4 Early Content Crafting Steps
Beginning writers often hear the advice, “just write.” While there is no getting around the need to put ideas on a page and I “wing it” myself with articles of 800 words or so, taking time to review all the content you’re working with has its advantages. That’s especially true when a long-form feature or other writing project is complex, or you're watching the clock for any number of reasons. In such cases, the four approaches below will make up for the time they take by making the final content shine.
Define the angle
This sounds like a no-brainer, but it has multiple benefits, and can be easily overlooked when you’re gathering lots of information. The process of selecting what aspect of a topic you'll cover early on is wonderful for:
freeing up your time by allowing you to ignore content that doesn’t fit the angle. You will gain more time to craft what remains using compelling language. And you may find holes in the essential content this way.
driving the overall structure of a story. If your subject is how the chemical DDT decimated bird populations over several decades, for instance, you might choose to cover how the understanding of the chemical’s impact changed over the decades, with each decade being its own section. If instead you’re writing about generations of a bird family you’ve observed at one nest, a structure that’s driven by how your emotional relationship with the birds evolved over time might be more compelling.
clarifying the tone of the overall piece, or of sections of it. Doing so can help you decide on things such as word choices and which person’s point of view to tell the story from. In the bird book example, you wouldn’t want to use a lighthearted approach for a serious look at the general decline of birds due to DDT. But if the work covered your relationship with a single adult pair, you might break up the sorrowful sections about baby chicks that failed to survive with a few upbeat scenes that help readers connect to you or your avian subjects. For instance, there could be a scene where you reveled at the adult ospreys' abilities to turn on a dime while hunting, or show your curiosity about how they nurture new chicks and one’s fights for dominance over its nest mates.
How do you unearth the angle? If your work is something like an opinion piece about a topic that’s already been covered, revisiting the angles others have recently used is one way to find a fresh approach. In cases like this, another reason for defining a topic early on (at least for me) is that reading other peoples’ writings on the same topic can psych me out from thinking I can write about it as well. By doing that review early on, I can set those pieces aside while writing to forget about them and give my piece full attention until it has gained its own wings.
If you have competing potential angles, one trick used by me and some other editors (whose wheelhouse includes providing developmental feedback) is to narrow those down further by looking for the hefty sections versus the holes. The goal is to select a topic approach that best matches the content you have the most details about. Going back to the general DDT book example, the decade-by-decade chapter approach only works when the content covers all decades involved (or most, and you know how to flesh out the remainder).
If your content review suggests several different angles still, great. Consider which angle you are most drawn to emotionally based on factors such as finding yourself talking about that aspect the most with friends. This becomes especially critical if you’re working on a monthslong or longer project.
Another trick is to develop an elevator pitch. Say, your essay or book topic is for lay readers. Talk to a neighbor or someone similar, and try to tell them in just a sentence or two what your work is about. It’s OK if you flounder around a bit, as chances are, you’ll know more of what you want to cover by conversation’s end and can polish it when back at your desk. It’s especially helpful if you’ve done some narrowing down of the topic before the test run, and pick a “test subject” who isn’t emotionally invested in making you happy to get a true read of whether they understand your focus. Also, pay attention to what things they get most excited about when you discuss the subject; if that holds true when mentioning it to most people, then that helps you consider what angle would be most appealing to readers.
Early on, also draft a few headline options for the content. Online software such as Trello.com, which allows you to create different “cards” for different topics, can be great for this approach for something like a book. Some of the middling headlines could end up topping chapters in that book, or suggest the headline of the next book in a potential series.
Define informational gems
Like the previous step, this one requires reviewing all the story content. You could use index cards, pieces of paper, a white board, or an online “bulletin board” site to get all the information in front of you. For a feature I’ve been developing on how COVID-19 has impacted higher ed students, for instance, I interviewed three students, and put all the information about the two who best illustrated the issues to be covered on one piece of paper; one student’s challenges were listed at the top of the page, and the other, across the bottom. That allowed me to see repeated challenges to decide (based on things such as which student had the better quote) which of the two students’ stories I used to highlight each challenge.
Other pages included one on health experts I’d interviewed and the main points they’d made, and another on university staff who shared student statistics or were running programs that assisted students with their needs.
Once you have the different story elements laid out before you, review what your true gems are that have to go in — such as an unexpected statistic that might help readers realize how noteworthy a students’ success is given their circumstances, or how unlikely a bird species’ recovery is based on general statistics about other wildlife that fared worse with DDT exposure. Oftentimes, I’ll also develop a rough outline of the article in my head or on paper.
Use evocative imagery
Whether you directly link two things (“his response was a searing dagger”), or say that one thing resembles another (“the divorce settlement was like a clean, fresh page”), readers respond to metaphor and simile because they add a sensory element that is easy to grasp and connects them emotionally to content. Reading poetry is a great way to learn the art of using comparative language. Or interviewees might provide you with analogies, if they have discussed a topic a lot.
These comparative images can be sprinkled throughout a piece. Better yet when it fits naturally, an author can use imagery that relates to the overall angle of the piece. For instance, in “Braiding Sweetgrass,” an award-winning book about the importance of valuing our reciprocal relationship with nature, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer riffs off of the imagery of this interwoven grass used to make bowls in indigenous cultures. Or, as happened in my COVID-19 feature, the simile of students’ experiences being like sailing rough waters evolved out of quotes.
One expert had talked about how members of underserved communities were living in rowboats or no boats at all, in terms of community resources, while other Americans were living in speedboats. Then, a student interviewee mentioned that all the students on campus were “in the same boat.” I included the word navigate in the feature’s COVID-19 headline to connect to the idea of waterways overall, and used the first expert and her quote in early paragraphs. The quote from the student bookended the article as I was shifting back in focus from the experiences of underserved students to the larger university community.
Know your story-crafting approach
There’s an exception to every rule about how successful authors approach their craft. However, some authors tend to work by developing a draft that’s got everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. Others create a skeleton, and build the flesh of the story onto it. Knowing which one you favor by the midpoint of story development will help you overcome the challenges inherent in each approach.
I love the research phase of developing content, and don’t mind editing text down, so I’m the “throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen sink” type of writer. If you’re like me and don’t watch out, you may go down too many informational rabbit holes, failing to leave enough time to whittle down the content to the desired length and refine the final text. So, it helps kitchen sinkers to stay practical by starting the draft text earlier on, as you’ll see how little space is available for all those informational nuggets you’ve been stockpiling.
If you’re prone to layering information into a draft over time, then you're more like "Game of Thrones" author George R. R. Martin, who calls this being a gardener instead of an architect. For you, developing a rough outline earlier on may be key. That outline can show you the holes still needing to be filled in in your skeletal story so that you’re sure to build in time to do more digging.
The reason I keep referring to the outline as being rough, and put the early content of a story on separate pages, is that using a strict outline runs the risk of hampering creativity; the best stories usually are born out of following the information trail that develops over time). It’s important to review all the content so you can apply broader brush strokes of understanding to the material and make the end result more cohesive. But stick to too tight of an outline early on, and you might squelch a compelling story element that your current understanding or analytical side would push aside.
For instance, an author/teacher I know drafted a biography that she thought would be about commemorating her long-lost uncle who had been institutionalized most of his life. When Sheila Allee worked on the draft, she realized that it was really a memoir about how her friendship with Uncle Melrose helped her heal from a distant relationship with her father. Trusting her instincts, she dug back into the content and reworked "My Father's Eyes" from that more personal (and more compelling) angle.
The take home: Be careful not to value streamlining the writing process over retaining the pearls you unearth during the writing journey.
By Barbra Rodriguez
Learn more about writing voice and tone.