The Narrative Nonfiction Fellowship at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Who are they: If you can begin conceiving of audience, before putting words to the page, the work will be better off. You won’t be able to do this entirely because the story is still ahead of you. But, in my case, I had a sense of who would be interested — Turks, moderate middle-aged and liberal millennial, diaspora, mid-east scholars, history or lit. fans — and I began to join the conversations they were having. That way, I can see what they are getting, missing, commenting on and enraged about, and I can appeal to those factors later in my work.
What do they want: Determining what the story will incorporate, beyond the general topic, will shape its reception ie. Settings, sources, historical resources, location, statistics, applicable quotes or, in my case even, a fable. It is nearly impossible to determine the use of the various tools at your writerly disposal without first reporting and then beginning to write the story, so it is imperative to keep memos on your observations, interviews, scenes and thoughts in order to be able to retroactively meet your audience’s desires. This is especially true if time or distance from the reporting alters the narrative.
How to give it to them: Whether you begin as your own audience (as I did in the Turkey story) or you eventually ingratiate yourself with them through diligently following their conversations and news, by the time you set out to write, you are your own audience. The importance of choosing stories that you are personally invested in, no matter how tangentially, cannot be understated. It will show. Beyond that, though, you have to hone an acute sense of what you, and therefore they, would want out of a story like this. That sense incorporates a rough idea of the style of your piece, the most salient scenes, emotional or political valence, revealing interviews, and length. After enough reporting, research, time and meetings related to it, you’ll be invested. Then ask, What do I want answers to?
Begin: What is the story? It will, hopefully, be different than your original conception. If you are not knowledgable enough on the topic, you cannot be flexible; if you cannot be flexible, the story will suffer. Then write.
Edit: You are entering the conversation as an authority, inherently, in your position as a journalist. So your work must reflect knowledge and, in my opinion, a thoughtful and informed opinion, however implicit. If you then find what has already been offered in the Conversation (what has already been argued; what was the counter argument), you can offer a new perspective, or empower with new evidence an existing one.
Get to the audience: You’ve found the audience already, now you have to REACH them. In my experience as a individual writer with a small publication, this typically works on a reciprocal level; you have to do the ground work early-on to build the networks necessary to your story’s eventual publication. Then, stay up to date on the topic’s news, write a relatable story, and drive your narrative toward impact.
Get the audience to act: Usually I wonder if my fate is only to write something that people call pretty but that does nothing. So, you have to set standards of what you want to be done on account of this story. Do you want the readers to: Start a revolution, or share the link via email? Are you imploring them to vote in the next election, or Tweet the article? Do you want them to donate, or go to another site for more information? Figure it out, and build it into the narrative and, possibly, the vertical on which it will run. If you don’t have readers feeling compelled to act after you’ve written a story, you haven’t made clear enough what you want them to do.
Watch: Follow the analytics of the piece. Where is the traffic coming from, how much is social media, how much is aggregated sharing, what are the origins of people who are interested, and where in the world are they? Pay attention to how the story is being spread, then look at engagement. Who comments, and is it in general agreement or controversy? How many likes as compared to readers? How many donations etc. Then, for your next piece, improve upon steps 1-7.