Profiling John Sconzo: A Guide to Our Writing Process
For our Practicum in Collaborative Media, we’ve embarked on identifying 40 leaders in Upstate New York’s creative economy to tell their stories to 27 students in Jill Cowburn’s journalism class at Saratoga Springs High School. In a “draft” to be conducted in early November, we aim to give these students plenty of choices in selecting the creative person they’ll profile in feature stories running between 800 and 1200 words.
Before students begin the eight-step process outlined in our Practicum for producing stories, we’re doing a “demo” to give them a clear model to follow. For this we thank John Sconzo, the anesthesiologist-turned-”gastronaut” who, with long-time friend Charles Grabitzy, has launched Rascal & Thorn to turn their long-time passion for diverse culinary experiences into a business. As vice president of the Board of Directors of Pitney Meadows Community Farm, Dr. Sconzo for two years running has spearheaded the highly successful Fire Feast on the Farm, pictured above.
Below is the eight-step model we’re asking students to follow in writing their profiles. Interview Subjects and Writing Coaches may also find this guide helpful in more clearly understanding the interactions we’re asking them to engage in with students.
SELECT YOUR INTERVIEW SUBJECT
You’ll be offered 40 profiles of entrepreneurs and innovators of who are making substantial contributions to Upstate New York’s creative and green economies. Choose one. Give three reasons why you find this particular individual to be interesting. Now generate three questions you’d like to ask this person. Finally, summarize in a single sentence the focus of the story you envision writing about your Subject.
For Dr. Sconzo (or “DocSconz,” as he calls himself) our Three Reasons for wanting to interview him were as follows:
He’s a strong advocate for “slow food” in all of its forms;
He’s now committed at least as strongly to a business focused on slow food as he is to the medical field in which he was trained;
He’s one of the original founders of Pitney Meadows Community Farm, the agricultural startup situated on 166 acres on Saratoga Springs’ booming West Side.
Here are Three Questions we knew at the outset we wanted to ask Dr. Sconzo in telling his story:
How did your interest in slow food originate and how has it evolved?
What are your goals in launching Rascal & Thorn as an entrepreneurial venture focused on providing devotees of slow food extraordinary gastronomic experiences?
Where does Pitney Meadows Community Farm fit in Upstate New York’s slow-food picture and why are you committed to it?
And here’s the Story Focus we envisioned:
John Sconzo is making a vital contribution to Upstate New York’s green economy through a highly creative and rewarding form of fundraising focused on slow food.
Your Story Focus is the hypothesis you start with, the frame of your approach. It’s likely to change at least slightly as you learn more about your Subject and it may change substantially. It’s all part of the process of discovery on which you’ll embark with each article you write.
WRITE YOUR STORY PROPOSAL
Just because you want to write a story about the Subject you choose in your draft doesn’t mean that he or she will necessarily buy into your project. You need engage your Subject as a collaborator in telling his or her story with a persuasive Story Proposal crafted in the form of a business letter. Your task is to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework and that you’re up to the task of producing the 800-to-1200 word profile you propose to write. With your Three Reasons, Three Questions, and Story Focus, you’re more than halfway there. See how we’ve woven ours together in the Story Proposal we emailed to Dr. Sconzo.
ASSEMBLE YOUR DISCOVERY DRAFT
Your Discovery Draft will start as a raw, disordered collection of articles, bios, and relevant background you’ll collect in an hour or two of research on the web. As you conduct your written and face-to-face interviews, your Discovery Draft will evolve into the First Draft that you’ll share with your Writing Coach and Subject, and the Final Draft that you’ll publish. Start by cutting and pasting onto a new Basecamp page any information that you find on the web that you think you may want to incorporate in your story. Here’s the rough Discovery Draft we assembled in developing our Twenty Questions for Dr. Sconzo. [Please note: You will need to take great care throughout this process not to plagiarize any of the material that you bring into your Discovery Draft as a reference. Please read the Poynter Institute’s guidelines and suggestions for avoiding plagiarizing others’ work.]
GENERATE YOUR TWENTY QUESTIONS
Having assembled your Discovery Draft, you now know enough about your Subject to start framing the questions you’ll need to ask to fulfill your Story Focus, which probably is now a bit sharper as a result of your research. Your assignment now is to generate 20 questions to forward to your Subject with the request that he or she narrow them down to ten. If you’re using a laptop or desktop computer, you’ll key these questions into an interactive Typeform document. If you’re working on your phone, you’ll want to use the app that SurveyMonkey offers. Here are the Twenty Questions we posed to Dr. Sconzo. And here are his responses.
REVISE YOUR DISCOVERY DRAFT
When your Subject submits his or her responses to your questions, cut and paste them into your Discovery Draft. You now have enough background and understanding of your Subject to begin framing your profile. Start by deleting from your Discovery Draft everything you know is extraneous, then organize what’s left into related chunks of content, labelling each with a headline. In this way, you’re developing the basic outline of your story. Now rewrite each chunk to highlight the information you consider to be most important and relevant to the overall story that you’re telling. In this process, you’ll discover holes in your information that you’d like to fill to make your content more interesting, authoritative, or comprehensive. Insert questions where you want your Subject’s new information to go. These are the questions you’ll want to ask your Subject in your face-to-face interview. This is the Revised Discovery Draft we shared with John Sconzo before our face-to-face interview in Zoom.
PRODUCE YOUR INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
You’ll learn a lot about your Subject in a 40-minute interview. Much of it you’ll be able to process in your mind into words you can key directly into your story. As a first step, keying into a new page in your Basecamp workspace all of the highlights of the interview that you remember. What can you now say in your own words about your subject that you couldn’t say before? What revealing quotes did he or she offer? What did you find most interesting about he or she said? Now listen to the recording of your interview, carefully noting quotes you may want to use and the time on your recording at which these quotes occur. Key these quotes into your abbreviated transcript along with any other information you may want to include in your story. [Example to come.]
REVISE YOUR DISCOVERY DRAFT / PART 2
Cut and paste your Interview Transcript into your Discovery Draft and continue reworking your profile. If you asked the questions you inserted in your text, you now have new information you may add as either direct or indirect quotes and more background you can add in your own words. You also have more information from which you can write a compelling lead and fitting conclusion. In short, you’re now in a position where you can complete your First Draft, a rendering of the article that has evolved to the point where you may now share it with your Writing Coach and, after that, your Subject. [Example to come.]
SHARE YOUR FIRST DRAFT
When your Writing Coach is satisfied that your First Draft meets the standard of quality necessary for sharing with your Subject, you’ll copy and paste the article and email it as a Word document to the Subject, asking him or her to review it and provide feedback within three or four days. Ideally, you’ll receive this input in the form of a “redline” with the Subject’s changes clearly marked. Both you and your Writing Coach will want to closely review the draft for typos or any changes made by the Subject that might detract from the quality of the piece. As the author whose byline will appear on the story, you have the right to discuss with the Subject any change to the piece that in your view diminishes its quality and to negotiate changes that are mutually agreeable. When the story is now finished and ready for publication, you now also will want to discuss photos, asking the Subject what inventory may already be available or what special photo shoot might be arranged. [Example to come.]
PUBLISH YOUR FINAL DRAFT
Congratulations! When the First Draft you shared with your Writing Coach and Subject is fully approved, it becomes your Final Draft ready for publication. We’ll show you how to do this on our SMARTACUS platform in Squarespace. Upon publication, we’ll ask you to evaluate your work and the process that led to its completion, engaging Ms. Cowburn and your Writing Coach in the evaluation as well.