Then about 10 years ago, at a workshop through the Poynter Institute, I was introduced to the power of a one-word story theme. (Thank you, Lane DeGregory and Tom French!) It was an eye-opener for me, but I felt I needed more to my process. That’s when I began using Post-it notes so I can visualize the story laid out in front of me and move parts around easily if I have to.
Here’s how it works:
- I keep my notes in files with titles, stacked on the left side of my desk. Before writing, I stick my story together on Post-its. It transports my reporting from the notebooks to the desk, and lays the story parts out in front of me.
- Before I start the actual writing, I read through all my notes, underlining the best bits. I then decide on a one-word theme. It’s a very basic and effective method, where I boil the whole story down to only one word and organize my story from there. The word tends to have a universal resonance — things like SURVIVAL, NORMALITY, GREED, LONELINESS. It is not an angle or structure, but an overarching theme that provides a cohesive center and guides me to make good choices with my material. It is what is called a “red thread” in some cultures, including mine in Scandinavia — a term we use to describe the “throughline” that holds the larger story together and helps it make sense.
- I write my one-word on a Post-it note and stick it in front of me. It helps me choose what to highlight in a story and what to leave out. I very rarely change my one-word theme as I work forward.
- I then go through my notes again, picking out scenes, facts and quotes, all the time paying attention to my one word. There has to be correspondence: The prominent scenes, quote and notes have to support or serve the theme. (Contrary information or need-to-know context can’t be left out if it undermines the credibility of a piece, but detours have to be essential and short.) I write those chosen bits in brief keywords on Post-its. Sometimes I use different colors: Scene, details and juicy stuff in red; background, facts and quotes in black. When the notes are piled up on my right, I start to organize and group them in sub-themes.
- That’s when I zero in on my structure. Is this a straightforward chronological story? A braided plot with more than one character? Or a typical scene-background-scene story, which is often called a broken or woven narrative? Sometimes I write a timeline to help identify the best opening scene, an optional flashback etc. And then I begin arranging the Post-its on the desk to build my structure, just like building a storyboard for a film.
- The beginning and ending are crucial here. Do they correspond? Is the main question driving the reader through the story answered by the end? Do I have the nut graph or nut section in the right place? And what about the ending of each scene and each paragraph: Will they keep the readers engaged and keep them hooked? The different colors help me get a visual idea about whether I have the right mix of potatoes and sauce, which is how I think of background or exposition and narrative scenes.
- Then I just write it all from there. Sometimes I move my notes around if I realize the flow is wrong. But very often I do not need to do any structural work after this.
- The organizing takes half a day or so — for the long stories, maybe a day in total — but saves me time in the end. A fresh example: I recently spent a year reporting on-and-off for an immersion story. I had 12 notebooks — almost 100 full pages of transcribed notes, medical records, SMS-correspondence etc. When it came time to write, I spent one day reading and organizing and plotting my sticky notes. Then I wrote the whole first draft of a 6,000-word story in less than two days.
The photo above is of my desk in 2016 as I was working on a long feature story about the division in the Danish labor market. Some people felt left out of the workforce due to lack of skills, education or physical or mental problems. At the same time, the attitude in the Danish welfare system was changing toward those who have difficulty holding a job. I had good scenes but several characters, and also a huge amount of facts, explanatory and material. It all needed to fit together neatly.
My one word was GAP — my reminder that I was writing about the gap in society between people with valued jobs and those feeling left out.
Now I use this method whenever I am doing a story where a narrative with a central character is involved. That could be a feature story or profile for the weekend edition of the newspaper, or long, immersive projects for magazines or books. I find that even with short pieces or just a quick news profile, getting the structure right saves me a lot of time. With longer pieces it is crucial not to get lost.
I don’t remember learning the Post-it technique anywhere specific. I developed it myself in ways that work for me, although a lot of people use some variation of it.
When I teach or coach, I always walk students through the technique, and I know many use it afterwards. Recently I taught an intern trainee in my newsroom, where I am an editor, the principles of Post-it structure in 10 minutes. We had interviewed two women and had to braid their story together with historical facts and expert quotes.We had very little time — the story was running the next day. But with the Post-its in hand, the structure only took half-an-hour to outline, and he managed to write a very beautiful piece in a few hours.
Line Vaaben is writer and editor for Politiken, the largest daily newspaper in Copenhagen. Her work has been published in several textbooks, and she teaches narrative and longform journalism. She is currently working on a book about femicide in Denmark.