I recently finished writing a story I think I’ll be really proud of when it publishes.
That’s because the piece represents an important skill I had to re-learn while writing it: the art of simplification.
I was intimidated by the ambitious story angle. So, in an effort to make the piece the best it could be, I looked at too many studies, consulted too many sources and conducted interviews with every source my first-round sources suggested. Each interviewee gave me new angles to pursue and new ways to look at the information in front of me. Many of them challenged my original theme and as a result, I began to challenge it myself.
Sometimes, this is a good thing. It can be exhilarating to start a story only to realize the ‘real’ story is something totally different. But usually, when that happens, the new story becomes very clear and the writing flows.
That didn’t happen here. Instead, I found myself drowning in a sea of information I’d amassed. By the time I handed in my first draft, it read like a rapid-fire litany of facts and figures that, while supportive of my overall angle, felt more like a hard-hitting news report than the casual lifestyle magazine piece I was hired to write. My editors praised the amount of reporting done, but asked me to remove about half of those facts and figures in favor of more anecdotal stories told by real people.
I took a few days off from research and went back out, recorder in-hand. I absorbed some local color and excellent detail, straight from the mouths of my interviewees. I replaced stats with quotes and added incidental nuggets of info I knew I could only get by letting the recorder run a few minutes longer than I thought I needed to.
When I was finished, the litany had turned into a narrative, no less rooted in fact than before, but much more interesting to read.
The takeaway is this: It is possible to over-prepare. If you feel like you’re getting swallowed up by your story, you’re probably over-reporting.
Here are a few tips for getting your story back on track.
1. Limit your source list and prepare your interview questions.
In the spirit of making sure you don’t miss out on an important info nugget, you may be tempted to interview everyone that could possibly be associated with your topic. Don’t do it! Choose your source list ahead of time and stick to it. When your interviewee goes off topic, gently direct them back to your prepared question list.
2. Catch a breather.
If you have the luxury of more time, spend some of it creating some head space. Take as much as a day to not think about your story at all. Then, come back to your draft with a better perspective of what really needs to make it onto the page.
2. Let someone else read it.
Writers need editors partly because they’re unconnected to the story. Editors aren’t emotionally invested in your sources or their pursuits like you are. With a certain level of detachment, a good editor can help you trim the fat.
3. Read inspiring examples.
Try to find other good pieces that tackle the subject matter you’re writing about. Think about what makes the stories so good and try to apply some of those techniques to your own writing.
4. Revisit your outline.
If you haven’t made an outline for your story, do it now. If you have, read through it again. A good outline provides you with a clear direction and sub-points that help you stay on track. Compare the outline to your draft. Where have you gotten off course? Identify the tangents and the parts that are too long. Show no mercy when cutting.
5. Feel your way around.
Does reading the story make you feel bored or tired? Is something “not quite right?” use your instincts to help you determine what needs to be changed.