Get good at getting the goods
You’ve heard the phrase “hog in, sausage out.” That means that what you get out of the grinder will be no better than what you put in it.
This is certainly true in writing. No matter how accomplished a writer you are, your story will be no better than your material.
“Without great reporting, a story is like one big comb-over. You can see it from the third paragraph. ”
— Ann Hull, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post
No matter how talented a writer you are, your reader really wants to know that the billionaire’s wife stalks Walmart for bargains, that the networking expert is so shy she has to take a deep breath before introducing herself at parties and that the presidential museum features a portrait of Harry Truman on the head of a pin.
And those details you can get only through research.
Three types of research
So before you start writing, conduct:
- Background research. This includes research papers, scientific literature and other existing material that others have dug up for you. Call it “homework.”
- Interviews. Probably the most popular way of gathering information, face-to-face or phone interviews are more effective when combined with background research and observation. (Note: Emailing? Not an interview!)
- Observation. Firsthand observation — being there — gives your copy color and insight that you can’t get any other way.
1. Conduct background research.
Before you head to the interview, do your homework. Review the background research.
“Researching online is like being dropped into Lake Michigan and trying to find a drop of water.”
— Jeff Hadfield, vice president, Fawcette Technical Publications
Background research is existing material that others have already dug up.
Some communicators say they don’t have time to do background research. I don’t have time not to do background research. Background research helps you:
- Avoid stupid questions. The least-popular member of a travel writers’ group I once belonged to was the reporter who would fritter away group interview time asking for basic facts and figures that were certainly available on a website, if not in the very press kit she had tucked under her arm.
- Save time on information gathering. Background research means you don’t have to start from scratch. Spend an hour looking at existing material, and you can save an inordinate amount of time and effort in the long run.
- Stop wasting your subject matter expert’s time on the basics. If you get a chance to interview Johnny Depp, for gosh sakes, don’t waste the interview asking him how long “21 Jump Street” was on the air. Background research allows you to devote interview time to finding fresh materials.
- Get a quick education in the subject. Consider background research a mini-course in the subject so you can have an intelligent conversation about it.
- Prepare for the interview. You’ll identify experts and other subject matter experts to interview as well as themes and ideas to explore when you talk to them. And you’ll earn credibility in the interview because you know your stuff.
- Dig up nuggets of detail to enliven your piece. For a piece on inheritances, for instance, I found my establishing fact in background research: that baby boomers stand to inherit $10 trillion from their parents’ generation. That’s a number that went right from my background research into the story.
Before you head to the interview, look for background information in:
A. Documents and publications. Investigative reporters laugh at the notion that they spend their time in underground garages talking to sources like Deep Throat. They’re more likely to spend hours in the library, poring over musty old documents.
Ask for pertinent materials — articles, press clippings, annual reports, press kits, officers’ bios.
“‘Googling,’ as people call it, is like fishing for trout in a landfill. Your chance of catching a trout is slim. It’s more likely you’ll come up with 6 million beer cans. ‘Google’ comes from the word googol-plex, which is the number 10 raised to the power of 100, which is the number of irrelevant entries you pull up every time you ‘google.’”
— Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian, on “Prairie Home Companion”
When Chip Scanlan, senior writing faculty member at The Poynter Institute, was writing an essay about his father, he turned to old newspapers for help. Scanlan dug up great details from the newspaper that was published in his dad’s town on the day his father died.
Scanlan gave his father’s death context and brought the piece to life with local news, weather, prices from ads, jobs his father might have applied for that were listed in the classifieds, what was on TV that night — even his father’s horoscope.
For his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes found this scene featuring Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist, buried in the footnotes of an academic history of physics: “He cupped his hands as if he were holding a ball. ‘A little bomb like that,’ he said simply, ‘and it would all disappear. ’’”
B. The source’s or subject matter expert’s files. Ask for pertinent materials — articles, press clippings, annual reports, press kits and officers’ bios.
If you’re writing a profile, ask for personal documents: letters; email messages; journals and diaries; scrapbooks; photo albums; yearbooks; videos; and medical, financial and court records, depending on the angle.
C. Online resources. The good news about online research is the wealth of information you can get. The bad news about online research is the wealth of information you can get.
Planning can help. “Think for 10 seconds before you touch the keyboard,” says Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University journalism professor and Poynter Institute visiting professor of new media. “You will save yourself 10 minutes of wandering around the web.”
When I was writing an article for a financial company’s marketing magazine on four paths to achieving the American Dream, I got so much great information online, I needed only ask my subject matter expert for anecdotes to illustrate each of the pathways.
D. Physical artifacts. Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction author Rhodes accumulates physical artifacts, as well as documents, in his research. They engage his senses and help him create more evocative description.
“A piece of granite I collected at twelve thousand feet in the Swiss Alps powerfully recalls that snow-glared, breathless afternoon,” Rhodes writes in How to Write: Advice and Reflections.
“A handful of grain heads smells and susurrates like a wheat field. When I visited Donner State Park I shot 360 degrees of overlapping photographs of the surrounding mountains. I had the prints enlarged, cut them out, and taped them together around the wall or my office to give me a view comparable to the Donners.”
2. Conduct interviews.
Interviews help you bring humanity to the pile of facts you uncover in the background research. This is when you fill in the data with quotes, personal anecdotes and other human-interest elements.
“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”
— Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist
During the interview:
- Be flexible. The best interviews are conversations. Let the conversation flow.
- Follow up. Clarify confusing answers, get details — and don’t forget the anecdotes.
- Keep the interview moving. Use body language to keep the conversation on track. Lean forward, smile and nod when you’re getting the information you need. If you need to pull the subject-matter expert back from an extended tangent, sit back in your chair and put your pen down.
- Note color. Record décor, mannerisms and speech patterns — observations that will add color to the story. One communicator makes a point of inventorying the room from top to bottom during the meeting.
- Think of the story. A newspaper reporter with an incredibly tight deadline writes the lead in her head before leaving the interview. Then she composes the gist of the story in the car on her way back to the office. The more you think of the story during the interview, the less likely you are to leave the meeting with gaping holes in your research.
3. Conduct observational research.
You’ve heard about MBWA, or management by walking around? Try WBHA, or writing by hanging around — going to the scene to observe.
“You can observe a lot just by watching.”
— Yogi Berra, National Baseball Hall of Famer, known for his “Yogi-isms”
Firsthand observation — being there — gives your copy color and insight you can’t get any other way.
Observational research means that you, the writer, experience the event or product or procedure so you can re-create the experience for your readers.
Observational research is the most overlooked reporting tool there is. Which is a shame. Because firsthand observation gives your copy color and insight that you can’t get any other way.
- Covering a new roller coaster? Get on that sucker and ride it.
- Doing a piece on a new medical procedure? See if you can get into the operating room.
- Writing about a new line of chocolates? You haven’t really done your job until you’ve sampled a box or two.
To conduct observational research:
- Spend a day with your subject-matter expert as she goes about her regular business.
- Ask for a demonstration. Get the subject-matter expert to walk you through conversations, show you how she found the computer glitch or otherwise demonstrate parts of the story for you.
- Take a tour with the subject-matter expert. Let the plant manager show you “how things work around here.”
- Put yourself and your subject-matter expert in a situation that reveals something about the topic. When I profiled a customer-service guru, for example, I took him to a white-tablecloth restaurant where I could observe him observing the service.
- Watch the subject in action, then talk. Be on hand while the surgeon performs surgery, for instance, then ask questions afterward.
Get good at research.
“Beginning reporters think it’s all about writing fancy sentences. And it’s not. It’s about reporting. ”
— Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
Good research is essential. For nonfiction writers, the research is the story. So mastering the skill of information gathering is a must. That’s why we need to, in the words of celebrity interviewer Nancy Collins, “Get good at getting the goods.”