What are your best reporting/writing hacks?
August 20, 2014 2:22 PM   Subscribe

So I'm finally getting some freelance assignments. Yay! But how do I actually do this organizationally?

I'm finally writing some longer articles for a few magazines. (Think longish journalistic articles.) I know I'm a pretty good writer. But I'm not quite sure of the logistics of keeping all my reporting materials together. The gear I have is a great digital recorder, a laptop, notepads and pens, and a phone, and a phone recording device (I know the laws about this). I'm not sure 1) how to organize these materials to make best use of them when writing and 2) how to organize them on me when I'm reporting, and how to keep track of everything (cards people give me, random notes or handouts, etc.)

Note: I am not a naturally organized person at all, so don't assume I even know the basics!

Any tips for this? How do you organize your notes (or take notes, for that matter), interview materials, digital files, etc? Any hacks or other gear for the reporting process that help later with the writing?
posted by caoimhe to Work & Money (9 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Note: I am not a naturally organized person at all, so don't assume I even know the basics!

I am kind of making a big leap here because there isn't much to go on, but this is often said about visual-spatial thinkers and there are techniques that are especially helpful for that crowd.

Organizational Skills for Visual-Spatial Kids Like You!

I got this from: Visual Spatial: Articles (I scrolled down to the section under Allie Golon's name and there may be more there that is useful to you.)

The home page asks "are you a visual-spatial learner?" in case you aren't sure if this fits you.
posted by Michele in California at 2:40 PM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Everyone has their own unique writing process, but I think the step of organizing your thoughts before writing is essential. Do you ever outline what you're writing? I think you need to. If you use Word, I recommend their multilevel list function. It's by bullets and numbering on the Home toolbar. I'm sure Google Docs and other programs have comparable features. You could also try Workflowy if you're into newfangled tools. You can also use pen and paper.

Pour everything you want to write about or that might be relevant into your outline, no matter what source it comes from. Rearrange and cut as you see fit. You might want to develop some way of identifying which source each quote or idea came from so you can easily attribute or verify later after everything gets jumbled up.

Then, start writing.
posted by Leontine at 2:43 PM on August 20, 2014

Outlining is a good idea. My method is to outline based on a bunch of bold headings in a Word document. Beneath each heading I paste in any quote or raw piece of info that would fall under that heading. Then you can start turning each one of those sections into paragraphs.
posted by johngoren at 2:49 PM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

For business cards, I have one of these folders. I like to write down some notes on the back, such as, "Ms. Foo at Fooville for verifying names, [date], [working headline]" -- or whatever details you want to note. You can keep that in your laptop back along with your notes and pens and such. Then you have a book of contacts and you can enter them into a db software later if you feel like it.

I like a big spiral notebook, but a steno pad is probably more practical with the hard cardboard backing (I have used both).

Type up any notes ASAP after talking to people. For instance, one day I was doing a story on an historical village, and by the time I got to the blacksmith and then the coffin maker, I was full of neat tidbits and then I got into another house and found out the volunteers were all honor students, so that was another story within a story. That's where I'll start a new page and write something like, "honor students in weaving house" at the top, and make sure I get their names spelled properly and any quotes written down completely (ymmv, if you are using a recorder for quotes).

You can buy little post-it tabs to tab off different stories in your notepads. You can also use them to divide up your story into sections. Just take a piece of paper and put a different color on it and write, "Intro," and use pink; then "Early Days," and use yellow; and "Difficult Years," and use blue, etc. Then as you're writing each section, you can go back and refer to your notes.

As far as recordings, I like transcribing them into Word. You can also print those out and color code them as above, if it makes sense to do so in the context of your story.

If it's a huge project, you can pin all the colors (sections) to a bulletin board in vertical rows, and work on one section at a time. If not, they make 3- ring binders with plastic sleeve inserts, which I like better than accordion folders, because you can see everything. I've lost little bits and things (like receipts or business cards) in the bottom of accordion folders! The clear plastic helps. If not, a regular leather portfolio with a pocket is cool, just take everything out and put it in a regular file folder and label it when you're done. Copy or scan the business card onto a large piece of paper and slide it into the file folder, that way you still have your little book o' contacts still intact, in case you are writing about a sailing race and want to ask about the set of someone's jib, and you have Mr. Yacht Club Member's card right in your little folder.

In short: there is no right way, but don't leave it all in huge piles on your desk, and start writing ASAP when you are done interviewing. It helps to set yourself a deadline, even if you think you have a few weeks. Mine was one week and X number of words, and by the time I got done with my researching and interviewing, it was often 2 days (which is not bad, in terms of reporting). I actually found it worse to be given 800 words instead of 300. So give yourself time to edit and polish as well.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:00 PM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a huge fan of Scrivener which is designed for people writing things, so that you can organise notes, research, etc. and have them handy for you when you write the final document. I use it for my academic essays, blog posts etc.
posted by ontheradio at 4:55 PM on August 20, 2014

Longtime freelance writer here. I found that, for me, organizing was easier the more I cut down on paraphernalia. I tried carrying recorders and laptops and cameras and stuff and finally pared it down to notebook, pen (plus spare pen) and camera/phone. For me, the other stuff just got in the way and produced more redundancy than useful info. Then, as others have said, transcribe as soon as you can, and structure the piece from there.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:19 AM on August 21, 2014

Oh man. YES. Been there.

Okay so, yeah. You are going to have to make something up that works for you. Two things worked for me:

1. I had to take it all to the wall. Using index cards and tape, I'd put an assignment at the top of the wall and then put up cards about it below in a cluster, that included things to do ("Find and call school board members") and also maybe scenes ("Don't forget to write that part about that kid") and also deadlines, people's cards, and everything. I literally have to be able to see it all. I am a hot mess with a terrible memory.

2. The digital organization is ALSO tough. Recently I ended up with hundreds of digital audio files for a thing and oh my god my recorder names every file like 00899. So I had to sit down, get everything off the recorder, and file it in a folder marked PIECE NAME: AUDIO FILES, and then figure out which each file was, who was the subject on it, and the date and location, and THEN also maybe leave myself notes about which notebook notes might correspond to it. NIGHTMARE. (ALSO sometimes I have iphone pictures, so i can remember details, etc.) You should do this with all your written note files too; I have literally forgotten whole notebooks full of crap while working on longer things. (I have also found untranscribed interviews. Heh.)

3. If you do this ongoing and early, you will have a good dump for the fact-checkers as well later. I just give them everything, which is too much, but that becomes their problem.

But my point is: Make a system that works for you, is foolproof, and that is EASY to use. Any over-articulated or complicated system will go awry. That's why I work like an 8-year-old.

As far as in the field, well... you just look like a dork. And that's fine! Here is my only other pro tip: I won't do an interview for recording without two recorders going. (Usually I run my Edirol digital and my iphone simultaneously.) YOU ONLY HAVE TO LOSE AN IMPORTANT INTERVIEW ONCE BEFORE WANTING TO DIE.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:28 AM on August 21, 2014

I do a teensy amount of freelancing, and have always wanted to try out a smartpen, which would combine notetaking with audio recording. This article about shorthand (which I think I got from the blue) talks some about how the reporter uses his smartpen.
posted by megancita at 9:37 AM on August 21, 2014

All great tips -- thanks everyone! Only marked the two as best answers because of the specificity, but everything was great. We'll see how it goes . . .
posted by caoimhe at 6:17 PM on August 22, 2014

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