The IDEA stage works best with another person, although you can do it alone. In a newspaper or a magazine, it usually involves an editor giving an assignment or accepting a story proposal. Ideally the editor brainstorms with you to achieve mutual agreement on the project, and to narrow or broaden your gathering of information. You want to leave such a session knowing what the story is likely about, the sources to start with, your deadline, and the scale of the piece. Are you writing a brief, an 18-inch feature, a three-part series, or an atlas? Smart writers also discuss potential visuals at this stage, just to get the production thinking started.
The other person need not be an editor, but it helps. This session, called a “Briefing,” launches the production process. The editor will follow up by commissioning photos and graphics, allocating space, scheduling when the piece will appear, etc. The secret of flawless coordination of all the things that make up the story is constant communication between editor and writer, updating each other and adjusting the whole process.
NEVER SURPRISE AN EDITOR.
You want such teamwork that editors always know what to expect from you, and they always get what they expect (plus a little more). The briefing session sets those expectations.
There are two models for these conversations. In the first, an assignment editor tells what she wants, when, how long, etc. You ask questions to make sure you’re both on the same wavelength. Do not leave a briefing session if you don’t understand any part of what you’re expected to do.
In the other model, you pitch an idea to the editor to get it approved. A helpful editor will ask about likely sources, treatment, length, possible visuals, etc. Then you reach agreements on deadline, length, reimbursement, etc. Freelancers would do well to ask the editor for a memo of what you’ve agreed.
How do you brief without an editor? You ask yourself questions that will organize your thinking and help you design the next phase, gathering materials. Recognizing that you don’t have all the information yet, here are some good questions:
What is this piece likely to be about?
What is the scale of it (letter to the editor, article with recipes, autobiography)?
Who will likely read it, and what do they already know?
What visuals would help readers understand it?
What sources, both documents and people, do I need to start with?
Where am I likely to publish this and when?
If a friend asks you these questions, you’re more likely to answer them honestly and specifically. Failing that, write down the answers. Everything’s clear in your head; you have to get it outside yourself to see what’s fuzzy. If you start the next phase with vague ideas of what you’re after, you’ll make lots of false starts and take forever.