6 questions that can help journalists find a focus, tell better stories

As an editor, I try to ask good questions. That’s because I’m a curious person, overflowing with sentences that end in question marks.

It’s also because, as Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark once wrote, “Teachers and editors best operate as resources for writers, by conferring with writers, not telling them what to do.”

I don’t mean to say that I never give writers suggestions. But I try to start with questions that spark a writer’s imagination. I push the writer to think harder about the story’s theme. I encourage the writer to try fresh approaches to storytelling.

We know the basic questions that journalists strive to answer when chasing a news story — questions starting with “who,” “what,” “where,” when,” “why” and “how.”

Here are a few other questions I like to ask writers — usually right before they start their reporting, and then right before they sit down to write.

Even if you’re on deadline, try having a 10-minute conversation guided by these questions. As an editor, the coaching you provide on the front-end can often save you time revising the story after the fact.

How would you tell this story to a friend? I like asking this question because it encourages the writer to think about the most interesting and relevant nuggets of the story. We’re good at considering the news value of a story, but we’re not always as good pondering the “Why should the reader care?” part. Having the writer imagine telling the story to a friend can help him or her think about why we should care. This approach can also help the writer move away from any jargon and bring a conversational tone to the piece.

What would an early headline be for this story, knowing that the headline is not set in stone? This is a variation on the question, “What is this story really about?” Boiling the premise down to five or six words can help the writer sharpen the story’s focus. In my newsroom, we’re asking reporters and line editors to write early Web headlines and short summaries on top of their stories. This is largely for production reasons, but the added benefit is that we’re encouraging writers and editors to get at the heart of the story earlier in the process.

What surprised you? As much as I hate to admit it, many, if not most, of the stories that journalists produce are written in a predictable way. Asking about “surprise” can help the writer shed his or her journalistic mantle, at least for a moment, and just react to the story’s events as a human being. Who were the quirky personalities you met? What was a jarring quote you heard? What did you not see coming? What interesting details and anecdotes do you have in your notebook that you left out of the story, and how do we get one or two of them back in?

What are the unanswered questions? As journalists, we’re not always good at spelling out what we don’t know in a story, especially if it’s a breaking story. Oftentimes, we try to write around the holes. Better to be clear and ’fess up in the story about what remains to be explained and clarified. This question also prompts the writer and editor to compile a list of questions for any follow-up stories.

How do we bring something new to this story? Your best reporters want to be challenged. And chances are, if they are veterans, they have tackled a story similar to the one they are tackling now. What better way to challenge them than to ask them to come up with a fresh approach to the story? The approach could involve words, but it could also involve photography, graphics and online elements. This question will also help writers think about collaborating with visual journalists across the newsroom.

What’s the glimpse of wisdom we can offer? The best stories for me are those that not only tell readers something they don’t know, but also resonate with readers because they touch upon a universal theme. They offer readers a “glimpse of wisdom” — an important lesson that the people we’re writing about have learned — whether it’s about love or loyalty, betrayal or resilience. Those are the most satisfying stories for me. Equipped with cable TV, laptops, tablets and smart phones, our readers are lost in a sea of information. They are hungry for context and meaning. The “glimpse of wisdom” is one of the most important things we can offer them.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    I’m a big fan oo asking, near the end of an interview, “What should I have asked you that I didn’t?”
    Has resulted in some terrific pieces over the years.

  • http://twitter.com/CJAMcMahon Ciarán Mc Mahon

    As one who has sometimes been on the other side of this practice, I would also recommend, in interviews, asking the subject what they find interesting.
    It’s quite a simple one, but, not only am I slightly annoyed by the amount of times that I haven’t been asked it, I notice that the better journalists almost always ask me something along those lines.
    I mean, if you’re coming to someone for their expert opinion, then why not simply ask them what they think is most interesting? Makes more sense than sticking to your own preconceived assumptions and set questions!

  • http://twitter.com/CJAMcMahon Ciarán Mc Mahon

    As one who has sometimes been on the other side of this practice, I would also recommend, in interviews, asking the subject what they find interesting.
    It’s quite a simple one, but, not only am I slightly annoyed by the amount of times that I haven’t been asked it, I notice that the better journalists almost always ask me something along those lines.
    I mean, if you’re coming to someone for their expert opinion, then why not simply ask them what they think is most interesting? Makes more sense than sticking to your own preconceived assumptions and set questions!