Eight Breakable Rules of Investigative Writing

By Ricardo Ginés

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In Short: Let’s take a look at the eight general “rules” of writing - be it for news articles, features or even long-form investigative stories - and learn why they make a lot of sense in most cases. Then, let’s take a step further to observe when it makes sense to break these very same rules.


How often do you produce thorough research and investigation, collect tons of resources, connect hundreds of dots and talk to dozens of people and then you have to write it all down for others to read… but you get stuck?

With any form of writing, there are a few basic rules related to content creation, style, use of evidence, addressing desired audiences, etc. Once you master those rules, you will feel freer and more comfortable to decide when to break them.

This is what you’ll be reading about here: a guide and an anti-guide about writing investigative stories, at the same time!

Let’s face it: writing is hard. Even the most seasoned investigators struggle with it, and there are few resources out there to guide you.

Whether it’s a podcast, a TV series, a newspaper article, a digital outlet or even a movie script, all forms of media need to be well written. This is what we can call “the necessity of a (good) narrative.”

A common clean narrative, for good reason, is a traditional one, one that follows certain rules. But to find your own voice in writing and create something out of the ordinary, you will often have to experiment with breaking these very same rules.

During several years as an investigative journalist, I have come across these common “rules” to follow when it comes to the act of writing it down:

  1. “You shall not use the first person in narration”

  2. “Write in the active voice”

  3. “Put the most important things at the beginning, preferably in the first paragraph”

  4. “A story shall always have three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end.”

  5. “Cover the essential elements of who, what, when, where, how and why. Don’t leave any questions hanging in the air.”

  6. “Avoid lengthy and complicated paragraphs. Keep your writing style as simple as possible, your paragraphs and your sentences short”

  7. “Dialogues don’t belong in investigative reporting.”

  8. “Conclusion is important”

Like the eight tentacles on an octopus, we will analyse this creature that seems familiar, yet surrounded by tales or legends - like the ones of the kraken.

Let’s begin.

1. “You shall not use the first person in narration”

Generally speaking, the best investigative writing comes when you leave yourself and your emotions out of the story. The reason for this is simple: your subjectivity can easily obscure the facts, and your involvement may distract the reader from the actual story.

And yet, there are exceptions to this rule. You may use the first person, for example, when you are a crucial part of the story.

One example comes from Russian investigator Roman Anin, a portrait of the relationship between Russia’s law enforcement apparatus and its criminal underworld, which breaks the rule from the very first word, “I”.

He does so because he is the main link between the disparate trajectories of the story:

“I knew I had an unusual story on my hand, but I didn’t guess how unusual, when I met the man accused by Russian law enforcement of leading one of the deadliest gangs in the country’s rich criminal history.

We agreed to meet next to Vienna’s Grand Hotel in October 2016. On a sunny fall day, he waited on the street by the entrance - tall and almost bald, dressed in jeans, a tight black shirt, and a leather jacket. ‘Aslan,’ he said.

That was my introduction to Aslan Gagiyev, who had created a criminal group, called the Family, which is accused of committing 60 murders. But by the end of our conversation, I understood that Gagiyev wasn’t just a gang boss. He was a key player in the symbiotic relationship that binds Russia’s law enforcement apparatus and its criminal underworld.”

(Excerpts from: “The Brotherhood of Killers and Cops”, by Roman Anin, 03 September 2018, in Novaya Gazeta and OCCRP)

Or take the “we” introduction in the following example, generally used to inform the reader that a team of investigators (the writing reporter + some other people, being one or more) are witnesses to the story, an investigative piece about Europe’s trucking industry transports:

“We are on the road in the logistics belt of the Netherlands. A hot June day. We stop at a truck park, next to a Texaco petrol station. Rows of bright and shining long-distance lorries line up in long alleys. Their doors are shut. In front of the number plates - from Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania - luggage is stacked up.

‘We’re going home today,’ says Mirko, a tall and dark-haired driver from Belarus in his mid-30s. He’s been on the road for five weeks and is looking forward to seeing his wife and young daughter. When we ask whether he misses his child, he becomes silent.”

2. “Write in the active voice”

This second rule is reasonable, as the active voice reflects clearly: People doing things - Subject verb object.

That is: in the active voice, the subject performs the action. And sentences using active voice have less words compared to the passive voice, so people read them faster and remember them more easily. Whereas passive voice often produces unclear, clumsy sentences.

Still, there are certain exceptions to this rule that also make sense: when you just don’t know who is performing the action, for example. Or, seen by this feature dealing with mutilations in Congo, Central Africa, underlining that what was actually done to some people - the harm itself - is more important than who did it:

“But it was only towards the end of 1901 that I ascertained, by receiving photographs and letters from the Upper Congo, that mutilations were frequently practised by the Congo soldiery upon the living, upon men, upon women, upon poor little innocent children of tender years. The information I then received has been, alas! but too amply corroborated since from various sources, and notably by Mr. Roger Casement. Consul Casement’s evidence is abundant and precise.

In the Lake Mantumba District he saw two mutilated natives, whose cases, authenticated beyond doubt, proved the committal of the deed by Government soldiers “accompanied by white officers.” [ … ]

Comment is needless.”

(Excerpt from E. D. Morel: The Third Test of Congo State Rule as featured in Anya Schiffrin, “Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World,” New Press, August 2014, p. 17-21. - See more about the book here.

Or, take into consideration another example, a story from FrontPageAfrica, also dealing with people being harmed or assassinated in Liberia, West Africa:

“Many people were killed en route to Sorlomba - the last Liberian town before the Guinea border - if they refused or were unable to transport ULIMO’s loots.” (excerpt from “Liberia: Kosiah ‘Loved Looting’ And Was Called ‘Physical Cash’” By Lennart Dodoo, FrontPageAfrica, last updated Dec 11, 2020.)

Again, the important thing here is to underline that people were killed, not who did it.

3. “Put the most important things at the beginning, preferably in the first paragraph”

This rule makes a lot of sense for a news story and other types of narration. As an introduction, it is indeed very useful for the reader to get to know all the content at once, with a particular overview in the first paragraph.

Still, in a feature you may easily break this rule as you will have more time and space. In other words, the reader will probably keep reading no matter what you include in the first lines.


Note:

How you choose to write often depends on the publication “platform” - the type of website, magazine, etc., its editorial rules and audience / readership, among others. For instance, if it’s a platform that is read by many people, then you have the luxury of creating and maintaining suspense (because people will read it) but if you’re trying to draw attention in order to present more details then it’s probably best that the starts contains all the essential information already.

As a writer, you may not be as interested in presenting information, but instead creating an atmosphere in which the protagonist of the story develop over the following paragraphs.

For example, in one of the most celebrated portraits of journalism, “Frank Sinatra has a cold”, Gay Talese breaks several writing rules when he writes about the singer. For starters, he didn’t speak directly to the protagonist (an assumed must if you are to write a portrait or a profile) as the subject was not going to cooperate due to his press agent restrictions (see details in this Esquire article). So, Talese beats around the bush instead of going straight to the matter:

“Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.”

You can also avoid this rule in long text formats or even non fiction books. For example, if you’re writing about a crime, a massacre even, of course you will highlight it right from the beginning, right?

Maybe not. Rodolfo Walsh, in “Operación Masacre”, a book that is credited as the first (1957) major nonfiction novel, deals with the shootings that occurred under the government of Army General Aramburu and starts with his unwillingness to stop to play chess:

“I received the first news about the clandestine shootings of June 1956 casually, at the end of that year, in a café on La Plata where people played chess, spoke more of Keres or Nimzovich than of Aramburu and Rojas, and the only military maneuver with any notoriety was Schlechter’s opening chess move.”

Later on, he even emphasizes this initial disinterest in the story itself:

“(ex-President of Argentine, then in exile) Perón doesn’t interest me, the revolution doesn’t interest me. Can I go back to chess?” (Excerpts from: “A Curious Case of Political Critique: The Detective Genre in Rodolfo Walsh’s ‘Operation Massacre’”, by Lara Norgaard, Framing, Spring 2017)

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4. “A story shall always have three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Since Ancient Greece, we saw on stage that theater as narration would provide a narrative arc (a linear structure): a start, the plot and then finally the endings. Or, more specifically, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

But we do see exceptions where, for example a linear structure like a timeline is subverted several times like in this story of a Eastern European mafiosi-gang that specialized in sophisticated skimming Bluetooth devices that were implanted inside the ATMs of beautiful Cancún’s beachfront in Mexico - in this story by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP): “The Riviera Maya Gang: Global ATM Bandits”.

The text bounces around to different years (”since 2012”, 2008, 2009, 2020, “before 2014”, 2012, 2015, 2009, 2015…), so why so sloppy with the timelines? - Because the textual space is focused instead on something more substantial: the proof of the crime being committed, slowly amounting up to the point we learn how a group of Romanian-led criminals made Cancún in Mexico “their home base and began compromising dozens of ATMs around the tourist mecca.”

That is: we prioritize here the amount of evidence and its importance to the sequence of the events.

A different example of how to break this rule comes from the “Hit squad’s register of terror” in South Africa. Indeed, the article reads more as a cold police register than a real story. It begins with the resolution of the crimes and gives all the information you need to know right in the first paragraph:

“Captain Dirk Coetzee admits that he had, until and including 1982, actively participated and helped plan various murders and terror attacks that were committed by the South African Police’s special unit at Vlakplaas.

Then he still kept in touch with several members of the hit squad and is aware of other acts of terror in the following years.”

Everything that is then left is the whole account in detail of his killings, as in a cold report done by security forces. This might have the reason behind of not providing any morbidity to what will follow next.

Thus, the article simply follows with a:

“Here is his register of death:… “ (Source: “Bloody trail of the South African Police”, by Jacques Pauw, Die Vrye Weekblad, 19 November 1989 - featured in Exposing apartheid death squads. A trail of murder and terror”, by Anya Schiffrin, 15 November 2017, CityPress)

So we see, depending on the needs of what we want to express, we can also break the linear time line of the three: beginning, middle and end.

5. “Cover the essential elements of who, what, when, where, how and why. Don’t leave any questions hanging in the air”

This is the most basic advice to register how well a story is being covered. If the five Ws (Who, What, Why, When and Where) of storytelling are respected, you can surely say a narration is backed up.

But what about if you don’t have the answers to the five questions? Or even want to use these questions to inquire yourself or further down the truth-seeking trail?

Consider, for example, this headline that includes a question mark. In “People or Monsters?”, Liu Binyan, a special correspondent for The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s national newspaper, explored a major corruption case in 1979 in his native Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. It is full of question marks, partly because he doesn’t know the answers, and partly because he cannot or does not want to say what he already knows:

“[ …] Where was the borderline between legitimate gift‐giving and the offering and accepting of bribes? Was using public funds for wining and dining or for converting public property to one’s own use (as in requiring a “test use,” or a “test wearing,” or a “taste test”) any different from corruption and robbery?

[ … ] The case of Wang Shouxin’s corruption has been cracked. But how many of the social conditions that gave rise to this case have really changed?

Isn’t it true that Wang Shouxins of all shapes and sizes, in all corners of the land, are still in place, continuing to gnaw away at socialism, continuing to tear at the fabric of the Party, and continuing to evade punishment by the dictatorship of the proletariat?” (Excerpts from “Two Kinds of Truth: Stories and Reportage from China” by Binyan Liu, Indiana University Press 2006, see pages 45-103.)

Note the same procedure of the journalist in this example taken out of a completely different part of the world. When the journalist from Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa, deals with the ownership of the country’s petroleum reserves - in “The Coming War in the Delta”, featured in a book edited by Anya Schiffrin - he becomes easily conscious that the difficult situation on the ground leads to more questions that answers:

“The people of the delta cannot understand the precise reasoning behind the actions of the Federal Government. Is Nigeria a capitalist state, obeying the laws of the free market economy? If so, the resources in any area belong strictly to the people of that area. Is Nigeria a socialist state under which all property belongs to the Government? Why is it that Igbeti Marble is owned jointly by local communities, the Oyo State Government and the Federal Government in proportion? But not oil.

Based on what is happening now, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the confusion of policies in which Nigeria wallows is sponsored so that the peoples of the delta can be fully exploited by whoever gains access in whatever way to Federal power. (..)”

Almost logically, he ends up the article with another question, a rhetorical one, desiring to have an impact:

“Is anyone listening?” (Excerpts from: “Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World,” by Anya Schiffrin, New Press, August 2014, p. 117-121. See more about the book here.

Again, in this piece dealing with the mining sector in Colombia, South America, which is dominated by violence towards indigenous groups, we will see several questions unanswered as a good way to reflect an insecure situation that is so difficult to predict:

“Meanwhile, uncertainty reigns in Boquerón. “We don’t have the alternative of saying ‘I’m not leaving.’ Our only option is ‘they are kicking me out.’ How can we survive our uprooting? What will remain of our village? Our traditions? Our beliefs? What will happen to our cemetery?” Lesvi Rivera wonders, dismayed.” (Excerpt from: “Los pueblos que se tragó el carbón”, by Tatiana Escarraga, 22 June 2013, in El Tiempo.)

6. “Avoid lengthy and complicated paragraphs. Keep your writing style as simple as possible, your paragraphs and your sentences short”

This is culturally challenging as it refers mostly to non-fiction written in English, normally devoid of lengthy descriptive paragraphs. Non-Anglo-Saxon literature or narration is often more baroque in its undertakings and displays exuberance in its descriptions.

But even the famously concise Ernest Hemingway sometimes broke this rule.

We will now confront these assertions with a fascinating story of how, through the new technology of LIDAR, a team of dedicated and hard working men lead by a documentary filmmaker was able to discover not only a lost city in the so-called “green hell” of the Honduran and Nicaraguan jungle, Central America, but even much more than that: “the expansive remains of an ancient civilization.” That is, “that the Amazon jungle once harbored sophisticated farming civilizations that cleared huge areas and built cities, towns, and networks of roads and canals” (”El Dorado Machine”, by Douglas Preston, New Yorker, April 29, 2013.)

In the New Yorker feature called “El Dorado Machine”, the sixth rule mentioned above is extensively followed. This makes the whole reportage very easy and friendly to read. It also helps a great deal in the fact-checking process, as every sentence is considered a unit in itself, to be confirmed.

There are only few exceptions in the article, which are interesting for us to focus on now in order to see why sometimes it’s better to break the rule. Long phrases are recommended at times because they help extend the flow and rhythm of a paragraph, like here for example:

“Traditionally, this has required a team of researchers and assistants to comb and partially clear the forest, and then to mark, measure, and map every fixed, man-made feature, down to the smallest carved stone, while being tormented by mosquitoes, black flies, heat, and the persistent hazard of venomous snakes”

Or to capture, in a single paragraph, a whole character:

“He was wearing a large watch, a pinkie ring, and gold chains around his neck; he had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and was telling a profanity-laced story that, he quickly informed me, was off the record”

When things get technical, it can be difficult to get a flow of small and direct sentences. Instead, clarity should be prioritized, even if it is at the cost of longer sentences:

“Inside the box were a laser and a rapidly spinning mirror that together would spray brief beams of infrared light - a hundred and twenty-five thousand per second - onto a swath of the canopy directly below; in three days of mapping, the lidar would fire 1.5 billion laser pulses. Some beams would reflect off the leaves in the canopy, and a smaller number would penetrate gaps in the foliage and reflect off the forest floor. For each beam reflected back to the plane, the lidar would measure its round-trip time and so gauge the distance traveled to within a centimeter. Later, Michael Sartori, the mapping specialist, would use software to strip away all the reflections from the vegetation, leaving only the ground points; these would be processed to create a shaded, topographical map of the terrain and any ruins or structures that might be found on it” (Excerpts from: “El Dorado Machine”, by Douglas Preston, New Yorker, April 29, 2013.)

Sometimes, especially when you deal with technical contexts (just as when you write in other languages where lengthy phrases are the norm), it is just not possible to make simple sentences. Take this text from The Guardian for example dealing with Google’s main clients that also include the military and intelligence agencies:

“Keyhole had its roots in videogame technology, but deployed it in the real world, creating a programme that stitched satellite images and aerial photographs into seamless 3D computer models of the Earth that could be explored as if they were in a virtual reality game world. It was a groundbreaking product that allowed anyone with an internet connection to virtually fly over anywhere in the world. The only problem was Keyhole’s timing: it was a bit off. It launched just as the dotcom bubble blew up in Silicon Valley’s face. Funding dried up, and Keyhole found itself struggling to survive. Luckily, the company was saved just in time by the very entity that inspired it: the [CIA].”

“Google has been tight-lipped about the details and scope of its contracting business. It does not list this revenue in a separate column in quarterly earnings reports to investors, nor does it provide the sum to reporters. But an analysis of the federal contracting data-base maintained by the US government, combined with information gleaned from Freedom of Information Act requests and published reports on the company’s military work, reveals that Google has been doing brisk business selling Google Search, Google Earth and Google Enterprise (now known as G Suite) products to just about every major military and intelligence agency, including the state department. Sometimes Google sells directly to the government, but it also works with established contractors like Lockheed Martin and Saic (Science Applications International Corporation), a California-based intelligence mega-contractor which has so many former NSA employees working for it that it is known in the business as “NSA West.” (Excerpts from: “Google’s Earth: how the tech giant is helping the state spy on us” by Yasha Levine, 20 December 2018, The Guardian.)

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7. “Dialogue doesn’t belong in investigative reporting”

Mostly, you won’t see dialogue in investigative reporting. This has to do with the usual way of portraying facts: linear / temporal accumulation of facts.

Note the use of dialogue in this investigation by Luiza Vasiliu, which deals with the unmasking of a once-labeled “the best doctor in Romania,” who later turned out to be a controversial orthopedist who “experimented with an uncertified implant on a little girl born with a limp”:

“This is how she escapes real life and enters a made-up one. But sometimes she doesn’t have the strength to make the leap, and she just sits in her bed, dangling between what she has now and what could’ve been.

  • If there were a thing, a device that could make a person feel whatever someone else is feeling, go through the same things…

  • Who do you want to attach this device to?

  • Who? Burnei. Except he should feel a thousand times worse. Feel the pain of all the children…” (Excerpts from: “It Was An Experiment”, by Luiza Vasiliu, 9 December 2026, Casa Jurnalistului)

Also take a look at the extensive use of dialogue in the article “La Confesión” (The Confession) by Horacio Verbitsky (1995) in conversation with Adolfo Scilingo, a naval officer. This was part of an investigation, which reflected what was happening with the “desaparecidos” (the disappeared) in the military dictatorship of 1976 - 1983 in Argentina, where people were being thrown out naked and alive from military flights into the ocean:

“- When the prisoners were asleep, what would you guys do?

This is very morbid.

What you did is morbid.

There are four things that still pain me. The two flights that I did, the person who I saw get tortured and the memory of the sound of the chains and of the screams. I saw them only a couple of times, but I cannot forget that sound. [ … ]

How would you take the sleeping people to the doors?

Two of us. We would lift them up to the door.

How many people do you calculate were assassinated this way?

Between fifteen to twenty every Wednesday.

For how long?

Two years.

Two years, a hundred Wednesdays, between fifteen hundred to two thousand people.

Yes [ … ]

So you would go and throw thirty people alive into the sea, return, and not speak between yourselves about the subject?

No.

You would return to routine as if it never existed?

Yes. Everyone wanted to erase it. I cannot.” (Excerpts from: “La Confesión” / original in Spanish, 3 March 1995, in Pagina/12)

8. “Every piece of investigative writing needs to have a conclusion”

It makes sense to look for a conclusion, especially in an investigation, as it is the end of the story or it means there’s a solution to a certain problem. If you are able to conclude a research and put an end to it, your story will have (be)come full circle.

And yet, there are also exceptions to this rule. This has stylistic connotations as well. Take into account for example how one of the most important elements of short story writer Raymond Carver’s tales are their abrupt ends, like ending cut up with an axe.

See here an example of a no-conclusion, where journalist Gareth Jones exposes the famine in Ukraine under Stalin. The solution - to bring bread to the people - is not there, so the journalist has to leave it here:

“In 1930 there were class differences. In 1931 they were as great as ever. In 1933 they are one of the most striking features of the Soviet Union. These children are not the relics of the civil war. They are the homeless children of hunger, most of them turned out from their homes to fend for themselves because the peasants have no bread.

The train rolled on to Moscow.” (Excerpt from: “15 hours to wait for the shops to open”, by Gareth Jones, The Daily Express, April 7th, 1933 Page 11)

A different type of no-conclusion is an unsatisfactory ending. Unsatisfactory, yet realistic. Even though there is proof of corruption for example, nothing will be done and not much is achievable like in this text dealing with the question of where the millions of Equatorial Guinea’s energy earnings go:

“A Guinean official said Obiang, who controls a private business group with large holdings in his country, used personal funds to pay for the Maryland properties. He said Guineans don’t care whether Obiang leads a lavish lifestyle as long as they have food. ‘People don’t mind if they’re saying that the president’s family is buying jets or something,’ he said. It’s a different culture.” (Excerpt from: “Oil Boom Enriches African Ruler”, by Ken Silverstein, 20 January 2003, in Los Angeles Times.)

And what about, instead of a poignant action, someone who just falls asleep? Even, hibernates?

This is the astonishing case of a report about the country’s prison conditions in the South Africa of the apartheid. It ends up with the account of one prisoner just trying to sleep as long as possible:

“One thing I learnt in jail was to fall asleep, and I used to sleep up to 15 hours a day. I used to just put myself to sleep rather than face the realities of being awake.” (Excerpt from: “Behind Apartheid Bars”, by Harold Strachan as told to Benjamin Pogrund, in Africa Today, Vol. 12, No. 6 (Jun. - Jul., 1965), pp. 5-8 (4 pages), Published By: Indiana University Press. Available on Jstor: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4184640)

Draw your own conclusion

Like the eight tentacles on an octopus, we have analysed this creature that feels familiar - the good writing through eight rules that generally apply to news pieces and features - and is yet so alien sometimes.

You have seen that each one of the “rules” has its own good justification. But once you have acknowledged this, you are free to break them - or not. Echoing George Orwell’s “Six Rules For Great Writing”, let’s say now:

“Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous!”


Published November 2022

Resources

Glossary

term-news-piece

News piece - The “news piece” or report is the most basic genre of news and contains an account of information. “It should explain what has happened, to whom, how it happened, where, when and why it happened.” (Source)

term-feature

Feature - “A feature article is a longer article type than a news article. A feature should be fact-based, objective and accurate, but the genre also allows for more creative expression than a news article.” (Source:

term-cronicas

Crónicas - A crónica is “a true tale”, Gabriel García Marquez once said, that is, it becomes a non-fiction story in which the writer displays the use of techniques usually to be found in literature. Taking into account that the great majority of Latin American writers have worked as journalists, the crónica (chronicle) has become specially a Latin American journalistic genre in itself. More information

term-long-form

Long form investigative stories - “While definitions of investigative reporting vary, among professional journalism groups there is broad agreement of its major components: systematic, in-depth, and original research and reporting, often involving the unearthing of secrets. Others note that its practice often involves heavy use of public records and data, with a focus on social justice and accountability.” (Source GIJN)