We require our graduate journalism students to produce a master’s thesis project to cap the year. It’s their chance to flex the reporting, writing and multimedia muscles they’ve built up over 10 months.
One of my goals is to help as many of them as possible get their thesis — or at least a trimmed-down version — published by a professional newspaper, magazine or digital-only publication. In service of that goal, this year I taught a workshop titled “Projects for Publication,” in which the students prepared back-out schedules (time management!), crafted compelling story pitches and heard me speak endlessly about the value of a good outline.
The students’ hard work paid off, as a majority of the thesis projects ended up appearing in professional publications, including these:
Alexei Koseff, whose article about the forces of gentrification in East Palo Alto was bannered atop the homepage of KQED, Northern California’s public media network.
Xandra Clark, who enlightened Poynter.org readers about an emerging field known as “performed journalism.”
Ryan Eshoff, who journeyed to Iowa to report the story of the “Field of Dreams” site and its changing future, a piece picked up by MLB.com.
Anna Li, who took advantage of a breaking news peg to publish a condensed version of her thesis in the San Francisco Chronicle’s print and online editions.
Riva Gold, who made a big splash with her look at newsroom diversity in The Atlantic.com.
Rachel Estabrook, who followed her investigative instincts to bring an important and timely immigrant worker story to the attention of California Report listeners.
Below is a copy of a brief memo I distributed in one of the Projects for Publication classes, stressing my belief in the importance of outlining:
“All good stories have a structure, a backbone, which unifies even seemingly disparate elements. … Once a structure is established, the problem that bedevils every writer at one time or another – ‘where do I go next?’ – is largely solved.”
Sound familiar? James B. Stewart, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, included those words in his book “Follow the Story,” which we read during Autumn Quarter.
I remind you of them now because, even among veteran journalists, there’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of structure. It’s only natural, I guess. For a project like your thesis, you’ve spent weeks and weeks reporting, gathering mountains of material, and now you’re antsy to write a first draft. And once you begin writing, it’s easy to become preoccupied by word choice, syntax and everything else involved in polishing your prose.
Those things are vital, but not before you’ve obsessed over how to structure your story. “Perhaps because polish is so visible, many people erroneously believe it to be the most important part of writing,” Jon Franklin, a legendary features writer, once said. “Polish is merely the plaster on the walls of structure.”
This is why a detailed outline — ahead of a first draft — can be your best friend.
The look and feel of an outline, I believe, is a personal choice. Some writers outline in a methodical “1, 2, 3 …” or “A, B, C …” kind of fashion. Others draw diagrams that offer a more visual guide. Use whatever format makes the most sense to you. What’s really important at this stage is that you create a blueprint for your story, logically organizing the right things in the right place.
Your structure depends, in large part, on the type of story you intend to tell. A pure narrative is organized differently than a magazine-length feature that includes some narrative sections and techniques. And, of course, a hard-news piece or a news analysis generally is best served by an architecture that prioritizes what’s new and most newsworthy.
If you are striving for a true narrative, keep in mind that such stories unfold through character, scene and action along a “narrative arc.” As they move from beginning to middle to end, narratives are propelled by a sequence of events that take the reader along for the ride. The narrative writer refrains from non-essential exposition and often withholds how the story turns out.
“When is a narrative appropriate? If the question underlying a story is ‘what happened’?” Stewart wrote in “Follow the Story.”
Many thesis stories, on the other hand, are what I consider hybrids: While benefitting mightily from narrative elements, they more closely resemble magazine-style news features — often starting with an anecdote or scene, moving to a “nut graph” (or several nut graphs) that tell the reader where the piece is going, and then proceeding to cover that terrain through a combination of expository and narrative storytelling.
I’ll close with this: The thought of writing a long-form piece can be daunting, particularly if you are more accustomed to stories in the 800- to 1,500-word range. Another reason why an outline serves you well is that it helps you think of the writing process in sections. A 2,500-word story organized into four sections is, metaphorically, like climbing a series of peaks en route to the mountaintop.