'Talk to Shirley' and 9 other tips for reporting and research

When do you have enough? (Deposit Photos)
When do you have enough? (Deposit Photos)

Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.

Problem 3: I have trouble doing all the research and reporting.

Solutions:

1. Research and report until you begin to hear a repetition of stories or key information.

Listen for anecdotes, those mini-stories that reveal a larger point. When you begin to hear the same key stuff from different sources, it may be a sign you need to gear down the research so that the drafting can be revved up. Most important, never use the need for more research as an excuse for not writing.

2. Work until you get to the unofficial experts.

Never be satisfied with official sources, human or documentary. Get deeper. Find the sources who are closest to the action. You want the investigating detective, not the public-information officer. Donald Murray advised writers to look not to the foreman but to the young mechanic in the shop whom everyone seems to turn to.

3. Ask yourself if you have enough evidence to support a powerful conclusion.

If you research long enough, you will experience a dominant feeling that will lead you to a strong conclusion. As you gather evidence from many different kinds of sources, pay close attention to what that evidence tells you – especially how it makes you feel. As that feeling grows into a conclusion, you can move the dial from the collecting stage to finding a focus, or even drafting.

4. Report until you begin to see more and more stuff that you can leave out.

It may help you to see your work in the form of a funnel. The top of the funnel is wide. That’s where you pour in everything you’ve gathered for the story. But as the shape of the funnel narrows to a spout, the writer must become more selective, reaching a point where he can leave things out with confidence.

5. Research until you have heard someone say: “You’ve got to talk to Shirley.” And then talk to Shirley.

We’ve all met Shirley, which happens to have been my mother’s name. A Shirley can verify notions you’ve heard elsewhere and provide evidence available nowhere else. A Shirley can help you decide if your reporting is done. But don’t be surprised if you hear a Shirley say, “You can’t do this story until you’ve talked to Tony.”

6. Get busy writing before your editor or teacher starts yelling at you because you’re about to miss a deadline.

Writers often devote a disproportionate amount of their time to research, leaving writing to the very end. I know writers who researched a story for 10 months and gave themselves only 10 hours to draft it. So when you hear the bell tower chime the hour, it’s a reliable sign that you should begin drafting. Your story will not be perfect, but most times “good enough” is good enough. Feel the adrenaline. Use it. Then let the work go.

7.  Work until you can write a clear statement of what the story is really about.

This statement can take many forms: a note to yourself, a memo to the editor, a tentative lead sentence or paragraph, a theme statement. To write an effective version of any of these requires a knowledge that derives from your research. It’s evidence enough that even the first draft of your story will have a clear focus.

8. Research until you have enough to show the reader – not just tell the reader.

It is easier to tell someone something important about your story than it is to show the reader. For that you need strong evidence drawn from your research. You can tell me that a hospital is providing substandard care to wounded veterans, but how do you know? I want to see the evidence, and that means the dirty laundry stacked in the corner, the peeling paint falling from the ceiling, the soldier signaling the nurse station and getting no reply.

9. Hunt and gather until you have three times as much as you think you need.

Inexperienced writers often include in a story everything they have collected in their notebooks. But who wants to read a story about your notebook?! With more experience comes more sophisticated reporting skills, which generate more evidence, much more than you can use in the story. The advantage is clear. More reporting produces better material. What comes next is the opportunity to select the best stuff in support of the story and on behalf of the reader.

10. Collect material until you have enough to recognize and select the best stuff.  

As you conduct research, you will begin to imagine what the key parts of your story will be. The writer needs to hear many voices. Some will be quoted loud and clear, helping the reader to understand what the story is about. Others provide the writer with important background information, which can be used now or stored for future work. So what makes some story material “good” or even “the best”? Apply these tests: Is it interesting? Is it important? Does it support the focus of the story?

Previously: 10 tips for making that assignment your own

10 things to do when you can’t think of anything to write

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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