a feeling, an insight. If you ever get off a phone interview energized, that’s the time to write a little something. Write it as if you’re going to tell a story to a friend: “I had the most interesting conversation today!” It helps you capture that certain something before the feeling fades.
Andreas von Bubnoff (bio) makes a practice of noting key points after interviews. “I try to write down the most important points the interviewee made and how they might fit into the story later,” he says. He does this right after the interview and strictly from memory.
Andreas will go back and transcribe the interview later, though he says, “These little notes taken right after the interview will tell me where the best material is and therefore, whether it’s worth transcribing the interview in the first place.”
If you’re reporting in the field, these post-interview notes are vital because you’ve exposed yourself to so much information — scene and character as well as science. “After long, on-site interviews, I write up a stream of consciousness about the experience,” says Alison Fromme (bio). “I start from the very beginning, as in ‘I drove 2 hours to the site… it was raining… I had to park near the dumpster…’ Most of this writing will get tossed, but it helps me remember key points, interesting scenes, unusual details, and even the evolution of the interview and my own discovery process. It might give me a hint about the structure of the story.”
Alison adds that it’s an easy way to start writing. “Knowing that I will toss most of it takes the pressure off, and yet it is a very valuable and often quick exercise.”
Another reason for writing early is to identify what you have left to learn. “No matter how much reporting I’ve done or how extensively I think I’ve researched the subject, writing it all down is the best way to figure out where and what the holes are,” says Emily Sohn (bio). “There are always holes!”
Jessica calls this “Prewriting so you can find the holes,” and says it’s it’s useful for news as well as features. “On a daily news story, the sooner you can start writing, the better questions you’ll be able to ask as you reach more sources and the sooner you can circle back to a key source, if need be, to clarify something.”
For longer magazine features, prewriting has helped Charlotte Huff stay calm. With a daily newspaper background, she used to find the far-away and squishy deadlines of magazines angst-producing. “For longer pieces, I find that starting a draft early allows the story and its structure to simmer in the back of my mind, as I’m working on other things.”
Susan Gaidos agrees, even as she admits that some of her prewriting bits don’t end up in the final draft. “But they’re always helpful in keeping the story focused.”
Rob Frederick (bio) only uses prewriting when he’s trying something new, such as a new structure or article type. “Once I have done a few of those kinds of stories, then prewriting becomes inefficient, so I stop,” he says.
So, sometimes prewriting can help you capture something that might otherwise fade with time. Sometimes it can help you see more clearly what else you need to learn. At best, it save you time and help prevent you from getting stuck — and staring at a blank screen.
Image credit: emdot on Flickr