By Gregg McLachlan

Ever sat at your desk, one hand on your face, the other flipping through your notebook not knowing where to start? The clock ticks. Pretty soon, 25 minutes have passed and still nothing on your computer screen.

One minute of pre-planning can be a huge time saver.

Developing a simpe jot outline before you head to the assignment can help you maintain focus and keep your interviews on track. You'll get what you need and get out. Remember though, any gameplan is subject to change once you're in action in the field.

If a jot outline is not possible before you go on assignment, it can work when you return. Avoid wasting time flipping through your notebook in an endless search for a focus. The focus should already be in your head, or will come to your head with a little reflection. Your notebook exists to help you compile the story.

Some reporters have the ability to mentally organize stories in their head, and quickly begin the writing process. These are the reporters who explain how they wrote the story by saying "I don't know, it just came together nicely." If you're one of these reporters, you're fortunate. Most of us need a gameplan.

Try a three-step outline

You've been assigned to do a story on a controversy surrounding a local school. The school board has named the school as a target for closure, despite a deep division among trustees on the issue. The community is fighting the board's decision. Some students, worrying about the future of their school, have started transfering to other schools.

1. Theme

What is this story about? What matters to readers? Answer these questions and you'll have a theme. They're simple questions that are often overlooked.

The theme: A community's fight to save its school. This is the theme that will help you plan your lead and opening few paragraphs.

2. The Blocks (What readers need to know)

Develop three or four blocks as the material to build on your theme. Don't worry about putting them in order right now.

Consider the following questions when building each block. One question can apply to one block. Another question to another block. And so on. Or try slight variations.

  1. Who's impacted most?
  2. What's the cause and the effect factor?
  3. What's next?
  4. BONUS QUESTION: What is the conflict? (Usually, most stories have conflict of some sort. In this case)

Block A: The Cause Factor -- Why does the board want to close the school? (get school officials)

Block B: The Effect Factor -- What is the impact on students now attending the school? (talk to students)

Block C: The What's Next Factor -- What is the community doing to fight the decision? (talk to average-joe parents, community leaders, save-our-school organizers)

Conflict: The story has multi-faceted conflict: 1) School trustees in conflict with the decision to target the school; 2) The community in conflict with the school board; 3) Students in conflict with their future about which school to attend

3. Prioritizing the blocks

Once you've gathered the interviews, information, and return to the office, put your notebook aside. Now, consider your blocks and their importance. Rank each block in order of importance as you see it, taking into consideration your readership.

Now start writing your story, keeping each block in order of your ranking. And remember the theme. If you ignore it, you'll lose focus.