Writing “longform”: 12 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

My 5,000 word story for The American Prospect is by far the longest I’ve written in a decade.

My book chapters are usually that long, but a book is a very different animal.

Today’s journalism too often demands writing “light, bright and tight” — jamming a story into 700 or 900 words.

So reporting and writing at length demands a wholly different approach and strong skills.

 

Some tips:

 

1. Who is your (ideal) audience? How much do they want to know? What are their most burning questions? Who else has so far answered them poorly — and how much better can you do?  How will you achieve that?

2.  Make sure from the very start, after you’ve found an editor who wants this story, that you’re both clear on expectations: story length (is there wiggle room?), date of publication, what illustrations or graphs or charts or photos does it need and who will be responsible for obtaining those, who’s handling social media, payment (how many days after acceptance? after invoice?), what about a kill fee, who owns copyright and make sure you will be given a chance to read the edited story with enough time before publication to make sure it is accurate.

 

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Get clear on your story’s direction!

 

3. Check in with your editor — and don’t be annoying. If the story, for any reason, might be delayed or is changing shape or focus, they need to know now. On my healthcare story, I sent my source list early on.

4. What is the key issue your story will address? The clearer your initial focus, the clearer your roadmap of who to interview, what documents to read, what videos or podcasts you need to listen to, etc. Time is money and you have to be efficient.

5. Who will you interview? Stories develop as you go, but you should have a solid idea of your key characters before you start. And bear in mind that senior/high-level sources are super-busy with work, teaching, conferences, travel. You may need weeks or even months to get some of them to agree to speak with you. Be strategic.

6. If you need help — a fixer, translator, researcher — use them, and give them clear direction. Pay as much as possible, ideally no less than $20-25 an hour; 20 years ago I was paying $15/hour to my researchers. Quality costs!

 

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Coffee stains optional!

 

7. It’s a line of dominoes. Every source you speak to on a lengthy and investigative story of any true complexity will be assessing you…not just vice versa! Are you smart, well-prepared, asking intelligent and incisive questions? Are you polite and patient? Every source who decides you, too, are of value may then refer you — often unasked — to others at their level of wisdom, access and insight.

8. Share as much as you can with your sources. Some writers refuse. It’s totally personal, but I typically share quite a bit. In my decades of experience, I find that it establishes trust, credibility, a human connection. Sources aren’t gas pumps! Some will appreciate being included and feel respected.

9. How will you structure your piece? What’s your “lede” — the opening few sentences that have to lure your reader in at once? Do you have a terrific “kicker”, the final few sentences that leave your reader thinking, remembering, moved? Here’s an excellent and helpful book, “Follow the Story”by a legendary American journalist. What are your “golden coins” — bits of material (a great quote or anecdote, a compelling data point) that will continue to lure your reader deeper and deeper. You can’t lose them!

10. Find at least three “first readers” whose fresh eyes on your copy will immediately see what’s missing, what’s over-written or under-explained. These should be people whose solid judgment of the issues and how to write well you know and trust. They will help you polish your story even more before it goes to your editor.

 

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11. Pace yourself! My interviews are usually at least 60 minutes, sometimes 90 and sometimes even (whew!) 120. By that point, we’re just pooped. Two a day doesn’t seem like much, but these days it is. So if your story — like mine — includes 30 sources, do the math and plan our your time accordingly. Same for writing. I write quickly, and produced this story within maybe three days, plus revision time. But everyone works at a different pace. Do what works best for you.

12. Savor the result! It’s a serious accomplishment to win an assignment of this length and to complete it to the editors’ satisfaction. 

This week’s webinars: How Reporters Think, Finding and Developing Ideas

By Caitlin Kelly

How do reporters think?

It seems mysterious to some, but — whether through training, school or experience — we process the world in specific ways. I enjoy journalism because one of its principles is challenging authority and questioning received wisdom.

We ask “Why? a lot.

It also means breaking many of the accepted rules of polite society: interrupting, demanding answers from the powerful, revealing secrets. That alone can be difficult for some writers to get used to.

Anyone who hopes to sell their journalism, non-fiction or books also needs to know how to quickly and efficiently find sources, decide which ones are worth pursuing and understand the underlying principles by which all reporters, and their editors work.

These include a deep and fundamental understanding of ethics, knowing when to push (and when to back off) and how to frame a story.

Having worked as a staff reporter for The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, and a regular freelance contributor toTHINK LIKE A REPORTER The New York Times, I can help you hit the ground running. To compete effectively with trained veteran reporters, you need to think as they do. We’ll talk about how stories are shaped and edited, and how to balance the need for accuracy, great writing, deep reporting — and hitting your deadlines!

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Saturday February 8.

Details and sign up here.

And anyone who’s blogging, writing and hoping to develop longer narratives for print — or for new digital websites like Longform, the Atavist, TakePart and others — needs to find and develop timely, compelling story ideas.

Ideas surround us every day, sometimes in the same room with us, at work, at the gym, at work, in your community or place of worship, or in conversation with friends, family and neighbors.

How to know which ones are worth pursuing? First you need to recognize them as potential stories, and know when, why and how to develop them into salable material.

Some of the hundreds of ideas I’ve conceived, pitched and sold:

putting my dog to sleep, (The Globe and Mail), the use of carbon fiber in yacht design, a devastating side effect of a popular medication, (Chatelaine magazine),  Google’s meditation classes, women car designers,  (New York Times) and returning to church after decades away. (Chatelaine.)

PERSONAL ESSAY

Finding great stories is like birding — once you know what they look like, you’ll start to see them everywhere!

Here’s a testimonial from Leonard Felson, a career reporter who took this webinar last fall to help him move from selling only to regional or local markets to national ones:

As a coach, Caitlin Kelly is like a doctor sending you on your way with just the right prescription. She read my clips and zeroed in on what I could do to up my game. It was time and money well spent, and well worth the investment in my career.

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Sunday February 9.

Details and sign up here.

Questions or concerns?

Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.