Complex writing skills: eating an elephant

As a journalist I am often asked by editors to tackle complicated subjects with little or no idea of what these editors are talking about or what the topic involves.

At first, earlier in my career, these kinds of assignments made me want to zip myself into a sleeping bag and bury myself in some sand hole. I could not go to the assigners for more clarification – they would think me incompetent and not at all in control of my game. I could just ignore the assignment and wait for a bolt of other worldly insight to hit me. Or I could tackle it the way you eat an elephant, one piece at a time.

I am still vexed when I get assignments I know nothing about – how about this one: Keeping Business Travelers in Compliance for Dining Spends.

Yes, I had to write that one – twice! But it was not the yawn I thought it was going to be once I understood this was a story about spreadsheets first and then the travel angle second. I was able to contact travel managers for large corporations and then companies, such as Open Table, who are trying to attract road warriors to use their app.

Similarly, when you feel out of control of your topic, head to Google, check out all the news articles that might pertain to it and then take a step back. What are you reading? What are these articles telling you? What do they tell you about the stories you are supposed to be writing? Is there a disconnect between the story your editor wants and the one you think you should write? Is there a better story in there than the one you thought you were going to write?

Now is the time to go back to your editor and clarify. You can do this from a position of strength and impress him or her rather than run for cover. This is called managing up and it is something every paid writer will learn to do eventually.

Do You Know Where You are Going?

Once you have clarified the topic and scope of your article, it is time to outline it so you know where you are going. If you will be traveling for research, you will need to know what you are after otherwise you will miss opportunities that won’t come again.

I have done many a piece where the strategy I put in place ahead of time fell apart when I got to the destination. But because I knew what the story was about and what components I needed to get in order to make it work, I was able to accomplish the work all the same. This happened on a trip to Oman for a story on what was at the time the most expensive perfume in the world, a pitch I sold for $1000 to an oil company magazine. The photographer and I needed to get to the manufacturing plant; we needed to get to the farms where certain ingredients were grown and collected. Oman, itself, was still lodged in the Dark Ages and our attempts to cash in on the promised help I had arranged dissolved the minute we got there and could barely work the visas we had for entry.

But once in, we knew just what to do – stop working with the no-go people that were blocking us and start hustling some help that would get us where we needed to go. We found two men in the building where the “tourism ministry” was who heard are story and agreed to help us at no charge, which all worked out great until we found ourselves in a tribal war zone with a flat tire and two mollycoddled Omanis who knew nothing about changing tires. But because we knew what we were after and had people who could get us there we were unstoppable.

We arrived at an outpost farm that grew very rare roses through an ancient system of irrigation and they were in the process of harvesting the rose pedals, which could only be collected during an annual two-week period and only during the midnight hours. We gat our story – all of it.

While this may not happen to you, preparation is 90 percent of the execution and is creativity the other 10 percent.

Write an Article, not a Book

Once you know what you are writing about and have made friends with it, outline your story into chunks. Remember, if you only have 1,000 words you are not writing the history of western civilization. Pick out exactly what you need to make the topic understood: point of story, a little background or history, what the conflicts (or top concerns, interests) are now, who are the players, what are the plans or solutions, prognosis.

As an example, for a complex travel piece, such as Medical Tourism in Thailand, you would want to target the state and popularity of medical tourism as a field of travel and then the popularity or growing acceptance of people from the U.S. who would consider having medical procedures done in Thailand. You would look at what procedures are most popular and the shed light on the place most travelers are going: Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok.

You would look at the pros and cons of having a procedure done in Thailand and then go into the nuts and bolts of how travelers can research this for themselves or get help with their quest. Finally, you would suggest nearby hotels and resorts in Bangkok where travelers could stay while recovering – especially if there are discounts involved through relationships with the hospital. You would seek help from the media and communications office of the hospital, or even try to connect with the Tourism Authority of Thailand media offices in the U.S. to assist with this piece. You may be added to a list for press trips to Thailand in the process.

And Voila! No more elephant!

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