The writing process

June 16, 2009

Often, my interviewees find themselves wondering what goes behind writing an article for a magazine…so, how do you collect story ideas?

What happens next? Do you ever get the writer’s block?

Is good writing just a compilation of facts and quotes?

I figured I’d put together a list that explains the process a bit as well as gives some handy tips.

Here it is: my take on the writing process a.k.a. how to engage your readers and keep ‘em!

So, you have an idea, what’s next?

  • Research it.
  • Read recent articles from diverse sources on the topic.
  • Identify your interviewees.

Once you’ve done some basic research and know whom you’re going to interview:

  • Make a list of intelligent questions and also compile the ones that might make you feel you’re dumb.
  • Will your mom get it? And what about your grandma? Don’t ask questions that “dumbify” the responses, but ask them so you get clear, lucid details.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions “off the list.”
  • Formulate questions based on who you’re talking to – are you talking to them to get an opinion, to collect facts from, to get justification, to get clarification or is it a combination of some or all of the above?

During the interview:

  • Note the intonation, the color of their eyes, their hair, their hand movements, the shoes, the posture…make a quick note and/or take a picture.
  • Don’t make the interview a conversation – you’re there to listen, not talk about your allergies.
  • Ask your questions as many times and in as many ways as you need to until you get the answer you want. Why? For example? Can you show me? So what?
  • Go for coffee, but bring a tent.
  • Listen for what is not being said.

When you’re transcribing (assuming you’ve used a digital recorder facilitating you to make eye contact with your interviewee):

  • Highlight the information/quotes you know you will absolutely use.
  • Do not transcribe everything verbatim; paraphrase the things you won’t use, but which could be useful to have when building character.
  • Transcribe in order of “meatiness.”

The thinking period:

  • Read all your transcripts and write a head (and subheads if you’re so inclined) – if you can say what the point of your story is in one to four sentences, you’re already halfway there.
  • Create an inverse pyramid, spiral or vectors (whatever works best for you) to synthesize your material.
  • Let everything churn for a day or two…visualize the flow of your story. Do you see your reader riding with you? Are they enjoying the ride?writing carton 300x294 e12708571467621 The writing process
  • Plan your beginning and end.

Just write it!

  • Start with something evocative: an incident, an emotion, a description, a visualization – anything that will grab the reader and make them want to know more.
  • If you’re writing a (donor) profile, don’t talk about the successful businessman in an Armani suit – your readers already know of him in that avatar. Write about the little imp who broke windows playing baseball or the tattooed teenager who wanted to be a drummer.
  • Bring drama to the middle of your story – if there’s conflict, anguish, struggle, excitement, hope – this is the place for it.
  • Enhance the body of your article with the minor details.
  • End with a punch.

Last words:

  • The writing process begins way before you actually start writing a story: research, interview and plan before you write.
  • Give your readers facts and opinions, but make sure they know which is which.
  • Keep your voice out of a reporting piece, but own it nevertheless.
  • Know your story – if you don’t know the issues and the characters intimately you won’t be able to write authoritatively. Good writing is authoritative.
  • Understand the mental and environmental makeup of your audience.
  • Collect more facts, information and viewpoints than you want to…certainly more than you will ever use.
  • Go out in the field and observe.
  • Analyze articles that you like reading.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Respect your audience.

Do you have any tips to share?

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