"Meaning shows itself at once direct, literal; explicit, enclosed in itself, ..while sense cannot stay still,
it seethes with second, third and fourth senses, radiating out in different directions that divide and subdivide
into branches and branchlets, until they disappear from view, the sense of every word is like a star hurling
spring tides out into space, cosmic winds, magnetic perturbations."
-- Jose Saramago, "All the Names"
When you decide to write a story about a person, an issue, an organization, a trend, you generally know what you
might want to say. Without that sense of clarity and direction, you can't effectively pitch your idea to an editor.
You need to know who will be your sources and what they can offer.
But, while you can easily enough know, and convey, the obvious meaning of a story - as Portuguese Nobel-Prize-winning
author Saramago writes - the sense of a story is more elusive. I love to write stories that allow me the time to
research them deeply, think about them broadly and talk about them to a few people I trust.
Unfortunately, there are few publications left that will give you that much real estate to work with - 3,000-5,000
words, say. Those that exist: The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Harper's, The Atlantic, are inundated with
those kinds of pitches, substantially reducing the odds of actually winning an assignment.
Most consumer magazines have very carefully-delineated styles, audiences and word-lengths. If you're assigned a
700-word front-of-the-book profile, you're not going to get into the depth and subtlety you can achieve with even
three times the space, although 2,000 words is often itself a bare beginning. So, even if you find out all sorts
of fascinating things about your subject, too bad. They stay in your notebook and stick in your mind until you can
re-frame the material and write it longer for another market.
The best way I've found to explore ideas further is by re-working ideas for different markets. I think of the first
iteration as an artist's proof, the same way that a print-maker or lithographer makes a first impression to determine
the success of their image and technique. So I try to find a daily newspaper editor willing to let me explore an idea.
Why a newspaper? They need copy every day and often, in my experience, have proved more open to fresh ideas than
mainstream magazines. They can't pay much, so many established writers steer clear of them - but if you want a quick
payment, even for $200-500, and a chance to float a trial balloon for your ideas and viewpoints, this is a good place
to do it.
From there, I often spin that first idea, usually an essay or an opinion piece, into something more substantial and
heavily-reported. As you return to a subject again and again, you naturally start to appreciate the nuances and subtleties
that escaped your gaze the first, second, even third time. You find more sources and, because you've already covered the
subject with (one hopes!) authority and style, others will take your calls more readily. In your own way, you are
becoming something of an expert. I enjoy digging past the meaning to find the sense. It's a bit like sifting your
notebooks for pottery shards and mica arrowheads, a kind of intellectual archeology.