Late last year, I went on a reporting trip fishing for leopard shark in San Francisco's South Bay. The assignment was the last that I filed for Bay Nature, my former employer, and perhaps one of the best adventures I had while working there. The story culminated in this rather meandering longform article published on the brand new Bay Nature website, with an accompanying video of a hurling shark (unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your gag reflex, this was something I didn't witness). From this little adventure I learnt quite a lot about reporting and writing narrative journalism and some of the challenges that are likely to arise. Here are a few highlights:
- Write down every single thing and take as many photographs as possible even of strange, obscure or seemingly pointless things. It sounds simple and it is, but it's also very simple to forget or get lost in the interviewing process. It seemed like the few details I forgot to record, were the ones I was wracking my brain to remember later.
- Write a memo and if possible, send it to someone. When you get home or back in a car or wherever you have a computer or writing device, write the story in chronological order with all of your thoughts and opinions as it comes to you on the day without the pressures of sentence or article structure (as long as its legible, don't worry about it). If you can send it to someone who will hold you accountable, even better (I had to email this to my editor that night). It is so beneficial to have this already typed record for the planning stage or to refresh your memory later, especially on things such as how the air smelt, what you thought about XX, a funny joke or one liner quote said offhandedly etc.
- It's worth experimenting with different story openings. I was sort of stuck in a rut with story openings and with this story kept fluctuating between the same boring first lines like...."Jim Hobbs is a marine biologist," "In the South Bay, leopard sharks...." Eventually I got a stroke of inspiration from reading a story about fishing in Outside magazine in the Dominican Republic. Sounds simple and it is, but it's really worth trying new things even if they are a little bit off centre. Plus, it will make for a much more interesting read. (Check out this article which compares nudibranchs to Elvis Presley, if you think your idea is crazy at first...)
- Think about structure and scenes before writing (at least for a moment). My instinct is to just write, especially if I feel like I've had some stroke of genius when it comes to writing openings. But writing either a rough structure or at minimum and what I usually do, an outline of scenes I want to include. This really helps with the writing process and clarifying/organising my thoughts. Sometimes I even write one sentence along the lines of: "This story is about XX." Yes, it sounds very high school essay writing but I find it's very easy to get lost in lots of words and thoughts and paragraphs that at some point I look back and think, what am I writing?
- Even if things go astray, a good story can always be found. I went to fish leopard sharks for science. We caught zero and I didn't even get a glimpse one. But there was still a story to be told and in many ways one that was closer to the truth of research, ecology and life: things don't always go to plan.
I also took a lot of photos and as usual enjoyed the process of thinking about composition and capturing the various elements that make this research come to life. Here are a selection of those that didn't make it into Bay Nature: