Balancing Act

In his Editor’s Note from the Spring 2019 print edition, Kotrba discusses the writing process as it relates to development of his most recent feature article on biodiesel feedstock—“Where Will All the Feedstock Come From?”
By Ron Kotrba | April 05, 2019

The writing process, if done responsibly, will almost always lead to an excess of information in the hands of the writer. The writer is his own first editor, leaving scraps of facts, figures, data and quotes on the cutting-room floor in an attempt—however successful—to cohesively and clearly tell a story. The assignment pitch, deadline, page count, audience, his knowledge of the subject matter, and his own personal world view all contribute to the decision-making process of what to include and what to leave out.

Some writers may complain when faced with too much information. I seldom face this problem. For me, the worst and hardest article to write is the one for which too little material is gained during the information-gathering phase. It just doesn’t work, and the writer’s lack of subject matter knowledge glares back at the reader like—well, like a poorly written, ill-informed article. Anyone can identify the signs: vagueness; skirting, or writing around, the issue; brevity when a deeper analysis is called for; a lack of primary sources—or even worse, citing secondary sources such as another news outlet.

In my humble opinion, information-gathering—research, interviews, attending technical sessions at events, and deliberation—is the most important and intense part of the writing process. During this phase of my page-14 feature, “Where Will All the Feedstock Come From?” I spent weeks interviewing some of the most revered feedstock experts in this space—Stephen Kaffka, John Cusick and Alan Weber. My interview with Weber led me to CoverCress and its CEO Jerry Steiner.

When all of my interviews were completed, the word count of my notes from these four sources alone was in the tens of thousands. For me, this is where I want to be when I begin writing an article. Sure, my nearly 15 years as a writer in this sector, notebooks full of handwritten notes from recent industry events, and access to a world of information through the internet help. But the perspectives of primary sources such as these are invaluable. Like most feature articles that I write, despite this article being 4,500 words long I am left with a plethora of information that did not make it into the piece. Is this wasted time and effort on my part? Never. It adds to my growing background knowledge and will help inform future articles. Even if this were not the case, I can genuinely say it was simply nice to talk with these folks and glean just a fraction of their insight.

The information I gathered can, if necessary, be distilled down to a few points. One, no one I spoke with can identify an upper limit to biomass-based diesel production before feedstock markets go haywire. It’s not infinite, but it may not be as finite as some think. Two, market forces drive innovation and efficiency. Given the right market signals, sustainable supplies will follow. Three, markets—including drivers, participants and technologies—change. The difference between creative adaptation and apathetic obliviousness is the difference between success and failure.

Author: Ron Kotrba
Biodiesel Magazine
[email protected]

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