04 May “That’s the Story” — How an Article Can Change From Pitch to Publication
Recently I’ve had the pleasure of introducing my nine year old daughter to the Star Wars series. We’ve been taking things out of order; I figured I would start her off with the newer films, which are pretty entertaining and easy jumping off points. We’ve now worked our way through the original trilogy and have begun watching the prequels, starting with Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
I remember the immense anticipation surrounding that movie when it first came out…and then the near universal yawn after people actually saw it. It’s a weird movie that veers from being too childish to far too serious, from flat out awesome action sequences to deadly boring exposition.
At the time of its release, I recall seeing an interview with the film’s director, George Lucas, who basically said that he was sorry if fans felt a bit put off by the storyline, but, he said “that’s the story.” Whether or not the story was actually good or well told is a matter of opinion, but I get what he was saying. As he was writing these movies, Lucas was following, for lack of a better word, his “muse.” He let the story take him where the story wanted to go. People either liked it or they didn’t, but in any case — that was the story.
It’s kind of like the process that a pitch takes from conception to actual article (come on, you didn’t really think this blog post was going to really be about Star Wars, did you?). When our account teams work with our clients to develop a pitch or abstract that is ultimately accepted for publication by an editor, the story that results from that often takes on a different shape than was originally intended. As storytellers, we see this all the time when working on authored articles we write on behalf of our clients, but we also see it happen when a story results from an interview with a company executive.
There are many reasons why a story can change from inception to publication. Quite often, those reasons depend on factors that are outside of anyone’s control.
Let’s say a company profile story is pitched on a Monday, the editor acquiesces to an interview on Tuesday…and then some form of news takes place on Wednesday, before the editor has a chance to complete and publish the story. It could be that our client’s competitor has announced a new product. The story may then become a bit less focused on the corporate profile, and a bit more inclusive of the competitor’s news. That’s not ideal, but it does happen. Fortunately, in these situations we can be proactive and reach out to the editor to see about ways we can ensure the story plays to our client’s advantage. We can do our best to control the narrative, just as we would if no unexpected news had ever broken.
But stories can also change when we are the ones writing them. As someone who interviews clients regularly for articles we write on their behalf, I can tell you that many times the story that results is quite a bit different from the one that was pitched. Usually, before doing the interview (or “sourcing call,” as we call it) I will forward a series of questions to the executive I will be speaking with to give them something to think about and drive the conversation. Those questions will be ostensibly based on the abstract we pitched to the publication, but, more often than not, the answers the executive provides will take the story in unexpected directions. He or she will provide insights that we had not even thought of before, and a unique perspective that cannot be reflected in a simple one paragraph pitch.
Personally, I think this is a very good thing. As long as we don’t stray too far from what the editor intended, it’s good for a story to ebb and flow, to branch out in new directions. It is in those situations that we often uncover nuggets of information that readers and editors may not have thought about before.
And, of course, the story is never truly complete. It continues to evolve through social media, online comments and discussions, and other outlets.
So while Lucas may have dropped the ball on Episode I: The Phantom Menace*, I think he had it right when he talked about the story being what it is. Sometimes we just need to go with it, and see where it takes us.
Happy Star Wars Day, and May the Fourth Be With You!
*For what it’s worth, I thought the next two movies in that series, especially Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, were pretty good, and am a huge fan of both the original and newer films. Don’t judge.