Focus first

Tuesday, we’ll talk about finding a focus and organizing a text story around that focus.

We’ve talked about writing leads and nut grafs, and those are definitely focusing activities. But we haven’t talked much about focusing before reporting, or re-focusing after reporting (and before writing).

Learning to do both of these things will save you tons of time and angst (and is the best protection against editor outbursts like, “That’s not the story we talked about!”).

I like the six focusing questions Tom Huang at Poynter has come up with to produce better stories. Please read his column, and then think about a story you’ve worked on recently (or that you’re working on now), and try to be conscious of how you focused the story.

  • How much energy did you put into focusing before you reported?
  • What role did your editor play in that process?
  •  How did your focus change after you reported?

Next, prepare to critique this piece that ran on the Missourian’s website this weekend. Does it have a focus? How does the story’s organization contribute to that focus?

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8 Responses to Focus first

  1. keliza13 says:

    Jeanne Abbott gave me a copy of a book she received called “The Haunted Boonslick.” Always a fan of ghost stories, I jumped right in, setting up an interview with the author and thoroughly prepped to write a piece on the haunted spots in Columbia, Missouri. I read the entire thing in a night, had a list of great questions ready to go, and decided to pop by Jeanne’s office a few days before my interview so I could just make sure I was on the right track.
    It’s a good thing I did. Apparently, I wasn’t the first to want to cover Columbia’s supernatural side.
    Jeanne wanted a book preview, something totally different than what I wanted to focus on: a profile of the writer and the spots in Columbia she has studied. An editor is an editor, so I dropped what I originally planned to work on and picked up what she wanted. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through reporting, it is to always say “Yes” when your editor tells you to do something.
    After I had a 55-minute long interview with the author, my focus shifted from talking a lot about why she wrote the book to WHAT she wrote in the book. Suddenly, the interview took backseat to the reading I did before reporting; I had to really focus on paraphrasing some of the stories in her book into two or three-graf pieces. It came full circle: I started out right by reading the whole book, but in between I had to change my focus in order to deliver the article the way my editor, essentially my boss, wanted it.

  2. Kip Hill says:

    I think you see a lot of Huang’s final two questions in The Joplin Globe piece. As heartless as it may be to say it, we’ve read these survival pieces before. And we’ve read these long-lost love stories before. To me, the “new” part of this story is the aspect of social networking bringing Mark and Carolyn back together after all these years, and the financial hardships faced by Mark. Those things are kind of consumed by this grander narrative of the conquering power of love across time and space (did I just type that?).

    I guess the point is, it’s difficult to try and write something new if you’re also going for a “universal theme.” Sometimes you have to choose which is more important. In a feature story like this, I think the writer chose directly in sticking with the universal theme. But the way in which the new elements are introduced certainly creates some confusion. I mean, look at the headline. The editor had probably four or five things to go with, and went with the universal theme because that’s what readers will be attracted to in this story (probably). But that narrative ended in the middle of the story, and Mark’s recovery process subsumes the last third of the article. We get a nurse who’s talking about how her experience with Mark re-affirmed her career choice. There’s a ton going on here.

    If the author had followed all of the advice of Huang, this story would probably be very different. Would it be better? I’m not sure. I think the subheads do a good job of moving the story along with focus, but I would have liked to have seen some type of conclusion that ties all these narrative threads together. I would have been a happier reader, at least.

  3. Su, Haoyun says:

    After reading the Joplin piece, I try to sort out the reporter’s focus, but, look at its headline and subheads, I’m confused.

    Missouri man finds love again after deadly Joplin tornado
    · Sweethearts reunited
    · Financial difficulties
    · A miracle patient

    I think most readers are not voracious. They don’t want to see so much info in a single story and devour all of them.

  4. I like the simplicity of “what would I tell about this story to a friend?” I imagine calling a friend who lives far away from Columbia and telling her about the issue or event I’m covering. It’s helpful to imagine someone who isn’t involved in the community because those are the toughest readers to hook — the ones who have nothing invested. With that in mind, it’s easy to see where the heart of the story lies.

  5. I have recently found while reporting on tennis in China under tight deadlines that focusing on the the story before going out saves me an incredible amount of time writing it when I get back. Since coming back and covering events for the neighborhoods beat I have continued to focus before and after coving events and have found it to be a time saver. Thanks for posting these additional tips on focusing. In regards to the Joplin story, I appreciated the love interest in the story, but think the ending was a little confusing and maybe could have been improved by reinstating the main point. I am still a little confused as to why the angel nurse was mentioned at the end…

  6. kaitlinsteinberg says:

    Dear Katherine,

    I miss your blog updates. Where are you? Are you OK? It’s been a week since your last post. It’s midnight, and I really feel like reading something witty and with some attitude, which you usually accomplish quite well.

    Yes, that’s a challenge.


  7. Kaitlin, I agree with you. I miss the attitude as well. It’s probably my favorite part of this blog.

    As for the tips from Tom Huang, I realized that “How would you tell this story to a friend?” and “What surprised you?” are two of the best questions I can ask myself in order to focus a story I’m working on. I hadn’t realized it until reading the tips, but the things that I tend to tell people about the stories I’m working on are usually the out of the ordinary comments or perspectives that people share with me.

    I think the Joplin piece could’ve used a bit of focusing, to be sure. It almost seems like there are three separate stories – the workers comp battle story, the rekindled love story and the miraculous recovery – that the reporter melded into one long piece, simply because it revolved around one central character.

  8. Kip Hill says:

    I don’t know where exactly to post this, but Greg Bowers’ talk about sports reporting today reminded me of this David Foster Wallace piece, Roger Federer as Religious Experience ( While the fourth graf reminded me of the ploy used by the Mets beat writer during class, this is really just an excuse to gush about David Foster Wallace.

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