Start Here!
My first reporting job was at a tiny public radio station in Reno, Nevada. I'd arrive at my desk at 8am every morning. Or...maybe 8:15. Punctuality has never been my strong suit.

By the time I arrived, my boss – the Morning Edition host – would be waiting with a press release or a ripped half sheet of AP copy straight from the dot matrix printer. (Yes, I am old.)

With my assignment in hand, I'd make a few phone calls or go out into the field. And that afternoon, by 5pm, I was expected to have written a spot for the local broadcast of All Things Considered…

… AND a recorded and mixed 4-minute feature for the next morning.

Those unrelenting -- and slightly unrealistic -- deadlines meant that I had no time to second guess myself. No time to get stuck in indecision. No time for writer's block.


But still, nearly every afternoon, with my interviews recorded and the big analog clock on the wall ticking away the seconds, I'd find myself stuck. With absolutely no idea how to begin.

God, I hated that clock.
Analog clock photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash.
All these years later, I still sometimes get stuck when it comes time to start writing. And I know that I'm not alone. Because I'm constantly getting questions from y'all about it. Here's a small sampling.
"Structure is my biggest struggle. I get all my tape together and have absolutely no idea where to start."

"Building a story out of an interview, like I've done the interview, it was great! Now how do I even begin to choose which direction to take the scripting around it?"

"One of the biggest struggles I have is knowing even where to start! I'm currently working as a freelance journalist on a podcast, and it's a big story, so it feels quite daunting."

"I struggle with breaking down the big picture into smaller, more accomplishable task/story beats. I know the story I want to tell and have the skillset to tell it, but don't know where to start."
Okay, so let's see what we can do to break this down.
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Step 1: Plan first. Gather later.

I know I'm a bit of a broken record on this, but the best time to start planning your story is right now.


Not after you've finished all your research. Not after you've done your first few interviews. And certainly not after you've gathered everything and find yourself staring at a huge pile of unorganized chaos.

I mean it.

Look, I know it feels like you can't possibly plan your structure before you know the whole story, but – I promise – you can.

Yes, that structure will change. You will have to adapt. The story you make will have very little in common with the structure you write today.

So don't get too precious about it. It doesn't need to be perfect. Quite often the structure I create at the beginning is just a series of bullet points, in chronological order.
  • This happened.
  • Which led to this other thing happening.
  • And then this.
  • And then you wouldn't f-ing believe it, but this crazy thing happened.
  • Which led to this.
  • And finally, to some sort of satisfying conclusion.
This series of events is my roadmap. It tells me where I'm going…and what twists and turns I'm going to need to take to get there.

It is the bare minimum that I want to have figured out before recording my first interview.

Yes…before the FIRST interview.

And yes. Sometimes it's just not possible. Sometimes I've done all of the research I can do, and I still don't know all of those twists and turns.

But I still make the list. Only now, it's a list of things I need to discover.
  • Something happened to set this all in motion.
(What was it?)

  • Which led to the first challenge or surprise.
(How did you overcome it?)

  • And then there must have been a couple more challenges and/or successes.
(Especially challenges. Success can be boring.)

  • And then you wouldn't f-ing believe it, but this crazy thing happened.
(There's almost always a crazy thing. And quite often, the crazy thing is what brought me to the story in the first place.)

  • Which led to this.
(Again, this is probably the part of the story I already knew.)

  • And finally, to some sort of satisfying conclusion.
(Oof…conclusions are hard. And quite often they're the last thing I uncover during my reporting.)
But what if you've already done your interviews? And you never wrote out your roadmap?

All is not lost.

Write it now.

Don't go back to your tape and try to listen to everything again. Don't comb through all that research.

Do this first.

Sit down in a quiet place. I like to use pen and paper for this, so I can get comfy.

Write down the big juicy beats of your story. The most important themes. The moments that moved you. Don't police yourself. Don't second guess. There are no wrong answers.

Write down the top 10 moments. Or 12. Or 15.

Write down the moments you REMEMBER. Without prompting. Without having to go back to your tape or your notes.

Let the bullet points flow out of you, in whatever order they come out.

And when you feel like you have them all down on the page, then try to put them in chronological order.

Once you've got your list organized, take a minute to look for the detours. The moments or ideas that were memorable but that don't lead you from one moment to the next. The moments that out of place. That feel off the arc.

Draw a line through those bullet points. Forget about them. They're not serving you.

And voila! You have a roadmap.
Step 2: Always Be Structuring


You have a roadmap, but every step along the way, you're gonna ask yourself…is this still right? What do I have out of order? What am I missing?

You should be thinking about structure during your interviews.
Do I need to dig into that moment more, because it could be a good place to begin the story?

Do I understand how we got from A to C? Is there a turning point I'm missing?

Where is my satisfying ending? Am I satisfied yet?
You should be thinking about structure after your interview.
Did I learn something new that I need to confirm?

Is there something I still don't understand?

Do I need to interview someone else?
And you should think about it again before you try to start writing.
Should I be telling parts of this story out of chronological order?

Is there a more compelling place to begin?

Is there an ending that feels more satisfying?

Do all of these moments still belong in my story?
You start with a roadmap, but that roadmap is constantly changing. That's okay, you haven't done anything wrong.

Change is good.
Step 3: Get Rid of the Excess

Okay, so let's assume that you've used your roadmap to inform your interviews and keep your reporting on track. And you've settled on a semi-decent structure. But if you're like me, you still have WAY too much stuff.

Like, way, way, way too much stuff.

So, before you actually sit down to write your narration, I want you to thin the herd a little bit. Get rid of the excess.

And one of my favorite ways to do that is to focus on the things that are different.

Are you telling a story that has been told before? Or interviewing a person who has given a lot of interviews?

Then the best thing to do is to focus on the parts of your story that are different from everybody else's version of the story. Try looking at your series of events through a different lens. With a different focus.

Try putting the spotlight on the detail your interview subject hasn't revealed before. Or the part of the story that's brand new.

Do you have a lot of people saying the same thing?

Pick one person to represent them all. Say it once. And then spend the rest of your time digging into the differences in their perceptions.

Do you have a whole bunch of really similar anecdotes?

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I've spent much of the past year working on Believable: The Coco Berthmann Story. It's a 10-part narrative series about a woman who lied about a whole lot of things, including a cancer diagnosis, in order to gain sympathy and scam people.

And look, we heard a LOT of anecdotes about Coco telling lies. So many lies. And some of those lies she told over and over and over again.

So, we didn't focus on Coco's "Greatest Hits."

Instead, we tried to highlight the ways Coco changed her lies to better manipulate the person she was trying to scam. How she'd find the thing that they responded to, and then lean into it…for maximum scamminess.

So when you're trying to figure out what stays and what goes, look for the differences, not the similarities.
Step 4: Let it Flow

Hopefully, by this point, you have a good roadmap. You've put your story beats in order. You've gotten rid of the excess.

This is the part that should be easy. You've done all the planning and preparing. Now all you have to do is write.

But the truth is, it can be hard to get going. Even after all these years, with all the things I've learned about setting myself up for success, I can still find myself stuck. With no idea how to begin.

That's when I go back to something I learned way back in Reno, Nevada – writing a feature and a spot every single day.

Sometimes the only way to start…is to start.

Just put some words down on the page. They don't have to be the right words. Your first draft doesn't need to be pretty.

In fact, it can be really, really ugly.

Just write. Type words. And keep typing until words turn into sentences and sentences into paragraphs.

Try things out. Write an opening line. You might hate it. That's okay. But don't erase it just yet. Scroll down on the page a little bit and try again. You might find that opening line just doesn't work as an opener. So save it for possible use later.

Use your sound as a guide. Tell the listener the bare minimum of what they need to know to understand the first sound bite. And then write the bare minimum to connect the first sound bite to the second. And from the second to the third.

Don't try to be fancy.

There will be time for fancy ideas and pretty sentences later. Right now, your only goal is to get started.

And once you start, the rest will flow.

I promise.
Just a quick couple of announcements before I go...

There is still time to pitch your podcast idea to the Resonate Pitch Party.

You! Yes. I'm talking to you. You got this!

The prize is $10,000 to create a podcast pilot. And the deadline has been extended to September 18. So seriously, what do you have to lose? Check out all the details here.

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