From pitch to story: These 32 questions can help editors guide reporters

Guiding questions can help establish a story’s angle and prevent hiccups in reporting along the way. Jenner Sterner/NPR

A lot is asked of editors. They have to help shape a concept into a story. They have to ensure the facts are correct and the reporting is fair. They must have an ear for pacing and rhythm, good tape and bad tape. If they can tap dance while doing it, all the better!

Here is a checklist of questions for an editor to ask while editing a piece, a segment, a podcast, or an interview. The majority of it comes from Jonathan Kern, longtime NPR editor and author of Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production. (And please note: We know there is not time to ask every one of these questions in the midst of breaking news!)

As the story is being conceived

  • What’s the focus of your story likely to be?
  • What is new or surprising about it?
  • Is there one question you are trying to answer?
  • Is this a particular kind of story we are pursuing: A profile? An explainer? A historical narrative? Etc.
  • What people would you want to interview?
  • Who — or what — is the main character is your story?
  • Where is the tension?
  • Will you be able to get all necessary points of view?
  • Are you going to the right place to report the story?
  • Is this the right time for this story?
  • What scenes and sound would you hope to have — and why?
  • How will you make this relevant/interesting to people who don’t already care about your subject?
  • Are there special considerations (interviewing minors, for example), that need pre-approval?
  • Are there possible legal considerations we should consider?
  • How might the story begin?

As the story is being reported

  • What have you heard that you didn’t expect to hear?
  • Has your premise been challenged or your focus changed?  (Do we still have a story?)
  • Does your reporting process and tape lead you towards a particular structure?
  • What sounds and scenes have you gotten?  Do we need others we hadn’t planned on?
  • Have you explored multiple sides of the story?
  • Do you need to go somewhere else for additional reporting?

As the story is being edited 

  • Does the structure work?
  • Will the beginning intrigue listeners?
  • How will you keep them interested until the end?
  • Does the story unfold logically?
  • Have we checked all the facts, names, numbers and dates?
  • Am I confused or bored? At which points in the story?
  • Is the writing conversational?  Are there turns of phrase to be proud of?
  • Do the scenes and the sound tell us something?
  • Do we care about the main character (whether it’s a person, thing or issue)?
  • Are we learning something we didn’t already know?
  • Is the story memorable? Which parts are memorable?

Finally, a plea…Sketches - 8

Do you edit while looking at the script? Or do you edit with your ears?

Please, please do your first edits with your ears. Audio stories are made to be heard, not read. Editing by reading the script is like judging the quality of a movie with your eyes closed. You miss the most important stuff.

You can find a how-to for ear edits here.

Once you’re past that first edit, sure, you’ll want to look closely at the script, do careful line edits, re-confirm names and facts.

But our gold standard is always listening.

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.