Recently I spent a long weekend in Madison, Connecticut, a shoreline town that I’m profiling for an upcoming issue of my publication, Yankee Magazine. In the old days of gathering notes for a story, I would have had my trusted notebook, some good pens, and maybe a recorder. I would have collected my material, returned to the office… and, some day, after a healthy bout of procrastination, I would have written my story. A few months later, readers like you would see it.
Those simpler, one-dimensional days are long gone. And the reason for that is due to the thing you may be reading this on right now: your smartphone. This little piece of technology has changed everything for writers–and can even help you improve your articles. I still like pen and paper, but the most powerful reporter’s device I have is the same one my young son just loves to get his hands on to stream Imagine Dragons. Go figure.
Photos for publication or notes
It seems crazy to contemplate: But the iPhone I use has a powerful enough camera to produce print-worthy shots. Sure, a real-deal DSLR is still the preferred tech, but these mobile devices don’t represent a dramatic fall-off. That’s something I’m always conscious of when I’m out in the field. I’m snapping all the time, but when I see something truly magnificent, I take the time to frame the shot. You just never know how the image might be able to be leveraged. Get enough winners and you might be able to negotiate a higher story fee with your assigning editor.
But the real purpose for all my photo-taking is that these images also help enhance my notes. Maybe I’m moving fast through a place and need to recall the details of a storefront, or how a downtown looked. Out comes my phone. Having those visual cues is a remarkable aid when I go to jot down more detailed notes later or when I’m ready to write my story. If your piece is going to be shot by a professional photographer, an art director will no doubt appreciate any scouting shots of the places and people you plan to write about.
Straight to video
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth…a million? Video is also a powerful note-taking tool. I use it to capture how something might operate—an old train, for example, or the working of an antique piece of farm equipment. Again, these are things I can capture with a notebook, but sometimes it’s nice to have the time and space to delve into the details after I’ve come back from my adventure.
It also serves as another thing you can bring to your editor and say, “Hey, look at how we can augment my text!” The demands of editors to produce content that is multi-dimensional increases every day. If you, as a writer, can show how you can bring the editor a collection of content, you’ll be at the top of their list the next time they’re looking to match a story idea with a writer.
Sounds of the trade
Another smartphone tool I like to use is the audio recorder. I still like to have a separate audio recorder for in-depth interviews, but the phone is not just a worthy backup, it’s also an easy option when I want to capture what something sounds like.
The inside of a busy breakfast joint, say, or the parade of old automobiles down a street. It’s also a fantastic way to dictate notes to myself if I’m driving and a rush of “genius” thoughts come to mind that I’m afraid I might lose if I don’t get them down right away.
Last summer, for example, while doing a piece about a community in northern New Hampshire, I drove up and down the main street, reciting into my phone the different businesses that existed and what the downtown looked and felt like. It was invaluable stuff when I went to write my story a short while later.
Sharable content—right now!
Social media. Know it. Love it. Use it. With that magical little smartphone of yours, you can start producing content immediately. Even if it’s just for your own Instagram feed, it’s a great way to showcase your work. Trust me: Editors look at this stuff when they’re considering a new writer. Think of it as part of your portfolio. Plenty of writers do.
Some of my favorite Instagram follows are writers who use the channel as a story spot. They take a killer photo and then write a lovely deep caption to describe the image and the story behind it. This is stuff you can do and should do. It’s good practice and it will help you think about the piece your working on in new ways. Which will make it better and, no doubt, lead to more assignments.
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