Episodes: How to write a 6,000 word feature over five years


I posted an article today that I've been working on, off and on, for five years. I thought that number would provoke more contention, since it's a reported essay (in that I don't have a ton of quotes from outside sources), but people mostly seemed to accept what I said at face value -- if they read it at all. (Maybe they didn't!)

(Sidebar here: If you would read the article, I'd really appreciate it. A lot of people put a lot of work into it beyond just myself, and it's always rewarding when something like that finds its audience. I also think it's advancing an interesting argument about the strengths of the multi-camera sitcom, a subject that not everybody is writing about all of the time. It's a long piece, but there's a holiday weekend-ish coming up, if you live in the States.)

Still, I thought it might be interesting to chart the timeline of how this article came together, if only to sort of explain my thought process behind these longer pieces, which can often spend months in editing (this one only spent a month in editing, which is progress!). So here's a rough timeline of how this came to be!

2012: Not a lot actually happened here in the first year of this idea's existence. I just started talking to a lot of people involved in multi-cams, thinking I might be writing a eulogy. (At the time, the best multi-cam was probably Big Bang Theory, and that was by default, though it was in pretty good shape then still.) I didn't even really know what I was doing, but this is often what form my reporting takes -- I just sit down and talk with people I think are interesting, and sometimes, they give me ideas for stories. (I didn't quite realize this was reporting I was doing, either, as my newspaper background had always been at places where "reporting" equaled "picking up the phone and getting a perfunctory quote." That sort of thing has its place, too, but I've always found "dinner with a friendly source" to be a better venture all around.) Around the end of the year, I start sort of circling the idea of a piece on "who killed the multi-camera sitcom," which would have been a good fit for my then-AV Club audience. Then The AV Club goes through a bunch of uncertainty in terms of personnel (to put it mildly), and I back burner the project.

2013: Most of the year is spent on figuring out what TV Club looks like in the wake of various staff departures (and, okay, looking for a new job -- I get to the interview stage at a few of them but ultimately don't get chosen), so I don't focus on the piece as heavily as I might. But I keep having lunches, keep meeting with people, and so on and so forth. That fall, the show Mom debuts, and it's obvious from the first that it has real potential to be something special. It takes its sweet time getting there, but for the first time, I get the sense that this piece might be "the life and death (and life) of the multi-camera sitcom," a title that I've used to pitch it again and again and again.

2014: Here's where everything starts to come together -- right in time for me to leave for a new job! I finally pitch the idea as a five-part series to The A.V. Club, which has the working title "How (and Why) to Watch Multi-Camera Sitcoms." It's going to be aimed more at a comedy geek audience, and I'm sure I have the email I sent out somewhere. (I remember it was going to start with a defense of Big Bang, then hop back to I Love Lucy, All in the Family, and Seinfeld, before concluding on Mom and the hopefully bright future of the genre. I don't know if those are exactly the shows I picked, but they keep showing up in my Vox outlines for the piece, so I would guess so.)

Anyway, the idea is to run it over the summer, between the end of Game of Thrones and Mad Men and the start of fall TV in earnest. I think we even had some dates picked out, and I had started working on the first piece. And then the Vox job opening was posted, and I applied for it on a semi-whim, only to get it. (I really did want to work at Vox! I just figured everybody in the world would apply for that job.) Needless to say, I don't have time to write a five-part series as I'm exiting the AVC, but I do conduct this interview with John Mulaney!

When I get to Vox, I broach the topic in an editorial meeting, and people love the idea (which has reverted to its one-piece, "life and death and life" form). There's just one problem: I'm really trying to start working less after spending many years working 12-16 hours at AV Club, and between my normal writing duties and also having to edit the culture section, it doesn't leave time for big, ambitious projects. It slips a little further every time I think about it, though I continue having lunches and finally start getting some people on the record (all for quotes I will never use in this article, naturally).

2015: This is the year where most of my research and reporting actually takes place, though sporadically, across the course of the entire calendar. I go to the Cristela taping mentioned in the article, and I conduct my first interview with some of the Carmichael folks, and I start reaching out to a lot of the publicists who will help me out going forward. But I don't know that I really thought about writing the piece in here, because Vox Culture went through a lot of personnel changes, and I needed to focus on that.

2016: I finally get the last few interviews done for the piece and am ready to write it, for early, early 2017. It's still "life and death and life," and there's some concern around Vox that this is not a strong enough hook (guess what: it's not!). I pitch it a few times as a bigger feature that will involve input from graphics and video and so on, but nobody seems too excited by it. Somewhere around here, I step down as culture editor, which gives me more time to write and theoretically more time to work on big projects like this, but 2016 is also a constant journalism nightmare, where new stuff just keeps happening. It is starting to look like a big piece might be better off as a bunch of smaller pieces, but I'm not sure how to break the argument apart. And yet the argument doesn't have a real center beyond, "Todd thinks you should do this." So the piece flounders.

And then the 2016 election happens! I briefly think this piece will just never happen, because sitcoms are the furthest thing from anybody's mind. But it also ends up providing me, belatedly, with the hook that finally pushes the piece from "a thing Todd will do in the future" to "a thing Todd needs to get done soon."

2017: In January of 2017, a few weeks before Trump's inauguration, two things happen. The first is that One Day at a Time debuts. I watch the whole thing over my Christmas break, and I'm gobsmacked how much I like it and how accidentally timely it has become, simply by virtue of being about a Cuban-American family living in the US at this point in time.

And then I go to a script reading for a Carmichael Show episode and suddenly realize that politics, rather than keeping the piece from being finished, might be the hook I've been looking for. There's an urgency to Carmichael and Mom and One Day that wasn't there before the election, and some of that is me projecting but some of it is just the shows themselves rising to the moment. In the middle of the reading, I ping my editor Jen with a tossed-off notion that maybe the piece is about how the multi-camera sitcom is a format we use to discuss politics with more honesty but also more charity than many other TV formats. And then a bunch of stuff that has just sort of loosely been hanging out around the piece makes more sense as part of the piece. It was all there. It just didn't have the right center.

(I find this happens a lot. Oftentimes, I'll have a bunch of wildly disparate ideas converge on the same piece once I find the right center for it. An example of this, which you may reject wholesale, was when I realized a piece I was writing about Hamilton and a piece I had been struggling to write about my origins were one and the same piece. This is why I think it's always important to stay open to random bursts of ideas. If you keep thinking about the same thing when working on something else, there's connective tissue there you might have missed.)

Anyway, from there, the project gains momentum. The only real question is if the shows I've chosen to center it on are too obscure, but it's a necessary evil -- Big Bang Theory isn't really doing hard-hitting political stories. I wrap up my reporting with visits to both the Carmichael and One Day offices/sets, then finally write the thing. In the process of editing, it balloons by about 2,000 words, but that was ultimately necessary to help draw in readers who weren't as familiar with the subject matter.

I get full edits from two editors, but also notes from a bunch of other Vox staffers (who are all always so gracious to help out with stuff like this). Our graphics editor creates a lovely map of a multi-cam set for me. The copy desk goes over it with a fine-toothed comb (though I still misidentified a person in a photo caption because of bad information provided up the photo chain -- then again, one incredibly minor factual error in a 6200 word piece isn't bad, all things considered). And then it's published!

I genuinely have no idea if this will be of interest to anyone but me. But it's unusual for an article like this to take so long, while shifting so much, while still staying sort of the same thing, and I thought perhaps chronicling that process would be helpful.

Now, if you don't mind, I'm already at work on my next big piece like this, hoping to publish in September (of this year, not 2022, though you never know).

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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