Tips from a pro: Rethink your story idea, write in chunks, ignore objectivity

This week, our class got the express privilege of Skyping with Ruth Padawer, a journalist and Columbia University professor who writes for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. As it turns out, in addition to the story about parents dealing with their sons’ gender fluidity that we read for this class, I read another of her stories over the summer about reducing pregnancies from twins to a single child.

From her work, I knew she was an amazing writer, but she was also a lovely person who took about 30 minutes from her day to talk with a bunch of narrative-writing hopefuls. We talked in detail about her work and her process, and I loved getting a glimpse into how a professional works — it’s really not so different from how we work. My big takeaways:

1. The story you think you have isn’t always the story you should write. Sometimes, it takes more reporting to figure out what you really should be writing about. This usually makes me panic, but it’s good to know this can be a problem for everyone. Ruth said it took an “obscene amount of time, frankly,” to do her reporting for this story, including the material that didn’t end up being useful. This, I can relate to.

2. Not every story needs a specific structure. Ruth said that when she writes a draft, she tries “to think of what each story needs” in terms of structure. She said the magazine doesn’t have particular story requirements, but many stories tend to have four to five sections. Aside from that, Ruth said she focuses the most on writing “deeply relevant” ledes and nut grafs — she tries to figure out what exactly the story should say. Here is a loose structure she outlined for us:

  • First section: lede, nut graf, the proof that the story is worth it to draw the reader and add credibility, good quote to nail the point and the conflict, some of the subject’s experience.
  • Second section: the evidence that supports your nut.
  • Third section: drier or more technical information
  • Fourth section: the final kicker that drives the point home and moves the story forward.

3. Instead of writing linearly, write in chunks. Whenever you have a character or scene or bit of information, just write it out in small pieces. Then, take all those chunks on notecards or bits of paper and rearrange them on a flat surface until you find an arrangement that works. The physical manipulation of the parts can show you what fits or what doesn’t. It seems like a really good aerial approach that could help me make sense of longer stories with lots of scenes and characters.

4. I’m not the only research geek. Ruth said she uses research to delay her writing and loves learning everything she can about a subject. I, too, am an academic journal junkie and love reading studies and data and trying to determine for myself what the literature said and what research is worth its salt. The hard part, of course, is narrowing down what you’ve got into the most important parts that make it into the story.

5. Immersion journalism naturally leads you away from the tragically misunderstood “objectivity.” When you report in-depth with subjects, you get to see their life from their perspective, which means you can’t be objective; you can practice objectivity by doing enough reporting to back up or support your subject’s perspective and experiences. Immersion journalism lends itself to doing much more personal reporting, so trying to distance yourself completely is impossible. You get credibility by researching and doing accurate reporting, and that’s how you make your reporting “objective.” Ruth said that if a reader argues with what’s in a story it’s fine — if they argue with what you, as a journalist, did, then that’s a problem.

So thanks for chatting with us, Ruth! In another exciting twist, our class will get to talk to Roy Peter Clark this week. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get enough of talking to other writers, professionals and amateurs, about writing.

On the progress vein, I’m starting my observation Tuesday and have finally nailed down a second story form. I feel like I’m really moving forward and accomplishing something. Soon, I’ll get to put everything I’ve learned about outlining, drafting and writing into play.