One great piece of advice I got from an investigative reporter
Having a hard time wrangling that one big story?
Hi, I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may know me for my video game coverage at The Washington Post, including my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM and this piece about toilets. If you value my work, sign up to get it in your inbox, tell a friend, and consider pledging a paid subscription!
In 2020, I was chasing what I thought was going to be a really big investigative piece. It was right at the intersection of “the anecdotes in this story are going to spread like wildfire because they’re completely bonkers” and “this is a subject people really care about [ed. note: not video games] that’s about to get the labor accountability it deserves.” And boy howdy did I have a lot of material.
Over the course of a few months, I had interviewed dozens of sources across Canada, India, the U.S. and the U.K. I drew up a long spreadsheet of the facts of the story. I filled a legal pad with notes from my interviews, skeletons of the prospective piece’s structure, and stabs at a first draft.
The story was swinging in a lot of directions. Working conditions in Bangalore. Tax credits in Canada. Overwork. Layoffs. A heart attack. Bad executives and worse clients.
Eventually, it came time to write. (Though I’m sure any reporters reading this can sympathize with the impulse to just… keep reporting). Since this was my first stab at an investigative piece, my editor scheduled a meeting between me and an investigative reporter and editor at The Post1 to talk the best ways to advance my work.
In that meeting, I ran through a pitch for the piece, my legal pad standing in for a nautical chart as I traced the story’s arc from Canada to India and then back West to the U.S. I realize now that the thing I wanted then was validation. A figurative pat on the head and a “go get ‘em, tiger.” What I actually got was more useful.
I got a bit of flattery, of course. But the meaningful feedback was: You should not put all of this information in one story. It is way too much. Start small and write follow-ups later, if appropriate.
This was deeply unflattering. Of course it all belonged in one story! All of these things were connected, Pepe Silvia style. The sprawl, to me, was the point. It was proof of the rigor of the reporting. (This is, fwiw, generally a bad way to think about writing).
Today, that story doesn’t exist. The issue wasn’t the feedback. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the advice I got in that meeting was right. The material I had gathered might have made for a fine book, but it was not appropriate for one news article. In that span, I could not have done all of my sources justice.
But I had convinced myself that the big swing was the only one worth taking. Then, when it came time to organize the piece and write it, I could never quite get my grip on the whole thing. It became too unwieldy. I lost sleep thinking about it (which reads as a virtue if the story actually comes out; this one didn’t). Eventually, I just plain ran out of time.
Have a subject you’d like me to cover in ReaderGrev? Leave a comment below to let me know.
The observation that “you have worked yourself up for an impossibly large task” doesn’t just apply to journalism; the advice to “start by actually making something” is also broadly applicable. I have a nasty habit of imagining a story that then takes a very long time to commit to the page.
Maybe you have this problem too! An imagined work is hazy but perfect. Wringing the real thing out of the vision, though, can be messy and unpleasant. Here are some ways I’ve thought about that process recently that might be helpful.2
It is just plain harder to do one big thing. It’s also (probably) better to consistently do a few smaller good things.
Last year, I took part in a virtual songwriting class led by Robin Pecknold. As part of our very first assignment, we were quickly shown a slideshow of moodboard-appropriate images and phrases, told to jot down the ones that stood out, and then asked write a song in just a few minutes (I think 12 minutes?) based on those fragments. To this day, I’m still really fond of the piece I wrote in those 12 minutes. It would not have existed without that prompting.Here’s One Weird Trick: You can prompt yourself to do that sort of thing whenever you want. Setting out to write an album… that’s a tall task. But you can write songs whenever you want, and build up to the bigger thing with consistency and a bit of follow-through.
Stop imagining the thing and just do it
This one’s pretty self explanatory. No way around it. At some point you’ve got to sit down and do the thing.
I sometimes revisit the quote below, from a 2009 profile of the Dirty Projectors. It’s not that deep, but I love it for its shameless dude-in-Brooklyn-in-the-2000s-staring-out-toward-the-vast-horizon-of-his-just-taking-off-career energy. They were collaborating with Bjork and David Byrne!
But also, for vain writers straining to finish their opus3…
Data suggests readers don’t stick with long stories
What I mean by “data suggests” is that at The Post, we use this software called Chartbeat that tells us (among many other things) how far readers are scrolling down the page. Online analytics are a fuzzy thing and experience suggests that you should never really fully trust them. Still, the percentage of readers that Chartbeat says make it to the end of most stories is… uh… probably too grim a number to share here.
When you’re writing something, consider your own media consumption habits. Do you have loads of tabs open to long stories you’d like to get to but won’t? What kind of media do you actually commit to consuming all the way through? Can you make something like that?
A coda: Isn’t this a little, uh, obvious?
Sure, if we’re being reductive, “keep it simple; also do it” isn’t groundbreaking guidance.4 But there’s something to be said for spelling even obvious things out. The most trite aphorism can hit if spoken in the right moment.
But also, in three years of professional writing, I’ve learned that what seems obvious rarely is. In January, I wrote an opinion piece for The Post about a scene from HBO’s “The Last of Us” adaptation that I found unpleasant. I offered a few takes on the scene (some charitable, some less so), and ultimately landed on “this didn’t work for me, but my take might change based on what I learn about the show’s priorities as it continues.”
In that piece, I gave readers a taste of my “people should be more chill about stuff” philosophy that I mentioned in Monday’s newsletter:
Pretty chill, right? Obvious, too? Like, “we can have different interpretations of a work and they don’t have to conflict because we don’t need to loose them against each other in the arena” feels pretty uncontroversial.
After I filed, my editor even flagged the paragraph excerpted above. Isn’t this a bit condescending, he asked? Like, a bit too “How To Engage With Media 101”? Anyway, we kept it in.5 A great lot of good that did. Here’s a sampling of comments from readers responding to the piece:
A lot of readers really did seem to believe there was only one interpretation. Others took issue with the exercise itself. This is a particularly negative example, I know. But while I wouldn’t advise writing for some imagined dumb-guy-reader, I’ve also grown wary of the idea that online, your readers are always right there with you on even the simple stuff. That can be good (as in the case of this newsletter, I hope) or bad (when readers fundamentally don’t agree with you about the merits of the story you’re writing). More often it’s just true.
I didn’t start this newsletter to do LinkedIn-style affirmations about Being A Thoughtful Hustler/Grinder. If you’re a journalist, some of this may be familiar/obvious to you. But if not, my hope is that my experiences — the times I’ve succeeded and the times I’ve failed — can be useful to readers.
One more thing…
Today, Launcher published a cool profile of video game pranksters Mega64, written by Luke Winkie. You should read it!