Tag Archives: longform

Longform writing: how to avoid the ‘saggy middle’ — and end strongly

4 ways to structure a longform story

This year on my MA in Data Journalism and MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism I have been teaching students how to plan and organise a longform story. Having already written about story types that can help organise an investigation and beginnings, in this post I want to look at techniques for organising the middle of longform features — and how to wrap it all up at the end.

Middles and endings of long features are no less tricky than the beginnings you can spend so much time writing and rewriting. Often people fall back on particular habits which may not quite ‘work’ for the story being told.

Telling a story in chronological order, for example, is not always the most effective approach. Stories where the action is not equally dispersed chronologically can ‘sag’ in these cases and the momentum of a strong beginning get lost.

In those situations a storyteller with a varied toolbox might use places, or themes, or scenes, to keep that momentum going instead. Continue reading

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Longform writing: how to write a beginning to hook the reader

7 ways to begin a longform story: person, place, action, detail, question, problem, revelation

Previously I’ve looked at 7 story types that can help organise an investigation and the 5 stages of a longform story. In this follow-up post (taken from a class in my MA in Data Journalism and MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism) I look in more detail at the editing process once you have a longform story laid out — specifically, how to start that long feature.

Beginnings are notoriously tricky for any writer. For news reporters the advice is simple: start with the ‘new’ thing in your story, and make sure there is a verb in there: a person has said something; a report has revealed something; authorities are looking for someone, warning about something, planning to do something; and so on.

But in longform and feature writing the approach is more subtle. Although we can choose to report that something has been ‘revealed’ right at the start, this risks removing tension from the story and leading the reader to abandon it before they have the full picture.

Instead, then, journalists use a number of techniques to keep the reader engaged across a longer format — with the important implied promise that the story is going to be worth it.

So, for anyone struggling to think of a way to start a longer story — or feel that you can improve the approach you’ve chosen — I’ve pulled together seven types of beginning that are used in longform reporting and feature writing, with some considerations to bear in mind — and plenty of examples. Continue reading

The 5 stages of a longform story – and how they can help you identify sources

5 stages of a longform story

This year I’ve been working with my MA Data Journalism and MA Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism students on techniques for telling longer form stories. In this post I explain how a consideration of story structure can help you clarify the sources that you will need to talk to in order to gather the elements needed for an effective longform story.

In a previous post I discussed how different plot frameworks identified by Christopher Booker in his book ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘ – such as the ‘quest’ or ‘tragedy’ – can help a journalist think about longer investigations. In addition to those types of story, however, Booker also identifies 5 stages of a story. These are:

  1. Anticipation: setting, character and – crucially – ‘problem’ are introduced.
  2. Dream: we begin exploring/solving the problem.
  3. Frustration: we hit more problems.
  4. Nightmare: this is the ‘final battle’ of fiction narratives.
  5. Miraculous Escape/Redemption/Achievement of the Prize or (in the case of Tragedy) the Hero’s Destruction.

How the 5 stages work in journalism

I would argue that you can see these stages at work in most longform journalism, too. Here’s how: Continue reading

A case study in online journalism part 3: ebooks (investigating the Olympic torch relay)


8000 Holes - How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay lost its way book cover

In part one I outlined some of the data journalism processes involved in the Olympic torch relay investigation, in part 2 I explained how verification, SEO and ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ played a role. This final part looks at how ebooks offered a new opportunity to tell the story in depth – and publish while the story was still topical.

Ebooks – publishing before the event has even finished

After a number of stories from a variety of angles I reached a fork in the road. It felt like we had been looking at this story from every angle. More than one editor, when presented with an update, said that they’d already ‘done the torch story’. I would have done the same.

But I thought of a quote on persistence from Ian Hislop that I’d published on the Help Me Investigate blog previously. “It is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops.”

Although it sometimes felt like we might be boring people with our insistence on continuing to dig we needed, I felt, to say the same thing again. Not the story of ‘Executive carries the torch’ but how that executive and so many others came to carry it, why that mattered, and what the impact was. A longform report.

Traditionally there would have been so space for this story. It would be too long for a newspaper or magazine, far too short for a book – where the production timescale would have missed any topicality anyway.

But we didn’t have to worry about that – because we had e-publishing.

It still seems incredible to me that we could write up and publish a book on the missed promises of the Olympic torch relay before the relay had even finished. Indeed: to also publish the day before the book’s main case study was likely to run.

But if we wanted to do that, we had about a week to hit that deadline, with important holes in our narrative, and working largely in our spare time.

First, we needed a case study to represent the human impact of the corporate torchbearers and open our book. Quite a few had been mentioned in local newspapers when they discovered that less-than-inspirational individuals had taken their place, but HMI contributor Carol Miers found one who couldn’t have been more deserving: Jack Binstead had received the maximum number of nominations; he was just 15 (half of torchbearer places were supposed to go to young people – they didn’t); and he was tipped to go to the next Paralympics.

We also needed to find out if there was an impact on the genuinely inspirational people who did get to carry the torch – I had been chasing a couple when Geoff Holt came through the site’s comments (see above). That was our ending.

For the middle we needed to pin down some of the numbers around the relay. Comments from earlier stories had indicated that some people didn’t see why it was important that executives were carrying the torches – unaware, perhaps, that promises had been made about where places would go, and what sort of stories torchbearers should have.

In particular, the organisers had promised that 90% of places would be available to the general public and that 50% of places would go to young people aged 12-24. I had to nail down where each chunk of tickets had gone – and at how many points they had been taken away from availability to the ‘general public’. Ultimately, the middle of the book would describe how that 90% got chipped away until it was more like 75%.

That middle would then be fleshed out with the themes around what happened to the other 25%: essentially some of the stories we’d already told, plus some others that filled out the picture.

Writing in this way allowed us to go beyond the normal way of writing – shock at a revelation – to identifying where things went wrong and how. For all the anger at corporate sponsors for their allocation of torch relay places, it was ultimately LOCOG’s responsibility to approve nominations, to publish 8,000 “inspirational” nomination stories, and to meet the promises that they had made about how they would be allocated. The buck stopped there.

Thanks to the iterative way we had worked so far – publishing each story as it came, asking questions in public, building an online ‘footprint’ that others could find, establishing collaborative relationships and bookmarking to create an archive – we met our deadline.

It was a timescale which allowed us to tap into interest in the relay while it was still topical, and while executive torchbearers were still carrying the torch.

8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way was published on day 66 of the 70-day Olympic torch relay. All proceeds went to the Brittle Bone Society, of which Jack is an ambassador. The publishers – Leanpub – agreed to give their commission on the book to the charity as well. This was all organised over email in 24 hours a couple days before the book went live.

We organised an interview with Jack Binstead which was published in The Guardian the day after – the day that the torch was to go through his home town and the day that he would be flying out of the country to avoid it. An interview with Journalism.co.uk on the ebook itself – Help Me Investigate’s first – was published the same day.

We published data on where torchbearer places went in The Guardian’s datablog two days after that, and serialised the book throughout the week, along with some additional pieces – for example, on how LOCOG missed their target of 50% of places going to young people by other 1,000 places. A lengthier interview with Jack and his mother was published at the end of the week.

In theory this should have captured interest in the torch relay at just the right time – but I think we misjudged two factors.

The first was beyond our control: the weather changed.

Until now, the weather had been awful. When it changed, the mood of the country changed, and there was less interest in the missed promises of the Olympic torch relay. But it also coincided with another change: the final week of the torch relay was also the last few days before the opening ceremony – and as the weather changed, attention shifted to the Olympic Games itself.

The torch relay, which had been squeezed dry of every possible angle for nine weeks, was – finally – yesterday’s news. It was no longer about who was carrying the torch, but about where that torch was going, and who might carry the last one.

Still, the book raised money for a deserving charity, and its story is not over. There’s a long tail of interest to tap into here, which having an ebook increases. When the next torch relay comes around, I wonder, will it benefit from a resurgence of interest?

Get the free ebook for the full story: 8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way - Leanpub.com/8000holes

A case study in online journalism part 3: ebooks (investigating the Olympic torch relay)

8000 Holes - book cover

In part one I outlined some of the data journalism processes involved in the Olympic torch relay investigation, in part 2 I explained how verification, SEO and ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ played a role. This final part looks at how ebooks offered a new opportunity to tell the story in depth – and publish while the story was still topical.

Ebooks – publishing before the event has even finished

After a number of stories from a variety of angles I reached a fork in the road. It felt like we had been looking at this story from every angle. More than one editor, when presented with an update, said that they’d already ‘done the torch story’. I would have done the same.

But I thought of a quote on persistence from Ian Hislop that I’d published on the Help Me Investigate blog previously. “It is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops.”

Although it sometimes felt like we might be boring people with our insistence on continuing to dig we needed, I felt, to say the same thing again. Not the story of ‘Executive carries the torch’ but how that executive and so many others came to carry it, why that mattered, and what the impact was. A longform report. Continue reading