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Trouble organizing stories?
A “fork” can help

Dear Coach,

My editor makes many changes in my stories. Sometimes whole paragraphs are turned around, sentences from the bottom are moved to the top, entire sections are deleted. I finally asked what I was doing wrong. She said, “You have to do some serious work on organization.” My question: Is there a “right” way -- and a “wrong” way -- to organize a story? -- Jumbled

Dear Jumbled,

There are hundreds of "right" ways to organize a story -- and hundreds of "wrong" ways.

The trick is learning to tell the difference.

Story structure is a craft unto itself, one you’ll get better at the more stories you write, read and study.

Here is the best basics-of-organizing tool I have come across:

It’s the FORK method of designing a story.

F: Focus. Find a focus for the material. What’s the point of the story?

O: Organize. Now, outline your material AROUND that focus.

R: Repeat. Keep readers moving through the story by running a key word, phrase, image or idea through it like a thread.

K: Kill the rest.

That last point is really important for new reporters.

Do not just empty your notebook when you write. The heart of the best journalism (of the best writing in general) is selection – drafting and redrafting, condensing and deleting.

(As the author Vladimir Nabokov put it, “My pencils outlive their erasers.”)

If you have 50 facts, which THREE really tell the story?

If you have 10 quotes, which ONE nails the meaning of it all?

One way to get a second opinion on what you are doing is to save all of your drafts for a week, and all of your editor’s changes.

Then seek out a colleague – not an editor but a senior reporter known for good writing – and sit down to go over what you are doing. There may be patterns your colleague can show you, things you can change.

Talk to your editor about what you’ve learned and how you are trying to improve.

Then repeat all steps above.

You'll be amazed at how thing start to ... fall into place.

About the column
Ask the Coach is updated regularly. Have a suggestion for a future column, contact Mary Ann Hogan.

Read Mary Ann Hogan's biography.

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Last updated: Friday, Aug. 1, 2014 | 05:47:02