Description should always carry some significance. Why do you want the reader to pay attentionto this detail?
Every section should serve a thematic purpose. A bio section isn’t just a bio section, it should drive the reader to a point you’re trying to make.
Even when doing immersion reporting, remember, there are big parts of the story you will have to reconstruct. Scenes are no more significant because you observed them.
Make sure you’re clear about what you want a reader to take from a story. A narrative may not have a traditional nut graf or bullets, but it always should contain what Mike Wilson used to call a “big idea” graf. He gave a brown bag about this 10 years ago; Ben Montgomery took notes and posted them on Gangrey. The “big idea” graf is about “closing the distance between fact
and meaning.” “Too many of our stories are just big bags of facts,” Mike said. The big idea is the result of us asking ourselves what a story means — what, universally, it’s about. “That’s not in your notebooks, guys. That’s in your head.”
When writing months later about a notorious event, the challenge is to make the scene everyone thinks they’ve already read feel different. This means playing with time and perspective. Try to narrow it down, slow it down, place emphasis on new details.
When writing about a traumatic incident, consult the Dart Center’s best practices. http://dartcenter.org/content/best-practices-in-trauma-reporting-23 “Portray victims and survivors of trauma with sensitivity and insight. Inform readers about the ways individuals react to and cope with emotional trauma. Avoid sensationalism, melodrama and portrayal of victims as tragic or pathetic. Emphasize victims’ and survivors’ experience rather than the traumatic event itself.”
Don’t rely on your subject to volunteer everything about his story, especially if he is not expressive. Put yourself in his shoes and think about how experiences might feel. If you notice that the rapid clicks of camera shutters evoke machine gun fire, ask if he thought that, too.
Don’t settle for the first answer to a question. Keep asking it over a period of time. We didn’t learn about the young woman who died in the stall until months into the reporting process. And we had to keep asking about her to get into depth about her impact on him.
Use hindsight to your advantage. Highlight the gulf between what a character said in a moment and how you know they truly felt.
Even if your story is an intimate tale of one person’s experience, seek as many sources as possible. Others in your life might portray a less rosy picture than you would about your own life.
Public records are your friend. Authenticity is key.
Finding and connecting with a subject: When you’re ready to give up on finding a subject, keep pushing. In the case of this story, I pushed and pushed unsuccessfully during the week I spent n Orlando following the shooting to make inroads with a subject. I knew I wanted to start telling more intimate stories than press conferences and vigils, but gaining access felt impossible because of how bombarded by media those affected by the shooting were. Additionally, it was
easy to find names of the deceased, but really hard to find names of the hospitalized. I saw a New York Times piece titled “How can Communities Prepare for Mass Shootings? Orlando Offers Lessons” that wasn’t about Angel, but featured two pictures of him. He’d let an NYT photog into his hospital room, but she was already back in New York and clearly not pursuing a story on him. So I reached out through an Instagram message, pitched the story to Boyzell and
Graham, and that’s where this started.
Photog/Reporter working as a team to maintain access: Angel was an extremely difficult subject to keep involved. We thought he was going to bow out of working with us at multiple points.
Working as a team with Kat proved instrumental in pushing for access to intimate moments while not losing him altogether. For example: I would ask Angel about the day he was going to be released from the hospital and if we could be present for that. He would politely decline, asking that we wait until he was settled in at home. I would counter that while I really respected his desire for privacy, it was that sort of hard, transitional experience that we really needed to
witness to tell his story. Then he just wouldn’t respond. So we’d give him a few days, and then Kat would get in touch, pull him back in, and we’d get back in. After Kat would finish a very personal, intense interview with Angel and feel like he needed a little breather from her, I would then be the one to text him about us going to his support group meeting. This tag-teaming approach felt exponentially more effective than working alone, or out of sync with one another,
when it came to getting as much access to Angel’s life as possible without losing him.