Alternative story forms and copy editing

A recent post on my blog took note of a new job requirement for journalists: the ability to write and edit alternative story forms. Here’s how an ad for an entertainment editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution phrased it:

The candidate takes responsibility for the whole package, including collaborating with other departments to ensure the best presentation, including online, print, alternative story forms, sidebars, photos, graphics and other elements.

Just what are alternative story forms, and what does their rise mean for copy editors? And what’s this about collaboration? Here’s what you need to know:

WHAT THEY ARE: Alternative story forms, or ASFs for short, are best defined by what they are not. They’re not stories told in traditional formats, such as the inverted pyramid or the long-form narrative. They’re not graphics, though they are often highly visual. Examples of alternative story forms include the Q&A, the checklist, “by the numbers” and the breakdown. That last type is what you are reading right now: a story structure with introductory text that then “breaks down” information by theme into “chunky type.” We can still use inverted pyramid stories, anecdotal leads and other devices, but we can also tell stories and convey information in other ways. Consider these forms as another option in brainstorming, writing and editing. Copy editors can be the leaders in this effort.

WHO’S USING THEM: Newspapers such as The Florida Times-Union, the American-Statesman in Texas, RedEye in Chicago and The News & Observer in North Carolina are among the leaders in using ASFs. The Dallas Morning News has trained its staff on ASFs, and the Atlanta paper says that alternative story forms make up 60 percent of its front page, up from a third of its front page a year ago. They’re popping up on the Web as well.

WHY USE THEM: Well-executed ASFs inform readers, providing not only quick facts but also deep context. ASFs can provide information in “bite sizes” that are easier to digest. The key is to make those bite sizes add up to something nutritious. ASFs can educate readers and bolster our role as watchdogs over government and other powerful institutions. ASFs can also offer variety and surprise the reader, and they can bring visual pizzazz to a page. “As a reader, when I approach an alternative story form, I want to feel smarter afterward,” says Katie Schwing, a copy editor at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It needs to show me things, explain things to me, make comparisons, present information in a way I haven’t thought about it before, tell me how my daily life will be affected.”

WHEN TO USE THEM: There are no hard rules on this. Nearly any story can be told in alternative form. Topics that make you groan — tax day, commencements, holiday shopping — are excellent candidates for alternative approaches. If you’re tired of writing or editing that story in a traditional form, you can be certain your reader is tired of reading it.

HOW WE KNOW THEY’RE EFFECTIVE: We’re still figuring that out, but some research has been done on ASFs. Poynter Institute’s EyeTrack project found that ASFs get more attention from readers and that readers recall more information from them. In a study, readers were shown different pages with information about bird flu, some with traditional stories and others told in alternative story form. After looking at a page, people took a pop quiz on what they had read. Readers who had read the ASF version scored better.

WHY COPY EDITORS ARE IMPORTANT: Copy editors are accustomed to working with a variety of story structures. We understand the “bones” of a story as well as, if not better than, anyone in the newsroom. On any given workday, a copy editor may edit a front-page centerpiece, compile and edit a briefs column, and trim a wire story. We can even turn an inverted pyramid story into a Q&A. We also appreciate the fine-tuning required to make an ASF work. For example, it’s important to use parallel construction with the lede-ins for each piece of text, as this story form tries to do. We also see the big picture: Does this “by the numbers” story form put these numbers into adequate context? That combination of knowledge helps copy editors analyze whether an ASF works, and if it doesn’t, how to fix it.

WHAT STORY FORMS MEAN FOR WORK FLOW: The model of a story going from a reporter to assigning editor to designer to copy editor to slot is fading. It’s no longer a straight path. ASFs require collaboration at every step of the process, and copy editors should be included at the beginning, not just the end. “ASFs require the use of fewer words to say more, often by pairing those words with photos, graphics or icons,” says Denise Reagan, assistant managing editor/visual journalism at The Florida Times-Union. “This kind of coordination in story architecture and organization doesn’t happen without conversation.”

HOW TO LEARN MORE: NewsU, the e-learning site of The Poynter Institute, offers this course on ASFs. “Beyond the Inverted Pyramid” has several exercises, including one in which the student is given an inverted-pyramid story and asked to “remix” it into an ASF. The course is free, and you can take it anytime you like. I’m the author of the course, so if you take it, let me know what you think of it and of alternative story forms in general.

4 thoughts on “Alternative story forms and copy editing

  1. The best model for alternative story forms, I believe, is the Magic School Bus series by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen.

    A thorough reading of all the basic books ought to be part of a copyeditor’s preparation for working on alternative story forms.

  2. no, it’s not a joke. Have you ever seen the series? The original picture books, not the chapter books that sprang up later.

    I’m betting not.

    On each page, there’s a story line in the written narrative. Then, in the speech bubbles of the kids in the illustrations, there’s another sort of story that parallels the main narrative.

    And the author and artist have created “sidebars” of a sort–, additional info in the illustrations, sidebars that are a combo of illustration & alternate narrative. They show the “class projects” or “reports” supposedly created by the kid characters, and they have illustrations, lists, definitions, etc.

    Go to Amazon.com, and look inside some of the books to get a brief idea.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0590414313/ref=sib_dp_pt/105-2175247-8973216#reader-link

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