Behind-The-Scenes: How To Hone A Broad Topic To Create A Killer Story

One of the challenges editors tell me that they face is turning a broad topic into a clear, focused story that their audience wants to read.

How do you go from a big idea to an angle or approach that feels compelling and fresh?

I want to show you how Capstone thinks about this process and collaborates with editors — including the exact steps that you can follow and tools that you can use when you’re developing your own story ideas. (I’ll share more about how you can work with us at the end of this post, so stay tuned! But this post is designed for DIYers as well.)

Let’s take a closer look at building a killer story angle.

Here are the three steps my team and I follow when we’re working with editors — before one of our writers sets up a single interview.

Step 1: Start with a topic and a “why”

Last year, Macalester Today editor Rebecca DeJarlais Ortiz sent Capstone an email about working together:

The perfect start to a collaboration.

Let’s start with everything I love about this note.

  • DeJarlais Ortiz had a broad topic she knew she wanted to cover

  • She also had a clear tie back to campus/strategic priority for the story (the concentration on campus)

  • She knew there were lots of potential sources for the story

Not every editor is so clear about where they’re at and what they need. (And that’s fine!)

But clear, concise notes like this are a dream for folks who collaborate with you on projects, whether it’s writing, design, photography, or something else.

She unpacked her thinking a little bit more in a recent email:

When we survey our alumni, we hear consistently that they value opportunities to keep learning and connect with the intellectual life of the college. I’ve been trying to tackle issue-focused stories that draw in Mac alumni and faculty expertise, and this topic was a natural fit.

Many of our students and alumni are thinking about the sociological and ecological dimensions of food and food choices. I wanted to honor how interdisciplinary this topic is, and I wanted to break out of the traditional 2,500-word narrative and experiment with creative storytelling structures. But I wasn’t quite sure where to start or how to pull it all together.

Capstone was on board — and here’s what we did next.

Step 2: Hone in on an approach

The information above is a great starting point for the second step.

At this point, we knew we needed either a sharper angle (this can be tough if you don’t know the exact viewpoints of the alumni you’re considering) or a powerful packaging structure that can help drive the story.

This is a step that we find that many editors skip entirely, defaulting to a narrative profile with a certain word count, and hoping the writer will find a central idea that will strengthen the piece.

But getting the exact angle and approach right, including thinking about it in advance, can transform a piece from underwhelming to un-put-downable.

At Capstone, we love thinking about story packaging, so we dove into our database, which contains hundreds of examples of packaging that can propel a story (and a reader) forward. We zeroed in on approaches that made it possible for each profile to contribute an important piece of a larger story.

We identified and shared a few approaches with DeJarlais Ortiz, including the one we ultimately used.

Here’s a portion of the note we sent, which we ultimately developed into the feature story called “The New Rules of Food”:

Here is one of the stories that served as a model, the New York magazine feature “The Great Podcast Rush Has Only Just Begun.”

This database, from which we pulled a handful of stories to help illustrate our intended approach, is part of the secret sauce of Capstone’s work. Want your own? I’ve shared how to create one here.

Why is this second step so important? 

We find that there’s a huge benefit to showing people exactly what they can expect with a story. Giving collaborators something to see and react to can illuminate storytelling possibilities and potential gaps.

Even more than that, it can help everyone know what they’re aiming at. It can serve as a template as editors talk to their designers, art directors, photographers, or illustrators. It can help writers hone their interview questions and approach.

It helps ensure that everyone gets exactly what they need long before a draft is submitted.

Step 3: Build a knockout source list

At this point, we were ready to start choosing sources.

Rebecca already had a large group of alumni to choose from, which is fantastic. Here’s the process she uses — and the way she used inclusiveness as a guiding principle to support that work.

I want to create a publication that welcomes every reader. For me, that means thinking about whose voices are included (and whose are missing) and then striving to find a more equitable balance among the perspectives represented by our alumni. I audit that balance over individual articles and editions as well as over the course of a year.

This is more than a philosophy. She also shares how she puts that philosophy in action. In this case, a multi-step process, executed methodically, is what leads to success. Here’s what she says:

I’ve shifted to building out parts of my editorial plan three or four issues ahead, which creates more space to compile a broad range of sources. This research almost always includes asking for help: I’ve emailed colleagues, posted in regional alumni chapter Facebook groups, reached out to committee volunteers, and gotten great leads from LinkedIn posts that simply say we’re exploring a story on a certain topic and asking who we should be in touch with.

The story that emerges is always richer than if I had just run with the people already on our radar. I didn’t want to restrict “The New Rules of Food” to alumni working in one area of food and farming, for example, and our research produced tips about several people who were ultimately featured: an alumna farming on a quarter-acre in Idaho, a fourth-generation leader of a milling company in Ohio, a professor teaching about agriculture in D.C., and so on.

Rebecca’s approach aligns with Capstone’s: It’s wise to cast a wide net and then narrow it down.

At Capstone, we often run our own source search for clients, then run the complete list through a variety of different filters to come up with a good final mix. These filters typically include:

  • Class year. We try to include a range of different decades, and in this case, we had four different decades represented.

  • Gender, race, and ethnicity. 

  • Mix of roles. The last thing we want is a series of profiles that share an essential sameness. As DeJarlais Ortiz had requested from the outset, we chose people in a mix of positions, from farmers to journalists to researchers. This range is something we encourage all of our clients to consider.

Depending on your institution, you may need to consider sources that represent other types of diversity: majors, colleges and campuses, or geography, for example.

Sometimes getting a good mix of people proves challenging! And while I strongly believe that it’s *most* important to have this type of diversity represented across the magazine and over the course of many issues and years, rather than juggling the numbers in one specific story, we always keep our eye on this and try to make improvements if there are obvious concerns.

As DeJarlais Ortiz noted above, demanding this type of diversity of your story up front typically expands and deepens the way that you can think about your story.

Finally, we included backup sources that we could tap in case any of our initial ideas didn’t pan out.

We love to have a few extra sources handy — if someone falls through, we can quickly move to the next source on our list, preventing days of potential back-and-forth to choose a new person.

Step 4: Hit go!

In these three steps, we’ve moved from broad topic to clear focus. We’ve chosen a great mix of sources — including some backups to ensure that we always keep moving forward.

I’ll share more about assigning, assignment letters, and working with writers in future posts, but for now, here’s the final result of this collaboration.

Here’s what DeJarlais Ortiz said about it:

The final result was a well-balanced story with a creative structure that really seemed to resonate with a wide range of alumni — young alumni, a ’65 alumna, a CSA farmer. I can’t remember a story that generated verbal and written feedback from that kind of a range.

At Capstone, we were also thrilled with the way it turned out. In addition, we learned a few new things in the process that we’ve noted and will be sure to incorporate for future projects, both with Macalester and with other clients.

The great part of following a robust process like this is that you can incorporate all the lessons you learn to keep improving and build even better stories over time.

I’d love to know what you think of this process! What details surprised you — or do you hope to include in your future story development process?