It ain’t over ’til it’s over–How I “close out” a story

I moved from science research to science journalism, in part, because I wanted to finish things. In the lab, I always needed another repetition or another experiment—indeed, you can spend a lifetime in science and not entirely solve the questions you started with.

Journalism, on the other hand, offered the finality of a printed story and a clear sense of accomplishment.

But when is a story done? When you hand over the hard-wrought final draft? When it’s published for your mom and all of the rest of the world to read? Or when you’ve got the paycheck in your hot little hands?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed an admittedly elaborate definition of when a story is truly over, and I can stop thinking about it. In what I call my “closing out” process, I check a number of mental boxes to determine it’s really through:

• I sent the invoice, and I got paid.

• The story’s been published. When that happens, I add a copy to my clip book and enter it in my publications list. I routinely go back to these resources when I’m deciding on the most appropriate clips to showcase to a new editor, for example, or when considering stories to enter in a contest. (Or if I’m feeling down, I can just page through past clips and think, my, what a lovely bunch of articles I’ve written. When you’re working by yourself, you’ve got pat yourself on the back now and then!)

• I’ve tweeted the story to my legions (well, thus far, dozens) of followers on Twitter @amberldance.

• I’ve sent the piece to key sources thanking them again for their time.

• I’ve entered all the sources in my electronic address book. I include:
o All the contact info I’ve gathered.
o Why I talked to that person—for what story, at what time.
o Key words that describe their expertise. For example, if I search for “mitochondria,” I immediately find 5 people who know about the organelle and responded to my inquiries in the past.
o Finally, I include what kind of interview the person was. Such as, “This person’s really hard to get a hold of, but worth it when you do,” or “This guy’s a pain—don’t bother,” or “She speaks her mind and doesn’t pull any punches!” So when I do go back to those mitochondria folks, I know who’s my best bet.

• For certain topics that I’m likely to come back to, I save the relevant .pdfs in Papers, noting where I filed the hard copy, so I can find them again without too much difficulty.

Then, and only then, do I consider the story officially “closed.” And then, I file it away in a bottom drawer and the darker recesses of my mind, leaving new space for current stories.

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4 Responses to It ain’t over ’til it’s over–How I “close out” a story

  1. Amber,
    You wrote:

    I moved from science research to science journalism, in part, because I wanted to finish things. In the lab, I always needed another repetition or another experiment—indeed, you can spend a lifetime in science and not entirely solve the questions you started with. Journalism, on the other hand, offered the finality of a printed story and a clear sense of accomplishment.”

    Funny, that’s exactly why I left the lab, too. (And now call myself a “recovering scientist”.)

    In any event, these are great tips! I especially like the bit about maintaining a contact database. It’s something I keep meaning to do, but it’s a daunting task. (I suppose the best approach is simply to start fresh, and not try to add sources retroactively.)

    • Amber Dance says:

      The contacts database isn’t too onerous as long as you keep up with it, doing a bit at a time. But if those contacts build up–you’re in for a very tedious afternoon!

  2. David Harris says:

    Amber, I like your system! I might be biased because I use an almost identical one 🙂

    One thing I do is to use an easy project tracking system I designed to make sure I don’t forget steps and I can record useful information about the admin of the project. It’s probably suitable for most kinds of freelance work. Each project gets one pre-printed 3×5 index card that i can stick above my desk or in a small pile nearby to keep my various concurrent projects tracked.

    I’m still refining the cards but will be bringing a pile of them to give away at NASW for other freelancers to try out/use/adapt and hopefully give me feedback on! See you there!

  3. amberldance says:

    Hi David,

    We think alike–I actually track my projects on index cards, too! I haven’t gone so far as to pre-print different steps on them, though, so I look forward to seeing your version.

    Amber

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