Tuesday, November 10, 2009

weekly writing coach: break it up

Earlier this month, a client told me she was starting to work on the script for a long documentary-style web video. It was a compelling story: a patient had undergone extensive, grueling treatments, and not only had recovered but went on to achieve even more as an athlete and volunteer. There were hours and hours of footage, chronicling each step and setback of her journey, and a lot of it would end up on the cutting-room floor, so she had to cram as much as possible into a tightly written space.

My advice? Stop that. Break it up instead.
We've all had long-form writing to do: Major reports, annual reports, white papers, full-length articles, company histories. But today, right in the middle of the social-media revolution, I'm going to urge you to think like Charles Dickens, one chapter at a time. Break up those long written pieces into more manageable bites. Think serially. Seriously.

Consider this NPR interview with Tina Brown, editor in chief of The Daily Beast, who talks about the Times of London article The Internet is Killing Storytelling. She shares the article's take on the Japanese trend of "thumb novels," book-length novels that can be uploaded one page at a time--and the top 10 fiction bestsellers in that country all started with this format. Brown notes "we're adapting in a strange way to all these new devices" and the article, in fact, concludes that storytelling isn't dead yet.
But we may be back to the cliffhanger, telling stories one part at a time. So back to that video script: I urged breaking the patient's journey into shorter segments. Yes, overall, that would make the entire package longer--but if posted one segment at a time, say, weekly, it would take a long documentary few would watch and turn it into a telenovela of sorts, something viewers might tune in every week to see the next installment.

What can you revise--either an existing product, or your next long-form article or report--in this way? What kinds of chunks and chapters can you find to call out? This is a great exercise to do from both perspectives: By editing an existing piece and considering how it might have been written differently from the get-go, and by planning and writing a serial version of your next long-form project.

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