The usual way we work is we go out and do our reporting — conduct the interviews, dig up the documents — and then we come back to the desk and write. And when we come upon holes, we pick up the phone, or go back out in the field, to fill them. And so on.
It’s time consuming. But worse, it disengages the reporting from the writing, when really, what we should be striving for, is the unity of the two. I am constantly trying, when out in the field, to be imagining how I’m going to write the thing — right down to imagining wording. It can be hard — I’m trying to listen, and ask questions, and also I have this tape running in my mind that is imagining structure, and plot, and character development. I’m not always successful, but it’s something I try always to do.
This is especially true in long-form narrative writing — either a long magazine piece or a book. And it leads directly to the need to ask the overlooked questions, as discussed here. If you’re writing, about, say, the fight over a planned development in a protected wetland, you need to be imagining — as you’re talking with the developer — how you’re going to make the guy three dimensional, how you’re going to make his movitavations makes sense to reader, how the ebb and flow of his personal story brought him to this moment. (This is the difference between long-form and news reporting. The people in the story are fully developed chracters, like in a novel, not just names who’ve staked out a position and provide quotes.) If, while you’re talking to the guy, you’re imagining how your story is going to bring the guy to life by showing how he arrived at the place he’s at, you’ll ask the overlooked questions and also find yourself better equipped to write the complete story without having to call him back.
No long-form story is ever reported in a single day. The best way I’ve found to begin imagining the writing while still engaged in the reporting is actually to begin the writing while still engaged in the reporting. After a big day of interviews, sit down in your motel room, leave the HBO off, order in a sandwich, and write whatever part of the story you can. This is a compliment to my advice here about transcribing your notebook into your computer every night. The earlier you start writing — really structuring the piece and coming up with your wording and your voice — the better your reporting will be.