A reader writes asking how to avoid drowning in one’s material. You’ve done a ton or research and now have a gazillion files on your computer that you need to hammer together into a coherent piece. Where to start?
First, you already missed the start. You should be thinking about the structure of the piece (article, book, report) you’re going to write as you’re researching it. Research is only at the very beginning a haphazard splash through documents and interviews. Soon — the sooner the better — you need an idea of what it is you are going to want to say with your article, book, report, term paper. Then you conduct interviews and dig up documents in an order that serves the end product you have in mind.
I’m going to defer to a genuine genius of the structure: John Bennett, the editor to whom I was assigned at The New Yorker.
I was working on my first story for the magazine. I’d paid one of Bennett’s students at Columbia Journalism School about $100 to photocopy an entire filing cabinet full of documents and newspaper clippings and ship them to me; it was from those that I needed to build my article. I was completely lost.
I sidestepped pride and took the advice I offer in this post and this one: I regarded my editor as a friend and partner, as eager for me to succeed as I was, and not as some kind of vengeful and judgmental god. I was completely honest with him and asked for his help. “John,” I said on the phone. “I’m drowning in material and can’t find the structure.”
“Dan, this is New Yorker. You can use any structure you want,” he said. “Just keep in mind that when I get it, I’m going to take it all apart and make it chronological.” And indeed he did.
This is what he taught me: people are accustomed to hearing stories told chronologically. “First we did this, and that led to that. Afterwards, we did this other thing; one thing led to another, and before we knew it the thing I’m telling you about happened.”
The New Yorker practically makes a religion of telling stories chronologically. Notice how many of their stories begin not with some elegantly crafted anecdotal lede but with some variation of “On March 9, 2017…” New Yorker stories start at the beginning and tell the tale in order. They even have a word for one particular variation of a chronological tale: they call it a process story, in which the writer takes apart a process and follows it meticulously and in chronological order, using lots of vivid jargon. This is one process story I wrote for the magazine, about everything that happens to a wounded soldier in Iraq and this is another, about how the dead come home.
I’d actually happened upon the chronological thing years before, when writing my first book — a political history of the so-called War on Drugs — and had then completely forgotten it. I intended to start the book with Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and follow the Drug War all the up until Bill Clinton’s first term as president, which was when I was writing it. I was hip deep in interviews and documents, racing toward my deadline, when I decided to stop and make order of chaos. I spent a week dividing everything I had into presidential administrations. I created folders called, Nixon 1, Nixon 2, Ford, Carter, Reagan 1, Reagan 2, Bush, Clinton then looked at every electronic file I had (interviews, pdfs, etc) and slotted each into one of those files. Then I did the same with papers I had; each went into a manila folder labeled with name of one presidential term.
The next time I wrote a book, I created all those electronic and paper folders as I started doing the research — labeling them by year instead of by presidential administration — and put files into them as they were generated. It saved me a lot of heartache. Ditto my third book; I was structuring that one in my head, and even writing lines, as I was sitting with interviewees. My fourth was largely first-person; I told it as it happened.
If you’re in a panic now, splashing around in too much material with too little idea of how to tame it, stop. Take a long walk kicking a pebble and think about how you want this article/report/book to read. Does it lend itself to a chronological telling? Many more Big Topics can be told as stories than you might think. If yours really can’t be told as a tale, chronologically, what then? A series of profiles, perhaps intertwined the way did with Nine Lives? By issue? (usually dull, but it may be what’s called for). Even if your deadline is approaching like a low-flying MiG, take a day to take inventory. What do you have? Then pick a way to organize your material in a way that makes sense to the point you want to make, and start moving your documents and interviews into folders. If you can tell it chronologically, do so.