A guide to writing faster, reporting better and feeling good about starting the story in the middle
There you are at the computer. Your notebook is open and sits beside you on your desk. Next to the notebook is a 200-page report from that incomprehensible engineer you interviewed yesterday.
You stare at the computer as the minutes tick away. But nothing comes out.
"Writer's block," you mutter under your breath. Hmmm ... maybe another cup of coffee will help. Oh hell, it's time for lunch anyway.
Well, before you blame writer's block for your problems, consider the following statement: There is no such thing as "writer's block."
Yes, I know you'll disagree. You can recall countless occasions when you've stared at your computer not knowing how or where to begin.
But that's not "writer's block." It's an entirely different disease—and one that can be easily cured.
When corporate writers and editors say they have writer's block, they are actually grappling with "information block." They don't have enough detail to make the story flow effortlessly from the brain, or don't understand the volumes of material at their disposal.
This usually happens to corporate writers (and anyone else) when they haven't done a good job reporting the story.
Maybe they haven't done enough interviews; or worse yet, they did an interview and left without understanding a word of what the subject told them. The fear of seeming stupid prevents them from asking the necessary follow-up questions before leaving the interview.
So what you think is "writer's block" is really the inability to think clearly about what you want to say.
Before you begin your next story, follow these steps to cure "information block."
Make a list
• Before you do any reporting or writing, establish what you think the story is about. Write a simple, clear paragraph—what I call the "nut" of the story. For now, don't worry about accuracy. This is just for you—a tool allowing you to imagine the structure of the story. In all likelihood, the story will end up somewhat differently. But this will allow you to get started.
Example: "Acme Energy Company is betting its future on a new electric generator that can fit into a company's backyard. If our customers buy this product, their utility bills could fall by half or more."
• Now go a step further and make a list of reasons why employees should care. I call this the WIIFM of the story (or What's In It for Me?).
Example: If we are successful selling Acme's new generator, the company will see profits skyrocket. And that means more money for employees, greater job security, expanded facilities, etc.
• Legal pad in hand, make a list of every conceivable question you need answered. Example: How much will this generator cost to manufacture? Will we need more employees? A bigger facility? How many do we hope to sell? How big is this thing anyway? How can I describe its size colorfully? Is it small enough to fit in a backyard? Now take your list to a colleague and ask them to help you brainstorm even more questions. How does this generator work? What was the breakthrough idea? Who was responsible for it? And on and on and on …
Now that you have set the general parameters of the story, you are ready to fill in the blanks with accurate information pulled from interviews, reports or other written material.
This is the most important stage in the process, and you must do it yourself. I have met writers who have never actually talked to anyone. Instead, they get e-mailed explanations written by engineers or—worse yet, accountants—and they make no sense.
Rather than spend hours grappling with language you don't understand, pick up the phone or walk down the hall and interview the person. And cut to the chase. Here's how:
Talk to humans
• Put the interview on your own terms, as such: "Dr. Gobbledygook, I am doing a story on the new minigenerator. I want you to treat me like you would a third-grader and explain how this new machine works. Better yet, let's say I'm in first-grade."
Admit up front that you flunked physics and all sorts of colorful explanations will follow. It's important to keep this need for simplicity alive throughout the interview. In many cases, your expert will begin simply but soon lapse into techno-babble. Pull him back.
• Keep the interview focused on what's important to the readers. Go back to your WIIFM list if you've forgotten. While some details can be intrinsically fascinating, i.e., how atoms are split—you're not writing a piece for The New Yorker.
• End the interview this way. "I hope you don't mind if I call you with more questions down the road. I am going to put all of this into my own words using simple and clear layman's language. But I want to check the accuracy with you when I am done."
Finally, as you research and report the story, look for opportunities to put real people into the piece. Better yet, put real people who are actually doing something into the story, preferably in your lead.
Why do I insist on this rule? First, it is always easier to write a story that involves people taking action. Second, by using stories that involve actual workers, your readers are placed into the story vicariously. We all love to hear tales, so why not use this story to spin a good yarn? Finally, stories involving people doing something tend to be easier to understand and they move quickly. They have pace.
The person or persons you choose should fit the nut paragraph perfectly, and they should have a story to tell.
In the case of the electric generator, I would include an interview with the sales manager. How is this new product changing his or her life? Is it a breeze to sell?
When all else fails, simply ask your subject for a story.
Let's review where we've come so far. First, we've organized our reporting by writing a mission statement or nut graph for our story. We've drawn up a list of every conceivable question for our experts, thereby giving us an inventory of details we need for the piece. We've interviewed our experts on our own terms, forcing them to talk in simple and clear language. And we've looked for real people doing real things to illustrate the story.
Now the writing can begin.
Cranking it out
• Don't begin at the beginning. Forget about the lead. Obsessing about the lead can lead to hours of staring at a blank screen. Begin in the middle. Open your notebook to a particularly successful or easy interview and begin writing.
• Allow yourself to write "crap." Don't worry about style, grammar or even word usage. Just write. Let it all pour forth in a stream of consciousness. You'll find that the very act of putting words on paper opens the imagination. Eventually, as you let the words flow, the lead will come to you.
• Write the story as if it were a letter to a friend at work. "Dear Joan, I am writing to you about this product that could change our company forever. I was thinking about how it would affect you in Human Resources, so I thought I'd explain it below. This product is a new generator that is so efficient, it can fit in the backyard…."
• Finally, while you use these techniques, make a game of it. Challenge yourself to write so quickly that you'll finish in two hours. This will help you avoid obsessing about style.
• If you are writing about technical issues, don't worry about accuracy NOW. Write in the clearest active sentences you can imagine, even though you know you're simplifying a very difficult issue. After you're done, call that engineer and read him the story. After every sentence, ask him, "Is this accurate? I know it's not how you would say it, but is it correct?"
Once you have everything out of your notebook and onto the page, you can begin editing. If you have been faithful to the instructions above, your rewrites will be surprisingly easy.
And more important, you'll see "writer's block" for what it is: An excuse to get more coffee.