Conference panels can be frustrating things. Several subject experts droning on, absorbed with the minutiae of their own work, sometimes failing to make bigger points, often repeating what other panelists have already said, usually running over the allotted time, then fielding questions from the audience that can seem random and self-indulgent. Yet conference organizers love them, probably because they seem the best way to offer their members a constellation of star-studded wisdom.

The best panels do just that: provide twinkles of wisdom to take out and study again and again. The individual insights can be obscured in the moment, lost in the rush of ideas and information. So I try to attend them as I would any murky or chaotic reporting assignment: listen closely, take good notes, and apply my highlighting approach to those notes — a system of circles and stars that, upon later review, allows the bright moments to stand out and shine.

That’s what happened when I pulled out my notes from a panel I joined late last year. It was hosted by the Northwest Science Writers Association, held at a senior citizen living center in Seattle. (Which made it especially quirky and fun since many in the audience were residents at the center, so brought fresh, surprising questions to the event — and more than a few reminders to SPEAK UP!. It provided a great reminder of what the readers — rather than other journalists — care about.)

Craig Welch

Craig Welch

Brooke Jarvis

Brooke Jarvis

This panel was especially well attended. No mystery why: It featured Craig Welch, a senior writer for National Geographic, and Brooke Jarvis, a national freelancer and winner of the 2017 Livingston Award. National Geographic had just published “The Big Meltdown,” Welch’s story about the effects of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula, which we annotated in a December post. Jarvis, too, was enjoying the recent success of a major story: “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here” was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine just days earlier. (Storyboard plans an analysis of that piece next month, in partnership with The Open Notebook.)

 

Full disclosure: I was the third member of the panel, but my role was far more prosaic than talking about a sexy big story score. I diagrammed a few foundational story structures.

More important, I took good notes while Welch and Jarvis were holding the audience in thrall. And thus the point of this post. I pulled those notes out the other day, when looking for something else, and was delighted to find 10 sparkling stars. I share them with you now. No elaboration added. Just a few insights that stood out and seemed worth examining again, from multiple angles. I leave it to you to determine how they might apply to your story work.

1. We start with things, but we have to tell stories. Things are not stories.

2. Most writing problems are reporting problems; when you get stuck, pick up the phone or go out in the field. Take notes on everything, even things that seem unrelated.

3. A central, embedded question drives the entire narrative. Find your question.

4. A really good story has a second question that’s bigger and more profound than the first. The first allows you to get into the second.

5. Be really thoughtful about your story selection process. A story is a container for a lot of different ideas; it needs to be big enough to hold them.

6. Sometimes you don’t have a simple, clear question. Then you need to find a vehicle and hitch a ride on your story. Look for life in motion. Find a person who is going to be moving through the landscape of a story.

7. Step back from the story once in awhile and just think.

8. You have to read. You have to read a lot. Read literature by people in a region you are writing about or who have written about your area or topic.

9. You can’t talk about voice at your computer. You have to do it out in the field as a reporter.

10. Find editors who really get you, then grab hold and never let go.

 

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