Solve That Problem First
Okay, I'm not gonna lie. I spent most of yesterday driving around the central Massachusetts countryside with my husband. We had no plan. We had no objective. It was blissful.

I'm a freelancer. If I want to play hookey, like I did yesterday, I have to decide. Can I afford to skip a day of work and deduct that potential income from my monthly total?

I make a LOT of decisions. Not necessarily more than I used to make. (Executive Producing a NPR sports show involves hundreds of big and small decisions, every single day.)

But working alone means that I make most of my decisions in a vacuum.
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The trouble with being a freelancer -- and making decisions in a vacuum -- became even more clear to me last week as I was working with a client on a story.

As near as I can tell, she'd been working on this idea for quite a while. Recording interviews. Following leads. Going down rabbit holes.

She had tons of great tape...and a bunch of questions:

Was this the right angle, or should she pursue that one instead?

Was she asking her subjects the right questions? Or should she be asking something different?

Was her story structured well? Or should she consider a different structure?

As we spoke, I realized something. I couldn't answer any of those questions. Not with any accuracy.

I mean, yes, I could make various decisions about which angle/question/structure appealed to me.

But without knowing where the story was going to live, all of those decisions would be subjective -- based on my likes and dislikes.

So, we finally decided that she should stop.

Just stop.

Stop working on the story, and start selling it.

Because in its current form -- as a proto-story -- there were many places where it could live.
It could be a story about food and history.

It could also be a story about our connection to the outdoors.

Or maybe it's a story about aging, and how to find purpose later in life?

Then again, it's also a story about the pandemic and finding a way to give back during uncertain times.
You see what I mean?

There are outlets for all of these angles. Places where that story could live a very happy life.

But the story would be different, depending on whose radio show/podcast stream it was appearing on.

There's no "right" answer….at least not until you know where your story is going to live.


Solve that problem first.

"Okay, fine," she said.

(And I think she meant it!)

"But tell me this. Once my story has a home, and I know whether it's a food/history story or an outdoors story or an aging story or pandemic do I pick my best tape?

"How do I go through my hours and hours and hours of audio and choose this amazing sound bite/anecdote/scene over that one?"

Now, you know what I'm going to say, don't you?

If you had sold your story earlier, you wouldn't have collected so very many hours of tape. You would have been more strategic when asking questions...which would have saved you a ton of time and heartbreak now.

But that's not very helpful.

Because the truth is, sometimes you know exactly where your story is going to live, and you still don't know which sound bite/anecdote/scene to choose.

(Trust me. I worked on the same show for 22+ years. I still spent hours agonizing over Option A vs. Option B.)

So, for those of us still struggling, I've made a decision tree...with Post-It Notes.
(Seriously, 3M should probably just go ahead and sponsor me. I am a walking billboard for their product!)

Some thoughts to reflect on as you make your way through the decision tree.

1. This decision tree is predicated on the concept that both options SOUND equally good.

Don't just look at the transcript. LISTEN to your tape. Is your interview subject more emotionally engaged in the first option? Is there a dog barking in the second? We're working in audio, after all. So pay attention to this stuff!

2. There is no "right" answer.

There might be a couple of wrong answers. But after you've eliminated those, you shouldn't stress too much. You literally can't go wrong.

3. Nobody will know what you left out.


So, Bill Littlefield, the longtime host of Only A Game, used to tell this story. And ... he'll never forgive me for this, but I've forgotten the specifics. It goes something like this.

A sportswriter tags along as his mentor (another, more famous sportswriter -- it might have been Damon Runyon) interviews a boxer. The next day, a column appears in the newspaper.

The sportswriter feels confused. The conversation lasted an hour. But he can't pinpoint a single thing his mentor left out of the column.

"Exactly," says the mentor.

Nobody will know the cuts you left out, the paths you didn't take, the angles you didn't choose to explore.

And one last thing...

Putting together a story requires hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of little choices.

And the very, very worst thing you can do is to get locked in indecision.

So take a deep breath, and repeat after me.

No matter what decision I make, I can make something beautiful.

It's true! You can do this.