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There are three basic structures for story content, whether investigative, hard news or feature:

  1. 1.   Chronological – in which the story unfolds through time; sequence and actions are the material of the investigation
  2. 2.   Narratives – following a situation through a period of time; following the actual investigation as it unfolds or
  3. 3.   Processes – in which the story revolves around issues and arguments (depending on the specific story)

You begin the writing process by sorting material into sections: The issue, who is affected, the conflicts and discoveries you make. On a relatively simple, short investigative story, these sections with an introduction and conclusion may make a perfectly satisfactory plan for the final story.

In investigative writing, literary flair takes second place to ensure it is the issues and facts that are the focal point for readers.

There are a number of different ways to shape your material into a story; a number of ‘recipes’ and approaches that writing coaches suggest for investigative stories. Your material is longer and more complex than a typical hard news story and giving it shape and structure gives your readers a pathway through complex information. The three most common investigative story structures are:

(A) The ‘Wall Street Journal’ formula which involves:

  1. 1.   Starting with a person or situation to set the scene between the case and the issues,
  2. 2.   Broadening out from that individual case to deal with the bigger issues, through a ‘nut graph’ that explains the link between the individual and the larger issue
  3. 3.   Returning to your case study for a human, striking conclusion

(B) ‘High Fives’ developed by US writing coach Carol Rich who suggested the following five sections:

  1. 1.   News (What has happened or is happening?)
  2. 2.   Context (What is the background?)
  3. 3.   Scope (Is this an incident, a local trend, a national issue?)
  4. 4.   Edge (Where is it leading?)
  5. 5.   Impact (Why should your readers care?)

This structure requires the ability to write good transitions so that the five elements fit together. Otherwise, it can feel like five shorter stories that appear one after another. But it can make an excellent structure for a long story on the web where you need to break an extended narrative into manageable sections, so readers can browse.

(C) The Pyramid

Whereas the traditional approach to a hard-news story was the ‘inverted pyramid’ (main points first; less important supporting material added later), investigative reporting turns the pyramid structure right-side up. You have the entire story to build up to the punch, leading the readers through the discoveries you have made:

  1. 1.   So you start with a summary of the story’s theme
  2. 2.   Foreshadow some of what you will discover
  3. 3.   Walk step by step through your investigation, keeping the suspense alive and building the story towards the most shocking or dramatic discovery, just as if you were writing the story of a scientific breakthrough or a mystery novel
  4. 4.   Save the most important, dramatic information for last

Each of these recipes borrows a little from the toolkit of the fiction writer. You are not creating fiction, but you are employing techniques from literature. And this makes sense because every journalist is a storyteller. Seeing yourself as a teller of good but true stories in the foreground is the basis of the modern approach to news-writing we call narrative journalism.

According to author Susan Eaton,

‘narrative writers carry the authority of all the work they have done. They have considered the sequence and the puzzle pieces. They’ve considered everything from several perspectives. They’ve read the academic literature. They’ve crafted the story that puts all this together in a way that makes sense for readers. They’ve put the pieces together in a sequence and created a meaning. (…) Doing this is what grants you the authority not necessarily to say which policy is better (…) but more specifically to name the heart of the matter. (…) This is very different from editorialising (…) you envision yourself as a guide helping people navigate through confusion.’

Both descriptions make it sound as though the narrative approach was made for investigative journalism. One caution, though. American investigative journalist Danny Schechter, in his film about U.S. coverage of the Iraq War, Weapons of Mass Deception, noted a key problem with the storytelling approach: By focusing on individual’s tales, the narrative approach made it possible for some U.S. news media to ignore highly contentious bigger issues and arguments. This does not devalue the narrative approach. It merely serves as a reminder that like any other writing technique, storytelling needs to be used consciously and skilfully within the appropriate context.

Some of the tools narrative journalism includes:

Portraits and scene-setting: If you choose the Wall Street Journal approach, you will need to have a keen eye for detail throughout the investigative process. You must describe your key source or scene in a way that feels real and convincing for readers. This does not mean documenting everything in painful detail (you do not have space), but rather, selectively choosing a few authentic, telling details to enrich your story.

Hints, clues: While writing an investigative story, it is also important to provide your audience with hints or clues at the beginning about where the story will lead. You will particularly use these if you adopt the pyramid structure. You give just enough detail to keep readers interested, until you unveil the story’s final findings.

Pace, structure, words: It is also important to remember that pace matters in writing. Every narrative move, the structure and words you choose will determine how fast or slowly your story proceeds. Short sentences and words speed things up. Longer sentences slow them down. Giving a large amount of technical information in one solid paragraph will force readers to go more slowly, even if the sentences are short. Unnecessary, overloaded background and context will bring the story to a dead halt, long before you have finished telling the story. Always ask yourself: Does this add value or merely extra words? Cut language that the story does not need.

If you read your story to yourself, you will feel the pace and flow of the narrative. But you will also be able to feel where the story becomes not merely slow, but daunting and difficult. You ear is your best editor and will tell you when you have lost your natural human voice as a writer, or where your language is long-winded, complex, incorrect or in other ways causes your reading to stumble. Write the story conversationally, as you would speak it, so readers can identify with your voice. But since speech involves elements like tone, gesture, eye contact and expression, which are not conveyed through writing, you will need to revise your work. Correct grammar and punctuation add the tone, emphasis and nuance to writing: They do the job on paper that hands, eyes and face muscles do when spoken.