or, 5 Easy Pieces
I recently received the following e-mail from a flustered Workshop attendee:
"I am having a panic attack right now and thought you might appreciate my predicament, if you can recall back to your early days of writing. You would be so proud of me! I pitched an idea to the [local newspaper] after seeing a similar story in the Chicago Trib.
"The first two editors failed to even answer me (though one did much later). I didn't even know if the paper took freelancers... I decided, "What the heck?" and emailed a third editor, and she responded favorably!
"Long story short: I am working on a story that [has a hard deadline which is rapidly approaching]. I have been sending out emails like crazy, heard responses from a Harvard professor and a CEO, done a phone interview with a Grand Valley prof., interviewed two teachers at school, typed permission slips for parent permission to do students' interviews, and met with the paper's photographer. I feel like a real reporter!
"NOW, I can't get started. I have all the info., a writer's critique mtg. I want to use as a personal deadline and I am freaking out! So many local people know I am doing this, so I can't hide like I do with my cyberspace writing! Yikes! Maybe it's all the pop and hershey kisses I am eating that is giving me the shakes! Anyway, no more procrastinating!"
In my experience, writing a short, informative article that features several sources follows a simple, almost formulaic process.
I e-mailed the writer back, proposed curtailing the sugar intake, and offered a few suggestions for stopping the shakes and for starting the article.
Writing an article is a matter of combining 5 easy pieces. In case the process might be of use to other writers, here they are:
1.) First, conduct all necessary interviews. Record them and transcribe only the important bits of them. (I have a friend who faithfully transcribes every word of every interview, but I find that incredibly time consuming. Focusing on the highlights not only streamlines the process, but acts as a "first pass" of editing and arranging your material.
(An aside: I love MP3 recorders that are also USB drives. What a wonderful invention! A godsend for interviewers.)
2.) Write the lead. Imagine that you are writing a script for a TV news anchor to introduce the story and to keep the audience from turning the channel. Be clear. Be specific. Name names. Hook your readers' interest. Give them a reason to keep reading.
3.) Let 'Em Speak For Themselves. Let whoever you reference in your opening "hook" provide a quote that builds your second paragraph.
4.) Work the Room. Then, just let your people talk. Visit each source and let him or her have a say in the topic at hand. (If you need to bring in a new voice, like all good hostesses, remember to introduce the speaker to the reader.) All YOU need to do is provide the segues and explain things that might be fuzzy. You'll discover that some sources are more quotable than others. Be aware of the dangers inherent in playing favorites and make every effort to present a well-rounded story.
5.) Leave 'Em Wanting More. When you're done telling your story -- quit. There is no need to use every quote or to even quote every source.
And that, in a nutshell, is that.
My writer friend who started this dialogue finished her article (without any help from Yours Truly). It went into print and she's on track for another.
Of course there are myriad things a writer can do to stir things up, to avoid death-by-formula, and to write a better article. However, I maintain that when on deadline or when you don't know what to do or where to begin, following the Article Recipe is a simple 5-Step plan for success.